If I Could…

I read this book back in 1998 when it was first published. An obsessive Civil War addict, I’d read countless books about the conflict, from the most serious scholars to the writers of period fiction. I’ve traveled to innumerable battlefields, trying to make sense of how four bloody, grueling years consumed this country, something I’ve never been able to fully absorb. Ultimately I concluded that despite all the theories about states’ rights and economics, slavery was always the issue. Slavery and white power. Recently, my book club, which has been on hiatus since the beginning of the pandemic, met for the first time. We all discussed the books we’d read in the past thirteen months. Group consensus for this month’s choice settled on this book which was fine with me – I felt it would be worth revisiting one more time. When I read this book over twenty years ago, my heart must have been much lighter than it is now. The book is insightful and humorous and hard to believe. As someone whose life has encompassed all the fraught civil rights history in this country from the ‘60’s to now, l realize that ever-widening political divisions have hardened me. After the last administration peeled back the veneer of civilization which is so, so slim, unleashing a torrent of blatant racism, violence and murder, I am finding this book darker and more threatening than I did back then. I haven’t been naive. I’ve been oppressively aware of the power of irrational hatred some people bear toward anyone “other,” especially when it comes to skin color. During these last four years, which have enabled what’s always been here to get louder, uglier, more divisive and more randomly violent, I’ve become more grim, more strident and angrier in opposition to this poisonous reality.

I have been watching the case against the police officer who killed George Floyd. I could never have served on this jury because I can’t understand how there can be any doubt that this was murder. I understand how this justice system works. I’ve been on multiple juries. I’m also the parent of a federal public defender. I know that all it takes is one person to have a doubt, hang a jury and force a mistrial. The idea that such a possibility exists horrifies me. So many black men have been murdered by police officers. The blatant inequity between the way black and white men are treated by law enforcement is now recorded, seemingly every day. I feel the rage and anxiety of those people who are done with having a target on their backs because of their skin color. I wish I could stop watching but I can’t. Looking away from history and its ugly truths is not for me. So I’m afraid. If this jury excuses this crime, I fear for whatever is coming next.

Gettysburg, 1995

If I could, I’d leave this moment behind and be elsewhere. Maybe I’d be savoring the best meal I ever ate in my life. When we visited Michael’s parents in Longboat Key, Florida, they took us out to dinner at a French bistro called L’Auberge de Bon Vivant. Two French couples ran it – the women were the maitre d’s while the men were the chefs. Trying to decide between the beef filet and the salmon was always hard, but in the end, I usually wound up with the filet. Not a huge meat eater, this piece of beef was more like a savory dessert. Wrapped in a delicate pastry, a winey mushroom sauce called forestiere covered the meat which literally melted like butter in your mouth. Served over a bed of tangy wilted spinach and a side of garlic mashed potatoes, it’s a dish I’ve never forgotten. For years, Michael tried to recreate that sauce. Yes. If I could, I’d be there.

If I could, I’d be hanging out with Flash, my dog who felt like a person. When he wasn’t doing his dog job, barking loudly at invisible flocks of sheep or trying to be included in the human conversation, he’d be right next to me, staring soulfully into my eyes. I always felt like he was trying to figure out exactly what I needed and was always ready to provide it. He was smart and he was beautiful. For almost eleven years, every time I looked at him, I was stunned by how gorgeous he was and in love with his perpetual sweetness. I somewhat abashedly called him “sweetie-baby-puppy-boy,” even when he weighed in at 75 pounds. If I could, I’d be right next to him.

If I could, I’d find a way to have my friend Fern be alive. We would have our heads together, talking in our secret code that we’d developed over thirty years. We’d be sharing our “in” jokes and skewering everyone and everything that we felt should be taken down a peg. Or two or three. We’d be harmonizing to Beatles tunes while we walked to the beach or even better, tooled down Lake Shore Drive in her brother’s convertible, sharing a bag of White Castle sliders and fries. If I could.

If I could, I’d be in the family car in Sioux City, Iowa, bumping along the country roads, all six of us plus King, the dog, entertaining ourselves just by going for a ride which was the cheapest fun for everyone. We sang all the time, with the windows down, looking at corn or birds overhead, waving at others we drove by while they waved back at us. When we stopped for gas, a real attendant would come to the car and dad would say, “fill ‘er up with ethyl.” The best rides would end with a stop at the Dairy Queen. Everyone would lick their cones as fast as we could before the ice cream melted all over us. King got his own Dilly Bar. If I could, I’d relive one of those afternoons in real time.

If I could, I’d be right next to Michael at the Fox Theater in St. Louis in October, 1972. A beautiful converted old movie theater, that might have been my favorite venue for seeing the Grateful Dead out of all the times I was lucky enough to see them live. An intimate, connected audience, fabulous music and the two of us flushed with the passion of our young relationship, started as friends in the summer of 1971, living together beginning in April of 1972. One of those shared experiences which can still evoke the swaying of a a whole crowd in a common bliss and rhythm. If I could. Oh I would.

Gulf of Mexico

If I could, I’d be standing by the Gulf, the place where I could be mesmerized by the waves and the colors and the creatures of the water and the sky. Michael would be next to me and we’d be silent, often just staring ahead, keeping our thoughts to ourselves while we were simultaneously exchanging quiet information. Sometimes we’d read or frolic in the water, me closer to the shore, with an eye out for him, as he always went too far and I worried about whether I could rescue him. As if the lifeguard and fine swimmer would need me for that. Still…if I could.

If I could. But I can’t, except for a brief revery to distract myself from what may or may not happen at any moment during the next days or weeks or who knows? The world has felt heavy for a long time. Thinking that the decision of twelve people can move such weighty issues seems almost impossible. But I’ve found myself thinking of the line, “one person can make a difference.” That former president certainly did, some of the worst and most consequential differences in my lifetime. Derek Chauvin made a hideous difference. George Floyd accidentally made a huge difference. If I could, I’d make one, a difference for the better, I would hope. I think I’ve made a few small ones. What’s next remains to be seen. If I could, I’d make sure justice was served. The anxious waiting continues while I wander through the comfort of memories.

Normal?

Lately it seems that every other article or news blurb has something to do with when life will get back to normal. Will it be by mid-summer? Perhaps by the fall? When will life return to what it was pre-pandemic? I am perplexed. Just exactly what was going on before the pandemic that felt like “normal” to people? Is normal a condition that means exactly the same to everyone? Is normal universal? Can it simply be that all “abnormal” is merely about masks and social distancing? Or about whether or not one is able to be in crowds, in restaurants and bars? Or traveling wherever you choose, whenever you choose? Absent these cautionary recommendations by the CDC, can we assume that life was once normal before the advent of the coronavirus? I guess that depends on personal perspective. I chose the furled tulip as my introductory photo to this reflection. On a cold, windy spring day, a tulip organically and quite reflexively furls itself, to shield its most sensitive parts from the elements. They have a better chance of surviving in that defensive posture. Metaphorically, during this pandemic, I too feel furled, although still capable of awareness of the outside world while still in my protected position. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what normal life was, or is supposed to be, and who gets to make that decision for millions of people.

Tents of homeless people line a street in Washington, D.C., in April.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Homelessness has been a major problem for thousands of people, both at home and abroad for years. The pandemic has added a layer of further insecurity to those individuals scrambling to survive and has assuredly increased their numbers. So what’s normal for them? Are they running to Florida beaches, having mask-burning events in their state capitals and talking about how their rights have been abrogated by the government? What does their return to normal entail? More homelessness, hunger and lack of services?

The Guardian

The antivaxxer movement existed long before COVID. Refusing to be vaccinated for this virus is as normal as their refusal to allow any vaccine to be accepted by themselves or their children. I don’t know that they think measles, whooping cough or other diseases are hoaxes, as many believe the coronavirus to be. However, their unwillingness to take their shots clearly is an impediment to achieving herd immunity which is the only way to stop the spread of the virus. As of today, I read that 38 states are reporting rises in new COVID cases. What kind of normal can be achieved with that level of opposition to the only way out of the ever-increasing variants? So what’s their version of normal? Aren’t they still in the same one they’ve always had?

