Four Hour Feels

I woke up to great gardening weather today and vowed to put in some hard work for the bulk of the afternoon. In an effort to stay as safe as possible while still being able to access what I need, I dipped into the leftover mask and glove pile from my husband’s immunocompromised days, and headed to the hardware store drive-through to pick up more bags of online-purchased mulch. There was a line of gray hairs in their cars, doing the same thing as me. I glanced at my rearview mirror and saw a vehicle behind me, occupied by two older women, also wearing masks. The passenger side person wore her mask positioned slightly over her upper lip, leaving her nose completely uncovered. The driver’s mask came to a point somewhere in the middle of her philtrum, which is the technical name for the space between the nose and the mouth. All I could do was shake my head in exasperation while thinking, “we’re all doomed.” After all, a face mask isn’t exactly a complex piece of technology. No wonder the younger generation mocks the boomers.

While waiting for my order, I got a text message from my friend Randy, who in recent months, must be going through boxes of things he hasn’t seen in awhile, because he keeps finding old photos of me. This one is somewhere between 35 and 40 years ago. I sat in my car staring at it, waves of nostalgia coming up from my depths. I remember having a reddish cast to my hair for a long time. For the life of me I have no clue why I, a person with naturally wavy hair ever chose to have a permanent, but the picture doesn’t lie. And try though I might, I can’t deny that at one point, a mullet was my hairdo of choice.

After retrieving my mulch, I drove home, but before I got to work, I paused to take a few photos of the blooms that had popped up in the garden during the last few days. Every spring I wait anxiously to see which of these guys made it through another winter. Many years ago, in a feeble effort to emulate Thomas Jefferson’s garden diaries, I started my own journal of every flower, vine, ornamental grass, shrub and tree that I’ve planted in this rich soil. The sad times are when they don’t come back, their pages marked with a “gone” date. The good times are when I marvel at the ones that reappear over and over for their brief moments of glory. “Still blooming,” I write along with the year. The saga of nature in my little world.

I take a minute to look up, always enjoying the mix of clouds passing overhead and the blue, blue sky. The transience of life is reflected in the overhead movement. The metaphor isn’t lost on me and somehow provides more comfort than uncertainty. Plugging in my headphones, my shuffling stations provide a rhythm for slinging pitchforks full of cypress bark over the remains of last year’s attempts to beat the weeds. I like laboring outside in this space which we wrested from neglect almost 42 years ago. The birds seem louder this season, maybe because the ambient sounds of city life are so diminished during this time of quarantine. They’re drawn here by protective habitat spaces, full birdfeeders and suet holders. Sometimes I play birdcalls on my phone to call in cardinals and wrens. My son taught me a universal psh-psh-psh sound that is effective in making curious birds come close. I don’t understand it at all but it works. I feel like a proletarian Cinderella when they flutter nearby. No helpful rodents, though.

I cover a good-sized area with a three inch layer of mulch. I’m having a good time. I start having the most peculiar but warming visions of Michael, working with his garden tools in what used to be his vegetable garden. He was tall and rangy, constantly hefting garden timbers and old paving bricks into geometrically balanced designs to enhance the looks of his edible domain. I stand still, literally watching a movie of him in my head, seeing him dressed in his old tank tops and baggy shorts, loving his time in the dirt. I drift to over to that space, happy to see that in the herb sections, his perennials are reappearing after so many years. I’ve turned that big area into a flower garden for pollinators but I left the chives, sage and thyme which smell delicious, are useful for my scaled-down cooking needs and are a sweet reminder of the happy seasons we worked together for so long. I still plant tomatoes and peppers but nowhere near in number to what my inveterate canner did back in his days.

My flowers are making an appearance as well. I planted a few new species of peony back there, along with butterfly bushes, bee balm, daisies and sunflowers. Rosebuds are already forming. Milkweed is ordered and will be delivered soon. I’m imagining days which combine both garden maintenance and relaxing, along with doing my part to help threatened monarchs. Last year was a good one for them but there’s a lot left to be done.

The day is coming along as I’d hoped. I do feel annoyance as I inspect the yard and find what feel like a thousand roofing nails and sharp strands of aluminum, cigarette butts and other bits of debris that were left behind by the construction crew who finally finished siding my house. I’ve been picking it all up and saving it in a big pile. All this accomplishes is getting myself annoyed, but I haven’t been able to stop yet. At least, I finally was able to get the wretched gutter-hanging job they did corrected. That was quite the battle.

