Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Eye of the Hurricane

Being in the unknown is hard for me. Truth be told, it's nearly impossible. I have immediate and persistent physical manifestations that remind me I am struggling. Like many people, my dis-ease appears in my breath. I can't get a deep breath. Each time I try to inhale, it is like a bird flying freely and then smashing into a window pane. The breath reaches the spot right before my lungs open and gets turned around. I try again and again until finally I can get a deep breath. But the multiple attempts render me even more anxious and frightened. This newest COVID surge has got me back on the crazy train and I'm in a daily battle with my breath.

The teacher in my meditation group told us yesterday that she likes to start her day by stepping outside and feeling the weather. But before she does that, she says, she does a brief inventory of how her internal weather looks. My partner Nancy is from New Orleans and has lived through dozens of hurricanes. Last night she was talking about the eye of the hurricane-- the moment of quiet where it seems like the storm is over, but it's not. When the storm comes back though, is unknown. Without warning, BOOM!, it's back. When she was talking last night I realized that this is how I feel when my breath is tight. It's dark and ominously still and scary and I am petrified in waiting for what comes next. I hate this moment. I want it to be over. My weather right now is that of a hurricane, in the eye of the storm, hidden indoors, trying to avoid the inevitable winds and rains and floods that I know will come before the storm is over.

About a month ago, one of my oldest friends disappeared. She's still there, but she doesn't want to be in contact with me. The circumstances are complicated and confusing. The truth is I don't fully understand why she doesn't want to be friends anymore. I tend to be direct, maybe too direct. I want to work it out, talk it out, get to the bottom of it all. But that's not her way. I understand now that her way is to do what she's doing-- to disappear. 

In response to her dropping away, I've had to do some uncomfortable self-study about my reaction to her disappearance. My feeling of discomfort is familiar, like a mild version of my anger, fear and frustration about COVID.  I am sitting in wait, anticipating if and when this friend will show up again. But my real feelings are bigger than that. I am mad. I am hurt. I am outraged. In not giving myself permission to feel those feelings, I am putting myself in the eye of the hurricane. I have rendered myself powerless, waiting for her to make a decision. Sitting in the eye of the storm is the safest. I'm contracted, not letting myself feel the full range of real feelings about this friendship. I know why I'm sitting here, waiting. I fear that if I let myself go beyond the eye of the storm, into the turbulent emotions that are really there-- the mad, sad, and rejected feelings-- that I will not be able to turn back, that I will be saying goodbye to the friendship forever. 

It's the same with COVID. In really sitting in it, acknowledging how painful the losses are, I am letting something in that I really don't want to let in. I am opening myself up to a reality that deeply saddens and frightens me. But being a bird banging into a window over and over is not fun. I don't like being here. I would rather be in violent wind and rain, knowing what is happening, than in this waiting, the unknown, anticipating the destruction at any moment. At least after the stormy weather I know there will be a moment of calm.

And so it is-- the only way out of this emotional hurricane that has hijacked my breathing is to move beyond the eye of the storm. I must venture into the torrential rains and gale force winds of anger and sadness and loss and fear. I have to make room for all of that before I can step out into a clear blue sky. And even as I write these words, understanding their truth, I can feel my chest soften. I feel a sense of relief. I can breathe again. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020


I am aware of great longing in myself and others these days. Longing to get on an airplane and celebrate Thanksgiving with family. Longing to hug my best friend instead of nod from a distance. Longing to make a plan of any kind without contemplating the new rules and the new fears. 

My sister Katherine gave me a bizarre, complicated craft project for my birthday a few weeks ago. It is a sticky sheet with thousands of tiny color-coded squares that, when filled in with thousands of tiny crystal beads using a tiny tweezer-like tool, makes a complete image. Mine is of three dandelions in a rainbow of light. It took me a while to get into it, but now I find great pleasure in the tiny-ness of this project. Tiny bead by tiny bead it is slowly coming together.

Last Thanksgiving my two sisters and their families came to stay and we had a houseful of crafty, musical, hilarious people. Tons of food, games, and family dynamics. It was a multi-day love fest. The dining room table where I do my new beading project is the same table where we all sat last Thanksgiving-- painting water colors, playing cards and Bananagrams, eating meals and chatting. As I placed the little crystal beads on their respective squares, my mind wandered to this time last year. My heart smiled as the images flowed through my memory.

For a moment it was as if I was looking down at myself; I was standing at a crossroads and my choices were to go towards the longing or to be in the present moment. In one direction were dustings of last year's memories still floating around me like smoke from a candle just snuffed. In another was me, sitting at my dining room table beside the warm, lit fireplace, the sounds of my daughter and partner somewhere in the house, my lukewarm, half-filled tea cup sitting next to my beading project. It was a micro-moment where I somehow made the choice to be here. As if waking from a dream I was back in my project, engaged and enjoying the present moment. I was aware that the longing was still there but it wasn't nagging or painful. It didn't take away from my joy. 

Thanksgiving looks very different this year. And I'm okay with that. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Goodbye. For Now.