Getty/The Boston Globe/David L. Ryan

As with so much in our society, the perception of normal is defined from the vantage point of economics. For the marginalized poor, going to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, concerts, and on vacations, isn’t the critical issue. For low-income workers, normal is scraping by. Their new normal is unemployment. Will the economic stimulus package be enough to get them employed and above the poverty line? That would be a new normal for them, quite unlike the normal which some financially secure people hunger for, like the return to pleasure travel abroad. The huge gap that separates the wealthiest from the most deprived is only part of the problem. Frustrated, financially comfortable people are pining for their privileges that were part of pre-pandemic life. That’s one version of normal. For others, being hungrier than they were before this silent destroyer showed up is about another normal altogether.

As I ponder from my coiled state, locked inside with my own particular survival skills, I worry about “normal” from emotional and psychological standpoints in addition to economic ones. The isolation and loneliness of this past year will have long-range effects on different people. Some will have a greater ability to withstand deprivation than others. I can’t imagine that most won’t have at least some repercussions from this experience, which I think will go on for a longer time than many would like to believe. How they choose to deal with those repercussions will be driven by individual traits too numerous to specify. And that’s the problem with these endless conversations about returning to “normal.” Nobody knows anything about what that will actually look like – it’s all educated guesses and conjecture.

As for myself, I was still trying to figure out what normal was well before COVID. I was trying to build a life on my own after having been a partner for 45 years. I think it’s a safe bet that if people who know me well were surveyed, they’d all say I never had a normal moment in my life. I can pass for someone who fits into some societally acceptable parameters but I’ve always felt like I wasn’t quite in step with the universe, except for Michael. While I was carving out some reasonable existence after his death, the virus came along and wiped out my little routines that kept me within a passably full life, emptied of what was the center of my world. Those previous years of trying to figure out how to adapt have been somewhat helpful. I’ve survived this unexpected blow pretty well. Recently, after vaccinations, I’ve cautiously crept back into the outside world of other humans although I expect to wear a mask for a long time except in the safest of environments.

Mostly though, my normal is pretty weird. I sleep more like a kid than an adult. I piece together an evening nap with a wee hours of the morning longer stretch. That may be the coincidence of old people sleep habits bumping into my essentially unscheduled life. Having only myself to think about is so odd that I’ve just let certain habits slide away. Like a reasonable bedtime. So far I’m surviving. I eat at no particular time either. It’s pretty liberating although it will be less so if I ever have a more complicated social life. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of my “normal” life is that although I’m certainly present in the current world, like those coiled tulips, I’m curled away from the exterior threats and partially dwelling deep in my interior. Maybe my profound love for the magic realism literature genre has finally become part of the real me. I continue to watch mental reels of my memories which remain detailed and vivid. I’m unearthing new ones frequently which I note in my journals and my continuing correspondence with my dead husband. I wish I could adequately describe the ethereal presence of his essence which feels somewhat like the gossamer webs of tiny spiders. But not in a creepy way. He’s just always here. When I work outside, I love using his favorite tools. I also am delighted by the skills he taught me which give me a sense of competence and wellbeing as I fix and repair my way through the tasks of daily living. As his life was nearing its end, he’d ask me what I was going to do without him. I would reply that I had absolutely no idea. I wouldn’t have dreamed that someone as practical and grounded as I am would wind up having both an internal and external extended relationship with someone I can see only in photos or those movies in my head. All my senses work in those which is especially delightful, even if I’m dreaming an argument. All oddly substantive for a mental creation.

So that’s my current normal which I know with certainty is uniquely my own, as I believe most normals are. The other good news is that mine is flexible, malleable, a living thing as mutable as COVID. Adaptability is a survival skill. The people who have a nimble way of going with the current flow are the lucky ones. The others who are more rigid and locked into their patterns are the ones who have big problems when fielding the tough curveballs that life tosses. So much for a general term that describes who everyone is and what they expect and need. Roll your own if you can. Trying to fit the mold is a thankless task. There is no normal.

The Arboretum – A Case of Extravagant Beauty

I live in the same university community where I arrived as a seventeen year old freshman in the fall of 1968. I never dreamed I’d still be here fifty-three years later. I’d always thought I’d return to Chicago, live near my family, make my own, find a job and settle into urban life, snuggled against the shore of Lake Michigan, my ancestral waters. Life is unpredictable. In 1971 I met my future husband, a transplanted suburbanite from Chicago’s north side. We moved in together in April, 1972, both of us trying to finish up school which we’d left by the wayside as politics, protest and an alternative community became the center of our lives. I still wanted to leave here and move home. We got married in Chicago in 1976 but didn’t stay there, returning to this town. Somehow or other, we both settled into each other and into jobs. By that time, my younger sister had moved here,too. In 1978, we bought a house. We had our first kid in 1981. My parents moved here in 1986. I always missed Lake Michigan and still do. We solved that problem by vacationing there for at least a weekend every year. I am in my hometown now and will end my life here, as Michael already has. And I’m good with that.

Living in a university community has lots of advantages, especially when it’s located fairly close to three major metropolitan areas. What isn’t here isn’t too far away. By drawing students from those big cities, in addition to having a large foreign student population among the 50,000 attendees, lots of sophisticated amenities have sprung up here over the years. A world class performing arts center, a Silicon Valley type research consortium with cutting edge science coupled with the university research community, and a progressive atmosphere make this place a pretty great spot to call home. During the past unprecedented year, Covid testing and vaccines rolled out so smoothly, I felt guilty every time I read, saw or heard about the chaos in so many places throughout this country. At one point, testing here accounted for 10% of all given nationwide. Nothing is perfect but this a place where people can feel fortunate to have landed. And then there’s the subject of this missive. I live in a place that values green space and where many people believe in climate change. I’m so glad. We have great parks. But we also have the arboretum and Japan House which sprawl across about 57 acres right on the edge of campus. A place for research, teaching, public programs and opportunities for sharing Japanese traditions, it is also is the home to the spring cherry blossom extravaganza that can be seen locally rather than abroad or in Washington, DC. Yesterday on a mild windy day, I walked through it, soaking in all the natural beauty and the creations which enhance its peaceful ambience. I’d like to share that walk with you, just as I took it, through my photos. The repetition is part of the walk – sometimes you think one picture is enough. But it really isn’t. Enjoy.

The Doctor’s Appointment: Time Hurtling Ahead

Today I went to see my primary care doctor. I’ve only seen her once before, last October. That was a fast pandemic visit in which we had no physical contact. She asked me a bunch of questions, renewed a few prescriptions and sent me on my way fast. She was just transitioning from the pandemic’s virtual visits back to in-person ones. That was fine for me. I am always eager to get out of medical appointments. The doctor I’d been seeing for years had swapped out her clinical practice in favor of teaching residents at the hospital connected with our clinic, right before the lockdown. As a mom of two toddlers, I think she opted for a more favorable work schedule. Good for her, bad for me. I’ve always hated going to doctors, at least for myself. I’m all in as a patient advocate for someone else. But since I was a little kid, I’ve been averse to all things medical. I can’t determine the cause of this negative attitude but historically, anyone still alive in my family will vouch for my notoriously bad patient behavior. I was only five when I conned my mother into leaving the room so I could swallow my baby aspirin in private when I was actually dumping them into the heating vent behind the couch. I resisted every injection and had to be held down to get a shot in me. I can still see my dad chasing me around with a teaspoon full of yucky cough syrup, trying not to spill it, only to finally catch me, get it in my mouth and watch me spit it out immediately all over white bedsheets. He swore a lot at me on those days. I’d climb up shelves in our apartment’s pantry, anything to get away. Over time, I’ve improved somewhat but I have to be in dire condition before I offer myself up voluntarily for a doctor visit. Years ago, I managed to pass a kidney stone and survive a gallbladder attack, both remarkably painful experiences, without going in for a visit until they’d both subsided. I hate it all, getting weighed, having blood drawn from my inherited minuscule veins and having my blood pressure taken. I view being sick as a betrayal of my body which I know is irrational. Everything about being physically impaired makes me mad. I was always grouchy and sullen at home when I was sick and am a challenging patient with doctors, asserting my own opinions and assuming an equal footing which works for some of them and doesn’t for others. I think that my knee jerk responses are clearly tied to all the years of my mom’s multiple and constant illnesses. But as I’ve moved through my adult life I think there’s a different issue at work that’s more to do with the inexorable march toward becoming diminished and losing control over this vulnerable corporeal sack that houses my brain. During this most recent appointment which was a full on physical exam, I was keenly aware that I’ve passed into that age group which is on the clock, whether I want to be or not. There were definite old people elements in my exam, questions about hearing, all the elimination functions, little tests for neuropathy in my feet along with reflex responses. I saw these practiced with my mom on countless occasions. Now they’re about me as I begin my eighth decade on this earth.

