Big and Little

I’m spending a lot of time watching the Trump impeachment hearings. I’m compelled to do it for a number of reasons. First it’s living history. These past few years I’ve been keenly aware that all around me, there are changes happening which are not simply new. They are weighty, imbued with enough depth to alter institutions, leaving rippling effects which will extend far beyond my lifetime. I feel somber but I can’t look away. I absorb the disappointment. I feel that I’m witnessing a cynical death of the norms of democracy. A challenging task I’ve given myself. Hours and hours of presentations and testimony, uninterrupted by commercials, is as unique as it can sometimes be both compelling and boring. I’m reminded about how the technological advancements of soundbites and short clips have become the norm, what is expected, and the method by which so many people get their information. I’m part of all that too – I get news alerts on my phone and I subscribe to my favorite papers online so I receive a daily deluge of short articles, wide-ranging in subject. Still, I’ve always been a compulsive news viewer, wanting to make sure I see everything, know everything I can before setting any big event aside.

I was doing this during Desert Storm, terrified as I watched scud missiles launched into Iraq, and fearful of the costs of war and its potential escalation into nuclear confrontation. I watched the Watergate hearings, utterly fascinated by the undoing of Richard Nixon and unlike now, seeing our two party system function as a more unified front in its Senate hearings. Before that, I think my being glued to the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath was the first time I can remember my compulsive need to know. I was only twelve but I can still see the images in front of me, from the assassination through the journey back to Washington, the shooting on live television of Lee Harvey Oswald and the funeral ceremony. These larger than life spectacles altered the direction of my world. I’ve watched countless political nominating conventions and their incumbent power struggles, which for the most part, left me dissatisfied. And so many election returns. From age 20 forward, Michael was my partner in obsession. Our interests were well-matched and I miss his camaraderie and discussion as I sit alone now, mulling things over in my head.

Most current events feel very big to me. I’m worried about the planet. I don’t understand how anyone can ignore what to me is the absolute reality of climate change. Hearing people confidently dismissing the ever-increasing extremes of fires, floods, drought and brutal storms, referring to them as isolated weather events which in their view, contradicts the broad evidence of advancing global crisis, drives me crazy. As I recycle my cans, my plastic and my paper, trying to reduce my carbon footprint, I feel somewhat ridiculous, knowing what a minuscule drop in the bucket my efforts really are. What am I next to polluting fossil fuel industries belching carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, or to logging corporations leveling rainforests, destroying habitat and carbon neutralizing powers? I am not even a grain of sand.

Last July, I finally made it to Glacier National Park, a place I’d been trying to see for almost three years. In my first two attempts, I was thwarted because of intense fires burning throughout the park. When I finally lucked out with the weather in 2019, weather which is dicey for most of the year, my happiness was dashed when I received the following information from the park guides: “It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, around the end of the Little Ice Age and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2015, measurements of glacier area indicate that there were 26 remaining glaciers larger than 25 acres.” The remaining glaciers are expected to be gone by 2030. With my relentless awareness of the political schism in this country and many others around the world, along with constant anxiety about the natural world, I have created a storm of free-floating anxiety.

Big thoughts, big worries. Over the years, I’ve learned that when “big” gets out of hand, the best approach is to break things down into smaller manageable pieces. Tackling little slices which can then go away becomes its own reward. Easier to deal with a single slice rather than the whole thing.

That works when I can exercise control within the context of my little life. But these global anxieties are outside my pie-cutting wheelhouse so I need to turn to other coping skills within my grasp. One tack I’ve employed involves my engagement with my immediate small world. When using social media, I punctuate my pithy political articles with interruptions like nature photos, flowers, clouds, birds and sea life. I’m posting a painting almost every day, from multiple genres, to remind myself along with others that there’s still so much beauty to appreciate in this world.

