Words of Comfort

Once again, the Covid pandemic is on my mind. Aside from wearying of the limitations it has placed on my life, it feels like the virus is closing in on me. It feels unavoidable. It has hit close to home as family members and friends have been diagnosed in recent weeks. While omicron seems to be less deadly than prior variants and results in less serious illness, it is still no joke.  And, until we are over the peak and on the other side, we don’t really know its impact.

People continue to make different choices in how they cope with the pandemic. Some reasonable folks have concluded that, while wearing masks in public spaces, they are resuming activities and living their lives. My husband is not comfortable with that approach, perhaps as a physician who is in the office seeing patients every day, he thinks the risk is too high until we clearly pass the peak of this surge. He goes to work masked and goggled, washing and sterilizing his hands relentlessly, but then declines most social activities. He would like me to make the same choice. For the most part I have, refraining from most things except I continue to play tennis once every other week. Since I am not working and we are now in the depth of winter, my life is quite limited. It leaves too much time to think, too much time to worry.

In the midst of my angst, I read some helpful words in the form of a poem that came across my Facebook feed:

I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; it already did, and I survived.

I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.

I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.

I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.

Author: Mary Anne Perrone

The above lines are part of a longer piece, but these were words I needed to read right now. I’m not so sure about that last phrase – I don’t dance in a holy circle (I’m not sure I even understand what she means by that), but the idea that I don’t need recognition to find value in what I create is a thought I need to be reminded of. The belief that I am enough is something I continue to work on.

The first lines of this piece speak to the major challenge posed by the pandemic – the fear that the other shoe will drop. What am I worried about? The health of the ones I love. I want to know that family members who have Covid or another a health scare are okay, that they will recover quickly and suffer no ill effect. Unfortunately, I can’t know that.

Worry can always be around the corner. If I allow it, it can rule my life. I find comfort in those lines above – the shoe has dropped – at times. It is true that the worst has not happened – I am still here, as are Gary and my children, thankfully – but bad things have occurred, and I have survived. I have managed.

The other day I had a long conversation with a friend who is battling colon cancer. Her husband took the diagnosis hard, understandably. It is scary, though her prognosis is good. Her husband was depressed and after a time she confronted him, saying that she needed him to stop being so down, she needed a more positive attitude. He confessed that he was terrified of losing her. She reminded him that she is here now. When something scary and unknown hangs over you it is hard to be in the present.

Though I am not faced with the same situation as my friend, I related to the challenge they faced. The meditation app I started using a few weeks ago offered helpful insight into the scenario where you might imagine the worst. During one of the exercises, the guide pointed out that thoughts are not reality – thinking something doesn’t make it so. Worrying about future health complications has little to do with the reality of the here and now. It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of ‘what if,’ but it leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. We can’t put our head in the sand, we need to plan when we have real information about what the future holds, but we can’t live in anticipation of the worst. It is a choice we can make. I can control my thoughts. What a revolutionary idea! It doesn’t come easy to me, but it is empowering to realize that I can redirect my mental energy.

I don’t think I used to have to work so hard to quell the worry. I didn’t worry so much before. Why am I now?

Maybe being inundated with bad news – people losing their homes to fire, people dying of Covid, a friend losing her husband to pancreatic cancer – has made it harder to cope. Bad things were always happening and will always happen. I think social media heightens the sense of disaster all around us. Did they always report when a retired third string quarterback for an obscure NFL team died? My Twitter and Facebook feed is filled with those stories. When someone as famous as Betty White died in the past, of course it made the news. But now it is hard to know what to do with all this information, especially all the losses. How can we process these deaths (whether related to Covid or not)? It is hard not to be overwhelmed.

Some periods of time seem more perilous than others. This is one of those times. I want to put the people I love in a bubble. But I can’t, nor would they want to live there. I need instead to focus on the joys, the beauty and the love today.

Serenity now! View from a walk at Five Rivers – another coping-with-the-pandemic strategy

What a Weekend!

What a weekend! The wedding weekend is now a full week behind us, and I have been on a roller coaster of emotions. From worrying about everything coming together beforehand, to deep satisfaction watching Leah and Ben having fun with their friends, to laughing with delight at our granddaughter’s performance as flower girl, and back to worrying about the Covid surge and what it might mean for our guests – it has been quite a ride. Frankly I am ready to get off the ride already, it is exhausting. Will I ever feel like life is normal? It is hard to imagine.