The living room of my first rental home with Michael and friends – 1972 As vivid as yesterday.

I walked out of that appointment thinking the word “ephemeral” to myself, over and over. For the moment, I am definitely in pretty good condition, all blood values perfectly normal, an unremarkable physical exam and essentially, tolerable, small niggling aches and pains that for the most part, are easily ignored. But that’s just for right now. Although luckily resilient and generally robust, I am no longer what I once was, except for when I assert my mind over my matter. I can still do a lot, but I’m slower. Tasks take longer and feel bigger. My idea of myself still reflects what I once was physically while the dissonance of what actually is, butts up against that image. I am in that group of those who can still access scores of vivid memories. With each day that passes, they move further into what will ultimately be the minuscule void where I once occupied space. All that experience which was so big and important will have left a tiny ripple in the vastness of time.

I’m thinking of all the events which have been crammed into what has not even yet been a full seven day week. Last Friday, my daughter suffered a grievous unexpected loss of a beloved colleague who died too fast and too young. The day after that I attended a Zoom memorial for a thirty eight year old young man. He was part of a glorious bunch of summers at what was essentially a family camp we attended at a dingy resort in Michigan for just under ten years, with a group of college friends and their families. He died of an overdose. There were 125 people at that virtual event. I didn’t know a bunch of them but some of my oldest friends and their kids were there. An emotionally exhausting experience packed with so many memories that were part of those days when I was a young mother, and Michael was surging with strength, with no inkling of what lay in his genes that would attack him years later. But of course. What we don’t foresee is a gift. The next day I was off to O’Hare airport to drop my son off for another one of his trips to a faraway place, which during this pandemic, creates anxiety for me. He’s traveled the world as a biologist for years but I still can’t just relax and not worry, especially since he’s had some scary experiences. I guess that will always be part of the parental role which I retain, perhaps more than some people, because mothering my own mom for decades was anathema for me and definitely is not what I wish to confer on my own children. Then it was back home and dealing with a leaky roof, only a few years old, which led to insurance adjusters and contractor appointments. I swam a lot, overdoing it of course, because I was so glad to return to the pool, ultimately giving myself such a stiff upper back that I was screeching in pain and moving like a stiff scarab beetle.

My brother as a happy teenager.

I spent time with my grandson. I worked my way through the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death. I got my hair cut, reverting to a style I used to have when I was in my twenties. We’ll see how long that lasts. The only physical aspect of me from that time which is within my reach is the hairstyle.

Earthworks

A continued probe through my endless photo project unearthed a 50 year old contact sheet with a picture of the building that was the focal point of alternative campus life during the early 1970’s. I managed to get a decent enough image to post to my social media. Among other responses, I heard from a young history teacher who works at the high school my kids attended. Serendipitously, he’s assigned his class a project which takes place virtually, at that very site, which he’d never seen. That precipitated a meeting between us so I could share some background with him. I have evolved into a primary source, just like microfilm in a library archive. Ironically, that evening, I attended a meeting of my city’s historic preservation commission as I am a board member. Apparently hanging with the relics is a significant and apropos part of my current life. Today, I decided to cut myself a little slack. Instead of swimming, I went for a stroll through a lovely park on campus. The dorms where I lived during my freshman and sophomore years were within two blocks of my walk. In fact, most of my rental houses from years ago, along with my house that’s been home since 1978, are all within about a two mile circumference from the path I was walking today.

My son with his ever-present bug net
Michael in 2015 after receiving a life-saving targeted therapy for his cancer.

I’ve spent time at this beautiful arboretum in the past. When my son was a junior in high school he was enrolled in a life-changing field biology class. He spent countless hours wandering around with his net, catching insects to ensure that he had the best collection possible. One day he dragged us over to the pond feature in the park so we could watch him snatch dragonflies in mid-flight with his bare hands. It was quite dazzling and unforgettable, seeing fingers move that quickly. I couldn’t have done that at any age. On a far different occasion, years later, when Michael had been pulled back from death by an experimental drug, we drove there to be out in a beautiful natural setting, close enough to home so that we could get him back to bed if the fresh air was too much. Little snatches of life that exist in my memory and perhaps my son’s regarding the dragonflies, which will vanish after we’re gone except for those I write down which may or may not be read by some family member I don’t even know now. Like I said, ephemeral. For the most part, the majority of people occupy a small footprint in life, like an impression in sand which is washed away with the tide. I don’t expect the world will remember me a hundred years after I’m gone.

Blooms on my plum tree

I went home to my garden after my walk and worked for a time in the lovely April air. I’m not in the least disturbed by these thoughts about aging or vanishing. Perhaps my beloved garden will be my legacy along with whatever happens through my children. Maybe one day, someone will be scrolling through this blog, decades from now. Mostly I want to make good use of my time, the time I have at this instant. Should I only read new books or should I go back to old ones that deserve one more look? I think the same thing about movies and television shows. Music, as well. What’s the right balance between staying current and allowing a little self-indulgent wallow in the past? The only thing I never question is the mysterious interior presence of Michael in me although his physical being is conspicuously absent. That sustenance simply is. Some days I change as quickly as those foot impressions in the sand overwhelmed by the latest tide. I could be around for a day or years to come. No one knows anything even though they try. Me neither. Although I’ll continue to try as well.

The Fleeting Spring

I don’t remember when time accelerated. All I know is that everything took forever when I was young and now everything goes too fast and has since I was about sixty. I’ve got a shelf life as do most things. I’m not sure of my expiration date. What I absolutely know is that staying present in each exquisite moment, bad or good, is imperative. Today I’m paying the price for living so hard in yesterday’s present. I have a tendency to overdo. I always have. Once when I was in my 6th hour of gardening on a hot day, I began to experience the beginning of heat stroke. Luckily, Michael was outside too and saw my blazing red cheeks and my lack of sweat, an unheard of event. He shoved me into a chair and ran inside, grabbed a tall glass of iced orange juice and stood admonishing me in a worried tone as I drank, grumbling that I never knew when to stop. That was fair. After swimming with great vigor for over a week, doing dumb stuff like dragging cinder blocks around with one hand, digging piles of dirt and sleeping in very small increments, I woke this morning, stiff, sore and feeling my age rather than my wild oats. I had breakfast with my roving biologist son, who once again departs this weekend for exotic climes. Then I sensibly decided to have a slow day. I wandered through the garden, poking around under the litter I left last fall to see what might be stirring. Of course there are many spring flowers which have already come and gone. Every day there’s something new to observe. Some blooms linger only briefly while others will be here for months. I felt that peculiar sensation of the excitement for spring coupled with the melancholy that it’s moving fast. So I froze today in photographs. They are my spring ode. Daffodils and hyacinths. Peonies poking their red heads up through the wood chips and thin black cloth I use to combat weeds. Chives and thyme. All the butterfly bushes have new shoots. The roses are awakening. I have to check certain species planted last fall, too new for me to remember their names. I yanked a few weeds but mostly I took in the heady smell of dark midwestern soil and was happy to see all the returning friends that I fret about through the winter. Here is my cool, windy spring day, a gift worth sharing. Enjoy.

The Good News or the Bad News? A Grief Update.

