I was one of the more than one million Canadians abroad who returned home last week in our suddenly dangerous world. I had a lot of time to think, driving 4,700 kilometers from the Sierra Madre Mountains surrounding San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Loaves and fish miracles’ thinking.
That was the serious stuff. There was also the urgent need to watch the road, especially on the Mexican “cuotas” tolls --- people walking casually across the highway, many unannounced speed bumps, hairpin curves, horses and goats grazing on medians, tumbleweeds blowing in windstorms.
Mostly quiet time, in a car with my mixed lab-collie, Dallas, unsure where I might cross into Ontario because I was worried where I was heading ultimately as I had sublet my Ottawa apartment till the middle of May for this writing holiday. Before COVID-19, the return trip would have been a month later and a leisurely snaking through the genteel U.S. South, stopping at a few Civil War historic sites, snacking on jumbo shrimp and ribs. Now, sensing that the sick horse was out of the barn and galloping past state and national borders beyond any corralling any time soon, I steered clear of places like my favourite New Orleans or Baton Rouge, Louisiana; current news reports identify the state as the newest ground zero, pandemic battleground. Driving solo about 10 hours a day, I tried to avoid apparent hot spots, landing in Middle America instead, places like Lufkin, Texas, Jackson, Tennessee and, why not, Middletown, Ohio. Each morning, I joined uneasy locals searching for groceries, finding myself water, fruit and veggies for the long drive. Each night, tired, I looked longingly at the hotel room bed but headed out to join a new group searching for open drive-through or take out restaurants. I looked for wine rather than whine. By Houston, it was clear that America was catching up to countries like Canada and beginning to shut down. Morning and night and at each gas station stop, I practiced new rituals of hand washing and scrubbing with hand sanitizers after contact with gas pumps, bathrooms and stores. I already suspected Dallas’ licks and coming home in a car were immunizing me in ways I could not yet fully grasp.
Mostly quiet time interrupted by listening on NPR Radio to the updates from U.S. President Donald Trump and his White House Coronavirus Task Force. Was it being cooped up in my car or was Trump sounding reasonable a few times as he railed against people having 36 rolls of toilet paper when their neighbours with six kids only had six rolls? Those updates led to talk shows where enough of the president’s followers dismissed the virus as “hogwash” or a left-wing contagion conspiracy. I winced at this new threat to containing a pandemic. Enough people are cynical and do not trust governments. Many Americans insist on their inalienable rights and individual freedoms over and against fiduciary responsibilities to the planet and its people.
I remembered my days as a priest preaching and how much I loved reflecting on the miracle of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 with a little boy’s five loaves and two fish. (Luke 9:12-17. Each gospel has the story) Inspired by the Chicago theologian and storyteller, John Shea, I too had never interpreted that miracle as some divine Uber Eats delivery from the sky. Rather, it was a remarkable lesson on what love and justice produce when we open our clutched fists and closed hearts to override the base instinct to only think of me, myself and my loved ones. Indeed, to the shock of the crowd, there was enough food to feed everyone, with 12 hampers left! If only people shared. Jesus’ command swept aside his apostle bureaucrats and other barriers to produce the miracle of community, of survival depending on our embracing how connected we truly are.
Social solidarity. It may be all that will save us.
I happen to love America and Americans, even though I sometimes fail to listen to my polite inner Canadian and join some American friends in criticizing their president’s latest tweets and policies. Americans are family, literally. Prashaws have been falling in love with Americans since 1826 when Francois Pregent, a Quebec St. Lawrence River boat captain, married Adelaide Potvin and settled in Brashear Falls in northern New York. Soon, the American ear made our surname Pra-shaw from the initial “Prejean” or, as it had been in Normandy, France, “Prejeant”. My Mom’s three older sisters all married Americans, moving to Cleveland, Chicago and Seattle. Two of my own sisters married Americans, leading to my visiting them dozens of times in Virginia, Vermont and California.
It’s probably the reason that the U.S. border agent at Laredo, Texas came back from his computer check to hand me my Canadian passport with a comment that I had never heard at the border before.
