Debra A. Copeland




Think Pieces (18)

Posted 05/28/2020 09:46:07
Category: Think Pieces

                 North Shore, Oahu (Photograph by Robert Copeland)


My husband and I began self-quarantine on March 15. The first two weeks were kind of fun. I couldn’t write. Found it difficult to meditate. But we wanted, and needed just like everybody else to eat, so we went to the kitchen with gusto. Made cobblers with the peaches we froze last August. Baked old family recipes like Chewy Noels and date nut loaf. Baked, for some reason, lots of banana bread. Twice I made my mother’s potato salad. Had thought we were done with elderberry syrup till fall but decided it prudent to make one more batch. When we started to run out of ingredients for recipes, I enjoyed the challenge of being creative with what was on hand.

Like a lot of Americans during the shutdown, we turned our attention to projects around the house—they could order us to stay home for six months and we’d still not finish everything we want, and need, to do around here. I took on a labor-intensive project I’d been putting off for years, painting a collection of armoires, an area 9’ long, 2’ deep, and 7-1/2’ tall, with lots of drawers and shelves. It was great. It was hell. It gave me the perfect excuse to stay tuned to the news all day. As I applied three coats of chalk paint (Annie Sloan, Chateau Grey, if you’re interested) and two coats of wax (clear and white), the project as well as the news sometimes was overwhelming. But mostly, the repetitive use of my hands was calming. Same thing with Andrew Cuomo’s voice. As I transformed laminate furniture into something fine and rich, Gov. Cuomo transformed a city’s panic, grief and despair into calm and fortitude with specific, tangible plans. Half-jokingly, I told my husband I looked forward to the governor’s daily briefings the way dogs must look forward to their humans coming home. Now order will be restored! Now we’ll know what to do with ourselves!    


Meteorologically speaking, Spring 2020 has carried me back to my girlhood, in that I don’t remember the air being so clean and fresh since I was a girl. More than once I’ve stuck my head out the window to inhale the intoxicating perfume of peonies coming to me on a spring breeze from the other end of the house. Rather than go from winter right into hot, dry, summer-like weather, as has often been the case in Virginia in recent years, this year the temps remained spring-like from March through the whole of May. For days and days, the skies were pure crystalline blue. Then there’d be a shower. A gentle thunderstorm. A long steady rain after which the earth released its loamy fragrance and sprouts shot up like rockets. It makes me so sad to think it’s not going to last; that any day now civilization will return to what they call “normal” and all the noise and pollution will resume.   


By week three of the shutdown, being creative in the kitchen lost some of its charm; reality set in. We saw on the news the somber images of the potter’s fields. We grieved the staggering loss of life. Agonized over the millions of lost jobs and livelihoods. Empathized with parents and children affected by the closing of schools. All over the world, people stood in food lines (they’re still standing), and children in some parts of the world literally starved. And there was still old news to contend with. Children were still being separated from their parents at the border and caged, or put on planes with a one-way ticket, abandoned. Domestic abuse, a constant social ill, spiked during the shutdown—and that’s just in number of reported cases. Who can say how many have been unable to send out an SOS?

The months of April and May were a roller coaster ride. The nation was shut down. The nation wasn’t shut down. People were told to wear masks. People were told not to wear masks. Some argued that the virus was sent by God, and that only faith in Him (always Him, never Her, you know) could save us. Those who don’t believe argued that science was the only thing that could save us and, well, I have faith. But I also happen to believe that ignorance is no less dangerous now than it was when the Inquisitors wanted to burn Galileo for repeating the words of Copernicus.

I was discouraged when the president refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to provide PPE for our nation’s health care workers. I considered it an outrage when he did invoke it to order the production of pork. The president did that, knowing full well that along with prisons and care homes, one of the most unsafe places a human can be during this pandemic is inside a meatpacking plant; when even under the best of circumstances, factory farming is toxic—the animals suffer horribly, the humans work in horrible conditions, and the land is poisoned. I had hoped the pandemic might lead us away from hyper-industrialized, mega-farming practices back to more local, natural ways of growing and harvesting food. Is having a pork chop really crucial in time of plague? Eat some beans, why don’t ya?


In March, in the earlier days of the pandemic, we learned that 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while jogging in Georgia and that 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Kentucky as she slept in her bed.

On Memorial Day, in Central Park, a woman named Amy Cooper, as my mother used to say, “showed herself.” I wonder if a more flagrant and quintessential display of white privilege has ever before been caught on camera.  

