Pox across America

I contracted the chicken pox toward the end of May 1986. Anyone who came of age before the varicella vaccine will likely remember their own itchy weeks at home isolated from school friends, but I'd wager that few could recall the exact dates of their illness. My bout with the pox, however, was memorably timed, as it coincided with one of the biggest events of the year: Hands Across America.

Hands Across America was the pinnacle of mega charity events of the eighties, following on the heels of the popular benefit concerts Live Aid and Farm Aid, which supported African famine victims and small family farms in the United States respectively. Organizers envisioned an event that would bring millions of Americans together holding hands in a human chain across the United States in an effort to combat hunger and homelessness.

The event was widely publicized, complete with a schmaltzy theme song and an even schmaltzier video featuring plenty of interracial hand holding and shots of celebrities mingling with the common folk while bald eagles soared overhead and Lady Liberty looked on. Its earnestness is almost embarrassing in retrospect, but at the time, at eight years old, all of this cheap appeal to emotion worked. This seemed like an event of such magnitude the world might never witness the likes of it again, and I was desperate to be a part of it. I was even willing to spend my own $10 to secure my place in line. Then the chicken pox arrived.

It was bad enough that a virus had crushed my dreams of participating, but to add insult to injury, the human chain passed right in front of my father's house in Bedford, Pennsylvania, mere feet from my bedroom window, where I could only press my face to the glass and watch as people made history without me. I was devastated. And so itchy. It was an uncomfortable combination.

At 3:00 pm Eastern time, radio stations across the country played the "Hands Across America" theme song, and members of the chain began to sway in unison as they sang along. I can't attest to the truth of this part of my memory--it may be a fiction my mind has created to feel that I still experienced the event as everyone else did--but I remember opening my window and singing along with the crowd. If my body couldn't be a part of the chain, at least my voice would be part of the chorus. People smiled up at me sympathetically as we sang:

So we must learn to love each other See that man over there, he's my brother. And when he laughs (I laugh) And when he cries (I cry) And when he needs me I'll be right there by his side.

The lyrics only got more saccharine from there (this was a fundraiser after all). But I do remember feeling moved by the whole thing, even though I couldn't appreciate, at that young age, the enormity of the problem the event was trying to address. I only knew that everyone seemed sincerely interested in standing together to lift each other up--a communion of sorts, the kind that strips us of all pretense and lays bare our fundamental humanity. It was one of only a handful of such moments I've experienced in my life, and possibly the only one that wasn't the direct result of a sudden tragedy.

Community has always been at the heart of the American experience, a counterbalance to the individualism that we have also come to prize. Puritan leader John Winthrop, whose “Model of Christian Charity” sermon was often referenced by President Reagan in his speeches, preached the value of community to his fellow colonists as they embarked on their journey to the New World:

We must delight in each other; make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work as members of the same body.

Hands Across America embodied all of this in a literal way—for those fifteen minutes, participants were physically part of one body, joined together to celebrate their strength and to suffer with those in need. Part of what intrigued me about the event at the time was the thought that, by joining hands with the person next to me, I would become part of something larger, not just a physical body that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but a community that was united behind a common purpose.

I’ve experienced small moments of profound connection in the intervening years, but I’d love to feel that sense of unity on such a grand scale again. Perhaps someone will restage the event for its 50th anniversary. I will be old enough to have the shingles by then, so the timing would be perfect for me to miss out on the experience yet again. (Or I will abandon my community concerns and see how far varicella will travel down a human chain.)

If I were to allow my pessimistic view of the world to take over at this point, I might lament that so little seems to unify us anymore. In fact, it often seems the schisms between us have grown large enough to swallow us whole. But I still believe, perhaps naively, in our power to bridge those divides. I witnessed as much on that afternoon in May all those years ago.

I believe we can harness that power again in a thousand small ways, through simple acts of communion, by making meaningful connections with those around us. By offering our hand to our neighbor today, a stranger tomorrow. By focusing on the ties that bind rather than what divides. By finding reasons to sing together. By remembering that, as Winthrop preached during that harrowing journey across the sea, we are members of the same body, bound by our common humanity, and bound by love if we so choose it.

An abridged version of this essay was published in the Tacoma News Tribune under the headline “A sequel to Hands Across America could do us all some good,” November 6, 2018.

Discomfort zones

I've been trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone recently, one of those personal improvement goals that I might have scoffed at a few short years ago before I realized just how much improvement I could use. When I found myself with an unexpected free evening a few weeks ago, I solicited suggestions from my Facebook friends for things to do, indicating that I was open to anything and everything, from live theater to mud wrestling. Within minutes, a friend sent me the details of a house concert that was happening near my neighborhood later that evening.

"The host is named Neil. Just tell him I sent you."

Sure, I thought. Thanks, but no thanks. Showing up to a stranger's house for a party sounds like something out of a nightmare.

I mulled it over for a while, thinking about the awkwardness of the scenario, the pain of meeting new people who would have no idea why I was at the party with them in the first place. The idea was so preposterous that, in the end, sheer curiosity drove me to go through with it. Things could have gone spectacularly awry, and that was precisely what piqued my interest.

