When the Real Winter Shows Up: Everyday Magic, Day 1046

In the last week, the temperatures have risen well over 70 degrees, what we expect in April and not in late December, but my dubious joy and relief from those balmy days has crashed into the reality of winter, which is a relief. It’s also a drudgery.

Today, it’s overcast, and the world is pewter-cold. Yet I don’t feel that strange panorama of emotion (I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m freaked out, I’m delighted) over climate-change-heated winters that feel like springs. I’m guessing this December, at least in our climes, will be the hottest December on record. So when the temperatures plummeted, it felt right to feel too cold and somewhat miserable because that’s part of what winter is….or at least, what it used to be.

Trying to change radio stations in a freezing car, not yet heating itself up, in wool gloves? Check. Realizing I should have worn my Cuddl Duds (very soft long underwear) under my clothes? Yup. Drinking hot tea instead of iced tea and really enjoying the heat coming off my oatmeal? Yes. Looking outside and feeling as gray and worn as the sky? You bet!

But there’s also a return today of winter wildlife I haven’t seen much of until now, a few days before the end of this strange year. This morning, I was distracted while on the phone by an enormous bird on the cedars outside. After taking some photos and focusing in, we found it was an immature red-tailed hawk, puffed out to maximum plumage. Looking out the bedroom window just now, I saw a family of deer about ten feet away, not yet cold and hungry enough to gingerly wander up to the bird feeder, but closer than they were in our too-warm days.

This is the kind of winter day that immerses us in a charcoal tunnel, but there’s something familiar, expected, normal even about long stretches of cold when we find ourselves thinking 30 degrees isn’t so cold because we’ve just passed through an arctic blast. There’s something right about winter being uncomfortable, and if I haven’t dressed warmly enough, painful and certainly dangerous. Winter shouldn’t be something to be trifled with, yet with all the days our temperatures played ball in the 50s and 60s, now a regular winter day feels odd…..and right too.

There’s no denying so much of what’s wrong these days, especially what’s in big flashing banners before us about climate change and the pandemic. So it’s good when, in the midst of both, I can step outside and feel so cold that the spring-dreaming part of me chimes in time with the wintering world.

Hugging People As If It’s Perfectly Normal: Everyday Magic, Day 1037

Two friends hugging some years ago like many of us can do again

When I walked into the Merc Co-op today, I spied Ardys. After talking a little through our masks, she leaned in to bump elbows. “You vaccinated?” I asked. She was, so we flung our arms around each other and held each other tightly, laughing hard and not letting go. It was the dazzlement of my day.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been hugging more than the usual household suspects. On the corner of Massachusetts and 7th streets, between eating a delicious Leeway Franks hot dog and the slice of Ladybird strawberry rhubarb pie, Alice came round the corner. Before I knew it, I was hugging her as if my life depended on it too. When in Arkansas a few weeks ago, I leaned over from the stage where I was giving a poetry reading to hug an old student I hadn’t seen in years, both us near happy hysterics. When I saw my brother-in-law after two years, I hugged him too.

I can’t imagine what it’s been like for those without people or animals in your household to hug (my beloved and dearly departed dog Shay was a great hugger). I know I’ve been extremely lucky to have Ken and every so often Daniel to hug through the pandemic, not to mention Miyako, the cat who hugs in her (and our) sleep. But now, here we are — and if we’re all vaccinated and comfortable enough with the concept of stepping toward another person and throwing our arms around them, and if there’s mutual consent (something I never had to think much about when considering a hug before), the sky’s the limit.

Still, I’m taking it slow, or rather it’s taking me slow because, like all of us, I’m out of the hugging habit. Sometimes I just bump a shoulder into someone. Sometimes I feel strangely shy about suggesting a hug, a little like wondering if I should say, “Hey, want to grab a bite?” Then again, there’s also the possibility of eating together. In restaurants. And not just outside. Then back on the sidewalk, right before heading to our cars, hugging. As if it’s perfectly normal or normally perfect.

A Guide to Your Vaccine Sorting Hat Horoscope: Everyday Magic, Day 1035

As more of us absorb the wizardry of the vaccine, where we end up might well be up to the whims of an enchanted sorting hat, just like in the Harry Potter books. Although it’s not a choice between Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin at Hogwart’s School, it’s not like we enter into the great hall of a high school gym or fairgrounds barn with much choice of which vaccine will live in us. The sentient sorting hat of our time is surely up to its pointy tip in overtime, determining whether we move to the Johnson and Johnson high rise or the Pfizer mansion.

So I started doing some research (aka making shit up), and I’m happy to share with you your horoscope for your vaccine house.*

Pfizer: You’re a person who needs to be as sure as possible, so you prefer to align with tried and true tradition and old money even if it was all tested long before current varieties of our time. You’re also quite delicate on occasion and tend to run cold, but nevertheless a strong contender. While most likely able to succeed winningly at all your endeavors, you don’t take to transitions well, particularly if you must endure heated delays of any kind. Your Achilles Heel is body aches. Your favorite color is royal blue, your most memorable meal is ice cream cake followed by espresso stored in dry ice, and your happy place is either the Arctic tundra or at a disco in Rio where the D.J. can’t stop playing Daft Punk songs. Your helper animal is either an illusive giraffe or a well-fed raccoon.

Moderna: You’re willing to be an upstart and take your chances, but you’re a product of nouveau wealth wanting the same security as the old money. You know how to make things happen quickly and how to outwit competitors, but you’re also prone to headaches and long naps more than you would like to admit. You generally like people and make friends at lightning speed. Your favorite color is dollar-bill green, you enjoy a Pina Colada (but not any songs about the drink), and your happy place is at Burning Man right before anyone has set up camp. Your animal, a de-scented skunk, travels with you everywhere you go although she has a mind of her own and often escapes to lurid night clubs instead of helping you transport your precious creations. You also enjoy long autumnal walks in New England, but only when you’re not working, which is never.

Johnson & Johnson: You’re a one-and-done maverick who’s willing to take your chances to get ‘er done quickly and easily. You’re also easy on the eyes. While you come from ancient tradition dating back to clan with names no one can pronounce, you’re not exactly a chip off the old horse even if the donkey is your protector animal. You believe in hard work and family connections, but you’re also practical enough to make a splash with doing things your own way. Your color is blood red, your bar order is either a gin and tonic or a Shirley Temple, and your happy place is at a refurbished tennis court at 6 a.m. in the Hamptons. Your idea of fun entails Lear jet flights back and forth over the U.S. while counting clouds and singing ABBA songs.

Astrazeneca: You have an international flair and a penance for adventure. Some might say you’re not reliable, particularly with younger people, but you’re a dark horse that may surprise us all. You have an amazing propensity to prove people wrong about your intentions although you do like to build followers on social media whenever you have a free moment. With a British father and Swedish mother, you know something about aging royalty, effective compromise, and also how to play multiple card games during hundreds of overcast days. Your color is orange, your favorite meal involves herring on toast, and your happy place is anyplace in Africa with a large urban population. Your animal is a happy puma.

*The first three vaccines are currently available in the U.S., and obviously there are more vaccine houses around the world to be considered, but my divination skills only go so far.

“Life Will Break You”: A Year Since Everything Changed: Everyday Magic, Day 1031

Louise Erdrich, from her novel The Painted Drum

“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.

I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.

But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.

But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.

On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.

P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.

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.