Wednesday, March 24, 2021

We're So Close: An Appeal from One Contact Tracer

I'm tired. I've gone too deep in. I'm down the COVID hole and I can't get out. Nine months ago I took a job as a contact tracer. At the time I found great comfort in being on the front lines, learning all there is to know about this virus, and trying to help contain it.

Now I'm done. It happened slowly but also quickly. One day I just could not bear to hear another story about COVID. I did not want to know how many people were in the household or where they worked. I didn't want to hear about what restaurants they'd eaten at or where they had traveled. One day I was saturated, full to the rim with COVID content and I could take in not one more iota of information.

In the last month, my COVID work has become more vaccine-oriented. I have been helping people find vaccines and working at various vaccination clinics in my county. This has been a nice respite from the contact tracing but it's still COVID and I realize that I'm done with this too. With every person I see getting vaccinated, I see the image of someone I love NOT getting vaccinated. I need a break from it all.

Yesterday I had conversations with three people who were exploding with anxiety about COVID. It was as if a universal emotional dam collapsed and feelings were flooding the atmosphere. I felt it and when I talked to these friends, they obviously felt it too.

What do we do now? We are straddling a crevasse-- one foot in COVID fear and devastation and one foot on COVID recovery and health. Where I live, we are vaccinating people at a pace slightly higher than the national rate, but our case numbers went up 34% yesterday!

How do we step onto the recovery and health side of the crevasse when case numbers are going up like this? Standing like this indefinitely is exhausting. My legs are tired. I have to pee. The ground feels shaky. I just want to step onto one side and rest for a while. 

When we were in full-on COVID crisis I felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill, little by little, step by step, everyday working a little bit to get to the top of the mountain. And while I, and thousands of other people did this, other people were pushing another boulder up the other side of the mountain. There were making a vaccine, figuring out how to get it into people's arms. Now we're at the top of the mountain but there's a chasm. Fuck!

After all this work we just want to rest, maybe have a picnic and sit in the sun. We're so close. If we could just get a break here. I imagine superhuman forces pushing the two sides of the mountain closer together. Maybe if everyone just circled the mountain, counted to three, and pushed, we could close this gap and finally rest. Then we could all take off our masks, hold hands, look into the clear blue sky and breathe.

But we are jumping the gun. From the bottom of the mountain, we're not seeing that little space that still needs to be closed up. We just need to work together for a little bit longer. Joe Biden says July 4th. That sounds good! People, please, let's just get our shit together and push these two broken pieces of mountain together. We are so close. Stay safe. Hold off on the travel and the gathering. Be responsible. We are almost there. Think about how great it will be when the crevasse is closed and we can have that picnic in the clouds. 


Thursday, March 18, 2021

You Could Learn a Lot from a Nurse

For the past few months, I have been working at COVID-19 vaccination sites. My job as a contact tracer took a pivot when cases went down and vaccines came on the scene. Working at the vaccine sites is one of the most joyful, healing, and connecting experiences I’ve had in a long time. 

Everyone who comes to the vaccination clinic is so happy. They are nervous with excitement, thrilled in the way Charlie was when he finally opened a Wonka Bar and found a golden ticket. They cannot believe they are finally there getting their shot.

I work with nurses every day. After I check in the people they go to a nurse to get their vaccine. When I screen people, I know that many of them are not being honest about their eligibility. My judgemental nature, the one who says, “this is right, and that is wrong” rears its head and withholds a smile from under my mask for these people. I am judging them. I know they are skipping the line, not waiting their turn like many millions of Americans. 

But the nurses never judge. They welcome the people into the folding chair, look into their eyes, tell them it won’t hurt much at all, and listen if they have questions. The nurses, though they give hundreds of shots to do in a day, never rush. And they treat every single person with a gentle, caring attitude.

I have learned a lot from these nurses.

  1. Even though I think I’m right all the time, I don’t actually know everything.
  2. Even if someone is rude or smelly or inappropriate, you can still treat them with kindness and openness. 
  3. When you treat someone with kindness and openness, it is contagious.

As I’ve moved through my days at the vaccination clinics, silently stewing in my judgment of people who are not following the state delineated phase guidelines, the nurses have been floating around in an orb of golden light doling out magic pricks of hope and healing. I’ve talked to them about my struggle to not judge and they look at me lovingly and say something like, “everyone needs a vaccine” or “we can never know the whole story.”

Yesterday a thirty-something, drunk, surly man arrived for his vaccine. I checked him in but could barely look him in the eyes. My disdain for him was verging on explosive and it was all I could do to just get him to the nurse. The nurse, a seventy-something white-haired good-witch smiled and said, “Welcome, is this your first shot today?” and when he replied yes, she clapped her hands together and said, “Wuuuuunderful.” 

I watched this nurse in awe. Her genuine open heart and generous spirit was captivating. It made me want to be more like her. To watch her made me want to give that energy to the world instead of my “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude. 

