For many of us, it’s been a Wednesday onward of seemingly infinite relief as we’ve watched a new president and glass-ceiling-breaking vice president sworn in and a swirl of executive orders signed, legislation planned, and leadership installed to address the Covid crisis. As we cross into this new land, I feel such hope, but then I remember that not all of us get to cross over.
Over 415,000-plus Americans and 2,100,000-plus humans on this planet died from Covid. Many struggle for breath and life in this very minute, and many more are newly exposed or still sick. The toll is staggering — 98.4 cases million worldwide at this moment — and it’s not an abstract number to most of us anymore.
I’m thinking about Steve, a prince of a husband, scholar, and teacher fiercely beloved by his family, colleagues, and scores of students around the world. He taught history at Pittsburg State University in Kansas where he specialized in African and Middle Eastern history and changed many students lives for the better. To me, he was the husband of my friend Olive and always a gracious host, fascinating conversationalist, and man crazy in love with Olive. Steve died of Covid complications the day after Christmas, breaking the hearts of so many who loved him, including Olive, his five adult children and seven grandchildren.
I’m also thinking of Myron, an old friend of my parents, who I re-united with two years ago at the Manalapan Diner (N.J.), the mainstay diner where I grew up. We kept in touch since, and in early January on Facebook, Myron shared his best wishes for a better 2020, hopes for the vaccine returning us “to the old normal,” and a fireworks GIF. A few days earlier, he feared that thousands more would die because of the disorganized and disjointed Operation Warp Speed not getting the vaccine out. He was continually and compassionately articulate, resilient, and caring. The day after the inauguration he was so looking forward to, Myron died from Covid, leaving behind his children, grandchildren, and many friends and family.
So much could and should have been done to slow the stem of this virus, including acknowledging its deadly potential a year ago, basing messaging on science and not on what would benefit a person or party or profit, implementing a mask mandate, and coordinating federal, state, and local distribution of PPE, medication and equipment, and lately, the vaccine. We need only return to those daunting statistics to see the truth of how a county with 4% of the world’s population ended up with 25% of the world’s Covid cases.
On Wednesday in our house, we spent hours glued to the TV, sobbing into the cat, laughing at the sudden lightness we felt, and cheering on all we witnessed: Kamala Harris taking the oath of office in her brilliant purple suit on a cold January day, Lady Gaga belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Amanda Gorman talking truth to power in her inaugural poem, Garth Brooks leading us in singing “Amazing Grace,” Joe Biden speaking from heart and the the podium as the newly-minted president.
We go forth. But without Steve, Myron, and so many others who wanted to be here, whether they voted for Biden/Harris or not. We remember, a necessity for healing as President Biden reminded us on Tuesday night at the Covid victim memorial. We go on but with missing shapes, textures, and colors in the mosaic of who we are and were.
Since the riots of hatred last Wednesday, it’s hard to get my bearings. Like most of the people I know, the word “unbelievable!” peppers many conversations which are often about despair, fear, insomnia, and especially how little we can do to change this situation at the moment. This is not to say that we-the-people don’t have some power and agency overall, but between now and the inauguration, there’s just a fog of foreboding and uncertainty.
What do when I don’t know what to do? Something/Anything, to riff off the name of one of Todd Rundgren’s old albums. I broke through some of the stagnancy Sunday by cutting colorful things up or out: fabric and vegetables. Finding a quilt pattern involving 128 triangles helped tremendously even if the pre-requisite was searching through my fabric collection, then ironing a whole lot of things. Slicing and dicing cauliflower, pears, potatoes, onions (for a great soup recipe), apples for an apple crisp, and a mess of tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, and zucchini (for a veggie lasagna) helped enormously.
Yesterday, I played with color in designing some memes for upcoming workshops, and later, I immersed myself in the chilly sunset sky by walking the wetlands with Kris. I remember how, in much more dire circumstances depicted in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (also one of the best books in the universe), Baby Suggs — anything but a baby and dying — could only find meaning in the colors of her quilt. “Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green” is a line that stays with me.
Right now though, I look across my room, thankful for the blues and golds in the quilt on the bed and the sky-filled windows. And that’s enough.
A friend told me that during her Christmas Zoom with family scattered far and wide, she realized how lucky they were: no one had Covid, lost their life or their job, and all had warm homes with ample food and holidays delights within easy reach. The next day I saw a line rush by on Twitter: “You didn’t have a bad year if the worst you experienced was not being able to go on vacation.”