Part of my challenge during this isolation period has been finding a way to feel productive. My life has felt unstructured for a long time, one of the pitfalls of both retirement and widowhood. I can’t go to the pool and I can’t take classes. I can’t attend meetings and can’t work from home because I’m jobless. I can’t volunteer because of social distancing. Don’t get me wrong – the luxury of this time is something I don’t take for granted. So far my pension and Social Security are safe. I have health insurance, food and utilities. I’m keenly aware that my issues pale in comparison to millions of people who are teetering on the edge of chaos. I hope not to lose sight of my privilege, ever. But there’s a lot of alone time for me these days, and as I reflect on how not to squander my time, seeing something concrete get done is really important to me. This afternoon is just what I needed. That is until one note of a song on my random playlist popped up and elicited an unexpected convulsive crying jag. It was Harvest Moon by Neil Young, one of a few tunes whose lyrics really brought the romance on for Michael and me. We used to dance to it like young kids in what we called the “blue room” in our house, a simple way of directing the kids to go get something when they were little. “It’s in the blue room,” or “it’s in the orange room.” Easy instructions. Anyway, we’d press against each other and sway around, so happy that we hadn’t lost what brought us together after all our years. When Michael was in the hospital for 32 days, sometimes confused, flat and dark, I’d play Harvest Moon amongst a few other songs, and it never failed to bring him back from where he was, looking my way with love and recognition. I was suddenly a hot mess. I went into the garage and sat in my car, listening to every last note as I looked at the ratty old photo pin of the two of us, taken at Disney World about a million years ago, the pin that dangles from my rear view mirror. I am still hopelessly in love with this dead guy and that’s how it is.

And then, the song is over. I blow my nose, wipe my eyes and go back to the garden, spreading every last bag of mulch until I’ve covered everything I set out to do this day. My body is tired but that’s just fine. I sit outside for a few minutes and realize that in four hours, I’ve felt so much. Exasperation, nostalgia, gratitude. Pleasure, feeling contemplative, annoyance. And finally love and sadness. I packed a lot into a little time, my actions with intent, my emotions flowing freely. I took one last look up at the sky before I went inside. There was a late afternoon moon overhead and I snapped a photo. The juxtaposition of day and night seemed a fitting way to call it a day.

Real Life

I know these daffodils are real life. I planted the bulbs from which they emerge in a particular garden spot – they were supposed to bloom in late March and here they are. There are already more where those came from. Soon flowering shrubs and tulips will be appearing as they have for the many years I’ve lived in my home.

Right now my house is a quiet place as it has been for the almost three years since Michael died. For periods of time, my traveling biologist son has stayed here and at those times, the house fills with the noise of life. But right now he’s self-quarantined, out of town after hastily returning from work abroad, forced out of Panama before his work was done, because the borders were going to close due to the pandemic.

The truth is, even under normal circumstances, his stays are temporary. I’ve gotten accustomed to living on my own. And yet, most of what had become usual no longer feels like real life. I’m supposed to stay home. That necessity makes perfect sense to me. But the imposed isolation is very unreal as is my strong effort to comply with the “flatten the curve” plan. I’m usually a rule breaker, but I’m much less so because of these health considerations, not just for me but for others. However, I also have to admit, that after 25 years of having a mother who depended on me for so many of her needs, I don’t much like the idea of becoming an extra chore for anyone. I have to find ways to be myself, try not to hurt anyone else along the way. Another factor affecting my behavior is the fact that I was really sick earlier this year, in February. I felt worse than I can ever remember feeling, so sick that for the first time in my life, I felt really vulnerable. I thought a lot about age then, and wondered if this was just the way of things, as a person begins the inexorable slide to the end of life, absent an acute health crisis. Because I write a lot, I thought I’d go back to that sickness and read both my journal and my notes to Michael, which will one day, apparently fill volumes. What I found made me wonder if I might have had Covid19.

February 1, 2020

Hi baby,
Wanna hear about my PTSD? While I sat in the car today at a stoplight, I watched a guy in his car next to me touch his mouth, his nose, his eyes and his hair in under 30 seconds. There’s this coronavirus going around that apparently started in Wuhan, China. With people like him, a lot of folks could contract it in no time. Is this a weird form of population control? I haven’t been able to stop watching what people do to spread contagion since you got sick. 

February 4th, 2020

Hi baby,
Ugh. What first? I’m really sick. I have a fever of almost 101. For me, whose normal temp is usually 97.6, that’s really high. Deep, painful dry cough. My body aches everywhere.