If all of the people like me were more like that nurse, our world would be so much more loving and kind and happy. When the surly drunk guy got out of the folding chair and walked towards the area where he’d sit and be observed for fifteen minutes, he seemed lighter on his feet. I couldn’t see his mouth, but his eyes were smiling. That nurse had added some golden light to his day and hopefully, he would pay it forward today or sometime in the future. 

And every time the nurses had an interaction like that they forged a connection. With each person they pricked with a shot and blessed with a warm pat on the back or a kind word, they created a sense of being in this together. In contrast, with every person I judged for being too young or too healthy or too drunk, I created a breach. In my judgment I made the person feel shame or humiliation, even without saying a word. 

It’s easy to sit in judgment of others. It’s safe. It keeps us separate and apart from things we don’t know or want to understand. What’s hard, but ultimately better for the world is to be open and loving, even towards people who don’t fit the mold of what we might think is right and good and honest. 

Working with the nurses has taught me that kindness trumps judgment just like love trumps hate. I know I have a lot of work to do to unravel my years of finding safety in the right and wrong, but today I am forever grateful for what I’ve learned from the nurses.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Popsicles in First Grade

 

This week I got in touch with an old friend. Our parents were friends and then we went all the way through high school together. Then, we ended up in graduate school three thousand miles from home together after college.

Over the last ten years, we’ve lost touch with each other but recently Jesse and I reconnected via email and text. Yesterday I tried calling her and left a long message. Later in the day I got a text trying to schedule a time to talk. She wrote, “When I heard your voice I almost cried realizing how much I’ve missed you.”

Last night as I was thinking about her, a memory of first grade came into my mind. That was the year my parents were getting separated and I had a mean teacher. Mrs. Kuber had red hair, a sharp nose (I swear it had a mole on it), and always wore navy blue. I was scared of her strictness.

My friend Jesse and I shared a four-top with two boys- Simon and a boy I don’t remember. Simon was translucent pale with steel-gray eyes and a bowl cut. He was always the last kid picked in gym. One afternoon towards the end of the school day Mrs. Kuber told us we’d be getting popsicles. I had to pee and didn’t want to spoil her good mood by interrupting her so I decided to try and hold it.

The minutes ticked like hours as we waited for the student teacher to bring the popsicles from the teacher’s lounge in the big building across the playground. My bladder was throbbing and the moment when I might have salvaged my integrity passed. I let go and peed in my chair.

Eventually, Mrs. Kuber noticed. She walked over to our table and asked who’d had an accident. With lightning speed, before anyone could say anything different, I shot my arm across the table and pointed to Simon. Mrs. Kuber stood patiently, waiting for me to cop to my accident. 

I stood my ground. I would say nothing and this would pass. My friend Jesse was nervously sitting beside me, my partner in crime, not saying what she and everyone else knew. After a minute of waiting Jesse turned on her chair and looked at me, “Laura, are you sure it wasn’t you?” I remember how gently she asked, how sweetly, how earnestly. I felt like she might have actually believed that, despite the puddle slowly expanding towards her shoes, it wasn't me who peed in my chair.

I’ll never forget that moment. It was a microsecond of believing I could actually change history. By asking that question she was inviting the possibility that maybe it wasn’t me. I seized the moment. “Yes, I’m sure,” I said, “I had to go, but I held my breath.”

I’d recently learned that holding one’s breath could stop hiccups but I’d confused it with holding pee. No one believed me. The jig was up. The gigantic pool of pee under my chair gave me away and Simon was acquitted. I had no choice but to confess to my crime. 

I don’t remember a popsicle or anything else about that day. But what is etched in my memory is the moment when Jesse offered me a tiny window of kindness that gave me hope. That question, “Laura, are you sure it wasn’t you?” gave me a way to step out of the shame I was swimming in for just a moment. 

Jesse was always kind. I’m sure she’d given that gift she gave me that day to hundreds of people along the road of her life. When I think about that moment of grace Jesse gave me almost half a century ago, I realize how much I’ve missed her too.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Freedom To vs. Freedom From


Freedom is what everyone is talking about these days. Freedom to hug, freedom to walk without a mask, freedom to go into other people’s homes, freedom to plan a vacation.

But what we don’t talk about so much is what we may have found in the absence of all of these freedoms. Pre-pandemic, my life often felt like a dresser drawer stuffed with commitments and obligations. These last twelve months have offered many of us a freedom from unconscious busy-ness and forced us to invent new life-sustaining experiences. 

For example, we created an amazing back patio with string lights crisscrossing an imaginary ceiling. We hosted friends covered in blankets and surrounded by the warmth of roaring propane heaters. We went to different people’s homes to talk around their firepits made from salvaged rocks and bricks. We took walks and sat outside in the park. We were free from planning big meals and cocktails because it wasn’t safe to eat or drink around each other. 