So who is having a truly bad year? One of my coaching clients found in her research that about one third or more of us are comfy and cozy with adequate employment and health (although these numbers are in flux). The rest of Americans are struggling with what the headlines sum up as unemployment or underemployment, food insecurity, and inadequate or non-existent healthcare — all of which push them into situations where they face greater risks of exposure to Covid.
No surprise, that people who face greater economic disparity, are communities (Black, Latino, Native American, and others — more here) with the highest percentages of coronavirus. Overlapping with this, anyone who tends to have a low-paying or minimum wage job — such as people working in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. — can’t work from home….that is, if they’re working at all. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people and people in the service industry (who are sometimes one and the same). My daughter, who left a serving job a year ago, says that 80% of her server friends are out of work, which mirrors statistics I’ve seen.
Then there’s the pain we can’t measure with statistical data: those grieving beloveds lost to Covid as well as those living with long-term health impacts from the disease. When the pandemic came home to roost in March, I remember so many conversations with people about how strange it was to have something largely invisible wreaking such havoc. Now, for just about everyone I know, it’s all too real. A dear friend lost her husband last Saturday after weeks of him being intubated. One of my old high school pals’ mom died, isolated in a nursing home with no family to comfort her, a few weeks ago. Friends in Minnesota, family in Wichita, pals around town tell of how it was the sickest they ever felt or not so horrendous but very strange (and still no sense of smell and taste has returned) or they’re relatively over it, but now they have asthma for life. I know people who are long-haulers, meaning the virus comes back to send them to bed every few weeks or months. There are other stories any of us, some of those stories our own, could add to this list.
But it’s not just the pandemic making 2020 an agony of year for many people: there’s the record-number of fires in California and Colorado and many western states in between. Although my friends out yonder aren’t struggling to stay inside with all the windows sealed because of dangerous air quality right now, many of them know and see the impacts. Amazing ecological writer Barry Lopez, who died this week, lost his home to the fires after years of writing about climate change and its personal and collective impacts. There are thousands of people rebuilding or trying to rebuild after losing everything. It was also one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons ever (more here) with so many people losing homes, businesses, and even their communities to flooding.
All of this is to say that there’s a big gap between those of us who are healthy, homed, and moneyed enough, even if we’re also holding the weight of collective despair, fear, and anger, and those of us living on or over the edge of poverty, home or food insecurity, grief and heartbreak. How we define good or bad is often a personal and idiosyncratic thing, but one thing we can likely all agree on: it’s been a year like no other, and the totality of 2020’s pain and suffering hurts any feeling person’s heart.
Many say that humans are at their best in the worst of times, and that seems true too. I’ve seen — and likely you have too — so many altruistic acts of love, such as Meg Heriford’s commitment to transform her diner into a place offering free, hot meals (good ones too) to anyone in need along with pantry boxes and blankets (see the Washington Post article on her here). People I don’t know have reached out on Facebook to support me and others. Those I see on walks in the wetlands wave and say hello, clearly smiling under their masks. Most of us have given more contributions to more good work this year than in the last decade altogether. Just the other day on a 3-hour call (don’t ask) with AT&T customer assistance, I had a heart-to-heart with a service rep in Indonesia who wanted to make sure, in addition to fixing an account issue, that I was staying safe and had eaten a good lunch. Tenderness is afoot.
Yet here we are, on the cusp of 2021, and where I am, the sky is clouding over and preparing to likely paint the world in snow. I welcome the peace, I’m grateful to be warm and well-cared-for, and I’m enthralled with and in love with all the goodness innate in us also.
I am thinking of two realities: that over 300,000 people in this country have died from COVID-19 and that we’re on the cusp of the winter solstice, when the shortening days stop in their tracks, and from here on (until June 21) begin lengthening. Of course these two realities are contained in one reality that tells us we’re always swimming in change, but at this moment, such change feels even more poignant.
The vaccine is on the hoof and a new administration committed to facing the reality of the virus and doing all possible to address it is soon to take office. At the same time, just yesterday, an old friend’s mother died from the virus, another dear friend’s husband is intubated in stable but uncertain condition, and people all around are hurting, grieving, and recovering (or not).
Strangely enough, as we move toward the solstice, the weather has been sunnier, warmer, and less burdened in this part of the country. That tunnel of charcoal darkness I often felt trapped in each December isn’t happening this year, and instead, there’s socially-distanced walks in 50-degree days with friends, cleaning out the old car in the sunshine, and opening the door to let the doors in and out without an arctic blast.