The three-day extravaganza in Troy, New York – the welcome dinner on Friday night, the wedding itself Saturday late afternoon and the Sunday brunch – could not have gone better. People came ready to celebrate. It was the first time for many of us (about 120) to gather and we made the most of it. One of the highlights for me was watching Leah and Ben’s eclectic group of friends cutting up the dance floor. The DJ did a great job of keeping the beat going. The dance floor was filled with guests of every age – it is funny that the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s transcends time. Everyone was boogeying and singing along, including me.

But the true verdict on the ‘success’ of the event won’t be known for another week when we see whether any of us or our guests got Covid. That is an unfortunate caveat. So far, we know of one guest who tested positive this past week after feeling symptoms on Tuesday – it is not clear that they were exposed at the wedding. I don’t want to make the wedding about Covid, but it can’t be avoided. I find it hard to reconcile the joy of the gathering with the risk of illness, potentially serious illness.

The weekend was about love – celebrating the love of our daughter and son-in-law for each other, and the love that family and friends have for them. But the specter of Covid hangs over our heads.

We took every step we could think of to ensure that we created as safe an environment as possible. We asked all attendees to provide proof of vaccination – and they did. We asked everyone to take a PCR test within 72 hours of coming to the wedding. We believe people did that, too. We made sure staff at the venue was vaccinated and masked. And, finally, we provided rapid tests to use on the day of the celebration. Gary and I took our rapid test in the hotel room before leaving for the rehearsal dinner – both of us were relieved to be negative.

All those measures still don’t guarantee that there won’t be breakthroughs, especially with the new Omicron variant and the recent spike. We will wait another week to see what happens. As of my writing this, Leah, Ben, Gary, our son Dan, daughter-in-law Beth and I have all taken tests and we have all been negative. Gary and I took a PCR test on Saturday morning, and we learned last night (Sunday) that we were negative again. Phew….

We live in such a strange time. We started planning the wedding two years ago, before the pandemic, when Leah and Ben got engaged. At the time we thought we’d have a large party – between the bride and groom’s friends and families, there were many we wanted to include. As the reality of Covid set in, we made adjustment after adjustment. Eventually we realized that we had to postpone the party – the kids did get married on the original date (December 12, 2020) and we had a total of 12 people present – just the immediate family. I wrote about that weekend here. It was lovely, and we made the best of it, but it wasn’t what we envisioned.

As time passed and things improved, with vaccinations and treatments, Leah and Ben decided to go forward with the original party plan. We, their parents, were happy to do it. The journey since then has included many ups and downs. We reevaluated regularly and kept adding procedures to try to protect everyone. There were many phone calls and long deliberations – we kept fine-tuning the protocol. But nothing is fail-safe.

At different points the worry became nearly overwhelming. Friday night, after our successful welcome dinner at the Arts Center, I lay down exhausted in our hotel room. I couldn’t sleep. I worried, my brain flitted from one disastrous scenario to another. Worry is a useless emotion! There was nothing productive to do. I tossed and turned and eventually dawn arrived. Not surprisingly, it was pouring. Rain is a good omen, right?

Fortunately, morning brought things to do, places to go and people to see. The rain subsided. The moment of truth arrived – the official gathering began. I stopped worrying and stayed present.

The venue, Revolution Hall in Troy, New York, has a beautiful bridal suite. We stocked it with snacks and bottled water. While Leah got her hair and make-up done, friends and family stopped by to chat. I took it all in, watching everyone shower Leah with warmth and affection, sharing stories and laughing. One of the pleasures of being a parent is seeing your children’s lives unfold – the partners they choose, the friendships they cultivate. I like my kids’ friends – they are smart, thoughtful, and kind people. I probably enjoyed the time in the bridal suite as much as Leah did!

Troy turned out to be a fine location – with hotels and other amenities in close proximity to the wedding venue which meant a minimal amount of driving. As I was out and about in the unseasonably warm weather running errands and dropping things off, I took note of my surroundings (also an effort to settle my nerves). Troy, settled in 1787, has a rich history and its architecture reflects that. I took some pictures for posterity (and the blog).

Upper left: Troy is the home of Uncle Sam – a sculpture of him greets passersby

Upper right and lower right: examples of murals

Lower left: Collar City Bridge spanning the Hudson River – One of Troy’s nicknames, it was the home of a shirt-collar industry a century ago.

Left middle: a view from downtown toward RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Before I knew it, the weekend was over. After all that had gone into it, our guests left town, and Gary and I began to process it all.

