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Bread and Blessings in a Pandemic—Reflections on Cooperative Living

by Laura Busheikin | March 27th, 2020

The etymology of the word “pandemic” comes from the Greek pan, meaning all, and demos meaning people. The overt meaning refers to an infectious disease that affects all the people. But an epidemic has cultural, philosophical, political, personal and spiritual meanings as well.

In these frightening, disorienting, and tender times, we are reminded of the many ways we are not alone. Paradoxically, while experiencing unprecedented levels of isolation, we have our faces smushed up against the deep truth of our connection. Each of us is just one piece of all the people. This is the source of the problem, but it’s also the source of the tenderness, and the key to our survival.

Our connectedness is terrifying, and beautiful. Our connectedness is why we care, so much. It’s why our heart aches, and why it lifts in gratitude, and swells in joy.

I know a fair amount about the terror and beauty of connectedness on a small scale. I live on a land coop—15 households sharing a big piece of land on a remote island. It’s been a series of lessons on what it is to be human, living with humans.

A rural land co-op feels like a very good place to be in a pandemic. Last Sunday we had a work bee in the garden. We kept our distance from each other, and over the course of the day we planted five hazelnut trees, raised fence posts for an expansion, weeded, laid paths, planted potatoes, got beds ready for seeds. The sun shone and we felt good. We felt connected. We felt optimistic. Planting food feels like an the best thing we can do, an antidote to anxiety, a practical investment in survival. It feels like a blessing.

On the first day of Spring, I delivered bread. I’d contacted my neighbours and put together a bulk order from the local bakery, Ima’s Kitchen. Ima’s is a family operation, operated out of the home of a young family. They were happy to have the extra business in this time of uncertainty, and appreciated the simplicity of the bulk order.

I picked up the loaves, fragrant and crusty in brown paper bags, from their porch. Yogi, one of the bakers, was in the backyard with his daughter. We chatted about bread, and isolation, and the gorgeous weather. The eye contact and smiles felt like blessings.

I brought the bread home and set out to deliver loaves. I felt like a villager from ancient times, or from a fantasy novel about some imagined future. At each home I stayed to talk, standing six feet away. Simon was turning over his compost pile; we talked about compost and gardening. Sheelagh talked about how vulnerable she feels as a older person; we talked about our grown kids and what it would be like if they all moved home. We talked about our financial fears, which are considerable.

I ran into Rosie and we talked about holding a bonfire. It would give us all a chance to be together. If we stayed apart, would it be safe? We talked about the common garden and how much food we could manage to grow for ourselves. We talked about elderly family members we were worried about.

To hand over the loaves, each of us had to lean forward slightly into the six-foot no-mans-land between us. We did so carefully. I think I was holding my breath. There was a moment where my hand was on one corner of the bag, and the other person’s hand was on the other corner, and so we were physically connected by the bread. Almost like we were touching.

That too felt like a blessing.

Bread isn’t the only thing we deliver. We leave groceries and meals and medicine on doorsteps. Philippa, a First Responder and a single mom, sometimes delivers her nine-year-old daughter to a neighbour’s in the middle of the night so she can answer an ambulance call. We help each other. We rely on each other.

As people who’ve chosen to live in a co-op, me and my neighbours are probably a bit more practiced at cooperation than is typical in our society, but I don’t think we’re that different from so many people, all over the world, startled into a new realization of how connected we are, and how terrible and necessary and profound that is.

The pandemic is without a doubt horrible. It is not hyperbole to use a biblical word: it is a curse. In Italy, the military has been called in to help bury the dead. Ice rinks are being used to store corpses. It is foolish to feel “grateful” for anything this virus brings.

And we can choose how we respond to this situation. I invite you to join me in choosing this: to count our blessings, and cherish them. We will need to do this alongside our feelings of fear, grief, rage, and (for those on the front lines or in situations where daily life isn’t about signing up for on-line courses or deep-cleaning our house) exhaustion. While weathering this storm, let us commit to holding tight to our connectedness. To inviting these hard times to take us deeper into collaboration and interdependency. Deeper into humanity. Deeper into love. Deeper into knowing, and embracing, the terrifying and beautiful truth: we are all the people.

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