Our Gigantic Vat of Lemonade

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Well life has dumped a truckload of lemons on all of us and as usual with humans there are lots of folks who are making sweet lemonade. Time and again people prove that it’s rather difficult to hold mankind down. We are a feisty bunch that finds a way to make the best of the worst kinds of situations.

I never cease to be amazed with individual creativity and I see tons of it in the people who are my friends. I had a great time yesterday watching the latest homemade version of Chopped from my former neighbors who have taken to devoting Tuesday evenings to producing their own rendition of this Food Network classic. Each week the two children compete in a cooking challenge that requires their ingenuity in using four key ingredients for their creations.This past Tuesday they had to use ground beef, bacon, Captain Crunch cereal and almonds in whatever they ultimately chose to prepare. The stakes were high because last week’s winner had been victorious by a very slim margin so her brother was determined to steal the crown.

I was thinking that it would be impossible to make something edible with the strange mix of ingredients but the youngsters came through like champs. One prepared a delightful pasta dish and the other used the Captain Crunch to bind bacon filled hamburger patties. Somehow it didn’t matter to me who actually won as much as to witness the fun and laughter that this precious family was enjoying and sharing with others. There was no moaning about boredom or cancellation of life as they had known it. Instead they were making the best of the situation and creating memories that will make them smile for the rest of their lives.

As I scrolled through posts from other friends I was taken by a delightful schedule that a mother and her toddler had made for the following day. It included learning time but also made room for walks outside and playing with toy trucks and cars. It had enough free moments for hugs and those unexpected moments of sadness that must be lovingly addressed.

I’ve witnessed a family in Japan playing a lively game of Heads Up that would have made Ellen DeGeneres proud. As the mom of the family attempted to guess what her word was from the crazy clues that her husband and children were shouting the room exploded with hilarity and the kind of closeness that having simple fun brings to a group of people who know and love each other.

Those videos of quarantined townspeople singing or clapping or dancing together from a distance are so moving. The Zoom conferences that put musicians together to create music are beautiful. The reworking of poems and Broadway show tunes to reflect the current reality tickle the funny bone. I am literally in awe of the genius of people who use the time they have on their hands to create something unique and uplifting.

There are so many incredible ideas pouring from the genius of teachers and moms who suddenly find themselves in the role of educators that make me giddy with delight. They are proving to the world how hard they always work and how much they love their students. Without much direction at all they have joined together across the world to make certain that the education of our children will not suddenly cease. For an old teacher like me it is exhilarating to witness the enthusiasm that drives my comrades to do the work that has so often been under appreciated. It’s not money or governmental directives driving their march forward, but rather the understanding that what they do is the foundation of society itself. Those children who are learning in their bedrooms today will one day lead the world and remember those dedicated individuals who brought light into their lives when times seemed so dark.

Aside from making me feel wonderful when I view such things, it also insures me that we will ultimately be okay. We may experience more hardship and sacrifice than we wish but we humans are going to defeat this setback much as we always do. We will put our best minds and talents together and make the biggest most delicious concoction of lemonade imaginable.

A dear friend with whom I once worked called me a couple of days ago. She now lives in India, the place where she and her husband were born. She is self isolating just as we are here. We spoke of the common bond that each of us is feeling right now. Somehow this is not about politics or geography or ideology. It is about people whose hearts beat in the same way, whose blood courses through their veins without consideration of color, whose lungs long to breathe in good health and healing. Surely we realize more than ever how much more we are alike than different. Hopefully it is something that we won’t soon forget. Maybe we will try harder than ever to continue to work together as we concoct our gigantic vat of lemonade. 

Facing the Fears

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I’ve noticed a number of people being very honest about their anxieties with regard to Covid-19. I was raised to be stoic about such things. My mom never complained or showed her worries until she had a mental breakdown and then in a state of psychosis she could not stop talking about her fears. I suppose that it was that point in life when I realized that we should not have to keep our concerns to ourselves. Bearing the unbearable alone does not always lead to a situation as dramatic as my mom’s was, but it can have both physical and emotional consequences that sap the very energy out of a person. I think it is quite healthy of my friends to admit that they are worried and afraid. I admire them for asking for help in dealing with the losses and frustrations that they are feeling.