I started volunteering at a food bank and then at a senior center preparing meals for people, both for the experience of being around people. As a result, I met people I never would have encountered in my life before. In the hours where I wasn’t filled with business as usual commitments, I found new friendships and interests.

When you google images for “freedom” you’ll find pages of people standing on a mountain or a cliff or a rock in the middle of a river, arms extended into a “V.” And in these images, the person is almost always alone. This quintessential image for freedom-- arms outstretched, face to the heavens, joyful to be alive in one's own body in the presence of nature-- says it all. Freedom doesn't necessarily involve any other people or creature comforts. 

As we move at what seems to me like breakneck speed towards the land of freedom to (fill in the blank), I invite you to think about what in your life you have had freedom from in this last year.

I will miss creative communing. Just today I texted a friend about having an outdoor Seder for Passover and the very idea made me so happy. We’ll have to figure out how to configure ourselves around a table, how to stay warm, and how to manage the vaccinated people and the non-vaccinated people. We’ll take nothing for granted and be grateful for everything we create. 

One of my favorite parts of COVID communing is that the event always ends sooner than indoor socializing did. With outdoor socializing, it becomes cold or buggy or dark and the night naturally ends. I love this organic winding down. It’s so easy compared to the relentless social cue analysis — constantly monitoring who looks ready to go, who’s hunkering down for another piece of cake or one more round of Balderdash, whose had one too many and might say something awkward.

This last year has offered me a freedom from the obligation to keep up with social gatherings, cultural events, even school functions. It’s easy to beg off saying, “I just can’t Zoom one more time.” When we return to freedom to (fill in the blank), I fear that it will seem unkind or ungrateful to decline an invitation. After all this time, who in their right mind would say no to dinner with friends?!

This topic is on my mind a lot. It’s important. This great world shift has been a struggle that invites us to examine where we have been in the last year, where we were before that, and where we want to go in the future. It’s a rare moment in history, to experience a pandemic where our lives come to a screeching halt. We have all learned something profound. It's worth spending some time thinking about what these lessons are and taking them with us into whatever comes next. 


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Your Opinion is More Important than Mine

Last week my daughter took her driver's test. She was so nervous about it. My daughter is the kind of kid who rarely stresses about school. She’s calm as a cucumber getting shots, in the dentist's chair, even getting her nose pierced, she didn’t flinch.

But with this driving test, she was a mess. She researched which driving school in our city had the highest rate of passing. On the day of the test, she begged me to please pay for another test if she failed. In the end, the highest passing school didn’t have any spots available so we went somewhere else, amping up my daughter’s belief that she would not pass the test.

I dropped my daughter off to do the paperwork and take her test and went for a walk. I got back before she and the teacher returned so I sat on some steps across from the driving school. Shortly after I saw her pull up (a little far from the curb). She and the driving teacher got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk. I could see them from afar. “Oh shit,” I thought, “that teacher is reading her the riot act. I hope she didn’t fail.”

I watched my daughter nod her head earnestly as the teacher pointed out things on her clipboard. Then Lucia spotted me and walked calmly over. “I passed,” she said, then proudly exclaimed, “95!” I wasn’t surprised. She had been ready. She was prepared. She’s a good driver.

That afternoon as my daughter sat in the driver’s seat getting ready to drive us to the grocery store, she confidently rested her right arm behind the headrest of my seat and backed down our driveway. “You seem so self-assured driving right now,” I said to her.

“I am!,” she exclaimed, “I was just thinking how much more confident I am now that someone else told me I can drive.” We talked a little bit about that, how it’s so strange that someone else’s opinion can be so much more important than our own.

Nothing had changed with my daughter’s driving skills between the time she took the test and that moment. The only shift had been in her recognition of her capacity. Before being sanctioned by an outside party (someone she’s never met and doesn’t know), she felt tentative and unsure of her driving abilities.

Just the simple blessing from someone in authority changed how she saw herself in the world. Getting a shot or a filling doesn’t require any performance. In those acts, you are a passive recipient of the process. But performing to be evaluated and scored is a whole other level. I wonder what the fallout would have been if my daughter hadn’t passed her driver’s test. Would she have internalized that message and become discouraged and deflated?

It’s wonderful to witness my daughter’s newfound confidence. She feels accomplished and deserving of this right to drive a car. I hope that as she moves through her life she’ll think about this experience and remember that, even before someone told her she could drive a car, she could do it.

Muddy Waters


Lately, my waters have felt muddied. For many months, everything felt clear. I could see down past the surface of the pond all the way down to the bottom. I could see the reflections on the water’s surface. I could dive down if I wanted, and explore the depths, or I could spend time above, exploring the world around me. In the stillness, there was the possibility to reflect on the depths of who I am and the possibilities of who I could be. 

