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Interesting and challenging times call for a sense of humor and hope: Effie Caldarola

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Fr. William Melnick reads to the Kindergarten class as part of Catholic Schools Week at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in January 2020. Dialog photo/Don Blake

My granddaughter Charlotte posed for the traditional first day of kindergarten photo on the front porch of her home in New Jersey, wearing a new sequined-splattered outfit popular with the under-7 set.

Effie Caldarola
Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS photo)

Then, like millions of American kids, she turned around, walked with her backpack into her own house, sat down at a computer in the basement, and began a year of academic life online.

These times call for a sense of humor and hope.

It’s not just the kids having meltdowns these days. Pity the person who is both teacher and parent. Pity the school administrators who walk a fine line between COVID-19 exposure and denying kids their needed in-person instruction and socialization. Say a prayer for the older teachers or the ones with preexisting conditions who both love and dread their own classrooms.

My brother used to repeat what he said was an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” In other words, boring is safe; interesting can be dangerous and chaotic.

Actually, I don’t believe there’s ever been a boring time to be blessed to live on this precious earth. But 2020 is definitely “interesting.”

One Saturday, to get out of the house and still be distanced, my husband and I made our annual pilgrimage to Kelly Hill, a little Catholic cemetery out in farm country. There, my family members, starting with great-grandparents and including another brother who died way too young, are buried next to corn fields ready for the fall harvest.

Amid the green fields fed by irrigation, the cemetery on the hill stood out, dry and yellowed from a season of drought. I guess no one irrigates a cemetery out there.

It might seem depressing to choose to visit a graveyard in the midst of pandemic, but I find it oddly consoling. My two great-grandfathers lived in interesting times, during the Irish famine. As the Irish poet Eavan Boland wrote in her poem “Quarantine,” the winter of 1847 was “the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people.” That was the year one of my great-grandfathers, as a child, made it to America on a famine ship with his family.

In Boland’s poem, a tribute to love between a man and woman, the protagonists are not as fortunate as my great-grandfather. In the bitter winter of 1847, they perish together of the Great Hunger, he protecting her with the last warmth of his dying body.

Life has never been easy, but I still chafe at those who say we’re a bunch of sissies who just need to buck up. Not quite. We’re in the middle of challenging times right now.

We need to be gentle with ourselves and with others. We need to listen for those in pain. We need to find silence. And when we can’t pray, we turn our troubles over to Jesus and just let him be with us.

I love this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

“Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Galdalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Cemeteries always remind me of the swift passage of time and the history that we often forget.

Don’t set big goals right now. Don’t worry about great accomplishments. Honor instead this brief time that has been given to us and try to cover someone you love with warmth.