For the Maine Humanities Council, these are challenging times.

Hayden Anderson, executive director of the Maine Humanities Council Maine Humanities Council

The statewide nonprofit, which aims to transform lives “by the power and pleasure of ideas,” closed down this week like so many organizations trying to cope with a growing public health threat from a new virus that can cause a deadly illness.

Hayden Anderson, the nonprofit’s executive director, said Monday that he’s trying to figure out how best to think about this “weird time.”

He said he’s had some dark moments in recent days watching schools close, businesses shut down and nearly every program the council is involved with grind to a halt as people take the advice of experts to stay home.

Most of the time, though, Anderson said he’s trying to find a more optimistic way to view a unique moment in our history.

At times, he said, he thinks of it like a blizzard rolling in, dangerous and disruptive but something that will pass.


“For most of us with a blizzard, our job is stay put and stay off the roads and look out for ourselves and the people around us,” Anderson said, while those tasked with dealing the mess do their jobs with as little hindrance as possible from those who don’t need to be on the streets.

That is, in a way, the same necessity that we’re all in now, with the coronavirus.

“It feels like there are big, big forces bearing down on us,” Anderson said.

Our response to that wave coming at us “feels so modest” by comparison, he said, basically just to “care for one another and help the people who are trying” to cope with work created by the spread of the virus.

It is, though, a terrible blow for the cultural infrastructure of Maine, Anderson said.

Even many libraries – the pillar of so many communities – are shutting down, he said.


“It’s hard,” Anderson said, even though he knows they’ll almost all be back up and running again when this crisis passes.

That may not be quite as easy for “all these wonderful, little, scrappy nonprofits” around Maine that don’t have extensive resources to wait out the emergency, he said.

“This is going to be a perilous time for a lot of these organizations,” Anderson said, adding that he hopes communities will recognize their importance and help them through this period.

He said the council he’s led since 2012 typically spends a lot of its efforts “to bring people together, face to face, to talk about big ideas.”

That’s impossible now, Anderson said.

He said that just days ago they were discussing how this might play out for organizations around the state, and now the council itself has shut its doors, trying to work from home to the degree possible.


“This whole thing is moving so incredibly fast,’ he said. “The uncertainty is just so present in the front of your mind.”

Anderson said he hopes that despite the losses piling up, some good may ultimately come of this experience.

“I can’t help being an optimist,” he said, as he wonders if people “will make use of the opportunity” it has given many to use their newfound time wisely.

For those sidelined by the virus, Anderson said, perhaps they can care for one another more and learn from the history of earlier times.

“We’re not the first to trod these grounds,” he said, recalling the influenza epidemic in 1918 that scarred Maine and the world.

That flu, he said, “changed the country” — creating new approaches and institutions that remain in place today.

In any case, Anderson said, people a century ago “were able to weather” a terrible public health crisis and come out of it again.

He said perhaps we’ll see the connection between “civic health and public health” and maybe restore institutions that foster both.

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