Yet, yet, yet. There’s no reconciliation when it comes to big-time loss for so many people, especially when this country could have and should have done so much better if only our national administration took action at the get-go, coordinated with state and local governments, and lived out a consistent and non-politicized message about mask-wearing and other safety measures. There’s no way around this when a country with 2% of the world’s population has consistently had about 25% of the world’s coronavirus cases.
What really lingers isn’t the sense of failure and wall of data but the individual and personal pain. My friend who lost her mother writes of being bereft and also how you can’t truly understand what 300,000-plus dead means until you have a beloved in the count. This stays with me.
It also leads me to a prayer and poem — the prayer for all of us to climb over the hill of darkness and see, in the light emerging, new ways to grow our wings of compassion for those suffering, listening for what we don’t yet know, and witnessing of our collective grief.
The poem is one I wrote years ago but means a little more to me now when the world is about — I hope, I wish — to flip over to catch more of the coming light.
Winter Solstice: 4:22 p.m.
The blunt air morning-stark,
a glass light that levels everything,
makes me forget my intention for this or that,
the insistent hands home to roost
even if my walk is sodden.
Trees gleam like bronze etchings
rising from the cacophony of
cell phone rings, car tires’ turnings.
The night must have its way
even against the snow geese slightly lost
until they find their rut in the wind.
The solstice is a bird with feathers so black
they mirror the buildings, then lift
to land back to this date in time as if time
never left its perch. The motion of breath,
or a wayward finger tapping on the wooden desk
aged by light. The inward turn of stillness,
a slight sway as if standing on a bus, holding
tight to the bar when the wheels mount a sharp corner
and something completely new appears.
Solstice and then the world at this point
flips over, begins arming itself
A lot of us need more light now or as soon as possible. With the pandemic numbers rising and so many of us connected to people sick or struggling to survive or already gone, it’s a deep-dish dark time in moments that, depending on your situation, may be sad punctuations to the day or whole weeks or months long.
Then there’s the rest of our lives. In the last week, we’ve been through a lot that requires patience, self-control (although not around big-ass casseroles, like the one in the oven now), and a little more faith that we can always muster. I know of some friends facing some of the hardest week in what seems like years (me too!), and others struggling to figure out next steps across a frozen field, shrouded in heavy fog, of despair or fear. It’s also a death anniversary for us of one of the lights of our life, our friend Jerry, who left us 12/13/14 (an easy date of a hard loss).
As Ken and I walked across the actual field for just 15 minutes because it was cold, I rejoiced in the stretch of sun finally back out after a tunnel of gloomy skies. I reminded myself that in a bit over a week, the light returns another way: the solstice tips us back to an inch, a minute, a long breath more of light each day.
But meanwhile, here’s to the hurt of needing more light, and here’s to our beautiful, messy, and Wabi Sabi* resilience as we get from here to there.
*Wabi Sabi is the Japanese term for something like the perfection in imperfect, the natural state of things to die and be beautiful at once (like decaying tea houses in the country), and the uncertainty and wonder of life altogether.
Like most of us living in the ever-expansive pandemic lands, I’m looking toward a pocket-size gathering of just our household and our sister-in-law (part of our posse and pod) with the windows cracked open, chairs set far apart, and masks on when not eating. Two out of our three kiddos will be Zooming in, and we’ll likely call other family, including my sisters having a bigger outside gathering because they don’t live in a place that hosts winter.
It’s an odd sensation to be planning a meal for so few. While my sister-in-law is doing the heavy lifting of heavy carbs (stuffing, mashed potatoes, dessert, and oh yeah, the turkey and gravy), and my son is baking the rolls, we’re all about the fruit and vegetables here. We seem to be mainly about cranberries though. I bought four bags of them, figuring we might as well have twice what we need for Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish (oh, the wonders of mixing sour cream, onions, horseradish, and cranberries). Then Ken, thinking we had forgotten the cranberries, bought a whole bunch more. In the end, we probably have 32 ounces of cranberries per person, so they’ll likely be cranberries in the carrot salad, cranberry muffins, cranberry stir-fries, and other ways to use these tart little bursts.
Then again, when I think about it, the cranberry might be the perfect fruit for the resilience and adaptability we need for 2020. They usually need to be sweetened to taste good, but they fare well frozen, fresh, dried, or tossed into an infinite amount of recipes. They also call on us to be more imaginative and adventurous while tending the home fires (or stovetop or oven). They also bring together, in one small bite, the sweet, tart, tangy, bitter, and surprising taste of time.
