Monday, March 15, 2021

Coping in Confinement: How My Restless Self Lived through the Eras of Polio and Covid

“Get in a straight line, children. We’re going to the gym to get our polio vaccines,” the teacher said.  

We second graders were old enough to listen to the news and overhear adults talking about the dangers of polio. I wasn’t sure what polio did to the body, but in a magazine, I had seen pictures of children and adults confined to an iron lung, only their heads visible from the tubular machine. Laying still everyday looked uncomfortable and confining. I wondered if the children were ever allowed to get out and walk, run, laugh, or have any fun. Being confined day after day would surely challenge my restless nature. I craved movement and made every effort to get out of the house.

I knew enough about polio to know I didn’t want it, but I had heard nothing about the polio vaccine. Perhaps my parents had signed a permission slip, but they had not prepared me for this. Even though I just ate lunch, my stomach was gurgling and in knots. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t even know what the word “vaccine” meant, and had no idea what it looked like or felt like. Ready or not, I was on my way to the gym to find out. I listened to my teacher’s instructions and stepped in line behind a classmate. 

For years, virologist and medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk had worked tirelessly to find a way to prevent polio from spreading. In the late 1940’s, the polio outbreak in the United States disabled more than 35,000 people each year. Though I don’t recall my parents limiting my playtime with other children (our sandbox was a popular gathering place), I have read that many parents were afraid to let children outside to play especially in the summer when the virus peaked. Finally, in April 1955, the oral vaccine was ready for distribution. Dr. Salk was regarded as a national hero.

On vaccination day, I followed the line out of the portable trailer where our classroom met on the school grounds. We cut through the playground on that cool spring morning. The main building had become overcrowded and a new school was being built three miles north.

We entered the school building and found our way through the doors of the gym.  My teacher led us to a table where we received a small white paper cup. I peered into my half-filled cup curious what the vaccine was like. It looked like water. I followed the example of the children ahead of me and swallowed the tasteless liquid. I was relieved to receive the vaccine and discover there was no harm or discomfort involved. The vaccine program developed by Dr. Salk has made the United States polio-free since 1979. As a young vaccine-recipient, I was thankful to be spared a life of confinement in an iron lung machine. I would have had great difficulty lying still on my back for any period of time. I couldn’t handle the thought of not being able to swing on my swingset in the backyard where I had the physical and emotional space to be my full self.

Just a few weeks ago, sitting in an uncomfortable aluminum chair in the waiting area of a repurposed Marsh grocery store in line for my first Covid vaccine, I remembered vividly the day of my polio vaccine in second grade.. As a child I was relieved to avoid polio. Now decades later, I found myself  grateful I had not contracted the coronavirus and was finally in line to get vaccinated. I had been filled with anxiety from the time the state’s lockdown was put in place in March 2020. My daily pattern had become consumed by carefully sheltering, wearing masks, carrying around bottles of hand sanitizer, and washing my hands until I thought the skin would fall off. Receiving the vaccine would not only reduce my chances of getting the virus, but also relieve the anxiety I’d felt under statewide Covid restrictions that in turn restricted my natural way of relating to the world. I tend to be a movement-oriented person who needs to get out, exercise daily, and find places of meaning in my life, most of which involve being of help to other people.

Sheltering at home, I have missed volunteering at the IU North Hospital cancer center where I served for 10 years prior to Covid-19 and in an elementary school classroom where I helped for five years. It’s hard to feel like myself when I’m not able to give love and interact with those who need care in the hospital or in the classroom. When the lockdown began, I was so sad and angry about not being able to volunteer that I threw out my school entry badge and hid my red hospital volunteer jacket with the ten year “star volunteer” on the lapel under the carpet in my trunk. I could not bear to be reminded of the loss of contact with people and meaningful work in God’s kingdom, so I put any remembrance of those things out of my sight. 

The past months brought a change of lifestyle in other ways, too. Curbside pickup and delivery became regular words in my vocabulary. In the past, I rarely ordered items online, instead enjoying the process of going to the store, pondering my choices, and touching the things I wanted to buy. All of these familiar practices were gone and no one knew when regular shopping would return, especially when the shutdown of non-essential stores in mid-March continued through the end of May. Online shopping became my new, unwelcome reality. 

