Within the One Hundred Year Flood
I kept a chronicle of what we did over the past year so that I don’t forget what it was like to live through essentially a 100 year flood (please tell me that this won’t happen again for another 100 years).
As soon as normal hits, it’s easy to forget the details of what is now mercifully becoming the past. March, April and May 2020 were some of the longest months known to man. And yet somehow the last year is already a bizarre blur. It doesn’t feel like it should be blurry because we were all focused on the most minute little things to keep from going completely insane, but somehow it all just blurred together. Meanwhile, March, April and May 2021 have rocketed on by. I am left gasping for air as I watch time wink and salute as another year of my life speeds off down the highway.
Remember washing groceries and I don’t mean just the fruit and veg? Being afraid of the mail and packages because we just didn’t know? Cooking ALL THREE meals EVERY. SINGLE. (DAMN). DAY with no merciful end in sight? I tried to embrace it, but I could barely deal.
Here are a few highlights (lowlights?):
Day 20 – March 31, 2020 – So here’s a remarkable thing about this social distancing…it’s ridiculously busy in such a weird way. I missed 16 whole days of writing this journal. How is that even possible? Well, I’ll tell you how it’s possible! Because life right now is this twilight zone of surreality. I have been teleported to the 1950s and spend most of my waking hours cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, working with kids on one thing or another, and curating precious items for our consumption or comfort (groceries and paper towels in particular).
It’s funny already to look back at the first three days. Maybe those were the hardest. No, probably not. I think the first two weeks were just a rollercoaster of emotions and moments. Suddenly everything on our calendars was being canceled. It’s both an eerie feeling and also really freeing to just go through your calendar and cross everything off – hockey games, swim practices, play dates…some of that stuff was just filler, but some things, things we had planned for a long time or were really looking forward to, are harder to let go of.
I am looking at my calendar now to jog my memory and am laughing that I literally whited out or deleted anything that had been on there. It’s like when I lived in Madagascar and they would just change the departure time of a flight by erasing it on the chalkboard! Ha! The plans you didn’t do don’t exist, I guess. Which is true enough.
That first week, March 16-22 (because I fast discovered that weekends when you have no plans or anywhere to go are just like any other day), we adhered pretty closely to the routine I set up. It seemed to help the kids structure their time and energy. When I call it “homeschool” I should be clear that it’s more an insanity prevention routine than any actual attempt to advance academics. The days are sooooo long with nothing to look forward to and “nothing to do.” I find you have to beat that emotion of “there’s nothing to do” to the punch by sticking to some semblance of a routine.
Day 49, April 28, 2020 – A month ago today, mom started showing COVID symptoms. March 28. She has been sick for a whole MONTH. That’s daunting. It’s been a long month. For both of us.
Seems the neighbors across the street already sold their house. Even in a pandemic, I guess real estate around here is HOT.
Day 50, April 29 – DAY 50! WOAH. That gives me pause.
Day 63, May 12 – Some food prep of note – whoopie pies, auntie anne’s pretzels, and ice cream. ALL HOMEMADE. Mom’s birthday. And also TWO FULLS MONTHS since quarantine started. Incredible that she is alive – and WELL (it seems) – to celebrate it. Amazing to see her on Mother’s Day in a drive by car parade. I didn’t think I would likely ever see her alive again when she was so sick. It was amazing to see her, even through a windshield.
Wednesday, May 13, 2020 Spring Observations (To keep my spirits up and focus my attention away from the gnawing anxiety and grief within me, last spring I meticulously observed the changes to my front garden. Usually I don’t sit still long enough for more than a passing glance, but last year I tried to take advantage of the quiet (which, incidentally, in some respects, I miss).
It’s been an allergy storm this week! I guess the pollen is out.
At the same time, we have had 3 or 4 nights with freeze warnings. That’s really late in the season. We even had snow on Saturday! What?!?! May 9.
Despite the cold, everything continues to grow. My peonies are practically growing visibly every day. Same with the bleeding heart. The cherry blossoms have held on during all the cold and wind. They are probably about peak now and the blossoms will start to fall off. The front garden bed is still just green but much more full and lush. I added some phlox and lantana a week (or two?) ago and have a “small shade garden” to plant today. Spring is here!
