Surviving the Virus

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives.  We work at home and count on digital connections with relatives and friends. It is scary not to be able to walk to a coffee shop and mingle comfortably with strangers or friends. And it is disturbing to go to a grocery store only to find shelves empty of our favorite comfort foods.  

But if we tear ourselves away from the endless flow of news, we can find a few unexpected pleasures.  Rather than paying attention to current news, it is better by far to stick to the books that take us away from our immediate surroundings. My library, the San Francisco Public Library, has closed all branches, but it has a large collection of ebooks and audiobooks that can be downloaded directly to our living rooms. Every day I can download several mysteries and browse through them at my leisure to decide whether to spend the evening with Maisie Dobbs or V.I. Warshawski or any of my other favorite detectives. It’s not the same as browsing along the shelves in the library, but it gives me almost the same thrill of discovering new adventures and new characters to take my mind off viruses and politics. And one bonus of borrowing digital books from the library is there is no need to return them. Each one magically disappears from my Kindle when my borrowing time is over. 

Of course, you don’t have to confine your reading to mystery stories. You can organize an impromptu reading group and discuss books with friends.  I’ve heard of people who have decided to read and discuss War and Peace during breaks from their work at home. That sounds a bit over-ambitious to me. I’d prefer to read and talk about a shorter classic. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome would work. I’m sure every public library in the country has copies of those. And they offer lots of ideas to talk about with friends. 

This digital life offers surprises that turn old pleasures into new ones. For years I’ve gone to concerts, sometimes in great concert halls, sometimes in university auditoriums, but I have always had a seat far in the back of the hall or in the balcony. Now I’ve discovered the special joy of watching a concert streamed online. Amazon Prime, of all places, offers a variety of choices from Bach to Mozart and dozens of other composers. The music is the same as in a concert hall, but the extraordinary photography makes an amazing difference to me. I can watch a close-up of elderly hands hovering over the piano keys or see the glances between two musicians as they coordinate their entrance into a piece. Watching them gives me a new appreciation of what it must feel like to be part of a musical group, something I have never been privileged to experience before. 

During this mandatory shelter-in-place life we are allowed to go outdoors for a walk in the fresh air. I am lucky to live only a few blocks from the beach and have always enjoyed watching the ocean as it moves relentlessly along the shore. No matter what comes along in life, the repetitive motion of the tides reassures us that nothing lasts forever. As the tide ebbs out, leaving stretches of beach marked only by seaweed, plastic bottles, and perhaps a few quivering jellyfish, we can be sure that in six hours and thirteen minutes the high tide will be back.  The world goes on and so will we.   

Ocean beach

…Sliding into the Twenties

As 2019 fades away into the past, surely the best news about what has been accomplished this year is the story of Greta Thunberg and her crusade to make people aware of the climate crisis. Thunberg sailed across the North Atlantic to speak to world leaders about those changes and how they will affect young people. Government leaders listened politely, young people mounted parades and protests, but almost no government or individual did anything to confront the crisis. Young people heard her voice, but the older people who control the world seem to be deaf to it.

Greta Thunberg

If world leaders could not hear the protests of young people, they might at least look across the world to see some of the reasons for the protests. Australia has been suffering from massive wildfires and days of record-breaking high temperatures. Antarctica is losing ice at triple the rate of only five years ago. Whether it is heat or cold that you worry about, both are growing more extreme. The thousands of people who have been displaced by changes in the climate will swell to millions. And those people will keep moving as their homelands become unlivable.

Wildfires in Australia 2019

Meanwhile, two yellow-haired men, one in Britain and one in America swell up and bellow at the world to stop turning and retreat backward. Denying climate change and the global changes it will bring, they long to return to a patchwork of tiny national states huddled behind flimsy walls. Like King Canute ordering the ocean to stop its incoming tides, the forces of change won’t listen or care. Bob Dylan was right when he told us half a century ago, “the times, they are a-changing”.

But there are still signs of hope in the world. We still have young people like Greta Thunberg and her followers. And we still have the voices of writers who remind us of our shared humanity. Two books that I’ve read in the last month are especially hopeful. One is Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey, and the other is Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena. Both of them are meditative works that tell of journeys—the kind of journeys that writers and artists have been taking for centuries. Where would we be without individuals who can share their thoughts with us?  

In Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith tells us about a trip across the country from California to New York and back again. She travels through dreams and reality, as she thinks about friends who are dying and people both living and dead who are still part of her life.

