Happy January Birthdays

January, a month of fewest births and most deaths, is where we stand fighting the latest variant of Covid. How wearying to be still writing about this unwelcome virus. But like glitter left from wrapping paper or cards, it won’t be dusted, swept, vacuumed, washed, or wished away. Lots of people have stories about trying to rid the nasty stuff from clothes or rugs or skin, but no one really knows the secret to beat the stuff. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay inside, but the hated Covid, like unwanted glitter, stays in the air. 

Our family has a tradition of January births, even among in-laws. The older generation of January birthday holders has mostly passed, many on December dates, but there are four of us who are happy to celebrate. Birthday cake is a nice treat after holiday chocolates and cookies. Maybe there’ll be one more chance to get that sweater or book that wasn’t under the Christmas tree. Even better, everything is discounted and can be bought for yourself with little guilt. Even if there can’t be a party, there are safe ways to gather family or friends. If all fails, Zoom offers forty free minutes to talk with your relatives in sunny Florida. 

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst often runs through my mind at this time of year.  Rossetti’s beautiful words describe winter: “Icy wind may moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like stone…” and that often experienced January weather of “Snow on snow on snow.” As soft and gentle as January is icy and lonely, versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor and others fill my blue light time when it is neither day nor night. You have to sing through to the end of the song for its encouragement that “as empty as I am (of gifts for the Baby Jesus), I must give my heart.” 

That is a magic message. If our basic physical needs are met, then we can push through January, holding each other tight inside our hearts until free once more to meet personally during spring’s warmer days. Until then call a friend, send a note, take a walk. We’ve figured this out and know how to make the weeks pass. In honor of the friends and family who are no longer with us to celebrate these January birthdays, I will treasure mine.

Then and Now–A Year in Review

As last winter closed in a year ago, so did my life. Because of COVID, going to the grocery store was my only excursion (whoopee). There was no need to get gas—I wasn’t going anywhere. Sometimes I’d go for a drive just for a change of scenery. Yoga classes, my book groups, and writers’ groups all went to Zoom. 

My husband and I rarely saw our sons in person. At best, we visited for a few minutes as they stood in the doorway. Across the room we shivered in the frosty breeze. All of us masked. Even more chilling than the air was the understanding we couldn’t touch.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, my husband and I planned menus along with our sons and their fiancées. Our three households shared what we’d cooked. The food was good and we were outwardly cheerful, but inwardly, I felt our aloneness deeply. 

2020

For perspective, I watched shows about WWII and reminded myself that my life was way better than enduring the London bombing, the French occupation, or life on a naval destroyer as my father had. I was grateful we had healthcare and didn’t have to worry about being evicted. We were apart, but it wouldn’t last forever.

This year feels so much better. We are vaccinated and boosted. As long as I’m masked and keep some distance, I am free to work in the pottery studio, tutor, and shop in person. I am able to invite a few vaccinated friends over for a drink or dinner. We spread out and run the HEPA filter, but we can talk, laugh and interrupt each other in the natural conversational rhythms instead of the stilted stop-and-start of Zoom visits.

My life remains more restricted than it was pre-COVID. Dining in restaurants, watching movies in the theater, or flying are TBD. I avoid large gatherings and even assess the risks of events like indoor farmers’ markets.

But now we can do the most important things, like gathering for birthday dinners with our sons and their wives. We were able to be together at Thanksgiving. I’m so grateful the six of us can visit in person this Christmas. We’ll hug, laugh, and eat lots of good food. Pure joy.

2021

COVID rewired my thinking. These days, our plans are provisional. Maybe. If. We’ll see. I’m careful to temper my hopes and rein in my worries. Letting either get away from me doesn’t serve me. 

I have a different, more realistic view about my ability to control anything. Life never was in my control—I just thought it was.

COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. I’m learning to live with it. Going forward, there will be times when the Delta/Omicron/Whatever variant is raging, and I’ll have to limit my activities, and there will be times when I’m less restricted. For now, I’m taking sensible precautions, assessing each situation case by case. I don’t expect “we’ll get back to normal.” This is the new normal. It isn’t all I wish for, but being able to see family and friends in person means a lot.

Ready, Set … Bounce

I used to be resilient.  

At least that’s what a “How Resilient Are You?” quiz I took a decade ago indicated.

I came across the quiz the other day while purging a hanging file chockful of articles from Experience Life magazine. Featured in a September 2011 article titled “The 5 Best Ways to Build Resiliency,” my quiz results indicated that I was “highly resilient” and that I “bounce back well from life’s setbacks and can thrive even under pressure.”

No more.

My once optimistic self no longer looks on the bright side. Nor do I see difficulties as temporary. Instead, in large part due to COVID, I find myself in a perpetual state of ambiguity and uncertainty, a state sometimes even accompanied by a sense of dread.

Will I be able to join my sisters in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Will I be able to travel outside the United States while I’m still healthy enough to do so? When am I going to retire and where am I going to live?

Who the heck knows. I sure don’t. And I’m tired of trying to figure it all out.

I’m also angry more often than I used to be, sometimes for no apparent reason.

And once highly social, I’ve become a bit of a hermit. Many of my family members, friends and colleagues have as well.