Day 72, May 21 – I was thinking today how this is supposed to be such a busy time of year and usually we are crawling to the finish with millions of things to do and end of year recitals and celebrations, just wanting it all to be done finally. It starts to get warm and we all get spring fever. And then the buildings start to get overwhelmingly hot and the walk to school gets hot and seeing all the same people over and over gets old and then it’s finally summer break.
This year of course none of that is happening. And it’s sad. Well, part of me is sad about it anyway. This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the kick off to summer, but it’s no different from any other day or weekend this year…well, that’s not quite true. The warm weather definitely helps and changes the pace of the day and the frame of mind. The kids are most recently keeping busy with remote control cars. We are getting some water guns and have a stockpile of water balloons for backyard summer fun. We continue to wipe down anything that comes into the house with masks and gloves on and rubbing alcohol. Slowly people are starting to get out more with masks on and keeping their distance. Those are the new guidelines as of May 18 when the state started to loosen restrictions a little bit. I immediately was flooded with emails and phone calls to reschedule dentist and doctors appointments. Not there yet. We shall see!
Day 79, May 28 – First “play date” in months walking and rollerblading with friends. Amazing!
I have about 80 miles left to drive on my current tank of gas, which I last filled on March 9!!!!
Day 80, May 29 – Made chocolate ice cream today – YUM!
$1.93 per gallon of gas right now at the gas station nearest to us.
May 9, 2021 – Mother’s Day 2021 – I got to actually be with my mom, not over facetime, not from 6 feet away, not through a car window. So many times over this past year I thought this would never happen, that I would not be able to be with her while she was still alive again. Yet here we are.
Gas is about $2.89 per gallon for the regular stuff. Always fun to track commodity prices over time. And, yes, my garden is growing again and I am delighting in all the things I (apparently) planted last year that I forgot about in the intervening months! Life springs forth anew!
May 25, 2021 – George Floyd. RIP. Has it really only been one year?
A friend read this poem to me when my mom was hospitalized for her second stint with COVID complications:
The Promised Garden
There is a garden where our hearts converse,
At ease beside clear water, dreaming
A whole and perfect future for yourself,
Myself, our children and our friends.
And if we must rise and leave,
Put on identity and fight,
Each day more desperate than the last
And further from our future, that
Is no more than love and respect shown
To all blocked from the garden that we own.
There is a garden at the heart of things,
Our oldest memory guards it with her strong will.
Those who by love and work attain there
Bathe in her living waters, lift up their hearts and
Turn again to share the steep privations of the hill;
They walk in the market but their feet are still.
There is a garden where our hearts converse,
At ease beside clear water, dreaming
A whole and perfect future for yourself,
Myself, our children and our friends.
To be continued…
Is This Normal?
I am having trouble processing. Anyone else?
I am going to keep this short because, if you are like me, I know your attention span is, ummm, limited? Fractured? Broken?
As things “normalize,” I find myself exhausted by what used to be normal – kids’ activities, packing lunchboxes, the daily schlep to school. I have to wake up early. Every day. And get dressed! Often I even shower. It’s what I longed to have return, but how did I used to do this?
Now there are also people, lots of people. It’s been a slow build to this point since this time last year, really, with lots of steps in between. I guess I knew – or hoped – this day would come, but it’s still hard to believe that we are there. I didn’t realize you could get mentally out of shape from lack of practice, but I think that’s what’s happening. Or maybe I am just a year older and really tired all the time?
When this all started in March last year, what did most people think? A couple weeks? I thought for sure it would all blow over, that the news was playing up the drama and making more out of it than was real, just like any big storm. I knew I could handle anything for a couple weeks. When the duration of the stay at home order lengthened, though, I remember hearing giddy reports that there might be a vaccine – by 2021! – and nearly had a breakdown. How could I survive this modified life for nine or more months? It seemed impossible even with my look-on-the-bright-side-find-the-fun attitude and effort from the very start to create a new routine and structure for our family.
And, yet, here we are. There is a vaccine, and the world – my corner of it anyway – does seem to be opening up again. Instead of literally erasing (I still use white out :-)) all planned activities off my calendar like I did last year, more and more keep filling up the blank spaces of my time. And the hugs, oh the blessed hugs.