When I arrived at Neil's home, I felt as though I were intruding on a family reunion, and I had to resist the urge to slip out the front door before anyone noticed I had even entered. Instead, I took a deep breath, introduced myself to Neil, and opened myself up to the whole experience. With a small shift in attitude, I found I could speak to people with relative ease, which is a rarity for me, and I began to settle in and enjoy the food and the company. Later, when the bands performed, I was transfixed. Listening to music in such an intimate setting was a new experience for me, and I was enchanted by the performance of the duo Pretty Gritty, an alt-country group from the Portland area. Their harmonies, their chemistry, the woman's plaintive voice—everything about it resonated, and I felt fully, exhilaratingly alive. The night was a surprise success.

I decided to make this kind of thing a regular practice, one I've dubbed deliberate discomfort. Maybe purposeful discomfort would be a better phrase—or at least one that sounds a bit less masochistic. When I noticed a flyer for a modern dance class at the local YMCA, I decided to put my purposeful discomfort plan into full effect.

Though I'm athletic and (usually) coordinated, I've never been comfortable with the way my body moves through space. Nothing makes me more self conscious than having to cross a crowded room, and that awareness of my body as something separate from my brain makes me prone to fits of clumsiness. I've always felt that I wouldn't be so lacking in poise as an adult had I just studied dance as a child. I instantly pinned all of my hopes for poise onto this one modern dance class series.

Unrealistic expectations aside, I went in with a great attitude. I was wearing a cheeky little sweatshirt with Magnifique! emblazoned on the front to help me feign confidence. I was uncharacteristically chatting up the other dancers before class. I was ready. Then we began the warm-up.

I was fine initially, still buoyed by the thrill of trying something new. And the warm-ups were easy. We began simply by walking, then shuffling, then changing pace. We were greeting people as we passed them, shaking hands or smiling. We were jogging, first forward, then back. My mind was still wide open to the experience.

Then we were asked to do our best runway walk. That was the first moment of discomfort that registered with me, and I found I simply couldn't bring myself to do it. I can do it, mind you, and probably have done it in a different context, as a child, perhaps, or with people I know very well and don't mind embarrassing myself in front of. But there, in that room filled with strangers, the thought of putting on a runway stride felt absurd. My face burned with humiliation. I kept my head down as I walked through the crowd of women who strutted around the dance studio with ease.

“I have to accept that some of my own growth will be a sprawling, tangled mess way down in the dirt. ”

Once that fear of embarrassment set in, my mind and body once again became separate entities, and they were not on speaking terms for the rest of the afternoon. I could not follow along with the simplest movements. When going through footwork sequences, my upper body was as rigid as a stone as I focused intensely on everyone else's feet. At one point, when asked to run to the center of the room and do a move—any move—on the floor, my mind and body went blank, and I awkwardly fell to my knees and buried my face in my hands, dangerously close to tears. I was not having the transcendent experience of the private concert just weeks before.

Feeling the tears well up disappointed me. I had expected to leave my adolescent insecurities behind once I reached middle age, and to have them rise up, unbidden, was discouraging. I couldn't understand how every other woman in the room could be so free with her body, so utterly lacking in self consciousness. I was clearly the only person in the room with no dance experience, true, but what we were being asked to do was not to dance, per se, but simply to move—creatively, expressively, and with joy.

I couldn't tap into the joy. That was the biggest disappointment of the day. My first venture out beyond my comfort zone had been so joyful I felt I had made some monumental breakthrough. Each subsequent experience, I reasoned, should only take me to new, rapturous heights! A flower can only bloom in the sunlight! But so much of growth happens in the dark spaces underground. I have to accept that some of my own growth will be a sprawling, tangled mess way down in the dirt.

That first class was such a disaster that whenever I think of it, I'll slap my head involuntarily as if I can beat the embarrassing memories out of my brain. Still, I'll return to the class to try again. Maybe I'll confess my feelings of vulnerability to the other women in class. Maybe making my fear public will loosen its grip on me. Maybe it won't. And maybe I'll never find joy in dance, but I promise I'll learn to find joy in the challenges of trying it.

The glamorous life

Chad and I were trying to figure out a way for me to accompany him on his next NYC trip so that I can see Mike Birbiglia's new one-man play on Broadway. We didn't get very far into the planning process, but we did get to reminiscing about the last time I rode along on one of his flights—it was one of his Philly or Baltimore trips a few years ago. I recalled that the head flight attendant had made it her mission to get me absolutely wasted on that flight. At one point, after serving me several generous glasses of wine, she invited me up to the first class area to give me a glass of champagne and strawberries as she spritzed my face with rose water. We were standing in the galley area behind the flight deck, and I was probably making a big production of the face spritzing, as one of the first-class passengers had stopped reading his newspaper to watch the scene unfold. I'll never forget the look on his face as he peered up at us over his bifocals, a cross between anticipation and disbelief, an unspoken "My God this does happen in real life!" kind of look.

 I still have no idea why this flight attendant was being so nice to me. I probably asked her if she was sleeping with my husband (because this is the kind of thing I would have said while drinking). Then I would have shrugged my shoulders and said "At least that's one thing off of my to-do list" before opening my mouth and waiting for her to pour more champagne down my gullet.  

 This is not the typical standby experience (and certainly not typical for me anymore), but I realize it might fit the image that many people have of life in the airline industry. It's all free flights with champagne and strawberries and faintly homoerotic encounters with flight attendants. Some of that is clearly true. But mostly, the airline life is far from glamorous. It's lonely. Even for those of us who enjoy being alone, that loneliness can be crushing. I'm not quite sure if I'm missing Chad or the champagne at the moment. Maybe it's a bit of both. Maybe it's the life outside of this little sphere of mine that I'm missing right now. Who knows? At least I still have the company of memories that can still make me laugh.