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.

 

 

Let the Hope Shine

About a year ago, on the way to visit my 90-year old uncle in the hospital, I stopped at a coffee shop. While waiting for my mocha, I glanced at the shop’s bulletin board and saw a flyer from The Spread Sunshine Gang with the invitation to take what I needed: COURAGE, KINDNESS, HOPE, GRATITUDE, HUMOR, JOY or PEACE.

I chose HOPE.

When I got to the hospital, I passed it on to my aunt even though I knew she didn’t really need it because she—a lifelong Catholic—has her faith.

But me? I’m always seeking reasons to hope.

So, when I got home I signed up for the Spread Sunshine Gang’s newsletter. It now arrives in my inbox every few weeks, a welcome reminder that our Land of 10,000 Lakes is filled with people eager to share their goodness in creative ways and inspire others to do the same.  

In addition to their coffee shop flyers, the group’s recent acts of kindness include hosting a holiday party for seniors, participating in a Polar Plunge to raise money for Special Olympics and decorating Loring Park with warm, colorful (and free-for-the-taking!) hats, scarves and mittens.

Their “sunshine” has inspired me to spread my own. Here are three lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Lesson No. 1: Small gestures can have a big impact. Take a smile, for instance. It costs me nothing to give yet can brighten a complete stranger’s day.

Lesson No. 2: Kindness comes in all shapes and sizes. One day it may arrive as a bouquet of bright orange tulips. On another as a warm hug from a friend, an out-of-the-blue postcard from a relative or an unexpected compliment from a colleague.

Lesson No. 3: Communicating love doesn’t require words. This afternoon, I’ll be visiting my uncle and aunt once again. He has recovered enough to be living back at home but spends most afternoons sitting beside my aunt at the assisted-living facility where she now lives after having suffered a stroke.

She won’t be able to say more than a few words, but the way her eyes light up when she sees me fills the room with sunshine and my heart with hope.

A Closer Look

I’ve recently discovered the joy of flower arrangements small enough to fit in the clutter of my desk. A gift of an ikebana vase encouraged me to assemble pink and yellow snapdragons past their prime for the drama of a large vase, but fine in this setting. Since the petite vase is inches away, I see more details. To the right of the fading yellow flower are hopeful buds trying—as nature always does—to assert itself and establish another generation.

The blue ageratum, so short that it’s usually overlooked for most bouquets, holds its own here. Its exuberant fuzzy mop has lasted for days, and more buds are opening.

 I’ve never noticed the sweet florets of the white loosestrife behind the green spear of its leaf. More often I’ve meditated on its name—loosestrife. Loose strife? I inherited this unruly perennial with the house, and it certainly has loosed strife in my garden, mobbing and obscuring several large peonies. Yearly, I root it out, but it comes back. Up close, it’s so dainty, it almost seems innocent in its mute insistence.

And hosta, a determined survivor. Neither polar vortexes nor voracious bunnies can kill it, though sometimes I wish one of them would. In the yard, it seems so ordinary, but close-up, I’m struck by how graceful its cream and green leaves are and the way they mimic the loosestrife’s curve.

This miniature holds the persistence of strife loosed in the world but it’s outweighed by enduring delicacy, grace, and beauty. In that I find hope.

Sharing the Load

Canadian wildfires more than a thousand miles away filled Wisconsin’s northern skies with haze. Following another warm summer day slightly diminished by the loss of blue heavens and the company of pesky mosquitos, helping a neighbor harvest their lavender field made a small part of the world all okay. At eight in the evening, thanks to Canadian smoke particulates, the July sun appeared a gentle gold surrounded by a flaming ring. With humidity and heat lifting, the air felt just right to stay outside

She knelt next to the plants, cutting the flowered sprigs with a curved knife. I gathered handfuls, wound the end with a rubber band, then handed each to her husband to trim and load for moving. Their collies laid between the rows, noses resting on paws. A hawk screeched above as it circled the field. We talked about nothing much scattered with deeply important stuff.

We have other jobs that claimed the day, but like all plants lavender has a time to be harvested. They had already completed hours in the field and hung hundreds of bouquets in the barn to partially dry. In a few days the lavender would fill a roadside cart for customers. Sharing the work, an hour went by quickly. Mosquitos called an end to our time.

Some kind of magic happens when friends share the work of their days. Weeding each other’s gardens, making a meal, washing dishes together, sanding another’s wood project, painting a room, harvesting lavender. Formality slips away. The need to create conversation slips into comfortable talk. We move in each other’s space naturally, slipping into the dance steps of our real lives without practice. That’s where memories are made.

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Resolved: Nothing

Resolutions past and present

This year I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. That’s odd, because they have always appealed to me. I cherish the idea of fresh starts, and I have an abiding belief in a person’s ability to change. And it’s not as if I’ve magically become a better person who doesn’t need to improve!

But I’m moving away from this familiar yearly cycle—Wanting to change –>making resolutions –> attacking my goals for a while –> losing energy and focus –> feeling bad –> re-resolving to incorporate the changes.

For example, year after year I have vowed to exercise regularly and to devote more time to writing. I’d start off full of zeal—this is the year! But establishing habits is a daily battle. Oops, I ran out of time. Something came up. Better luck tomorrow. Eventually, my enthusiasm would flag. Hmm. Maybe the fact that I had to renew those intentions yearly was a hint that my approach wasn’t working!

Early last year, I stumbled across a better way to incorporate new habits into my life. The insight came about as a side effect of writing out my weekly calendar. Instead of taking a work-before-pleasure approach, I began identifying blocks of time when I could do the things that matter most to me: writing, volunteering, exercising, connecting with friends and family, and pursuing other creative outlets (e.g., pottery, sewing, trying a new recipe). After I’ve made time for my priorities, I fit in necessary evils like cleaning, laundry, appointments, and shopping.

Writing a detailed calendar may sound fussy and restrictive, but for me, it’s energizing. It’s about scheduling fun. Fulfillment. I’m making time for what I like to do and what I think is important. And that’s a good thing. I rarely do everything I set out to do, but I get around to most of it. Consequently, I have fewer regrets about how I spend my time and less need for the same old resolutions spurred by what I wish I’d done.

I still plan to lose two pounds of cookies and do strength training more consistently. And I will. I still want to be kinder, more patient, less critical, and more grateful. I’ll work on that, too. But this year, I’m saying goodbye to the yearly cycle of regrets and resolutions.