Saturday, February 27, 2021

Soccer is Saving My Daughter's Soul

Yesterday mom mailed me an article she cut out from her local newspaper. It was about three women who have been swimming in Lake Michigan through the frigid Chicago winter. She sent it to me because I have been swimming every day for the last ninety days. But here in the Pacific Northwest, we don’t have subzero temperatures; it’s usually about 40 degrees Fahrenheit when I jump in. The article talked about the little community these women have formed. In addition to the three of them, there are others who come just to watch and cheer them on. Some bring muffins and cakes. Others bring blankets and first aid supplies. The supporters come simply to be a part of this little community the women have created.

Last night I dropped my daughter off for her fifth soccer practice of the week. There has been no school in our city for over a year. The only time my daughter is with her peers is when she is playing soccer. This week high school soccer started and her practice schedule bumped up from twice a week to five days a week, sometimes for a total of seven different practices. 

I parked the car to wait out the hour-long practice but, it was a moderately warm night so I decided to take a walk. I grabbed a mask and strolled through the commercial part of the neighborhood I was in. After making two loops through the little village I returned to the field and spent the rest of my time circling the perimeter. 

As I circled the field I passed the car after car of parents sitting in the driver’s seat looking at either a phone or an iPad. Parents are not allowed to sit or stand at the sidelines of practices like they used to. It’s a gathering hazard. It was probably against the rules for me to be walking around the field as well and I tried to stay far outside of the border so as not to be noticed.

As I walked I realized how much I missed the old camaraderie we used to have at games. Rain or shine, we’d gather along the sidelines cheering our girls. Now, as the kids played, parents were forced to sit in their cars alone.

When my daughter was done with her scrimmage I met her at the edge of the field. Sweaty and flushed, she yammered on about the game. She was talking a mile a minute, filled with energy and excitement. In the old days, there would be lots of parents standing there, and as our kids approached, we’d each be touched by our respective child’s energy and it would be a little bit like the end of a party. Everyone smiling and laughing as we walked to our cars and went our separate ways.

I used to complain a lot about soccer. I balked at the idea of being a “soccer mom.” I whined at the hours that commuting to practices and games sucked out of my schedule. Now, without the ability to carpool because of COVID, those driving obligations are more than double, but I don’t mind because I can see how soccer is saving my daughter’s soul.

Soccer is the only time my daughter can be around other kids. Though she is masked and socially distanced if possible, she is with other people, in community. With each loop of the field last night, as I passed the solitary faces of the parents sitting alone in their cars, I felt exponentially more grateful for the experience that these kids are having. 

When we got home I remarked to my partner how much difference I noticed in our daughter. In just a week of everyday contact, it seemed her spirits had been lifted, her soul restored. I don’t know when these poor kids will go back to school, but for now, I am eternally grateful for the time my daughter has on the field with her friends. I vow here and now to never complain about soccer again.


Friday, February 26, 2021

My Secret Lover the Oximeter

For the first six months of the pandemic, I couldn't breathe. It started out episodically. When the numbers would surge or President Trump would do something extra stupid I would go into lung atrophy and struggle to breathe. I'd take long walks along the lake trying to get a breath. Even in the days before mask-wearing outside, I still couldn't get air deep down into my lungs.

My partner was getting tired of me holding my chest, dramatically widening my eyes as I tried to pull the air into my lungs successfully. I was becoming the crazy one in the house for sure. My teenage daughter would side-eye me in my moments of breathing panic and rhetorically question, "You okay Mom?"

I was beginning to feel like the boy who cried wolf. Every time I thought I really couldn't breathe, I could. I continued living. I could still exercise and work and cook dinner. But I spent my days craving the satisfaction of a full breath. Hour after hour all I could get was a little sip or a half-full experience. Around Thanksgiving, we had an outdoor social visit with a friend who is a surgeon. As we sat around the fire I tried to disguise my fish out of water breathing but eventually, she asked me, "Are you having trouble breathing?"

I was in a particularly stressed-out time then, thinking about the holidays, how I would manage emotionally. I told my friend how I was worried that one day I would just wake up and not be able to breathe at all. I told her I worried that I was COVID positive (even though I'd tested negative) and that I had one symptom-- trouble breathing.  She suggested I get an oximeter. "You can get one for $30 online," she said, "And then you'll know that you are getting enough oxygen, even if you are struggling."

It was a simple answer to my problem. When I got home that night I ordered one. The next day it arrived and I put the device on my fingertip. My oxygen scored a 98. That's an A-plus for sure. I breathed a sigh of relief and took comfort in the fact that I could use the oximeter when I was feeling a tight chest in the future. It would be my secret. When I was feeling like no one else believed me, I could go to the oximeter and tell her my problems. She'd gently hold my finger and make everything alright.

I tucked the oximeter into our medicine cabinet and went about my day. That was four months ago and I haven't taken the oximeter out once. But I know she's there. My secret lover the oximeter. I don't complain to my family anymore that I can't breathe. I have moments of stress and worry where I can feel the tightness in my chest but I just imagine my confidant the oximeter up in the medicine cabinet and remember that feeling of her gentle touch on my finger making everything alright. Just the thought of it opens my lungs again.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

How Do Girls Become Badass Women?


I have two women friends who are good at all the things men are traditionally good at. Both of these women grew up in Idaho. I’m convinced that women who grow up in Idaho are raised differently. When they were girls, these friends both learned how to hunt and fish and camp, how to drive trucks, boats, and sitting lawnmowers. They learned how to ski and mountain bike and rock climb. And all the things that they didn’t learn how to do, like build a camper from scratch or rewire a toaster, they do anyway because they figure, why not?

I’m pretty handy myself. I fixed our microwave with a twist tie. I saved us a bunch of money by reattaching our torn soaker hose system with a tampon applicator. Just last week I rehung our gutters and rewired lights that were pulled down in the snowstorm. But I’m not like these can-do-all-things-male friends. They possess an attitude of confidence that I strive to emulate. I’m a tinkerer. I’ll try anything, but these friends, they embody a different kind of attitude.

Every summer when I was a kid we would drive twelve hours from our house on the South Side of Chicago to our grandparents’ cottage on a lake in Minnesota. We’d stay for a few weeks and fill our little city lungs with fresh air. We ate our grandmother’s cooking —  goodies we never got at home like creamed corn, hamburgers, heaping scoops of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

We played hours of cards in the bunkhouse devouring the bags of chocolate Twizzlers our grandmother’s kept stocked with her kitchen linens. We wrote and performed skits with our cousins who journeyed to this midwestern paradise from their home on the west coast. The lake house was my favorite place to be.

Our grandfather, a stern Presbyterian physician was deeply invested in giving all of us grandkids a true lake house experience. He taught us to sein for minnows and took each of us out in the boat fishing with him alone at least once every summer. After dinner he’d stand up, stretch, look around the table and ask which one of the cousins was going to come in the boat to go fishing with him that evening. 

A few times each summer he took us in the small sailboat. He taught us all to water ski and required us to pick up twigs and rocks from the expansive hilly yard he’d mow with his gas push mower. We all helped in the garden picking green beans and tomatoes from their small crop.