“You travel a lot!” he said to me, smiling at Dallas. I wanted to see what was on his screen!
I guess I do travel a lot. Yes, I am the 68-year-old guy who drove from Ottawa to San Miguel. “Loco” translates well in English and Spanish. “Loco” is what some family and friends thought of the crazy idea but, then again, how do I explain that Dallas, my late son Adam’s dog, had to come on this trip (Soar, Adam, Soar, Dundurn Press, 2019, www.rickprashaw.com); Dallas’ periodic anxiety and size ruled out a tranquilizer and stowing in an airplane cargo. Dallas is my lifeline to my boy. Dallas is also my lifeline to health, exercise and maybe some immunization from all those licks, confirmed in studies on kids with dogs having less illness.
Dallas was a rock star in Mexico. Clean, with all four legs, she stood out in the crowd of mascotas and street mongrels, some three-legged from fights, who roamed San Miguel. Schoolchildren swarmed Dallas every day as we walked the steep cobblestone streets. As shelter services are now rounding up more of the strays, there was a new public ban on pets in most restaurants. I discovered that Mexico was much like Italy in its end runs around rules. At the popular Biblioteca Café, with the “No Mascotas” sign prominently displayed, the young waiter winked and led Dallas and I to a corner table. He rolled his eyes explaining that the new policy followed complaints by some Americans. I took no offence on our next visit when he led us to the same table and remembered only Dallas’ name.
With Mexico’s cartel wars, I had joked that Dallas was my bodyguard when, in truth, I knew she would give me up for a single dog biscuit. But maybe there was something to this. Might banditos spare me seeing the added hassle of dealing with a dog? Sadly. San Miguel, a UNESCO site photographers and artists have named prettiest place on the planet, has fallen into uncustomary, harder times of late as a minor cartel muscled into Guanajuato state trying to control a prosperous black market gasoline market. After three centrist presidents, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a sort of Mexican Bernie Sanders, was elected promising to deal with the root causes of poverty and class injustice. That’s a tough job as the military convoys zip through the countryside in an ongoing war with cartels. It's routine for the country. I passed some convoys in northern Mexico. Murders in San Miguel jumped from 3 to 72 last year. One day I was there, a tourist was gunned down at 7:00 a.m. at a popular, ex-pat ATM machine. Before that gruesome murder, I had joked that dawn might be a smart time to withdraw money, as the bandidos slept. The local media did not report the murder. Who knows if they were listening to the mayor who, earlier, admonished locals to stop talking about crime as it was not good for tourism? These crimes happen in a lot of places in many countries. They can happen in our hometowns as they have in Ottawa or Toronto.
I tend not to be fearful. I do not panic although the closed doors and closing borders felt menacing. I usually read, research, keep eyes forward and wide open, and carry on. My decision to interrupt the holiday and head home was ironically counter-intuitive to me and my life. But it was wise, one eye on Lombardy, Italy and a gnawing sense that the fast-spreading deadly virus was in charge.
I was in Ohio when I heard the news of the agreement between Canada and the United States to close the border to all but essential traffic. It was reassuring to hear a Canadian government minister add that Canadians could always come home.
At the border, it took a minute to cross. I told the agent of my self-isolation location in Prince Edward County, arranged by a nephew. I got a quick wave through and, in Canada, I kissed my Canadian passport. I was close to tears. I may not be in my home for awhile but I was home.
I get the sentiment that people want to get back to "normal" ASAP but isn't normal what got us to this awful place? That "Normal" is deadlier than Covid-19. No thinking of the planet, nor our inter-connectedness, nor our communities. No 7-generation living. Supporting an economy that has few winners and delusional spin that we can be one of them over and against our brothers and sisters. Voting for meagre tax cuts promised by politicians and parties who then gutted healthcare, research, pandemic and other preventative measures not in place to save us.
The new normal has to be global, communal respectful living. Radical change and radical grace. I feel a renewed solidarity to Canadians, Americans, Mexicans, Italians and everyone dealing with COVID-19. We need to be in this together.