Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: Blessings in disguise

If ever there was a time for me to reflect on the blessings in my life, this is it.

So many of us have been given so much to grieve during the past two years. Between 600 and 700,000 of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents have been lost. As a nation we grieve, or would if we were not so polarized, but that’s only the truth of the outside world. The “local truth” that I’ve been living for the past 24 months was reflected in the answers I received to that question I asked and wrote about last week: Have you found anything positive during COVID that’s surprised you?

What surprised me was that, in this little town of ours we see in one another more kindness, more caring, more tolerance and willingness to help, in stark contrast to the country as a whole. This nice, tight little island is nothing if not a crossroads where all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds come into contact with one another, and never more so than when a horde of “refugees” sought literal shelter here during a global health crisis.

Feeling grateful may seem unwieldy, almost inappropriate, in the face of so much pain and grief, but maybe gratitude is like emotional oxygen, our hearts need to breathe it in and out no matter what’s happening. Gratitude is very pliable. It can stretch out to cover blessings in general. In spite of our losses, the country is surviving, and so too are our communities, our families — nuclear and extended.

But then there are those seemingly custom-made individual blessings that seem crafted especially for each of us. Of course, if we’re talking specifically those blessings in disguise, you certainly can’t beat a global pandemic for camouflage.

For me, the first blessing came in March 2020, when for three months, the Shelter Island School went remote and I appointed myself head of the Early Childhood Education Department of The Shields’ School for Stupendous Scholars. I taught Pre-K — my one student being my 4-year-old granddaughter — while her mother, suddenly head of the SSSS Elementary School, taught the first grade, comprised of her 6-year-old son. And, not only did I get to feel useful, but I got to know my grandchildren in a new and special way.

But it wasn’t easy. We newbies needed help, and received it daily with great suggestions and lesson plans from the dedicated educators at Shelter Island School. In fact, every Island student was supplied with a laptop and other school supplies, not to mention the breakfasts and lunches faculty and staff members delivered to kids who needed them, and the fact that our teachers were determined to spend at least some part of the school day live with their kids on Zoom-like meetings.

It turned out that in many ways, the last thing our school became during those first rugged months was remote — a fact for which a whole lot of Island parents and kids must feel very grateful.

I guess that was the biggest blessing-in-disguise for me, those opportunities to be useful. I don’t always do “useful” well, even though I sincerely want to help. I’ve often drawn back because I’ve felt awkward or intrusive or both, and missed my chance. However, this pandemic offered such an abundance of opportunities to rise to the occasion and help out, that even little, self-absorbed me couldn’t avoid them.

I mean people were making and giving away masks, or shopping for the sick and/or elderly, or delivering fresh-cooked meals, or, like I did, spending a couple of hours a week cart-cleaning and customer-counting in the IGA parking lot. In my day-glo yellow vest, armed with a spray bottle of disinfectant, I got a chance to experience some of that COVID combat camaraderie with my fellows, community members and “refugees” alike — but with masks, who could tell?

It seemed to me that pretty much the whole island had risen to the occasion, a fact which, along with “Joey,” the iconic first cart-cleaning-people-counter, inspired me to write “All People Count,” a poem remarkable for its truth, if not its brevity, because they do. Count.

And then there are those undisguised “life-goes-on” blessings that stubbornly keep happening in spite of pandemics. For me, they include, among so many blessings, the marriage of a dear nephew and his lady, the birth of another gorgeous great-nephew who, along with his poor mama, had a rocky road early on, but now all is well, and this little column, that is a hybrid life-goes-on-in-spite-of-deep-sadness-blessing-in-disguise for me; one which provides me with the golden opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, disguised or not.

May we all be and/or become blessings to one another.