Grandpa made sure we all got the same experiences at the lake, except for a few things that were only for the boys. One of these boy-specific experiences was driving the boat. Only the boys got to drive the boat. Though the girl and boy cousins were all about the same age, only the boys got to drive the boat. 

One summer when we were all between ten and twelve, the boy cousins got a lesson on how to prime the motor, pump the throttle, put the boat into gear, and pull the ripcord. But the girl cousins — my sisters and I — were not allowed to operate the boat. We still had fun — the boy driving the boat sat at the back with the motor, looking forward like a true captain and howled orders at the rest of us, crunched up in our life preservers, facing him, as he turned up the throttle and sped nose up into the middle of the lake. The all-powerful (boy) driver of the boat.

When we were kids we would all laugh about this, that the boys got to drive the boat. My sisters and I didn’t question this gendered line in the sand. There were lots of other subtle only-boys-do-this things that happened at the lake. The boys baited their own hooks. The boys pumped the gas into the gas tank for the fishing boat and the bigger motorboat. The boys operated the gas lawnmower. The boys hung out in the garage with Grandpa.

My two friends, the can-do girls from Idaho, never seem to question their abilities, even if they lack confidence, even if they’ve never done a task before. When I take on something like fixing the microwave, it’s a big deal. I second guess my every move. I often think of these friends who seem to simply skip the step of second-guessing. They just get right to whatever task is at hand. And why shouldn’t they? When they were girls, these Idahoans were expected to do all the things boys could do. And now as adults, they are badasses.

As the mother of a daughter, I’ve tried to impose ungendered expectations on my daughter. I have taught her to install a smoke detector. I challenged her to switch out the starter on our gas grill, which she did in less than an hour. I taught her to install her own hooks to hang her towels in her bathroom. I try to model doing non-traditional work like chopping wood or fixing the toilet. Sometimes I wonder if I have done enough to give her the confidence that will help her become a badass.

It’s inspiring to watch these friends of mine take on any challenge. It’s remarkable really. We’re in 2021 but we’ve still got a long way to go. We need to watch how we limit our girls. We need to give them every opportunity that we give boys. Every experience. It’s taken me a long time to have the confidence to mess with the electrical outlet in the house or examine the blade of the lawnmower when it’s stuck. I am slowly building my skill set, more confident each time I try something new, but I can’t help but wonder what kinds of things I’d be doing if Grandpa had taught me to drive the boat too.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Who Will Show Up for My 80th Birthday Tribute?


A few months ago my sister and I put together a birthday tribute for our mother who was turning 80. We collected video messages from friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors from her long life. We were overwhelmed with a response of over 85 submissions. Some people were so eager to toast Mom that they sent two video clips instead of one.

Since making that video I’ve been thinking about who would show up for my 80th birthday tribute. I’m not the amazing correspondent my mom is and, even before COVID, I’m wasn’t great at maintaining all of my friendships. Just this morning I made a list of five close friends I haven’t spoken to lately, and that’s just people who are local. My contact with my high school and college friends is abysmal.

I find myself in a self-proclaimed popularity contest that isn’t based in reality. I have some friends who I’ve moved away from. It’s not that anything necessarily happened to dissolve our friendship. It’s just time. Enough time going by not calling or texting or emailing that it no longer feels important. It feels apparent that neither one of you really wants to connect, so you both stop trying. Eventually, the juice that fed the friendship engine is all dried up.

When I think of those eight-five people who showed up for Mom’s video, I think mostly about the energy it must have taken my mom to sustain all of those relationships over all of those years. I don’t think I have that kind of energy.

When my mom was seventy, I collected letters from her friends and compiled them into a scrapbook. That project was smaller and much easier. Ten years ago we didn’t have the social media platforms or the proliferation of easily accessible contact information on the internet. I just went by stories my mom had told me about different people in her life and contacted them through email. For the video we made this year, my sister used Facebook and Instagram and sleuthed through friends of friends of friends to generate a comprehensive list.

By the time I’m eighty, there will probably be a chip in my head that can be remotely accessed to generate a list of people I’ve been a good friend to in the past five years. Maybe it will have colors- Green for those I’ve been in regular contact with, Yellow for intermittent, and Red for not at all.

Since creating my mom’s video I have thought about whether I’m creating enough green. Lately, it feels like my cache or yellow and red is way bigger than the green. I wonder how long (or short) my list will be when I’m 80?

My hope is that when I’m eighty the remote chip will have an option for looking at the past fifty years and averaging contact. It will be able to measure those concentrated contacts with friends from college or that group of friends I hung out with a ton in my twenties. It will be sensitive enough to calculate that one walk a year I take with an acquaintance.

Maybe there will be some kind of algorithm for “good friend” assessment and my list of green will be something I can be proud of. Maybe it will create a list of enough friends to create some sort of substantial project like the ones I’ve created for my mom.

Friendships wax and wane. I’m in close touch with someone for a few years and then we fade away, but the time we spent together doesn’t disappear. The long walks or rich dinner conversations we had don’t evaporate. They simply go into the coffers of memory. And some friends are constant. They never fade or go away. They’re always there.

And then there are new friendships, the ones that blossom in the empty space where an old friendship used to be. Thinking about what friends will show up in thirty years to say “Happy Birthday Laura. I love you!” is a futile exercise and again, not based in reality.

I’ve been stressing out, thinking I should send emails, write letters to resurrect friendships past. In comparing myself to my mother’s amazing showing of friends for her 80th birthday video, I lost sight of what’s real. What is real is that friendships come and go but the memories are always there. The experiences I’ve had with past friends don’t disappear just because the friendship has changed. I don’t know who if anyone will show up to wish me well when I’m eighty. Maybe I won’t even live to be 80 so why future trip.

For now, I’m going to be grateful for the friends I’ve had in the past, the friends I have now, and the friends I’ll make in the future.

Grounded by Necessity but Happy to Be Here.

I used to travel a lot, mostly because my partner loves to travel. We always had pretty flexible jobs and so we traveled several times a year. Now we don’t travel at all. We’ve gone nowhere for almost a year and I’m perfectly content. I don’t miss traveling.

I miss my family. I would love to see my parents and my siblings and my nephews and nieces and my favorite aunt, but I don’t miss the act of going to new places. I don’t miss the adventure.

Adventure for me is chaos. It means recalibrating my internal conversation to include an entire cocktail party of foreign stimuli. I’m more comfortable at home where I know my oatmeal is stocked. I have shoes for any occasion. I can get to that book I want to look something up in.

Suleika Jaouad, in her memoir Between Two Kingdoms, shares a theory about travel. “When we travel,” she says, “we actually take three trips. There’s the first trip of preparation and anticipation, packing and daydreaming. There’s the trip you're actually on. And then, there’s the trip you remember.”

For me, the first part is enough. Just thinking about it, planning it is where I love to be. As long as I can stay in my head, focused there, imagining everything that will happen, my heart rate stays steady, my breath is calm and my worry meter is at neutral.

The actual travel is kind of torturous. I worry about the plane being on time, about missing connections. I worry about the hotel having our reservations. I worry about family dynamics. I worry about our house sitting empty while we are away. Though I play a good game and go along with it, the element of stress almost always outweighs the experience of joy for me when I travel.