Fed up with feeling alone and adrift, I’ve been working on being more positive and getting back in touch with that resilient me of a decade ago. She can’t be that far away. In fact, I know she’s not as there are days, even weeks, when she’s ever-present rather than elusive.

Books such as Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson have helped. So have books on resilience, four of which I discovered had been sitting unread on my shelf for years.

So now, when something goes wrong—like when I rolled my car into a parked car at my friend Pam’s husband’s funeral causing more than $3,000 worth of damage (even though I and the owner of the other vehicle could barely see the scratch)—I try to find the silver lining. In this case, it was being treated kindly by the owner of the car I’d damaged and by the friend who stayed by my side until I found him and told him what I’d done.

I’m also paying attention to my positivity ratio. According to Fredrickson’s research, we need three positive experiences to balance out each negative one. Normally those positive experiences would be part of my everyday life—a compliment on a new sweater, a hug when meeting a friend for coffee, a thank you for volunteering.

But being as I’m still not venturing out any more than necessary, those experiences are harder to come by. So instead, I make a point of calling at least one person a day and of sending at least seven cards a week. While the conversations sometimes last only a few minutes, they definitely brighten my day. So do the cards I send. I take pleasure in finding just the right one and in writing a heartfelt message or including a silly joke.    

I’m also striving to view my challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. That’s not always easy, in large part because I’m more of a “judger” who asks questions such as “Who’s to blame?” or “What’s wrong?” rather than a “learner” who seeks to grow by asking neutral, non-judgmental questions such as “What can this experience teach me?” or “Given my choices, what do I most want to do?”

But my favorite question, the one I’ve found to be most helpful is one I learned from Arianna Huffington who chose “resilience” as her word of the year. The question?

“How can I not just bounce back, but bounce forward?”

While I’m stilling working on my answer, I am growing more resilient—and bouncing a bit higher—every day. For that, I am grateful.

Roadblock

A screeching, beeping monster clawed a mountain of dirt from my front yard, pirouetting in a repetitive mechanical dance.

In a surprising moment of consideration, the monster’s keepers preserved my ratty, overgrown boulevard garden, which fringed the gaping hole where sidewalk used to be. As if that garden is worth the care they gave it! They didn’t know I’d gladly be rid of the hosta and daylilies.

Workers in neon green coveralls appeared waist deep in the front yard. Urban prairie dogs. Do they like standing in holes, dirty and damp? Being where the rest of us don’t go? Searching for a pipe—hidden—but not exactly a treasure. 

Weeks later, cars still charge up to the roadblock in disbelief, apparently thinking, You can’t stop me, I’ll get through. Some seem to contemplate launching à la Thelma and Louise over the one-foot precipice into the scraped dirt and escaping, only to accept reality, veer into a nearby parking lot, and cut through the alley. Back on their way.

That’s how this summer, or really this whole year, has felt because of COVID. We’ve hurried toward the life we wanted, only to see—again—not here, not now. Go around, adapt, try again.

At night it’s peaceful. No clattering buses driving by. No thumping bass from passing cars or snatches of song from cyclists.

Silent orange hazard lights blink like fireflies.

Summer of Just Enough

In a recent yoga class, the teacher suggested a meditation on the idea of enough. Not scrimping but having what you need. The opposite of greedy excess. Just enough. I’ve been thinking about that often in this odd summer of highs and lows.

In June, much of what I’d longed for during the long, oppressive COVID winter seemed within reach. 

Summer’s simple pleasures beckoned. Sunup at 5:30, sunset after 9:00. Walking early. Flowers everywhere. I’d plant my vegetable garden, visit the farmers market, and go to the beach.

Even better, I could be with family and friends easily, outdoors. Take a modest driving vacation.

I could contemplate more ambitious plans like visiting my siblings and extended family in Ohio and Wisconsin after two years apart because of COVID.

We had the joy of our younger son’s June wedding and the afterglow of our older son’s May wedding.

So many good things!

As June turned to July, those big helpings of happiness were tempered by sobering swallows of reality. High temperatures and humidity smothered the Twin Cities for weeks on end. Walking and gardening became chores I scheduled for early morning or close to sunset when the air was cooler and the breeze picked up a little. 

Cosmos and zinnias are hanging in there despite drought.

The beach, farmers market, and outdoor gatherings with family, book group, and my writers’ groups remained carefree and fun despite the weather.

July’s high heat and drought shrank Minnehaha Creek and crisped lawns. Hazy smoky air from western and northern wildfires shrouded the Twin Cities. What have we done to the climate? Why aren’t we doing something about it??

Less visible but equally scary was the delta variant’s arrival. “Maybe we’ll need to wear masks again,” became “Damn. We have to mask up.” With that realization came the sludge of past fears and present worries about risk. Ugh. 

While driving to see family in Wisconsin and Ohio, I’ve been masked and careful. Hugging them and talking naturally—in person, like pre-COVID—has felt so good. I’m so grateful we’re all still here.

Wisconsin prairie

As August swings into September, the weather has moderated a bit, but distant wildfires are still burning and the delta variant is more widespread. My worries about climate and health persist and I consider: have the summer’s highs outweighed the lows? Have they been enough? For me, yes. It’s hard to argue with the joy of happily married sons, the addition of wonderful daughters-in-law, or the pleasure of sharing a good meal with the family I’ve missed. All’s not right with the world, but my portion of well-being is enough.

Ohio porch