Particularly devastating was my lack of ability to go swimming. All gyms and exercise facilities were closed for 2 ½ months. Swimming is a body, mind, and spirit experience for me. The water is like a counselor ready to receive my thoughts or emotions, whatever comes to mind while I go back and forth in the pool. The water is accepting, and holds me. Swimming between lane dividers offers containment. Counting laps in my head brings order. Order and containment are two of my ongoing emotional needs. Finding ways in every day life to nurture these needs offers reassurance, and that made the Covid closures especially difficult for me. While I enjoy the feeling being contained, my anxiety rises when I feel confined. I felt a sense of loss and sadness as I looked at my swim bag filled with goggles, swim cap, arm paddles resting in the backseat of the car, and my swimsuit on a hook in my closet. 

Although I walked two days a week, I did not receive from walking what I did from the total body immersion in the water. I had no other safe activity but walking, and walking, and more walking. Fortunately, in mid-March the temperatures weren’t too cold. Every day, for the next ten weeks, I walked for three hours. At first I didn’t like walking so much. I missed interacting with people in the locker room and in the halls of the YMCA. 

There was no community in walking, or so I thought. I did see a few people with their dogs, but people often didn’t speak to each other in those early days of the virus as the risk of contamination was unknown and no one wanted to take a chance to spread the disease.

In time, however, walking felt similar to a labyrinth experience. When I left home, I knew my destination, my half-way point where I turned around and started my return path. In walking a labyrinth, the first stages involve shedding what is on your mind, a time of letting go. When you reach the center, your mind is clear,ready to receive what God might offer. In a labyrinth you can stay in the center as long as you want, however, when I got to the midpoint of my walk, I paused briefly, took a deep breath, and started home.  I did feel like I had released various thoughts scrambling around in my head when I reached the middle, and felt refreshed and open on my return trip. 

I have always practiced mindfulness, being aware of what is around me, noticing details to stay present. During those many weeks of walking during coronavirus distancing, I found mindfulness helped me create a connection to what I was seeing. For example, I noticed bird nests from the past spring, visible in leafless trees. I observed their shapes. I noticed if they were lodged in the crook of the tree or hanging from a branch. I wondered what the bird used to make the nest. I saw pieces of yarn, plastic bags, tags from clothes, string, branches, and dried leaves. Noting how the nest was constructed led me to research how birds made mud to hold their nests together. 

Then, as I took walk after walk past the same house, I watched the stages of a bee hive being built. In time, I noticed small trees surrounding the hive. One day, the owner of the house was outside when I walked by. Wearing a mask, I asked a few questions, curious about what he was developing. He described placing certain plants around the hive to attract bees, and how he planned to collect honey. 

I had several routes I walked, and often I went into other neighborhoods not my own. One of my favorite paths went by the backyard of a house with an outdoor swimming pool. The pool was covered with thick plastic for the winter, anchored by rope attached to the side of the yard. Even though I was walking daily, my restless nature, only fully assuaged by swimming, needed a more fulfilling outlet. Each time I walked by the yard with the pool, I wanted to jump over the short fence, pull the ropes, remove the cover, and jump in the water. I missed swimming so much that, in my imaginary dip in that backyard pool, I almost didn’t care if I was arrested for trespassing, I just needed to get in the water! 

As the months continued, I had trouble connecting with the phrase I heard every night on the news, or on a commercial, or when the governor made a special report on the virus: “We’re in this together.” I didn’t feel like anyone was with me during this time. I felt lonely and displaced. I couldn’t understand or join in the implied camaraderie adversity might bring. There was no sense of me helping anyone or anyone helping me. When I saw others not taking the same strict precautions for safety that I was (having good times with family and friends and going on trips and vacations) I felt frustrated. If we were really “all in this together” I felt everyone would sacrifice interaction with those who were important to them, just as I was careful to do. 

With lack of adequate space at home, I often retreated to my car, driving to a retention pond that I could see out my back window. There, I would park and watch the small waterfall in the center.  At least I could see water moving even if I couldn’t be in it. I reveled in the feeling of containment my car offered for emotions unraveling inside, feelings that were difficult to express. 

