• Sarah Ratermann Beahan

COVID-19 Chronicles #5

How can we balance kindness with accountability? Compassion with integrity? Freedom with entitlement?

This week in my Deep Dive workshop we are reflecting on balance: introvert vs. extrovert, right and left brained, masculine and feminine. I want to press deeper into this, though, to poke around in the hard places, into light and dark, silence and noise, what is seen and unseen.

It is often what we don’t say that it more poignant than what we do. Be honest and tell me you don’t notice when someone you care about doesn’t engage: doesn’t like a post on Facebook, or wish you a happy birthday or anniversary. I have a friend who was deeply engaged in my work until she wasn’t. While we didn’t always see eye to eye, her sudden absence was notable and loud.

This feels relevant this week as I watch the news. We need human connection, it is good for our souls, but are we entitled to put others at risk so we can go on vacation? White people watch videos of Black men under the literal knee of law enforcement and feel compelled to do something, but how do we move beyond posting hashtags and writing social media posts full of platitudes about our shock and horror?

I am enraged and aware of the ease with which I can feel this rage.

I wonder if my isolation has fueled or tempered it.

It has been exactly 60 days since I spent time with a person that wasn’t my husband. He goes to work a few days a week and connects with his staff.

I see screens.

Sometimes I prefer telephones because they seem more natural. Funny, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel like I can more authentically relate without a visual. I wonder why. Is it some weird form of stage fright? Perhaps I am distracted by the fact that I can see my own face their looking back at me. Like a baby enamored with itself in the mirror, I can’t pull my eyes away.

We are by nature self-centered creatures who seek ease.

I’ve taken to waving animatedly at my neighbors. Typically, I am not known for making the first move (ask anyone I’ve ever dated). I tend to keep to myself until I understand the dynamics and personalities at play in social situations. I nod and smile and just say no to small talk. And yet, I’m usually both terrified and grateful when someone else approaches me at a party as I stand on the sidelines.

We moved to a small town 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities in late September, just in time for everyone to go into hibernation. Midwesterners are friendly, but bitter Minnesota winters combined with Scandanavian reserve means exchanges rarely amount to more than a grunt and a wave from October to May.

I learned last weekend that until last year no one had moved into or out of this historical neighborhood atop the hill overlooking North Center Lake in twenty years. While I suspect there is some hyperbole or mishearing involved in this statement, I don’t doubt that this tight knit community has been intact for a long time.

I walk my dogs twice a day. The first walk tends to be long, 45 minutes or so. The second is a habit that my old dog, Emmett, isn’t willing to break, a hold-over from his younger and much spryer days. He tires more quickly these days. So, in the afternoons, we walk a few blocks through the neighborhood, the dogs do their business and urge me home for their dinner.

I met Donna, my city council person on one of these walks. I’ve known Rosie, her fuzzy, bouncy, leggy mutt with a sassy mouth and Cali, her daughters quiet beauty with two different colored eyes for months. I have only recently gotten to know Donna; I was gathering stray feathers in her front yard.

“What are you picking up?” She called at me, puzzled.

“Feathers,” I replied a little sheepishly, unsure if I should ask if she wanted them back.

“What for?”

“I collect them,” I said. She said nothing. “For an art project,” I added. This seemed to assuage her concern somewhat.

Later, on a particularly warm May day, my younger dog, Mina, decided to take a dump in her yard – much to Rosie’s chagrin – and Donna asked me what I did for a living. (The irony of discussing my vocation while scooping poo was not lost on me) Was I an artist? No, a writer, but my husband is a painter. She then shared a short bio of every resident who lives in the dozen or so houses between hers and mine. I don’t remember it all.

Over the weekend as we—both dogs, my husband and I—were pulling back into the driveway after a hike, we met Barb (not Barbara) and Rudy, her shibapoo. I’d certainly met Rudy, a tufty fellow who loved to run the length of his line and shout at us as we walked, by, but I hadn’t met his owner.

Barb already knew all about us, including the fact that Brian was a painter. She was anxious to know where she could see his work, and then promised to bring us a loaf of bread.

Weeks ago, Emmett, the aforementioned grandpa dog, saw a rabbit and proceeded to break out of the confinement of his leader to chase it through the neighborhood, which borders a swamp and woods. Emmett’s hound nose trumps his senior status, and he can easily follow that nose for hours if given the opportunity. I followed him all over the neighborhood, tramping through my neighbors yards and gardens trying to catch the wiley rabbit hunter. By the time he was caught by a pack of kids at the park, I’d met Justin and Steve, one in a truck and another on an ATV trying to wrangle my rogue pet.

I was so grateful for their help. I am grateful for this caring network of neighbors, particularly during this isolating time. And yet, I wondered what this situation would have looked like if I were a Black man. I write this not as a question of Justin or Steve’s integrity, or doubt Donna and Barb’s kindness. I write this to consider the reality of living in America now, at this moment in history.

I didn’t know my neighbors in Seattle. My neighborhood was far more diverse, one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the country. Seattle is also notoriously introverted; it is a very difficult place to break into. Within my first two weeks of living there, I was introduced to the concept of the Seattle Freeze. I scoffed, but I didn’t know my neighbors, so.

How much of this was the culture, how much was me?

I knew my neighbors in Minneapolis, many of them, of all sizes, shapes, hues and preferences. I live in a very white place now.

I wonder how this choice of residence makes me complicit.

Here, during the global pandemic, after 60 days of not speaking to anyone, I find myself slowing when I see a neighbor instead of putting my head down and walking faster. I make conversation. I talk to their dogs. I remember their names.

I wonder what isolation would have been like if I lived in an urban area, like I did for twenty-two years. I wonder if I would see the parallels between the people for whom going maskless is a right and those who “feel threatened” when a Black man requests that they comply with the law by leashing their dog. I wonder if the entitlement would be as stark. I wonder if my relative seclusion makes it easier or harder to witness both? Does it make me less compassionate, more judgmental?

Where am I in this?

I do not belong at the center.

My feelings do not belong at the center.

And I cannot stay quiet.

My thoughts and feelings and prayers and love and light are privileged and taking us space. And yet, here I am, writing them down, speaking them aloud.

I suspect there is a balance to be struck here. Between the light and the dark and integrity and kindness, silence and voice.

I also suspect that the lesson we all (and by we all I mean white people) need to learn is to try and fail. To allow ourselves to be corrected, to be wrong in effort to do better. The same is likely true of how we navigate reopening the world.

Both will continue to cost lives, and that is the hard reality we sit with.

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