The beautiful song “In My Life” – which I’m amazed to think John Lennon wrote when he was just 24 or 25 – rings true to me. My entire adult life has been defined and determined by the alacrity with which I embraced my freedom to travel, and by my eagerness to meet and befriend other people in other places.
For example, in September 2003 I attended a one-day Pepsi Cup cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. I made a point of sitting in the general enclosure, the cheap seats, and I spent most of the long day enjoyably chatting with Mohammed Faisal, a young teacher from a village near Gujranwala. He had ridden to Lahore with twenty other men standing in the bed of a Toyota pickup truck just to see the big match, and he was highly tickled to find himself sitting next to a white American. After the match ended he put his hand on his heart and gave a little speech. “It was you who made our journey memorable,” he told me. “At first I didn’t know what you would speak to us. I was a bit shy. But you speak to us very nicely. In my village I have no one I can speak English with.”
“Do you have email?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied. “We don’t have that facility. Only phone. We will meet again, inshallah.”
As of 2015 – twelve years later – Mohammed Faisal still didn’t have email, but one of his students did, and out of the blue he wrote to me using his student’s computer, just to say hello. It was a wonderfully touching surprise, made possible by the Internet.
Many books will come out of this time that we’re living through. One or more of those could be – surely should be – oral history in the vein of Svetlana Alexievich’s indefatigable documentations of ordinary people living through extraordinary events, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union in Secondhand Time. Hints of a similar anthology come through in the emails we’re all sending and receiving right now.
“We are fine here with plenty to eat, drink, read & watch,” my friend Edith Mirante reported from Portland on March 22. “Plus projects, lots of projects.” Edith is the author of the excellent – I would even say classic – travel book Burmese Looking Glass and other books on interesting Asian subjects, and she’s always been one for projects. The project she pointed me to in her email is on the history of disease outbreaks in Burma.
On March 23, to my delighted surprise, I heard from Raza Mirani, a community activist and high school science teacher – a quick trip to his LinkedIn page tells me he’s now a principal – I visited years ago in Vancouver, just 2 ½ hours up the highway but across an international border. Raza was thinking of me, so he dropped me a line:
Hina and I welcomed a baby girl to the family in February, Hawwa. Our fourth child and first little girl. I am still involved with Pakistan-Canada Association and have also recently become involved with the BC Muslim Association again. Keeps me busy and keeps me in touch.
The same day, I got a long and informative email – really a letter, in the old-fashioned sense – from Jennifer Gush, one of the owners of Amakhala Game Reserve near Grahamstown, South Africa. I’m writing – at least I think I’m still writing, but in a vastly and unpredictably changed context – a book about that reserve and the fight against poaching of endangered southern white rhino. “Physically, we are all well and safely at home,” Jennifer told me.
Schools were shut 3 days early for the March holidays and at the moment, they are scheduled to reopen on Tues 14 April after the Easter weekend – we are doubtful. James and Emma have come home with some school work to continue with and have some resources placed on a google classroom. It is an important year for James as he writes his matric (school leaving certificate) at the end of this year. I do worry about the many children and schools that don’t have technology to turn to in order to keep some level of learning happening.
My broader family now finds itself isolated on 3 different continents! My father is at home in Perth (and upbeat which is good) while my brother and his wife are “stuck” in Canada now that the borders are shut. They have been working on a mine north of Vancouver for the last 9 months and are now not allowed to take their 2 week Easter break back in Australia. They can continue to work at the moment.
On the tourism front, the last week has been exhausting and surreal. [South African president Cyril] Ramaphosa declared a national disaster on Sunday evening and by Monday morning bookings were being cancelled at a great rate. … On the wildlife side things still need to carry on. A load of impala were delivered at Carnarvon Dale on Friday as they had already been ordered and paid for. Not a bad thing as we have 2 cheetah there now and ecology are certain that the female is denning and so there will be more mouths to feed through the winter.
Closer to home, my friend Charley Rowan lives in West Seattle, a part of the city that’s relatively remote because it’s a peninsula. On the same day Governor Inslee declared the stay-at-home order, coincidentally the important West Seattle Bridge was found to have growing cracks and abruptly closed for several months. On March 28 Charley replied to my query:
As for W.S. travel, the lack of traffic makes it not too bad, depending on your N-S destination. We live almost straight west of the 1st Ave. S Bridge and not far N of the South park bridge, so only 5 or 10 min is added. For Paul it will be substantially more. And it’s easy enough except for the winding around involved in getting back on the bridge going north. If you need to come down, ring me up and I can walk you thru the hard parts. (Metaphorically!)