Honestly, it’s doing my head in. All of it. It’s joyful and hopeful and heavy with relief but also overwhelming. I am trying to remember the lessons of this year of the pivot, of learning to dance lightly on this earth as it kept shifting beneath our feet. As the tsunami of obligation and busyness hovers overhead, I am amazed by how easy it is to slip right back into old habits.
For today’s oxygen mask moment, let’s be aware of our tendency to DO, our tendency to be so absorbed by the frenetic pace of life that we forget to live it. If, like me, you set new priorities and boundaries during quarantine knowing full well that you would lose the quiet, introspective time when the world inevitably, eventually, reopened, honor them. Or at least go find where you wrote them down and reflect on what they tell you about yourself and about what you perceive to be your best version of this life.
Try not to go about life unconscious to your choices and to your role in your own life. Live life deliberately.
LIVE. LIFE. There is so much room for celebrating that we made it to this moment. And there are so many really hard and really important lessons from this past year that we should never, ever forget.
BREATHE. Continue to be grateful for each and every breath, each and every moment we are given.
Life is fragile. And life is sweet. Cherish it and make it your own.
To be continued….
How Social Distancing Is Like Quitting Sugar
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 clipped and 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.
My Brain is Broken. Is Yours too?
Guest Post by Laura Gassner Otting
My brain is broken.
And yours might be, too.
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.
I am choosing to put it down.
And, I invite you to do the same.
Re-posted with permission from Laura Gassner Otting, author of the Washington Post bestseller, Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life.
So Much Still to Teach
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.
Mask up. We got this.
The Parable of the Lemon Seed
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.
Rebuilding in Times of Uncertainty
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.
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.
All photographs are by Jason Baker @ jasonbakerphotography/
 Iton, Dr. Anthony. (November 4, 2016 You Tube). “Change the Odds for Health,” TedX San Francisco, https://youtu.be/0H6yte4RXx0.
 Rood, Sally for the National Governor’s Association. “Rural Prosperity through the Arts & Creative Sector: A Rural Action Guide for Governors and States.” January 2019.
 Rural Policy Advisory Commission. Rural Policy Plan. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. October 2019, pg. 22.
Beyond Four Walls
We have to think big right now. And wide. Beyond what’s boxing us in.
People have a range of risk tolerances, values, and concerns. That is abundantly clear. In order to set up protocols for pandemic school in the fall means that all those risk tolerances and values and needs and wants are getting stewed together into one simmering pot. What people want and what is realistic may not be the same thing. Everyone wants something and pretty much everyone isn’t going to get everything.
All the arguing and division we are seeing in the national media and experiencing in our own social media feeds result from the sense – strike that, no, the fact – that we are trapped, that there are no good solutions that meet everyone’s needs and wants, and that this increasingly long period of upheaval feels as though it may never end. Sprinkle in a little conspiracy theory here, some uncertainty and fear there, and question science and facts with an onslaught of “what about-ism” and you end up with the centrifugal pull of a fast-spinning machine pushing people outward where we find ourselves with our backs suctioned against a wall, digging in our heels in an attempt to find solid ground, ironically ever more isolated and siloed from each other, and feeling rather nauseous.
So here we are.
Much of what we are experiencing is classic grief psychology. Grief is the acute pain that accompanies the loss of something we love. There’s a lot of loss in so many myriad ways right now. The response to that loss is the biggest variable, though. Some appear to be stuck in the anger, bargaining, and denial phases while others have grieved, been depressed, and moved on to acceptance.
What I know about grief, which has been my near constant companion the last several years, is that, while it feels counter-intuitive to face into the fire, that is in fact what needs to be done. While it feels like you should turn away from the pain, sadness, and loss to protect yourself, facing into it actually helps you heal faster, makes you stronger. The more you resist it and want to turn away, the stronger the pain becomes. It doesn’t slink off in the night because you have ignored it. No, it sits, bides its time, and quietly grows. By the time you deal with it it is so much bigger and more intense than it was originally. These days we witness daily the emotional devastation and turmoil that is wrought by crushed expectations and neglected grief.
