In the year following the onset of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, 2020 A.D., Union Station of Washington, DC—generally teeming with people going out of or on their way in—sat as a hollowed shell of its former self. Its occupants—of late—sheltered-in-place as wraiths of travelers past. They are un-homed, yet not unhoused. Instead, police and public health authorities permit them to temporarily stay put during the lock-down, as in a purgatory state. There are stark scenes. Once public domain, each bathroom stall now serves as toilets and toilettes, while sinks and swinging stall doors became makeshift wash and line-dry laundresses for those experiencing homelessness. I watched one woman dip and ring out her clothes in a toilet bowl, the opaque water sloshing around the base, puddling at her bare, brown feet. Where are her people? With nowhere (else) to go, many make camp in the main hold of the station, albeit the requisite six feet apart, outside the McDonalds, the Chocolatier, the Auntie Anne’s Pretzel stand, each of which remains closed. With nothing to do, and nowhere to go, everyone is at rest.
This is our long Sabbath. This is our fallow period.
I am walking through the station on this particularly warm early evening, as it is a shortcut to the beginning of the H Street northeastern corridor, near my home. The shocking elements I witnessed make me think phrases, like humanitarian aid crisis and disaster emergency shelter. There are others who too are taking the shortcut. I watch them watching others, taking in the destitution, swallowing it reluctantly like some old timer’s mucky medicine.
Just outside the station, at the start of H Street—a gentrifying village—I walk the descending Hopscotch Bridge, alongside the spritely figures that seem to skip down a mosaic-road, almost macabre against the backdrop of such otherwise desolation. The City is long past its days of innocence, and its people, having to forego togetherness and interaction for the sake of maintaining physical health, have also largely abandoned both in the virtuous sense. Of this I am reminded by the time I reach the 3rd and H Street NE Giant supermarket to purchase some water and toilet paper for those whom I just saw at the station, and then onto the Whole Foods on 6th because the first market had run out for the week. It was only Tuesday. There’s not enough thirst and sh….in the world, I’m thinking. It takes multiple signs that read, “please limit your selection to [insert reasonable number] per customer, per purchase,” to remind each of us that there is enough for all to eat. And to drink. And to let go of all the waste that serves as an albatross to height selfishness. A selfishness we cannot afford given this bio-entanglement the pandemic has thrust upon us all. Leaving the air-conditioned Wholefoods, the evening’s humidity rests heavy on my chest, and there is something else: a palpable fear in the air to leave something behind for others. So anxious to have, so anxious to not have not. I take the long way home just to think it through.
There are many among us who do not know how to be together, yet a part (and apart). Setting aside for one’s neighbor during crisis may seem orthogonal to one’s survival instinct, particularly when under duress. It is a battle for which our cultural norms have woefully underprepared us. It is our ultimate handicap. It is a monstrous dragon within us that many have yet to master, or do not care to. We see it in the mad rush to secure once mundane items, now turned hot commodities. We experience it when people view edicts that insist on mask-wearing to be a political affront, rather than a collective life-preserving tactic. We perpetuate it by endangering Asian lives with hateful rhetoric and flippant, racist references to the “Wuhan Virus.”
How startling it is that we have made such swift adjustments to the assaults we heave upon others by hoarding. What good does it do me to have all I need and my neighbor, less or nothing? In this way, my neighbor is my beloved—what they endure, I also endure. This calls us to a higher calling of community. In her book, Letter to My Daughter, the esteemed Maya Angelou wrote:
The charitable say in effect, ‘I seem to have more than I need and you seem to have less than you need. I would like to share my excess with you.’ Fine, if my excess is tangible, money or goods, and fine if not, for I learned that to be charitable with gestures and words can bring enormous joy and repair injured feelings.Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter
Pestilence isn’t polite or politically correct. We are neighbors, we are clan, we are family—COVID-19 reinforces that when one is sick, it is only a matter of time before I too am unwell. If my neighbor’s yard is filthy, it is to be expected that my yard will soon reek. Is this not an ancient threat in a newfangled form from which we must protect each other, for which we must train up one another? This intentional practice of lovingkindness is strategic—it will always come back to you, in the form you need it most. The great poet-singer D’Angelo said to “send it on, send it through, send it right back to you.” That little boy from Sixth Sense—in the other-other movie he played—encouraged us all to “pay it forward.” Angelou again imparts her wisdom, sharing:
The ensuing years have taught me that a kind word, a vote of support is a charitable gift. I can move over and make another place for someone. I can turn my music up if it pleases, or down if it is annoying. I may never be known as a philanthropist, but I certainly am a lover of mankind, and I will give freely of my resources.Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter
Wherever we’ve seen it, and whatever we call it, now is the time to see ourselves in one another, and to give as we have. We overcome this heavy pandemic season by training our neighbors.
