By Patricia Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
I am preparing breakfast for my husband and myself. Today I will use the last of the milk to make lattes. I pack the little metal coffee container of our espresso machine and turn it on. While it starts to steam, I hear Andrea Bocelli on National Public Radio. He is singing Panis Angelicus. I am taken back to St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I attended Mass six mornings a week during the school year and once a week during the summer. I sang with the grade school choir comprised of 7th and 8th graders who had good grades and passable voices. One of the hymns we sang was Panis Angelicus, “Bread of the Angels.”
As I listened to Andrea, the bagels with cream cheese and lattes had to wait: Tears streamed, sinuses filled, lips trembled, as longing and nostalgia commandeered my brain. Images came in torrents, images of my parents; our comfortable apartment over my grandfather’s pastry shop; the grandchildren I would not see this Easter because of the virus; the families waiting on the Mexican side of the border to reach asylum; the refugees without health care on the island of Lesbos; the assault by Saudi Arabia on Yeminis; the Syrians attacked by their own president, and the mismatch between these dire times and the quality of leadership in the United States.
Then I remembered passages from The Book of Joy, my partner through these early months of physical isolation. The book is essentially a dialogue between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, with writer, Douglas Abrams. The two good friends met in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama’s home since his epic escape from Tibet in 1959, when he and his supporters fled the invading Chinese.
In the book, the writer interviews these courageous (and mischievous) spiritual leaders about the nature of joy. How is it acquired? how does it endure, especially in the face of wide-spread suffering and injustice? How do we not despair?
According to both leaders, hope is fundamental to joy. Thinking about the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu mused:
I say to people that I’m not an optimist, because that, in a sense, is something that depends on feelings more than the actual reality….Now hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. It’s in the pit of your tummy….To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.
Seen in perspective, my personal storm is puny. Joe and I enjoy our breakfast. It is a new day. I am one of the fortunate ones.
Patricia Edmisten (Peru 1962-64) is retired from the University of West Florida where she directed the Office of International Education and Programs. Her two years in Peru as a Peace Corps Volunteer influenced the direction of her life. She is a social justice activist and the author of eight books. www.patriciaedmistenbooks.com