Something happened in the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the change in tone in our country. This new president is making things happen. Everything is changing, and fast. It’s all good, but it’s unbalancing. My internal equilibrium is off. People are getting vaccinated. There is a buzz of planning and next steps in every conversation. People are talking about traveling and going back to school and backyard barbeques.

And, at the same time, spring is here. In my part of the world, spring comes after many months of rain and darkness. The simultaneous emergence of the cherry blossoms, the sunny weather, and the longer days along with the feeling of safety and security in our surroundings and hope for brighter days ahead is thrilling. And overwhelming.

In the containment of the darkness of winter and safety regulations during COVID’s peak, the world felt very small, very controlled. Now it is like Disneyland, so much to see and do and we have to do it now. 

I observe myself holding back, tentative about going on the rides, hiding from the larger-than-life Snow Whites and Daffy Ducks. It’s too much. The curly fries are too rich and the lines are too long. I crave a quiet bench in a park and a simple Tupperware of carrots with a side of peanut butter. 

All of this activity has muddied my waters. When I look down, into the pond, I cannot see anything clearly. It’s murky, particles of the unknown floating as far as I can see. And the surface is rippled from the wind in the air; I cannot see the reflection of the trees or the sky above.

I sit by the pond, this place where I once derived such comfort in recent days. I miss the clear pool of possibility. The pond feels different. It is no longer the place I could go to contemplate and reflect in the quiet and calm. I don’t recognize the muddy waters anymore and I miss the old pond.

It’s hard to reconcile this feeling of loss when so much good is happening. The muddy waters are what is bringing us back to the way our lives used to be — working outside of our bedrooms, children spending time in community again, living without fear every single day.

There is a loss. I miss my clear pond. I know that I must welcome the way this new water looks right now. I must remind myself that there will be a time when the wind dies down and the debris in the water settles. The waters are muddy now, but the pond is still there. Soon, when this shift in our world is not so new, I will be able to see into the depths of the pond again. The surface of the water will be still and clear, making way for the reflections above to show themselves again.


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The 100-Day Mikvah

 

Yesterday was March 8th, International Women’s Day. All-day I saw posts on Instagram and Facebook — people raging about how women should get more than one day, happy shots of women and their mothers or daughters, posts of Kamala Harris.

I celebrate International Women’s Day every year because I believe it’s important to slow down and spend some time honoring women, the importance of feminine energy in our daily lives, our history, and our future. I also love any opportunity to create a ritual or tradition.

March 8, International Women’s Day, is also the anniversary of my father’s death. This year marked twenty-four years. I love that my father’s death day is also a day to celebrate women everywhere. My dad was a social worker and a feminist, a rare combination in his Northwest Indiana town. He was gentle and kind. Dad embodied many of the qualities that we revere in women — he was sensitive, relational, and community-minded. So it feels exactly right to celebrate this man on International Women’s Day.

On November 29th my long-time friend and I decided to jump in the lake. Then we repeated it every day. As the temperature dropped we continued. Every day I would announce what day we were on. The walkers on the path above us got to know us. “What day are you on?” they would holler down to us laughing. We laughed back, feeling like the rock stars in the lake.

One especially cold day I decided that I would definitely do this ritual until day 100. I calculated when that would be and was delighted to see that our 100th dip would fall on March 8th.

So, lover of ritual that I am, I organized an event. Anyone who wanted to could come join us to go into the lake for International Women’s Day. I wanted to share this ritual that we had been doing every day for one hundred days with other women.

My sixteen-year-old daughter and her friend joined us and one other friend. My partner and another friend came to watch and pour hot cocoa from the sidelines. All five of us entered the water and then we stayed in for a few minutes. As we stood there I felt a deep sense of meaning. The culmination of these one-hundred days, the two generations of women sharing in this ritual felt more special and significant. 

In Jewish tradition, a Mikvah is used for spiritual cleansing. Our daily trip to the lake has indeed felt like a cleansing of sorts. The ice-cold water talks to our skin like millions of little pinpricks until the pricks become big icy blankets over all the submerged parts. After standing neck-deep for a few minutes, we do the final submersion, our faces, and our whole heads. The shock on the sensitive skin of the eyelids, the ears, the nose feels like a freezing cold rebirth. 

When we come up for air a whole new conversation starts with the sky and the wind. The air is always warmer than the lake and as our bodies leave the cold water we become more of the earth than the water. We walk to our towels and robes, the air gently wicking our tingling skin, inviting it back towards warmth. 

My day has begun with this lake Mikvah for one hundred days. Today will be 101. I don’t want to stop. This ritual is a daily gift. My hope is that next year on International Women’s Day we’ll all meet again and share this tradition. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

No Solicitors


Have you ever had a friend who lacks curiosity? They don’t inquire about topics you drop into the conversation? “I’m taking a workshop today.” you might say and they don’t ask, “Oh, a workshop? What’s it on?”

