My dog is okay now. He is back to bouncing around the backyard like a pinball and leaping and jumping for joy. We went to the vet 5 or 6 times during his convalescence for various issues that arose. He received stiches, two courses of antibiotics, two pain medications maxxed to the highest doses allowable, and laid low wearing the cone of shame for two weeks. It was ruff. But he has healed. Physically. Mentally, the jury is still out.
After the attack, I knew he would have some trauma and anxiety to work through. What I didn’t expect is that I may be in worse shape! And I have been noticing that I am prone to avoiding dealing with it. As in, in general, avoiding things that make me uncomfortable. In this case, I attempt to avoid other dogs like the plague. My dog? He just barks his head off. Meanwhile, I am cringing and telling him in the not-so-gentlest of tones to stop it. Stop it. STOP IT. Why must he call more attention to us?
I started working with a dog trainer to help get us through this period. I called her in to help me get his barking under control. We have spent a lot of time working on “heel,” helping him to understand that his job is to stay focused on my leg and to follow me wherever I might lead. He doesn’t need to worry about the dog up the path or the squirrel in the bushes. Just focus on my leg and let me lead.
For my part, I need to be a competent leader. As we walk, the trainer honestly spends more time working on me than my dog. She tells me, “Relax. Loosen your grip on the leash. Stand up tall. Breathe.” And she keeps saying it. Over and over again. I can’t be cowering in the corner and high tailing it in the opposite direction every time I see another dog and expecting my dog to “just relax.” I recognize now that it doesn’t exactly set the right tone when I see a dog up the trail and say, “Oh, God. Here comes another dog.” At first I didn’t even consciously hear myself saying it. But even if that message wasn’t said outloud – which it has been – it was definitely the energy I was presenting with. Everything out there for a while felt like a threat. And whatever I feel translates right down the leash to my poor pup, who is looking for reassurance from me.
These days, we actively seek out other dogs on our walks so we can practice. I would have preferred to stay in the backyard or choose a quiet, untrod path. My favorite walks, by far, remain those when we run into no one. The dog trainer tells me I need to breathe and relax and face it.
I’ve heard these messages before. I’ve practiced a lot with facing my fears. I see a therapist every few weeks, I’ve taken meditation classes, listened to podcasts. And I keep forgetting. Or, more, I am who I am and I go back to my basic instincts. And, then, THEN, all the work kicks in and I notice the feelings and the narrative. And that means I can pull it back. Then I remember that I have to face into the fire to extinguish it, not run the other way. Pema Chodron explains it so well in her talk “Getting Unstuck: Fear and Fearlessness.” Writing this post was a great reminder to watch it again. “It’s a process of being here all along, not just when we like how it’s going. Instead of that making you more self-absorbed, it makes you very decent, very sane, and very open to the world and other people.”
Every time I hear myself say “heel” to my dog, in my mind I think “heal.”
Life keeps on giving us opportunity to practice. Keep facing into it and keep going.
We walked home, my cellphone clamped between my cheek and my shoulder, my dog upside down like a baby in my arms, unable to walk from the bite wound. Cars whooshed past during the more modest but no less loud flow of quarantine rush hour as I waited for the vet to pick up while admonishing myself not to panic. “It helps no one if you lose it. Do not cry.”
When the vet answered, I explained what had happened. “You need to go directly to an emergency vet if he needs stiches. Did the other dogs have their rabies vaccinations?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.”
“You need to find out. You both need rabies shots if you have open wounds.”
The enormity of the situation pawed its way through the fog and settled in. With moderate success, I instructed myself to take a deep breath to try to quell the out-of-control-coupled-with-a-strong-desire-to-crawl-into-a-hole sensation that was rising in my chest.
When I got home, I tiptoed up the stairs to find my husband, hoping to avoid drawing any attention from our kids before we had a plan. In whispers I described the surprise attack, showed him our wounds. “I think I need to take him to the ER?”
I said this as a question, almost imploring him to disagree with me. As someone who works with anxiety all the time I was open to the possibility that I could be overreacting, that maybe a gaping hole on the underside of our dog’s belly was not in fact something to worry about. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “the only easy day was yesterday” is the type of Navy ethos I was raised with. Which is a wild mindset to run smack into an anxious being, where the gray area between a real crisis and an anxiety-provoked one can be difficult to decipher. I know from experience that my gut instinct is actually pretty accurate, but I always do this little dance of second-guessing myself wondering if I should tough it out just a little longer.
It was late afternoon by this point. Having pulled multiple all nighters in the pediatric ER with a sick kid, I’ve learned to just go before it gets dark and all remaining rational thought goes out the window as fatigue sweeps in. The sooner you go, the sooner you get to go to bed.
