Who is That Masked Poet?: Everyday Magic, Day 1010

I never felt like much of a vigilante before, but lately, I can’t help myself. After shopping at our very safe food co-op where everyone was wearing masks except for one young family, I eyed said family in the parking lot, right next to where I would be returning my empty cart. “Should I?” I asked myself, followed by, “Why not?” I gingerly walked over to them, standing 10 feet away of course, and cheerfully said, “Hey, please wear masks next time. The numbers are going up, and we want everyone to stay safe.”

One of them looked away like this masked poet with messy hair in old bike shorts and a tie-dyed shirt was crazy, and the other shot hate rays from her eyes. I shrugged and headed back to my car, once again unsure if speaking up is going to change anything in a world where so many people are actively embracing stupidity, carelessness, ignorance, denial, or something else that eludes me. But then that’s the job of being a masked poet: speaking up and spreading awkwardness, then speeding away quickly.

Not that I always have the nerve to say something: when traveling through Missouri to get to a relatively safe harbor in Arkansas (writers’ colony where I would inhabit thoroughly disinfected rooms without having contact with other humans), I had to stop at numerous gas stations, thanks to a small bladder and a whole of iced ice. Did I see anyone working anywhere who had a mask? Of course not, and the only exception to the maskless were three women coming out of a bathroom. I wanted to shoot my fist in the air and yell, “Right on, sister!” Furthermore, the good working people of quick shop world looked at me like I was from outer space because of my mask. I got back in my car and pumped more sanitizer on my hands.

Coming back through Kansas, I still didn’t encounter any people donning masks, except for the employees at a very mechanized Taco Bell, who passed my burrito to me through a plexiglass contraption, which I appreciated. But at least the older woman I saw stocking cigarettes in southeast Kansas smiled at me and called me “Honey.”

Then there’s the grocery store encounters that led me to write to two national chains, one for a store where half the employees wore their masks pulled down under their noses, and another where the manager had his mask hanging around his neck. My polite but pointed conversations with them didn’t go so well, and in one case, I had to ask a woman, much older and likely much more at risk, to step back when she got face-to-face with me. At least one of the chains (Aldi’s) took my complaint seriously, and we had a prolonged conversation about how people working there needed more education (my point — I didn’t want any of these front-line workers fired).

I know masks are a hassle, and I struggled mightily with my glasses fogging up until I found some tricks that worked for me (the right-sized mask for the face, and making sure the top of the mask is tight and secure), but I’ve noticed I’m actually getting used to wearing a mask. Back in March (many years ago, it seems), I rushed through grocery aisles just throwing anything in my cart in an effort to get outside in a hurry and get the mask off. Now I’m relatively okay with my nose and mouth under layers of cloth.

I also realize those of us who aren’t front-line workers only have to endure little bouts of maskfulness. My son Forest, who works 40 hours each week at our food co-op, has to wear his mask for eight hours at a time. People working in hospitals, doctor offices, clinics, restaurants, manufacturing, and so many other industries have had to seal up half their face as a way of life.

Although I’m mostly home, just edging out once a week, I’m astonished at what I keep seeing. Some of my friends say it’s just too much for people to accept that the old normal isn’t coming back around for longer than they can endure. One friend equated our relationship with the pandemic to grief: we keep cycling through all the stages, and some people are especially at home in denial or anger. Whatever the case, I’m dumbfounded as to why everyone isn’t building their mask wardrobe.

There’s a well-worn saying among many of us about speaking truth to power, and while asking people to wear masks isn’t quite a same, it feels like something, if we can do it without evoking defiant reactions (which I’m surely not often successful in), is worthwhile. After all, given all we’re learning about the truth of what helps prevent the virus (masks!), we do have the power to be what my people call mensches: decent humans. Let’s mask up and use our power!

Walking With Courage, Vulnerability, and Tenderness: Everyday Magic, Day 1,001

Amazingly enough, we are arrived at the last day of March, a month that has lasted at least 1,283 days in fear, panic, and dread years. But here we are, and as April — what T.S. once called the cruelest month — approaches, we know we’re in for a far longer, harder, and more unimaginable month with the virus likely peaking over the coming weeks.

Walking — our new and only in-person social life of late — with our son Forest through East Lawrence the other day, I asked him what the word was for the world looking one way while it’s also a drastically different world at the same time. We were ambling past heartbreakingly beautiful manifestations of spring — magnolia trees loaded with pink boats of blossom, tender green just-leafing trees, and a gala of daffodils, hyacinths, and even some early scout redbuds showing off like the main attractions they are. Forest thought for a moment, then said the word I was looking for was dissonance, that anxious tension from two disharmonious elements.

