I took my youngest grandson Greg, 22 months-old, on a walk through town yesterday. I normally babysit him every other Tuesday while my daughter-in-law teaches English to immigrants. She was home because her school was closed, but I came over anyway and gave her a break while he and I went out. I don’t like to miss that time with him.

What we saw was a normally energetic downtown slowing to a halt. Shops had limited their hours or were closing outright. Few people were out on the sidewalks. Perhaps saddest of all was the notice that our beautiful and cheery public library was closed. Children and adults now forced to stay home have one less option.

On the other hand, the construction workers were still out in full-force, pouring cement, breaking up old gutters and curbs with heavy machinery, painting new businesses (hopefully) opening soon. It was a sign of hope amid a gathering gloom. He is familiar to most of these folks—they greet him with a smile, a wave and a thumbs-up as he watches them with intense interest.

Our communities, our nation, the whole world, is changing fundamentally, and it’s changing alarmingly fast. We don’t know when normalcy will return, or even what a new “normal” will look like. Some small, local businesses may be gone for good. My biggest loss right now is the silence in our vibrant public spaces, the libraries, museums, gyms and theaters. I fear that some of my favorite stores, restaurants, coffee shops and breweries may not reopen.

We are mourning the loss of some things that we can’t recover: the senior year of high school or college that ended abruptly. My youngest son was completing his final semester at the University of Richmond and he cannot go back to campus. The loss is huge for him. A research trip to the Galapagos Islands was cancelled, as were some conferences where he planned to present a paper on his research. He had to say an abrupt farewell to his college community.

My own personal and work plans are now on hold. My next book is on St. Francis, and I had hoped to research and complete it with a two-week walk in Italy. Now I don’t know when I will be able to go there. I also freelance as an editor and publishing consultant; I have no idea what to expect with that work in the near future.

In spite of these losses and uncertainty, I think more importantly about how we will remember this time and how others will remember our response to it. Will our memory be a sense of fear that drove us to panic, to rush to the store and hoard toilet paper? Or will our memory be courage in the face of fear, courage that drove us to generosity, to solidarity?

I’m encouraged these days as I see a lot more of the latter.

My oldest daughter in Brooklyn is a public high school English teacher and her school is closed until the end of April, at least. She is figuring out how to teach her hundreds of students from a distance. At the same time, she is thinking of her neighbors in her large apartment building, many of whom have children stuck at home all day. She has offered to take them on every day for “recess” and the parents have jumped at the opportunity, even offering to pay her. But she has declined the money, telling them that she is still employed, still drawing her paycheck. She does it because she loves children.

I am encouraged by friends in Europe who show me the response in Italy and Spain, to the solidarity they are exhibiting, a “we’re in this together” spirit. A friend in Spain shared this:

Local people know that they have to stay indoors for at least two weeks. If they walk their dog they do not approach another person, you wait outside the pharmacy until you are called in one at a time, there are queues outside of shops not because of the amount of customers but because everyone maintains at least 1 metre apart. 

“Solidaridad” is the order of the day. This is not just the singing from balconies and applause for health workers, solidarity is being made real in very practical ways. In my own barrio here in Santiago the corner shop has ramped up the “pay it forward for an elderly person” which we set up. The young people in the district have put up posters offering to go shopping for those who can’t go themselves. Queues part at shops to let an older person go first. 

A deep sense of community is emerging in surprising ways. It is a bright ray or hope as these days get darker for everyone.

(Johnniewalker Santiago on Facebook)

In our local community, teachers have signed up to work with the food services from the Harrisonburg City Schools to provide free lunches to students who are now at home for two weeks. Local groups have been formed on Facebook to share needs and offers of help. The list could go on. 

My wife and I are frequently checking- in on my wife’s aging parents who live nearby – either in person or through daily phone calls. We are offering to take in an “orphaned” college student who couldn’t go home when the university campus closed. We are thinking about how we can support others who may be unable to leave home, due to self-isolation. We are even thinking about how we can spend/give away the money that the government may give us to help businesses or individuals in the local area who are hurting the most right now. And we are learning about other creative ways of standing together as we observe the caring actions of friends around us.

We may have to isolate, but that does not mean we are not in solidarity. We are in this together and we can come out stronger and better. Our public spaces will be filled again someday with energy and a renewed appreciation for our larger community. I hope that we all remember this time, not for its fear and uncertainty, but for marshaling our efforts together, and bringing out our best.


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