In trying to reconcile the fear that is part of our lives today (not just Covid, but the divisions in our country, the threats to our environment, the rolling back of the reproductive rights of women, the doubts about our future) and the desire to celebrate a joyous occasion, I thought about the challenges faced by generations that came before. I thought about my grandparents having children in the depths of the Great Depression. I thought about my in-laws telling us about a wedding performed while they struggled to survive in the Ivye ghetto during the Holocaust. I’m not suggesting that the challenges we face today are the same as those, but we are in a difficult time. I am calling upon the strength and optimism of our ancestors to see me through this. They did not allow the fear to get the better of them.

Over the last year, as we planned the wedding weekend, I wondered if we were doing the right thing. Would it be worth it if even one person got sick? We decided to move forward – to try to minimize the risk, but to not let Covid define our lives. I think, like our ancestors, we affirmed life and love. I will live with that choice (and I will keep my fingers crossed that our one guest who has Covid recovers quickly and completely and that no one else gets sick).

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

Is This the Right Time?

           I picked an interesting time to stop taking my antidepressant! About two months ago I started the process of weaning off Zoloft. Two weeks ago, I completed the process. I was on it for years – certainly more than a decade. I began to consider stopping about a year ago. I noticed that I felt ‘flat;’ I wasn’t experiencing pleasure in moments that I expected to, like being with my granddaughter or going on vacation. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those things; I did but I wasn’t fully engaged. I wanted to feel more, even sadness. I understood that Zoloft was likely protecting me from real lows, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the tradeoff anymore.

            The reason I started taking medication in the first place was not because of depression, per se. I am fortunate in that I have never experienced the debilitating effects of clinical depression. My problem was that I would ruminate – I lived in my head, and I was tired of it. I remember telling my therapist that I felt stuck. I would ruminate about unsatisfying social interactions or relationship problems. Sometimes I would get stuck on fears, even silly ones. A low point was when I was on the teacup ride at Disney with Leah and instead of enjoying it – she was – I was imagining the headlines when it crashed. Anxiety was more of an issue for me than depression.

            All these years later, when it dawned on me that I was kind of numb, I thought maybe it was time to try life without Zoloft.  Even with the craziness of Covid, which has introduced another layer of challenge for our mental health, I wanted to give it a try.

            In one sense it was a good time to consider the possibility of going off the pills. When things started getting harder managing Mom and Aunt Clair’s health care about six months ago, I returned to therapy. After a few sessions I posed the question: Could the medicine be stifling my emotions? Was the dullness I felt caused by the drug? I wondered if, by virtue of being on Zoloft for so long, my brain had rewired itself. Maybe the pathways that led me continue to re-live the same conversation a hundred times had been rerouted – not to stretch the metaphor too far. She said that the flatness I was describing was a known side effect of medication and it was possible that my brain changed such that I would be less susceptible to ruminating. We discussed the process of discontinuing the medicine and what I should be on the lookout for in terms of side effects as I went forward. I also checked in with my primary care physician since my therapist is not a psychiatrist – my primary care doc actually prescribes the medicine. Having consulted with the two of them, having a plan in place, I decided to do it.

            With all that continues to go on with my mom and aunt (not to mention the relentlessly negative news from the world at large), it might not have been the wisest time to do this experiment. I think, though, it is also important for me to feel the pain of this part of the journey. Though I am only a couple of weeks into this, instinct tells me that it was the right step to take. I may change my mind – I haven’t disposed of the remainder of my pills – I reserve the right to go back on them. But, I think this feels more natural. I should feel sad that Mom is not herself. I should get angry and frustrated at the failures of our health care system. I should feel joy when my granddaughter runs at me to hug my knees, turning her bright, beautiful face up to mine, flashing a huge smile that melts my heart. I want to feel those emotions.

            It has been a dramatic welcome back to the world of emotion. People sometimes talk about oscillating between one feeling and another. My experience is more like the hour hand of a clock sweeping across an array of them – fortunately it isn’t the minute or second hand! That would be unsustainable. Anger, confusion, frustration, love, hope, despair, powerlessness, appreciation, grateful are all part of most days.

            As expected, anger is prominent. There is a lot to be angry about, and I have a shorter fuse now. I’m not sure that is a great development. Since Gary is often the one igniting the fuse, I have checked in with him to see if I’m being unreasonable. So far, we’re managing, or should I say he is. Isn’t he lucky! Seriously, though, I am working on handling my temper. It hasn’t been a problem, but I do notice a difference.

