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Last week I told you about my red winter coat—how it helps to keep me warm not only by what it’s made of but also by what’s on it: signatures of people who believe in the power of community; who understand that their lives are bound up with the lives of others; who know that they belong—or who want to belong and are struggling to find a way.

Entering pandemic winter in South Dakota, isolated and socially distanced, I realized that my coat would have no signers this year, unless I had some extraordinary help. So I invited you to sign by proxy. “Drop me an email,” I said, “and tell me how to inscribe your name. I’ll be happy to carry you on my back.”

Soon after I sent that edition of Staying Power, my invitation was also published in Daily Good: News That Inspires. I woke up that morning to a flood of emails from the U.S., Malaysia, India, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, France, South Africa, Great Britain, Belgium…. Now, at week’s end, I’m trying to draft this follow-up between tings on my laptop—more incoming requests from you. From the world. Forgive me if I have to mute you for an hour to concentrate on this. And if you’ve written me and haven’t heard back yet, please try again. This week has been a three-ring circus of community.

I’m not complaining. Believe me. You amaze me. You’ve moved me to tears.

Many of your messages have included snippets of your stories: The health care worker exhausted from the pandemic. The English as a Second Language teacher needing good news after a long day at school. The woman wanting to encourage her spirited 10-year-old granddaughter to keep building community. The reader who feels exceptionally alone after a recent move to a new state. The couple depressed by the election season and the divisions in their country. The woman unable to sleep, worrying about the coronavirus and wildfires. The 76-year-old widow, separated from her family, “working hard to monitor what she feeds her soul each day.” The reader whose little sister had died of cancer only hours before. The man signing for both himself and his differently abled friend, who speaks through a voice synthesizer on a computer. The “hermitess” in rural Montana who fills her hours knitting, weaving, sewing, and walking the mountains with her dog. Multiple people who, having struggled for a lifetime “to fit in and belong,” are starting to carve out their own spaces to be. The woman whose sister and husband are both terminally ill. The aged reader, isolated since March 6th except for grocery shopping, who writes, “Seclusion is changing me. I trust it all”….

So many stories. So many of you, so grateful or so hungry to belong, using this very simple act of signing a coat to affirm that you matter—and that everyone and everything else matters, too.

Often you have also shared with me details about your names—treasured nicknames; names with sacred meanings; birth names written in mother tongues; reclaimed names; monastic names; maiden names used as a way to bless deceased parents; invented names, representing parts of you that you’re trying to recover or nurture or become; shortened names, so as not to take up too much space. (That’s been a major worry for many of you—the coat running out of room. O ye kind folk, have more faith! This coat can carry the world.)

Some of you asked me not to bother signing your name. “It’s not important,” you said. “It will pass.” Instead, you asked me to inscribe an affirmation, alongside the messages sent by others: Hello everybody, I’m here with you…. Never Give Up. Love Never Fails…. One Family on Earth…. May all beings have enough of everything…. You are, therefore I am…. You Matter…. “Le deseo paz y tranquilidad, amor, paciencia y compasion a todos que mas lo necesiten. Nos tenemos que amar unos a otros.”  (I’m just learning Spanish, but I think this translates to something like: ”I wish peace and tranquility, love, patience and compassion for all who need it the most. We have to love one another.”)

You’ve requested that I write your names with hearts and smiley faces and peace signs and paw prints and trefoils and maple leaves. One of you typed in red ink, to honor the red coat. Over and again, these emails have come with precious tears. Lots of tears. Probably every third email mentioned tears. (I wipe them gently from your eyes and cheeks.)

Some of you are now planning to start your own community coats. (Go for it, people!) Others of you intend to ask relatives to add your name to a piece of clothing they wear regularly, to bind you together. (I love it!) One of you asked permission to send me your signature on a piece of cloth that I could tuck into a coat pocket for other people to sign. (Sure, my pockets are bottomless.)

“What keeps you warmer,” one of you wondered, “the coat or the `everyone’ on it?”

You know the answer. You can’t separate the coat from Everyone, or Everyone from the coat. I’m warmed by you all. And I bless you even as you have blessed me:

Metta. As-aalaamu alaykum. Mitakuye oyasin. Beannacht. Mahalo. Kia ora. Namaste….* Deep peace.

*Translations of these blessings you gave me: Metta is Pali for “lovingkindness.” As-aalaamu alaykum is Arabic for “peace be upon you.” Mitakuye oyasin is Lakota for “All are my relatives.” Beannacht is Gaelic for “blessing.” Mahalo is Hawaiian for “thank you.” Kia ora is Maori for “have life.” Namaste is Sanskrit for “I bow to you.”

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.