It kind of feels like the house that has the big sign on the front door that says “NO SOLICITORS.” They don’t care what you have to offer, they’re simply not interested. I’ve had that experience canvassing. It’s a horrible feeling, a slow, death by 1000 papercuts self-esteem sucker. 

It’s hard not to take that kind of categorical disinterest personally. It feels bad. When it happens to me I wonder, am I sharing too much? Do I need too much affirmation? I try to model questions, “Where did you go out to dinner?” “What did you have?” “Did you like it?” But sometimes even that doesn’t inspire them to reciprocate curiosity. 

Like most things, the aspects of another’s personality that bother me the most are the ones that I share. Having this observation about one long-time friend recently invited me to look at my own active listening skills. I have often gotten the feedback from my partner that I’m not a great listener. 

I have a lot to say and sometimes I get over-excited, missing the opportunity to hear what my co-conversationalist has to share. The truth is, I know when I’ve been a bad listener. I can feel it. The other person’s eyes get a little bit dimmer. The energy starts to fade. When I’m all in and they’re all in there is a spark in the air, twinkles in our eyes. 

When I sit on the other side of the uncurious conversationalist I realize how lonely that place can feel. I don’t want to make anyone else feel that way. When I am a poor listener it is usually because I am irritated or otherwise occupied — either in my head or with another task. 

I have another friend who, when I call them on the phone, robotexts me back within five seconds of the phone ringing — “in a meeting” or “can’t talk.” I know the iPhone has that auto-response but it makes me feel so bad! Like I’m driving down the road to see my long-lost lover and just as I’m about to arrive, there is a giant ROAD CLOSED sign. 

I would rather stay on the open road, hold the possibility of talking to that friend eventually than to see that sign. For me, not answering the phone would be an invitation for me to try again, but the robotext feels like a hard stop decline of my intention to connect.

It’s good for me to have experiences that show me the other side of the story. Last night after an arduous two-day writing workshop on Zoom I declined an offer to go with my partner to sit by the fire with some neighbors. I was fried from the weekend. I had a crate of apples waiting to be peeled and chopped for apple sauce and I opted to watch bad Netflix and engage in that mindless task instead.

When my partner got home she was happy, rosy cheeks, excited to talk. These neighbors are adventurers and, even in COVID, they always have creative stories and experiences to share. As my partner started to tell me about her evening, I felt my NO SOLICITORS sign go up. Then I stopped chopping for a moment and peeked through the peephole. I saw her cheery face, her bright blue eyes, and I unlocked the door and invited her in. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Whose Memory is it Anyway?


A few months ago my younger sister and I were talking about the day my dad died. It was a quarter of a century ago but I have a vivid, very clear memory. The people from the mortuary came in and rolled Dad out through the kitchen with a big maroon velvet drape over him. I remember thinking it was gaudy and that Dad would have hated it. My younger sister’s memory is that Dad was covered in white gauze. We didn’t snap a photo that day so we’ll never know whose memory is the real one. 

I have two sisters, one twin, and a younger one born twenty-one months after us. We’re all in our fifties now and, as we’ve gotten older we’ve had multiple moments of memory confusion.

I’ll tell a story and one of them will say, “That didn’t happen to you, that happened to me.” 

There was the time at Camp Duncan where they had vessels of green Koolaid flowing freely and my poop turned green. I was sure that was me but my twin swears it was her. Maybe it was both of us. And the time we did a skit of the Family Feud with my cousins at the lake cottage and I thought I was the host Richard Dawson but the photos clearly show that it was my younger sister.

My daughter, now sixteen, recently said, “Mom, I have a vague memory of being about five-years-old, sitting in a lounge chair at the pool watching you and your friends doing water aerobics. Did that really happen?” Her memory is already starting to question itself. 

My partner has an amazing memory. Sometimes while we’re eating dinner she’ll remember a time when she was six or seven and tell a story in vivid detail, with utter certainty. I envy that clarity. 

My memories float around in a stewy urn with the memories of my sisters. When I want to recall a moment from my history, I dip my ladle into a steaming cauldron and retrieve a slopping serving of something that happened to me mixed with something that happened to one of them.

Recently I wrote a piece and my younger sister read it. She later sent me a text saying, “That was me at the gumball machine and I was two, not four.” Once she told me, it sounded familiar, like that was totally possible that it wasn’t me. Honestly, I’m not an adventurer and the whole escapade sounds more like something my little sister would have done at age two.

The early childhood years my sisters and I shared were messy. It was a chaotic and unpredictable time. Sometimes I imagine the three of us like little sailors on a schooner, riding the turbulent ocean waves together, holding on tight, eyes squinted against the splashing saltwater until we got safely to shore. 

The community memory my sisters and I share, this cistern of history, is the result of riding on that little lifeboat together. We were siblings but we were more than that. We were pieces of a puzzle, integral to each other’s survival. We were intimately connected through the experiences we were living in those days.