A Month in Siena also tells of a journey. Hisham Matar goes to Siena to look at paintings and at the city. His trip comes after other trips he has made to his native Libya attempting to discover what happened to his father, a political activist who disappeared into prison years ago. Both the centuries-old paintings he absorbs and the people he meets in the city make it possible for him to connect with the world he lives in and shares with us.

Both Smith and Matar give us a humane view of how people can meet one another and share feelings and ideas. Perhaps the best news we can find as 2019 ends and the new decade begins, is that books and art survive. Perhaps they will help us all to confront the inevitable changes coming as the century grows older.     

Carrying the Torch for Immigration

This week, as usual, has been filled with chatter about what people in Washington are saying about immigration. Several people commented on the familiar poem by Emma Lazarus especially the final words, which are framed as a quotation from the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.  

Statue of Liberty

Who was Emma Lazarus and why did she write those words? Well, one thing is certain, she wasn’t thinking about the current immigration debate. Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus came from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family which had been settled in America since before the American Revolution. Lazarus was educated at home by tutors. She studied German and French as well as American and British literature and started writing poetry while she was very young perhaps inspired by the fact that her great-great-grandmother had been a poet.

Lazarus published her first book of poems and translations when she was eighteen and became a successful writer while she was still in her twenties. She published translations from European literature including works by Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. She also wrote novels and plays. Her work was admired by critics such as William Cullen Bryant and was  well-received by readers.

The Lazarus family, including Emma, was part of a cosmopolitan social world in New York and did not attend religious services or participate very much in Jewish events until the 1880s.  It was the pogroms in Russia, which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, that awakened Lazarus to the danger facing many Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Lazarus became an activist, working to help the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who fled to the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She volunteered to work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and also helped to found a technical high school for immigrants.

While Emma Lazarus was pursuing her writing career, other people were promoting the idea of building a Statue of Liberty. In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye, a French philosopher and a strong abolitionist, had proposed that a monument be built as a gift from France to the United States. He wanted the statue to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln. Ten years later, in 1875, an agreement was reached by which France would pay for the statue while Americans would provide the pedestal on which it would be installed.

Fundraising is never easy and the Americans who supported the building of the statue tried a number of ways to finance it. President Grover Cleveland was asked to give $50,000 of public money to help pay for the pedestal, but he refused. Congress also refused to authorize any payment. The money would have to come from ordinary citizens. Fundraisers then got the idea of holding an auction of art and manuscripts to support the effort. It was at this point that Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem to be donated to the auction. The sonnet she wrote was “The New Colossus“, a copy of which is now enshrined in the pedestal of the statue.

Although Emma Lazarus is now the poet most closely identified with the Statue of Liberty and with immigration, she did not live long enough to know about the honor given her work. She was not mentioned when the statue was installed in 1886, and her poem was not engraved and placed inside the pedestal until 1903. By then Emma Lazarus had died, probably of leukemia, in 1887 at the age of 38. Her poem about immigration and the role it has played in the development of America, however, remains very much alive and people still quarrel about its meaning.  

Cooperating across Borders to Save the World

The news has been so filled with disaster stories these past weeks that it’s hard to decide which of them to worry about first. But probably the one that tells us about the greatest threat to the world is the story of disastrous climate change. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us about how changing weather conditions may affect the food supplies of millions of people. Scientists and governments will have to work together to help people make changes that may save many of us from starvation.

Sometimes we forget that science has always been international. The search for knowledge about the natural world and the forces that control it has ignored national boundaries and spread to governments and people worldwide. Some of the best examples of scientific cooperation came about a couple of centuries ago when America was seen, from the European viewpoint, as a new country. Botanists were among the early explorers who discovered and described the plants and animals that Native Americans had long known about but were unknown in other counties. Last year, I wrote a post about David Hosack, an early botanist who shared his knowledge and his plants with scientists across Europe.

Botany was recognized as an important science because at that time most medical treatments depended on using medicines derived from plants. Fortunately, it was also a science that did not require expensive equipment or training. One of the earliest American botanists was a woman who lived and died years before the United States was formed.

Jane Colden

Jane Colden was born in Orange County, New York, in the Hudson River Valley in 1724. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland and the family lived on a large estate where they observed many plants and animals unfamiliar to them. Jane was an intelligent and curious child and even though women were not generally encouraged to embark on serious studies, her father helped her to study and draw the plants that surrounded them. He also taught her the system developed by the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, to classify plants.

