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.

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?

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.

When is Enough, Enough?

When is enough, enough? The question resonates today. Last Wednesday, when the U.S. Capitol was overrun by a mob, I hoped we had finally arrived at an answer, at least on the national political stage. I had enough of Trump and his rhetoric long, long ago. I hoped that my fellow citizens would finally arrive at the same place: enough of Trump, enough of conspiracy theories, enough toxic politics. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case. I hope we have reached the bottom and are on the way back up. It is hard to imagine wanting more of the same. But the question of when enough is enough applies in many situations.

I was thinking about it in a totally different context as I was listening to an interview with Mandy Patinkin, the actor/singer. He commented that performing for an audience was fulfilling up to a point. Needing applause can be problematic because you can be left with feeling like it wasn’t enough – maybe not enthusiastic enough, or not long enough. Or, you get the adulation, and then you come off stage and go back to your hotel, and what do you have? Is it enough to fill you up? And then you do it all over again. You can drive yourself crazy – the thirst for validation can be unquenchable.  

I am not a performer, but I totally got what he was saying. If you are doing something mostly for the feedback, you can set yourself up to be in endless pursuit of more. If I get 150 reads of a blog entry, I could feel unsatisfied because I didn’t get 200. Then if I get 200, I can be thinking ‘why can’t I get 300?’ I can forget that when I first started, I was often lucky to get 30 or 40 views. And if I get one meaningful comment, is that enough? What if I get 50 likes and no comments? By the way, I was told by a literary agent that you need 40,000 followers to be seriously considered for publication.  So, there’s that. Clearly, since there is no monetary reward to my blogging endeavor, and the numbers aren’t impressive, where does that leave me?

Of course, it isn’t reasonable to discount audience reaction entirely. If you are putting something out into the world, if you choose to share it, part of the reason is to be in conversation with others. It is only natural to want that dialogue to be plentiful and positive. But there needs to be balance. The process of creating itself, in my case of finding the right words, conveying my thoughts, doing the research, has to offer its own reward. I need to be able to find satisfaction in putting down on paper clear ideas, authentic emotions and compelling images. Sometimes that needs to be enough, regardless of the reaction or the numbers. As the years of blogging have gone by, I am getting better and better at this.

Another pitfall can be comparing yourself to others. If I compare myself to others, I can set myself up to feel like it isn’t enough, depending upon who I use as my measure. I can continually fall short because there will always be authors with far more success, no matter how it is quantified.

This calculation, how much is enough to feel sated, is complicated. I was struck by it in yet another setting. My father-in-law died almost three weeks ago. My husband has received countless calls, texts and sympathy cards. Many of his patients offered their condolences when they saw him in his office. I think Gary has the capacity to allow himself to be comforted by the show of support. I don’t believe he spends much time (if any time) thinking about who didn’t call or whether enough was done for him. Having the capacity to receive, whether it is comfort or praise or love, is essential for our mental health.

Not having preconceived ideas seems to be part of the equation, too. Do you have expectations? Of course we do! But are they reasonable? Can you accept what you have been given, rather than focusing on what might be missing? I sometimes find myself thinking more about the latter, but then I check myself. Like the classic question of seeing a glass as half full or half empty, or as was the case with my brother’s friend, who in the midst of his fight with ALS, said he saw his cup as overflowing – we can choose to change our focus. For some of us it may come easier than for others. I have to work at it, but I can do it.

Is that enough? It depends. How thirsty are you?

This doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to pursue excellence and growth. We can and we should. The motivation needs to come from a healthy place, from curiosity and creativity, rather than from a bottomless well of need.

When is enough, enough? More often than not, I think the answer is now – we have enough right now.

An Unpleasant Interlude in Jersey City

NOTE: This is another story written by my mother, Feige Brody, who during this pandemic has been reflecting on her childhood.