The numbers of people with Covid-19 are rising exponentially, more and more people are dying, medical supplies are running out, and the map in the New York Times I check (with bated breath) every few days looks like the country has a bad case of chicken pox and rampant poison ivy all at once. At the same time, the birds are singing in overlapping and ever-shifting harmonies even if some of their song is about holding onto their territory and driving out invaders. The peach tree in our backyard blossoms in its usual aching beauty. Spring seems far more beautiful and far-reaching in its volume, and even the soft glow of the air, maybe because I’m paying more attention or, more than ever, this is the renewal I need each morning when I wake up, to paraphrase Rumi, scared and empty.

We’re in a time when there’s likely not enough anti-anxiety meds or slow meditative breaths to lift any aware person completely out of feeling some of the vast uncertainty, fear, and suffering happening throughout the world. There’s obviously only vague maps and best-guessed timelines ahead, although we humans cling to patterns and answers. Yet when I pass people on walks in the wetlands or through various neighborhoods, all us carefully keeping at least six feet apart, there’s a tenderness, even among strangers. “Hey, how are you doing?” people will call out, or they’ll just smile and send wishes to stay healthy.

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability,” Brene Brown tells us. We are growing our courage to get out of bed, unsure what bad news will land today and what beloveds of ours (including ourselves) might be threatened, hurt, or just very afraid. We find our feet and begin walking through our days, our hearts open and trembling like the vulnerable and courageous creatures we are.

So it’s step by step — the living room to the kitchen, the front door to the backyard, the trail a few feet or miles away, and of course, wandering through what fear, foreboding, or other difficult emotions grip us while we make a meatloaf, pet the dog, call our mother or child or friend, to try to fall asleep. It’s movie by movie, dishwashing by dishwashing, laundry by laundry. But wherever we are in our internal landscape, we can always take the next baby step with courage, vulnerability, and tenderness.

For the month of April, I’m so happy to share with you A Prompt A Day, a daily writing prompt (poems, film clips, songs, and more), plus an optional penpal matching service. It’s offered on a donation basis — for free or up to $30. More here.

Listening to History, Looking Out for the Herd: Everyday Magic, Day 1000

Denise & Judy Back When We Could Go to Pastry Shops

It only took a few seconds of looking at the NYTimes map of the pandemic Saturday night for me to start hyper-ventilating and crying. At that moment, I didn’t yet realize I needed perspective, big-picture, deep-time, and wide-angle views to not just calm myself at the moment, but forge a more informed path forward. After taking a Lorazepam, drinking some water, vowing to self-isolate from regular bouts of Coronavirus news, and breathing slowly, I called my friends Judy and Denise. Both poets with miles of life experience winding through great wisdom, they gave me the gift of such perspective.

“I think of us as part of the herd, and now we have to do what keeps the herd healthy,” Judy said. Although we’re socially distancing, we’re actually coming together to support our collective health and life, giving each other a wide berth to ensure our safety as we roam the sometimes narrow trails of our homes and yards. I think of a Washington Post article I saw last week about staying home and apart not primarily to protect ourselves (although of course that’s essential) but to protect others who might be far more vulnerable that we are to Corvid-19.

“Think of what our parents and grandparents went through with World War II and the 1918 flu pandemic, which started in Kansas” Denise reminded me. We talked about the very long arm of what we know of human history — all the wars, pandemics, and natural disasters that patchwork a large story of perseverance. “Humans are wired and evolved for resilience,” Denise added.

Since then, I’ve been pondering the histories of my ancestors — the pogroms and the Holocaust that killed many but not all, the wars that turned daily existence into insecurities of scarcity, danger, and loss — as well as the generational stories of others I know. What was it like for one of my German friends who was born in early 1945, just in time to be piled in a wagon with many household items, because her family’s home was now destroyed? How was it for my grandparents to live through WWII, even though they were safe in Brooklyn, not knowing if Hitler would take over the world or if their relatives back in Poland, Russia, and Romania would survive (they largely wouldn’t)? During the 1918 pandemic — one the most deadly pandemic in human history — was it so much like living in a war zone that many were enveloped in fight/flight mode for months?