Being grounded by COVID has given me the opportunity to travel in a fashion that suits me. I have found a way to enter the second phase of the trip without the worry. In the simplicity of my life now, spending the majority of my time at home, being unable to travel, I’ve found ways to go on amazing adventures without all of the stress that usually accompanies my trips.

In the last year, my travels have all happened without leaving my home base. I’ve planned many trips. I’ve plotted out the vacation, fantasized about where I want to go, what I want to do, what I want to see. And then I go on the trip — all from the confines of my safe and cozy home.

At the beginning of COVID, I became obsessed with this plague overtaking the world so I took a course in contact tracing, trying to understand how we’d ultimately contain the virus. I researched, studied, learned, and became invested in traveling more extensively into COVID country. That was my first adventure.

Once my curiosity was piqued, I planned my next trip — to become a contact tracer. The step in planning for this next adventure was to create a resume. After working for myself for the past twenty-five years, this in itself was a major undertaking, one that required lots of research and digging. After planning and preparing enough, I was able to go on the next trip, actually applying for and ultimately getting a job working as a contact tracer.

I’ve had other adventures too. I’m on the 85th day of jumping into the cold lake at the base of the hill my house sits on. I’m shooting for 100 days. I’ve taught myself how to make five different kinds of bread. I’ve ordered, installed, and learned how to maintain a hot tub in our backyard.

The energy that used to go towards adventures in another part of the world has been redirected. That energy of dreaming, planning, and going on the trip all happens at home.

The third part of Jaouad’s theory, remembering the trip, is different from other adventures I’ve taken. I don’t have photographs of the loaves of bread I’ve baked. There are no souvenirs from my job calling people every day to talk about their COVID-19 diagnosis. I don’t have to remember these things because they are in me. The trips are not time-limited. Rather, they are embedded into my being.

I have the knowledge about COVID that I sought to understand. I live the job that I wanted to get every day. I’ve memorized the recipes for those five kinds of bread and I can jump into the lake for 100 days or 1000. I can go into the hot tub anytime I want. It’s all here for me.

I know I’ll travel again. And I will be grateful to be able to move around the world more freely, even with the stress that I know comes with it. I’ll plan different kinds of adventures, go to different parts of the world, and create new memories.

For the time being, though, I am eternally grateful for this adventure-filled life that I have right here at home.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Who Cares About a Little Rain?


Today my friend Kate and I went for a walk. Our plan was to walk to the local coffee shop to get their specialty — Cardamom Rose Lattes. When we started walking it was warm and sunny, surprisingly so for winter in the Pacific Northwest. As we walked, it started to sprinkle a little bit, and then a bit more, and then it started to pour. We were several blocks from the coffee shop and were getting completely drenched. 

Neither of us had an umbrella and there was nowhere to take cover so we kept walking. When we finally reached the coffee shop we were drenched. Because of COVID the coffee shop is just to go so we couldn’t go inside to get warm and dry, but there was an awning and we stood beneath it until it was our turn to go in and get our lattes.

A table outside under the awning was free and we decided I’d stay outside and hold it for us while Kate went in to get our drinks. While she was inside I dried off our chairs with my gloves and sat down, chilled but happy to be out of the rain. 

While Kate was inside the sun came out and it turned into a glorious day. We sat outside and enjoyed our coffees, catching up on each other’s lives. We talked about our parents and our kids and our jobs. We talked about how to manage travel during COVID. We talked about how good our lattes were. But we never did talk about the rain. 

A few months ago Kate and I took our teenage daughters hiking in the snow. When we got to the trailhead we realized that Kate had forgotten the bag with her older daughter’s boots at home. I happened to have an extra pair of shoes that fit one of her daughters well enough and everyone made do. We had a great hike and there was no drama.

Kate is a drama-free friend. It’s not that there’s no drama in her life, or even in our friendship. It’s that she doesn’t add drama. When we were walking in the downpour today she didn’t shriek or run or freak out about getting sopping wet. There was nothing we could do about the rain so we just kept walking. There was no added drama.

The same was true for that day hiking. It could have been a big deal, even a deal-breaker where we aborted the hike, but it wasn’t. She had forgotten the boots, but she didn’t make a scene. She didn’t fall on her sword and say what an idiot she was. She just said sorry to her daughter who had to wear my ugly spare shoes and we got on with it. 

I’m fifty-two years old and I have many friends from different periods of my life. I love and appreciate each of them for their unique personality traits. In this era of social media and added drama — everything is a story or an event — I am especially grateful for this drama-free friendship with Kate. 

With Kate, it is refreshing that life just is what it is. The forgotten boots didn’t end up as a funny photo on Instagram because it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Posting a photo and making it an event would just have been adding drama, taking away from the real point of the day which was to hike in the snow with our kids.

And getting caught in the rain might have been the main topic of conversation during our coffee date or a funny friend photo on Facebook. We could have lamented our cold hands or wet pants but that would have taken away from the really important things we wanted to catch up on today. 

Adding drama to an experience is a distraction from true presence. It is a way to deflect away from what is actually happening. It might feel exciting or invigorating or funny for a moment, but it’s not satisfying on a deeper level. In a friendship or relationship, adding drama is often a way to escape a more authentic or intimate connection.

Life has natural drama without adding any extra. And really, who cares about a little rain?

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Preschool for Grown-Ups

Every week I volunteer at the senior center near my house. My partner and sixteen-year-old daughter go too. Sometimes we go together, sometimes on our own. We all love it. Since COVID hit, the center has been closed for day programming and reconfigured to make and deliver hot lunches to homebound seniors. 

The work is incredibly monotonous but surprisingly satisfying. Each day we lay out close to two hundred lunch bags and hot food containers. Then we dollop out the meal for the day. Chicken in one compartment, potatoes in another, broccoli in a third. The meals vary day to day according to what donations have been provided to the center.

The volunteers push the different food items on individual carts, scooping in their particular item until the food container has a full meal. Then we go down the lines of food-filled tables and close the containers. When all of the containers are closed we put the hot food containers into paper bags with a few more goodies such as a piece of fruit or some cookies. Once all of the lunches are bagged we put them in carts and wheel them outside for another set of volunteers to load into a van and deliver door to door. 

From start to finish it takes about three hours to get the meals prepared and set up for the following day. This morning as I was scooping potatoes with another volunteer who was scooping bok choy, we started chatting. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, only that every once in a while one of us chuckled. She was going down one side of the aisles and I was going up the other. We were back to back so weren’t looking at each other.

I thought to myself, this is the perfect kind of socializing for me right now. It’s like parallel play in preschool. We’re both doing our own thing and coming back together periodically to check-in. Around the big room, other people were behaving similarly. 

At the long table where we cut fruit and cake into individual servings and prep ingredients for the main courses, one volunteer was chopping onions at one end of the end of a table and another was putting little pieces of canteloupe into containers for lunch tomorrow at the other. As they worked they’d chat periodically and I could tell that, like us, they were smiling beneath their masks.

We were all happily, independently working but also in community with each other. It’s kind of like pre-school for grown-ups. We all gravitate towards the tasks we are good at and enjoy. Tina seems to always find her way to chopping onions. She likes it. Today when I teased her about it she said, “I like knife work!” 