Mom

When Mom told my younger sister and me that she was never leaving us, that after she died, she’d always be hovering nearby, trying to protect us, I was amused. Honestly, as much as she loved us, I only recall a few times when I felt her protection. Once when I was about 10, a nasty teenager hurled my first ethnic slur at me using two words I’d never heard before, fucking and kike. I ran to our Chicago apartment to ask her what they meant. She was furious and came storming outside to tell that wretched Harry Hess to shut his mouth and never say those words again. I was pretty impressed. Some years later, in my junior year of high school, a teacher berated me in front of her freshman Latin class for being a terrible example of a student council officer. I’d cut sixty physical education classes, and although elected to serve as council treasurer the following year, she threatened to strip away that office as retribution. My mom steamed into school to defend the indefensible, for I had indeed broken the rules. Mom still was furious that I’d been humiliated, no matter what I’d done. My punishment wound up being forced to make up the classes, two for every one, in my senior year. On swimming days, I was wet three times a day. Go mom. Aside from those memorable experiences, she was often a vulnerable mess, sorting out her unsolved childhood issues, making robust use of sedatives and being hospitalized a lot. I remember her saying ridiculous things like, “if you keep swallowing your gum, your insides will get stuck together,”or “if you buy anything for your unborn child, you’ll curse the baby.” She was essentially a kid, often fun, often naughty and generally needy. She was a curious combination of neurotic, tough and funny, weak and often overwhelmed. As kids, when my sister and I waited in the car with our dad while she ran an errand, he rustled his newspaper in the front seat and glancing back would say, “you know your mother’s crazy, don’t you?” But in a loving way. When he died, I spent the next twenty-five years taking care of Dorothy. She said lots of things that I remember. Lately I’ve been thinking of one in particular – “you can’t be in two places at the same time, no matter how hard you try.” As with many of her opinions that I chose to disregard, that statement turns out to be one of them.

Michael

Soon I will have completed my fourth year since Michael died. That’s less than nine per cent of the time we lived together. I don’t expect to live long enough to ever get to even half of our time which would be a long stretch that doesn’t sound appealing. I remember many things that Michael said to me too. Some were repeated on multiple occasions. During the course of our life, when we contended with whatever got tossed in our direction, he’d always say, “what do you want first – the good news or the bad news?” That was always an easy choice for me. Bad news first so the good could then ameliorate the rotten. So what do those two disparate comments from my mom and Michael have to do with my current take on grief? A lot, as it turns out.

So we’ll start with Michael and deal with the bad news first. He is definitely still dead. There isn’t a single thing I can do to change that reality. And the whole business about the stages of grief? I seem to be parked in the angry lane. I don’t know if that’s the desired outcome according to all the experts, but that’s life. I’ve definitely moved forward, but invariably, I wind up being really furious that we didn’t get the time we were so sure we had ahead of us. How all those nasty people in his family lived well into their nineties while he was gone at 67 is for me, evidence that there truly is no justice. I know it’s much worse for many other people but on some days, I just want to think about us. I remember in those last months of his life, he’d emerge from the confusion of his cancer-riddled brain, look at me and ask, “what are you going to do without me?” I’d tell him the truth. “Beats me.” I honestly had no idea what I would be doing once Michael died. I just needed to complete being his partner until the end of his life. There would be time for everything else later.

I’m coming up on the four year anniversary of his last breath. I’ve figured out a lot of things to do. I’ve traveled, at least before the pandemic. I’ve continued to grow my education by taking a broad array of classes and these days, webinars. I’ve exercised, danced, gardened, created art and read lots of books. I’ve listened to countless hours of music and discovered new artists to love. I’ve watched movies and television series. I’ve spent time with my family. I still have some long-lasting friendships with my peers, although some of those have fallen away. Being a widow has changed certain dynamics with people and I don’t have the desire to use my energy for trying to fix everything that doesn’t work any more. With a more limited future, I’m more stingy with my time. I have a nice group of younger friends who weave in and out of my life. They’re refreshing.

I’d say that my grief is now fused to me, like a sheath which is primarily internal. I’m not sad all day or crying or incapable of average life functions. It feels like those hazy clouds, diffuse and quite like other feelings that vary in frequency and intensity. I’m not sure if I actively made this happen or if it’s a purely organic process attributable to time passing. Periodically, I get surprised by a deeply primal agony that erupts over a certain song, a glance at a photo or an unexpected jolt of loneliness. I just ride out those waves. I expect those to be a permanent part of my life. But then comes the good news. I knew I’d never again be interested in a relationship, a partnership. The powerful magic that was Michael and me still exists and is alive deep inside me. During the hardest times, it surges up in me and helps me cope, as it did when he was alive. I marvel at this kinetic combination of pain, fire, power and love that are all rolled together now. I didn’t know that who we were would continue to fuel my life in his absence. But that’s what’s happened and although I’d give a lot for his touch, this mystical connection is unique, comforting and very real for me. How it was that two skeptical people like us, and especially a realist like me, gave ourselves over to this otherworldly attachment still leaves me confounded. It’s real though and I have documentary evidence from us both attempting to understand it as far back as 1972. Indeed, that’s the good news I take away from the infuriating injustice of not being able to grow old together. We saved every scrap of paper we ever exchanged. I find great comfort there. Which brings me back to mom telling me you can’t be in two places at the same time. Oh but I can.

Mom and Michael

At a time in life when people are beginning to have those moments of walking into a room and having no memory of why they went there in the first place, I am still experiencing that vivid recall I’ve had my whole life. A few years ago, I wrote about my “memory palace,”a reference to Sherlock Holmes who was able to pull out complicated details and minutiae from his brain to solve his cases. My memories are like those children’s pop-up books in which you turn a page and an entire scene stands up in three dimensions rather than only words. I can walk through those memories, seeing the clothing I was wearing, or that others were, smelling what was in the air, listening to and participating in conversations. So vivid and stunning. I have no idea why this happens. My mother had a powerful memory until she was about ninety when it finally began to fail. She too could describe her life from her early childhood in tiny details. She told me so much about hers that they now feel like they’re mine. In the long hours of social distancing during the past year, I’ve literally been internally transported into another time while actively being right here in the now. I think my long hours of listening to music enhanced this phenomenon. For example, I was hard at work in the yard last week when I recognized the first note of The Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica.”

From Wikipedia

I don’t know exactly how many times Michael and I saw them perform nor can I count how many hours we spent listening to their albums. But after the first note, I was at The World Music Theater in Tinley Park near Chicago, attending their concert thirty years ago, swaying to the music next to Michael. Only a two hour drive from home, we’d just gone up to the concert for the night. I can see myself walking toward him from a bathroom break, dawdling a bit because getting out of the parking lot and onto the highway always took awhile. We climb in the car together and I can feel the warm satisfaction of our good time, my hand massaging the back of his neck to make sure he feels alert and comfortable during the dark drive home. While I’m in that moment I’m also still digging up clods of dirt and grass for my new garden bed right here in 2021. An interesting kind of time travel that happens mostly when I’m alone but can show up unexpectedly when some trigger pushes the button that releases this parallel universe in my head. There’s no dissonance or adjustment. I guess I think that the mind is a series of layers, like sedimentary rock, but flexible and mobile. I have no clue how it works but if I concentrate, I can select a place to visit while I’m sitting in my recliner in my living room. So no, mom. I can be in two places at once. Just not physically. I find this phenomenon to be a wonderful gift. I dread the idea of having it disappear. But I’m trying to stay as close to the present as possible. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself which is consistent with how I’ve felt for a long time. This interesting ability helps with my grief companion. Getting to immerse myself fully in the good times has definite advantages. I can leapfrog the bad memories as well. So far none of my forays into neuroscience classes has unearthed any explanation for what goes on in me. Maybe I’ll never get to understand. So I’m going with the flow.

Cheap Trills

A little chickadee

I’ve had a lot of free-floating anxiety threads dangling in my head for the past few days. I’d categorize them under the what happens next and the surprise problems categories. Trying to draw them together under a tongue-in-cheek title surprised even me, the source of this play on words title which I’ll explain shortly. Actually, though, underpinning these words are two of those gnawing strands which have been bumping up against each other in my brain. Yesterday I finished my last class of an eight week course on Zen Buddhism. As with most organized religions, I am left with the actuality of being someone for whom an affiliation with a group is not going to happen. However, I’m a soulful, spiritual person with an interest in extracting the parts of those belief systems which resonate with me. During the last session, the Zen priest instructor of the class drew on the words of four teachers whose wisdom had profound effects on her. I came away thinking about one of them in particular. He said, “love your problems because they are an affirmation of the gift of life. When you’re dead, you won’t have any more problems.” Translated into my-speak, I realized I was more zen than I’d realized – I always say, “life is a shit sandwich – take a big bite and enjoy it.” Not quite as poetic but a point well-taken and a good reminder to myself. Life is these issues, all strung together.