I’m practicing my own version of meditation. Generally that involves closing my eyes, consciously relaxing the parts of my body that feel tight or crunched up and listening to slow rhythmic music or nature sounds that deepen my ability to detach from the overarching load of the big issues. I don’t have a mantra or whatever else classic meditation involves but I’ve achieved what for me is as close to a Zen state as I can manage. What’s most interesting is that when I move into a mental space that hovers somewhere between consciousness and sleep, I find myself doing an interior sort of time travel through the chambers of memory.

Sometimes I find myself with my grandparents, especially in their apartment on 78th and East End on the south side of Chicago. We lived around the corner from them and were frequent visitors to their house. When you entered the vestibule on the first floor, a glass door separated that small room from the stairway that we climbed to their third floor apartment. The smell of my grandmother’s cooking seeped into that room, wafting into the mailboxes or so I imagined. The smells were of chicken soup and rendered fat mixed with onions. Fragrant peppery aromas of heavily seasoned meats were there, along with the buttery scent of golden, eggy bread. I am in a chair at the table with my legs swinging, eating slices of rye bread slathered with apricot jam, a bowl of sweet cantaloupe chunks in a bowl on the side. My grandmother speaks loudly in a thick Eastern European accent, a somewhat harsh woman, but yet generous.

I can be in the butterfly house at the Indianapolis Zoo on a hot summer day years ago when my son and I took a day trip to spend a little time together. I was telling him that I was a butterfly whisperer as the clouds of exotic species fluttered around us. He was rolling his eyes at my absurdity when suddenly a blue morpho landed on my toe and lingered there for a long time, attracted by sweat, suntan lotion and my red nail polish. A unique moment in time.

I feel the hot sand under my feet, the ocean swirling around my legs, my arms cutting through lake water as I kick seaweed aside. I feel the quiet, random, disconnected thoughts and images that appear and disappear whenever I’m immersed in swimming, which perhaps is my most unconscious while conscious state of being anywhere. I wander through the corridors of motherhood. I smell the tops of my babies’ heads, with the faint aroma of baby shampoo and lotion mingled with whatever that sensory magic is that you miss when it’s gone. I run the reels of them leaping into the air or across a field, the gifts of speed and athletic talent genetically sprinkled into them and lined up so perfectly for me to admire.

There are the times when I wander through the powerful emotional visions of my life. I see my father struggling with his failed coronary bypass surgery, railing that he refuses to have one more intervention. Then I bring my seven month old baby girl to his bedside who screeches in recognition of his face which in turn, causes him to reverse his decision and gamble for more life. Years later, facing certain death from cancer, he bemoans the time he won’t have with my little boy, not yet three, whose entrance into my dad’s world gave him more time to nurture my baby than he’d had as a young man with his own children. I see the profound look my son and my mother exchanged so many years later when she lay in her bed the night before she died. She got the years my father never had.

And of course, there are the many moments of me with Michael from our decades together and these few years apart. I can feel the surge of heat that coursed through my body the first time that he accidentally kissed the corner of my mouth in the kitchen as we washed dishes together. I can be in the front seat of our car on one of many road trips when we rapidly switched from life’s daily tensions to the more languid mood of vacation in our perfect synchrony as travel partners. Or I am by his side in a movie theater where we spent countless hours, hands twined together as we watched anything from the mediocre to the sublime. Even with his corporeal absence during these last few years, I can feel his breath on my neck, the pressure of his thigh against me, the sense of inhaling his essence as I hear the music which evokes the intensity of us that still exists for me.

And so I restore myself and find the energy from my inner resources to turn back to the big issues and face them down again. Alternating between the big and little, big and little, which is essentially what life really is, all strung together, taking turns, making its demands on all of us. So far, I’m still able to make things work. More corners to turn…

One thought on “Big and Little”

  1. Beautifully captures my own version of the thought flow you describe…. sometimes bitter, other times sweet but definitely more prevalent as I get older.
    Visual, olfactory and tactile as well as emotional dimensions can sometimes be overwhelming. That’s when I know it’s time to pull myself back to the present, big and little issues.

Leave a Reply