Jane soon began corresponding with botanists in both Europe and America. She was a skilled illustrator and developed a technique for making ink impressions of leaves. Between 1753 and 1758, she catalogued more than 300 species of plants that she found in the area near her home. She also asked Native Americans and some of the Dutch settlers in the region about medicinal uses for these plants and was able to share that information with other scientists. Her scientific work was cut short when she married and a few years later died, apparently in childbirth, at the age of 42. Unfortunately, few of her letters have been preserved and we know about Jane Colden mainly through comments about her written by better-known botanists. Her only remaining manuscript is at the British Museum in London.

Jane Colden drawings

It is inspiring to read about the way Jane Colden and other 18th century scientists exchanged information and specimens across national boundaries. Without these exchanges, difficult though communication was in those days, science would not have enriched the lives of so many people. Have we lost the ability to do that just when global cooperation is most urgently needed?

Now that we have established lightning-fast communication that allows information to flow across the globe, it is time for many countries to work together even more than in the past. The threats brought by global warming require worldwide cooperation. Let’s hope the scientists and private citizens will be able to keep the work going without allowing political struggles to build walls between countries. Tariffs and secrecy may protect corporations but they often work against the welfare of ordinary people who depend on shared knowledge to maintain their wellbeing. We have to remember that we’re all in this together on one small, troubled planet.    

Are men mature enough to handle presidential debates?

Almost all of the news comments on the Democrats’ debates held this past week mentioned that for the first time women were a prominent part of the lineup. Ever since Samuel Johnson made his famous quip about women preaching in public, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” women have had to prove themselves worthy of speaking out in public settings.

After all, it was more than a century after the establishment of the United States that a woman was first elected to Congress. That was Jeannette Rankin, who was elected from Montana in 1913. Rankin had become a public figure by her work in the women’s suffrage movement. Before running for Congress, she had been the first woman to speak before the Montana state legislature. There she urged that women should be allowed to vote. She succeeded in getting the vote for Montana women and moved on to fight for a national vote on suffrage.

Jeannette Rankin

Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1848 and it was through the struggle to win that right that many women became accustomed to speaking in public and making their voices heard. They had many years of struggle, because it wasn’t until 1920 that the Women’s Suffrage amendment was finally ratified.

Women have served in Congress now for more than 100 years, but their move into power positions has been very slow. It’s hard to believe that in 1984, it was considered daring for the Democrats to nominate Geraldine Ferraro as their vice-presidential candidate. She was the first woman to appear in national debates before the election and her appearance was a welcome change for many voters, although of course, her team did not win the presidency.

Last week’s debates, however, showed a distinct change in the power structure of the debates. Many of the male candidates thought their best way to win attention (and potentially votes) was to interrupt as often as possible and take over the argument. But on Thursday night they were put in their place by Kamela Harris who had one of the most-quoted lines of the debate, “The American people don’t want to watch a food fight. They want us to put food on the table.” And a few minutes later she made a stinging attack on Joe Biden—no one interrupted her then.

And Harris wasn’t the only woman who raised the level of the debates. Elizabeth Warren, during the first debate, stuck to her points and talked substance instead of yelling and interrupting. And we can’t forget Amy Klobucher who quietly mentioned that the three women on the debate stage had far longer records than the men in fighting for reproductive rights for all women.

There is no question that women today are ready to speak out about national policies. Perhaps the more relevant question today is: are men ready to engage with them on a level that will benefit all of us?

Women–Doing Not Saying

 In her speech to the Harvard University graduating class this week, Angela Merkel urged a cautious optimism: “I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is,” she said. “This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.”

She went on to list some of the problems the youthful graduates might want to change: “Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize free international trade and thus the very foundations of our prosperity,” she said. “Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources.”

Angela Markel’s common sense optimism, as well as her acknowledgement of the difficulties facing the world today grow out of her life experience. Born in 1954, she was raised in East Germany during the difficult years when the Soviets controlled that nation. In university she studied science and did not engage in public life. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany that she was drawn to political life. Few people would have predicted she would become a leader. But, improbable or not, this quiet woman made her way past the bombastic male leaders of the party and eventually emerged as the leader.

Since becoming Chancellor of Germany in 2005, Merkel has been acknowledged as the leader of the European Union. She weathered the immigration crisis of 2015, encouraging Europeans to accept the humanitarian necessity of helping Syrian refugees to find a place in European society.

Now Europe is facing continuing turmoil as one country after another reveals a strain of populism that rejects immigrants and wants to turn the clock back. Merkel has said that she will leave politics in 2021 and allow someone else to negotiate the future. But her contribution to building a united Europe will not be forgotten. As historians look back on the first decades of the 21st century, I am certain she will be recognized as the outstanding political leader of our times.