Now, as we age our memories seem to be overlapping even more than they used to, intersecting like stitches on a cross hatch quilt. I can tell my memory isn’t what it used to be. I can’t remember a lot of things so I draw more heavily from the collective pool of my sisters and me. 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

These Boots Were Made for Walking

 My mom tells a story about when I was four-years-old. I walked out of our backyard, down the street to the corner of our block, turned the corner, and walked another half-block to the bodega on 57th street. There was a gumball machine there, the kind that took coins for the Lion’s Club. My parents didn’t know where I was until the clerk at the store figured out who I was and called them to tell them that I was standing at the gumball machine shaking it to make the gum come out.

I have always loved walking. When I was in high school I took our golden retriever for long walks. Walking the dog was a great excuse to get out of the house and clear my head. Back then we didn’t have cell phones and I didn’t have a walkman. It was just me, my dog Nellie and the familiar streets of my neighborhood. 

In college, I moved off campus my sophomore year and loved walking the mile or so to my classes every day. When I moved to Spain my junior year I would get lost walking the streets of the town where I lived. My sense of direction has always been terrible and I would walk for hours trying to find my way to a cafe or bar to meet my friends.

When my daughter was an infant I walked miles with her. She loved the movement and I loved the freedom of being outside, away from all the baby junk, exploring the world with my little one safely tucked away on my chest or in her stroller.

Humans were made to walk. It is the most natural movement in the world. We put one foot in front of the other, our arms naturally move in rhythm with our legs. Our torsos, erect and strong allow our lungs to expand fully so we can take big, full breaths. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world. Walking is possible everywhere —on paths, on sidewalks, in the woods, in the jungle, on the beach. 

During COVID walking has taken on a whole new meaning. It is one of the few social outlets we can manage safely. Yesterday I had a day off and I made a plan to walk with two different friends who I hadn’t seen in a long time. The first walk was with someone I parted ways with in an uncomfortable, painful way about three years ago. I haven’t seen her since. We walked and talked for almost two hours.

We walked side by side, our pace quickening or slowing depending on the topic. It was easy to talk about the hard things because, as we walked, we were both looking forward. Every now and again we’d look at each other, our masked faces depending solely on each other’s eyes for connection. The comfortable rhythm of our walking offered a soothing backdrop for the hard topics we discussed during those hours. 

After a short doctor’s appointment, I walked with another friend. She’s one of my oldest friends but we’ve rarely seen each other since COVID hit. She suggested we walk the four-mile loop she takes with her sixteen-year-old son several days a week. As we walked she told me about the different rituals she and her son do along the route. She shared how they named the houses along the way and each got to choose the pace of part of the walk — her going, him returning. It was almost as if I was with them. It felt like storytime at the library while walking. The comfort and familiarity of our bodies walking allowed for this peaceful, easy experience together.

By the end of the day, my iPhone mileage calculator said I’d walked close to eight miles. I felt happy, connected, and ready for dinner.

Today I was in an all-day Zoom writing class with an hour break at mid-day. I seized the opportunity of a sunny afternoon to walk along the lake during my break. There were lots of people with the same idea and the path was full. At one point I found myself walking behind two teenage girls. As we rounded a bend one of the girls asked the other, “Should we turn around here?” And her friend said, “Sure if you want to. I’m good though. I could walk forever.” I know just how she feels. 

Friday, March 5, 2021

Softening

This morning I had a FaceTime call with my younger brother to help him with his back pain. I am a retired yoga teacher and a former sufferer of back pain. I remember when I was a kid I thought that when I grew up I’d have a “bad back” and, because I was a girl, I’d also have to be on a diet all the time. My understanding of adulthood was not well-formed, but what I knew for sure was that all women had to watch what they ate and that most men (and a lot of women) had bad backs. 

Back pain runs in our family. My grandparents suffered from back pain, my father, my uncle, my stepfather. Back pain was always part of the conversation. “How’s your back?” “Any word on the surgery for your back?” “Here, take this chair. It’ll be better for your back.”

My brother is very athletic. He does the hardest rides on the Peleton. He used to run marathons. He’s a lawyer and he works hard. He told me that all the scans and ultrasounds and x-rays look good. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his back except that it hurts. He says that no matter how much stretching he does, it still hurts. When I worked as a social worker many years ago my back hurt all the time. Then I became a yoga teacher and I suffered much less, but I still had intermittent moments of “bad back.”

When I was a yoga teacher many of my students came to me complaining of back pain. It was several years into teaching that I began to understand that getting in shape wasn’t all about working hard. Our bodies also need to know how and when to soften. They need to learn when to turn off as well as when to turn on. When our muscles are always primed and ready to go, even with stretching after a workout, they will still be working if we don’t give them an invitation to soften. Learning to let go of using our muscles is probably more difficult than learning to activate them.

Slowing down, working less hard, doing something easy, is frowned upon in our country. We’re a no pain, no gain culture, and this has led to an unnecessary amount of pain and suffering. No body can thrive with constant exertion and activation. Many athletes get massages or physical therapy to help release muscular discomfort but the truth is we can serve ourselves by just learning how to release from the inside out.