Chicago bustled and New York never slept, but Jersey City had no such energy. When my family lost everything in New London, Connecticut, with the hurricane of 1938, we moved in above Uncle Irving’s wholesale bakery in Jersey City, in a railroad flat. The best thing I could say about it was that it had running water and heat.

But we were really on the wrong side of the tracks. The railroad was on one end of the street and the other four corners had rundown bars. The men that frequented those bars were not called homeless then, they were called drunks and slept in the gutter or wherever they fell. The smell was horrific, of feces, urine and garbage, all mingling. I had to be careful where I walked never knowing what was under foot.

Simma (my sister who was not school age yet) and I were the only children on the block so there were no friends to play with. I went to school by walking to the corner where I could join kids who were coming from the right side of the tracks. After school, walking home they would turn at that corner and I would be alone. I was always terrified, with my heart pounding and my palms sweaty. I was afraid some drunk would be sleeping on the steps and I would have to climb over him to get home. Never once was I actually bothered, but the fear persisted for the entire year and a half that we lived there.

Across the street from my uncle’s bakery was a fancy saloon. The owners were very kind, and they let Simma and I play there. The floor was a high-polished wood and we would run and slide – back and forth. Sometimes we made up elaborate games with our paper dolls on that floor. We were allowed to play the piano, softly, and jumped up and down the steps that led to apartments. It may have been a saloon, but it was our playhouse. Once in a while a man would be at the bar talking to the owner, making arrangements for a party or celebration. Then Simma and I would sweep up our play floor and help set the tables to prepare.

One day, leaving the saloon in a hurry, I ran past the owner’s dog, who was gnawing on a bone. As I bolted past, he took a bite out of me! Dad rushed me to the hospital where I was surrounded by medical personnel all dressed in white. I was put in a bed with bright white lights shining down on me and once again I was terrified. I was given an injection with a huge needle into my belly to prevent rabies. Fortunately, we soon learned the owners had papers that showed the dog was not rabid, so I didn’t need more shots. Dad took me home. I never did get over my fear of dogs.

We were still in Jersey City in 1939 when Mother got sick with rheumatic fever. Fortunately, the Sisters of St. Joseph came each day to wash, feed, bring water and provide whatever relief they could. I continued to go to school and each afternoon coming up the stairs at the end of my day, one of the sisters would be standing at the top of the stairs, gesturing to remind me to tip toe and be quiet, because every noise would bring Mother more pain. The good Sisters were intimidating in their long black habits, leaving only a bit of their face showing, and looking so unfamiliar to me. I was sure they meant to be kind, but I was terrified of them. (Ironically, many years later I was a reading teacher at St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn and became friends with several nuns.)

With my mother being ill, her brother, Jackie, who had been living with us, left to stay with other aunts and cousins. Uncle Jackie was nine years older than me and was more like an older brother. He was the one who rescued Simma and I when I accidentally set fire to the curtains with a candle that I lit hoping to show Santa Claus the way to our apartment. With Jackie leaving, I was desolate.

I don’t know if there were pills that could have alleviated Mother’s pain, or maybe we couldn’t afford them, I will never know. While my parents would talk about the hurricane, they did not talk about her illness.

Since I could not stay in the apartment to play after school, I was left to my own devices. Though I knew it was forbidden, I went to the railroad tracks where older boys were playing. I would walk along, imitating those boys, balancing on the tracks, until I heard a rumble and then I hopped off and raced next to the train. I watched the train streak by, the conductor blowing the horn. It was a bit of fun in an otherwise dreary time. Once I fell and cut my knee and it bled a lot. I ran home and clomped up the stairs. I heard Mother cry out in pain. The sisters yelled at me, but one of them cleaned my knee. The skin healed over a small pebble that remained as a reminder. After many years it dissolved.

Eventually Mother recovered and in 1940, Dad having saved some money, bought a partnership in a Brooklyn bakery. We moved to the apartment above that store and Uncle Jackie was able to join us again. My third life began there. For the first time in a long while I felt safe in a friendly neighborhood, with lots of other kids. I realized the fear I carried in Jersey City was useless, there was nothing more to fear.