February 6th, 2020

Dear Michael,
I am so fucking sick with this flu. I’m just finishing my third day with fever and an incredibly painful cough. It’s been a long time since I felt this terrible, if ever. When I looked around the house for medicine to help with symptoms, everything had expired in 2017. Elisabeth had to drop some off.  All I’ve done is sit on my ass and stare at television. 

February 8th, 2020

Dear Michael,
I’m feeling a teeny bit better. I still am a gelatinous mass going between our bed and my chair, but still, a little better. Today I remembered that time we were in line at the Auditorium, waiting to see Little Feat, and my ticket blew out of my hand. I wish I was shivering with you in the cold right now. 

February 10th, 2020

Dear Michael,
I was able to go to class today. I’m still out of it, but better…My senses of taste and smell are virtually gone right now. I hope they come back.

February 12th, 2020

Hi baby,
I feel like a veg. Even though I’m better, I feel a heaviness in my bronchial tubes and I’m still coughing. For some reason, that makes me feel remarkably vulnerable. I haven’t been swimming in over a week…I’ve run out of energy. Maybe life or age or both have caught up with me. I don’t know…I miss you. Restoring myself is getting harder. I wish I could see you reflecting me back at myself. If you know what I mean…

February 24th, 2020

Dear Michael

I have no idea what’s going on with me. I haven’t felt great since I got the flu a few weeks ago. It feels like all the fatigue of the past eight years has caught up with me. Is it just age? Is it my emotional frame of mind? Am I getting a chronic disease? Who knows? 

So. Could I have had this thing? Maybe. I live in a university community which has a lot of people movement between here and abroad. The virus was below the radar until late December. There was plenty of time for it to show up anywhere in the world by early February. I never went to a doctor. My symptoms sound very much like the ones that appear classic for the coronavirus. I’m in the old people group but I don’t have any severe co-morbidities. Everyone doesn’t die. Maybe I had it and just finally got better. I wish I could take a serum antibody test to see if anything would show up in my bloodstream. But given the glacial pace of testing and all the poor people who are in acute distress, that’s a long way off. Maybe I just had a hideous case of flu, despite my having been vaccinated. Nothing’s perfect, a good thing to remember as the hunt for a vaccine for this bug proceeds. One thing is certain: whether I may have had it or not, I certainly want to do what I can to never feel that dreadful again. Which brings me back to real life, or at least the facsimile of it which many of us (I hope) are leading right now.

For the five years that Michael had cancer, I was determined that if he had to die, he needed to die of his disease and not some opportunistic germ. So I stocked up on supplies like masks, hand sanitizers, sterile gloves and cleaning wipes that kill almost everything. When the pandemic hit, I was well-supplied. I took the photo above to send my son who doesn’t want me leaving the house. Showing him I was being careful made me laugh. Up until this point in time, when I’d be zealously cleaning, he’d remind me that I wasn’t immunocompromised. Not so much right now. So yes, I’ve gone out.

My friend Debbie and I met in an out of the way field and chatted about life and self-reflections and this time’s interesting demands on our thought processes and behaviors. I joined my daughter and grandson for a walk around our neighborhood, picking up trash and effecting positive change.

I went for a drive to see how the world looked when most people were following our state’s order to stay away from people. Lots of empty parking lots except for the urban geese, who seem perfectly fine and who are definitely safer now than perhaps ever. And I marveled at the drop in gas prices which haven’t been this low in a long time.

I found out that the big home improvement stores allow you to make purchases online for garden projects which you can then pick up in their back lots while never being near another person. Someone simply scans your email receipt with no physical contact, from 6 feet away. I’d used my last paver that I decorate with rocks and shells. It’s also mulch time for the garden. I was able to get my supplies in a safe way and simultaneously give myself healthy activities to while away the days and nights. Technology is definitely my friend right now.

I’m reading a lot. I’m kind of all over the place because there’s my news obsession which takes up a certain portion of my day. I also play Words with Friends, which is just really Scrabble, to keep my brain agile.

Then there’s my fan girl stuff. One of my favorite musicians, Pete Yorn, has been performing mini-gigs on Instagram. He’s been warm, thoughtful, and funny in addition to playing great sets. Watching alone but seeing hundreds of other viewers online is surprisingly homey.

I was also really happy to see Roger Federer pop up today. He’s been recovering from knee surgery which would have kept him out of tournaments until mid-June. Now no one else can play either. He posted a little video of himself playing in the cold of Switzerland. That, in addition, to his donating a million dollars for virus relief, makes me adore him even more. Hence, the life-sized cutout that my son got for me as a home companion. That really works for me right now.