Sure enough, once our dog was in the vet’s arms, I felt my shoulders drop from their alert perch near my ears as relief washed over me. That’s when the uncontrollable shaking started. Through chattering teeth I confessed to a friend over the phone that I couldn’t stop shaking. “That’s just the adrenaline leaving your body. It’s normal.”
I had always thought when I got the shivers and shakes that it was a weakness, that I wasn’t tough enough, that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just keep it together. I should know by now that what I perceive to be my unique oddities are very rarely only mine. A nearly decade-old memory of a dimly-lit, brick-walled classroom at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine surfaced. All of us patients were sitting in a circle with our eyes closed as the teacher led a guided meditation. I was rolling my eyes behind my shut eyelids, bracing myself against the “woo-woo” territory we were entering.
“You are walking down a path through a forest. There is a tree in the distance. Walk over to it. The tree is you.”
Silence (apart from my internal groaning).
“Ask the tree for guidance on a character trait you need help fixing.”
I could barely contain my snark. BUT, I had chosen to take this class to explore every avenue I could to alleviate my RA symptoms. AND I was in this room with all these other people so I felt committed to do what was asked (or at least to not be rude). I kept my eyes closed, looked at the oak tree standing tall and sideways (oddly), and asked it the question as instructed. Out of nowhere – I swear – a voice said “self-doubt.” Woah. That is spot on, but I had never really thought of it.
The room remained silent, everyone was still, but the rush of blood in my ears picked up in intensity along with the pace of my breathing. The teacher instructed, “Now ask the tree how best you can heal.” Again, this voice, intoned, “Love yourself more.”
The root cause of every damn thing that gets in my way is doubting myself. What a novel idea to treat myself with the same latitude and compassion that I give others, to stop assuming that I am in some way to blame when something – anything – goes wrong.
As I sat there at the vet I realized two things: one, clearly I still have work to do. But, two, I noticed in real time the negative messaging and suffering I levy upon myself. I noticed the flood of could have, should have, if only you had narratives that began to consume me as the adrenaline ebbed away, as if I could have controlled what happened, as if any of us can control anything more than our response to what happens to us. And those were awesome catches – historic, life-changing catches. I may be my own harshest critic. And I may be pre-programmed toward self-judgment, writing nasty headlines and elaborate stories in my head about my imperfections and inadequacies. But if I can insert awareness to those moments then, well, then we are getting somewhere. I know I am not the only person who faces these challenges. This was a major oxygen mask moment. Breathe.
The truth is, I’ve been trying to write for weeks. I have literally 10 drafts going, some with a couple notes jotted, some full-fledged-almost-there-posts. I had high hopes and great intentions of writing some reflections on 2020 well before the new year, but here we are.
I have been stuck. I guess it’s a form of writer’s block, though I have plenty ideas. It’s been a rough patch, for sure. Maybe this is normal for a writer. It certainly is for life, right!?!
This holiday season brought along with it some big, sometimes crippling, feelings. The holidays will do that in a good year, like last year when the day before Thanksgiving I opened a cardboard box my brother had delivered from our mom’s apartment. Within the thick layers of tacky tape and the fortress of dusty bubble wrap I discovered our mom’s China plates and was promptly steamrollered by memories and emotion. I set the Thanksgiving table with them, a heaping of nostalgia to go with my mashed potatoes.
This year, there was all of that type of longing and loss coupled with the fatigue brought on by merely existing in this quarantine/social distance world. Somewhere along the way this year something broke inside me, like I left too many documents open on my desktop and it caused a short circuit. But it happened more slowly than a computer crashing, more like the chiseling away of stone into a statue. The result, in this case, isn’t beautiful, though, so maybe it’s more like when weather eroded the Old Man of the Mountain for so long that the face finally fell off one day. Yep, that’s about right. Every morning I peel my eyes open, claw my way out of fitful sleep, and flop myself off the side of the bed to standing. It is no joyful greeting to the day, I can assure you. Slowly, I coax myself out of my pajamas into “real clothes,” a ridiculously laborious effort executed primarily to prevent myself from getting salt and snow all over my favorite pajamas while walking the dog.
That is generally the state of things here. I army crawled my way through the molasses swamp of holiday decorating and gift-buying. I banged out an apple pie for Thanksgiving the day after the actual meal was supposed to occur. I ordered my holiday cards in October because I had no clue what month it was and they were 75% off – and, honestly, I could have written them in April and said approximately the same thing.
When 2020 rolled around, I didn’t have any big expectations or thoughts for what it might hold. I never do resolutions or goals for New Year’s Eve. It feels so arbitrary. If you need to push the reset button, New Years is as good a time as any to do so. But resets are possible all year long. Never let the date on your calendar stop you from shifting your mindset, reframing and seeing the world in new ways, being flexible, pivoting, and starting fresh. I did like the look of 2020, though. It was so nice and symmetrical. Much less clunky than 2019. Not that, as we all clearly now know if we ever wondered before, the beauty of the date has anything at all to do with anything.