My mother (Feige) on the right, my Nana, on the left, years after Jersey City – in happier times

A daughter’s comment: I am so glad my Mom has written these stories. I know it isn’t easy for her, on several levels, but it enriches our understanding of her life. I am struck by the trauma she endured – losing everything in that devastating hurricane, moving to a cheerless place, worrying about her mother’s health, getting bitten by a dog. It was quite an eventful and painful early life. Yet, she was resilient. She did keep a fear of dogs, understandably (that was also reinforced by later scary encounters), but she was (and is) an optimist. She turned her attention to the bright blue part of the sky, as her father instructed her to do. Fortunately the third part of her life brought far more pleasure and much less fear. As the country emerged from the Great Depression, her family’s fortune turned for the better, too.

The Dance of the Mask

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Masks ready for my next foray into a public space

As I understand the directive in New York State, you are supposed to be masked (nose and mouth covered) if you are in public when you can’t keep the appropriate physical distance (six feet). Seems simple, but it isn’t.

Some of the complexity I understand – I am confused by what it means in some circumstances (more on that in a bit). Most situations are crystal clear so when people aren’t masked inside stores then they are being defiant or selfish or both. I’m happy to report that the vast majority of folks I see when I go to the Price Chopper are doing it right.

I must confess that I don’t like wearing a mask. I am someone who, under ordinary circumstances, sweats a lot. If I walk around the block, I will be perspiring pretty much regardless of the weather. It is just a fact of my life. My forehead and face get damp easily. Wearing a mask makes it worse. I also wear glasses – contact lenses are not an option for a variety of reasons. The combination of these factors means that I am often looking at the world through fogged up lenses. I need a defroster. Someone should invent glasses that have that feature. Maybe windshield wipers?

Despite this inconvenience, I wear the mask. It isn’t comfortable, it isn’t pleasant, but I wear it. I don’t want to put others or myself at risk.

Now to the grey areas and questions I have…

Sometimes I see people driving in their car with their masks on. I wonder why. If they have passengers that would explain it. But many times, they are alone. I don’t wear my mask if I am alone in my car or if I am riding with my husband. Am I missing something?

The other day I stopped to put gas in my car. There were four other people getting gas at the other pumps. No one had their mask on. I did. Though we were outside, I didn’t think we were distant enough to go without. Again, am I missing something? Why weren’t others wearing their masks?

I wonder about the etiquette of mask wearing when outside in public. I don’t live in a densely populated area. When I go out to walk in the neighborhood, I am able to keep an appropriate distance even if I see someone else. Should I still be wearing my mask under those circumstances? Given that it makes me even warmer and that my glasses fog up, I prefer not to, but I also want to do the right thing. For all I know, my neighbors are grumbling, “why isn’t she masked?” Though, generally, when I see other walkers or bike riders on my street they aren’t masked either. Maybe I can stop fretting about this one.

If I walk in a more heavily trafficked area, I will have my mask on or at the ready so that I can mask up if I approach other people. I will give others a wide berth on the sidewalk and appreciate when others do that for me. Here is my question in this scenario: if all parties are wearing masks, do you need to still to be six feet apart? Can you just walk by each other without taking a detour into the street or onto the grass?

I got an estimate for some work to be done on our deck. The guy came to the house, he rang the doorbell and he backed away to keep an appropriate distance. I opened the door and asked him to go around back so we could talk by the deck. He was wearing a mask when he rang the bell, but it only covered his mouth. I wore my mask when I went outside to meet him in the backyard. I saw him adjust his to cover his nose and it stayed that way for about two minutes before it slid down. He didn’t fix it. I was wondering if I should say something to him. This is another etiquette question. I don’t feel comfortable correcting people on their mask usage. In this case, we were outside, and I could back away when his mask slipped, so I let it go.