            Another expected emotion – sadness. Each time I am faced with the fact of my mom’s new limitations, I feel it. I am still not a crier. I wish sometimes I could get that release. Oddly, I find it comforting to be sad. Being numb to what is happening isn’t living. If I don’t dwell there too much of the time, I think it is healthy.

            If the last two weekends are any indication, the joy has ramped up, too. I spent time with my children and granddaughter two weekends in a row! One of those weekends was my birthday and we managed to combine all my favorite things: family, nature and art. I was more fully present. So far, so good.

My Gallery of Joy:

            I do notice some increase in anxiety. Stray thoughts about unlikely accidents (like my teacup ride) creep in, but they aren’t taking up residence. They aren’t getting in my way. At least not yet. I am hoping they won’t.

            Some may wonder why I am sharing all of this. It does feel a little weird to put this out there. But I want to ‘walk the walk’; I believe we need to destigmatize mental health issues and how can we do that if we don’t bring it out into the open? Maybe we’ll get to the point where it becomes a nonissue, then I’ll stop. We aren’t there yet. This is part of my journey, and I am choosing to share it. Hopefully it will help others who may be experiencing some of the same challenges. And, if not, maybe it illuminates what it feels like for those who have not been down this road.

Note: If any reader is considering stopping medication, please do so under the direction of a doctor and/or therapist. There can be serious side effects, especially if it is done abruptly, that need to be monitored.

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

Yom Kippur

Last Wednesday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur; it turned out to be a particularly poignant one. As many know, Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is a solemn day of reflection where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions from our fellow humans and from God. Those who doubt God’s existence, even avowed atheists, can find meaning in the holiday. We look inward to see how we can do better in the year to come. Sometimes the observance of Yom Kippur resonates more than other years. This one did, perhaps because it has been such a difficult year on so many levels.

The ongoing health challenges facing my mom and aunt have been hard with so many decisions to make; coming to terms with problems that are beyond my ability to solve, has tested my spirit. I hope I am meeting the moment. The limitations COVID has placed on us, which makes dealing with everything yet more complicated, has been another test. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to be more so than ever. The sense that our country is at odds with itself, with no healing in sight, adds to the strain. Well over 650,000 Americans have died of Covid – an unfathomable number. It didn’t have to be this way.

As I look back on the year, there were bright spots. The country did elect Joe Biden (for some readers that may not be a bright spot, but for me it was). An even more positive thing was our daughter’s wedding. Despite the obstacles Covid introduced, we had a magical, intimate weekend of celebration.

From our magical wedding weekend

We were also able to have a family vacation at the Outer Banks. Sometimes I lose sight of the bright spots, so it is good to reflect and remind myself.

The beach at Duck, North Carolina

One of the reasons this Yom Kippur may have been more poignant was that it is the first since Gary’s Dad, David, died. Though we had not actually spent the holiday in person with him in many years, we were very connected. Gary would call just as we concluded the evening meal before attending Kol Nidre to wish David and Paula an easy fast, and then when we broke it the next evening, he would call again to wish them a happy new year and compare notes on how the fast went. This was his tradition with his dad for all the years that I have known Gary unless we were physically all together. There was a painful emptiness where David would have been.

Once again Gary and I livestreamed the service from a Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun. Gary was not comfortable attending our synagogue in person due to the continued presence of Covid in the community. We participated from home. I downloaded the mahzor so we could recite the prayers – actually Gary recited, I listened.

Our new-fangled observance: Gary davening while I listened

Part of the Yom Kippur service is called Yizkor. It is focuses specifically on remembrance of those who have died. In preparation for that part, the rabbi suggested that those at home have a photograph, or an item associated with their loved one close by. Gary grabbed an old polaroid of David in which he is surrounded by the family at his home in Liberty. I took a wool cap that was my dad’s that Gary continues to use. We put those items on the coffee table next to the computer screen. It surprised me how much emotion they evoked.

Before the actual Yizkor prayers, the rabbis, there were two conducting the services, shared poems. One was especially powerful.

Michiko Dead

BY JACK GILBERT

He manages like somebody carrying a box   

that is too heavy, first with his arms

underneath. When their strength gives out,   

he moves the hands forward, hooking them   

on the corners, pulling the weight against   

his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   

when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   

different muscles take over. Afterward,

he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   

drains out of the arm that is stretched up

to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   

the man can hold underneath again, so that   

he can go on without ever putting the box down.