Preparing for Christmas in December 2020 was about as difficult and impersonal as it got. I was used to buying gifts in person, maybe going to one or two stores to find exactly what I wanted, wrapping them simply, and mailing the gifts to out-of-town family members. Choosing, preparing, packaging, and watching the gifts wait on the floor of my office have always helped me add love to what I was sending. I would walk by the gifts I had chosen for each person and think of how they would wear each item, or how they would play with each toy, or what they would experience as they read each book. It used to be that I savored the connection I was building and imagined all of my thoughts pouring into the gifts, adding a dimension of care not possible with mechanical and impersonal online ordering.

Even our zoom Christmas was impersonal. Yes, it was wonderful seeing everyone’s faces, but the energy of people being together in one room could not be recreated on the screen. Virtual hugs are a poor compensation for the real thing.

It is the lost time with our small family that has been most heartbreaking to me. We’ve had limited contact with our daughter and son-in-law who live thirty minutes away. They have continued to work through these challenging days and don’t want to take the chance of giving us the virus. Our interactions have taken place through windows, and in the summer and fall, through a few short outdoor masked gatherings in the backyard.

We have a grandson born last May who we haven’t met. Our planned trip to visit him in Oregon was canceled. I had no idea that in 2018, when I was watching friends and family having fun and dancing at our daughter’s wedding in Oregon, that it was the last time our family would be together for the foreseeable future.

People throughout the world have experienced disappointments, deaths of loved ones, inability to fully mourn these losses, and disruption in routine and relationships no one ever imagined. Parents are stressed to the max, combining jobs, helping children learn virtually, and managing the change of normal routines. The fear of the elusive virus has affected those who are healthy as well as those with chronic illness. During the height of the polio crisis, although fear for the lives of children was pervasive, physical separation and isolation for weeks and months were not part of daily life for those without the illness.

Although others were dealing with circumstances far worse than mine, I was cautious not to compare my feelings with the difficulty of others or minimize what I was experiencing. Feelings are feelings and need to be honored. 

Living long enough to receive medical treatment for two diseases of global proportions makes me feel fortunate to participate in medical history and to receive the protection these vaccines have offered. I mourn for those who have lost family and friends from the virus, for their inability to be with them at death, and for missed opportunities to share their grief with family and friends. I also mourn my own losses. I have missed the time that would have been used to build memories with family, to explore interests more deeply, and to serve people who are sick. 

Right now, I can’t give a hurrah speech about how I came through hard times and emerged a new person, or how I am grateful for these past eleven months. I am not a new person. I am grateful to be alive, but I am not grateful for the way my life has been altered these past eleven months. That is my reality. I am a struggling person at the high end of life expectancy longing to spend time with my family, serve others, and enjoy the people and places around me, . 

Despite my hurt and anguish, I have been grateful to keep working with my writing coach, Darcy Wiley. From the sweltering months of summer through many weeks in the cold of winter, we have met weekly on the balcony of her house. We have continued our sessions in all seasons, picking blackberries together and watching her garden flourish, sweating in the hot summer, and noting the leaves as they changed color and fell to carpet the ground in the fall. The winter snow made the short walk from my car to the balcony sometimes treacherous, but with caution, I made it.  We have worked together on expanding and editing my essays, and have enjoyed the creativity of photographing my artwork against the background of her house for use in my blog posts. Masked and distanced, we have found the balcony a creative way to add adventure and fun to our weekly time together, peppered with visits from her young daughters who were selling fresh garden-grown vegetables, bracelets, or slime at a stand in the front yard, or just needing a moment to get a thought from their mother. All of this added surprise and delight to our time. When temperatures dipped near 25 degrees, we realized just how hardy we were. We wore snow pants, boots, hats, hooded coats, heated lap blankets, and gloves lined with hand warmers to keep our in-person connection, only resorting to online meetings in storms or uncertainties about sickness. 

I was also able to continue weekly counseling sessions because of a special type of online conference call platform insuring confidentiality, helping me grow further emotionally, allowing me to stay grounded when I experienced a difficult trigger late last year. Coming through these times and learning how my past affects the present was my focus each week rather than dealing with the effects of a pandemic. I could work and change what I was experiencing emotionally, while most of the pandemic was out of my control.

