This Year We Loved – Fiercely

For Valentine’s Day, the two Girl Scout troops at my daughter’s school made cards for the residents at my mom’s assisted living home. In addition, a friend’s daughters, who taught themselves how to make hot chocolate bombs over the past month, contributed 48 of their combustible confections as well as gift bags and cards for the staff. The bounty of goodness and love was breathtaking.

Valentine’s Day, typically, is one of my least favorite “holidays.” I don’t generally take kindly to prescribed displays of affection or gift-giving.

But, this year, my Hallmark-holiday hardened heart was cracked. This year, the idea of showing love vastly, abundantly, and against all odds felt genuine and truly necessary.

This past year, love was all we had much of the time, and it both carried us through and broke our hearts.

This time last year we were just hearing reports about some virus in China that was killing lots of people. Maybe it had already moved to Europe by now, I can’t really remember. I could look it up, but everyone already knows the story anyway. What I know for certain is that from my vantage point on the East Coast of the United States we could see something brewing on the horizon, but it still seemed pretty far off, at least to those of us who are not epidemiologists.

This time last year masks were not a thing and PPE was not a term bandied about by non-medical people. This time last year you would have been hard pressed to get a bulk order of PPE. Or at least that moment was coming soon.

This time last year I can hardly remember Valentine’s Day. Strike that, I can’t remember Valentine’s Day at all. Why would I? Remember, Hallmark-hardened heart and eye-rolling are my game. But I know that within a month we will cross the year mark of when the world here turned upside down.

The last day I visited my mom in person and hugged her with reckless abandon was March 9, 2020. I thought I wouldn’t be able to visit for a couple weeks and then it would be over. I could never have imagined all that has happened this past year coming to fruition. It all seemed so unlikely and hyperbolic. The energy felt like the hysteria before a big snowstorm when grocery stores sell out of eggs, milk, and bread as though we have never seen snow before and plan to survive the end of days on French toast.

In the end I wouldn’t visit my mom for months after March 9. In late March, COVID-19 swooped in. She and many staff and other residents were caught up in the storm. When visits were no longer allowed, staff facilitated facetime calls. When she was alone in the hospital battling COVID and it looked as though she might not make it, an angel nurse risked her own well-being to visit her and tell her explicitly that my brothers and I loved her and hadn’t abandoned her. When she eventually returned to her care home on hospice, with a pulmonary embolism and not eating or drinking, the staff not only continued to show up, but showed up with heart, compassion, and love. Not only did they nurse her back to health with Boost protein shakes and cookies for breakfast – whatever it took to get calories into her – but they sang with her, danced with her, honored her, and helped her reclaim her sparkle.

When the storm came, and every day of the year since, the caregivers at my mom’s care home dug deep, dug in, and showed up in myriad courageous and unexpected ways. I know this has happened in other assisted living homes and other places as well: parents who are juggling kids at home as well as work, and are struggling with both; teachers who show up to teach, despite being scared; doctors and nurses who work shift after grueling shift in the ER and on the COVID floors; orderlies who clean what we can’t even imagine; grocery store employees; delivery drivers; pharmacists. So many people have shown up, again and again and again, because they knew that people were counting on them, depending on them, and that we would more be vulnerable without them. I look at the faces of my mom and her neighbors and I say thank GOD for those who take care of the vulnerable among us. Thank God they step up every day, but especially every day of this past year of horrors and extraordinary challenge.

Fierce love. That’s what this year has been. A year of loving fiercely and courageously and doing the best we can.

This year, love needed to be celebrated in a BIG way. This year, love has been the focal point of our very survival. This year, love not only wins, it is a triumph.

Awesome Hats by Kitr Knits

Daily motivational quote by Sailors Sweet Life

Oodles of Valentine’s cards by the Girl Scouts!

Combustible Confections by the Gauldie Girls!

Photos by the Falls!

Smiles and good vibes by me!

Finding Sanctuary

For years after having kids and while taking care of my mom, I had to modify what I thought my life was supposed to be to accommodate what it actually was. I spent far too long trying to shove the round peg that is me into the square hole that was my expectations of myself. Life intervened. Lessons were learned (painfully).

Eventually I let go of some things and I adapted. I left the working world and focused more on my family and my health. It was disorienting and I was consumed by guilt and grief because I wasn’t living the identity I had constructed for myself of being a “working mom.” A paycheck validated my worth and provided confirmation that I was contributing substantively to the world, as sad as that is to acknowledge. Without it, and without a title, I felt diminished and like my tether to and meaning in the broader world had shrunk. My life was fully in the service of others, consumed with sports schedules and camp sign ups, meal planning and doctors appointments. I craved purpose and passion. I got dirty diapers and dishes.

All moms are working moms.

a dear friend pulling me out of the abyss

I couldn’t accept for a while that this was a point in time, a temporary passage and where I needed to be for then, but not forever. I felt like I couldn’t hack it (and of course I assumed as I looked around that everyone else could and was doing “it” better than I was). What was “it,” you might ask? I am not even sure. Life? Work? Or, better, that most elusive work/life balance? My go-to mentality when I am up against a wall is that I must not be trying hard enough. But I couldn’t get out of my own way, and as most people eventually realize walls are pretty solid things. I remember reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and wanting to chuck it against the wall after the 13th page because what she prescribed was to sit with my discontent, essentially, and what I wanted was a to-do list to fix it.

When the pace of life and the noise in your head gets to be too much, where do you find sanctuary? For me, there’s nothing like the smell of warm pine needles on a forest floor, the lapping of lake water against an evergreen shoreline, a boulder-strewn mountain rising in the distance, the stillness of sitting quietly by a pond. No cellphones, no crowds, no distractions. With headspace I can reorient and find my center again.