I thought the box was an fitting metaphor for grief. We have all had the experience of struggling to carry a heavy load and grief is just like that. Though we learn to cope, we adjust, we never put it down. The experience is fresher for Gary, but it is a message that resonated for me, as well.

I think we don’t talk about grief or loss enough. It makes us uncomfortable. I don’t want to dwell there, but those emotions are powerful and an important part of our lives. As soon as someone mentions a person who has died, or talks of their sadness, the impulse is to gloss over it and change the subject. Maybe if we didn’t do that the grief would be easier to bear.

One other thought on grieving that we don’t speak about. It is the grief we feel when someone we love is dying. They are still with us, but they might have a terminal illness, or the aging process is taking its toll. Sometimes our mourning begins before they are gone. That is even more of a taboo subject. We don’t know how to talk about death, unless it is an abstraction, or even if we should. There must be a healthier way to live with the certainty of death rather than ignoring it or dressing up our feelings so we can store them tidily away.

Random Thoughts on a Holiday Weekend

Yesterday I spent well over an hour online trying to initiate a Medicaid application for my elderly aunt. I had no success. I learned one thing. After completing the first part of what I thought was the correct process, I found out it was not. Buried four clicks in, and after filling out two preliminary forms, and after receiving several error messages and a rejection notice, they finally explained how to initiate an application for someone over 65. After all that, I learned that you are supposed to call the helpline or visit a Medicaid office! It seems that little tidbit could have appeared on the very first screen. A pretty major piece of guidance, if you ask me. Who designs these things? I will call the helpline after the holiday and find out how to proceed. Let’s see how convoluted, complicated and frustrating this process will be. I have such high hopes.

————————————–

It may seem odd to be writing about the passing of Ed Asner, but I need to say something. He reminds me of my dad, in the best way possible. He always has. When I watched the Mary Tyler Moore show back in the 70s, and I loved that show for many reasons, I noted the likeness. Some of it was physical. My Dad was built similarly, that burly, Eastern European thing. They both were also balding with a heavy beard. My Dad could probably have shaved twice a day. I suspect Mr. Asner could do the same. But more than that, it was the sense of decency Mr. Asner radiated. The gruff exterior belied a tenderness. Maybe I read too much into Lou Grant and other characters he played, but that is what I sensed.  And that was at the heart of my dad. These last few days, as tributes came through my Facebook feed, each time I felt a pang of loss. Dad was not granted the length of years Mr. Asner was, he is gone more than 16 years, but I still feel it acutely. I mourn Ed Asner’s passing, too.

—————————————–

I have spent much of the last week under the weather. I don’t want to assign blame, Daniel, but I caught a cold. Of course, since we are in the midst of a pandemic, I was concerned that maybe it was actually Covid. The delta variant has been spreading locally. I tried to make an appointment for a test and found it difficult to get one. All the area pharmacies were booked. I could get a slot the next afternoon, but I’d have to drive half an hour. I took it. In the meanwhile, I asked my husband to try to pick up an at-home test on his way home from work. He called around and found one at a CVS in Schenectady – not that far away. He brought it home. I read the directions carefully, followed them, waited the 15 minutes and found out I was negative. These tests are imperfect, but my son and granddaughter also tested negative, so I took a measure of comfort in that. The cold though wasn’t deterred by that information, it has gone through its various stages relentlessly. Sore throat, headache, sinus pressure, my nose running like a faucet (throw in a couple of bloody noses), then the cough. The cough is the worst part for me and takes the longest to resolve. I know I shouldn’t complain. So many others have it worse. But whenever I am under the weather, I get mad at myself. I take it as a personal failing. So, in addition to feeling poorly, I am angry at myself. I have been down this road many times and I still do it. I am disappointed in my lack of productivity while I am ill. I shouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place! I will not cough!!! The refrains in my head are singularly unhelpful. Maybe now that I have written it down, it will stop. Or it will stop when the symptoms pass…any day now.

—————————————————

Two more covid -related complaints. We are once again trying to plan the celebration of Leah and Ben’s marriage. We are now three and a half months out. Once again, we are plagued by uncertainty. I am angry. It didn’t have to go this way. My other gripe is of the ‘first world’ variety. Most people are faced with lost opportunities due to the pandemic. College kids deprived of the full experience. Youngsters wearing masks as they start school. Cancelled proms. Job loss or forced career changes. Folks with other health problems having to navigate getting care. Seniors enduring damaging isolation. So much fall out. My issue isn’t serious, but I find myself resentful anyway. I am missing prime-time travel opportunities. Gary and I are in our early sixties. Thankfully still healthy. This would be a time for broader exploration. We are lucky enough to be financially able to do it too. I love travel – minus the hassle of air travel itself, that part sucked even before the pandemic. But that aside, who knows what the future will bring? There are so many places I want to go. Okay, I’m done whining. I know it pales in comparison to the price others have paid, including loss of life. But since I am venting, I thought I would put that out there, too. I invite you to vent, as well. It can be therapeutic – as long as it isn’t directed at an innocent bystander. A journal, online or on paper, may be best. Feel free to use the comment section below.