On Memorial Day, in Minneapolis, a man named George Floyd was murdered. By a White man so confident, so secure in his belief he enjoyed impunity, he looked right into the eye of a camera as he did it. In broad daylight. As helpless people watched and pleaded for mercy.

His name was George Floyd. And after he died, something that is always simmering just below the surface of the social consciousness of this nation reached flash point. Fires ignited in hearts, and on city streets, all over America. Even the virus has fallen out of the limelight momentarily.

Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Christian Cooper. George Floyd. Wow. That really is a lot of racism and injustice for such a short period of time, even by American standards. As I write at the end of May, the nation mourns the loss of 100,000 of her citizens, as thousands more continue to die from the virus, and hundreds of thousands march in the streets, demanding justice for the ones who have died from police brutality.


I can speak only from the perspective and experience of a White woman. But let’s be honest. In this nation, the Black, Brown, and Native American experience has always been something totally different from the White experience. Racial bias is in the European-American’s DNA. It’s epigenetic. It’s visceral and it’s viral. White people, White culture, took everything from Black people and Black culture there was to take yet somehow still manage to convince themselves it’s the Blacks who rob. We’re trapped in an ugly collective unconscious, but nobody’s allowed to talk about it because it offends White people’s sensibilities. White people tell Black people to chill, while some of them scream about not being able to get a haircut. White men storm state capitols with military style weapons just because somebody asked them to wear a mask during a pandemic. While Black people get killed. Just for being Black. As they have been since the formation of this nation.

The president speaks in code, dog whistles; seeks to protect himself by inciting a second civil war. Being unoriginal, he plagiarizes slogans, copies old battle plans. Some of his followers salivate for violence. Others pretend, hiding behind big guns while secretly frightened. As I write, the president, apparently satisfied that it is predominantly people of color and poor people (in other words, people with no political clout) who suffer and die from COVID-19, has dropped the matter entirely. As far as the president is concerned, there is no pandemic; he conducts himself as if the virus no longer exists. While siccing police and the U.S. military on the very people they swore an oath to protect.  


It can be hard to keep your spirits up, to not feel helpless in hard times like these. Perfect weather and comfort food notwithstanding, I have fallen into a funk a time or two the past few weeks. There have been times when my body hasn’t wanted to do a thing in the world but stay in bed. But lying prone doesn’t feel good after a while, and it’s certainly not good for the body. I cheer myself up by reminding myself that a lot of good things are happening too; that a lot of good people are out there doing good and important work. Remembering what Mr. Rogers said, I stay on the lookout for the helpers, and try to be a helper myself.

These are some of the things I personally have done to survive the pandemic (and the state of the world in general) to date: Practice sacred ritual. Listen to music. Read. Write. Remain politically active. Dance. Stomp my feet. Believing in the physiological as well as spiritual benefits of putting one’s hands in the earth and being in the company of trees, I’ve gardened, climbed a mountain or two. Just before the shutdown I enrolled in an online class (Introduction to Hinduism in case you’re wondering) and it has been an excellent distraction.

It feels like we're in a climactic moment, like those scenes in movies when the actors are trapped on a train racing toward a cliff. Who knows what dangerous curve we approach, what turbulence awaits just around the bend? I know I’m going to be in a funk again, it’s a given. But I will never give up. Throughout history, humankind has evolved on a spiral, propelling upward then falling back, but always remaining on a trajectory that is progressive, always moving away from darkness toward Light. Bad things happen in the middle of stories but as Dr. King said, the arc, while long, bends toward justice. In what would be his last speech before he was assassinated on April 3, 1968, Dr. King said: “I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountain top…And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land…”

Without a major course correction, this train we’re on could wreck. But the only reason the bend of the arc of justice is long is because, as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says, there aren’t enough people pulling on it! It's time for the nation as a whole to engage in serious self-examination and meaningful soul-searching. It's time for each of us to commit to doing their part. The preamble of the United States Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” That is the goal. That is what good American citizens accept as their charge.

President Obama recently said it, and I like to say it too: The young people of this world give me hope. I stand with the young people. I stand with the ones marching in the streets. I commit to conducting myself in a manner that is worthy of the respect of young people, as well as of my fellow Americans who are Black, and my fellow Americans who are Brown, and First Nations people, and those who live in poverty. I stand with the helpers. I strive to be a helper myself.