Troy breaks down all of the boxes. He has a Swiss Army knife on his belt; it’s perfect for him. He breaks them down and neatly lines them up in a corner. I like to put all the different parts of the lunch in the bags and fold them into tidy little bundles. The supervisor likes us to put the bags into groups of ten. I happily count them out and pause at the end to admire the finished product of our group handiwork.

Working at the senior center is one of my favorite activities of the week. I take a break from my workday on Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays and run over there for an extended recess. I realize that this level of socializing — in masks, while doing my own thing, not getting too deep, is exactly what I am capable of right now.

We’ve all been socially isolated for such a long time that regular human interaction can feel strained and awkward. But at the senior center there is no pressure. We all have something to focus on and when we do talk or engage, it is light and easy.

I remember when I used to work at my daughter’s preschool and the kids would often be doing their own things. One playing in the kitchen while close by another built with legos. Maybe the kid playing with legos would bring a creation over and put it in the pot on the stove and the kids would share a moment. They might exchange a few words or laugh at how silly it was to put a dinosaur in the soup. 

In preschool, the kids were never made to sit and have forced conversations. That would never have worked. There would have been four-year-old anarchy. To stay calm, engaged, and productive, they needed to focus on their own interests. 

As we move through life, from preschool to kindergarten, through elementary school, high school and into adulthood, we are socialized to entertain others, not ourselves. That’s where social pressure comes from and that’s why, when we’re out of the habit, we can’t figure out how to socialize.

Working at the senior center is my happy place, my preschool for grown-ups. I’ll definitely keep working there after the pandemic. Who knows, it may become all the socializing I need. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Why doing things you hate is a good thing.

Today was my eightieth day in a row submerging in a glacial lake. My neighbor and I started the ritual on November 29th. Every morning at 7:30 am we go down to the corner of my block, cross the busy road, walk down a tiny hill, take off our boots, and wade into the ice-cold lake. We estimate the temperature is about 39 degrees. The air is usually a little bit colder, sometimes a lot colder.

My goal is to make it to one hundred days because by then the water will be warmer and the spring bulbs will be up and it will feel like summer compared to what we’ve been doing these past few months.

Every morning my neighbor and I look at each other right before we go into the water and ask each other why we are doing this. We laugh and then we do it anyway. After wading chest-deep in the water for a minute or two or three, we count to three together and go fully under. We try to stay under the water for several seconds. Then we pop up, smile at each other, wade back to shore, wrap ourselves in our towels and robes, and climb up the little hill to go home.

I feel compelled to go into the lake every day. Last weekend I trudged through ten inches of snow to go into the lake. It felt amazing like it does every single day. The moments when I am walking slowly into the lake I feel brave. In the minutes I stay in the lake, feeling my thighs tingle with cold, I feel more brave. When I conjure the will to submerge fully for those last few seconds I feel the most brave. And when I am done I feel victorious. 

The other day I was whining about going in the lake to my family. “I”m scared,” I said, “it’s soooo cold today.” My sixteen-year-old daughter said, “Mom, why do you do things you hate?” I had complained the night before about having to get up at 5:30 am for my meditation class and she’d obviously been listening.

“I do them because even though I might not like it in the moment, I know that I’ll feel good afterward.” And that was one hundred percent true. My daily meditation sets the tone for my day. Though I sometimes struggle out of bed, I am always so grateful an hour later. 

And it’s the same with dunking every morning. I fret about the cold air, or the rain, or the snow on the ground, but once I’ve dunked into the frigid lake I feel amazing. I’m refreshed, invigorated and so proud.

A few days after my daughter ribbed me about doing things I hate, she and I were both in the kitchen. I was making coffee and she was cutting an apple for her breakfast. I reminded her to take her iron pill, a task she hates doing but needs to do because she’s iron deficient.

She took her pill and looked past me. Then, as if thinking out loud to herself she said, “I need to start doing more things that I hate. Not a lot of things. Maybe just one thing a day.”

I just smiled and said, “I think that’s a great idea.”

The Psychic Told Me To Start Writing

 

About ten years ago I went to see a psychic. She was recommended by several of my yoga teacher friends. I was in the middle of separating from my partner and I needed someone to tell me something different than the persistently self-defeating thoughts running through my head. When I arrived at her tiny office in a corporate building overlooking the lake, I was surprised to see a very young woman, at least ten years younger than me, with long flowing hair. She was very relaxed, so calm. She looked like she had just returned from an afternoon picking poppies from a field with Dorothy.

She asked me to stand in the doorway while she circled my body with a smoking bundle of sage. When I was sufficiently cleansed, she invited me to sit in a chair across from her desk. I told her a bit about myself, but not too much. That would give her a leg up and I wanted to see if she was the real deal. 

The first thing she said to me, in true random psychic form was, “Your daughter needs to be around horses.” At the time my daughter was not even five; she had not mentioned horses in her short life. But I noted the psychic's instructions and patiently waited for more guidance.

She told me to use malachite to recover from my breakup. She said I should wear a necklace or a ring with that stone. And then she told me that I should be writing. “Writing what?” I asked her. 

“I’m not sure what you should write about, but you should be writing. Start now.”

That weekend my neighbor gave me an old malachite ring to wear and we took our kids to the suburbs to ride ponies. My daughter threw a tantrum about which car seat she wanted on the ride home and seemed completely indifferent to her equine experience. She hasn’t mentioned horses since.

A few weeks later I took my daughter to see my parents in Arizona. I was running my own business, a yoga studio, at the time, constantly on my email, fielding phone calls, figuring out advertising, promotions, taxes, putting out a million little fires.

I needed a break and my parents were glad to entertain their granddaughter while I lazed around. But having nothing to do made me antsy. After I exercised and drank coffee I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. Without childcare or work, I felt blank.

I went to my mom’s computer to check my email and before long was wandering around the internet looking at different blogs. Within an hour I had created a blog of my own and I was writing. On that vacation, I wrote one blog a day and I’ve continued to write it regularly for almost eleven years. 

The blogs started more as lessons that I could share with my yoga students — thoughts about the symbolism of different postures, analysis of competing with ourselves in yoga….

These more trite life lessons eventually bored me and I found myself diving deeper. I wanted to understand myself more completely and if the lessons that served me served others, then that was a bonus. But I stopped writing for the masses and focused on my own inner musings. I think that’s the treasures started to appear.

That psychic was wrong about horses and right about writing. When I write I become a clear channel. I find my way to buried treasure. My default mind, the one that exists when I am not writing, is like a circus monkey. I throw bananas, juggle oranges and scratch my armpits, all within a few seconds. Linear thinking is not my strong suit.

But when I write, it is as if I am working my way through a maze, slowly, deliberately getting to the endpoint where the truth will be revealed. When I write I am imposing a mental rigor that doesn’t exist when I am in my default thinking. I write every day to find my north star, to understand what is real and true in the messy room that is my mind. 

I don’t always know what I will write about. Most often I don’t. I start with what I am thinking about in the moment, and then I wander. It is as if I am walking a shell-covered beach. I see lots of beautiful shells. I also see some garbage. But at the end of the walk, I find that perfect shell, that impeccable sun-bleached sand dollar without a chip or a crack that I can take home and put on my windowsill.