Which leads me back to this time when all these holidays and traditions we do alone or with our laptops at the table, will next year (I hope and pray) seem so outrageously rare. What will it be like to look back on 2020 Passovers, Easters, July Fourths, Thanksgivings, and all those fabled December holidays as the great exception to the rule, the big rock in the river of our lives that we paddled around, the deviation to the norm? At the same time, like biting into an unexpected cranberry, this time is the strange episode that makes us see the story behind and ahead of us with new eyes that can take in a wider vista of gratitude.
Shay and I sit on the porch, exhaling. It has been a week, a year, and a close-to-four year thing. There’s still so much wrong with our country, Covid cases are rising daily to proportions of great anguish, millions of people voted for someone who denies reality (the pandemic, climate change, etc.) and the rights and dignity of so many humans, and untold beings suffer.
So much is too much or not enough, especially over this week when I’ve been hitting the GABA (to help me calm the $%#% down), the Pepto Bismal, and the pillow only to wake up anxious or excited at irregular intervals. I’ve done more math, including all sorts of contortions with percentages and adding very big numbers, in the past three days than I have in the last decade. There have been many hopeful or freaking out phone calls punctuated by big bouts of googling various angles of the same question. Yet in the end it seems certain a good outcome (mostly) will prevail.
Life, as Ken often reminds me, comes point-blank at us, often overfilling our imagined capacity. Then there are pauses, like right now. I sit with my tired brain and finally calm digestive tract, surrounded by the sunlight-filled leaves of the hackberry tree, the loving eyes of our old dog who struggles to walk, and the balmy air of a sweet autumnal day. Once again, I’m so happy and grateful to be here in every possible way.
Suddenly, I’m searching for sweaters, cursing the lack of mittens with me for a walk, and shiver-driving around town for the interminable stretch until the car heater kicks in. But winter is like that: it shows up, uninvited and wearing its heavy steel-tipped boots, then eats the cupboards bare (or was that me?).
Then again, in October, this kind of house guest should be expected to drop in for a few days, make us forget our complaints about heat and chiggers, and sweep out the luminous spiderwebs and sweet songs of crickets. Soon, Thursday actually if the weather prediction is accurate, summer takes back the wheel (highs of 86!) until the next too-soon cold front. There’s no doubt on who will win this back-and-forth autumnal clash.
Still, although it’s inevitable — and given the state of climate change, I’m even grateful for it — it’s still a deal to wake up one day and realize that days of porch-working and -lounging are no longer the mainstay but the rare-and-relished short stretches until sometime in March when the back-and-forthness of the seasons flares out in technicolor again.
The challenging of winter’s not-so-sneaky preview now is all-the-more apparent in pandemic time. For many of us, being outside has been our saving grace, if not among other humans, at least among dogs and dogwoods, distance herons and near-by ornate box turtles, butterflies and butterfly milkweeds. But from what I’m learning — and you may be too — what this means is that we need to bundle up and get our butts outside anyway, walking briskly in the icy air to touch base with the ultimate base of this living, changing world. That’s why I walked with my friend today, and one pandemic benefit is that I had a warm mask to wear when my nose got too cold.
Gaslighting. What a useful word that, when I first heard it, snapped a whole lot of abuse and shaming I suffered into a new and true reality. That’s because gaslighting is manipulating someone into questioning her take on the world, and at its most extreme, her sanity.
The term for this systematic psychological manipulation originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light and was popularized in the 1944 film of the same title (starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten). In Gaslight, a husband convinces his wife that she’s insane, mostly by incremental changes in their home, such as slowly dimming their gas lights while acting as if nothing has changed.
Having grown up with a father who constantly beat into me (by word and by hand) that reality was a land that didn’t include me or I obviously couldn’t even grasp, I grew up sensitized to many manner of experiences that reinforced gaslighting. Being a woman in a patriarchal culture with the added layer of working in academia for 33 years (which, even among spectacular educators and student-centered learning, has plenty of tiny gaslight villages) provided me with lots of grist for the mill.
I’ve been a teenager told her calling to be a poet was a pipe dream. I’ve been a young reporter, activist, non-profit employee, and faculty member told that her ideas were “interesting” with a patronizing chuckle or told I didn’t understand how things are because I was too young, female, naive, sensitive, intense, or other terms was used to put me on the shelf. As I developed new things that did mirror Reality with a capital R — such as Transformative Language Arts, which focuses on learning who we and our communities are through arts-based inquiry and experiential learning — I faced years of academic edition gaslighting, often manifested in men telling me what was and wasn’t real scholarship or the purpose of an education.
