A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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Staying Connected While Keeping the Distance

Between the pandemic and the resulting stock market tumble, my mind is often a crazymaking mess, fueled in part by our president’s lack of concern, care and compassion.

To keep myself from getting derailed by the body’s fight, flight or freeze response, I’m practicing mindfulness, which my friend Jacquelyn Fletcher Johnson, founder of Heartwood Healing, describes as paying attention to the present moment without rehashing the past or panicking about the future.

While I’m certainly not convinced that things are going to be “just fine,” being mindful has helped me think more clearly and calmly.

Two other things have helped: a mantra I’ve borrowed from my sister Karen (“Whatever happens, I’m going to be okay, today and in the future”) and a practice I learned from my friend Diane (Focus on what you want, control what you can).

To help keep my focus positive I’m staying connected with others while spending my days at home. I’m sending at least one card a day and even some handwritten letters. I’ve found a bliss buddy; she and I occasionally text one another what we are grateful for. I’m having weekly conversations with aunts, uncles and cousins, some of whom I haven’t talked with in years. And on Saturday, I’ll be meeting with my book group via Zoom rather than in person.

I’m also taking inspiration from what others are doing.

Deb Shanilec, my minimalist friend who helps people discover that less truly can be more, plans to celebrate her upcoming birthday via a virtual party around her backyard firepit. Teresa Thomas, founder of 50 Fun Things, is hosting an open-to-anyone online “Happier Hour” each Friday afternoon with the goal of raising a toast to joy.

And while joy isn’t my constant companion, it does remain my friend, in part because I’m practicing what Jacque refers to as the “art of the return.” By repeatedly and gently bringing my attention back to the tasks at hand, to my values and to the people and causes I care about, I gradually return to my future hopes and dreams.

How are you keeping calm? What are you doing to carry on? Who is sustaining you? What hopes and dreams are you envisioning for your own post-pandemic life? We’d love to hear. Please share.

 

Mental Whiplash

On February 19th, the snow was deep in our yard, and our alley was so rutted with thick ice that my car was forced to follow the deep track. Before my husband and I left for our three-week snowbird experiment in the Southwest, life seemed relatively predictable.

We are keenly interested in politics, so the Democratic primary in South Carolina on February 25 and Super Tuesday on March 3 (which included Minnesota) were on our minds. We voted before we left town.

We speculated about the outcomes as we hiked in the California desert among shaggy palms, Joshua trees, and giant boulders that are tumbled like toys in the foothills.

Less than 48 hours before Super Tuesday, the trailing presidential candidates ended their runs abruptly. Although the departures were inevitable, the timing was startling. The consolidation of candidates meant that my early vote was irrelevant. Like many, we were astonished by Joe Biden’s surge. When Elizabeth Warren exited a few days later, I was sad that there were no women candidates. The political landscape had changed dramatically, and the rapid change was jangling. However, COVID-19 felt remote.

In Tucson, our next destination, the desert was blooming. Clumps of yellow desert marigold dotted the hills that bristled with saguaro cactus. The sunny warmth of Sabino Canyon’s trails soothed me.

During the first week of March, concerns about COVID-19 came to the forefront for us. This was new terrain. Until then, sensible precautions seemed enough; our life hadn’t been disrupted. With each subsequent day, our understanding of the COVID-19 crisis increased as updates poured in faster than we could absorb them.

The Grand Princess cruise ship, which carried passengers ill with COVID-19, docked in Oakland. We worried about our son and his significant other, a physician in Oakland, who would be on the front lines.

The sky was overcast but the temps were still warm as we walked trails alongside the broad dry Rillito riverbed. I noticed spikes of pink penstemon, but our conversations centered around the looming pandemic and the conflicting national response. We worried about restrictions on flights from Europe where our niece was studying abroad and the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

By the time we flew home, the landscape was changing hourly with updates about cases and the CDC and NIH’s latest guidance. On our first day back, the president declared the overdue National Emergency. Comprehending the impact of the cascade of closings and event cancellations was hard. Is hard.