Finally, in late May the governor cautiously allowed gyms to re-open. Returning to the pool was joyous although it took a few visits to get back into the rhythm I was used to in the past. Going to a public place created anxiety at first, but using great caution, I heeded the guidelines facilities had to follow, adding my own adaptations, such as showering at home instead of in the locker room when I finished swimming. Getting back in the water was my first taste of normalcy. I was so thankful to feel my muscles stretch and welcomed a rhythm that felt like home. 

Still, the fear of Covid followed me when I went to swim. Hearing about people who had socially distanced and taken precautions yet still suffered with the virus made me hypervigilant, not wanting to get too close to anyone walking in the hall or to stop and talk to people I knew but barely recognized with their faces covered with the required mask. 

In the days after I received the first vaccine, I did venture out for a quick stop at Target, but have kept a low profile otherwise. I am still in the middle of this strange moment in history, or maybe coming to the final stage of it as the vaccination we prayed for has become a reality. Sometimes when a person is in the middle of a challenging event, distance is necessary to assess the impact of the experience. I am waiting to see what I have learned from these months of isolation.

Although I did not deal personally with the Coronavirus nor did I know anyone who had the disease, I have had many disappointments. Not being with local family and family far away. Missing out on holding my first grandchild and supporting my daughter during those early weeks of motherhood. Not attending church in person. My restless self has struggled in lockdown and isolation. I have a past history of loss which seems to trigger me when events of deprivation occur but which also allows me to connect and feel compassion for the suffering people in our collective grief and loss. 

Now that I have received the second vaccine, I have less anxiety and can see life more clearly. I will continue to ponder the effects of this last year for some time. I can’t necessarily say it’s been a positive experience. Many times I’ve felt I should be coping a lot better than I have. This has been hard. Yet, when I look back, I see a woman who has kept going, forging ahead with counseling, writing, art, least some of the things in life that are important to me. Maybe I have coped better with my limitations than I gave myself credit for. I did not withdraw. I did not become a hermit. I didn’t collapse. I kept walking. I kept moving. I kept going. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

God Is with Me Always


My father put his hands on the wheel of the car while my brother and I sandwiched ourselves between him and my mother.  Seat belts and car seats were not invented. When we wiggled and squirmed my mother’s hand reached across our laps to hold us still. We were on the way to church.

I walked into a classroom where I played with other children my age. I remember sitting in one of the wooden chairs arranged in a circle. My feet didn’t touch the floor so I dangled them back and forth, looking at my black patent leather shoes, my “Sunday shoes” that I only wore for church or special occasions.

While I waited for the teacher to gather her papers, I smoothed the blue smocked dress, made for me by my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Helen, a relative I had never met. Red, white and blue  thread criss-crossed my chest. I moved my fingers over the bumpy surface feeling the fabric gathered like an accordion. Maybe one day I might learn to smock. The puffy sleeves made me feel like I was a princess.

I heard the teacher call my name to make sure I was listening before she started the story about Jesus feeding many people from a boy’s small lunch of five fish and two loaves of bread. .Each week she read a Bible story from a printed pamphlet.   She taught us about people who lived long ago and had adventures I didn’t quite understand, and about God and how God could help us. I did not know what God meant.

One Sunday we learned about prayer. She said prayer was talking to God. I still didn’t know what God meant, but I did understand how to talk to someone.

We weren’t old enough to ask questions, but everyone, especially me, enjoyed the coloring page attached to the story.  At home, my mother hid the box of broken crayons on the top shelf of the coat closet in the hallway. I could only color a few times a year when she put the box on the kitchen table. She said coloring was a waste of time, but I liked to draw shapes and houses and think about what colors I wanted to use.  At Sunday school, each child had their own box of brand new crayons. As I opened the box, I breathed in the smell of wax and fresh cardboard. 

After church, my parents picked me up from the classroom. I clutched the handful of papers the teacher gave us about the lesson. She suggested to my parents, “You can review the story we talked about at home. Your daughter can tell you the story in her own words. She is a good listener.”

I smiled hearing the teacher say something nice about me. I rarely heard the adults in my life say that I was good at anything.

When I got home and changed my clothes, I looked at the pictures and thought how the teacher described God and people in the Bible. In time, I had a stack of these handouts on the floor in my bedroom. Anytime I wanted, I could look at the pictures and think about God.