Remember to Replenish

“Make sure you replenish yourself,” the doctor said. She wasn’t talking about fluids or food. This was advice I received from the therapist I started seeing (again) when things got difficult these last months. I took her words to heart, and it has made a difference.

My mom and my aunt face life threatening illnesses. I have been involved in their care, requiring hours in hospitals, doctor’s offices and on the phone. It is draining. My mother-in-law is also struggling. On a happier note we are again planning our daughter’s wedding – well, not wedding since they got married last December but the joyous celebration we should have had last year. And, while I enjoy the preparations, it too introduces stressors. And, then there is the usual stuff of life that takes time and energy. It has been a lot to juggle.

The therapist’s advice is not new to me. I have long been aware of the importance of not getting emotionally depleted. Making choices that are healthier than eating a sleeve of Oreo cookies (which is soothing while I’m doing it, but just creates another problem) doesn’t come naturally to me. When I am tense my first thought is almost always food related. Recently I have made better choices. I was particularly proud of myself when I didn’t turn to an old favorite, Mint Milanos, when I stopped at a minimarket after I left Sloan-Kettering. I got a bottle of water because I was thirsty, not hungry, and then I hightailed it out of there for a walk. It was a lovely evening for a trek across Central Park. I felt tension releasing from my shoulders as I skirted the lake and then headed uptown to our apartment.

What is replenishing? It is easier to tell you what is not. Years ago, when I was doing Weight Watchers, I went to many meetings where the discussion included ideas for stress relief. Taking a bath or other self-care practices were suggested. I tried that but I never found them helpful. I can enjoy a bath, but it doesn’t nourish my soul. Getting a pedicure is pleasant and seeing a fun color on my toenails makes me smile – but doesn’t hit the spot. I know for some of my friends, retail therapy is a good option. I find shopping stressful so that would clearly be counterproductive.

I have learned that seeing beautiful places and things works for me. Taking a long walk in nature is restorative – that walk through Central Park fit the bill. A walk doesn’t work quite as well if it is in my suburban neighborhood. I don’t have to be out in the woods or on a remote beach, but I need to be away from the ordinary, someplace quieter, where there aren’t reminders of all that needs to be done, where I can breathe. Going to the SUNY-Albany campus, which is a five-minute drive from my house, is sufficient. But, it is even better if it is someplace new, better yet if it is beside a river or stream. The sound of gurgling water and light reflecting off the surface is heartening.

My relationship with nature is funny. I love being in the sun. When I was a child, before effective sunscreens were on the market, I had to be very careful to avoid sun poisoning, wearing long sleeves and long pants at picnics, and limiting my time in the swimming pool or other outdoor activity. In a tropical sun, I had to stay in the shade; even if I was covered, it wasn’t enough. I don’t know if it is the lotions or age, but my skin is not as sensitive. Now I can enjoy being at the beach or pool, as long as I take proper care. I’ll even get a bit of a tan! So being out in nature is something I can enjoy more easily.

One catch though is that I am afraid of most animals. Some people hike with hopes of spotting a bear or a snake or whatever. Not me! I like birds (as long as they aren’t aggressive – Gary and I were once chased from a picnic table by a flock of hungry blue jays), chipmunks and squirrels don’t scare me either (I am so brave). Otherwise, I want to see animals in their natural habitats on television. I love CBS Sunday Morning’s moment of nature – it’s always too short. Despite my reluctance to engage with insects or animals, taking a hike is energizing, but it isn’t always an option. Time may not permit it.

Driving on backroads, checking out scenery and small towns, also works. It takes me out of my head and brings my attention to others’ lives. It is especially enjoyable when the town has charm, cute shops and something other than chain restaurants. But, even when the village is down on its heels, it is interesting to me; to imagine the lives being lived there.