And somehow we find ourselves at January 1, 2021. 1/1/21. Now that it’s taken me so long to finish this post, even better we arrive at 1/2/21. Every year has its challenges, but no one could have predicted the global scale of 2020’s plight. It’s been a difficult year and there have been some truly wonderous moments, many that I would have missed if I was not forced to live slow and small. Among other things, I learned that I cannot focus or develop any substantive thoughts while staring at a computer screen of rotating faces staring back at me, and also that Zoom is a miraculous way to get back in touch with friends and family scattered across the country and the world. I learned that I would love to have a personal chef if I could afford one, and also that I will do whatever it takes to feed my family tasty, healthy meals because I love them (and even to recreate favorites like Auntie Anne’s pretzels, dumplings, pizza, and sesame chicken when takeout was not an option). I learned that I love exploring and learning about the world and that claustrophobia sets in when my wings are clippedand also that there is amazing stuff happening in my own backyard like Great Horned Owls hooting and the timeless joy of good old-fashioned sparklers and small, quiet holiday gatherings serving up an introvert’s dream. It’s been a year of being depressed and broken brained and inspired and awe-struck.
You know when you stop eating sugar and all of a sudden all the other food you eat tastes so much better, like your taste buds have been reactivated? This year was kind of like that, but instead of quitting sugar (which I most assuredly did NOT!) I quit rushing around and commitments and shoulds and going places. Once I adjusted to the sensory deprivation, the little moments closer to home suddenly became sweeter. Do I crave traveling and other people and Olaf-esque warm hugs? Hell, yes! Do I wish that this period was over and that it hadn’t dragged on for so long in the first place with the completely unnecessary and on-going loss of life and health? Of course.
But this year I learned that I can do hard things for as long as necessary to benefit the greater good. I might not like it, but I can do it. I always hoped that would be the case, but this year was the proving ground. And just like when I have quit sugar in the past, and became more aware of what parts of eating sugar do me no favors and what parts of quitting sugar completely suck the very joy out of life, I will take from this fraught period the same kind of awareness about life. There are lessons from this period that I will abide forever. That’s the hope, anyway.
It’s great to have hope at the dawn of a new year. It’s necessary to source it from within whenever one is challenged. Onward.
For the last couple of weeks, my teammates and I have gotten together in my open garage, with our rowing machines spaced six feet apart, to do our regular morning workouts, just as we’ve been doing since the pandemic began. But over the past few weeks, something strange began to happen. Each day, from one moment to the next, I have been unable to remember the workouts, or unable to keep in my head how many minutes of rest between sets, or do the math about how long the whole workout will take.
The workouts are not complicated, and they aren’t different from what we’ve been doing for years.
But my brain is broken.
A friend, lamenting about missing travel, recently asked a question, “What was the last trip you took?”
I couldn’t remember that February client trip. But you know what I did remember? The March vacation that the pandemic cancelled. My brain conveniently forgot what I had, and focused only on what I’d lost.
My memory is failing me.
The last time I experienced this was when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Once we were finally able to get home from the course, because we didn’t know what the next few days would hold, I went to the bank to withdraw some cash, just to have it on hand. I put my card into the ATM, and then hovered over the pin keypad. My mind was blank. I tried to think of the numbers, I tried to think of the finger movements, I tried to take the card out and start again, but the grey matter on which the memory sat had gone black.
I tried for weeks to go back, and after a month gave up. I walked into the bank and asked the teller for the number, which she handed to me. It was entirely foreign. I asked if she had reset it. She said, “No, this was the number automatically set when you opened the account ten years ago.”
I’d had the same number for ten years. And it didn’t even look familiar when she handed it to me.
Why do I tell you these stories?
Because the workout numbers were not set by me. The PIN number was not set by me. The client trip was not set by me. None of these things had as permanent of purchase in my mind as the things I set myself.
Just like the marathon bombing inserted trauma into my brain, instantaneously fragmenting formerly organized bits into chaotic shrapnel, this pandemic has provided a slow motion replay, burrowing mole holes that leak at a sludge-like pace information which once easily found purchase.
Wait, many cloves of garlic did that recipe demand? What time am I supposed to pick up the kids? Am I adding these expenses correctly?
Also, I seem to have forgotten my PIN number again. And also the code to my own garage.
My brain is hurting.
This pandemic has been going on for seven months, and we are only halfway through it. The numbers are surging. The headlines are foreboding. The election is unending. And winter is coming.
Maybe you recognize yourself in this post. If you do, I see you, I feel you, I am you. Know that you are not alone. I don’t have any solutions other than what we already know: wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands. We will get through it, and we will get through it together. The fact is: there is no other way.