The next day I got this from another local friend, the drummer and rideshare driver John Reagan, who fears (or hopefully at this point feared, past tense) that he might have been exposed to the coronavirus by two passengers:
We are definitely getting stir-crazy, but also there is a bit of creeping paranoia and fear – not overwhelming, but just a little on the edges. With the increasing death rate, a number of victims locally are getting on our radar.
Also on the 29th my friend Larry Dohrs wrote to me from Bangkok:
Yesterday I had a long talk with a friend/colleague, a Scotsman who has a house in Turkey. He went to Kosovo (where he used to work) to connect with a woman who is divorcing in order to be with him. But her family hit the roof when she said she was leaving, so she stayed, and he got locked out of anywhere else. He’s now in an Airbnb in Kosovo for the duration, all by himself. Other friends were in New Zealand, visiting their daughter. When they arrived they had to do 14 day self-quarantine, and just as that ended NZ started a one month lockdown. So they are in a rented house in Wellington for the duration. I suppose these will be funny stories in the future. For the day laborers, refugees, migrants, this must be a nightmare.
Carolyn Rominger is the CFO of Ana-Lab Corporation based in Kilgore, Texas and the wife of my cousin Kelly. They live on a chicken farm near Gilmer and are raising her two grandchildren. On the 31st, Carolyn told me:
Our primary business is environmental testing – a significant portion of our clients are municipalities and private water supply districts for whom we test their water and waste water to ensure compliance with EPA regulatory standards. So, the CDC defines us as an “essential business” and thus my colleagues and I continue working while so many others are in lock-down. We are grateful to have had no interruption in our pay thus far. My heart breaks for so many who are on the other end of the spectrum and have no work and thus no income during this crisis. …
The children are learning to play together in ways that I’ve not observed before. … Kendall often enrolls Karly in trips down to the pond to catch frogs, and then catch food for them and replenish the eco system in a box that he has devised on the back porch. He’s also on a mission to rid us of a pesky squirrel. Fortunately for the squirrel, Kendall’s contraptions for trapping have failed so far; and he’s not that great of a shot with his bb gun. We are blessed that they have 70 acres to explore. … After dinner, evenings are generally packed with me trying to assess their progress on school work and outline “to do’s” for the next day. My mom’s complex is locked down and so we aren’t allowed any visits. She has everything she needs there, and is only missing the family visits. We often face time with her and that helps. … I have a niece who is director of nursing for a 300+ bed nursing home in DFW metroplex. From them we hear slivers of the dire situations and associated fears.
Kate Conway, a friend of nearly 30 years, is an administrator in the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. On the 31st she told me:
I’m okay and work life is nuts. I’m working from home and have 7-9 conference calls every day. 2-3 on weekends. We are an epicenter here and we are all trying to do our part. I sure wish I had retired sooner! … Kids are fine. Patrick and Kelly working at home [in Chicago]. Bridget and her fiancé as well. She’s supposed to get married on September 12 but so far Australia has banned all weddings for 6 months, so who knows.
On April 2, the actress Zana Marjanovic – who played the lead as the Muslim sex slave of a Serb warlord in Angelina Jolie’s gripping film In the Land of Blood and Honey – wrote to me from Sarajevo:
I have a three year old in a full lockdown which means we can’t even step outside (children and people past 65 aren’t allowed to). We are petitioning to get at least a few hours every other day or something like it as we live in an apartment building and children need the sun. We do however have the experience of being denied a normal life so to us the lockdown comes as the only hope against Coronavirus as our already fragile health system is much more frightening.
And just yesterday, April 3, I thought of Timeka Gordon, Director of Inclusiveness and Intercultural Services at TCU and the source of one of my favorites quotes in my book published last year, A Dirt Road to the Future: Education on the Global Front Lines: “We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. But that’s what makes us people, right?” I got to know Timeka’s husband Haywood, an Army drill sergeant, on a TCU student trip to New Orleans a few years ago. I found him surprisingly mild-mannered for a drill sergeant, but he assured me he had a switch that he flipped whenever he needed to go into drill sergeant mode. So anyway, I dropped Timeka a note yesterday, and she replied swiftly:
It’s so wonderful to receive this email from you. Haywood and I are both working from home. It’s strange to say the least. We are good and so are our loved ones. We pray the same for you and your family.
Also yesterday, I read this on page 88 of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz:
Still we lived; and since we were writers, we tried to write. True, from time to time one of us dropped out, shipped off to a concentration camp or shot. There was no help for this. We were like people marooned on a dissolving floe of ice; we dared not think of the moment when it would melt away. War communiqués supplied the latest data on our race with death. We had to write; it was our only defense against despair.