I looked forward to going to church each week, being with someone who smiled at me, and having an opportunity to color.

God became more of a reality in my life when I was seven. I realized my home wasn’t normal because I started looking for another mother. I observed the way other mothers in the neighborhood acted toward their children in loving and kind ways. They combed and brushed their daughters’ hair and put ribbons or barrettes to hold their hair in place. I did not feel loved or cared for. I easily noted the favor my parents gave my younger brother. He was the center of their lives and I felt left out.

During these times when my heart ached for attention, I went to my room to read the Sunday school papers about God, how God listens to our thoughts and how we can talk to God anytime. I remembered how much fun I had coloring the pictures of the stories.

I walked to school by myself envying the two sisters across the street with their matching dresses and hair bows. I wanted to have a bow in my hair too. When I arrived at school, I found my desk and got ready for the day’s assignments.  I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was supposed to do.  I had to read the same paragraph over and over to remember what Alice and Jerry were doing.  Numbers were confusing. I kept writing them backwards. I could add two numbers together, but subtraction didn’t make sense .

 My spelling book was a mess. The letters I wrote were too close together, according to my teacher and I could hardly identify the word. My pencil point kept breaking and I was embarrassed to get up and walk to the sharpener. I was sure everyone was watching, and I wanted no one to notice me.

I wore dresses that were too short paired with my ugly brown leather shoes. My parents only bought me one pair of shoes a year and by the end of school in June, my toes pressed into the front of the shoe.

Although I didn’t know the word anxiety, I feel certain my emotions could be described as anxious. One day sitting at my desk, looking out the window at the school yard, I remembered what the Sunday school teacher  said about talking to God. I didn’t say anything, but I thought about God. In a few minutes I felt different inside. Back then I didn’t have a word for what I felt, but today I would call it peace or comfort. This new feeling brought me back to my desk. I held my pencil a little tighter and worked with a little more clarity to solve the problems in my math workbook.

Walking home from school that day I remembered when I said the word, God, and how I felt inside. Maybe that’s what the teacher meant: God can help us, because God surely helped me stay calm during the rest of the school day.

My family didn’t talk to God and my parents often yelled at each other, but despite what was happening in my home, I could talk to God and feel calm inside. At night before I went to sleep, I shared my fear with God and prayed, “Please help me live tomorrow.”

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Rossi, had us sing hymns while we passed our papers down the row of desks. Some of the hymns I remembered from church, now that I was old enough to attend the service.  “Come thou Almighty King,” and “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” were two of her favorites. Mrs. Rossi didn’t attend my church, but she knew the same songs I did. Hearing about God in music, even in my public school, nurtured my growing understanding of God.

 “Come Thou Almighty King”  praised God as “Father all glorious” and described God as “Holy Comforter.” “All Things Bright and Beautiful” told how God created flowers, birds, mountains, rivers, the sunset, cold winter wind, and food in the garden. I learned God gave us eyes to see what God created, and lips to tell others about God and what God had made.

I don’t remember if Mrs. Rossi wrote the words to the hymn on the chalkboard or how we learned the song, but all of the children joined in to make music and keep from talking while our papers were collected. She didn’t realize how closely I was listening to these words and absorbing their meaning describing God and how God had created everything on the earth including me.

My family moved to Pennsylvania when I was in the middle of fifth grade. At my new school in fifth and sixth grade, we formed a line to walk to the cafeteria each day.

Before we left our room, the teacher would say a prayer for lunch.  I didn’t know about praying before eating, but these two teachers helped me realize it was good to thank God for the food I was going to eat.  In sixth grade, one student was Jewish.  About once a week, my teacher asked her to pray. First, she said a short prayer in Hebrew, then gave the English translation. I realized that God was present in my friend’s prayers too, even in another language.

Even though God was never mentioned in my home and my parents never read from the Bible, I was learning about God in school and Sunday school. Praying at school and at night, I was slowly learning to build trust in something I couldn’t see or even understand. I experienced how a single word, “God,” made my heart feel lighter and not alone. 

When I was in sixth grade I memorized the catechism of the church outlined for confirmation. I didn’t understand what the words meant nor did the classes I attend make my concentration any clearer. What I did know was that “God”  was becoming as “real” as someone could be without being seen. 

