“You’ll never meet a single person who doesn’t know at least one thing you don’t.” Dennis Bowker, 2002
The Pandemic changed me. It changed us all, lobbing lethal missiles indiscriminately, deferring dreams, and destroying lives. We petitioned God and other deities for deliverance, sent good thoughts and insipid emojis, embraced immunizations, and employed extra-medical treatments to outsmart a predatory virus. Family members, friends, enemies, and acquaintances died anyway. Travel, redefined in the Time of Pandemic, became my therapist. It was a beneficial device for healing and hope.
My healing wasn’t physical. Remarkably, I never got Covid though my husband, the Professor, did, and an aunt, uncle, cousin, and brother died.
“Who d’you think that is?” I challenged the Professor one day, pushing an emailed photo at him.
“I can’t place him,” he said, scrutinizing the scrawny old man in a wheelchair. “Who is it?”
“It’s my brother Mike. He’s intubated in a hospital in California,” I said flatly. “He’s not expected to leave alive.”
“Shit,” he exhaled looking at the stranger. “I didn’t recognize him.”
I hadn’t either. We hadn’t spoken since the glue that held us together, my parents, died a decade earlier. Mike was a year and a half younger than I. The photo showed no trace of the hyperactive child he’d been or the hot-tempered man he became. He was a longtime smoker and drug user, mostly meth. That and three strokes in one year predetermined his fate. With teeth missing, dark circles under his eyes, and toothpick arms, he appeared terrified, like the grim reaper was mowing down chaff just over his shoulder. I’ll never unsee that.
Mine was one of millions of families around the world who lost people. As a result, many wondered, what’s the point? They examined their lives and purged what no longer fit. I did too. Pre-Covid, I had Plan A, work five more years then retire to travel and write, but I couldn’t toe the line for a paycheck anymore. I plunged into the Great Resignation and never looked back.
Unfortunately, when countries closed to foreign travelers my world got smaller. Plan A was no longer an option. The day I shifted from A to B, my reissued passport had fifty-two blank pages. I held up my little blue book of dreams and dropped it onto the carpet at my feet. Plan B arose from it like a Phoenix with potential and I purposed I would travel as far as the Pandemic would allow. Not just to see and do. I would travel to learn what I didn’t know that others do. I’d travel to seek wisdom.
Plan B’s launch propelled me just two miles from home to get my first haircut in six months. A drop-in client at Supercuts, if there aren’t more than two people ahead of me, I wait for the next available stylist. Through the luck of the draw that day Sadie called my name.
Initially I was taken aback. Though I won’t confess bias, I was apprehensive. Sadie’s hair was shorn up one side, she had multiple piercings, and bright technicolor action heroes were tattooed across her chest, neck, and up and down her arms and legs. Would she know how to cut my hair? I sat in her chair and submitted myself to her for a wax, shampoo, and cut anyway.
She began by tenderly applying hot wax around an eyebrow, tamped down a strip of thin cotton on top, pried up a corner with a nail, and quickly ripped it off, pressing a finger firmly in its place to soothe the offended skin. When she shampooed my hair, it was like she drove a team of butterflies across my scalp like Mother Theresa might have. She cut my hair with precision, checking in often.
As bits of hair slid down the cape around my shoulders and hit the floor, I began asking questions I hoped would lead to at least one thing I needed to know. I started simply. Sadie was born in Hawaii but moved to the mainland as a child. After a difficult divorce she’d moved to Idaho from the South. She lived with her parents but had a new boyfriend and looked forward to moving on with him.
Did she like working at there, I wondered? It suited her just fine, she said, still snipping. Surprised because Supercuts isn’t at the pinnacle of the profession, I probed, “Why?”
She stopped clipping. Our eyes met in the mirror in front of us.
“When I was in high school kids were mean because I was different, so I made myself feel better by looking good.” She shrugged. “I love doing hair because of how it makes people feel when they look good. Especially those who get bullied and feel unlovely.”
There it was. Out of her pain, Sadie became a philanthropist, giving what she had to others. When I walked in, I didn’t know I needed her. Intuitively, she did. I carried the Pandemic and all its wreckage on my face and in my body. As she ministered compassion and skill, Sadie knew that healing powers aren’t limited to doctors, nurses, counselors, or pastors. She knew that generosity of spirit isn’t only for the wealthy.
Sadie had appeared an unlikely person to possess life-changing wisdom, but she did. She left me lighter than I came. Wisdom in the form of Sadie met me in Supercuts two miles from home.
Further away in a far-flung ranching community, I met Nikos. He seemed more likely to have wisdom to share. A Greek immigrant who came to America with a dollar to his name, he graduated from Princeton and retired from Wall Street to a large cattle ranch in Idaho. On the cusp of winter, the day we met the skies were clear and bright blue. Peaks above the ranch were snowclad though it was a crisp fall day below. Splendidly, aspens and cottonwoods flamed brilliant golds and oranges, scattered like spot fires along small creeks running down between magnificent mountains.
The ranch, surrounded by vast seas of sagebrush and timber-covered public land, was fine art and Nikos, its curator. It took him two decades, but he’d systematically improved operations and benevolently stewarded his resources. He’d screened an irrigation diversion on the creek to keep fish off the fields and placed woody debris in the Lemhi River to create habitat for fish and fowl. We walked along the Lemhi to see his work.
“Before long, this one will look like the other mature reaches we completed,” Nikos pointed out as we visited his most recently restored section of the river. The bank was denuded, covered only with large and small river rocks, but willows and other vegetation would grow and cluster thickly there as they did in the other reaches.
I was intrigued. What was his one thing? Nikos was a successful man who could buy almost anything he wanted yet he labored to heal the land. Why, I asked?
“In the Greek Islands owning great expanses of land like this was unheard of,” he explained. “My father, now long gone, would be proud.” I could see them walking along the river, Nikos gesticulating, his father trailing behind with hands behind his back, saying little, approving everything.
“Is that why you do it,” I persisted? “For your father?”
“Yes,” he said, gazing intently across the river like he saw his father there. Then he turned abruptly to face me, and our eyes met.
“But more than that, it’s the right thing to do. Someday someone else will come along to the ranch and benefit.”
In giving what he had, Nikos ensured that those who come after – family or not – would benefit. Philanthropy again. His thing was giving of himself quietly and consistently over years. Wisdom met me again, this time along the Lemhi River in the form of Nikos.
He healed his land with compassion, hard work, and wealth. Sadie healed the broken with compassion and skill. Both gave what they had that really mattered, and I learned that the point to life is giving, not achieving. It’s in philanthropy flowing from soul to soul.
What do I have to give? I pondered. This, I decided: writing from my soul as philanthropy. Before I met Sadie and Nikos, I wrote for the joy of crafting words into sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Sharing well-woven words motivated by compassion coupled with wisdom would only increase that joy.
Plan B redirected my loss and distracted me from the Pandemic. As I looked for at least one thing others knew that I didn’t, Plan B whispered to seek wisdom wherever I go and weave it into compassionate story telling. Someday travel in the Time of Pandemic will give way to travel After the Pandemic and I’ll pick up that little blue book again. In the meantime, I’ll keep searching for the one things of others wherever I can find them, near or far. My philanthropy. It’s my turn to give.