Angela Merkel is not the only woman leader who is leaving the limelight. Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is also stepping down. May took on the onerous task of working out a Brexit plan to move Britain out of the European Union. After the referendum in which voters chose by a narrow margin to leave, several of the noisy male supporters of the move stepped back and chose not to handle the mess they had created.

Theresa May

Theresa May was the only political leader willing to take on the hard work of actually coming up with a plan. She came up with a number of plans, but, unsurprisingly, someone found fault with each one. The fact that she did not succeed in finding a magic formula that would suit everyone was almost inevitable.

When Theresa May stepped down, the media talked about her a failure. Perhaps they should wait to see whether any of her critics comes up with a foolproof plan that will be accepted by all sides. No one has shown any sign of doing that yet. I can’t wait to see whether any of the guys who have been jeering from the sidelines will step up and hit a home run now that they are on their own.

It is time for us to honor the courageous women who have not just talked but have taken on some of the world’s most serious problems. As Margaret Thatcher once said: If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.

We Must Not Lose Our History

Like many other people around the world, I spent quite a bit of time this week watching news pictures of the fire that struck Notre Dame Cathedral. For almost everyone who has visited Paris, and millions who have never been there, Notre Dame is immediately recognizable.

Notre Dame Cathedral 2019

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Notre Dame several times. My first visit was during the 1950s when I went on a student trip to Europe. We Americans were overwhelmed by the beauty and history of Paris. Buildings, streets, the whole city seemed so old and yet still alive and important. It was a revelation. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when Notre Dame became the centerpiece for the liberation of Paris and the end of the war. We could still remember the newsreel pictures of American troops being welcomed by tearfully joyous French civilians.

Notre Dame 1944

Every time I went back to Paris and visited Notre Dame, the church was more crowded with tourists than the time before. Memories of the war became one small part of the centuries of history enshrined in the church. Looking at the overwhelming light and beauty of the rose window, it was easy to understand how it must have brightened the lives of people, both Parisians and others throughout the centuries. The events that window cast light on—the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the coronation of Napoleon—linger on in memories in the building alongside the memories of nameless soldiers coming back from wars, families bringing babies for Baptism, and refugees trying to build new lives in a strange city.

But more important, the cathedral has welcomed thousands of visitors over the years and given them a glimpse of a past that still lives and influences us. The sculptures, the stained glass, the votive candles flickering along the side altars. Every visit reminds us of the people who visited the cathedral and were awed by the experience just as we are. The past comes alive in places where so many people have experienced some of life’s major events. William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We recognize the reality of the past—our past and the past of humanity—when we visit places so rich in history. Notre Dame Cathedral is an important part of the heritage of all humankind and we cannot afford to lose it.

It is not only the heritage of our own societies that enrich us. Visiting heritage sites around the world binds us together in our common human history. When I visited Angkor Wat in 1999,  I was overwhelmed by the evidence of a past world I had never known about.  I recently reread the journal I kept during that visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Today we went to a temple complex that is being overgrown by the jungle. The banyan trees in particular send their roots into the crevices in the stones and force the stones apart. Many parts of the temple have fallen to the ground. The stone faces of the Buddha statues peer from the tops of devastated towers. A group of soldiers who were guarding the site were cooking a frog over a tiny fire. They had killed the frog that morning and it is considered wrong to kill a creature and not make use of it–lack of respect.

On our way back to the hotel we drove around the Angkor Wat complex and began to get a better sense of the whole place, although my knowledge is still sketchy. I have an impressionistic feeling about the glories of the crumbling ruins, the huge, smiling Buddha faces, the graceful figures of the dancing girls, and the parades of war elephants and troops. The surroundings haven’t changed much over the centuries, it seems, and that adds to the sense of their antiquity. It’s like walking into a preserved world of the past. We walked through what seemed like acres of temple property, along stone paths and up crooked stone steps around the walls of the complex, which are carved with scenes of Cambodian life from the thirteenth century. Banyan trees push up through the stones.

Both Notre Dame Cathedral and Angkor Wat are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They remind us all of a past that will never be completely recovered but will continue to resonate with generations of people to come. They commemorate the universal experiences of life and death, birth and burial. In recognizing them we acknowledge the common life of all humans and the events we all share. We must not lose these reminders of the past. They are worth rebuilding, no matter how long that takes,  because they enrich all of us.