I’ve been rocking along being rather proud of myself for bearing up and adjusting to the temporary normal of Covid-19. I’ve kept myself busy, made sure that my husband’s recovery from recent surgery has been smooth and upbeat, created distance learning for my math students, checked on members of my family and circle of friends, kept a written record of this historical event, and generally rolled with the ever changing punches that we are experiencing. I had considered myself to be immune from crushing worries because I’ve handled many crises in my lifetime. So it was a wake up call when I had a dream a view nights ago that made me realize that I was a bit more concerned than I have been willing to admit.

My nightmare began in my old home on Anacortes Street. I was a younger version of myself and my two girls were still children. As I walked down the street to meet them at the bus stop after school I waved at my neighbor Betty Turner who was smiling at me from a lawn chair in her front yard. I told Betty I would be back in a few minutes and I would sit with her and have a little chat. The school bus pulled up just as I arrived at the corner and my daughters hopped off with their book bags and lunch boxes. I was happy to see them and I gave them both hugs before starting back home. That’s when the fun or, should I say, the horror began.

Somehow our straight and quick pathway had become blocked and we had to take an alternate route. At first I wasn’t worried because I knew the area well and there was more than one way to get back home. Unfortunately no matter what I tried we could not find a way to the safety of our house. In fact we were getting farther and farther away and I was doing my best not to frighten my children. Instead I attempted to turn our adventure into a game which worked for a time but eventually they grew weary and begged me to take them home so that they might rest and see their friends and enjoy some playtime.

I kept trying my best to protect them from the reality of our situation but it was beginning to feel hopeless. Our wandering even took us back to the old neighborhood where I grew up and when I searched there for someone to help I only found strangers who ignored me when I attempted to speak to them. I was exhausted and on the verge of hysteria when I awoke and realized that it was all just a dream, but it helped me to understand that I had been denying the impact that this pandemic was having on me and the people that I love.

I suppose that most of us are longing for the comfort of that yesterday before any of this happened. As a mom I still worry about my still grown and very capable daughters. I long to see them and hug them and protect them. It’s difficult for all of us to be so separated and to feel so helpless. I am a person who takes control of situations and suddenly much of that control is in the hands of others. For now I am mostly doing what I can from afar and not being the responsible person in the room makes me feel a bit lost.

My dream has helped me to visualize and vocalize my fears. I don’t intend to dwell on them because that is not my style, but by allowing myself to feel them I have become stronger in my resolve not to allow any of this to defeat me. I think that it is important for each of us to find that honest part of our minds and then deal with the demons that haunt us. It really is okay to long for the normal times and want to rewind to a happier moment. It’s normal to want to protect our children even if they are grown. It’s a very human thing to want to get back to a dear friend like Betty where we can just sit and feel ourselves returning to a sense of safety and contentment that feels threatened by the specter of Covid-19.

I think of myself as a superwoman and I know I have a backbone of steel, but I am in reality just as human as anyone. I believe that it will be our very humanity and empathy that gets us through this crazy time. I’m thankful for all those dear souls who have been courageous enough to admit their fears. They have helped me and others. If we are honest we all know that hearing someone voice the feelings that we have pent up inside assuages our own worries. There is nothing more normal than being a bit anxious right now. Once I admitted it to myself I knew that I would be okay. It’s time to keep calm and remember to practice self care.

Accepting Our Different Ways Of Coping

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I’ve often noted that speaking or writing in public can be a dangerous game to the extent that words whether uttered or written down are subject to misinterpretation. As someone who majored in English Literature I remember the energetic debates regarding what an author may have actually meant to say. It always amazed and amused me how we bring our own preconceptions to the analysis of virtually any topic. Where and how we grew up plays a major role in shaping how we view the world. The experiences we have had or not had contribute as well. Our understanding of the nuances of language is yet another factor. Indeed communication is far more complex than a simple utterance may at first glance appear to be. Putting thoughts on paper or speaking them in a public forum is an exercise that will lead to as many different parsing of the words as a game of “telephone” played by a hundred people.