How many times have I and so many of us (especially if you’re female, LGTBQ, living with serious illness or disability, a person of color, or low income) sat in rooms where someone *calmly* and *logically* mansplained to us why what we asked or said was irrational, unrealistic, impossible, or just crazy-wrong? How many times have we heard “Let’s not let our emotions run away with us” by someone who was backhoeing in made-up rationale actually based on their emotions and on burying our spirits? How many times have we heard we’re too much or not enough?
Even writing this post, I realize my hands are shaking and my heart is racing because I — like so many of us — have had to endure people in power trying to turn down the gas lights of my own and so many others’ innate power to create, speak our truths, and live authentically. Make no mistake about this: gaslighting is all about power. It’s designed to take away, diminish, or otherwise obliterate our power to believe in ourselves, to speak and act for change, and to feel the full weight of our voices and visions.
Which brings me to why I won’t watch the debates.
The two specimens from the party in office exemplify two sides of the gaslighting coin. One screams, belittles, sabotages, name-calls, changes course in a split-second, and yells some more. The other talks steadily wearing a mask of calm logic completely impenetrable to all reality except for a fly landing on his head. Both divert, obstruct, talk over others, and are obviously convinced that any agreed-upon rules or norms don’t apply to them. They also both use the formula of lie, deny, and repeat multiplied exponentially until they and their followers believe what they say is as solid as bedrock.
I’m not saying the challenging party is perfect, but they are talking some undeniable reality: Yes, climate change is real. Yes, Covid-19 is far more deadly than the flu, and hey, America has 4% of the world population, and over 20% of the cases of this lethal and, if you survive, potentially life-long disease. Yes, people of color are systematically targeted by many police departments, and they die and suffer at much higher rate due to racism, the pandemic, and economic disparities.
I believe that the debates are important in showing us more of what this next election is truly about, and they can be helpful in both mobilizing the base (for both candidates) as well as helping undecided voters decide. But as someone who is a recovering gaslight survivor, I have left and will leave the room each time they’re on, taking long, slow deep breaths, reminding myself that I’m not in any danger at this moment, and opening my heart to all of us who have been told there’s something deeply wrong with who we are and what we know. And I will tell us now and again: you are enough.
Yesterday, we rushed down the driveway to pick up my car from one repair shop to take it to another. But Moxie-dog chased us down the drive, Ken got repeated phone calls interrupting us making plans, and he ended up driving to the wrong place later to get me. Waiting on the sidewalk for him to drive back to the right place, I called my daughter, only to have extraterrestrial screeches disrupt us. By the time we got home an hour later, there were more mishaps involving mistaking a tanning salon for haircut place where Ken needed to drop something off and a lost wrench.
But that’s how life is, isn’t it? It’s usually not one small mishap but a series that snags us. Because this is far from my first pile-of-mishaps rodeo, I told myself it was just one of those elongated stretches of slapstick time when either you yell or laugh. I chose laughter, but I was still pissed off.
What I’ve learned, and I’m sure you have too, is that all of this can and does change on a dime. Take Sunday night, for instance, when I was crazy-angry and exhausted thanks to a jumbo-plate serving of stress noodles with a side of a migraine salad. But a short time later, when I went downstairs to apologize to my son for losing it, everything turned to sweetness and light. Within an hour, we were all watching the great documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, which put everything into much vaster perspective.
For years now, I’ve been trying to remember when good things or bad things pile up that this is what they do. An unexpected check comes in the mail, a long-lost friend sends a love letter, a cat purrs on my chest, and a lovely breeze sweeps through with the scent of summer’s last roses. An hour later, it’s be the opposite. When things are just as I like them, I try to remind myself that this too shall pass as well just as it does when everything’s got to shit.
Some of us are better, and all of us are better at one stretch than another, at riding the waves with a big-picture perspective that everything is in motion, is changing, is getting what we might call worse or better. Then again, life is so much a maybe reality:
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.” “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
Which goes to show that we rarely know what these waves mean or even what we truly want (barring our common desire for sane and compassionate leadership, action to slow down climate change, world peace, and an end to hunger, racism, and other forces that harm us). So what does this mean for an afternoon of crossed wires and frizzled frustrations? Just that life doing its thing, pummeling our idea of how things should be before rolling out to sea to carry us on glimmering waters before the next wave and next dazzlement.
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