But for the longest time when my kids were young, I couldn’t travel. The place I dreamed of, Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine, was simply too far away and my life was too busy and too consumed by caring for others for me to disappear into the wilderness. Eventually I would institute an annual pilgrimage to Katahdin, but what about all the time in between? I learned to seek elements of Maine closer to home, and to find stability and happiness within. This is what Pema Chodron teaches, but it took me a while to accept it. It’s still a work in progress. I still get wound up like a top and overwhelmed by life. I still am my own harshest critic. But I find my center by carving out time for exercise; laughing with good friends (always reliable for grounding); being curious and just saying yes! to something new sometimes; taking a walk in my suburban wilderness (often now with my dog); and delighting in the little things like a crisp blue sky, flowers, or a box of cookies arriving in the mail. These are highly recommended life hacks for moms and for everyone else who might feel like life is directing them versus the other way around.

Yesterday I was reminded, spectacularly, about the power of finding sanctuary, be that a mountain vista or a more traditional place of worship. At the end of a tour of historic properties in a small, central Massachusetts mill town, our tour guide invited us to see the interior of one of the local churches. As you might guess, I am more of a nature-than-built-environment-as-sanctuary kind of person, but I am also curious. We walked through a dark entry foyer, nothing of note. But as the door to the sanctuary opened, it was a like a curtain that had veiled and protected my heart through this long, challenging year of isolation, lowering expectations, and gracefully accepting our lot was swept aside. This sanctuary of towering ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate carvings forced a long, deep inhale. This church, modest in presentation from the outside and unexpectedly, stunningly beautiful on the inside, restored part of me that I didn’t even know was missing. It jolted awake a part of my brain that I hadn’t quite even realized was dormant. It reminded me of all the beauty there is in the world, and that you often don’t have to go very far to find it. There are unexpected treasures everywhere, if we are willing to stretch ourselves, be open-minded, and pull open the door to see it.

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part IV (Friendship, Community, and Humanity)

Virtue, tolerance, compassion, and kindness are, unequivocally, alive and well. It may not seem that way at times, but “the better angels of our nature” are on display much more often than not, especially in small moments and daily (even limited by COVID) interactions. There is plenty of headline-grabbing nonsense and legitimate worry about an abundant proclivity to act on our most basic instincts. There’s certainly much to unpack about human psychology and group think, demagoguery, isolation, and desperation. But there are also acts of unparalleled humanity, courage, love, and, fundamentally, connection, to celebrate.

“Emotional literacy is the foundation of resilience, empathy…connection. We are hard-wired for connection and, in the absence of it, there seems to always be suffering.”

Brene Brown

To keep with the dog theme, I’ll start with an example from the night Tucker was injured. As I scrambled to get him to the ER, I sent a quick text to two of his puppy friends (okay, their owners) to let them know what had happened since we had tentative plans to meet for a walk. The response wasn’t just “Oh my gosh, how awful” or even “how can I help,” but instead “I will add extra to the meal I am making for my family and deliver it to yours so you don’t have to worry about dinner” and “I will come sit with you at the vet so you aren’t alone.”

I ended up waiting at the ER for about four hours – there are LOTS of dogs these days and a correlating increase in incidents from dog parks gone wild (plus, I mean, COVID is the answer for any slowdown or SNAFU, isn’t it?). During that time, my family was treated to a homemade meal (not of my making – the best kind!) and I had a friend to help me process what the vet was saying and to remind me to eat something myself. When thanked for their help, both said “of course, that’s just what people do.” And I think that’s exactly right, actually. Generally, that is what people do. And it’s awesome.

Then there was December, a blur of a month at the best of times, which these most assuredly are not. This December was a season of too much loss and too many tears. Through it all I kept coming back to the simultaneous outpouring of compassion and love. Both/and.

During one week in December three friends lost loved ones (only one from COVID, a reminder that people are still suffering life-altering losses and then there is also COVID). COVID-19 – whether the cause of death or not – has turned all norms of grieving upside down with distance and masks and the migraine-inducing nightmare of holding back hugs when that is all anyone wants – and needs.

That awkward restraint notwithstanding, my breath caught at the lump in my throat seeing how people showed up, again and again and in so many ways, for those grieving. In one case, my friend organized a short ceremony outside at a cemetery. It was a frigid mid-winter weekday afternoon in the middle of a pandemic. But when I turned onto the cemetery drive I saw a long line of cars that I recognized, all loaded with friends and neighbors, individuals and full families, who came to pay their respects and show their support. When the bereaved family arrived, people slowly emerged from their vehicles and walked quietly up the frozen, grassy hill to gather around the casket. We represented multiple faiths, many cultures and different backgrounds – and we stood on that blustery hillside, spread at a distance, but together as a community, to honor the passing of our neighbor and friend, to support his family, and to show love despite and because of everything. The officiant noted that as human beings we have our differences and we don’t always agree, but we can all agree that death is inevitable, and we all walk this earth not knowing when the end will be just that it will come. There is unity in this fundamental humanity.

If you choose to peek around the formidable walls constructed by sadness, distance, difficulty, difference, and loss, you will discover some of the purest forms of community, commonality, compassion, and connection. These are where unity and humanity reside. It is from here that we rise up and hold each other up and together. Be curious and kind. Seek the good that emerges from difficulty. Our humanity is in tact. Love wins.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

amanda gorman – the hill we climb

To understand more about what makes us tick emotionally, here is a great podcast: Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda and Brene Brown (on emotional literacy , empathy, courage, and where they come from).

“Empathy is with someone, sympathy is for someone from over here.”

-Alan Alda and Brene Brown podcast conversation
In honor of my friend Ali

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part II (Heel!!! Or Heal?)

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is keep-calm-and-walk-the-dog-e1607437848982.jpg

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is i-see-your-fear-meme.jpg