There is very little in the world that is simple but we humans nonetheless do our best to keep things that way. We want certainty in our lives, routines that help to make us feel secure. When those things are taken away the foibles of our individual personalities are tested. Some become uncomfortable while others actually appear to enjoy the riskiness of the situation. When the situation we are facing is wrought with more questions than answers we go into survival mode and how we behave can be very different from one person to another.

As we navigate the unknowns presented by the outbreak of Covid-19 our individual modes of coping are often at odds. There are those who appear to do best by laughing at the situation and that’s not a totally bad idea. The award winning film Life Is Beautiful tells of courage in the face of horror in a story of the power of humor in overcoming the unthinkable. Being able to voice our fears is important but sometimes difficult. A good chuckle allows our emotions to run free.

I have noticed others who turn to activity to keep their minds from dwelling on the possibilities. I know from my own experiences that keeping busy is a powerful antidote for sadness. It was the very panacea that I needed and used after my father’s death. The only trouble that I found with it is that I eventually needed to face down the powerful feelings that remained in my heart. Hard work kept me going but it was not enough to heal my hurt. Stoicism can be admirable, especially when we need people to get things done but we must always remember that at some point they may need to vent, to express what is bothering them. It is important that we allow them those moments.

Of course we all know individuals who quite openly speak of the thoughts that are flowing freely through their minds. For some their honest utterances are uncomfortable. As a rule we sometimes don’t want to hear them. We try to quiet them with platitudes and assurances when all they really need is our willingness to hear them out, our attempts to understand. In many ways they are actually the most courageous among us because they are often saying things that we are too reluctant to say. They have the wisdom of profound honesty and I wonder why it makes so many of us so uncomfortable. Their embrace of the truth of their feelings is a sign of trust, so why do we so often cringe when we hear them saying the very things that are buried in our own hearts ?

I suppose that I am a classic “Pollyana.” I go about in a crisis attempting to make everyone feel happy and optimistic. It is as though I have some notion that if we just stay positive everything will work out for the best. While there is nothing innately wrong with that approach it can be annoying to the realists and it can also have unforeseen consequences. Not every ending is a happily ever after but facing the state of things as they actually exist can sometimes be the surest route back to the promised land. A mask of false confidence can be as ineffective as a thin mask used to contain a deadly virus. Sometimes people have to hear the truth to get to a better place even if it makes them uncomfortable.

We are each reacting to the threat of this novel virus in our own particular ways. How we manage to get through the coming days is a very personal journey. Perhaps our reaction to one another’s differences should be more understanding.

I am in a good place on a personal level. I do not mind being isolated inside my home. It is a lovely environment that allows me to spend my days in a serene little cocoon. I do not have the virus but I have every other thing that I may need. I only worry about others as I watch this tragedy unfold.

I hear the panicked warnings of the doctors in my family and the healthcare workers who are my friends, and I am anxious for them. I witness the anxiety of those who have lost their jobs or watched their nest eggs decrease, and I understand their concerns. I see the young men and women whose educations and experiences have been so abruptly upended, and I understand their disappointment.

I do not have to be told to relax or to endure or that everything will soon be alright. I have every faith that humanity will ultimately win this battle, but my instincts tell me that recovering will not be as easy as some would have us believe. We are in for great change and difficulties unlike many of us have ever seen. It will take a global united effort to get back to a good place and there will be no room for laying blame or making excuses. We’ll simply just have to get to work just as humans have done anytime the world has turned upside down. More importantly we will need much understanding and a willingness to accept our differences in the way we approach problems.

The reality is that we need will need everyone and every response. We will need to laugh from time to time and sometimes cry. We will require the brutal truth and the softness of diplomacy and encouragement.  Perhaps as we sit in our homes it is time that we consider how to be more tolerant and willing to accept that nobody has all the answers and no one person is always right. Maybe coping means being willing to accepting that each of us has a place at the table and something important to offer the world.

