Six Degrees of Separation, Hopeless Habits, Saints Alive

There really is a Saint Corona, and she is reputed to be the patron saint of pandemics. Thank you, Cory McNaughton of Steemit, for pointing that out to me after I posted this a year ago, when the pandemic had only just begun. This began as a freewrite in response to the prompt “Bad Habits.” As short stories go, it’s really more of a stream-of-consciousness observation of the shifting world of 2020. A Lenten reflection, if you will, in fictional form.

One year later I am amazed at how much the pandemic continues to change our ways of life. It was supposed to come and go, as pandemics do, sooner rather than later.

The Ink Well Fiction Writing Challenge #2 – Bad Habits

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Six Degrees and Hopeless Habits by @carolkean

Him again. Cairin missed the days of paper, when unwanted messages could be wadded and tossed into a burn bin. Of all the plagues for bloggers, (1) nobody reads or comments on your posts, there was (2) the zealot with Bible verses who hijacked every blog post and spammed his message far and wide. Sadly, the only response some creatives got on their social media posts were these spammy religious memes that were as uncontainable as a virus.

There was no prohibiting this zealot from the comment section at Rig-It, her new networking site. Inspired by Steemit and Reddit, Cairin had co-founded Rig-it, “sister to the blockchain” as a home for creatives to publish their offerings without all the rigamarole and dictators pretending to be “community building.” The system is rigged, so they’d “rig it” their own way, right? Wrong. Not with spammers proliferating beyond control. She understood now the wrath of moderators who’d ban people for not obeying rules and guidelines.

“Him again” actually hijacked her words as a user name, @himagain, but no matter what name he used, his style was distinct and obvious. “Repent and be saved” was an easy one to ignore, but something about this struck a cord with Cairin. She didn’t have the power to delete it, but she could hit the downvote button.

Stop doing wrong things and turn back to God! The kingdom of heaven is almost here. (Matthew 3:2)

She could ban him, but he’d be back tomorrow with a new name, and @himagain had a nice ring to it. Only death could stop this Bible-beating troll and his “Good News” + video links to eternal salvation on every blessed post anyone ever posted.

She knew the Bible well enough without @WhateverNameHeUsedToday bombarding her with verses. She knew Christian and Catholic apologetics well enough to know The Bible was fiction, not God-given truth. As long as @himagain stayed home with his laptop and didn’t get in her face for real, as opposed to in cyber space, she could live and let live.

With hyperlinks to hotels and photos of Italy, Cairin hit “Send” on her post and hailed an Uber to the airport. The first annual RigFest would unite Riggers from all over the world in the heart of Rome.

Airport security was tighter than usual. The Patriot Act never died down almost 20 years after the terrorist attacks that changed the world, and now the long lines were even longer as thermometers gauged every passenger’s temperature.

“It’s just another strain of the common cold,” some were saying. “You’d think it was Spanish Flu 2.2.”

“I hear things will get much, much worse,” others said.

Cairin offered up an “Our Father” out of habit and boarded the plane. Talk of the new virus lasted all through the flight. “How racist, to call it a Chinese virus,” she overheard.

“The virus started in China,” a middle-aged white man blustered. “China silenced the whistleblower. China told people the virus wasn’t contagious and allowed people to travel in and out of the country. China did nothing to contain this virus. Call it what it is. A Chinese Virus.”

Much as she wanted to refute him, Cairin couldn’t help thinking that MERS was so called for the Middle East, and the Spanish flu had never originated in Spain. Facts and logic never got in the way of somebody else’s truth. She closed her eyes and donned headphones to tune out the fellow passengers arguing politics.

God, come to our assistance.

Some voices, no headphones could silence. This one had been internalized from infancy as her mom prayed to her invisible and useless or nonexistent God. Daily. Hourly. Out loud, or in silence. Singing hymns of glory and praise as she mopped or cooked or gardened: “When you sing, you’re praying twice.”

In the beginning, Cairin believed. Her mom was a Carmelite “lay nun,” which meant three times a day their world came to a halt for that thick little red-leather book with it color-coded ribbbons, the Liturgy of the Hours. “God, come to my assistance,” each prayer began, morning, noon, and evening. Then a Psalm. Responsorials, brain-numbing refrains, reminders of God’s steadfast love, and faith that all things work for a reason.

God didn’t come to her mom’s assistance when the “camel flu” became the latest plague of the 21st Century to strike millions. Fitting, that her demise originated in the Holy Land. Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was just another species of coronavirus, a betacoronavirus derived from bats, with camels somehow involved in its spread to humans.

The World Health Organization was about as much help as God, exhorting those who come in contact with camels to wash their hands frequently–and do not touch sick camels. Her mom never came near a camel, bat, or even the 49-year-old Qatari man who had gone through the famed “Six Degrees of Separation” before his sneeze reached a Midwest mom, her mom, a would-be saint, now just another statistic.