House finch

Grappling with the dayto-day issues of living can be a pain in the neck. The dryer that croaks when it’s loaded with wet laundry. That unexpected flashing warning light on the car dashboard. A river of water suddenly gushing out from under the refrigerator. A miscalculation in the checkbook. And that’s the easy stuff. Sometimes there’s a new problem every few days. Just keeping up is a victory along with being glad it’s nothing worse, like illness or death. Expectations can be a real minefield in the coping department. I’m one of those people whose approach is to be ready for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised when what happens is better. Back in the old days, Michael said I was a cheap date, satisfied with a. A little bit of good went a long way for me. And interestingly enough, it still does, despite having gone through some hard times. I can’t say I’m an optimist. I don’t believe that people are inherently good. I think the world is a huge mess. But invariably, the smallest bit of beauty stimulates this inexorable life force which surges up in me, even when I’m dark, sad, angry or confused. I’d call it an irrepressible genetic disorder. Or maybe an order if there is such a thing. And I’m always fascinated to find myself on an upswing that rapidly pushes aside whatever negative force had recently felt immovable. Lucky, lucky me.

A pair of mourning doves.

Barely a week ago, I was writing about feeling indecisive and ambivalent about how to emerge, at least a tiny bit, from the narrow parameters of the social distancing required by the past year. I really don’t like that circuitous thinking when one question leads to another instead of an answer. Being intellectual about emotions can be so wearing. Fed up with spinning in circles and further irritated by some, expensive, unexpected and uninvited problems, I switched into an active mode while staring at my yard, thinking instead about spring and plants and habitat. And I thought, “we don’t need no stinkin’ grass,” and grabbed my heavy spade. The next thing I knew, I was removing sod from the lawn. Which is, as everyone knows, tough work. I remember the first time I did it. In 1989, both my parents were diagnosed with cancer – ultimately my dad died. Michael had been elected to his first term as alderman and after months of campaigning, his back, which had often been sore from too many years of swinging a bat, called it quits and felled him for three weeks before requiring surgery. He was just forty. We had two little kids and I was working full-time while trying to care for seemingly everyone. That summer I didn’t do any gardening. The following year, my friend Joanne showed up at my house with an overflowing flat of perennials which she thought would do wonders for my sad, exhausted self. And they were like a tonic until I realized I couldn’t simply hurl them in the ground amidst the grass. They’d grow back and be messy. And so I became the human sod tiller. I dug up a big chunk of the front yard, laid in brick dividers and planted twenty-four perennials. I was partially crippled despite being sturdy peasant stock, but was well pleased with my work. Who knew that was the beginning of my war on grass?

The site of my first attack on grass.

Despite our many compatible similarities, Michael and I diverged on the lawn issue. I thought it was useless. As a city dweller with a patch of dirt next to my apartment building, I couldn’t see its point. He was a suburban guy, living in a place where everyone had lawns. He brought that expectation into our life – lawn. So he fertilized it, weeded it and mowed it, once the kids were gone and relieved of their detested chore, while I carved out more sod and planted flowers and shrubs to provide food for pollinators and habitat for birds. He liked his big vegetable and herb garden but oh, that beloved grass. He died leaving it to me. So now, despite its being a rather herculean task, I’m going after it, one patch at a time.

I’ll be ready to plant soon as soon as I’m sure the last chance of a freeze is past and then I’ll remove more of that lawn. But here’s the best part. While doing straight-up simple labor, those loose threads in my mind started coming together. As I dug into that rich dark soil, I was bumping into worms tangled in the grass roots. I took the time to separate them and return them to the dirt. Back in 2014, right after Michael finished his first chemo, we headed south to St. Pete’s Beach in Florida for some recovery time. We were so grateful he was alive after receiving a terrible prognosis five months earlier. We were quiet and restful, and I read a book I just loved called The Earth Moved – On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Just a few hours of digging brought back lots of memories of that special time.

I ran across this mind-boggler today. Fact or fiction? Articles validating this data abound.

Meanwhile, as I dug doggedly away, I was in the company of all the birds who’ve taken up nesting places in my yard. Carmine, my resident male cardinal, was singing his heart out, right over my head.

Carmine singing.

The chittering of juncoes, sparrows and finches was punctuated by cawing crows aloft. And there is the diminutive Carolina wren, a number of whom have chosen to live under my side porch, a wise choice for both shelter and proximity to my bird feeders. Their song is powerful and melodious, almost jarring when you realize how tiny a creature is creating such a big racket.

Carolina wren
Carolina wren

I realized that the physical labor, coupled with the company of my avian menagerie, was rapidly helping to dissipate my waffling indecisiveness about how to live this next section of my life. Although I feel uncertain about safety issues, for the most part, I’m still pretty sensible. And alive. I don’t require a lot of fancy-shmancy activities or material goods to buoy my spirits. As Michael always said, I’m the cheap date. After hanging out with my yardbirds, I was reminded by their vocalizations that I can be moved by cheap trills – the free music outside, just sitting there for my listening pleasure. Yup. Cheap trills. They moved me. To make some moves.

So this week, I began to creep out of confinement. I returned to the pool for the first time since February, 2020. The protocols for participation are as reasonable as one could imagine. I can’t describe the thrill of the endorphins, emerging from wherever they’ve been hiding, racing through my body and creating so much energy. I thought I wouldn’t be able to swim a stroke but my makeshift exercise programs and private pandemic dance parties were successful enough for me to maintain some muscle. Hopefully, nothing happens to shut down this wonderful balm for my soul.

The next thing I did was to meet a friend for breakfast, inside the restaurant where we’ve met so many times over the years. I hadn’t been inside a restaurant since last February. Everyone was wearing masks and new partitions separated the booths. We removed our masks to eat and then put them on again. Did the food really taste so delicious, better than ever before? Who knows? A waitress I’ve known for many years recognized me, mask and all, and gave us free drinks. She said she was so happy to see old regulars trickling back in – these have been hard times for people in her line of work. I left her a tip bigger than our check. Was it weird? A little. I don’t know how often I’ll be doing this but I’m glad I leapt that hurdle.

My last big step for this week was attending the reconstituting of my book club, which like everything else, hadn’t been a thing since last year. All of us have been fully vaccinated so we met at a member’s roomy home, with a sliding door to the outside wide open despite a little chill. We didn’t discuss a book today. Rather, we all shared whatever we’d gone through this past year, along with the books that brought us the most comfort as we dealt with isolation and loneliness. Some of us had easier times than others. I’ve known some members for 50 years and others barely two. I was glad to see that everyone was still here. We made a selection for next month’s meeting and are hoping to move steadily forward.

My beautiful cardinal female, Pumpkin.

So. I can’t say that I’ve eliminated all ambivalence and anxiety about the future because that’s not true. But I’ve moved past my temporary paralysis, hoping for the best outcomes as I slowly proceed into whatever life is supposed to be like going forward. I’m mindful and careful but out of solitary confinement. I’m adding a little structure to my amorphous existence. I found my life urges through scrabbling in the dirt with the songs of the yardbirds lifting my spirits and the always comforting specter of Michael saying the things he always said that ring like chimes in my head. Cheap trills. They’re everywhere.

Ambivalence

I was scrolling around in the photo stream on my phone tonight and I came across this shot. One of the many mysterious tricks the AI on my tech devices can do, about which I know nothing. Out of curiosity, I poked at the pictures and found that they’re the locations of where I’ve taken photos which are still stored on my phone. Obviously my feeble attempts to foil the spies has been moderately effective in that some of the geographical locations are wrong. I keep my location off most of the time for the purpose of privacy. As if. I’m sure I could be found in seconds if anyone was bothering to look for me. Of course the bulk of my pictures have been taken near my home because I haven’t been away in a year. The others are just shots I like to look at every now and then.