 

With Grace

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My grandmother travelled alone from the Slovakia region of Austria Hungary to Galveston, Texas shortly before the outbreak of World War I. She was a young woman then with a lifetime stretching before her. She joined her husband in an unknown world to forge a future. At first she worked at various jobs outside of her home but as her family grew she mostly confined herself to the duties of caring for her husband and children. After ten pregnancies and the loss of two of her babies she suffered a mental breakdown and was involuntarily sent to a state hospital in Austin. Once she returned she never again left her home other than a few times when she experienced health emergencies that required hospitalization. The extent of her world was contained within the perimeter of her property where she busied herself with daily routines until she died in her eighties.

I never thought much about my grandmother’s isolation. She spoke only a handful of English words and so our communication consisted of mostly smiles. She had kind blue eyes and she was eager to be a good hostess by offering mugs of coffee to anyone who came to visit, including the children. She made the brew palatable for us by filling the enamel cups with mostly milk and sugar. After that she would join us in the living room, sitting in a chair in the corner just watching the proceedings from her perch while we sadly tended to ignore her and even forget that she was supposed to be the reason for our visit.

She had turned the entirety of her tiny backyard into a garden that gave her something to do other than cooking and cleaning. She’d putter among in the plants in her bare feet watering from a rain barrel rather than a hose. I never actually saw her wearing shoes even in the winter. She had long before foregone the societal rules of dressing, instead using a few well worn cotton dresses as her wardrobe. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back until one of her children gave her a short haircut that may have been easier to care for but was never as lovely as the braid.

Two of Grandma’s single sons lived with her. They watched over her, brought her groceries, made repairs on the house, and kept her company when they were not working. She seemed happy enough in her routine but I did not know for certain what she was thinking. It never occurred to me to wonder what it must have been like to be completely homebound for years, but I have been thinking about her a great deal in the last few days as I have been restricted to the smaller world of my house by the outbreak of Covid-19.

It has almost been two weeks since I self isolated into the confines of my home other than for excursion to doctors and pickup points for groceries. I have almost infinite potential for busying myself and I have to admit that the time has gone by more quickly than I might have imagined. As long as my source of food replacements and deliveries from Amazon continue I will have access to anything that I might need. I have regular communication with family and friends and enjoy hours of entertainment with my books, my laptop, my television and my garden. In truth the only thing that I truly miss is the touch of human interaction and the freedom and joy of becoming one with a crowd. I already long for adventurous days, and as I admit to myself that it’s difficult to be constrained I think of my grandmother and marvel at the contentment that she seemed to possess in spite of her very simple life.

I suppose that we humans adapt to our circumstances just as my grandmother did. People have endured great hardships throughout history and my little foray into a temporary quarantine is nothing compared to the four hundred plus days that Anne Frank spent hiding in an attic to avoid capture and imprisonment in a concentration camp. When I get antsy and a bit resentful that my independence has been curtailed I remind myself that this too will one day pass and I may even find myself rushing around and longing for a bit of solitude. I know that the key is to make the most of the moment and be grateful that I am able to spend the time in so much comfort.

I’ve always been a fan of Henry David Thoreau. Before the world ever heard of Marie Kando he was urging us to simplify, simplify, simplify. My days inside my home have allowed me to see and hear things that I might otherwise have ignored. I laugh at the squirrel who scampers among the birdseed that falls from the feeder that is designed to keep him from becoming a thief. I smile at the children keeping a social distance from one another on their skateboards while their moms shout at one another from the safety of their front porches. I marvel at the incredible kindnesses that I have witnessed and the sense of humor that keeps us laughing even in the midst of uncertainty. I have slowed my pace and joined my grandmother in freeing my feet from shoes and wearing clothes selected for comfort rather than style. I feel no sense of urgency other than to wish that this plague would leave us to end the suffering of those who have become ill and to return our world to a normal state before its economic trajectory takes people’s lives into a downward spiral.