Seeing art is another activity that fills me up. Outdoor sculpture gardens are a favorite. The creativity, the shapes and colors, the beauty can be inspiring. I love museums. Most offer lovely quiet spaces where you can immerse yourself in the paintings or objects. If a given exhibit is too crowded, I will seek out a less populated one. I’m not one to read every description or explanation, I prefer to just take it all in. Of course, going to a museum isn’t always an option either.

I have not listened to music as a way to decompress and refill myself. Given that the other activities I have mentioned take more time and effort, I should probably give music a try. With my I-phone a constant companion, it could be even more convenient than cookies!

Sometimes, when I am at my most stressed, visiting Mom or Aunt Clair in the hospital (I don’t like hospitals, does anyone?), just stopping to breathe and think about what I will do (the walk I will take) or reflecting on what I most recently did (watching the sunset on the bay at the Outer Banks or cuddling with my granddaughter) can help. It is a habit of mind I am developing – a way to comfort myself. Maybe that is the key. In that difficult moment, rather than imagining what treat I will pick up on my way out of the hospital, I can recall a moment of nature and beauty, or anticipate the next one, and get through the challenge. Fill myself up that way.

It isn’t easy to change patterns of thought that have been part of me for most, if not all, of my 61 years. But, I’m not giving up on being healthier. The coming year will likely bring continuing challenges, my mother and my aunt won’t be getting younger, and who knows what else may come down the pike. I can cope but I can do a better job of coping. If you have suggestions, especially those that don’t involve empty calories, I would love to hear them. What do you do to recharge your batteries? What refills you?

Letting Go

Being able to let go of something – a person, a belief, a dream, a habit – is terribly difficult. I can’t say I have done it successfully very often, certainly not as often as would be healthy for me. I was thinking about this the other morning when I woke up feeling lighter. It was not because I had lost weight (I wish!), at least not in the physical sense. But a noticeable heaviness had lifted from my shoulders and heart. It happened while I wasn’t looking; snuck up on me. It was not a conscious decision, but rather an accumulation of thoughts and actions.

As I reflect on the times that I have successfully let go of something that was dragging me down, I realized that this was my pattern. It wasn’t like I could just decide to move on and, boom, I did. It was more subtle and required sustained effort. I would be making progress and I didn’t even realize it – until I did.

The earliest I remember it happening involved my first serious boyfriend. That relationship lived in my head and heart far longer than was healthy. It was clear that it wasn’t working. We were too young, he wanted to be free to see other people, I wanted commitment. I couldn’t let go of what I saw as our potential future together. I blamed myself, I thought it was some deficiency in me.

Finally, after months of mourning and wallowing, I consciously put my energy into college courses, nurtured new and existing relationships and took better care of myself physically. Eventually I got the payoff. One night, long after we had officially broken up, he called because something reminded him of me. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t feel hurt or longing when I heard his voice. I could have a conversation with him, but I wasn’t invested in some outcome. I was okay where I was – I was free. I couldn’t tell you when it happened. It was an accumulation of all the actions I had taken – some of them awkward and painful, some more rewarding. But, the combination of time and effort, did its thing, and I moved on.

I had a similar experience in graduate school, though this time it had nothing to do with a relationship. I was torturing myself that I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I expected. The breaking point came when I got a B on my Cost-Benefit Analysis midterm. I was devastated. A B might not sound like a bad grade but, in my experience in graduate school, it is more equivalent to a C. It felt like failure. The fact that I had a 17-month old baby and was pregnant with my second was no excuse. I went to see the professor, trying hard not to cry. I told her I was very disappointed in myself. She assured me that no one in the program, I was in the public administration doctoral program at the State University of New York at Albany, thought I was a B student – regardless of the grade I got on that test. I tried to let that sink in.

I was still overwhelmed – our house was a mess, toys, laundry, and piles of paper everywhere. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but I expected more of myself. Gary was in his third year of his residency program in internal medicine and was stretched to the limit. My parents and friends tried to talk sense to me. My folks paid for a cleaning service to come to our house every other week to help ease the burden. It was helpful, but I had to clean up before they could do their work!

I couldn’t turn off the pressure until something clicked. While I wasn’t conscious of the moment, one day I realized the critical voice in my head had quieted. I accepted that I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough.

A year and a half later I took a leave from the doctoral program. Gary and I realized that financially the ends were not meeting, we did not want to accumulate credit card debt, so I went to work for the state. Family had been called upon enough to help. Ultimately, after working for a couple of years, I decided I didn’t need or want to complete the doctoral program. I had done the coursework and taken the comprehensive exam, but I would still need to write a dissertation to finish. I concluded that I didn’t need the credential for my career. I didn’t want to be a professor.  To work in government, a PhD in public administration didn’t add much value, I already had a master’s degree. I made the decision to leave. I let it go without regret and haven’t looked back.