So, how does one train their neighbor?
1. Train Your Neighbor One-on-One.
Always speak. Be polite, yet consistent. Show up for a few moments outside your home, every day, to the extent possible. Your presence and example, even just for a few minutes, signifies that someone will hold another accountable, if need be. Energetically, this makes a difference. Plus, when it eventually comes time when you must remind people of their boundaries—like picking up their dog’s mess, or stopping children from running roughshod on another’s property without permission, or standing back six feet from you, for instance—they will understand and adjust without rancor or fear because they trust your consistency.
2. The Buddy System is the New Value System.
Watch out for one another. Shovel your neighbor’s walkway. Move their trashcans from obstructing the sidewalk, without their asking, prompting, or even their knowing. Pick up small litter in front of your home, and also in front of theirs, if possible. Donate sanitary pads, toilet paper, and water to a local shelter, or keep each on hand in small give-away bags in case you run into someone that may be in need (ask them first). Leave your neighbor better than the way you found them. Small self-sacrifices can often lead to the most profound turning of events. Giving freely elicits the same euphoria as receiving, and the practice will spread like California wildfire (in a good way). This is spiritual law. Don’t do any of it to be seen, but know that you will ultimately be seen. Your neighbor will take notice, and so will another neighbor, and another. They will follow suit. And suddenly, you will have assembled a fleet of doers-good-for-one-another-for-no-especial-reason-than-because-they-choose.
3. Relax, breathe deeply, and give without fear.
That’s it. That’s the whole last instruction. With so much fear surrounding the narratives of COVID-19 and the syndemic crises of racial violence, anxieties run high. Creating a sense of calm and compassion for yourself is a gift to others around you. You are your own sanctuary. You bless others with this space you’ve created. And when someone does offend, you will be prepared to understand their approach speaks to their own drama and disease. You heal them by maintaining your peace.
None of this resolves the violence of homelessness, or of gentrification, or of pandemics. Lovingkindness isn’t about increasing pleasure, but is a practice in acknowledging despair, structural dominance, and saying to self and neighbors, “we can do something better.” Lovingkindness and courtesy are disarming armaments against cruelty and carelessness. Seeing ourselves in one another is an inspiring antidote toward collective healing of this time. It is a divestment in the holds of estrangement. It is how we make bearable, dare even say enjoyable, this long winter season.
This is our mea culpa. This is our reaping period.
Together is how we make it out alive.
Mia Keeys is the first Director of Health Equity Policy and Advocacy of the American Medical Association’s Center for Health Equity. She is the former Policy Director of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust and Health Policy Advisor to Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL). Previously, Mia has also been a Kaiser Family Foundation Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholar; a Fellow for the City of Philadelphia in the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Health and Opportunity; an HIV/AIDS researcher in South Africa; and a U.S. Fulbright Fellow to Indonesia, where she worked on education and public health initiatives on behalf of youth and their families for three years. The National Minority Quality Forum recognizes Mia as a 40 Under 40 Leader in Minority Health. The National Academy of Medicine features Mia’s children’s book on health equity—titled Cole Blue, Full of Valor—in their 2017 national exhibit, “Visualizing Health Equity.” Her work on youth and the imagination is featured in a TEDx Talk, titled “A Racial Imagination Quotient”. Mia holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Psychology from Cheyney University, and a Master of Arts degree in Medical Sociology from Vanderbilt University, where she was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow through Meharry Medical College. She is currently a doctoral student at The Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University. Mia is also a creative non-fiction writer, with training from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. She is originally from Philadelphia, PA.
Edited by Panama D. Jackson
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