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A sign of hope

Many of us feel that 2020 has lasted way longer than a normal year. This is not an illusion; 2020 is a leap year, which means that has a full day more than the usual 365. But that doesn’t explain why it seems as if this year has lingered for more than a decade.

This year brought the twin plagues of COVID-19 and an election. Neither will soon be forgotten and both are dragging on and on.

But there are distinct differences between the two. While politics is mostly theater — sometimes tragedy, sometimes farce — the pandemic has inflicted untold suffering on millions of households. You can shake your head and shrug at the machinations of politicians, but you can’t shrug off a breathless visit to the ER.

This year feels like a hybrid version of the Great Depression and a world war. Decades from now, youngsters will ask their grandparents, “How did you make it through that terrible time? What was it like?”

The future grandparents, like all good grandparents, will spin yarns that cast themselves as the heroes of their stories. But thanks to the proliferation of digital media, they won’t be able to stretch the truth too far. Technology has its downsides.

Growing up, I heard tales of how the prairie lakes in this region became dry as a stovetop during the Dirty Thirties. Local farmers tilled the lakebeds and were thus able to raise enough grain to get by until the following year.

These stories all had the same ending. One afternoon, just as the farmers finished threshing their wheat on the dry lakebed, it began to rain. The farmers pulled their wagonloads of wheat onto their farmsteads, telling themselves that they would return in the morning to retrieve the threshing machine.

But it kept on raining and it quickly became too muddy to get at the threshing machine. The lake gradually refilled and the threshing machine remains right where it was left. It has long since become a carp condo or a bluegill bungalow.

I have a postcard that was sent by my Grandma Nelson on October 23, 1918. Grandma wrote that she was worried about her sister Laura, whom she hadn’t heard from for several days. Grandma mentioned that two friends and a cousin had succumbed to the Spanish Influenza.

I wish I had found this postcard when Grandma was still with us. I would have asked her how they made it through that terrible time, how they endured the unrelenting drumbeat of dreadful news from the twin calamities of a World War and a global pandemic.

Knowing Grandma, she would have said something like, “There wasn’t much else we could do, so we just kept on going.”

I recently learned that a comet named Erasmus is visiting the inner solar system. Erasmus comes around roughly every 2,000 years, so I decided to see this cosmic wanderer for myself now instead of waiting for its return.

Erasmus wasn’t bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, so binoculars or a telescope had to be used. The comet was hanging around in the general vicinity of Venus, the brightest object in the night sky, so it should have been easy to find.

The strongest telescope I own is on my deer rifle, so there I was, out in the predawn chill, appearing as though I were trying to shoot down a celestial object. Good thing nobody is around at that hour.

It took some doing — resting the rifle on the mailbox post helped — but I was able to locate Erasmus. It looked like a bluish-green cotton ball with a needle-like protrusion pointing upward. At least I think it was the comet. It might also have been a smudge on the lens.

Time was when comets were regarded as bad omens. On the other hand, about 2,000 years ago, three wise men took the arrival of a new star in the east as a sign of good news regarding a certain infant.

Gazing into the southeastern sky, I thought about a certain little child who lives far beyond our southern horizon. His parents are being extremely careful about guarding their family’s health, but thanks to the proliferation of digital media my wife and I have been able to see that our baby grandson is starting to babble and has two new teeth.

The child knows nothing about pandemics or comets or even the taste of pizza. But the day will come when he does.

As I peered at Erasmus, its needle-like appendage made me think of vaccines and the eventual end of this prolonged calamity. And I decided that comets are, in fact, harbingers of hope.

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