And, me? I’m going to try to focus more on what I have than what I’ve lost. That burden has proven too heavy for me and I can no longer bear its weight.
Hi everyone!!! Starting next week guest bloggers will be incorporated more regularly into my editorial calendar. The content, as with my personal writing on this blog, will feature well-crafted stories that change the narrative and look more deeply at struggle – with one’s health, with women’s rights, with motherhood, with caring for aging parents, with the many ways life can present challenges. As usual, you can expect honesty and authenticity as writers reflect on the lessons learned. These stories underscore the universality of human suffering alongside the opportunity to take a new look at one’s own challenges and discover the threads of hope.
The oxygen mask is the antidote to the negativity bias that threatens to consume us all! Enjoy the first guest blogger – Laura Gassner Otting – coming out this Tuesday!
Here we are, folks, on the precipice of a Thanksgiving that will by all counts be unique, whether it’s the volume of zoom calls you will be fielding or your attempt to stay warm (and dry in New England) while eating outside – or if it’s simply quieter than usual. Be sure that gratitude is on the menu, despite everything.
I have been trying damn hard not to jump on the “2020 sucks,” “because 2020…,” “totally forgettable,” “worst year ever” bandwagon. It’s telling that I have to make a conscious effort, my face all contorted in a Jim Carrey-esque exaggerated grimace as I wrestle internally with how I feel some days. Some days are just too much. But it’s also not either/or. Surely even during the shit show that has been the last eight months (or more) some good things have also happened. It’s both a shit show AND some good things happened.
Holidays are particularly fraught with either/or thinking. Either it is the tradition I am used to or it sucks and we should write it off. I admit, over the last couple of days I have found myself traipsing down memory lane and getting caught up in the nostalgia of Thanksgiving’s past. Thanksgiving is my family’s most cherished holiday by far. Usually the whole family descends from all across the country for multiple days. That’s not happening this year.
I find myself stopping in the middle of memory lane, a little knot building in my chest, to reckon with what Thanksgiving is not this year. There will not be the anticipation of everyone arriving late Wednesday or early Thursday, the hugs and handshakes and “it’s so good to see you’s.” There will be no road race Thanksgiving morning, no family soccer game, no toothy grins for the camera trying to capture 20 or more people smooshed around the table, no charades after dinner. This year my mom’s care home is locked down on coronavirus red alert, and a recently-returned-from-college relative is Covid positive and in quarantine.
If I got stuck there, I would be plunging down the drain of self-pity with Drano clearing the way. But here’s the truth about Thanksgiving this year: while I am bummed about missing the totally predictable flow of both conversation and events, including the guaranteed antics and laughter that happen whenever my family gets together, I am also friggin’ excited that I am not cooking; I am not cleaning; I am not hosting 20 of my nearest and dearest; I am not traveling. There is no planning required whatsoever and it is downright freaking liberating. It’s like a real, actual break. A holiday, if you will.
Most Thanksgivings I roll up to the Monday morning after just trashed and exhausted, my house disheveled, the laundry piled to the ceiling, and jumping right back into the fray for the frantic sprint to Christmas as if I never actually needed a day off anyway. This year, we didn’t have the annual tradition of guilting-of-my-brother-to-come-East-for-Thanksgiving-even-though-he-has-said-a-million-times-it’s-not-a-convenient-time-of-year-from-him-to-travel. There are no hotel reservations or airport pickups or travel agency level requirements of any sort to coordinate while juggling the rest of life. Did I mention I am not spending all day cooking a meal that people devour in 20 minutes? That does not bring me joy. This also means I don’t have to get groceries. Or clean a million dishes. Cry if you will about this twist of fate, but there are reasons to be happy. Both/and. Not either/or.
Needless to say, the both/and mindset can be incredibly helpful for getting yourself unstuck and it is so much more real than either/or. You can celebrate gratitude for what you have AND recognize that others have much less. You can feel joy AND acknowledge that it’s been an extraordinarily difficult year. You can be and feel and do both AND… We aren’t one-dimensional automatons who feel one way and one way only the way either/or requires. That’s a trap and it’s so stifling. Abundance is a mindset, and it’s not a mindset that flourishes in a world of either/or.
So my Thanksgiving message to you is: take the time to check the narrative in your head. Investigate the tendency toward either/or thinking. Tamp down the noise of the big feelings (the negative ones are super LOUD) and dig a little deeper. Ask yourself if there is room for feeling both frustrated, angry, afraid, sad, lonely AND grateful. There’s no use waiting for the world to steady itself again. You may be waiting a while – and, frankly, it needs to change anyway in many respects. It’s critical to learn to hold and acknowledge all of the feelings, the whole messy, contradictory jumble, together. It changes everything about one’s outlook.