These are from the last big trip that Michael and I took to Utah in September of 2016, seven months before he died. That was a wonderful and unforgettable adventure. Five national parks in eight days. Later, I worried that the rapid pace might have made him more vulnerable to his cancer after months in remission. But that probably wasn’t true as he’d had multiple recurrences over five years. After he died, I went off on a few trips like this on my own. Now that a year has passed since I’ve traveled, my mind has turned toward getting away. The other day I was listening to The Clash and I made a meme to illustrate how I feel.

I think my personal mental health cost of the pandemic is an increased inability to make decisions. Historically I’m a person who thinks fast, weighs options and makes choices with little hesitation. These months of warily weighing every move I make has me questioning every thought I have, to the point where what starts as an actionable idea dwindles rapidly to “is it really worth it to step outside my tiny comfort zone.” I find this inevitable ambivalence alienating and exhausting. Obviously there are public health matters which have dictated a profound sense of caution, especially as the numbers of people who’ve died from Covid grew to a tragedy impossible to comprehend. All the activities I’d put in place to help me adapt to living as a single person for the first time in forty five years just stopped. No swimming for an endorphin release. No haircut and massage day every six weeks to compensate for living without daily physical contact with another human being. My book club stopped because few members wanting to continue meeting on Zoom. Because of my age, I took the extra precautions of having my groceries delivered and having anything else I needed pre-paid and dumped into my trunk. When I look back at my photos from over the last twelve months, I think fewer than five % have people in them. I’m certainly not the only person who’s lived this way. I’ve seen some scary before and after pictures of the changed faces of people who’ve truly suffered through their isolation. I’m not that badly off. I just have no idea how to get comfortable emerging from this time. I feel uncertain. And I don’t like it.COVID-19 DNAThree variants of the COVID-19 virus found in 14 countries in the Americas, PAHO reports. Pan-American Health Organization.

Much of my ambivalence of what to do or not do is based on the continuing issues of the variants making their way around the country. Epidemiologists seem to agree that all the mutations discovered are likely already everywhere and that some are more transmissible and lethal than the original virus. One would hope that those of us lucky enough to have been vaccinated will have at least partial immunity to those variants, although booster shots are already being developed to address them.

After all the months of hanging around with my pair of undemanding cardinals, I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised at the wheelspinning which my mind devolves into when I’m trying to figure out what it’s time to do, now that society at large appears to be ready to return to some version of “normal.” At least for now. Next week both my grandsons will be back at in-person school, masked and distanced but in their building. I think they both need the contact although I’m still a bit wary. Hopefully, there won’t be a reason for all of us to return to a lockdown, as is currently happening in Europe.

I yearn for a big adventure like the ones I took in 2018 and 2019, when I headed for Sedona and Glacier. Those trips made me feel like I was using my time well, in a fulfilling way that would be in keeping with the hopes Michael had for me as I moved forward without him. Living as hard as I could which he so wanted to do. Not staying locked up in the house waiting to be done with life. He couldn’t have imagined the pandemic which has been dictating decisions since last year. The exciting trip to Alaska which was where I’d planned to spend my last year of my sixties is off my list. I can’t imagine voluntarily stepping aboard a cruise ship, the floating petri dishes for contagion. The National Parks left on my most desired places to visit are far away and feel like more than I’m ready for, although I look at travel plans every other day. Does it really matter if I see these places? Still ambivalent.

I head out to the garden where Michael’s perennial herbs are making their spring appearance. On some days it’s enough to just bend down and admire them, grateful for their return. But on this day, I squeeze a few sprigs of the thyme, the sage and the chives, savoring the scents, the freshness, the promise of lushness to come in a few weeks. Small things, certainly, but still an adventure in nature which provides a measure of satisfaction for anyone who appreciates miracles of the earth.

I decided to dig up some grass. Generally I think grass is useless. I’m slowly getting rid of it so I can replace it with native plants which will entice pollinators. There’s nothing like yanking up clods of sod, and carefully placing the upended earthworms back in the dirt, to help you problem-solve. At least that works for me. As I dug away, I realized that my cardinal rules of coping have been buried by the pressure of this crazy year. And one of my best ones is that when everything seems too big and overwhelming, the best thing to do is break that giant ball into smaller, manageable pieces. I’m going to have to ease my way back, or forward, into whatever the world is going to look like, three months from now, six months from now, maybe a year from now. Generally I don’t look that far down the road anyway. That privilege of imagining a limitless future went away after Michael got sick. So I’ve taken a few small steps.

I renewed my pool pass. The indoor and outdoor pools both have Covid regulations. Usage is limited and reservations are required for a lane which can only accommodate two people. I can wear my mask right up until I get in the water and put it on the minute I get out. I yearn for the endorphin release that always comes from swimming although I expect it’ll take awhile before I can get back in shape. So that’s thing one.

The Courier – Local Wiki

I’m also going to have breakfast with another vaccinated friend indoors at a restaurant we’ve been meeting at for many years. Again, there will be masks and barriers between the booths and all the other Covid regulations. I expect to start out feeling really weird but hope that I’ll be able to relax after awhile. I suspect that I won’t be doing this very often but I think it’s a reasonable small step. I realize that lots of people are out there going about this stuff as if caution is totally yesterday. That some feel that their vaccines have made them invincible. And of course there are all those who’ll never be vaccinated, and those who think the virus is a hoax, and on and on and on. My baby steps probably seem like a ridiculous joke to them. Ironically, considering that I consider myself to be relatively courageous, I feel a bit ridiculous to myself. But I believe in the random power of the virus which is doing its thing while people are walking around unconscious, uneducated or otherwise feeling invincible. I’m not sure I ever felt that way, even when I was really young. In the end, what matters is how I decide, in what I think is at the very least, a narrow window of opportunity to abandon the hermit life for a sense of connection to the outside world. Next week, my book club which hasn’t met for a year, is reconvening. Everyone is vaccinated. We hope the weather is decent enough to sit outside. If not, we’ll wear masks and sit in an enclosed porch with all the windows open. Hopefully all will be well. I’ll let you know.

Is There a Gene For That?

Emerging hyacinth

I spend a lot of time running around. The weather is getting spring-like, so I’m out looking for my plants which will hopefully return, or simply show up for the first time after going in the ground last fall. But I was also running around in the winter except for the absolute worst weather days. And even then, in my house of many doors with glass windows, I’d be zooming from place to place, checking to see which birds were at which feeder, if there were any interesting cloud formations, fantastic sunsets or unusually-colored skies. During this past sad and wearing year, my connection to nature has deepened. I honestly have no sense of where I’d be psychologically without the ability to immerse myself in what’s accessible just a few steps away from my homey cave. When I was still working, I was parked in a chair. For decades. After retirement, I was a caregiver of one sort or another for almost seven years. As soon as I was recovered enough from Michael’s death to get going, I did, traveling as often as I could afford the expense. I grew up in a household where there was a lot of sitting around. I’m missing whatever gene allowed for being plopped in a chair day in, day out.

I spend a lot of time running around inside my head too. After losing all the normal structures in my daily life because of social distancing, I became a Zoom junkie. I watched livestream concerts. I attended classes through my local lifelong learners’ institute. I took Latin and am still taking Spanish lessons. I experienced virtual geology and was exposed to cutting edge neuroscience. I wound up in a fascinating webinar series on the brain which came out of the University of Texas. Featuring geniuses from places like MIT, who are studying mind-bending processes that may influence what I think is the final frontier, that space between our ears, I constantly ponder how much I don’t know. Unlike the constellations which seem to be fixed in the night sky, I feel like nothing that I thought was a given actually is – rather mutability, as with the virus, is more likely than we can fathom. Too uncomfortable and unnerving on a daily basis. In addition to locating where specific skills and recognitions are stored, the use of functional MRIs is allowing insight into watching brains in action in real time. Observing what areas light up depending on the stimuli. I guess it’s the science version of windows into the soul. I wish I could see what they can see – is there a gene for that?

Professor Nancy Kanwisher – MIT professor and lecturer – presenter at Center for Brain Health series.

