And Then Be Strong

And Then Be Strong May 8, 2020

There were snow flurries today.

I don’t think it’s ever snowed in May, in Ohio, in my lifetime. My weather app tells me we may tie or break the record low for this date in history. And this after a soggy, insipid winter where it almost never snowed. They say it’s all due to climate change, warming up the winters worldwide, warming the poles so the polar winds get forced down to the United States.

My seedlings are wintering on the table in the dining room. I can’t afford to lose them. The beautiful little family-run nursery near my house is closed this year, after decades in business, and the farmers’ market can’t hope to run on a normal schedule. I don’t like buying conventional seedlings but I do what I can, not what I can’t. The local stores are are already out of most of the things I wanted. A friend shared part of her stimulus check with me last week, and I rushed out to get as many seedlings as I could to expand the garden, but most of the things I usually grow were sold out.  I had some squash at home I’d grown from seeds, which was providential, because someone bought up all the store’s zucchini already. I did get bean seeds but they were nearly out of sweet peppers. The only eggplant I could get was on its last legs and will probably die before I can get it into the ground.

I need the garden for more than a pleasant hobby this year– they say that supply lines will be disrupted by the COVID-19 emergency for some time. Food is going to get expensive. I’m trying to grow enough extra that I can share if things go from bad to worse. The Friendship Room keeps a box of fresh produce by their free pantry all the time, now. People downtown have always been poor, but if this goes on they will starve.

My heart is broken for my friends at The Friendship Room. The Friendship Room was started during a polar vortex— a far more bitter one, in January of 2014. They opened a warming center just for a few days, so the homeless didn’t die, and they are still open to this day. But this time they can’t let anyone inside because of the COVID-19 emergency. The virus has had several outbreaks here in Steubenville already, one of them downtown a few blocks away. They installed an outdoor sink for handwashing and sanitizing, and they’re handing out meals and winter clothes, but they can’t open the doors and let people in. It’s illegal and deadly to gather in crowds, for now.

Michael just took Rosie out for an evening walk. She hasn’t been out since our excursion more than a week ago, and I needed a quiet house as much as she needed exercise. They packed out aluminum cans into an old shopping cart someone had abandoned in the alley, so they could feed them to the recycling bin outside the grocery store. Rosie wore her big winter coat, in the middle of May. She carried her allowance in her red and blue Avengers wallet, and her dinosaur print cloth COVID mask as well– just in case they stopped in to the grocery store to buy milk on the way home.

At the last minute I realized I forgot to tell them to get lemons. I ran outside barefoot to shout my request after them when they were a few houses down– but the cart was so rusted and clattered so loud that I had to yell at the top of my lungs before they stopped and heard me.

Fibromyalgia often translates sudden changes in temperature into nerve pain. The cold, cracked pavement of the front walk sent shocks like bee stings into my feet.

The whole scene was so surreal, it frightened me.

And then I realized I hadn’t covered the wildflowers I’d planted in the front patch. A few weeks ago, at the grocery store, I’d bought a dollar box of mixed wildflower seed on a whim. I didn’t expect it to work, but I shook it out in the front planter to see what would happen. A few days ago I was overjoyed to see that it really had begun to sprout: a hundred tiny dots of green oval leaves. I didn’t know what flowers would come, what color they’d be, if they’d be good for the pollinators as I’d hoped. I was as excited to see my surprise blossoms as a child awaiting her birthday party– and here I was about to lose the whole patch.

I ran inside and moped for a minute; then I ran back out and covered the patch with an ugly bright red reindeer-covered blanket Rosie got for Christmas, and a pink beach towel Michael picked up last summer. All the seasons seem to be coming at us at once– Christmas and summer, the planting season disrupted by frost, Eastertide with no liturgies, a famine, a plague. The world feels like it’s ending, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a series of little convulsions all along its surface.

As I covered the plants, I hummed a little ditty that Mr. Rogers used to sing on television. It seemed like an asinine, babyish song when I was four years old. I would boo at Fred when he sang it.  Now that I’m in my thirties, it seems profound, and I repeat it like a mantra.  “Be brave, and then be strong!
Be brave. You’ll not go wrong if you are right! Keep your chin up tight, and be brave, and then be strong.”

Am I brave, and am I strong?

The paradox of courage is that you can’t know whether you’re brave, until you don’t feel like you could possibly be brave another moment. The paradox of fortitude is that you can’t know whether you’re strong, unless you’ve been tested until that strength is spent. What you do when you’re spent, and you feel like a coward, is the proof of whether you’re brave and strong.

The polar chill descended on Steubenville as I watered my seedlings.

I don’t know if I’m brave or strong, but I choose to be.


Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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