Here’s another truth bomb for you to ponder over your pie – we don’t need to celebrate Thanksgiving when we are told to by a date on the calendar. I know, WHAT?!?! These calendar dates are just human constructs created to keep ourselves propelling forward through life in some sort of organized fashion. I know that they correspond with when kids get off school and that’s significant grown-up reality, of course. I recognize that I can’t just decide to have Thanksgiving on some random Wednesday in February and expect my whole family to show up (though, to be fair, I bet the airfare would be a lot cheaper and no lines at the grocery store! My brother would come from Colorado for sure, no guilting required). I often think about holidays as being a little bit of mind control of the masses. Does anyone ever think about WHY we do this at this particular time or if it even works for you?
So, try this one on for size – we can celebrate thanksgiving when there’s a vaccine and we can properly hug each other and not worry about who may or may not get sick afterwards. It’s dinner, folks, pure and simple. We can -and should – give thanks more than once per year anyway. Thanksgiving 2020 is looking like it might be absolutely delightful in July 2021. Thanksgiving 2021 we can get our gratitude on together in a big way. But, also, I have gratitude right here, right now, in this wonky Thanksgiving 2020 that’s coming right up. Because it’s all in how you see it. It’s a loss and it’s also a win. Both/and. The biggest win of all, of course, is ensuring that everyone in my family is healthy and well and, ideally, alive this time next year. So far so good – and for that, I am extremely grateful.
Happy Thanksgiving! Make of it what you will – don’t forget the gratitude morsels, and don’t forget the masks!
Does anyone else have to fill out myriad attestations on multiple different apps or websites for most, but not all, of their kids’ daily activities? It’s blowing my mind trying to keep track of these attestations and health checks and the remote/in-school schedules. I barely know what day it is let alone which kid is in school on this particular day versus at home learning. On top of that, somehow, we have adjusted to this pandemic time enough to have refilled our schedules with extracurricular activities and social engagements (distanced, of course). It’s like old times except amplified by masks and zooms and everything taking longer than it used to and requiring way more thought to pull off than before as well as this underlying sense of being perpetually slightly off balance. I set alarms for myself all day long so I don’t forget to show up for something or pick a kid up or pack a lunchbox or who even knows what I might (not) do next without cueing.
Along with all of this comes a lot, including a lot of feelings. My personal daily attestation looks something like this:
Do you have to check a calendar regularly to know what day or month it is? Yes or No
Do you know what year it is? Yes or No
Are you exceptionally exhausted for no clear reason? Yes or No
Do you live with a perpetual sense of foreboding? Yes or No
Are you overwhelmed or fighting feelings of sadness and malaise? Yes or No
Does socializing wear you out, almost like you are out of shape? Yes or No
When looking at old photographs, do you wonder if they occurred during this same lifetime? Yes or No
Do you cringe when people get too close together in a movie before remembering that we used to be able to do that? Yes or No
Do some days seem to go on forever, with no sense of time? Yes or No
Do series of days evaporate into an abyss of nothingness before your very eyes? Yes or No
Does the smallest thing sometimes suddenly push you right over the edge? Yes or No
If you answered yes to three or more of these questions, it is NOT safe to carry on with your day. You are experiencing pandemic fatigue and are on the verge of meltdown (check out The Art of the Pandemic Meltdown for another take on this phenomena). Stop before you go any further, breathe, and check in with ALL OF THE FEELINGS.
For me, I have begun to notice – through a lot of work and reflection – that my response to any stress or uncertainty takes a pretty reliable and predictable course. It didn’t appear to be consistent, just horribly uncomfortable and upsetting, until I really started to pay attention. Now, I know that I am just going through my paces when that unsettled, yucky feeling starts between my stomach and diaphragm, right below my rib cage. No matter the stimulus, the trajectory is pretty much the same: adrenaline rush (fight or flight), go blank (temporarily), shake (literally), develop ache in pit of stomach, annoyance (why do I have to deal with X? = is this a good time to flee?), self-doubt (what did I do to cause X?/maybe (probably) I said something, did something, am something wrong), negative self-talk (why do you always react like this? if only you were X, you wouldn’t feel this way; every version of should have, could have, would have, and, then: just stop feeling like this), sleeplessness (more adrenaline), and, wait a second, I have seen this all before, I don’t like it and I don’t like how it feels but I know that eventually I will get to the other side (resilience and fight). And then I sit with whatever it is and I deal with it, be it a leak in the basement, a too windy day and swaying trees, a sick child, a dog attack, a public presentation, basically any sort of discord, or a global pandemic. All the same. And, fundamentally, underlying each of them, is the fact that something or everything about them is out of my control. And out of my control stokes anxiety. And the sooner I identify that, the sooner we all identify all these feelings and understand them for what they are, the better off we will all be. It still disappoints me to realize that knowing all this doesn’t make the feelings go away or stop them from coming the next time. But now I recognize what is happening so I go through my paces more efficiently and get to that more calm place faster. And that’s called resilience. And that’s how we make it through tough stuff, time and time again.