Now it was Six Feet of Separation, a new Coronavirus Protocol, over and above the logistical Six Handshakes Rule: all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other; i.e., a “friend of a friend” chain can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.

Qatari man, China woman, camel-toucher, bat eater, sneezing storm cloud of death on two legs: God paid them no notice. If any sort of God existed at all.

And still she prayed. “God, come to my assistance.”

It was a habit. A useless but mostly harmless habit. Cairin didn’t touch her mother’s breviary or read a single word of it these days, but the words were embedded like a virus in her mental circuity. God himself will set me free. Free from the hunter’s snare. But her mind was never free of this unrealized god. Cairin could see the words in her mind as clearly as she heard them.

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She landed in Italy, safe and sound, found her way to the pink stucco hotel with balconies overlooking a courtyard, and proceeded to meet her fellow Riggers face to face, within touching distance.

Marcy, the homesteading hive leader, had a degree in herbology and the coolest head in the crowd. She sold customized t-shirts adorned with cats saying “Chill” or flowers and honeybees or annoying sentiments like “Live, Laugh, Love.” With snow-white hair and a face crackled like antique china, Marcy exuded more energy at age eighty than the Millennials did, those gadget-gazers and über-calm web surfers. MysticDiva, Roomerkind, MyJob, Florianopolis, TechTard, and TechGoddess became people with real names–Maya, Gary, Janelle, Roland, Elina, and more. They came from Tennessee, Venezuala, Nigeria, Israel, Korea, carrying big ideas and cyber wallets, blockchain milestones and … the Chinese flu.

The fun had barely begun when the Quarantine came. Medics in HazMat suits swarmed into the hotel and carried people out on stretchers. Armed guards blocked the exits.

Not even with MERS, in her mother’s day, had such panic-measures held anyone hostage. “This Coronavirus outbreak is worse than the SARS epidemic,” the Riggers agreed, but Cairin reminded them there was no social media back then.

“It’s no worse than the annual influenza that kills thousands every year,” Gary said he’d read, but Coronavirus settles at the bottom of the lungs and starts producing a liquid that makes breathing more and more difficult until you need a machine to survive. And Italy was running out of hospital beds, ventilators, and healthy medical personnel.

It wasn’t Marcy but Gary who started coughing. He was “only” seventy-something, but he went out on a stretcher. Coincidentally, the Bible spammer went silent when Gary did.

Had she met “Him Again” face to face and not recognized him as the spammer, the zealot only death could silence? Had she inadvertently wished death upon him? Impossible. Hardly a single human would still be alive if it were so easy to wish someone dead. Still. Catholic guilt, or scrupulosity, haunted her. She could not unsee Gary laboring for breath as he was carried away, and she prayed an act of contrition. Old habits die hard.

The Swiss Guard came next, or whatever these Italian troops were called, telling everyone they were not allowed to leave the premises until quarantine was lifted. At least two weeks from now. Airline tickets? Dog sitters back home, bills to pay, weddings to attend? No more. You’re here to stay.

Why bother to pray? It was no conscious part of her brain doing this old routine. No particle of her soul entertained hopes that prayer ever had “efficacy.” Her Carmelite mom thought it arrogant to expect to see “results” of prayer. Prayer was like breathing. It was what she did. And her last raggedy breath through crackling lungs was a tender Amen.

Week Three, the hotel guests were restless, but they could Skype their offspring and email their dog sitters and get things done online, so there was that. Marcy taught Breathing Lessons, yoga, and Positive Intentions. She had a suitcase full of herbal remedies and theories of Anti-Vaxxers who no longer sounded as crazy as Cairin once thought. Marcy entertained fellow heretics and pagans with old You-Tube videos of George Carlin explaining the immune system. “You are all Diseased!”. Sanitizing the house kills germs, and your immune system needs germs to practice on. “Polio never had a prayer” in his childhood; “we swam in raw sewage.” Marcy had no more than ten people, each no more than six feet from her, laughing uproariously. Best medicine, you know: laughter. Trading freedom for the illusion of security. How old was this video?

She wandered from one wheezing senior citizen to another, offering what consolations she could. “I’ll say a little prayer for you,” she sang, channeling Aretha. Sometimes she sang in English: “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” For her, singing in a foreign language, if she could hear and see the words, was the best way to learn it. She’d bought a “Drive-Time Italian” CD back when drive-by shootings were the new Big Bad American Thing, joking that she was learning Drive-By Italian during her commute, but now her old jokes weren’t funny.

Edoardo, a 30-something wedding singer, caught wind of Cairin’s singing and joined her. The bride and groom he had sung for got an indefinite stay in the honeymoon suite, but several elderly wedding guests had gone out on stretchers.

Children would climb walls if not for security guards. Marcy and Cairin organized people to organize children’s games.

