Alive in the Moment

It was only last summer, but it seems a lifetime ago that we visited Iceland…

 

…a country very different from ours, but one of stark beauty.

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A land of fire…

(Photo from Eldheimer Museum, Westman Islands.)

 

…and ice.

 

History…

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Culture…

 

…and wit.

My mom used to say, “You can find something in common with everyone you meet, even if it’s only that your feet hurt.”  A global pandemic should qualify.

At the Adalstraeti Museum, we saw old photographs of the inhabitants of Reykjavik.

An interpretive sign read, “Women in traditional costumes, boys from the Reykjavik Football Club…a professor in a coat with an opulent fur collar, several generations of a family, parents with their firstborn, Little Miss Reykjavik, a girl with a lamb, a boy in a sailor suit. It’s tempting to speculate on where they might have gone after the photographs were taken. Home to Lindargarta, or for a coffee at Hotel Island? Down to the shore to watch the lumpfish catch being landed? Or back to work after returning borrowed clothes?

All the portraits in this exhibition were taken in the first nine months of 1918…Some of the people we see in these pictures may well have perished in the epidemic: all will have lost friends or relatives. The only thing we can know for sure about these past inhabitants of Reykjavik is that in the instant the shutter opened, they were there—facing the camera—alive in the moment.”

On October 19, 1918, the Spanish flu hit Iceland like a tsunami when three infected ships made port in Reykjavik.  The first death followed twelve days later.  Ten thousand people, two thirds of Iceland’s capital city, fell ill.  The hospitals were overwhelmed.  A field hospital was set up to accommodate the overflow, and a center was created to care for children orphaned by the pandemic.  Shops closed, newspapers went dark, and when telephone operators took ill, Iceland lost contact with the outside world.

While the West and South of Iceland suffered, guards were posted to prevent travel from infected areas. They contained the spread, sparing the North and the East of the island. After a month, the infection peaked, and the dead were buried in mass graves.

The exhibit commemorated the centennial of the 1918 pandemic and celebrated the Icelanders’ laudable response. Many donated funds to feed the sick. Others brought meals to friends and strangers.  Everyone in Reykjavik was assigned an official to check on them and procure help, if needed.

We were there in the summer of 2019, never suspecting that the exhibit foreshadowed the novel coronavirus that would strike the following winter, and rapidly intensify into a global pandemic. We still languish in the first wave of CoVid-19, recalling with apprehension that the Spanish flu came in four waves, infected 500 million people, and left 50 million dead.

An older story harkens back to The Black Death, that raged across Asia and Europe in the 14th century, spread by sailors and rats along trade routes.  Within five years, it too had killed 50 million people.

(public domain)

At that time, an Icelandic merchant ship was preparing to sail homeward from Bergen, Norway, hoping to outrun the plague.  But before they could weigh anchor, several crew members developed symptoms.  All their instincts must have cried out for home…

 

…but the crew elected to remain in Bergen, knowing they would never see their home or loved ones again.

 

Thanks to their sacrifice in 1347, Iceland was spared the ravages of that deadly plague.

 

As the Adalstraeti Museum stated, the only thing we can know for certain about these people from the past is that they were there, alive in the moment. But it’s tempting to speculate.  Had you been on that ship, with buboes swelling in your groin, would you have resigned yourself to death in a foreign land to spare your countrymen a similar fate?  What if you were one of the crew with, as yet, no symptoms?  Would you still remain in Norway, surrendering any slim hope of survival, in order to contain the infection for the greater good?

(public domain)

I met my sister’s friend Rachel, a retired nurse, and her husband while visiting in Alaska. I was surprised last spring, when she left Juneau to fly to New York, which was suffering 600 deaths daily, as hospitals were slammed by CoVid-19 patients.  Rachel joined thousands of healthcare volunteers working 12 and 16 hour shifts, collapsing into bed each night, and waking to start all over again.

A friend of mine volunteers at a shelter for homeless youth. Why risk it? I speculate that in each youth she sees a person plagued by fears and sorrows, yet clinging to hopes and dreams.  Like the girl with the lamb, these kids are alive in the moment, but their world was rife with hardship, danger, and isolation even before the pandemic struck. A pandemic shines a harsh light on society’s economic and racial disparities, and those kids are a tiny fraction of the people who’ve slipped through holes in our social safety net.

We don’t know what the next five years, or even five months will bring, but it will get worse before it gets better. Like the people of Reykjavik, we must care for each other. Some people are in no position to donate funds or volunteer outside of their place of shelter. But almost everyone can wash their hands and wear a mask when going out, if not to protect themselves, then to protect the vulnerable among us. Like those who were here–facing the camera–very much alive in the moment…

 

Everyone is someone’s child, parent, sibling or grandparent.