I invite you, as I invite myself, to welcome in all of the feelings, just as Rumi writes in the poem The Guest House. This is what putting your own oxygen mask on first is all about. You have to take good care of yourself – and that means noticing and allowing ALL OF THE FEELINGS to cycle their way through – before you can take good care of others.
She would laugh that we were so worried. I can hear her voice in my mind saying, if she understood, “What? About moi? Ridiculous.” She would probably be upset that we even sent her to the hospital in the first place. She is more of a stick-it-out-on-your-own, “I’m not sick, I just don’t feel well,” kind of person.
March 28 to June 5, 2020. That was the duration of my mom’s journey with COVID-19. She went to the hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms. We expected her to get fluids, be monitored for a little while in the emergency room, and then be sent home. Instead they tested her for the then recently arrived COVID-19, which I shrugged off as ER hypervigilance (leave no test un-run!). If only I could be there, I thought, I could explain to them what she can’t, that she always has a little cough and the sniffles. It’s nothing to worry about.
Her positive test result stunned us and resulted in her prompt admission to the hospital, where she tumbled into the black hole of a blossoming public health crisis and a rapidly filling hospital. She used to tell me not to set my expectations too high because then you just invite disappointment. When I heard “COVID positive,” my expectations were grounded pretty firmly in reality.
She endured 2 separate hospitalizations (I wrote about the first one in a HuffPost essay – ironically, it was published the day she was sent back with secondary complications). She ended up spending 3 weeks total in the hospital. She didn’t eat or walk for weeks; had pneumonia (mild, mercifully) and then a pulmonary embolism and thrush. She was poked and prodded every which way and was generally miserable and confused. We eventually made the decision to discharge her from the hospital on hospice with the goal of getting her to a situation where she was comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her (even if I couldn’t be one of them because, COVID, which is pretty much the answer to any question of this dystopian existence anymore). We hoped that with one-on-one attention in a familiar setting someone could get her to eat. And we were prepared, if not, for her to leave this world in peace and comfort.
It was a long, long road full of Boost protein shakes and brownies for breakfast (for her, and, some days, to be honest, for me, too, because, well, I had to find comfort where I could). It was days of phone calls with doctors and nurses and hospice workers and chaplains and family and funeral homes. It was a nurse praying with her as she lay quietly in her bed, telling her we loved her even though we couldn’t be there. It was short Facetimes with my mom and the aides working with her, the Sound of Music or My Fair Lady playing on her CD player in the background. It was texted images of her sitting in a wheelchair getting her nails done or painting during a group activity. It was videos of her shuffle-dancing around the dining room, supported by an aide, honoring the woman she was and infusing joy where they could into her life. It was reports about her learning how to walk again, first with people supporting her on both sides, then, slowly, a few steps on her own. It took about 6 weeks for the odds of her making it through this illness to shift in her favor. She doesn’t remember any of it, which may have been her saving grace. Because she has Alzheimer’s, she lives in this exact moment, and then this one, and then the next, with no reference to the past or the future.
Through, and despite, it all, she exuded her characteristic grit and indefatigable spirit. She gave my brothers and I fatigued smiles through the Facetime screen, her inner spark sometimes igniting in her eyes through the otherwise wan expression on her face. More recently we have received videos of her humming a tune and dancing down the hall to the beat of her literal own drummer. Her laughter echoes like the first birds of spring after a long winter, issuing robustly and sweetly through the air, quickening the rhythm of my heart and flooding my soul with warmth. I only just realized as I listened more intentionally to her laugh, absorbing more fully this sound that so recently I thought I would never hear again, that her laugh echoes the sound of my own.
I guess it wasn’t her time. I guess she still has more to do here on this Earth, more to teach. I don’t know what else to say about how close we walked to the line, and then how she suddenly walked it back. She would say, “What did you expect? Of course I lived. Maybe don’t take life so seriously. Maybe don’t count me out just because the prognosis looks bad (really bad). Now tell me about you. How are you?”
I find myself speechless at times in her presence, my mind bending as I try to reconcile what happened to her and to our family during those months and the vast loss of life during this COVID outbreak, with her physically sitting there still with me, smiling, laughing, and full of LIFE. We sit outside on the patio at her care home admiring the trees and sky, listening to the river, singing or just sitting quietly. She still appreciates beauty in the world: a clear blue sky, a gentle warm breeze. She will close her eyes and tilt her chin upward, breath deeply, and smile broadly, completely at peace, 100% her authentic, younger self, the mom I remember. Post-COVID, she is back to walking unassisted, dance parties, eating, singing, giving back rubs, smiling, and laughing – lots of laughing. She doesn’t have much to say, and doesn’t understand much of what I tell her, but she knows I am someone special to her. She lights up like it’s a surprise party every time an aide walks her outside and she sees me standing there. On some biological level we are still connected, even if she can’t remember my name. She would like to give me a hug, reaches for me, but we sit and tap our toes together instead, a small physical connection that doesn’t potentially jeopardize either of us. COVID kisses. It’s the best we can do for now.