I seem to be managing all these interests pretty well, although sleep is sparse. I listen to a few hours of music every day but virtually no podcasts or audio books. I have so much language and emotion blitzing my mind that I’m sticking with reading books, old school, although I also use the kindle app. That’s mostly for environmental reasons. Mostly I wonder about all kinds of weird things every day. I’ve got my endless lists. Why is it important to rank my favorite Rolling Stones songs? Or my top ten solo artists and top ten guitarists and lyricists? I’ve been carrying around lists of my favorite movies and books for years. Occasionally I add a new item to those. I wonder about whether anyone out there in the world with whom I’m no longer close, thinks of me instantly, the second the first note of a song we shared pops up on the radio or on whatever device plays their music. I have songs attached to a lot of people. Do they think of me as I still do of them? In my family we sang a lot. I started making a list of all the songs we shared. I know the songs which were special to my mom and dad. I asked my kids what they remembered about me and their dad and our shared music. I told them what I associated with them and asked for those gaps I didn’t have about theirs. Recently I sang all the lullabies my mom and dad sang to me when I was little, just to see if I could remember them, especially the ones not in English. On and on it goes. Is there a gene for this endless questioning?

I’ve actually always been like this, but Michael absorbed a lot of my intense mental acrobatics. He had an almost sedating effect on me. After a time leaning against him and spewing forth my vast amount of verbiage, I would essentially melt into a heap, kind of like the way you feel after a massage. Now I’m more like a runaway train. Unchecked except when I intervene with myself. I’m coming up on the fourth anniversary of his death. I’m still mad that he’s not wholly here. I recognize that there’s been no diminishing of my desire for him. By practicing for a long time, I’ve found that by continuing to write him letters, which are now approaching a thousand in number, writing my blog and somehow internalizing our bond so that it’s now essentially somatic, I can function well daily, despite isolation and that massive loss of intimate physical contact. Alone in my room late at night, his presence is heavy in our space. With the pushing of boundaries in science, in which what is mystical and inexplicable suddenly seems to be much more than flights of imagination, do I feel less alone because I’m not? And is there a gene for that? How about a neural network?

Roger Federer

I woke early yesterday because after a 14 month layoff, two knee surgeries, lots of rehab, and Covid restrictions, Roger Federer, aged 39, 40th birthday in August, made his unlikely return to competitive tennis today. I adore Roger Federer. I was worried about him because at his age, playing at a high level after such a long time away is a huge challenge. He pulled off another recovery from a bad knee, after just six months off in 2016, to return in 2017 to win the Australian Open. Until he reinjured himself he played well. He won his match today. He said he was tired, was still improving and is hoping to be 100% fit in time for Wimbledon, his favorite tournament, later this year. So what’s up with Roger and me? The woman who’s anti-hero-worship?

I really can’t explain why for most of my life, I’ve had my favorites. Mostly I’m skeptical about people. I’m always thinking about the darker side, the selfish side, the deeply human complexity that makes me believe that often what you see is not what you get. No rose-colored glasses for me. But I get these inexplicable feelings about people I don’t know out there in the virtual world and suddenly I’m a loyal supporter. Just as I am a fierce hater. I started watching Roger when he was a young phenom, just a talented punk like lots of other tennis players. When he was 21, following the accidental death of his young coach, he transformed himself into something else, more serious and self-contained. Watching his balletic, graceful moves, his evenness of temperament, the way he always has his parents nearby, touched me. Years later his wife and two sets of twins came along with a long-time team of coaches and trainers who are part of his entourage. He is self-effacing, humorous and emotionally expressive, a person who cries unashamedly in front of millions. So he became the intermittent oasis for me for just shy of twenty years. Always around throughout the year to provide comfort, often coupled with nail-biting anxiety because I love him so much, I always wanted him to win. Unrealistic but I don’t care. Novak Djokovic, who’s just passed Roger as the longest player to stay at number one in the tennis rankings is as detestable to me as Roger is inviting. An ill-tempered racket thrower who I’m told has a positive side but is, and always has been, viscerally repellent to me. Why do I operate like this? Once you’re really in with me, you’re there forever but if you’re out, you’re gone forever too. Is there a gene for that? Of course it’s much easier to do this kind of thing with people you’ll never meet. In real life, relationships are more complicated. Although during the past year, when I’ve attended all the Pete Yorn concerts he’s performed for free on Instagram, and on a platform where he’s shared ticket revenues with Covid relief organizations, I’ve liked him so much I sent him several personal thank you notes, along with a few observations. To my amazement, he’s replied, giving me little tokens I can wave in my kids’ faces when they mock me for being a groupie or whatever. Sometimes worlds do indeed collide.

Pete Yorn – Facebook

This whole intense emotional deal goes deeper than recreational pleasures and is in keeping with how I feel about Michael, my children, my garden, my yard birds, my multitudinous topics of interest. Generally I operate in a pretty even-keeled manner, my behavior not being known for its extremes. Still, these almost visceral sensations on the positive-negative spectrum are undeniable, no matter how balanced I appear to be operating in my daily life. My son-in-law has told me more than once that he knew I’d grown to love him enough so that if he crossed over to my dark side by hurting my daughter, I’d only run over him once with my car instead of a hundred times to make sure he was flat as a pancake. I had to laugh at his insight. I have big passion. I don’t understand surface feelings – I think they’re a waste of time. When I was a little girl, my parents let me have a chameleon, actually an anole. I adored it. In fact, I loved it so much I squeezed it to death. I remember being utterly puzzled and bereft. A lesson I never forgot about needing to find that magical space between suffocating emotions and ones that breathed freely.

So here I sit, after year one of the pandemic. Generally, I am bursting with energy, fortunate enough to have the minor aches and pains inevitable as part of the aging process, negligible in terms of my ability to pursue what I choose in my daily life. My son says I’m hardcore. I’m sure there’s a gene for that. I suspect I’m a lot like my maternal grandmother who survived her troubles with a minimum of physical issues. She loved gardening, too and did lots of manual labor well into her later years. My mom lived a long time with lots of problems, many of which were self-induced. Still these women clearly passed along positive genetic material to me. Of course I am a woman of my time, more confident, confrontational and courageous. Maybe just more assertive and intolerant of the kinds of pigeonholes they squirmed in for significant parts of their lives. I know that the great comfort of my powerful relationship, coupled with this irrepressible curiosity has helped me to squeeze a lot of self-actualizing out of this dark time. I still have energy to burn. On those days when I’m ambushed by the always unpredictable assertion of my grief companion, I go with those heaves until I’m done. The next thing I know there’s something else I have to chase around. Last week it was an unexpected sighting of a belted kingfisher sitting on a tree alongside a busy arterial street in my town.

Belted kingfisher – Wikipedia

I know that until something that I can’t predict, whether physical or mental, slows me down or stops me altogether, I’m going to squeeze as much as I can out of what is accessible to me. Although mostly for myself, it’s also for Michael who left behind so many unfinished goals, written in lists in his red notebook. Yes, we shared the list thing, historians to the bone. He would be, or is, glad to know that I’m maxing out my time as he too would have done, given the opportunity. I won’t have long enough to get the answers to my endless questions. But this intensity thing I’ve got going? I’ve promised my kids that if I find out anything unexpectedly interesting after I’m gone, I’ll find a way to let them know. I do think there’s a gene for that.

The Living Spaces – Part 8 – Oregon Street – 1974 -1975 – Exposed and Vulnerable

909 E. Oregon – The air conditioner wasn’t there in 1974.

Michael and I moved into this house in August, 1974. Looking back, it’s hard to believe we switched living places every year, but at the time we were living more like college students than adults. We each parsed a livable wage out of part-time jobs while still straggling through classes. For the first time, we started trying to actually decorate our space. On Friday nights, we went to Lamb’s Auction, a building in an industrial area on Oak Street where we got our number card and bid on furniture and other household items. In a letter I wrote to my mother, I told her I that I was more comfortable in this place as I’d been since leaving home. Michael and I had been living together for two and a half years. Our friendship was the same solid bond which had been somehow instantly forged when we’d first met in the summer of 1971. The romance was still fiery too. But our very different personalities were stoking lots of insecurities and conflicts as we probed each other for the possibility of a long term commitment.

Next to the railroad track.