To be honest, though, I have never asked someone to adjust their mask, even when I have been in a store. It is all so fraught. I don’t want to be in a viral video where someone goes nuts in response to being called out for not abiding by the rules. I don’t envy store employees who have to enforce the policy. What a thankless, and possibly dangerous, job. It is hard to believe we have come to a point where someone would actually pull a gun (this happened in a Walmart, of course) when admonished to put on a mask. It’s craziness!

I find it very stressful thinking about it all the time and trying to figure out the right way to handle each situation. As I said before, sometimes it is totally clear – other than when I am in my own house, if I am indoors, I am masked. But there are all these other situations where I do this dance. I worry whether I am doing it right and then I worry whether others are. I don’t want to think about it anymore! Maybe it would be simpler to just wear it all the time.

 

Observations and Questions in the Time of COVID-19

Is there more birdsong these days or have I just slowed down enough to hear it?

Same question about critters in general – my yard is filled with bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, woodchucks. Were they always there and I didn’t notice? As I was writing this, a fawn came out of the woods and strolled across our yard!

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one of two fawns in our yard this morning

I’m thinking of taking up bird watching as a new hobby.

Why do people bother wearing a mask if they don’t cover their nose with it? Are there any medical conditions that are truly worsened by wearing a mask? And, if they are that compromised, why are they walking through the supermarket in the first place? Though I have been tempted, I have never said anything to anyone who was wearing their mask incorrectly. Should I? I don’t want to police other people’s behavior. I also don’t want to get into an argument. At this point, what is the chance that they don’t know better?

It is hard to ignore the fact that poor people of color have been disproportionately harmed by coronavirus – in the incidence of illness, number of deaths, job loss. Perhaps our awareness of how inequitable our society is will be the one good thing that comes out of this catastrophe. The question remains, how will we respond? Will that awareness translate into structural change?

The number of deaths is mind-numbing. It feels like we have stopped noticing. I guess we have to do that, or we would be paralyzed. Will we ever deal with the enormity of it? Will the New York Times run another front page story listing the names of the next 100,000?

How do you decide how much vigilance in keeping physically distant and washing or sanitizing your hands is enough? Our daughter and son-in-law-to-be visited from Somerville, MA this past weekend. The reason for the trip was to order her wedding dress! A bright spot in an otherwise dreary time – even if we don’t know if the party can go on as planned.

The agreement about the arrangements for the visit (per my husband who is a doctor) was that we would keep physically distant. We didn’t hug. We did most of our visiting either outside or at least six feet apart in the house. We didn’t share serving utensils. They stayed in a bedroom in the basement. Any time he handed something to them, Gary ‘purelled’ before and after. I was not quite as careful, though I did my best. I’m thinking that if any one of us has COVID, we exposed the others just by being in the same house for an extended period. Did it make sense to take all of those precautions? I am thankful they visited, regardless of what happens. Unless all four of us get sick, we won’t know that we got it from each other anyway. All it takes is one virus-laden sneeze from a person on the one occasion you go out to put gas in your car… You can go round and round thinking about this, ultimately you make your best guess after weighing the risks and the benefits. The risks of their visit, given that Gary, the most vigilant among us, is the only one out in the work world on a day-to-day basis, and none of us had symptoms, seemed low. The benefit, especially to my emotional well-being, was huge. How are you dealing with making these calculations? Is it making you as crazy as it is making me?

As this drags on, will we get more lax about it?

My mom called asking my thoughts about getting picked up by her brother, taken to his house, visiting for an hour (so she can participate in our family movie club which is done online), and then getting driven back to her place. Her I-pad is too outdated to support the software for her to join in from her own place. She wanted to go. I thought about how hard the isolation has been on her, how much she enjoys movie club, weighed the risks and the benefits, and told her she had my support.

I hope with all my heart that these are the correct calculations.