I remain grateful for the beautiful clouds in the big midwestern sky. Having a car where I can be distancing away while out in the country is comforting and soothing. One day, this pandemic will come to an end. But some of the good parts of being alone will still be here.

And there’s always me and my ghost which is still the greatest comfort of all. I’m thinking since we appear to be in for the long haul, I’m going to go back to writing my memories of my life and to finish the story of Michael’s and his orphan cancer. I hope all of you are well. And mostly, as sane as you can be, considering our circumstances.

Strawberries and Privilege

In this period of isolation, time gets blurry. It’s hard to believe that only two weeks ago I was in sunny Florida. Aside from the great pleasure of dipping my feet into the Gulf of Mexico, enjoying a powdery white beach with my old friends, and appreciating the antics of shore bird life, the treat of ripe, fresh, flavorful produce in the dead of winter was especially gratifying. I loved the strawberries and golden pineapple. Healthy, sweet and firm fruits and vegetables are part of life’s pleasures. That is, if you’re lucky.

My friend and I spent a few hours strolling through a lovely farmer’s market where the abundance of food, baked goods and crafts were both a palate-pleasing and a visual treat. In my part of the world there are brief periods of time when seasonal lush fruits appear at my local market but truly, they pale in comparison to what I tasted in the heart of strawberry country. When I returned from my trip, the shelter in place rules were really ramping up. I made a trip to the closest supermarket and got enough supplies to last a few weeks. But the perishable items go quickly. By yesterday, I was craving strawberries.

Can a fruit have emotional significance? The picture above is my mother and her younger sister. I don’t have many photos of my mom in her early life. She told lots of stories about her childhood. When she was born she was very tiny and her mother told her she looked like a little rat. That was just the beginning of the conflictual relationship between the two of them. My grandmother had eight live births. Mom was number four. Her sister Gertrude was three years younger. Gertrude died of a heart defect caused by rheumatic fever when she was 10 and my mom was thirteen. One of the great traumas of mom’s young life. Always a fussy eater, apparently nothing improved after that loss. A person who was sick frequently, she always said her issues were probably caused in part by her rotten diet. She always said she would only eat a chicken leg, an ear of corn and as many sweets as she could get. But she loved strawberries. I heard her tales so many times when I was growing up. After awhile, perhaps by some strange osmosis, I always associated strawberries with her, tying them to a familial connection that went beyond simply enjoying them. Sometimes I just really need them although they’re not what I’d call a traditional comfort food.

In my community, grocery deliveries, which had been available for awhile, are now doing thriving business as people hunker down at home. There are delivery fees and tips involved but for me, a person who really hates shopping, the extra costs are worth it. So I placed an order, hoping that in this time of hoarding and empty grocery shelves, I’d get at least some of my requests. Your shopper communicates with you via text message and sometimes there are misunderstandings. But in the end, when my delivery came, I had a container of organic strawberries, large, red and unbruised, and twice as much as I’d ordered. No big deal.

I set aside enough for me to consume two servings for two days and split the rest into freezer bags to be enjoyed later. I was really delighted to be “strawberry secure” for a time. That is until I started feeling guilty about the advantages of my privilege. People all over the world are hungry and I’m busy with my berries. That’s kind of grotesque. I suppose that giving myself a treat doesn’t make me a terrible person. But I don’t want to be so self-involved that I forget the bigger picture. Guilty thoughts routinely enter my consciousness. Mostly I’m glad that they do. I never want to get so encapsulated in those unconscious bubbles of existence which isolate people, making them able to see the world through their own very limited lenses. That kind of thinking creeps up on you. Suddenly you just can’t understand how what other people believe and what they do and why they’re so different from you. And most especially, how many live because of their economic limits. When you forget your advantages, it’s easy to be unaware of the challenges facing others who aren’t so lucky. So often I see people making assumptions that everyone around them shares their views and their means while they unconsciously send messages that are tone-deaf and alienating. I don’t want to be them.

Awareness is a tough task to accomplish on a daily basis. Our lives, our wants, our needs, and our means shape the way we process the world. I think that for me, my most significant privilege stems from my ability to think clearly, at least most of the time. I get to assess myself and recognize that relative to what’s happening to so many others, I’m doing pretty well. I can take the occasional trip. I can order groceries for delivery. My water comes on when I twist a faucet. My furnace works. I have a television that turns on. I have a car. And I can pay for gas to put in its tank. At this moment, when a mutant virus has turned the world into a quarantine camp, I am not presently being treated for cancer or some other life-compromising disease. What extra unimaginable fear comes with that?