I felt God in my heart when I prayed. I knew I wanted to thank God for the food I ate. I liked going outside and looking at the mountain at the end of our gravel road. Seeing the birds in the trees reminded me of the hymn I sang with Mrs. Rossi  “All Things Bright and Beautiful” describing how God made every living creature.

After I was confirmed, I received a certificate of confirmation in the Episcopal Church, and a silver pendant embossed with a picture of Christ on the front and the words, “I am an Episcopalian,” on the back. I wore this necklace every day. I never took it off. Sometimes, friends in school noted the necklace and asked if I was wearing a dime around my neck. When they realized I had a religious symbol they stopped talking and seemed to feel awkward. I sometimes felt a little shy about this public display of my faith, but I kept wearing it because it helped me feel the strength of Christ.

Right before I entered seventh grade, I made an altar in my closet. On top of a burgundy train case I placed the brown cross necklace I used for singing in the children’s choir at church. Next to the cross, I placed a bright red picture book of children’s prayers along with a copy of “The Book of Common Prayer”  from my confirmation.

When I felt lonely or discouraged or left out I went to my closet and sat next to my altar not knowing exactly what to do, but feeling comfort knowing God in some form was close by.

One day my mother saw my altar and said, “What are you doing with this silliness in your closet?!! You need to take the necklace to church so you don’t forget to wear it on Sunday.”

I was used to my mother’s criticism.  Her favorite words to me were, “You need to change your ways.” I didn’t know what she meant because I thought I was an ok person and didn’t know what I needed to change. I never heard her say, “I love you,” ever.

When I was twelve, attending church took on more meaning.  My faith was developing. Although I still wasn’t sure about who God was, every Sunday the familiar words of the liturgy wrapped around my heart like a cloak. Holy Communion was the first Sunday of the month, the rest of the Sundays the service of Morning Prayer. I knew what to expect when I went to church.

The liturgy was a constant to counter my chaotic life at home. I continued to have difficulty concentrating at school, spending many hours reading and re-reading history and English, and trying again and again to focus on solving math problems. I felt frustrated at my inability to retain what I learned. I knew I was smart, but I know now that the difficulty I had at home clouded my concentration.

I prayed each night throughout junior high and high school. Although the nature of my life at home didn’t change, God sustained me.  My life with God was simple. I said a short prayer every night before I went to bed and continued my practice of thinking about God when I was in school. I did not have a Bible, but I occasionally read prayers from the two books on my altar.

I couldn’t quote scripture like my friends who were Baptist, but I knew the reality of God in my heart, an immediate source of comfort and strength wherever I was.

Throughout elementary school, all classes began by saying the Lord’s Prayer and standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My ninth-grade homeroom teacher read to us from the Bible each day following morning announcements. Many of the ways I learned about God, especially in the public school, would not be permitted in this day and age.

The early formative years of my faith were foundational to who I am now as God’s child. I’m so grateful for the ways I learned about God despite not growing up in a home where faith was nurtured. Never underestimate the power of teaching a Sunday school lesson to a four year-old, the effect of passing along the words of a beloved hymn, or how your encouragement as a confirmation mentor might help a child. You never know what a child may be dealing with at home. Your words can be a beam of light directing them toward a life sustained by God’s presence.



Church Steps

(a poem about my childhood faith experience)


Every Sunday I climbed the steps

Half-awake, opened the door,

Entered the tiny vestibule

Tables on both sides,

Held booklets for devotion

Pamphlets about the church year.


I walked down the aisle,

My hard, leather shoes making noise,

In a place meant for quiet.

Seated myself on a hard, wooden pew,

My soul cradled by liturgy.


People good and bad dotted the rows

I sat near the cross that hung over the

Cloth-covered altar,

In the choir loft,

In front of the sanctuary,

I sang God’s praises

And watched those

Who fell asleep.


My faith was sustained and

Refueled by liturgy,

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

I carried the echo of

Those words in my heart

Wherever I went.


In my fingers, I pressed the


The size of a dime,

Dangling around my neck.

Up close the face of Jesus

Beaming at me with strength

For my climb back down the

Steps of the church

To go home.