Here’s a thought: instead of fighting with each other and arguing about the existence of or the impact of the virus and bombarding the superintendent/dean of students/president/you get the idea with hate mail and deluding ourselves into thinking that other school districts or private schools or whatever have figured this out, let’s all take a deep breath, call an adult time out, and step away from the screen. I made a rule for myself decades ago to wait 24 hours before I responded to something that irked or upset me. Typically if it still bothers you 24 hours later, it’s worth addressing. But a lot of problems lose their power if given a little time and, certainly, time affords clarity and calm in a response.
The trigger-happy, community-destroying, faction-inducing sparring on social media helps no one and advances no agenda other than an adrenaline rush. Everyone is so hyped and accusatory, constantly lobbing opposing news articles, demands, and opinions at each other. It’s like watching a pack of amped up dogs baring their teeth and straining at the end of their leashes looking for a fight. Take a day off. Trust me, you won’t miss anything. The needle won’t move one inch if you step away. Everyone already knows all there is to know – there aren’t any good or easy answers and that is what we are all living with.
SO, we make the choice to dig in and be angry and fan the flames. OR, we choose to take a deep breath and proceed with calm, flexibility, and acceptance. There is opportunity in this total explosion to our normal lives if we choose to see it. It demands that we pivot and get creative, dig deep and be resourceful, and truly think outside the box and beyond our four walls (and certainly outside the fours walls of a school building). The social contract of a functioning society demands that the majority respect each other and follow the established rules. We can all get through this period faster and more whole if we commit to taking a deep breath, accepting that this time is finite and also exceptionally challenging, and being respectful of each other, each other’s values and risk tolerances, and the reality that this is hard on almost everyone (except maybe people who invested in Zoom before March 2020). We would do well to face into the fire instead of trying to resist and hold it off. You don’t have to like it, but how you respond to this period is 100% your choice.
“It’s our choices that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Albus Dumbledore
Release the death grip on what was, and open yourself to what could be. Be flexible and think beyond the norm. This period is anything but normal. If we stretch beyond the standards, expectations, and walls that typically box us in, we will find a whole world of opportunity. The natural world continues on without us. There is still so much to be learned right outside our front doors if we just re-focus our attention. Life goes on. Life skills school remains open for business.
“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come.” – Rumi
You will be alright.
We can do better. We are the solution.
Check out my General Resources page for podcast suggestions.
Masks are Tyranny???
Some people really and truly think that masks are tyranny. Really and truly. Despite EVERYTHING, there continues to be (really strong) opposition to wearing a mask.
I was initially all geared up to rant about it. I wanted to rant, but I am not going to. That’s the easy thing to do, but it isn’t helpful. It’s what everyone is doing these days. Who wants more of it?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I looked up the definition of tyranny just to sanity check my gut reaction to that phrase and, yep, tyranny is a pretty extreme word for a face covering:
“people who survive war and escape tyranny” ·
Synonyms: despotism · absolutism · absolute power · autocracy · dictatorship · undemocratic rule · reign of terror · totalitarianism · Fascism · oppression · suppression · repression ·
a nation under cruel and oppressive government.
cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control.
“the tyranny of the nine-to-five day” ·
(especially in ancient Greece) rule by one who has absolute power without legal right.”
I admit that after reading that definition I was even more pissed off for a while. Wearing a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth to stem a scientifically-proven public health crisis isn’t anywhere near the ballpark of being subjected to cruelty, oppression, or a reign of terror. It’s just not.
Of course there is plenty about this pandemic situation that is definitely cruel and unreasonable. Dying alone in a hospital comes to mind. Perpetuating this shit show and elongating everyone’s suffering by ignoring public health mandates gets a nod. Setting up the most vulnerable people in our society to be taken out by a virus that, at this point, we know exists and, honestly, we know how to contain, reigns pretty high too. But wearing a mask?
In the face of racial protests, clear inequality, food insecurity, massive unemployment, and pretty much many much bigger issues, calling a mask tyranny – wasting your breath complaining about it at all, really – seems pretty damn tone deaf.
But this blog isn’t Ranting and Raving.com for a reason. Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First is about providing a hopeful viewpoint to counterbalance the pervasive negative we are ever more perpetually steeped in. It’s about changing the narrative, looking more deeply at the universality of human suffering (how much more universal could you get than a pandemic?), and striving to take a new look at our challenges and to uncover the threads of hope.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata
So, here we are, deep in struggle, and this is what I got for ya.