Every few weeks, a woman comes to my house and cleans all the stuff that I can’t manage as well as I used to when I was young. The fact is, my house is too big for me now. But who would move when their grandchildren live right across the street? That’s another privilege – having a child who liked you enough to build a life right next to yours. So with the social distancing, I had to cancel my helper. But I paid her anyway. There wasn’t even a question about that. She may be illegal for all I know. What I do know is that she has no economic backup. I could never have let her go without income. Again I think of my privilege. I worked for a long time and earned my way to a sustaining pension. What happens in the investment world has no impact on me. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. Yet my checks will come. And I can order strawberries from the grocery store.

I drove around for awhile today and looked at the world. I was thinking about how even with some of the hassles on my current life list, I’m doing okay. I know that tomorrow could bring anything. But for now, I’m grateful for my privileged life.

Stream of Consciousness

March 20th. Well over five decades ago, my friend Fern and I designated this date as a celebratory anniversary, a day when we acknowledged who we loved, who we thought we’d love forever. Of course we shared the date with each other, rather than with those long ago boys, because somewhere in the back of our minds, we knew we’d be more likely to have each other as time went by instead of them. So smart we were, so prescient. We did have each other, for another twenty five years or so, until Fern’s lifelong demons finally overran her when she ended her life at only 37 years of age. I’ve carried on in her absence, now having lived longer without her than I lived with her. What an impossibly strange concept. I still haven’t forgotten so much that lay between us, brilliantly vivid and exquisitely alive memories so real that I can’t fathom I’ve come all this way, experiencing so much that we weren’t able to share. We were supposed to sit in rocking chairs together when we’d grown old, harmonizing to Beatles’ songs, me doing Paul’s parts while she did John’s. I hate the reality of how life worked out.

And then there is my beloved Michael, also still so alive and present in the air around me, in the viscosity of my inner being. I’m coming up on three years since his death – I take comfort in knowing that I can’t possibly live as long without him as I did with him. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about both my grief and my steely core of strength. Some psychologists say there are 5 stages of grief, others say 7, or even 12. I don’t know how many there are but I can safely say that for me, there doesn’t seem to be any particular order to it. I’m not in denial and I’m not guilty. I’m still mad that he’s gone, which I usually am anyway about all kinds of things. I wish I could get Michael back every day. I’m more adjusted to his physical absence because time does that. I’ve made some new memories and had good experiences. But I’ll admit that every time I read anything about 3D printing, I realize I still have his dimensions and I don’t see why I can’t get a copy of him to hang out with, especially during this time of pandemic and uncertainty. Sound a little strange? I don’t care.

Speaking of social distancing, one of its unforeseen advantages for me has been the fact that a number of artists have taken it upon themselves to share their gifts on social media. One of them is the musician Pete Yorn, a guitarist I had the pleasure of seeing in concert last year in St. Louis. For the past three mornings, he’s given a live performance on Instagram. In addition to playing, he chats about his songs and hollers to his daughter while sipping his morning coffee. Listening to him is like a meditation, a little rowdier, maybe, but something that allows for momentary peace.

Finding a bit of peace in this uniquely scary time is a challenge. My mind ricochets from one idea to another. One minute I’m worrying about how the coronavirus will affect the continent of Africa. Then I’m thinking that the sanctions on Iran are inhumane during a worldwide pandemic. That thought gets displaced when I learn that Iran’s supreme leader rejected a US offer of aid. Next I’m worrying about the Tokyo Olympics. And I’m always wondering if there will be a real election this November that will remove Donald Trump from my sight. Life never ceases to mystify me.

The next thing I know, I’m off on a trivial tangent. A photo sent to me by an old friend, taken about 40 years ago, has evoked a memory I hadn’t revisited in a long time. I was looking at my hairdo in the photo and I recalled its name, “the lioness shag.” This was a creation by a local hairdresser whose salon is long gone, a bank building now standing in its place. Or maybe the style wasn’t his creation. I think Rod Stewart wore his hair that way for decades. Moving ahead…on our third wedding anniversary, Michael and I had planned to go out for a fancy dinner. I left work a little early and went to get my shag haircut, to make myself look dazzling. I also decided to add a little pizazz by having highlights added to my hair color. I remember being excited and a little nervous.