I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. My mom returned to me from the brink, and she returned bubbling with happiness and love to share. She still has so much to teach, not only to me, but to all of us: about enjoying the simple things in life, like a warm breeze and a blue sky; about what it means to be fueled by love, to be guided by an inner joie de vivre; about dancing and laughing through life, no matter what; about resilience and grit and never, ever counting someone out or giving up, no matter the odds; about how deeply the love between a mother and her child runs, and how it’s still recognizable when all else is lost.
When it comes time to say goodbye, whenever that may be, I hope I will be able to be there and to hold her hand. In the meantime, I am counting my blessings and following her lead: taking a deep breath; embracing unbridled joy; seeking daily, small moments of happiness; loving my family and friends hard; smiling and laughing often; feeling grateful for every day I still have mom on this Earth; and living as close as I can to this very moment, and then the next one and then the next, moment to moment to moment. Even now. Especially now.
My mom survived COVID-19 and has lived gracefully with Alzheimer’s for over 7 years. She still exudes love and compassion for others. She still smiles and laughs. She is still the life of the party. She continues to be an example to us all about a life well-lived, no matter what. She would say, “This too shall pass.” And it will.
If ever there was a time to make lemonade out of lemons, it is now.
But where to start? It’s small, simple acts that take the circumstances we are given and flip the expected outcome on its head. This is exactly the story of Keki and the Lemon Seed, a true, modern day parable. Never heard of it? That makes sense because it has never before been told. But here it is:
There once was a woman named Keki. She lived in Hawai’i, where her work required her to fly between the islands regularly (back in the day when that was possible). In those 20 minute puddle jumps the airlines attempted to quickly serve beverages between take off and landing. The cabin crew would roll their carts down the aisle passing out drinks in little plastic cups to each of the passengers and then hurriedly collecting them and any other trash before landing. This was true all day long, every day, on the little flights that hopped between each Hawai’ian island.
As a series of islands, Hawai’ians tend to be extra careful about their environmental impact. And, yet, this standard way of operating persisted. Keki typically just said no thank you to the cabin crew and brought her own, re-useable water bottle. But one day she forgot her water bottle and was incredibly thirsty so she resorted to the only option available: to take the airline plastic cup.
This bothered her – A LOT. As she sipped her airline water, she thought about what she could do to ameliorate the fate of the single-use plastic she was holding in her hand. She didn’t have a lot of time to think since it was such a short flight, but as the cabin crew came around to collect everyone’s trash, Keki held onto her cup and the lemon slice inside it. When she got home, Keki filled the plastic cup with soil and buried one of the lemon seeds deep within it. She then placed the little airline cup in a sunny window. Within days, a sprout had pushed through the soil, the budding of a lemon tree.
Keki’s was a simple gesture, and also an incredibly authentic and refreshing one. Keki repurposed a tiny plastic cup that would have gone straight to a landfill into something beautiful and alive. She didn’t exactly make lemonade out of lemons, but she did make lemons out of landfill.
Imagine if we all took stock of our daily impact on the Earth, as well as our connection to it, with the same consideration and consciousness. Imagine if we all went about our days intentionally, thoughtfully considering our choices and contemplating the way we live and act. Imagine if we weighed the impact of our actions on our global community as well as our local neighborhood. In the middle of a pandemic that has upended the world completely, if ever there were a time and a call to make lemonade out of our lemons, it is now.
For more on what we can do, the United Nations recently published a series of Sustainable Development Goals and monthly actions. That’s a great place to start.
As a reminder, I know I say this every time, but I can’t emphasize it enough. WE are the solution. At a time when nothing feels within our control and the problems seem extraordinarily large and insurmountable, we need to dig deep inside, pivot, and rise to the occasion. Small but measured steps – planting one little lemon seed at a time – is the way it is going to get done. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. We need to do better starting now – and we can.
The only way to hear another’s story and to truly see their reality, is to be assured that our own stories have been heard, that we have been seen. Social isolation drives a stake deeper into the systemic social divisions that already exist between us, wedging ever wider the yawning gap between our reality and that of “others.”
Months of coronavirus isolation have provided a stark window into how isolation affects an individual and a community. We are living what happens when people are cut-off and feel they have no control over their life: hopelessness prevails; children fall behind academically and emotionally; a scarcity mindset stokes protectionism and hoarding; anger and frustration simmer and then boil over.