Denise and Judy reminded me that most generations have to deal with something overwhelmingly threatening; this is ours. Yes, it has its distinctions just like any disaster, but there’s a lot in common with past threats. We don’t know when it will end, who it will sicken or kill, what our economy will look like, how the herd will change, and then there are dozens of ifs that can wake up a person at 5 a.m. We don’t have control over ending this quickly, although we can do our part to hasten that ending. We don’t know a thousand and one things about the time ahead or the time we’re in right now.

I don’t mean to minimize suffering, death, mourning, and terror around the world. At the same time, despite this age of collective anxiety and fear (surely bred into our bones from past generational traumas, and reinforced by viral wolves at real doors), we go on like so many other species still vital. Just like the herd of shy deer edging the woods where I live, the squirrel families racing across the roof, the crows landing in the field to find something tasty or shiny.

We have history on our side and the herd to tend, so tend it we will, extending care and affection (without touching), attention and intention toward those we love and those we don’t even know, guided by what’s imprinted in our DNA about the herd and history. I leave you with this call to courage and love from Valerie Kaur of The Revolutionary Love Project: “This pandemic will test who we are, as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self interest? Or will be double down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? I believe this is is a time to love without limit.”

Dear Me: Stop Freaking Out: Everyday Magic, Day 999

Dear Me (and Dear Me!),

I know you’re crazy-scared about the coronavirus. How could anyone paying attention not be when the closings and cancellations fall like dominos. Just in the last day, many universities in your state cancelled in-person classes, events on your calendar vanished in a wisp of precaution, and your synagogue called off services. In an age when even a minyan (Jewish term for the minimum number of Jews to be present for formal worship) is a risk, it’s hard to turn away from the ticker tape parade across the frontal lobe that keeps blaring, “The world is ending!”

After the agony too, the laundry

Actually, it’s just the world we know in the ways we expect it to be based on how it’s been rollicking along for a while. Your son was videoconferencing with his friend in China last night, who lives one province over from the virus epicenter, and they were laughing and catching up. A Facebook friend in Italy posts about the beyond-imagined new normal and how they’re hanging out at home, watching movies, making food, taking short walks, and worrying about loved ones with the virus.

Moreover, this moment — while certainly unique in most or all of our lifetimes — is another one of many ongoing overwhelming threats to human life and activity along with climate change, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and so much more. While we’re in an expansive rift, let us also mention the reality that we are all exceedingly mortal and can control only a fraction of what happens to us.

Telescoping in to what might be in your purview, it’s not a good time to think about your retirement investments, and yes, some of your gigs are called off, but please don’t go down this rabbit hole because you, along with a lot of people you know, are likely going to be fine and will have the resources you need. You have good health insurance, you live in a lovely home in the country with fields and woods to traverse, and you can afford to stock the pantry. You’re also abundantly outfitted with books, art supplies, sewing projects, movies, and animals. Oh, and you have the phone and internet, and already, you’ve been visiting deeply with lots of friends more even if the conversation is often punctuated with “I’m scared too.”

So many people, close around you and scattered around the world, do not have such a safety net. You can pray, send good wishes, and contribute money here and there, but consider what else you can do. Your son’s idea to contact neighbors and make connections so that, as needed, we can run errands for each other is a good one. It’s also important to contemplate little, quiet fundraising efforts for people who will lose most of their income. What else can you do? As for everything and especially this thing, more will be revealed in time.

So why, little trembling darling, are you still so anxious? Of course, telling yourself you need to be less freaked out right now so that your emotions don’t diminish your immune system isn’t going to get you anywhere either. Panicky urgency should not be given the keys to drive the bus right now. Instead, I want you to consider this:

  • Right now, no one you know is sick and suffering with this virus, and while that’s likely to change, it would do you good to dwell in the present. Speaking of which….
  • Right now, the pale blue-to-white sky is as soft as the warming air. The peas and carrots you planted in the garden on Sunday are germinating in that rich dirt after rain saturated everything. The fields are just on the verge of going from washed out tans and browns to scribbled-in exuberant green.
  • Right now, you have a cat asleep near your feet and a dog asleep (although looking at your quizzically) by your side. They fear nothing.
  • Right now, there are deer in the woods walking gingerly up the hill. There are happy rabbits regrouping with their buddies for the spring. Hibernating turtles stir underground. Early spring birds sing across the airwaves. Here we are in an unfurling world beyond the reach of headlines and soundbites.
  • What we worry about happening usually bears no resemblance to what happens. If and when you or loved ones get sick, as a zen master pal of yours said today, you’ll be okay even if you can’t imagine what okay is or how it might play out. Or you’ll not be okay, and that’s okay too.
  • Most of all, know that while you can’t do anything to stop a viral pandemic, you can do something about your airspace in the pandemic of fear. When you get scared, get off your bum, walk outside, and take a long, deep breath. Go hang some laundry and feel the wind lifting and dropping all around us. The world is infinitely larger than the scaredy cat meowing inside you. Take another breath. Then another.