Several years ago when I had a chronic and very painful shoulder injury that severely limited my range of motion, my acupuncturist helped me to understand the concept of softening. He taught me a series of Qi Gong exercises to help restore the movement in my shoulder. He told me to think about soothing my hurt shoulder as I brought movement to the area. He encouraged me to be very gentle, to move my shoulder, but to do it tenderly, softly. 

Every morning I’d do the exercises and imagine a little voice inside whispering softly into my rotator cuff, “Shhh, it’s okay. You’re okay.” With every rotation of my arm, as sensation visited my shoulder, I visualized a gentle hand rubbing the little hurt innards of my shoulder like a mother rubbing a toddler's back after a tantrum. It took time, but eventually, my shoulder recovered completely.

That lesson informed every injury I have had since, and it helped me formulate the theory that often when we are in pain, we simply need to give our muscles space to soften. By just letting go of the gripping our muscles are overtrained to do, we are holding on to pain that we could be releasing simply by softening the muscles.

I showed my brother a few restorative yoga postures that would help him develop an understanding of how to soften his muscles. A few times during our FaceTime call he repeated the word “softening” as if trying to find a place in his brain for this new word. I explained to him that what he would need to do would be to stop striving, to stop trying to relax or stretch the muscles. What would help, I explained, was to position the body so that it would be supported in a way that the muscles could surrender their grip, truly let go. 

“Softening,” he said, “I have never thought of my muscles in this way.”

Until someone introduced this idea to me I hadn’t thought of it either. Now that I understand the concept, I use it all the time. It took a while to be able to turn off my muscles because I too am athletic and my body has had decades of programming to teach my muscles to turn on. The key is that muscles don’t need to stay on. 

Now, whenever I feel sticky or uncomfortable in my hips or my back or my shoulders, I think about where I can let go of an unnecessary muscular hold, where in my body I can soften. It might take a few days or even a week but the method has never failed me. By softening, my body finds its internal balance again.

Because working hard, sweating the most, going the fastest, breaking our personal records, and winning are the measures of physical success, we don’t value or even recognize the importance of giving our bodies true rest. With a little training, a bit of intention, we can literally invite our muscles to soften and make more space within our own bodies. We can heal ourselves from the inside out. We just have to stop trying so hard.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Being Alone is Almost as Good as Being Together

Whenever I talk to friends on the phone these days, their greatest wish is to have alone time. Those of us who live, work, attend school, eat all our meals, and socialize only with our nuclear families crave alone time. In my family, it is a rare gift to be in an empty house and each of us relishes the quiet moments when they happen.

The other profound desire my friends share with me is to spend time with people they love (not their immediate families) in person. They want to go out to dinner with friends, to sit with them in a cafe warming up after a long walk, and sip cardamom rose lattes together. They want to carpool to the mountains for a hike and talk on the way with the windows closed and masks off.

We want to be alone and we want to be together. We need both things. The other evening I picked up my daughter from her high school soccer practice. She’d missed dinner so when she got home I waited for her to finish showering and planned to sit with her while she ate. I called down to her that dinner was on the table but she didn’t come. Eventually, I went down to her room to see what was up. “I was waiting for you to go to bed,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, genuinely surprised, “I thought you’d be lonely eating all by yourself.” We laughed a bit at our different perspectives. She craved the experience of eating alone and I assumed that she’d want company.

We’re forced to be together, but not necessarily with the people we want to be with. Many of us no longer have jobs where we got to see people every day, where we can have conversations, maybe go out to lunch or drinks after work. Back then our days were harried. By the end of the long day, we were relieved and grateful to go back to the comfort of our familiar home base, to the comfortable nest of our families.

What we lack now is the “moving away from” part of the equation. Because we cannot leave the nest, it is hard to find the satisfaction that comes from coming back to our familiar territory. Our home base is the same day in and day out, an eternal groundhog’s day.

We are out of balance, lacking the symbiotic vitality that comes from sharing space with others at work, school, and while socializing. The experiences that come from being out in the world — the exteriority — make our lives rich and exciting and maybe a little bit uncomfortable, and that’s what makes us want to come home again. Our home is a respite from the exteriority, a place of retreat where we can regenerate and prepare to go out into the world again.

Right now we are missing the chaos that we knew in our lives before, the hustle-bustle that balanced the familiarity of home. To feel balanced we have to create excitement somewhere else. In the absence of an exteriority, we have to create this excitement in our interiority.

Imagine a double beam balance, like the scales of justice. On one side is our interiority and on the other side our exteriority. Our interiority is formed in large part by the experiences we have with our exteriority. We process and digest information from our experiences out in the world then reformulate them into something that makes sense for our lives. An internal conversation takes place. What do I think about that? How do I feel about that? What am I going to do about that?