Our little house was located next to the railroad tracks that ran southeast through the city. Michael loved the sound of rumbling and the whistles as the trains ran by in the middle of the night. I was less enamored but didn’t really mind. Half the time I think he was fantasizing about racing out to jump a boxcar and head anywhere for an adventure, somewhat terrified that he was settling in to a more staid existence than he’d imagined for himself at this age. He made lots of pronouncements about being opposed to institutions like marriage, as if to remind me that he was an anarchist at heart. I was wanting a permanent partner as I’d always had since being a little kid. The question was whether or not Michael was the right one for me. I’d thought so initially. But after these few years together, despite fundamental agreements on almost every important issue, our vastly differing personal styles pressed buttons in each of us which ignited the fight or flight response. Most of the time in my case, the fight and in his, the flight.

What had really happened to us was that the powerful collision of emotion which had instantly crackled when we met, had simultaneously pulled away the protective veneers that most people hone by the time they’re young adults. We were both naked in front of each other, wide open and truly vulnerable. Ultimately that’s what’s ideal in a relationship, a situation in which you can always be your most genuine self. But we’d both experienced a lot of previous damage which made us both skittish. Michael’s older sister came out of his family with deep scars – she never married or had children. Out of my siblings, I was the only one of four to never divorce. We two youngsters were deeply entangled but with many hurdles to get past before we could finally be sure we were where we wanted to stay.

We spent the fall creating a comfortable home space. I had a new part-time job as a teaching assistant at an alternative high school for kids who had trouble adjusting to a traditional educational setting. I continued to work at the park district at the youth center as educational coordinator. Michael was full time at the Record Service. My jobs were emotionally demanding with kids only a few years younger than me, trying to navigate tumultuous times. I wasn’t great at setting boundaries and my level of work involvement began to encroach on my personal life. I saw that flag which was one of the key triggers of Michael’s annoyance with me. He often felt I was overcommitted to too many other people. I can’t say I disagreed with him but was still bumbling around trying to figure out who I wanted to be. I thought he was reticent and withdrawn. We had a long way to go.

While we struggled with all those undercurrents, life went forward. We went to lots of movies on Friday or Saturday nights, often after burning our tongues at a popular hole-in-the wall barbecue joint called Po Boy’s. Only open on weekend nights, it had three booths and a counter with stools where people stacked up four deep, hoping that Arnie, his wife Red or Dorothy, a grouchy lady who picked favorites, would recognize your desperation to order and eat before you missed the start time of the film. Arnie often mixed his hot sauce after having downed a few shots of whiskey. Sometimes it was so intense you couldn’t feel the tip of your tongue after a taste or two. If you got popular, you got invited into the kitchen to share a swig. At least the men did.

Late at night, after playing cards or listening to music at a local bar, we’d head to the Chuck Wagon Diner for a middle of the night breakfast. Sometimes we’d play our favorite pinball games, Drop-a-Card or Lawman for a few hours. We followed several local bands and went to clubs where we danced late into the night. My younger sister had moved here to attend school so we spent time with her. My oldest friend Fern came to stay with us before moving to California for a court-reporting job. She was with us when I became convinced that we had a peeping tom which frightened me. I remember seeing footprints in the snow around our windows. On that visit, she saw his face through the bathroom window which led to his finally being caught. I’d felt paranoid about that faceless stranger for months. One of my most vivid memories from that time.

Fern

Another memorable event happened after an evening when we’d had a lengthy game of Spades with another couple during which there was a good deal of laughing at old memories. Back then in our twenties, we were still smoking pot. Suddenly I glanced up from my cards and saw that Michael looked dreadful. I rose from the table, grabbed his hand and headed home. I have no clue what happened to him, nor did he, but something in what he inhaled had negatively affected him. We lay awake all night, me holding him tightly to the earth while his mind whirled with terrors. We never did know what actually been the cause of what happened.

I got my new dog in the house on Oregon. She was a border collie from a sizable litter, the last pup to stay in my lap late one afternoon in a barn twenty minutes away from town. I named her Ribeye after a mishap we’d had with Herbie and Harpo snarfing down two precious steaks from the kitchen counter when we weren’t paying attention one day on California street. She was with us for fifteen years. We had a memorable road trip to Florida early that winter of 1974 which was a highly successful disaster as our first lengthy vacation together. Also unforgettable was Christmas that year. Both Michael and I were Jewish. I never celebrated that holiday at home but his parents, who were more interested in fitting in to the society at large, had a huge tree, gifts and everything but the religious underpinnings. In a family as cold and dysfunctional as his, Christmas was a joyous time for him. As much as I wanted to make him happy, I simply couldn’t make sense of creating a tradition that had nothing substantive to do with either one of us. That year he set up a big tree in our living room, using his family’s decorations and lots of tinsel to the snide accompaniment of my sarcasm. His volcanic temper asserted itself and he picked up the tree and hurled it across the room, shattering all the ornaments and creating general wreckage. We found pieces of tinsel in all kinds of odd places for months. After this incident we shared that holiday with friends who were celebrating in their homes, which made things between us much easier.

Our personal issues were still persisting into the spring. I was utterly bewildered about whether to push my way through them and hang on to the magic that was still there amidst our emotional chaos, or move on. One day, Michael showed up with an airline ticket he’d bought, intent on shipping me off to San Francisco to see Fern for eight days so I could figure out what I wanted. He’d sold a music catalog he was developing that would form the foundation of an independent store he’d hoped to own some day. He said he’d done it as a best friend, putting our romantic relationship aside for the moment. I remember thinking it was the most generous gift I’d ever received. I was simultaneously glad and terrified – what was I doing? I was in my corner, fearful of abandonment, one of my life issues so I was thinking I’d do a preemptive strike and jump ship first. That old story, which started with fears about my mom’s health which I’d had my whole life, became exacerbated by the on-off relationship I’d had with Al. And Michael’s insecurities, pounded into him by his always disappointed parents, went ballistic every time I questioned any of his actions. Anything that felt like a negative judgment made him insecure. After that kicked in, all he could manage was a guarded defensiveness. Across this chasm came the ticket.

Muir Woods

The next thing I knew I was with Fern in California. When she wasn’t working at her flexible court reporter job, we did the tourist rounds, especially the nature ones. Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais, the Pacific Ocean and Monterey. In the midst of exploring I felt scared and almost ill. Al was in grad school in L.A. at UC Davis and decided we should get together for one more try at a life. I knew that choosing to participate would be the end of my life with Michael. Even if I concealed it. In those unnerving moments where no one could see me but Fern, who was my trusted friend, I had utter clarity. Somehow I had to go back to Michael and struggle through all our fears so we could move into a future together. I knew it would be a challenge. I’d figured out that we all carry our emotional debris with us forever and that what we needed to do was get better at managing it. I stopped communicating with Al. I wrote Michael heartfelt torturous letters which he loved while wishing he could go down his rabbit hole and hide forever. When I went home, he was at work. While I was gone, he’d entirely remodeled our house, which I was initially afraid meant I was getting kicked to the curb. When he showed up as I sat eying him warily, he explained that this was a fresh start for us. Imagine telling a liberated woman that you’d changed everything without asking for her input. I grudgingly accepted his explanation in the spirit of temporary truce, we made love in our “new” bedroom and moved forward. For a time things were still bumpy but, eventually, we started helping each other with our problems. We both began to gain confidence. All those thrills and chills, the intimacy and cosmic connections leaked back into daily life. We were so lucky to have leaped those hurdles with honesty and only to come out stronger on the other side.

Gaston’s White River Resort, Lakeview, Arkansas
Bull Shoals – White River State Park, Arkansas

In the fall of 1975, we took another road trip, this time to Arkansas, to the Bull Shoals – White River State Park. We spent half the time camping in a little pup tent for two, along with the dogs and the other half of the trip in a cabin. School was in session so the park was quite empty. I remember being wakened one morning by a rafter of wild turkeys gobbling on the run past our tent.

We ate, we read, we hiked and we slept. Getting away from everything was such a relief. The best part was learning that we were ideal travel companions. I think that’s a critical component of any relationship. For the rest of our lives, although we of course navigated trips with our kids and still traveled on our own, being away together was always just the best time ever. I still remember stopping on the side of the road where makeshift entrepreneurs were selling their wares. I got two pairs of earrings and Michael got a spoon ring.

We were getting ready for another move across town to the twin city which was separated from ours by a street. That fall of 1975 would bring new life changes and of course, more challenges. On to South Mattis Avenue.