Walking home, stepping gingerly over the carcasses of dead cicadas on the sidewalk and surrounded by the metallic screech of the last remnant survivors, I felt as though I were captive inside the soundtrack of Psycho.

Dark thoughts for a Saturday morning, I admonished myself. After all, I’d just stocked up on my favorite September staples — tomatoes and peaches, as perfect as any foods get — and reveling in the visual clarity of sunlight with low humidity. Butterflies jitterbugged past, their flight patterns replicating the average stock market chart, and I marveled again at how many monarchs I’d seen all summer long. Climate change may have put them in jeopardy elsewhere, but they seem to be flourishing here.

“Ours is no caravan of despair,” Rumi wrote, and I thought about the curious phenomenon, lately, of friends and perfect strangers blessing me … out loud … in public.

Which correlates with sneezing. I suffer spring allergies and this year, for the first time, hay fever, which is annoying because, essentially, it means I’m allergic to nature. How can that be and what does it say about the state of my very soul if I’m so out of synch with Nature herself?

But sneezing leads to kindness. “Bless you,” strangers say, seemingly expecting nothing in return.

It is a curious tradition, apparently deeply ingrained,  vestige of a bygone era characterized by courtesy. Blessers are in the minority and mostly women, in my experience, but numerous enough to guarantee that if you sneeze repeatedly, you’ll be blessed.

Googling todayifoundout.com reveals: “Wishing someone well after they sneeze is an old practice, and it is something that can be found in (almost) every corner of the world. While the actual origin of sneeze etiquette is a mystery, the most popular and most plausible theory is that people believed a sneeze was a prelude to illness, and that wishing them health or luck with what was to come was only polite.

“Another popular theory is that a sneeze is ‘letting the demons in’ which is the origin of the ‘bless you’ response; it was supposed to guard the sneezer and responder from the Devil. However, neither of these theories is backed by much in the way of actual evidence, and we may never know why people started responding to sneezes in the ways they do.”

The site noted that the German version, “gesundheit,” which means “health,” is also still popular, but the notion that our hearts stop when we sneeze is not true. Also no truth to your eyes popping out if you don’t close them. Sneezes, however, have power. They’ve been clocked at 100 mph, which means they’re excellent passers of pathogens.

My mother, whose sneeze was loud enough to set off the doorbell mechanism in our house, taught us to bless, or at least set an example, and also frequently told the story of how her father, the life of many parties, would respond, “God bless you and keep you and save you from all harm.” If someone sneezed a second time, he’d say, “Ditto. I’m not going through all that again.”

For some of us, the “bless you” reflex petered out as we grew older, but for others it persists. I don’t know if millennials bless. That will be the real test of this tradition’s future.

I hope it survives. Like saying, “excuse me,” when you belch or bump into someone, it indicates politeness, courtesy, awareness of your impact on others. Awareness of, and concern for, others is the glue that holds societies together.

But “bless you” also carries religious connotations. Many of us grew up with “God bless you,” but the God part has faded, and perhaps that’s for the good. I would rather be blessed by someone and believe they have the capacity to bless, than merely offering a wish. I like to think it also means we’re capable of receiving the blessing — like prayer, which reportedly has benefits even if you have doubts. The concentrated act of praying seems to have power, so maybe blessings do, too. 

There’s another reason I hope “bless you” doesn’t die out altogether. The fact that it has survived all these decades, I think, is a sign, suggesting a level of connectedness that many social observers argue is rapidly evaporating. 

On the one hand, I’m astonished that “bless you” has survived all the social dislocations, erosions and topsy-turvyness of my lifetime. Many say we are alienated, isolated, staring into our magic rectangles and living in our separate worlds. But those rectangles and the people staring at them are connected to a shared entity, the internet. We may not interact as much; then again, saying “bless you” certainly qualifies as an interaction. 

And it’s not just some mindless kneejerk reaction or superstition. We bless one another, I suspect, because at some level, even if it’s unconscious, we care. Why do we care? I maintain it’s because we’re more interconnected that we realize. We are the grass roots that intertwine inextricably — individual bodies who, beyond our ken, form one being. We are part of one another, so we bless each other, and bless ourselves in the process. 

We do it in many ways, but one is whenever we unleash what is as unique and irrepressible as a laugh.

Bless you.

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