To get these highlights, a rubber cap with small holes was squeezed onto your head, and with some tool like a small crochet hook, the stylist would pull random hair strands through the holes and then lighten them. This was a lengthy process and expensive for my means. After it was finally done, my hair dried and styled, it was clear that nothing had happened. My hair had stayed the same color. I didn’t want to pay all my hard-earned cash for nothing so I got the guy to try it again. All for naught. My hair stayed the same boring brown shade. I think I was there in that salon for two and a half hours. In the days of no cell phones, I couldn’t call Michael to tell him where I was, why I was late. When I finally dashed home and went into the house, he was gone. He’d gotten insulted because he thought I’d forgotten our anniversary and left in a huff. I hadn’t thought about that in years until I saw my hair in that picture. My guy had a volcanic temper. But I could get past it most of the time.

During these many days that have rolled, some already behind me and more out ahead of me, I’ve been gratified by the different people who’ve reached out to check on me. There’s something quite touching about knowing that my existence enters the consciousness of those who aren’t part of my daily life any more. They remember I’m out here, and for those who choose to pay attention to the abundance of caution and warnings for my age group, they realize I’m living on my own, that I might be vulnerable. From my old boyfriends from my teens to the young people I’ve inherited through my kids’ lives, concern about my well-being has popped up in the sweetest ways. Even as I still tussle with the annoying concept of my having proceeded to the head of the mortality line, it’s nice to know that I still resonate with friends outside my family, friends who want me to be well, to stick around for awhile. One guy reminded me that I had to make sure I was bolstering my immune system. Check.

I do have some little tricks I’ve always depended on to transport me out of stressful times. Aromatherapy does wonders for me. The first perfume I ever received was Shalimar by Guerlain. My boyfriend Rich handed me a package at my locker on my fifteenth birthday. When I opened it I felt so sophisticated, so important. I used it very sparingly, hoping it would last for a long time. Once I had enough money to buy my own, I’ve always kept a bottle around. Its scent reminds me of innocence and hope and possibilities. I’m wearing it right now. And then there’s Coppertone. That smell takes me to Lake Michigan and Rainbow Beach, the place I learned to swim. A little dab of it shifts my mind to sunny days, warm skin and bracing water. Before I retired, I always kept a bottle of it on my desk in my windowless office, to help stave off the doldrums of long grey wintry days. When coworkers entered my space, a little whiff of it was evocative for them as well. I pulled out my lotion at the beginning of this isolation period and use it as hand cream. Its magic power is still working.

The other day, my daughter and I decided we were probably safe enough to get together for awhile as we’d all been hunkered down without any social contact for days. On our list of things to do was showing my eldest grandson the 1938 Robin Hood movie starring Errol Flynn. My mom had passed on her love of movies to me. Michael and I were both serious film junkies and in turn, exposed our kids to our favorites. I went to dig out the DVD to bring across the street for our event. I haven’t watched a DVD in a long time because DVR’s and streaming services have essentially eliminated the need for them. When I went hunting, I ran into Michael’s ridiculously huge collection of them, alphabetized, of course. He used lots of them in the class he’d developed for his high school students – Modern American History through Film and Music. I knew he had a lot of movies but there might be thousands in his storage area on a corner shelving unit. I pulled out a few, some of which like “Tarzan Finds a Son,” made me laugh out loud. I’m thinking that if the social distancing becomes a way of life for more weeks, I might trying watching them all in order. That is, if I can get the ancient DVD player to work. Somehow, writing the rest of Michael’s orphan cancer story right now just doesn’t seem to be a good option in this most strange period in time. More irrelevant ramblings to come…

Thoughts From My Bunker

I just got a little distracted from my train of thought. I was watching a news show which was emphasizing the positive efforts being made by entertainers to help people to stay at home, to “flatten the curve,” in an effort to curb CORVID-19. My screen flashed to John Legend at his piano, belting out a lovely song. What I didn’t get was why his wife, Chrissy Teigen, was sitting on the piano in a towel, her hair wrapped in a turban, ultimately reaching for deodorant, which she then mimed applying to her armpit. I’m just not sure about that message but I guess I’ll just put it aside in light of other thoughts.

With the social distancing admonition firmly planted in my head, I’ve decided to work on my list of assignments. I don’t really mind being by myself which is a definite advantage in these times which demand that we stay away from people. I have my outside work and my inside work. Outside I went. I started with picking my way through the bits of debris that lay scattered through my yard after having my house sided. Nails, shards of vinyl, and cigarette butts pop up everywhere, even after a first pass through each section of grass and driveway. I figure it’ll take quite awhile to get everything picked up. I worry about animals getting cut or ingesting something harmful. Not to mention my deep desire not to step on the absurdly painful roofing nails that are sneaky and hidden in covert places. While enjoying the spring air and sunshine, I also spent some time removing the weeds and grasses that already were pushing their way up between the bricks on my cobblestone sidewalk. I do love the way the bricks look but when they get overrun by opportunistic greenery, they get slick and dangerous. It’s a never ending struggle. Left to its own devices, nature has its way. While yanking away at those, and eventually turning to feeding my March blooms that are poking up, I can’t help but ponder how despite our efforts to bend the world to our plans, the natural world is quietly doing what it will, permission granted by us humans or not.