When I look at the sand dollar later, it will remind me of that walk, what I saw, what I thought about, what I learned. At the end of each writing, there is that takeaway, the perfect sand dollar — a lesson, the sense of knowing something that I didn’t know or understand about myself before writing. 

That psychic suggested that I write but I did not understand back then that writing would be my compass, the tool that would help me navigate from confusion to clarity.

When I write, it is as if I am coaching my subconscious into trying harder to understand or uncover what I actually know. For me writing is not necessarily a way to learn something new, it’s more about unearthing what’s already there, those jewels of wisdom that are clanking around with the clutter. 

I am so glad that I listened to that psychic.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Sisterhood Revisited

My sister Amy and I are both writers. She’s a real writer. She got her MFA in Creative Writing. She writes amazing stories and has skills I only fantasize about. I write a blog that started as a promotion for my business but turned into something more personal and revelatory. We both write all the time.

Until recently, we never talked about the fact that we both write. We were raised in a family of three girls, twins, and a younger one less than two years later. In our house there was never enough attention for any of us so we hoarded our individuality, keeping our secret skills and passions away from each other for fear that they would be taken over by one of the other sisters.

It is only in hindsight that I can see how gripping so tightly to our individual, very separate identities kept us from really knowing each other on a deeper level. It’s been a gift to get to know my sisters for who they are in adulthood. Now that we are no longer doing backflips for attention, we can simply become ourselves.

I am one of the twins, the eldest by thirteen minutes. Recently my younger writer sister Amy and I collaborated on a video project for our mother who was turning eighty. As the younger sister, Amy has the curse of not being taken as seriously. I have no idea what it feels like to be in Amy’s role, but I do know that as the slightly eldest, I was often in the position of ignoring Amy’s ideas simply because she was the youngest and I was the oldest.

It was Amy’s idea to get birthday messages from people spanning my mother’s long life history. When she shared her plan with me I immediately loved it. I asked her how I could help and she was totally open to doing it together. That was the first step.

We started early, in October, for her January birthday. Amy was in charge of sleuthing out long-lost friends and contacting them. It was my job to piece together the clips and make them into a video for Mom.

During those three months working together Amy and I, who live in different cities and different time zones, talked several times a day. We FaceTimed and screen shared. We sent files back and forth multiple times. At one point my computer crashed and we had to start from scratch. Amy had to contact several people to resend their video clips and I had to borrow a computer to complete the project. In the end, there were over eighty-five individual birthday messages in a nearly hour-long extended birthday message for our mother. Our collaboration was a major success.

In the process of doing this video project, Amy and I learned that we work really well together. We had so much fun bantering in the way only sisters can. And we fell naturally into our roles using our specific strengths together toward a common goal.

In the process of creating this video project, Amy and I began to talk about our writing. We both write on Medium and a few other platforms and, though we’d each been doing it for years, we had never discussed it. We had never even read each other’s writing. 

We write very different things. Amy is wildly funny and creative. I am more contemplative and proccess-y. And, we are both write like the other sometimes. We started reading each other’s writing, then praising each other’s writing, then talking about how to support and promote each other’s writing. 

Had we been teenagers, we might have been talking about forming a girl band or a funny t-shirt business. We were so psyched, so pumped to be doing this thing writing thing together. We’ve continued to talk every day, sometimes multiple times. We’ve crossed over from the way we used to be. We no longer guard our specialness like when we were kids.

We didn’t see each other when we were younger. We couldn’t see each other’s strengths as assets. We saw them as threats to our own success in being recognized in our attention-deprived universe. As our individual universes have expanded, we’ve all found a place to call home. We’ve each found ways to be who we are and not feel threatened by the others.

What we missed when we were young was the opportunity to unite our strengths and create something bigger, better, and more beautiful. We never did form the girl band (even though we created wicked harmonies in our kitchen with wooden spoons). We never created a cottage industry during summer breaks from college. We could have. I was business-minded, Amy is amazingly creative, and Katherine can network like nobody’s business. We would have been a raging success at anything we poured our collective strengths into.

We missed out then, but my experience with Amy recently gave me a taste of what’s possible. Sisters are a unique species. There is deep love but often intense competition leaning into disdain. When sister energy is channeled in harmony, something beautiful emerges. When it moves in opposition to another sister’s energy, it becomes discordant, unpleasant, even unbearable.

After all of these years going against each other, fighting to be known for our individual specialness, we found an experience where we channeled our strengths into the same jet stream and created sister magic. 

We talked about it recently, how the video project opened up this opportunity to share something and not see it as competing for attention. It feels good, to have this kind of sisterhood where we support one another, egg each other on, and celebrate each other. It’s true what they say, “sisterhood is powerful.” The road to get there might be long, or rocky, or circuitous, but once you’re there you can feel the shift. It feels powerful.

My sister Amy and talk about doing another project together, some kind of writing. We don’t know what it will look like yet. It doesn’t really matter. It just feels good to working together, in harmony.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

"Can You Fix Her?": How to be the asshole mother of the year

Yesterday was a snow day. Where I live snow is a rarity. At its coldest, the temperature in the winter is in the high thirties and low forties. It snows maybe once a year, enough for outdoor snow play every two or three years.

Yesterday was a gift from the gods, an outdoor winter wonderland. In our neighborhood, a super hilly enclave bordering a lake, it was as if we’d been transported to a sledding village in the Alps. Everyone in the neighborhood came out in their colorful snow gear. People were sledding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing. Dogs were bounding down the hills and into the mounds of snow.

I’m a planner and a worrier, so even in exciting times when there’s something to look forward to, like sledding, I start overplanning which leads me to overthinking, and eventually worrying. As I thought out the day I started to worry about how my sixteen-year-old daughter could enjoy this. When she came upstairs and saw the snow she was happy and excited, but as the prospects of sledding with her parents clarified as her only option, she became increasingly sullen.

There were a few things going on. First, she wasn’t actually that into the idea of sledding. Second, as an only child times like this are hard. There’s no built-in playmate and hanging with your parents is just not that fun. Third, I was projecting all of my expectations onto her and completely missed every single one of her cues.

I managed to organize some of our family friends to drive over to our house to sled. They have a teenage daughter as well. I checked that off my box. Only child problem- CHECK. Then there was the issue of Lucia not really being into sledding. I nagged and cajoled and manipulated Lucia until she actually came outside to meet the family friends. Getting her to sled — CHECK. 

We walked up to the top of our hill to sled down another side street where we met a friend of ours. She had been sledding by herself all morning. She’s a family friend as well and has no kids. Sometimes she’s good at relating to teens. Lucia was sitting on the sidewalk, her silence and facial expression clearly telling me that she was unhappy. My friend asked me what was wrong with her and I said, “I don’t know. Can you fix her?” And then I jumped in the sled and went down the hill.

I meant my comment about fixing Lucia to be tongue and cheek but the truth is I was really desperate (projecting) for Lucia to be enjoying the snow the way I thought she should. When I got up the hill I saw my friend sitting next to Lucia. I walked over and Lucia looked at me, glared really, and said, “Fix me. Really Mom?” And then she walked down the hill to our house.

