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.
Grappling with the day–to-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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.