I check out a little pile of the many rocks I’ve collected throughout my life. Shells, too. They’re scattered everywhere, different colors, shapes and sizes. I’ve always been greedy about picking them up, having a hard time thinking I have enough already. Kind of like trying to eat just a few potato chips out of a full bag. They’re not just pretty little baubles to me. With the rocks, I wonder how old they are and what happened near them before I scooped them up. What lived in those striations running through them? Where did they come from, through glacier movements and flowing water? Who touched them besides me? They all bear silent stories. And the shells. All once occupied by sea creatures. What was their life span? Were they eaten or did they die of their version of old age? Why is there so much variation in color that is fundamentally invisible? Or is that my human egotism, assuming the color has no purpose because while alive, that color isn’t visible to me? Only by death and the shells washing ashore, empty, can any people besides scuba divers enjoy the fabulous rainbows of the depths. I know there are people who study all these questions. I don’t want to be scientific about my collections, though. I just want to feel the textures, note the diversity and muse about them. If I get too serious, I don’t think I’d have as much fun as I do in my gathering.

There are some of these beauties that I’ve used to decorate pavers in my garden. I’ve written the places they came from on the bottoms of the bricks so I can enjoy the huge variations from different parts of this country and other places I’ve traveled. And of course there are similarities I’ve noticed as well.

While ruminating about these gifts from the earth during my outdoor assignments, I find my mind drifting to the sea change in people’s lives since the novel coronavirus swept into our consciousness and around the globe. I’ve heard it referred to by my country’s president as “the Chinese virus,” in a hateful, xenophobic way. This virus has no nationality or ethnic origin, any more than my rocks or shells do. It is an outgrowth of nature, an organism doing its thing, albeit a frightening and destructive one for us humans. It has no intent. It replicates and transfers itself to hosts. It is opportunistic. In a very short period of time, it has altered life as many people knew it. Its effects are producing frightening scenarios of pain, death and even economic disaster. I think of the enormous asteroid that struck the earth, darkened the sky and blotted out countless life forms. This event is tiny compared to that, but to us, it feels huge. Yet I can’t help but think of some slight positive effects on the planet as human activity is curtailed by the virus.

Pollution over China and Italy has dropped precipitously. In the canals of Venice, usually cloudy and tainted by the constant traffic of gondolas, the water has cleared. Swans and dolphins have appeared for the first time in a long while.

Maybe the world is doing a little balancing, if only for a brief moment. Certainly the cost of human life right now is frightening and tragic. But we impose our needs on the natural world in destructive ways on a regular basis. Does nature get its way every now and then? Feeling things out of control is scary for us cognitive types. Nature just gets overrun. No one us making a deliberate attempt to foil us. But sometimes I wonder if our sense of control is all a fantasy anyway. I know that for me, trying as hard as I could to control parts of life came to nothing in the end. It’s not easy to surrender to those things just beyond our control. Choice isn’t always an option.

I go into the house. It’s time for indoor assignments. Today I need to write my grandsons about what they are currently living through in these days of COVID-19. I have tasked myself with taking notes about their lives during the course of each year and writing them each a summary letter on their birthdays. I did the same thing for my two kids who opened them all on their 18th birthdays. It was fun for them to read all the little things and some big ones too that they didn’t remember. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to write each of them 18 letters or whether I’ll be around to see them read any of them. That doesn’t matter. I’ll do them until I can’t. So far, I’ve handed nine for one and six for the other to my daughter who’ll turn them over to her kids when it’s time. But this moment in time deserves a letter of its own. We are living through a moment in history which is unique and important. I don’t know what long term changes may come from this worldwide event. But I want the boys, who will likely have some memory of it, to have a bigger picture, albeit from my point of view. So I wrote it.