My partner Nancy, a much less overbearing parent, said, “Laura, you have to back off. She’s in a bad mood. Just let her be.” This is not an uncommon experience in our family. As a parent, I become consumed with an outcome (like Lucia having fun sledding like a Norman Rockwell painting), go to any means necessary to achieve said outcome, and completely ignoring all of the messages my daughter is giving me, end up in a pool of regret over my misguided ways. 

Nancy and I talked about what to do. “Just go down and apologize and then give her some space. Keep it simple.” I walked down the hill. Lucia was sitting in an Adirondack chair on the patio under our back deck scrolling through her phone. Lumbering through the foot of snow to reach her, I met her sad-angry eyes. When I got to the patio I said, “Lucia, I’m sorry.” 

“Mom, why do you do that? You nag and text and can’t you just let me be in a bad mood.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I’m really sorry. We’re going over to the big hill. Meet us there if you want. “I’m really sorry Lucia.”

I didn’t go into all the ways I was sorry because they didn’t really matter. The fact that I’d spent the morning trying to control her experience like a puppeteer was evident all over the place. What she really needed in that moment was just to know that I finally saw her. 

Lucia eventually walked over and joined us. I gave her a wide berth for the rest of the afternoon but my hideous words, “Can you fix her?” pinged around in my brain like a pinball all day. What I’d wanted on the surface was for Lucia to have fun, to celebrate the snow with us. But the deeper sentiment, the one I’m not proud of and that I want to change for the future, was my need for her to be a certain way. 

I wanted my daughter to fit into a mold that would make my Norman Rockwell painting complete. And in doing so I made her feel incomplete, unseen, and misunderstood. My intention to create a big happy family playing in the snow backfired and I became an asshole. I regret that Lucia heard my comment. I made her feel exactly the opposite of how I wanted her to feel.

It’s snowing again today. The streets are closed and I imagine people will be sledding. I’m not sure what our family plans will be, but I’m going to try not to be an asshole.

Friday, February 12, 2021

From Shame to Self-Acceptance in 45 minutes Flat

This morning in my group Zoom meditation I made an enormous faux pas. In the middle of the 45-minute session, I loud-whispered to my partner Nancy in the kitchen that our dog Freckles had already eaten. My friend Jessica, also on the Zoom meditation texted me that I wasn’t muted. I quickly put myself on mute and then entered into a shame spiral.

My whole body got hot. I became unable to concentrate and though I stayed on the video call, I could not resume my personal meditation. My head was spinning and, with every rotation, spitting out a new criticism. “You’re so stupid.” Swoosh. “You’re a moron.” Swoosh. “You don’t belong here.” Swoosh. “You’re an embarrassment.”

As these disparagements flooded my psyche, I willed myself to do what I often do to get myself out of the negative thinking pattern. “What is the opposite of shame?” I asked myself. “Love, acceptance, belonging.”

When I have been on the other side, witnessing someone who did something embarrassing or humiliating, I have felt compassion for them. In a way, their blooper is a gift, a reminder that we are all human. And mine this morning was too. I gave the gift of making a mistake, something probably every person on that call has worried about doing at some point. 

I thought about all of these people who’ve I’ve meditated online with for the last fifty days. Every morning, meeting each other before the sunrise at 6 am to sit together and, in our own ways, pray for healing for ourselves and the world. 

When I interrupted the flow of our practice it was a blip in time. For them, a minor distraction. I know that they didn’t feel what I felt. They didn’t think I was a loser, that I didn’t belong. They probably didn’t give it a second thought after it happened. 

In my shame mind, these people would be spending the day gossiping about the nitwit who wasn’t on mute during meditation. But as I contemplated this intrusive shame-thought I realized how utterly narcissist and self-important it is. And unrealistic. That two-second interruption was just that, a two-second interruption.

At the end of the daily meditation, we all unmute for a moment to say goodbye. I thought about saying something like, “I’m so sorry you guys….. blah blah blah” but I decided not to. I thought about my mistake like the gift that it was — an invitation to being human. If I self-flagellated, worried, and asked for forgiveness from the group, I would be telling my friends that, if they’d made that same mistake, I wouldn’t be forgiving of them. I would be saying it’s not okay to be human.

So, like every morning I just smiled and waved. I had found my way to the opposite of shame. Like I do every morning, I felt the love and acceptance from the group. Shame was nowhere to be found.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Working with Available Light

The candle I light when I meditate is in an old ball jar. When I am done meditating I put the lid on the jar and watch the flame slowly die. It takes a few seconds. The flame lives with the oxygen left in the jar and when it no longer has enough to stay lit it goes out completely.

Relationships are like candles-- they only survive with enough oxygen to stay ignited. Whether it is a family relationship, a romantic relationship, a sibling relationship, or a simple friendship, we can feel when there is light, activity, energy. And we can feel it when there's not.

In my nuclear family of three, when everyone feels good about themselves, when we are able to each be present, it feels light and full of energy. We bring together our flames and unite them. We linger at the dinner table, laugh a lot,  and have extended conversations. There is more light, more energy, and more joy. In times when we are all fully present, it feels like all of our individual flames are lit and together they burn brighter.

In my relationship with one of my sisters, I feel like there is not enough oxygen to keep my candle steadily burning when we talk. I can feel vibrant, alive and full of life before calling her and then when I get her on the phone it feels like the fire slowly dies. 

This sister is very busy, always busy. Often I'll call her and get a robotext back: "working" or "in a meeting." I know it's probably not personal but I often take it that way. I recognize that when I do finally talk to her on the phone I am bringing with me a sense of anticipatory oxygen deprivation. 

I'm so exhausted and disappointed from receiving the endless text rejections that I come into the experience of actually talking to her feeling like an asthmatic without an inhaler. My flame is barely lit, a flicker at best. We do our best to have periodic conversations, working with the available light from our flames. But it's hard. It's a struggle. It's light a candle struggling for enough oxygen to stay lit.

I imagine this sister feels the same way about me. Just as I struggle to stay lit with her, I am not the oxygen that feeds her flame. Together we are unable to create the heat and excitement that comes when I talk to a different sibling or my partner or my best friend. 

Last night my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia FaceTimed my sister. When I went into Lucia's room I could see her laughing and animated with my sister on the screen, also laughing and animated. I felt a pang, a sadness, a loss. My sister didn't ignite this way with me. 

It made me think about my part in this snuffed candle relationship. I am not showing up with radiant energy, flame burning, lid open, welcoming a steady flow of oxygen. I am preemptively extinguished, lid sealed tight, preparing for what I think I will experience on the phone with my sister. My daughter has fresh eyes, an open mind. She does not come into her conversations with my sister saddled with fifty years of sibling dynamics, disappointments, and expectations. 

So of course my sister was lit up. Of course, Lucia was lit up. Together they were fireworks! 

I miss this sister a lot. I long to have the kind of conversations I have with my other siblings. I long to laugh with her the way she laughs with my daughter. There is a flicker of light in our relationship, if only that I want to make it stronger, brighter. I can work with that. I can work with the available light we have and build on it.  

