Life (and Tinnitus) in the Key of G: Everyday Magic, Day 1030

Finding the key on our purple (made in Lawrence) piano

Last night, I found that my tinnitus buzzes and hums in the key of G. How did I find this? By singing in key with the tinnitus while pressing piano keys.

Making music out of misfortune is sometimes the order of the day, especially when I’m encased in a cocoon of hearing the workings of my own brain. That’s somewhat what tinnitus is, according to this succinct and brilliant video with Marc Fagelson, who says, “Experiencing tinnitus is like eavesdropping on your brain talking to itself although it may not be a conversation you want to hear.”

Then again, those of us (something like one in seven) with tinnitus don’t have much of a choice. How I got here wasn’t exactly by choice either, but rather a Rube Goldberg (no relation, just resonance) contraption of events. Over the last six months I’ve been immersed in the sport of extreme dentistry because the radiation treatment for my ocular melanoma wreaked havoc on my teeth. With upwards of 20 cavities, including many under caps, I’ve had close to 20 visits to the dentist, oral surgeon and endodontist. Almost all included drilling in various pitches, and yes, it turns out dental drilling can cause or worsen tinnitus (no, earplugs won’t help because the drilling is happening inside the head)

I’ve been running my own science experiment in my brain, and after each dental visit, someone turns the volume up on what was once a barely detectable buzz-hum-sing-roaring, sometimes so much that it wakes me up at night. So what’s a gal to do? Take to the internet and research the hell out of this of course, but I’ve also been telling people, which brings me a lot of stories of how people all around me have been living with tinnitus and other hearing quirks and limitations. There’s no cure, but there’s ways to make friends with this condition, which for me mainly takes the form of not storying this up with terms like “cancer’s collateral damage,” but instead telling myself tinnitus isn’t really unpleasant, and it’s more akin to be wrapped in multiple blankets of white noise. Sometimes it’s even soothing.

I’ve also recommitted to my wiggly meditation practice, changing my 5-minutes-of-meditation-when-I-feel-like-it to 18 minutes a day no matter what. While sitting quietly is a sure way to hear the loudest ocean of tinnitus engulfing me, it also gives me time to just be with it without thrashing against the walls of no such thing as pure silence. I also play music a lot, which helps somewhat mask tinnitus, and last night I stumbled upon singing along with it, then taking to the piano where I found it lived in the key of G. I then read today about how making and being in sounds that correlate to the same pitch is a practice called energetic masking.

So here I am, living life in the key of G, the letter that begins my maiden name of Goldberg but also goodness, google, God, guess, goobsmacked, Gaia, granola, gratitude, Gandalf, giving, grief, giraffe, grass, gravy, and grace. It’s not such bad company — and hey, a lot of these G’s are the very stuff of life — even if it’s sometimes a loud party of its own strange music.

Birds Are the Best Thing About Winter: Everyday Magic, Day 1029

Female cardinal — photo by Len Scotto

When the temperature gets near or below zero, survival comes into sharper focus for us all, but so do birds and their survival without the benefit of fleece and indoor nesting.

So we feed the birds, but just as much for us as for them, sometimes hourly re-lining the deck ledge with a thick line of bird seed, emphasis on the black sunflower seeds they love so much. This smorsgasbord draws a constant wave of birds, dining side by side with little fuss, even when a squirrel joins the mix. The only thing that disrupts the long counter in Bird Diner is Mr. Bluejay, who freaks everyone the hell away until he gets his meal and departs.

I came to loving birds later in life, not really noticing them much until I had breast cancer in 2002. I quickly found out — and this has been verified so many times in facilitating writing classes for people living with serious illness — that there’s something about struggling through hard-nosed chemo, radiation, surgery recovery, or drug side effects that point our faces toward the window. For one thing, many of us in the throes of such grappling don’t have the bandwidth to do more that stare at walls, ceilings, and even better, windows. We slow way down, and voila! Were there always so many birds?

White-throated sparrow — photo by Len Scotto

When I was tunneling through some dark stretches of eye cancer, it was birds again, but in a different way. Light hurt my right eye for so long (just months, but felt longer) that I would lie on the porch futon with a towel over my eyes and listen. Birdsong and calls, whether for food or love or territory, engulfed me. It was sometimes like being rocked in a cradle of bird sound, each sway showing me how vibrant and beautiful the world was even if I couldn’t look directly at it.

This winter I realized how much bird gazing is the best part of my day. When they meander off to roost in late afternoon, I feel sad, but when I wake up the next morning, the birds are the first view I most want (well, first checking my email on my phone, but still….). Muriel Rukeyser wrote in one of her poem, “The universe is made of turtles/ not of atoms,” and while that’s clearly true, I think a lot of those stories are made of birds, especially the winter, illness or other-time-sequestered-away (hello, pandemic!) stories.

Flicker (yes, part of the woodpecker family) — photo by Len Scotto

Like right now: there’s two male cardinals, a female cardinal alighting to grab a sunflower seed, then flitting back to the branch. There’s always juncos, sometimes chickadees, an occasional goldfinch, many an adorable titmouse, little brindled sparrows, and the splendor of the flicker and the red-bellied woodpecker dazzling me, especially on overcast days. There’s the crow, solitary on the deck railing, tilting her head to the left to tune into the secrets of what gleams. Soon they should be bluebirds, my favorite of bird nirvana. And all the birds are puffed out to maximum birdness, warming themselves in their balls of feather.

Miyako the cat and I watch from the blind of the windows, me puffed out myself in layers of clothes, and her doing that crazy-cat chittering that’s almost as entertaining as the birds. Our eyes follow them away, then back down, a united states of birdland here for us all.

Thank you so much to a spectacular photographer and dear friend, Len Scotto, for these amazements in photography.

The Ones Who Don’t Go Forth With Us: Everyday Magic, Day 1026

Olive and Steve (used with permission)

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.

What is a Bad Year? What is a Good Year? Everyday Magic, Day 1024

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.

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!