If staying inside my home helps to end the contagion and defeat the virus then I am happy to accommodate. There will be social occasions, nights out, trips and adventures soon enough. My sacrifice is nothing in the long range scheme of things. If my grandmother could do it for all those years then so can I. She is my role model, the person who will show me the way to accept this small inconvenience with grace.

Living In the Twilight Zone

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Do any of the rest of you feel as though we have been caught in an infinite loop of The Twilight Zone? I know I do. I find that I awake each morning feeling rather good until my brain reminds me that nothing is exactly as it was only a couple of weeks ago. I won’t be planning a camping excursion any time soon nor will a trip to the grocery store be as unremarkable as I had grown accustomed to it being. As long as I am in the quiet and safety of my home I don’t feel anxious at all but as soon as I turn my attention to the outside world I am stunned by the extent to which we are all grappling with the unknown and my cockeyed optimism is rattled just a bit more.

I keep thinking of Rod Serling’s greatest stories and how they have stuck with me even though they seemed to be only the stuff of science fiction, unlikely to ever transpire. There is the tale of the young woman stuck in her New York apartment as the world is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Then I remember episode featuring a man who is a lone survivor of some cataclysm making the best of the situation by planning to read away his loneliness only to drop and break the eyeglasses that allow him to see. When I see the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores I am reminded of Serling’s take on the effects of panic in a cautionary story of a once friendly neighborhood that turns on itself at the first sign of trouble. Those shows had a way of stunning us with their shocking endings but we never thought that any of the creative scenarios might possibly come true.

Let’s face it. Despite all of our past grumblings about the unfairness of the world most of us would be more than happy to rewind to September 2019 if only we might never have to face the unraveling of the world that has slowly enveloped all of us in fear. It’s difficult to go the the dark possibility that maybe things will never be quite the same again. If there were indeed a way to undo all that has happened would we remember how it felt to be threatened with loss and privation? Would we be more willing to be appreciative of our good fortune and then share it with those who have not been as lucky? Would we be more attuned to working together to solve problems. Would we always be generous and less wasteful, eager to slow down to enjoy our families and our friends? Would we treasure life more now that we have seen how fragile it and our institutions can become? Would we be able to see how destructive our hubris can sometimes be and begin to value our differences?

The human experience is riddled  with instances of grave mistakes as well as stunning victories over injustice and evil. We seem to slowly work our way toward better versions of ourselves as long as we don’t get lost to temptations that interfere with our focus. We work best together when we are willing to tap into our more enlightened natures by a willingness to admit that we rarely have all of the answers. Perhaps we have been moving too quickly of late. Maybe we have been to busy competing with one another and building resumes of our accomplishments that are not particularly important. We have scurried about too quickly, forgetting to take the time to be still and hear the beating of our hearts and see the simple beauty that surrounds us.

This is indeed the most incredible event of my lifetime and I have seen quite a bit in my seventy one years. It has the potential to define us in the long stretch of history. We will eventually move on from this, but will we have learned from it? I know that I have been continually reminded of the wonderful people who are part of my life during the last few weeks. I have felt their love surrounding me. I want to cherish that feeling and never forget what it has meant to me. My hope is that the whole world will find renewed pleasure in the simple act of spreading kindness and understanding every moment of every day.

I am not so naive as to believe that this is a kumbayah moment in which humankind will shed every aspect of its darker side. People have endured plagues, wars, economic depressions and holocausts many times in the past and yet we still haven’t found a way to prevent those things from ever happening again. We fall back into our bad habits again and again which is why I find it somewhat hypocritical to denounce our ancestors when our own modern track record is not free from sins. Instead we must attempt to learn from mistakes and rectify them as best we can.

We’ve seen hoarders and thieves and individuals who have attacked Asians in the misplaced belief that they are somehow responsible for our present woes. At the same time we have witnessed even more signs of generosity, courage, brilliance and understanding. When all is said and done these are the qualities that will remind us of who are and should be as the human race.  Our questions right now should not dwell on judging others, but rather on how each of us might help. These are the things that will provide us with the optimism we need to build the future and take us out of the twilight zone.