If I want a relationship with more energy and light with my sister, I have to see her with new eyes. I have to release the oxygen-deprived expectations I put on her. I can't control what she does, but I can try to see her through a fresh lens and hope that this brings a little more oxygen to our flickering flame. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Learning Forgiveness from A Dog

Last night at three o'clock in the morning my dog Freckles bit me. He is a small dog, about twenty-five pounds, short and very round. He had made his way up to my pillow and when I moved I accidentally rolled over him. He bit me hard on the arm and then made his way off the bed and downstairs. The bite hurt. He broke the skin a little bit and today I have a good size bruise where he got me.

After he bit me I felt bad, like I must have hurt him. I went downstairs to check on him and he seemed just fine. He was chipper and ready for a midnight snack. I went back upstairs and tried to get a little more sleep before my 6 am alarm. When I did get up and go to the living room to meditate a few hours later, Freckles joined me. He snuggled his fat back right up to my leg on the floor and sat with me for forty-five minutes.

I thought it strange that he was so comfortable cuddling up with me after inflicting a flesh wound just three hours earlier. But he was oblivious, happy to be sitting there with me, snoring away. In the moment right after Freckles bit me I was mad at him. I was coursing with adrenaline but the anger lasted just as long as it took for my heart rate to slow down. My forgiveness was immediate and complete.

If I get mad at my partner or my sister or my mother, I want them to know that I am mad. I can't let it go until I feel they've learned a lesson, that they understand the impact of their actions. I expect a little bit of remorse, maybe some penance.

I want them to be a little stand-off-ish, tentative to approach me. This will signify that they understand the errors of their ways. But with Freckles I didn't have that anger. I became almost immediately concerned about him. What had made him bite me? Was it his arthritic hips or did I bend his tail the wrong way?

And then, just hours later, Freckles approached me as if nothing had happened. He wasn't shy or unsure about smooshing up for some love this morning. He had no memory of what had happened. His memory was of the unconditionality of our relationship. The bite a few hours earlier was a vague and distant occurrence. Odds are that Freckles didn't remember it at all. He was ready to move on and get more love.

Humans make each other's lives so much harder by holding onto memories. I have a friend whose partner keeps track of times when she is hurt by her in a journal. It's like the holy grail of hurt and it's a sure way to stay mad and distant. We hold onto our memories of being hurt because we want to protect ourselves from being hurt in the future. But gripping tight to the hurt just prolongs the hurt while forgiving lets the love in.

What if we thought a little more deeply about what might have motivated a snapping voice, a thoughtless response, or an inpatient honk on the horn from our partner or parent, or sibling? What if we looked at the times when we are mad or hurt from a different angle? Like I looked at Freckles after he bit me when I thought, "What kind of pain is this sweet dog experiencing that would make him bite me?" 

What if I made space for my partner Nancy to snap at me because maybe she had a shitty day and then I just forgave her as quickly as I forgave Freckles?

And what if we weren't afraid to approach the ones we love after we've angered them? What if we invited forgiveness sooner, more immediately so that the memory of the hurt moved into the past instead of occupying real-time emotional energy? It would be so great to bound up to Nancy after hurting her feelings and giving her a great big hug, not from a place of "please forgive me" but from a place of unconditional love.

Dogs are different from humans. Their ability to conceptualize emotions and intellect is much less evolved, but they have something to teach us. The unconditional and uncomplicated love that exists between me and Freckles reminds me that this can exist with me and the other intimate relationships in my life as well. I have to be willing to forgive when I am hurt and to lean in to love when I've been unkind. 

It only seems hard to do this because I've become habituated to driving such a complex superhighway of emotions with the ones I love. It sounds nice though, to simplify things. People I love get mad, they get hurt, they bite. But they still love me. What a wonderful world it would be if, instead of lingering, evolving into a different more complicated story, forgiveness came right after the bite. What if I cut out all the drama in between the hurt and the endpoint of forgiveness?

I imagine how much lighter I would feel if I could operate from a place of trusting that even when I act out, piss off people I love, misbehave, or show my worst self, I am still loved. Freckles is that way. He bit me but that didn't change his love for me or his expectation that I would still love him. And I forgave Freckles within just a few minutes. The end result was that we were both free to settle back into the pure experience of unconditional love. If only humans could do that with each other. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

It's About Time We Had A Middle-Aged Superhero

This morning I heard an interview with Salma Hayek. Hayek was recently cast in the Marvel film, Eternals. The film is about a group of beings who have hidden themselves from humanity for thousands of years. Hayek plays Ajak, the leader of the superpowered species. Hayek said that when she put on her superhero suit for the first time, she "felt moved."

Hayak is 54-years-old. The fact that she was put into the role of the leader of a superhuman group of beings is totally right. Women in mid-life are the power source of humanity. They are wise, resilient, multi-dimensional creatures of will and endurance.

Yesterday the New York Times published a series called Mothers on the Brink. The piece follows three working mothers as they navigate the pandemic. Mothers are doing it all, holding this shit show together. To read the tasks that these working mothers accomplish is to read the stories of unsung superheroes. These women are in training for the next phase when their time and energy is freed up from caretaking the kids.  In middle age, when the kids are mostly independent, women walk away with a skill set so powerful, that when harnessed, is fierce enough to rule the world.

What women learn to manage and navigate as working mothers, especially in a pandemic, is beyond what any man could even contemplate, regardless of his job and responsibilities in that position. To have to care for other little humans while also working in the adult realm requires shape-shifting ability, mind-morphing flexibility, and marathon-running stamina.

No wonder Salma Hayek felt moved when she slipped on the superhero suit. She was coming home, being recognized for the superhuman that she is, that all of us are when we reach midlife. Our society tells us otherwise. Look at Hillary Clinton. Look at Elizabeth Warren. These two amazing superheroes were shut down and vilified because their powers were too great, too threatening to the status quo. 

Maybe we're slowly coming out of this archaic mentality that middle-aged women can't be superheroes.  We've got Kamala Harris leading the way. She's penetrated the paternal force field, hopefully blazing a trail for other superheroes to get through, stand by her side and save the world. And now we've got Salma Hayek as Ajak.

It's time. It's been time for a fifty-four-year-old woman to be a superhero. All fifty-four-year-old women are superheroes. And part of their heroism is their stoic persistence to keep on fighting, caring, showing up, even when they are invisible, unappreciated, and unrewarded for their strength and wisdom.

But now Salma Hayek is putting on a superhero costume. She's donning the appropriate apparel to represent women like her.  Hayek is starring in a movie where she is the strongest of the strong of a superpowered race. I can't wait to see the movie. I can't wait to dress up like Ajak next Halloween. Maybe the world as we know it is changing. I hope so. It's about time.
 


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Nothing to Report: Boredom as a Balm

I talk to my mom five or six days a week. My mom has always been a very active person. She has always had a job and lots of friends, hobbies, and activist causes she works on. Her life has been rich and full of things to report when we talk.

My mom is retired now and, like the rest of us, isolated from most of the activities that used to fill her days. When we talk Mom starts the conversation, “Hi Laura, how are you?” At some point in the conversation, Mom will say, “Well, tell me something. I have nothing to report.”

I don’t really have anything to report either but I do have a lot to talk about. This past year has been a year filled with time. I have so much more time at home. Every day is the same. Minus a chunk of hours carved out in the middle of the day for work, the free time of the day is void of the things I used to do — coffee with friends, going to a movie, out to dinner, sitting in the stands of my daughter’s soccer game, going shopping for the boots I’ve been coveting. But now none of that exists. Daily life is boring.

