In Lulu Wang’s delightful 2019 film “The Farewell, a young woman learns her beloved grandmother in China has only a short time to live. The family conceals the diagnosis from the old woman so that their “Nai Nai” can enjoy whatever time she has left.
“There is a Chinese saying,” the young woman’s mother explains, “It’s not the cancer that kills you, it’s the fear.”
I’m reminded of a story a poet friend of mine tells about an uncle who received a similar diagnosis. The family kept the news from him and he lived for another eight years. “He didn’t know he was supposed to die,” my friend says.
As the country and the world struggle to cope with the devasting effects of COVID-19, fear is likely to become just as pandemic as the virus. True, we have to distance ourselves from crowds and anyone who might be symptomatic. We don’t have to let fear force us to stop caring.
We can make valuable use of this rupture in our ordinary routine. One thing I am trying to do is reconnect — via phone or email — with friends who might feel isolated. People who live alone or who are at particular risk for illness.
The virus scare is also forcing me to take a hard look at the role of fear in my life. What are the anxieties that make me fall to my knees? We all have them. Fear of getting a life-threatening diagnosis. Fear that our savings will run out. Fear that we will have to face our fears alone.
It’s important at a time like this to lift each other with positive messages. As Joy Harjo writes in her poem, “Praise the Rain:”
Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led ….
Praise beginnings; praise the end …
Like thousands of people, I was inspired by the residents of Siena Italy, a city where I once studied, who dealt with the boredom of a national lockdown by serenading each other with arias and patriotic songs from their balconies and windowsills.
This is in a country that has seen more than 17,000 cases and over 1,200 deaths from the crisis! Yes, if there ever was a time we need both song and praise, it is now.
This crisis also offers a chance for us to refocus on the things that truly matter. What are thing things that nourish our souls? That’s a question we all have to answer for ourselves.
I’d like to share something my friend the Minnesota writer Tracy Ritmueller posted the other day on Facebook. It was part of a conversation she had with her husband Ken. Ken’s advice to all of us in these difficult days is both wise and essential.
“Be grateful,” Ken said. “Embrace your life. There is something beautiful in every moment, even if it’s simple and small — the chair you’re sitting in; the plaid shirt you’re wearing; the glint of sun coming through the window. Breathe in, and notice how wonderful it feels, going in and going down … Any pleasure you have right now is good.”
Ken is correct. Right now is good — even if the world seems perilous, our future uncertain, and our fears ascending. As the Italians are showing the world, we still can seek out moments of beauty and grace.
My friend the Boston poet Lisa Breger sent me these equally wise words from her Zen teacher, Lama Tsering Ngodup Yodsampa.
“Remember to meditate for the whole world and every sentient being,” Lama Tsering says. “Every single act of kindness and compassion through deeds or prayer will bring hope and peace.”
I pray that a vaccine arrives soon to combat coronavirus. I pray that our health system will be adequate to succor those who are ill. I pray this crisis will quickly pass. In the meantime, we can each do our part through acts of kindness and compassion.
This week, can we remember to praise and to sing? Can we embrace life’s small moments with gratitude, as our friend Ken advises?
Can we meet this challenge - as Lama Tsering asks of us - with both deeds and prayer that bring hope and peace for “every sentient being?”