Fear, powerlessness, and uncertainty have become unwelcome, familiar feelings. With the sand perpetually shifting beneath our feet, we find ourselves quagmired by the overwhelming tidal wave of disillusionment, division, and disenfranchisement. We can’t stay here. We need to take a deep breath, set our course, and keep moving forward so inertia and negativity don’t suck us in.
You might wonder where exactly we are supposed to move forward to, being in the middle of a pandemic and the wheels clearly coming off the cart and all? While everyone is focused on the loss of now, on this period of sacrifice and challenge, we have to constantly remind ourselves that this is a finite moment in time; that great opportunity comes from overcoming adversity; that history is full of stories of struggle, resilience, and hope.
There is SO MUCH WORK to be done to move our society toward being more whole and equitable. As a country reckoning with a heightened awareness of our divisions, how do we do better?
The way to begin to heal is to come together, solving the issues of isolation and racial division through deliberate, intentional connection and engagement. North Brookfield, a rural community of 4,800 in central Massachusetts, is spearheading a regional creative arts program – ROAR (Rural Opportunity through Art and Restoration) – to do just that.
The Brookfields region has been wrestling with its identity and isolation for twenty-five years. As with many rural communities nation-wide, un- or underemployment, intergenerational poverty, depression, and drug dependency have permeated the region. Small businesses that were the life-blood of small town centers were decimated as retail was sucked outward to major highways and big box shopping centers. Health care and social supports are difficult to access. Though Vibram continues to manufacture shoe soles locally, employment and advancement opportunities have declined. Isolation here has become status quo.
The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House (“Friends”) have worked for over a decade to preserve their community’s vacant town hall, an architectural masterpiece and once “the center of everything.” The deteriorating building’s location in a small, isolated community has meant that a traditional commercial use would be challenging, if not infeasible. Two years ago the Friends contacted Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF), a Boston-based preservation organization, to help them with the puzzle of how to sustainably occupy the building.
Townhouse from Main Street, photo by Jason Baker
Townhouse Interior, photo by Jason Baker
AHF collaborated as a thought-partner, helping the Friends to recognize that renovating the Town House could catalyze change in their community and throughout the region, but only if complemented by additional economic development efforts. AHF recommended repainting the building, a small, empowering act that proved transformative in garnering broader support. The repainted Town House caught the attention of many area residents and was the catalytic spark that ignited a partnership with local recording company Long View Entertainment. Long View worked with the Friends to envision the building as an art and music center for at-risk rural communities.
ROAR, an expansion of Long View’s award-winning after-school program, will partner with Boston’s Berklee College of Music to offer educational and cultural programming featuring music, writing, storytelling, audio and video production, art, and theater click here for program offerings). Creative commerce education will build life skills, foster change, and inject energy – and hope. The program, anchored in a centrally-located historic structure that is meaningful to the community, will address from the inside-out the impacts of social isolation that divide and perpetuate separateness. ROAR will also provide work experience for Berklee students, infusing artistic talent from beyond the region and tearing down the rural-urban divide.
How does this help to heal? Data shows that tight family and community social networks can shield people psychologically from the stresses of having lower incomes, lower educational levels, or generally stressful living conditions. Dr. Tony Iton, from the University of California Berkeley, found that the social vulnerability resulting from poor schools, housing, transportation, and lack of access to healthy foods creates incubators of chronic stress that reduce life expectancy by 15 to 20 years as compared to higher income, healthier environments. While Iton’s research primarily focuses on the inner city, poor rural areas face similar issues and outcomes. Meanwhile, a January 2019 National Governors Association report showed that rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations experienced higher incomes, population growth, and greater well-being and social inclusion than rural counties that lack performing arts institutions.
Arts programing aimed at connection and diversification addresses both the turmoil boiling in our streets and economic vitality in distressed regions. In fact, the 2019 Massachusetts Rural Development Policy Plan highlighted “encouraging dialog and partnership between towns and regions; forming strong partnerships with regional academic institutions; developing youth leadership programs; redeveloping and reusing vacant industrial sites; growing local jobs and leveraging local assets; devoting more money to education; developing tourism and hospitality services; and promoting racial diversity” as best practice. ROAR is all of these things.
ROAR at the Town House is piloting a replicable model that can be applied in other communities, not only in the Brookfields’ region but across Massachusetts and the nation. According to the New England Foundation for the Arts, “The creative economy is a powerful engine of growth and community vitality. A thriving cultural sector leads to thriving communities.” Creating a regional hub at the North Brookfield Town House will address downtown economic depression as well as rural social isolation.
When the world stopped, the arts, in all its forms, entertained and comforted us. It broke the barriers of quarantine and isolation by drawing us together. Now more than ever we need to be brought together to tell our stories, to be heard and seen, and to listen and learn.