More recently, when I awoke that morning feeling lighter, it dawned on me that I had let go of the dread and helplessness I felt about my mother’s health. It was not that I wasn’t still worried about her or that I didn’t care – of course I did and do. But I had been carrying a sense of responsibility for her condition that was causing great stress. After months of trying to find an explanation and treatment for Mom’s breathing problems, I finally accepted that it wasn’t in my control. Gary, my husband the doctor, who has been advising me throughout this journey, pointed out to me repeatedly, “If different cardiologists and pulmonologists, who have years of training and experience, can’t come up with an answer, don’t you think it is unreasonable to expect you to?” As much as I wished I could fix it, or at least understand it, I couldn’t. The first three times he asked me that question, it didn’t take. I knew the answer, but I had to internalize it. Finally, when I wasn’t consciously aware, I woke up that morning realizing that I had.

I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough. It is hard enough to deal with the losses and disappointments that life brings us. Adding blame and guilt, when it is misplaced or unearned, is a burden too much to bear.

Now if I could only figure out how to let go a bit sooner, I would be grateful. But, as they say, the only way through it is through it.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

I want to see light at the end of the tunnel and I probably should be able to, but it has been such a long year. The news has been so painful – so many deaths, certainly many that could have been avoided had action been taken sooner. A year ago, who would have believed that over half a million Americans would die of the coronavirus? The number is unfathomable.

The pandemic has introduced so many wrenches in our plans: from a canceled vacation to national parks last May, to planning a Covid-safe bridal shower and wedding for our daughter instead of the celebrations we were hoping to have, to Zoom meetings of my writing groups instead of getting together in person, and a funeral and shiva for my father-in-law with limited attendance. So many accommodations were made, so many disappointments were absorbed. And we were among the lucky ones. No one in our immediate family got sick, though there were scares and there were quarantines, no one died in our immediate family, and no one is suffering long-term symptoms.

We tried to make the best of it. We still had celebrations. We used FaceTime to visit. Gary went to work, as usual, coming home with indentations on his face from where his mask and goggles pressed against his skin. His hands are rougher than sandpaper from relentless washing and sanitizing. The payoff for his efforts was that, despite some exposures, he has remained healthy and so have I. We took hikes with family and friends, weather-permitting, finding lovely spots nearby to explore. We used our swimming pool more than we had in years. The summer and fall were made bearable by those activities. We used our fire pit more than we ever had even in the winter.

Temperatures reached the mid-40s on Sunday and the rain held off so Gary made a fire.

The winter has dragged on, though. Mostly one day feels like the next. I keep having to remind myself what day it is. Now it is March again.

There are signs of light. My husband is fully vaccinated. I got my first shot just over a week ago, so in another month I should be fully immunized. Getting the appointment was a travail, but the process of getting the shot was well organized and efficient. I was impressed with the whole operation at the Javits Center.

I do wonder if the speed of vaccinations can outpace the speed of variants of the virus emerging. If it doesn’t then we will be dealing with the limitations longer than anyone wants. But production has ramped up and more vaccination sites have opened, so maybe we will get ahead of the curve.

Spring is only three weeks away now; the days are getting longer and that usually makes me feel more energetic. Somehow, I still feel discouraged. Maybe it is the persistent grayness. The temperature has moderated but it still looks so gloomy. The sky is leaden, and the trees are bare.

Some of the persistent disappointment may be that I expected, with a new administration in Washington, there would be more hopefulness. I have no complaints with the steps Biden has taken – things are accelerating, but Trump’s influence is still so strong. I was hoping the fever would break, that the Republican party would be released from the ‘big lie’ of a stolen election and would be free to either return to its more reasonable conservative roots or to adopt a new constructive path. Sadly, this does not appear to be happening. I’ve said it a million times, and I will again: I accept that people have different political philosophies, that some view the role of government more narrowly, that some prioritize individual rights more than the communal good and that this leads to different policy choices. I cannot accept white supremacy or violence. I cannot accept ‘alternative facts.’ How will we move on from this moment?

I know I need to be patient. That is not one of my strengths. I have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other, keep doing what needs to be done, take opportunities to enjoy family and friends, notice the beauty of the full moon emerging from behind clouds against a violet sky… and breathe. Believe in the light even when I can’t feel it.