And this boredom is good. This boredom is a balm that I needed to deepen my connection with myself and my partner. We are both bored. And in this boredom, this life devoid of social distractions and obligations our relationship has deepened — with ourselves and with each other.

This boredom has been an invitation into our individual interiorities. Ten months ago the beach we walked was filled with shells and driftwood, seabirds, and other people. But the shoreline has been receding, taking with it everything on the beach. Now the beach we walk is wider, with more sand, no shells, driftwood, birds, or people. It is just us, walking the beach. The ocean is there, vast and beautiful, a constant reminder of the inherent peace that exists when all of the detritus is washed away.

We walk on the smooth sand staring out onto the ocean or looking down and the sand, being with ourselves, quiet enough to hear our thoughts. And every once in a while we come together. We share a conversation about what is going on in each of our interiorities. And it’s interesting. It’s fascinating, this new access to the inner workings of the one I love.

My mentor once taught me the concept, “It’s not the what, it’s the who.” In the context of that lesson, I was trying to come to terms with firing an employee who I felt lacked integrity. My mentor explained, “she may be great at what she does, but it’s the who that matters.”

When I talk to my mom, it’s enough to just hear her voice, to listen to what going on in her head and heart. I don’t need to hear any news. But I get it. This “what” is how we were socialized. What is your job? What is your income? What are your hobbies? What have you done today? The whats are the details that we’ve been trained to give focus and attention to for most of our lives. But now most of the whats are gone and we have this unique invitation to spend more time with the who.

The “who” is the essence, this interiority that often stays hidden. This time of boredom, of nothing to report, has offered an opening to my essence, to my partner’s essence. We don’t have the constant negotiation that we used to have. We don’t have to agree on where to go to dinner or if we want to have so and so to a dinner party. We don’t have to come to an agreement on where we want to travel for the next family vacation or who will stay at home and wait for the plumber. There is nothing to report. There is space, and quiet. We are co-existing in an openness that we’ve never experienced before.

I am worried about going back to the way things were. This new shoreline, this beautiful quietude of our little world, has been a balm and an opening to something richer and more connecting. We talk about it, this new way of being with ourselves and each other. We both feel it and appreciate it. I hope when the beach is full of activity again, when the distractions of life as we knew it return, we can still feel this feeling, that it will always be a part of who we are.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Harry and the Contact Tracer

The first person I spoke to this morning was Harry. Harry is 99. He lives in an independent living facility and had COVID about a month ago. I work as a contact tracer and we try to contact people within twenty-four hours of their COVID diagnosis. With older folks, it often takes a while to track them down because they are in and out of the hospital or rehabilitation centers recovering.

When I spoke to Harry this morning he was well over his COVID illness except for a persistent cough and moderately low oxygen. I asked him the requisite questions about his symptoms, the onset date, and his health history and then we just chatted. I told him what an honor it was to talk to a ninety-nine-year-old and what a treat it was to start my day with a call to him.

I don’t know where Harry was from. He had an eastern European accent. He told me that he walks every day and since having COVID, has found that he needs to take more rests. He told me that he goes to the podiatrist to get his nails cut because he can no longer reach them to do it himself. He told me he’s getting his first vaccine shot on February 12th; it was delayed because he got sick.

I told Harry that my stepfather Al is ninety-three but that I haven’t seen him in a year because he’s in Chicago. Al will hopefully get his COVID vaccine on Sunday. My mom and my sister will help him navigate the subzero Chicago weather to get to the hospital for his magic shot. I told Harry that I missed Al and that talking to him was almost as good.

A few days ago I had a call with a ninety-five-year-old woman named Pam. Pam, like Harry, was energized and happy. Unlike many elderly people, Pam had no symptoms with her positive COVID diagnosis. Pam told me that she believes she is so healthy because, like Harry, she goes for lots of walks. Also, she added, she is a watercolor artist and has always painted standing up. Last month I switched to a standing desk and hearing Pam’s analysis of her own good health affirmed my decision to spend my days standing instead of sitting.

I love talking to elderly people. Compared to other people I talk to in my job as a contact tracer, they are comparatively wise, calm, and present. Yesterday I helped staff the health district’s call center because it was so inundated with people calling about the vaccine. In my state, there are over a million seniors trying to get vaccinated and there simply are not enough vaccines.

For two hours yesterday, I answered phone calls from people in their 70s and 80s trying to figure out how to make an appointment for a vaccine. I had to tell them that we are out of vaccines, that there are none to be had through the health district in the near future. Their only option, I reluctantly told them, was to go to the website and click and refresh and repeat until they got an appointment.

Some people told me that they’d been clicking, refreshing, and repeating for three weeks. One eighty-two-year-old man with a landline told me that he didn’t own a computer. I repeated the same disappointing news to every caller and then we chatted. They thanked me for answering. It was so great they said, to hear a real voice, to have someone actually pick up the phone.

Sometimes we laughed at the absurdity of the situation, that, like the mismanagement at the beginning of COVID, our great country is once again bumbling through this important vaccine rollout. Many people vented. They told me about their COPD or recent cancer diagnosis. They told me that they were a veteran or retired nurse.

Every call I answered I knew I would be disappointing the caller, replying that I had no good news. And at the end of every call, there was a moment of acceptance by the caller. Okay, they said, they’d try what I had suggested. I’m sorry, I always told them, I wish I could have helped you more. And every single person told me, in their own way, that they were just grateful that I answered, that someone had picked up the call and listened to them.

Those people dialing the call center just needed someone to listen to them. They needed a real person on the line, even if that real person was giving them bad news. The job of a contact tracer can be rote and a grind, but the moments of talking to these wise elders is a gift. It happens every few days that I have a rich conversation with an elder, more seldom do I get to chat with someone as old as Harry.

The lesson from Harry and all of these elders is that connecting is important. We all need it. It doesn’t take much to connect, to feel seen and heard. A short phone call, a listening ear. When I called Harry and Pam I felt a sense of connection to them — to their presence and wisdom. They shared something only they can know in their ripe old age. They offered me that connection. And yesterday when I sat and listened to all of those people trying to get a vaccine I was simply offering that to them — a chance to connect to a real person, to share their frustration, fears, and fatigue.

I started this job as a contact tracer eight months ago. It’s a new experience for me. A few months before the pandemic hit I sold my yoga studio, a business I had owned and operated for almost twenty years. I’ve found great joy in having a job with a supervisor and a team. I’m simply working. I don’t have to create new projects, manage employees, satisfy customers. I just get to do the tasks assigned to me in my job.

While it is sometimes understimulating, the satisfaction I get from just being a worker bee overrides the feelings of boredom time and time again. And there are wonderful moments too like with Harry and Pam.

Today will be another day of calling and asking questions, of staffing the call center and listening to the woes of sweet old people who just want a vaccine. But I’m glad to be doing this work. In this big, scary, confusing world, it’s giving me lots of little opportunities to simply listen and connect.

Goodbye Old Friend

“I always thought you were a bitch.” I’ve heard that statement from several of my closest friends. I used to be very shy and through my twen...