Right now, for many of us, the side of interiority is weighted much more than the side of exteriority. I can see this especially in my teenager who, at a different time in our history, would be spending 95% of her emotional and physical time and energy in the exteriority.

She is rebalancing. We all are. We have to reconfigure our interiority, find ways to move outside of ourselves even when we cannot physically go outside of ourselves.

I wonder if this is what my daughter was doing when she told me that she wanted to eat alone. She wanted something different. She didn’t want to sit at the table and eat with her family like she always does. She wanted time with herself — maybe to daydream about days past or fantasize about when school opens up sometime in the future.

I have felt my own interiority expanding too. My inner world is all I have some days. Being alone feels different now. I don’t long for social activities like I did at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m far more content sitting with myself, entertaining myself with whatever activity I feel drawn to at the moment whether it is taking a walk, catching up on bills, or writing.

The absence of places where we can be together — work, restaurants, movies, gyms, with our friends, at school — has made being alone a necessity. But it’s also created a different relationship with aloneness — a lovely place, one where we are more comfortable lingering for a while. I understand why my friends want to be alone. In some ways, it’s almost as good as being together.

Monday, March 1, 2021

A Love Letter to My Hot Tub

A few months ago we got a hot tub. It was an impulsive purchase and I had to argue hard to justify it. I’m easily influenced. Sometimes I make the wrong decision like buying the mauve leisure suit that I only wore once or the outdoor fire pit that collects rainwater. But I felt really strongly about the hot tub. I knew it would be great for us. I had sold my business a few months before the pandemic hit and I felt flush. I proposed to purchase the whole thing with some of the profits and I promised my partner that I’d do all of the leg work to get it and maintain it. 

We ordered the tub in June in anticipation of a long COVID winter and it came in November, right before it got really cold. My intention was to create something outdoors that would be fun and festive and allow us to socialize in the cold months. We opted for a round cedar hot tub, not too big. It snuggles right in the corner of our back patio; it seems like it was meant to sit there, filling the empty corner.

The hot tub came in boxes and had to be constructed. I hired a guy to put together the tongue and groove pieces and then I hired an electrician to run power to the motor that would heat the hot tub.

Once that stuff was done, it was all on me. I was the one who really wanted the hot tub so it would be my responsibility to figure out how to program the heat cycles, keep it clean, monitor it for problems, figure out what to do with the motor when the temperature dropped below freezing for extended periods, and check the chemicals every day.

The hot tub is my baby. I take care of her because I love her. I use the hot tub the most. I go in for 5–10 minutes every morning after my cold plunge in the lake. Sometimes my daughter uses it in the middle of her school day. Since there’s no school during COVID, she’s home all the time and can take a break out there. Some evenings my partner Nancy and I go out in the pitch black and unwind from the day. A few mornings a week I bring my cell phone out and FaceTime with my mom before I start my workday.

The hum of the hot tub motor goes off intermittently throughout the day, reminding us that she’s warming up, getting ready to give us a big hot water hug whenever we need it.

I love the hot tub and I appreciate all that she gives us. I want her to be part of our family for a long time so I’m invested in her daily care. Recently I hired my friend Sasha to build an insulated box to protect the motor. Every week I change her filter. I take the old one out, slip in a clean cloned version, and close up the filter hold again. Then I scrub the dirty filter and store it away to be switched out the next week.

By the end of the month, the hot tub water resembles earl gray tea. I’m told that for the first year the oils from the cedar will leach into the hot tub, turning the water a brownish color after a few weeks. So, once a month I drain the entire tub of the copper water and scour the cedar innards. I scrub the benches and the floor. I spray the whole tub with clean water, letting it drain again, and then I use a wet vac to pull any last particles of water and debris from the tub. When the tub is empty and sparkling clean I take a moment to feel proud and excited about the hot tub.

It feels almost as exciting as the first day the hot tub was built and ready to be filled. Each monthly cleaning is a new beginning. To fill the freshly cleaned tub, I pull the hose over and let the cool, clear water fill the beautiful cedar tub. Once full, I tuck her in again, laying down her blue bubble wrap blanket on the surface of the water before covering her with the heavy, insulated lid so that she can start the process of warming up again.

The monthly process of draining, cleaning, and refilling the hot tub takes about two hours. I do the deep clean after a long morning soak in the tub. I’m warm enough from my time soaking that to do the cleaning tasks I just wear my bathing in the chill of the 40-degree weather outside. Somehow I don’t get cold. 

When I’m done with the whole cleaning and refilling process I towel off and go inside to get dressed. I feel complete. The monthly ritual is again behind me and I look forward to the days ahead with the hot tub. I imagine how clean and pure the water will be the next time I go into the tub. I think about all the warm moments I’ve had in the tub and I look forward to all the times in the future when I’ll enjoy the warmth again. Sometimes an impulsive purchase really is the right decision.


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