 

 Many have underlying conditions or circumstances you know nothing about.

 

Wearing a mask is inconvenient, but well worth it, if it can save even one life.

If you can’t do this one small thing for friends, family, neighbors, and community, it’s tempting to speculate…what kind of person are you?

Except where noted, ©2020 Naomi Baltuck

 

 

Look Up

In Seattle the cold nights sneak up on you.  Autumn chill was in the air, and summertime had slipped out the back door without even saying goodbye.  Through the tree branches, we saw flashes of unexpected color that couldn’t be anything but a space ship!  Eli and I stopped what we were doing…

…and ran to investigate.  We brought the camera for photo-documentation.

We live three or four blocks from a sweeping view of Puget Sound.

For fireworks, sunsets, or alien invasions, we always head straight for the crest of the hill.  Ferry boats light up black water like jewels.

But that night, the jewel on the crown turned out to be a ruby, the biggest reddest moon I had ever seen.

Don’t wait for an alien invasion.  Just look up.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Photo Challenge: Look up.

All word and images copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

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Arranged

 

I snapped this photo in my Cousin Nancy’s backyard.  We couldn’t have arranged a nicer outing.  Her husband Ian played folk music on his guitar.

Tallie, her little Papillon, and our favorite little fur person, played fetch with the kids.

 

Then we all roasted marshmallows for s’mores in their fire pit.

 

Creating a lovely backdrop for us was this fascinating arrangement for firewood that I found so pleasing to the eye.

 

I did pause to wonder how the tree might have felt about the arrangement. Did it feel supported and held up by the spirits of its ancestors, or was it made nervous at the thought of suffering a similar fate? Am I the only one who thinks about these things?

All words and images c2014NaomiBaltuck

Two Cents’ Worth

Before we had kids, Thom and I explored Ireland by train, by bus, and—please don’t tell my children—by thumb.  We were hitchhiking from Dingle to Tralee when a rusty green service van pulled over.  The woman offered a ride, so we tossed our packs in the back and climbed in.  It smelled a little fishy, but that’s probably because our driver was a fisherman’s wife.  We sat among coils of rope and scattered tools with a big black dog and two little blond boys, perhaps five and seven years old.  It was the little one who did the talking.

“My da’s bigger’n your da,” he said, in a proper brogue, like a feisty toy Irishman.

His mother explained, “Liam’s missing his da, who’s out on the water.”

We introduced ourselves, and Liam asked,  “D’ya have stars in America?”

“Like movie stars?” I asked.

“No, up in the sky.”  He pointed upward, just to be sure I understood.

“Liam just discovered the stars,” said his mother.  “It’s all he can talk about.”

“We have stars in America too,” I told him.  “They shine and twinkle, just like yours.  In fact, I think we see the same stars in America that you see in Ireland.”

“I have a cousin in America.  Her’s called Mary.  D’ya know her?”

“Where in America does she live?”

“Arizona,” said Liam’s mother, from the front seat.

“America is really big,” I told him.  “We live in Seattle, more than a thousand miles from Arizona.”

“Is that far?”

“Really far.”

“Well, if y’see Mary, ask if they have stars in Arizona.”

The boys were curious about America.  “Here’s a souvenir,” I said, and I gave each boy a shiny new penny.  “The man on this penny is Abraham Lincoln.  He died a long time ago, but he was our greatest president—sort of like a king.  He led America through our Civil War, and freed the slaves.”

It was twenty-five miles to Tralee, lots of time to share fun facts and answer Liam’s questions.  I felt like a proper ambassador, conveying not only goodwill, but an  insider’s view of America.

The next day I met Liam’s mother in the line for the ladies’ room at the Rose of Tralee Festival.  She said, “Liam loves his penny.  He shows it to everyone he meets, and says, ‘This here is the king of America.  He’s dead, and his daddy’s dead, too!’”

So much for the history lesson!  But it was also a lesson to me as a writer and a storyteller.  We each live in our own little world.  Before sending your story out into the big wide world, you might check to see if  you and your readers are on the same page.  Ask friends to read it and give  you feedback.  Set it aside for a little while and come back to it with fresh eyes.  Join a critique group or enter it in a literary contest; an honest evaluation is worth the entry fee.

Whatever  you choose to invest your two cents into, consider the exchange rate, and what might be lost in translation on the trip from one mind to another.  But with a little luck and a lot of practice, you and your readers will be looking at the same stars.