What have we learned; what have we forgotten?

Like you, in my home, we’ve watched a lot of movies over the past three months of pandemic. In selecting what to watch after the dismal news of the day, my suggestions most often are met with the observation that “we’ve already seen it.” Impossible. I have no recollection. And yet halfway into the film, so it is—a family rerun. Why did I not remember?

I have the same issue with books I’ve read: I have imbibed them, even with relish, but I haven’t digested them. The past few days I’ve been re-reading the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I had recalled the first reading as a tedious and tawdry account of Elena’s affair with Nino Sarratore. In this second reading, I’m halfway through what now appears a paean to her friendship with Lila; Nino is nowhere to be seen. How can my experiences be so divergent?

Plato in The School of Athens—Raphael

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates warns that the act of writing undermines memory. With a written record, we have no need to remember. Our memory is vested in an externalized account. That said, the internet age must not undermine but demolish human memory. I did have an internalized memory of Elena’s story. It just happened to be at odds with the actual book.

Faulty memory leads to mistakes, from incorrect “external” information to stereotyping to inappropriate behaviors. This weekend of protests against racism across the United States, I walked on the beach, where someone had sculpted a dozen faux graves, a memorial to recent deaths by racism. Is racism a problem of faulty memory—as from habitual faulty associations or from failing to learn what prior experience has revealed?

We surely remember that slavery did not work out well for the United States. It set the country against itself by contradicting its ideals: All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—except for black people who are only 3/5 equal.

Slavery: the saddest story in United States history. Launched in the 17th century, and outlawed in the 19th. Yet, as the 19th flowed into the 20th century, the subjugation of black people mutated into the Jim Crow era of different rules for black and white people. It seeped into the 21st century with unequal enforcement of law and inequitable exercise of justice. Ongoing racial degradation has brought us in 2020 the knee-jerk killing of Ahmed Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, the mistaken identity and slaughter of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his windpipe crushed under a policeman’s knee. Persistent erroneous associations pigeonhole black as different, unequal, and dangerous. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten?

At one of our kids’ college graduations in Chicago, the university president opened the ceremonies by memorializing a black woman graduate, killed the day before she was able to don her cap and gown. She was driving from downtown back to campus and was pulled over by police. She stopped and raised both hands in the air. Her cell phone was in her right hand. The officer thought it was a weapon and shot her.

Condoleeza Rice, 66th U.S. Secretary of State

We might say that to racially profile is to willfully forget. By 2020, white people across the United States cannot have escaped close encounters and intimate connections with black people. Consider your fellow students, your colleagues, your teammates, your parents’ caregivers. Before and during this century, US society has come to elevate black people to positions of prominence and power—from jazz singers to opera singers, from sports icons to Supreme Court justices, from mayors to Secretaries of State, from four-star generals to Attorney General, from Governor to President of the United States. Haven’t we transcended issues with black equality, humanity, worthiness, acceptance, intelligence, goodness, and competence?

I was lucky, I think, to have experienced a glimpse at racism at the age of four. Candy, my contemporary neighbor, told me one morning when we were playing on the sidewalk in front of our houses that her family had a colored lady working at their house. I was captivated by the mental image: a lady of many colors! I said I wanted to see her. We tip-toed down her basement stairs and peeked into her laundry room, where a gentle-faced woman was folding laundry. I asked where the colored lady was, but Candy pointed only to the lady doing laundry. I saw no colored lady and continued to look back and forth, perplexed by Candy’s mischievous expression. I gave up trying to figure it out, and we went back upstairs. The interchange left me uneasy. Was Candy telling me a joke I didn’t get? There might be something odd about her family, I felt inwardly. We remained sidewalk friends but not for long because my family moved to a different house, and Candy’s family moved to Minneapolis.

Last month a beautiful friend of mine passed away. She was a woman of warmth and smiles, and she was colorful: well traveled, a quilt maker, tastefully dressed, a mother of five, irrepressibly energetic. She was several years older than I, but we found commonality in hailing from different parts of Chicago and transplanting to the Pacific Northwest. We discovered that we had each at one time worked in the same school district, she as a principal, I as a student teacher. In our eventual west coast locale, we taught at the same college before she retired. The last times we saw each other were at a UPS outpost and at a piano recital this past March, just before the coronavirus lockdown. She and her husband were there for their grandson’s recital. I was there for my husband’s, as he had taken up piano over the past few years.

They say my friend died on Saturday of a cerebral hemorrhage the day before. She went, as they say, very quickly, before we knew she had been hospitalized. Some people wondered: was it COVID19 related? They didn’t treat it as such at the time, but having learned since then the relationship between coronavirus and blood clotting, could it be? We know that black people for whatever reasons—personal history? genetic predisposition? environmental chance?—are disproportionately stricken. In any case, my friend died. She happened to be a black woman, though I saw no black in her.

A Failure to Communicate

One of our most quoted American film lines came from Paul Newman’s classic, Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” spoken by fellow prisoner, George Kennedy, to Newman’s Luke. The circumstances of the line in the film are irrelevant here, but the fact of communication failures in the sudden emergence of the coronavirus, arriving on the scene as a 21st-century black plague, is monumental.

On the cusp of Spring, as crocuses emerge along our front walk, we scour the online news daily to discover how many new cases have been uncovered: Korea, Iran, Italy, Australia. Horrifying to perennially optimistic Americans, we now have California, Washington state, New York . . . . We wonder how many miles is it yet from my home? When will my family and I succumb?

Oddly, people buy out mountains of toilet paper from Costco. This week I went to our nearby Rite-Aid to purchase 91% rubbing alcohol, aloe vera gel, and essential oils to concoct our own homemade hand and surface disinfectant, stashed in little travel bottles in my car, bathroom, kitchen, and my already overburdened handbag. I didn’t stop there; I created little packets of wipes for attacking germ-laden surfaces wherever I should alight in and around town.

We’re not buying the mysterious coronavirus toilet paper but boxes of Emergen-C to boost our immune systems. My husband brings home crates of oranges and ritualistically squeezes us little glasses of fresh juice daily. We had been shopping for fresh fruit and veggies and supplementing every meal with a big salad when a friend grown killjoy asked how we can be sure that fresh produce is free of the virus. Alas, at this moment, what I need in my heart of hearts are real-life stories. I’ve just read that more than 50,000 Chinese from Wuhan province and more than half of those struck worldwide have survived the virus and moved on. So why cannot a journalist pick up a phone, give a survivor a call, and find out what they had for lunch today? Can they eat lunch yet?

My dream interview with a coronavirus survivor would tell this story. When you first noticed you didn’t feel well, where were you? where had you been? what had you eaten? Did it start with a sore throat? runny nose? fever? general malaise? How high did your fever go the first day, second day . . . . Did you go to bed? take lots of liquids, tea with honey and lemon, or chicken soup? What were the changes each day, or parts of the day? How did you sleep? Did you notify a doctor or health facility? go to the hospital? did you protect yourself or others when you went? Did you get medicine? which medicine? how long did it take for it to have a beneficial effect? did it have an effect? When did you start to feel better, what got better first? Do you feel normal yet? How do you continue to monitor and care for yourself?

In short, I want the stuff of human communication, how we’d analyze potential scenarios over coffee and a scone. Statistics are for the CDC, the WHO, my PCP. I want the wholly human story so that I can respond to the big scare like a person with a life, home, family, and friends. Otherwise I am frozen in uncertainty while bits of T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock echo in my brain:

. . . there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

. . . time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

. . . When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin. . .
               And how should I presume?