Love, me

Scans For Life: Everyday Magic, Day 956

With my oncologist, Dr. Sharon Soule

Years ago when I was in the oncology center waiting room for an appointment following my bout of breast cancer, two women made me cry. One was in her 70s, and the other was her middle-aged daughter, both clinging to each other and having a hard time answering questions because of their sobbing while they checked in to hear test results. I was soon called back to see my oncologist, and so were they, but I saw them again on my way out, both of them laughing and crying at once, still clinging to each other. A nurse who escorted them out hugged them and said, “I’m so happy for you.” They arrived in terror and left in joy.

I know those feelings pretty well. Since those dreaded “you-have-cancer” words first entered my orbit in 2002, I’ve been on the scan bus, making more stops than I would have expected because I was also diagnosed with BRCA 1, one of the breast cancer mutations. Add to this that my father and uncle died young from pancreatic cancer, and MRIs entered the mix. Then there was the ocular melanoma last summer, and now, post-treatment for that, I’m a regular in our hospital’s radiology department.

Last Friday, I had my second seasonal (every three months for many years) scan to make sure what was in my eye didn’t travel. Because this type of cancer, when it has legs (and I pray it doesn’t), usually shows up in the liver and sometimes in the lungs, I had an abdominal and chest CT scan (used to be called a CAT scan, although there’s little purring, involved), and some blood work. I was scared beforehand but not as scared as the first one last fall, and far less scared than the parade of of scans last spring. In the week before the scan, I had a few seconds here and there of full-body terror that makes me feel like I’m both thoroughly embodied in terror and also on the outside looking in. But I’ve learned fear storms are just another kind of weather that moves through: keep breathing, drink some water, tell yourself it’s just a strong emotion that will ebb, and eventually, the sky clears.

With Melissa, the wonderful CT scan technician

Getting scans to see what’s happening under the hood is something many of us endure. I know so many people living with and recovering from many health challenges, all of which require showing up on time, sometimes drinking strange fluids or having dye injected into us, and then being ferried in and out of large, sometimes (in the case of MRIs) outrageously loudly-clanging machines. There’s also other tests of trepidation many of us go through that show whether we’re in the money or up shit’s creek. My scans and health history aren’t more challenging than what many others go through, and I have a lot of “there but for the grace go I” moments when I hear of friends who are facing degenerative diseases, chronic pain, and terminal diagnoses (although life is such a diagnosis). Then again, comparison of our learning edges and life challenges is a futile activity.

I’ve learned and am continually learning to stay calmer, working through my phobia of being restricted in the grips of a machine. Last summer, my wonderful oncologist Sherri Soule gave me a prescription for a lot of Lorazepam, a low dose anti-anxiety drug. I wondered why she prescribed so many, but now that I’ve had that refilled twice, I know sometimes we need a little pharmaceutical help. I also have a GABA spray I highly recommend for moments that activate our fight or flight response. Like many of us, I practice slow, deep breathing, listen to music (especially during scans, and I’m sure Enya was invented for MRIs), and bring along Ken and sometimes other support people.

For this last scan, I found extra support in the technician, a lovely woman named Melissa who remembered me from last time, talked over the singers I was listening to my iPhone during the scan (Brandi Carlile and Carrie Newcomer), and treated me with such energetic tenderness that she put me at ease. Then there was the wait for results, best spent not speculating — we distracted ourselves by getting brunch at Wheatfields, reveling in the glory of bread. I’m so grateful that my oncologist doesn’t play the phone game (a call if all is fine or a “you need to come in right away” if it’s not) and meets with me a few hours after the scans. As she came in smiling, telling me all was well, to my surprise I started crying, but that’s pretty common with scans.

Each scan is another tumble with seeing how mortal we are. Recently, my therapist and I realized that it wasn’t the scanning machines — CT scans, MRIs, and Pet scans — that freaked me out as much as what the scans might read. At the same time, the whole process makes me fall more in love with this life, enough to spend a long and healthy lifetime grappling with what I keep discovering here.

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