It’s been a really hard time.
People are BURNT OUT and worried. In the U.S., we left school in March with the promise that fall would be better. And it’s not. We are still vulnerable, still uncertain. And now, all these months later, the cure is perceived to be worse than the curse. There is virus fatigue, isolation fatigue, fear fatigue, economic fatigue, uncertainty fatigue, cheering-myself-up-and-looking-on-the-bright-side fatigue, fatigue fatigue. Kids are climbing the walls and so are parents. What’s so sad is that if everyone would just wear a mask, keep some distance, and wash their hands, we wouldn’t be having this problem.
So here’s the short of it: we can do this. We HAVE to do this.
Care about the economy and want it to open back up completely? Wear a mask.
Want the kids to go back to school? Yep, wear a mask.
You say Black Lives Matter? Wear the mask (otherwise that is 100% NOT how you are living. Black and brown people have been disproportionately impacted by this virus. So, mask it).
There are a bevy of excuses for disliking the mask: it’s hot, it fogs my glasses, I don’t know anyone who has had the virus, I want my kids to have a normal childhood. My short response: rip the band-aid off, wear the mask, and we can all move on. The long version is:
- It’s hot: that’s true, it’s damn hot and the mask is extra uncomfortable when it’s hot. I am pretty sure a ventilator is uncomfortable, too, so a mask seems like not that much to ask, relatively speaking;
- Glasses fog: I wear glasses, too. I wipe them off or lift them up when they start to fog up. Ink smudges when I write with certain pens, too. I deal;
- Don’t know anyone personally who’s had the virus? – well, I do. The conservatively estimated 165,000 people who have died in the U.S. to date all knew someone. You will, too – eventually. Would that really make you feel better?!?!? The fact that the majority who have died were old doesn’t make me feel better about them getting bumped off. It’s a horrible way to die. When did we get so callous?
- Kids having a normal childhood: I get the worry about the kids, trust me, I really do. But adversity can be a great teacher. Besides, does anyone remember their own childhood in great detail? Like year over year detail? My summer memories are a blur of the odd family vacation, the odd sports or all around camp. Mostly we made our own fun and spent A LOT of time being totally bored (my mom’s solution: “I have plenty of things you can help me with around the house,” which effectively sent me into hiding and back to figuring out how to entertain myself). There is no timeline or dates or ages associated with any of it, just a vague pool of memories. School years also blur together. I am sure bad stuff happened in there, but I don’t remember most of it. And I turned out okay. Maybe better than okay. Completely pandemic-ready okay. Resilient, flexible, able to make my own fun.
Basically, kids will respond to all of this okay, maybe even with some positive memories, if the adults in their world present it well. I don’t mean to fake it. I mean to listen and be present, but to work with it instead of against it. Resisting it or fighting it doesn’t make it better, it just makes it harder to live with this reality. This is 2020. This is just it. We don’t know the end date, but this isn’t forever. Take a deep breath.
Remember that many people are facing MAJOR, earth and life-shattering issues right now. If you aren’t food or shelter insecure, if you are safe in your home and not struggling with addiction or mental health issues, then it’s time to put your oxygen mask on, take a big deep breath, and then assist the person next to you.
Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata
Just because we wish it so will not make this all go away. Until we all tow the line in a unified way, the U.S. will continue to trundle along with its ineffective whack-a-mole approach to dealing with this. More and more people will suffer and die, the school year will be in a constant state of upheaval, and the economy will not be able to fully re-open. Instead of the fast, difficult, unified approach, to date we have taken the long, slow, extended suffering approach. All the loss plus a clear view into our broken health care/insurance system (that would sooner bankrupt people for needed care than cover them); the inability of many to skip work despite the risk (because there is no financial safety net whatsoever); food tied to schools/food insecurity in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; and a government that treats its most vulnerable citizens as expendable, well, I think I just described tyranny. If masks and tyranny belong in a sentence together, it would be more accurate to say “masks are liberators from tyranny.”
Wear a mask.
Unite. Be strong. This too shall pass. If we work together, it will pass all the more quickly.
We are the solution.
You will be alright.