Hotel Chronicles: Pittsburgh

by Heather Robinson

I arrived a little over a week ago in my hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after a family member, I’ll call him Kevin, pushed me to leave my adopted city, New York. Kevin was certain things were about to get worse there, and predicted that the entire city might eventually be quarantined. He wanted me to maximize my chances of remaining healthy, and to avoid a situation in which our family would become forcibly separated by the ruthless contagion that is sweeping the world. (Hard to believe that is an accurate sentence and not purple prose. I guess it’s both).

Today is Monday, March 30th, and New York has not been quarantined from the rest of our country, thank goodness, but in other ways, Kevin was prescient. I believe we will follow the rules and get through this crisis as one nation undivided, and am sending love to all my friends in that great city. I hope, pray, and believe you will be all right and I am here for any of you who want to talk.

Strictly as a precaution (I’m feeling well), I’ve spent the past week in self-quarantine in a Pittsburgh hotel, eating pizza and Thai takeout, alternating between feeling guilt for leaving my adopted city, New York, and feeling deep gratitude to be back in my hometown, and for my health and that of my family.

Like most friends with whom I’ve texted or spoken over the past week via Smartphone or Zoom, I’ve had my hypochondriacal moments (For instance, is that raw feeling in my nasal passage seasonal allergies—or Covid19? Is that a stress headache—or Coronavirus?). But after worrying myself to sleep (or attempting to distract myself by watching Netflix’s “Love is Blind,”), I have awakened feeling better, and flooded with gratitude.

Many of our fellow Americans, and others around the world, have not been so fortunate, and I write this post with humility and awareness that any of us could be next. This virus does not discriminate.

While sitting in this hotel room spiraling on all the possible meanings of what we are experiencing together as a world (including the possibility that none of this really “means” anything,) I reached out to Bob Trask, Unitarian minister and founder of a spiritual philosophy, ARAS, which stands for Acceptance, Respect, Affection, and Support. I encountered Trask’s books, including his classic “Living Free” some years ago as a student at the University of Washington and enjoyed them. Some years ago, I wrote about his work, and I think of him as a great buoy in a tumultuous world; he overcame an abusive childhood and trauma-filled youth to lead, comfort, and inspire others. He is the kind of person who lives his philosophy each day, and you can’t talk with him without feeling encouraged.

Trask’s unique spiritual system is built on his own insights, but also has influences in Unitarian Christianity; Hinduism; psychology; and the New Thought Movement whose leaders include Norman Vincent Peale, author of the self-help classic, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

I had expected Trask might have some ideas about the virus’s metaphysical message to us as a world, because of the way it is forcing us to cooperate, and to deeply apprehend our connection to all other humans. He did. But I hadn’t anticipated his insight on how we can use the virus to become stronger individuals.

“The virus shows us there is no difference in our humanity,” Trask told me. “It attacks humans indiscriminately, and it in this way, it can be our teacher. I hope we use this time to forever end our prejudice against each other, because we are family, and we should act like it.”

He had some thoughts on how isolation can actually strengthen us.

“When we see each other all the time, there’s a lot of hugging, both literally and figuratively, and a lot of people kind of collapse into each other and stop being powerfully individualistic,” Trask said. “There’s a lot of ‘Let’s all agree we’re Democrats, or Republicans, or we feel this or that way about an issue or a person,’ and if someone says, ‘Hey, I want to look at this idea or person a little differently’ there’s been tremendous resistance to that.”

Recent years have seen an explosion of religious fundamentalism around the world, and here in the US, binary left-versus-right thinking has dominated discourse to the point that values like cooperation, mutual respect (despite disagreement), ability to make space for other points of view as well as to take in new information—basic values that must be upheld in order for any family or organization to minimally function– have been disregarded, disrespected, and denigrated practically into oblivion.

For years, I’ve planned to write a column urging Americans to embrace a national project together, as one family, much in the way our parents’ generation got behind the space program in the 1960’s. In fact, I had proposed the idea to several news outlets I write for, but there was zero interest in it.

Interestingly, Americans now have a national problem/project, and we will have to cooperate across political and tribal lines to address it, as a matter of survival.

“You only know yourself when you go beyond your limits,” Trask told me. “What we’re looking at now as a world, and as individuals, are our limits. We are wired to grow, and we will have to.”

We have had a terrible addiction to groupthink in America in recent years. It would be interesting if this horrendous scourge expanded more people’s thinking beyond tribalism and reminded us of the great virtues of universalism (that we are all in this together, and share much in common) and individuality (that we will never agree on everything, and far from being an unprecedented tragedy, it’s fine and to be expected) that America was founded on.

At a time we have so little control, Trask stressed that we do have control over the way we react to this crisis.

“There’s the virus and our reaction to it,” he said. “If we rise up out of being victims and decide to help someone, even a phone call to say, ‘I’m holding you in the light’ we can make a positive difference.”

Trask encouraged me to do my small part to document this moment from the place where I am. So tomorrow I’ll share a few of the interviews I’ve done, from a safe distance of 6 to 10 feet, with people here in the hotel and outside on the one walk per day I have taken in my hometown during my self-quarantine.

Sending blessings to my fellow humans and especially my dear brave friends in New York City. I love you and am holding you in the light.



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