I'm getting ready to rally my family to make a Gratitude Tree. It's a Thanksgiving ritual that I started when my daughter Lucia was four years old. Now sixteen, she's not super into it but agreed to do it as a birthday gift to me. I schlepped the collage supplies up from the basement and they sit in wait on the dining room table. To make room for the Gratitude Tree, I will have to take down the Ofrenda I made for the Day of the Dead this year. I have on it photos of people who have died, people I loved who I miss and honor. 

This morning as I sat at the dining room table drinking my coffee, I spent time looking at all of the images of those people. I've been thinking a lot about my dad's death. It's fresh in my mind because of the recent passing of my sister-in-law, mother to four wonderful children, the youngest of whom is just twelve. My brothers were just twelve and fourteen when my father died almost twenty-five years ago. I'm thinking a lot about them, wondering how Dad's death changed their lives.

My dad's death, and all of the deaths I've experienced in my life, affected me profoundly. When my Nana died, just a few months before my dad, I had my first understanding of what a soul means to me. Being raised in a secular household, we didn't talk about what happens after one dies, so I had to create my own understanding. After Nana died, I could still feel her. The memories and the visceral sense of love from her was still with me. And then when Dad died I felt it again. The longer they were gone, the stronger the sense became. I understood this internal sense to be the presence of their souls. In my ad-hoc, non-religious definition of what the soul is, I understood that the soul never dies. This gave me comfort then and it gives me comfort now.

When I look at the images of my grandmothers and grandfathers and my father and my Uncle John and my sister-in-law Shannon and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I feel a sense of peaceful company. These beautiful souls are still with me. I wonder what they would have thought about this time we are in now. This Pandemic. This political mayhem. My Jewish dad used to have a large marble bust of one of the popes. On it he placed sunglasses and a scarf around his neck pinned with buttons from different lefty candidates and pro-choice campaigns. My dad would have been so outraged at the state of the world. My dad would have adored Ruth Bader Ginsberg. 

I am grateful that my grandparents didn't have to live through this time stuck in their assisted living facilities or alone in their apartments with a nurse, no family able to visit. My memories of them are of swimming, the lake cottage, the fourteenth-floor apartment on Lake Shore Drive, ice cold carrots in the square tupperware in the fridge and fresh picked corn on the cob in the summer. My memories of Uncle John are filled with laughter-- silly, borderline inappropriate jokes that only he could tell, and always a warm smile. The memories of Shannon are the most fresh, the ones that have got me thinking about my brothers. Shannon--a mother, filled with love and nurturing energy, buzzing around to make everyone happy. The missing is sharpest in the beginning. Maybe the soul hasn't quite settled, isn't yet available to the living. 

I remember the sharpness after Dad and the others I loved died. It felt like an undigested meal, uncomfortable and irritating in my stomach. But over time, the sorrow broke down and found a home within me. The memories were no longer painful. They were nourishing and comforting, reminders of the presence of their beautiful souls.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Shutting Down

Our country is on high alert. Everyone is nail biting and processing and perseverating on what's happening next. The waiting is unbearable. I have put myself on pause in order to function. I pretend that I am living on a very small planet with just a few people. I walk my dog hoping no one will stop and talk to me about the elections. The news is too much. What do I believe? Who do I trust? Nothing is simple. I am a big picture person, someone who doesn't focus on the little details. I've never been one to analyze the nuances or subtleties. My family laughs at me because I basically feel my way through life. I wait until I feel clear and then I act. 

It's not that I don't care about facts. I do. But these days, in order to get to the truth, I have to find my way through so many opinions and facts (real and misleading), numbers, policies, precedents. It feels like I'm a first grader trying to work my through a comprehensive legal brief on social security tax fraud. It's too much for me and so I turn off. I depend on other trusted people-- my partner Nancy, my daughter Lucia, and my very political friend Genessa, to glean through the garbage mountain of bullshit and tell me what I need to know.

Once, when Lucia was in fourth grade at a brand new school, her teacher sent her and another boy Peter from their portable to the main school building to deliver a note to a fellow teacher.  Lucia, having only been into the main building a handful of times, assumed that her classmate would lead the way and do the job. But when the got to the classroom Peter told Lucia to go in and deliver the note. Lucia, scared and unfamiliar with the scene, asked Peter repeatedly to do it. He continued to refuse. On Lucia's final request Peter looked directly at Lucia, closed his eyes and slumped his body against the wall and, in a slow robotic voice spoke the words, "Shut-ting do-own....." and became completely unresponsive. Lucia had no choice but to deliver the note herself.

When Lucia shared that story at dinner that evening we all laughed at the situation. It was such a creative and effective way for Peter to get out of something he didn't want to do. And by shutting down himself, Lucia had no choice but to take the lead. Though his actions left Lucia in a hard spot, Peter was clearly coping in his own way. He must have sensed that Lucia would be okay doing that task. And she was. Lucia and Peter went on to become friends and have weaved in and out of friendship for several years now. 

I used to feel bad for not being up to date on all the current events, consumed by the news like my parents. But I realize now that it's not only that I don't want to, it's that part of me can't. It's not the way my brain works and I don't want to force it in that direction. So now, like Peter, I am shutting down. As the waiting continues I am a broken down robot, dead battery, short circuited, mainframe blown. I am shut down. Every day I turn on for a few minutes and ask Genessa what I need to know. Then I go back inside and wait again. I'll turn on again when the waiting is over. 

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