Music was everyone’s go-to. Blockchain, cyber wallets, “hard fork” and “hostile takeover” floated down, down, down the list of Cairin’s priorities, like autumn leaves sinking to the bottom of the pond. Entertaining the little ones, consoling the old ones, bringing smiles to the “hostages” rose to the top of her list.

Complainers started grousing a bit less, but “What good is a prayer in times like these?” and worse things were sneered at Cairin.

“God only knows” was her reply, no sarcasm intended. “We may never know what good our prayers may do, but it’s free and easy, so I pray away. And when we sing, it is said, we are praying twice.” She sounded like her mother.

“Einstein said Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Roland argued. “I don’t live in the USA, but it’s obvious your ‘hopes and prayers’ do nothing to alleviate the next mass shooting you people endure every week or so.” Roland, the most thoughtful and polite of anyone she knew on Rig-It, offered a quick smile. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Cairin assured him, though she knew those who said no offense knew that they were saying something offensive. “I have little hope of prayers being heard by a loving God who intercedes in the affairs of man, with or without angels. ‘We the hands, we the eyes, we the voice of Christ’ means that without humans DOING things, God (Jesus) apparently cannot violate the Free Will clause … but never mind. I’m a skeptic. But I pray anyway and do-do-do whatever I can.”

Ugh: did she just say doo-doo?

“What worries me,” TechGoddess joined in, “is that people put trust in an invisible being that lives in the sky and watches and judges their every move. ‘Just pray and everything will be solved.’ Praying ain’t gonna fix this. No chance. I understand that it is useful as a crutch but it has no place in avoiding contracting a virus.”

“And yet, I pray anyway,” Cairin said with a shrug.

Kick That Habit, Cairin – no god will hear you, no Kung Flu virus will flee from your prayers, your hopeful intentions either, she thought, fighting the downward spiral into despair, yet reaching and grasping for hope.

Marcy approached, smiling. “On Facebook,” she said, “a woman in my Freedom Formula Course shared this. The world is slowing down. What happens when nothing works anymore? Cities and whole nations go into a lockdown, but my friends and neighbors say “Let me know if you need anything. You are not alone.“ Parents are home with their children. And here’s a poem written by a priest.” Marcy read it from her phone:

“The lock down

Yes there is fear.

Yes there is isolation.

“Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples

are preparing to welcome

and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting

All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way

All over the world people are waking up to a new reality

To how big we really are.

To how little control we really have.

To what really matters.

To Love.

So we pray and we remember that

Yes there is fear.

But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation.

But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying.

But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes there is sickness.

But there does not have to be disease of the soul

Yes there is even death.

But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic

The birds are singing again

The sky is clearing,

Spring is coming,

And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul

And though you may not be able

to touch across the empty square,

Sing.”

Poem by Richard Hendrick, 13th March 2020

“I have idea,” Edoardo said. He called up WhatsApp on his phone. “Let us gather in the courtyard.” 

A flash mob materialized.

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There was still no end in sight for the Riggers or the hotel guests in quarantine, but there was hope, and there was music, and there was love. Cairin’s Italian grew near-fluent under Edoardo’s tutelage, talking face to face by day with people they’d never have met otherwise, or if they did, it would have been only via cyberspace, far more than six degrees of whatever kind of separation.

God, come to my assistance. The familiar words played on in her head. “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.” – Saint Augustine

She still didn’t know if God existed, or if God had anything in common with the Supreme Deity of her Carmelite mother, but she had a litany of prayers in her mental repertoire. She had many good people easing the shock of quarantine.

And she had Edoardo.

Cheers!
Keangaroo

because Kean sounds like Kane (not keen, hint, hint)

It is now almost-March 2021. Covid-19 is still here, and much of the world is still in lockdown mode. Masks are a new daily element that hadn’t been mandated when I started writing this in response to an Inkwell contest at The Hive.

When I posted this story in March 2020, I had added this:


That’s as far as I can got with this story, watching the daily news unfold and escalate day by day. “Things will get much, much worse,” I keep hearing. But the human spirit will not be diminished. Life will go on, however dark and tragic it may be for millions who suffer and die, and maybe we all meet again in some heavenly hereafter, or maybe we had a good run here while it lasted and all we can do is rejoice for whatever good we experienced during our sojourn on earth.

I leave you with a few more excerpts from my old 1976 edition of Liturgy of the Hours, which I thought of taking up again, but I’m off to paint more “Quarantine Cats” on wood slices instead.

Cheers, Best Wishes, and yes, a little prayer for each of you! I leave you with

Canticle of the Three Youths

Light and darkness bless the Lord;

Lightning and clouds, bless the Lord.

Let the earth bless the Lord;

Praise and exalt him above all forever.

Mountains and hills, bless the Lord

Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord.

You springs, bless the Lord;

Seas and rivers, bless the Lord.

You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord;

All you birds of the air, bless the Lord.

All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord;

Praise and exalt him above all forever.

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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