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SHINING FORTH: Gwenyfar talks COVID and gratitude for our sanitation workers

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Courtesy City of Wilmington


“If this is the future, I want none of it.”

I dropped my cell phone and leaned my right elbow on the arm of the sofa.

“That was awful.”

I had just attended my first funeral via Zoom, which, actually was my first Zoom anything. With a cell phone set up on a music stand to watch the events, there was no sense of communion, community, fellowship, support or closure. It was like being in a truly terrible dystopian sci-fi novel, with me holding my cell phone at arm’s length and standing and sitting as the service progressed, mumbling along with the prayers. The sun was shining at the cemetery and a breeze seemed to ripple past. In the background, I could hear hymns sung at another funeral nearby. The cell phone of the gentleman lowering the casket into the ground kept ringing.

Much that I wanted to fall over and cry, I needed to go pick up Jock from the doctor’s office; he was getting his cast cut off his leg. Then we had to try and get the book store open in the midst of the COVID crisis.

COVID. If ever there was a day I would have been justified not opening the doors because of COVID, it would have been the day of my Uncle Stephen’s funeral. He died from COVID … alone … in Virginia. We couldn’t travel to see him or be with him. Even if travel had been a viable option, we wouldn’t have been allowed in to hold his hand. It is not the end I wish for anyone.

The events of our lives—birth, graduation, marriage, anniversaries and death—are things we share that make us human. Zoom does not capture or create emotions that arise from our humanity at all.

So I have been thinking about these life markers and holidays that make memories. My mother put together major productions for holidays that made them incredibly wonderful—even if it was just for us three (or four when Jock joined the family). I struggled with being able to produce those events for my father after she passed. And, once my dad followed her, for a few years I just stopped trying to have any holiday events in my life altogether.

Slowly, Jock and I have found ways of remapping the holiday experience in our household and ways to mark our years together. With summer solstice just taking place Saturday, I found myself comparing this summer to others before it. I must admit: I am flummoxed.

Midsummer, or the summer solstice, is the longest day of the year (or shortest night, depending upon how we discuss it). It is the equal and opposite balance to the winter solstice, held every December 21. I have devoted a lot of ink over the years to the winter solstice as a time of introspection, reassessment and slowing down. It’s proximity to the end of one and the beginning of a year. So it makes it a good segue for writing about goals and such. If the winter solstice is about looking within and slowing down, then summer solstice invites us to think about action and shining forth with the strength of the sun.

Usually, this time of year is a bustle of that action: The bookstore is packed and James Jarvis gives piano lessons. Guests cycle through The Literary Loft above the bookstore and at the bed and breakfast. There is lots of great theatre opening to review, and Jock is inventing obsessively.

COVID changed all of that.

I have been in a constant state of activity, trying to navigate the waters and figure out how to keep the business and family safe. In the midst of it, I keep coming back to the same question: What is the right action? (Sounds very yogi, doesn’t it?) Do we open or not? Have we cleaned enough? How do we support and interact with our community and still maintain our own survival? At what point is enough? What can we live with? Where is the physical breaking point? These questions (and many more) keep me up at night and haunt my days. Trying to figure out how to make a good decision is more mystifying than ever.

The demand for action has shifted our community conversation these last few weeks and has been powerful. Perhaps that is the “shining forth” piece. What are we showing the world? What are we each individually sending out? The actions of the protestors and conversations they have generated feel like a tipping point, trembling, ready to spill over.

The energy around the Occupy movement in 2011 had a similar feel, and when it petered out with little lasting effect on the banking or credit industry (or, frankly, most Americans’ daily habits), I was terribly disappointed. I found myself asking: What is the lasting change I can make in my life that can translate into lasting change on a wider scale? Because, at the core, if individuals do not make changes and take action in their daily lives, all the poster board signs don’t matter.

That was my take away from Occupy: I don’t want to be beholden to banks or credit card companies that are far away and care nothing for our community. I do my best to make choices in my personal and professional life to spend money with real people I can put names to faces and who have an investment in our community.

It is not always possible to the extent that I want. After Hurricane Florence I had to borrow money for recovery to keep things on track. I made the choice to borrow money and to keep my staff on payroll without cutting anyone’s hours because I had an obligation to them. Their ability to pay rent, buy food and spend money in this community gave back more than them not being able to. However, the reality is: Citibank is never going to care about us. They just are not.

So what is the takeaway from the protests now? What conversations will come from each of us? What are the personal changes we are prepared to make in our lives? These are questions I am asking myself right now.

I have a big, loud personality, so when I started thinking about “shining forth,” I was thinking in a big, loud, expressive and positive way. Somehow, I missed the years of folk music concerts that were the soundtrack of my upbringing (“This little light of mine/I’m going to let it shine”). They didn’t necessarily make a big splash or set off fireworks, but they produced a genuine, focused effort. It is a tough lesson to learn.

I’ve been rereading Dr. King’s interviews and writings lately. I think a lot of people meet him through the big themes and the sweeping arcs of inspiration that come from his speeches. But a lot of his writing talks about how to internalize the big messages into daily life—at home, at school, at work. It doesn’t need to be an epic wave of inspiration, just genuine action of intention.

Do you know who has modeled that for me consistently for the last few months? The City of Wilmington sanitation workers, especially the downtown crew. In spite of a highly contagious pandemic, and at great personal risk to themselves, they have shown up to work. That might not sound like such a big accomplishment, but ask yourself: Are you willing to clean a public bathroom right now? Are you able to dispose of gloves, masks, used paper towels or other trash that could spread disease with the ease of mind that the disposal is safe?

Sanitation as a public health necessity is probably more on people’s minds than ever before. Our downtown crew has navigated the stay-at-home order, shuttered businesses that are not going to reopen, fewer office workers during the day, construction, staggered reopenings, and they have kept downtown spotless. It is nothing short of amazing. Watching from afar as my uncle died from COVID, I am keenly aware of the importance of healthcare workers during the pandemic and give them all praise and thanks. Yet, I wonder how much worse this would be for all of us if we didn’t have such a wonderful, dedicated sanitation crew?

Our t0wn’s history of the Yellow Fever outbreak during the Civil War was linked to poor sanitation conditions of the time. Talk about letting your light shine! These are folks who are quietly, without theatrics, acting out for us what “shining forth” looks like. Have you thanked a sanitation worker recently? Have you even thought about it? Please, consider taking a few minutes to say “thank you”—or even better—let the office know what a great job they are doing. It is a job no one notices when done right; the recycling and the trash disappear on time and are out of sight, out of mind.

One friend rolled their eyes and commented I could do better than referencing Dr. King and sanitation workers on Juneteenth. Though, I counter, if you remember, Dr. King was in Memphis for the Sanitation Worker’s Strike. Equality, living wages and dignity are issues at the core of the protests now and were then, too.

If “shining forth” is focused outward, rather than inward, then to shine some light, love, appreciation and compassion on others is the goal. To find the focused effort for change, the actions you don’t abandon the first time they become uncomfortable or require effort is the key for each of us.


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