The pandemic is uncharted territory. Only a week ago, I wondered if I’d be able to fly to Chicago later this month for a wedding shower. Several days ago, meetings with my writer’s group and book group seemed possible. We’ve ruled out travel, in-person visits, and ordinary errands to help “flatten the curve.” The daily, even hourly, changes are like mental whiplash. No school. OK. Restaurants and stores with limited service. OK. Stay home. Got it.

March 18thIn the space of a month, so much has changed. The world looks very different. Socializing in person has been postponed. I no longer assume my travel plans for May and July will happen. We’ll see. We’re figuring it out, day by day, case by case, just like everyone else.

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At the moment, we’re healthy. The snow in our yard is nearly gone, and the alley is ice-free and dry. As I circle the yard, I note the early tulips and weeds pushing up in my gardens as they always have. Though much is unknown and I’m seeing the world with a new perspective, spring is coming, and for that, I’m grateful.

 

 

Letting Go of What No Longer Serves Me

In the fall, I often attempt to bring a flowering garden plant indoors. I can’t quite let go of the joy of abundant, bright blooms. This rarely works. Nonetheless, I brought in a small fuchsia this year. I will fuss over it—move it to a sunny spot, water and fertilize it, but in a few weeks, it will be half-dead and I’ll throw it out. Letting go of summer is hard, but this gradual goodbye makes it easier.

In similar fashion, I age my correspondence. Mail piles up unread for a few days. Or a week. Or two. Then I realize I’m really not going to donate to all of those people. My email inbox is full of emails with links to newsletters or articles that sound interesting, like something I want to read. Except . . .  not right now. After a week, I feel guilty (or is it, more realistic?) Then weeding out my mail and email is easy.

There are also the shoes I’ve stored because I might wear those flats again. Or the yoga pants that never fit but I thought I might fix.

A meditation I recently read described fall as a time of weeding out and letting go. Trees drop their leaves, fields are bare, and people turn inward as it gets colder. But to me, fall is a time of abundance, harvest, and storing up. The conflicting ideas puzzled me until I thought about how discarding is easier when I allow a little time to pass.

Then I can let go of what no longer serves me, just as the meditation suggests. That’s how I’ve reconciled the paradox of abundance and paring back.

Changing of Leaves

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds walking on stinking hot asphalt is normal during first days of the Minnesota State Fair. Exhibit buildings and animal barns offer relief from a strong sun and the chance to gaze at huge dairy cows, fluffy bunnies, amazing artwork, quirky craft offerings. Plus opportunities to snack on fair food.

This year the first days felt wonderfully wrong. There were people in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, but many wore long sleeve t-shirts and jeans. With temps capped in the low seventies the great Minnesota get together drew record crowds. Weather folks hinted at a touch of fall in the air. Looking up some trees waving yellow leaves on their highest branches shared the same message.

Kids wearing big new shoes in advance of their first day of school. The state fair. Flowering plants browning as their glory days pass. Looking for predictors of what comes next, a common human habit, becomes easier. Then the Farmers’ Almanacshares its winter predictions and looking forward isn’t as much fun.

Except for the dwindling supplies of fresh vegetables and cut flowers, fall is my favorite season. Middle August’s splotches of yellow in treetops is just the start of the changing of the leaves. We have weeks and weeks of color to oooh and ahh, to bring inside, to place in books, to shuffle through during walks. Even in the city trees have their days of beauty. Trees show their true colors to everyone. Everyone.

Future generations may have less to enjoy. Years ago researching Midwest climate for my Ashwood books which end near 2050, the future of many familiar trees saddened me. Warmer temps will upset the wintering of fruit trees, some of our urban canopy trees will not tolerate the changes, pine tree forests will die.

Hug a tree. Make a promise to do what you can to keep the world green. Fill your memory with gold, red, and orange leaves waving on trees near your home. Oooh. Ahhh.IMG_5010