Distillation

Steve and I were at the store today. Shelves were empty. People were wearing masks. There was something sobering in the air. Life in America had changed very suddenly and very drastically.

The cashier was telling me about how the truck was two days late. He said people were lined up before they opened and one woman bought six packs of toilet paper. He wasn’t sure what she needed that much for but surmised she was going to try to sell it at a markup, of course. I told him I can’t find rubbing alcohol anywhere. I explained Wesley has special needs and I need it for disinfecting and cleaning g-tube supplies. Supplies people are hoarding are the very things some families need to live.

He called his manager over. With sympathetic eyes her heart listened to me. She told me they may be getting a shipment of rubbing alcohol tonight and to call later. She would see what she could do about setting aside a couple of bottles for me. As we were leaving, she came out chasing us. Handing us a box sanitizing wipes she asked if it would help. She apologized that it wasn’t alcohol based.

I read a story later about a pair of brothers who, when the crisis first broke in America, bought as much hand sanitizer as they could find. They sold it on ebay and amazon at an enormous mark up until customer complaints had them taken off the sites. The brothers now have nearly seventeen thousand bottles of hand sanitizer with no way to sell it. Meanwhile, hand sanitizer is the most effective way I can protect my son with special needs. Wesley is eighteen years old but cognitively two. He can’t wash his hands for twenty seconds. He doesn’t understand to not put his fingers in his mouth. Yet I can not find it anywhere other than sweet friends who have found some and are willing to give it to us.

There is something so powerful about a crisis that reveals the best and worst not just in humanity but in ourselves. It does not create something within us that was not already there. It simply exposes what already exists.

A lifetime ago I wanted to become a physician though I took a bit of a circuitous route and never actually got there. After graduating college I was a professional ballet dancer in New York City. Realizing it was not a lifestyle conducive to my personality I moved back in with my parents. I worked full-time and in the evening took the prerequisites with the dream of taking the medical college entrance test.

My organic chemistry class was twice a week in the evenings. Almost the entire student body was, like me, working full time jobs and then going to night school. Our lab class was once a week from 5:30 to 10:00 pm. The professor would give us each a small beaker with liquid. We were to distill it to get rid of contaminants and then run several tests. With our little lab books we would approach the professor and tell him what we believed the compound to be. If we were right we would pass. If we were wrong we would fail. There was no in between.

As you can imagine in a class filled with people who had just worked eight plus hour shifts, we were prone to short cuts. Not one of us wanted to take the time to distill it so none of us did.

A few weeks into the class we were all stunned when our answers came back wrong. My professor’s response to me was simply, “must have been contaminated” and a shoulder shrug. Indeed, I learned my lesson.

The distillation process was necessary. The heat applied rid the compound of impurities and boiled it down to its very essence. It had to be purified in order to know what was actually there.

Coronavirus is our distillation process. I don’t believe it is going to create heroes or villans. What it will do is reveal within each of us and one another exactly who the heroes and who the villans are.

I’ve had times in my life I was sure excruciating heat was being applied to the core of me. My soul was being purified.  The distillation process was and is a painful one. Each time everything was stripped away and I was left with these simple questions:

What is really important?

Who am I now?

What does this reveal about me and what I believe?

Admittedly, life has a way of clouding those questions, contaminating them. Impurities make me forget the core, the purity, of what is vital to who I am. There is nothing like a global health crisis to immediately extract the impurities.

COVID 19 has caused an heightened sense of survival unprecedented in my life time. My childrens’ schools have been closed. A few days ago I went to New York to extricate my oldest from NYU. Social activities have been canceled. No more shopping trips for fun. Life has come to a screeching halt for us and for every responsible person who understands the significance of self sacrifice for the greater good.

My life has been distilled down to keeping my family safe and preventing spread of the virus as much as it is up to me. At this moment nothing else matters. I know some who do not feel the imperative need for social distancing. They either don’t understand or don’t care about the significance of continuing to engage in crowded social activity. Their carelessness could literally kill my son, my mother, and myself who are all in the highly vulnerable category. I imagine the distillation of their life reveals a selfishness and disregard and I wonder how they look at themselves in the mirror each day.

The cashier at the store this morning has been distilled down to kindness. He didn’t know me but he heard my heart and showed extraordinary care for a perfect stranger. His manager who gave us wipes also showed us what was at the core of her and it was lovely and selfless. The brothers and all those hoarding supplies are distilled down to greed and are, I believe, some of the worst parts of humanity.

This is just the beginning. It is surreal to be standing on the precipice overlooking the vast unknown but having the certainty that life as we know it has changed. Further distillation will happen. As our boiling points are reached who we are and what we are made of is revealed. There is no reason to believe, based on the path left by this virus, our family, our community, our country will escape unscathed. When it is distilled down to the core, when all the extraneous things are taken away what is left of you? What is really important to you? Who are you now? And what does this reveal about you and what you believe?

My prayer for you and for me is that we find out we are kinder, more compassionate, more helpful, more loving, more selfless than we ever knew.

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