March 18th, 2020

Dear Gabriel and Tristan,
Hi, my wonderful grandsons. I’ve kind of fallen down on my job of keeping track of your fun events and sayings for the past few months. This year has started out kind of “not great.” I was really sick for awhile and it took me by surprise. I’m not used to being sick and I struggled with getting used to the idea that I could be vulnerable. I’ve always been strong and healthy. But I know that I’ve spent almost seven decades alive and eventually even strong people slow down. Then I went away to visit friends in Florida. And for the past few weeks, things have been very unusual. So I’m going to tell you about what’s been happening. 
I’m writing you now from an unprecedented time in United States History. This is the time of the worldwide pandemic from the novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19. From what is known, the virus originated in bats and was then transmitted to an intermediary animal which found its way into a live food market not well known for best health practices in Wuhan, China. In different parts of the world, wild and exotic animals are trafficked for human consumption. For some, eating these animals is done because of economic necessity. For others, it’s done for novelty, for being different. To me all the reasons are bad. The virus started getting noticed in Wuhan in December, 2019. Because we live in a world where people can move quickly around the globe, transmission of it took off and is now present in close to 140 countries. At least that’s what has been reported. Maybe it’s even more than that. 
Although there were reports about the dangers associated with this virus that has no vaccine and no treatment, our country did not mount a significant effort to address the potential dangers for several weeks. We live in the Presidency of Donald J. Trump. I’m certain that history will remember him as the worst leader we’ve ever had. A spoiled, wealthy television personality with an ego that is staggeringly narcissistic, he is the most ignorant, belligerent bully I’ve ever seen. He’s almost a caricature of a real person. I try thinking of how his election came about. Was it a backlash to our first and only black president? Was it hatred for Hilary Clinton, the first woman candidate for president? She actually won the popular vote, but our archaic electoral college system awarded the prize to this arrogant liar whose years in office have been a stunning dystopian universe from which the most obvious manifestation is a rush backward in ideological time. One day you’ll study this on a broader scale than I can manage in this letter. Suffice it to say that this presidency has hovered like a dark cloud over virtually everything. The fact that it encompassed your grandfather’s death has made it even more challenging for our family.
So then, after all the madness and angst so many of us feel under the yoke of his administration, here comes this viral plague. It has almost felt biblical, although I myself don’t actually believe in those things. Around the world there have been hundreds of thousands of cases and many deaths. There are going to be many more. 
Life gas changed profoundly and fast. Gabriel, you and your mom were supposed to be on a trip to Spain for spring break. The border between our country and Spain is closed. Tristan, you and your dad were supposed to be visiting your other grandparents in Michigan. That was called off. School  has been cancelled everywhere and we don’t know if it will resume this semester. All sports have cancelled their seasons. Restaurants and bars are closed. So are many public facilities like gyms, pools and amusement parks. Movie theaters are closed and Broadway and music concerts are gone. Some things are being made available over the Internet. But we are all supposed to be practicing “social distancing,” which means staying away from people. Testing for the virus has been too slow. That means that as testing increases we’ll be getting more cases. The health care professionals are short on supplies and hospitals are low on beds and ventilators. There are two large Navy warships that are utilized in military crises. They will now be deployed to hold virus patients; one will be floating in New York harbor. 
Our economy is crashing. The stock market has fallen by thousands of points, wiping out savings for countless people. All the closures are going to result in huge numbers of unemployed people, perhaps as many as 20% of the population. The government is trying to infuse money into people’s hands to stem the tide of economic disaster. Could we be heading toward a depression like the one in the late 1920’s and 1930’s? By the time you read this I’m sure you’ll have studied this in school. At least I hope so. 
Right now you guys are just a little bored. You know there’s something going on but aside from a little worry, you’re both ok. I hope things stay that way. I think you’ll probably remember parts of this. But I just wanted you to know that you were living through something pretty worldshaking when you were 9 and 6. Love you guys,
Grandma

So that was today, filled with my thoughts. Many years ago, my beloved and very humorous husband, would look at me bemusedly, and quote a line at me from the film ” Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Yup. Still thinking, Michael.

Baby, I Can Drive My Car

I’m taking the COVID-19 situation very seriously. Not only do I not want to get it, I also don’t want to give it. But in all candor, I’m not a great rule follower. There is just something monumentally perverse in me that sends me looking for a way around doing what I’m told, especially when I know that everyone is supposed to be doing the same thing. Which brings me to social distancing. I’m definitely doing it. I’m hoping it “flattens the curve” which seems like the best outcome at this point in the rolling pandemic. I’m staying away from people. But I don’t want to feel trapped. So lucky for me, there’s my car.

I drive a 2005 Honda Accord. It’s been a reliable car which is what I care about most. I’ve never been someone who’s been interested in vehicles other than as a way to get from one place to another. My car goal has been to get them to 200,000 miles while they’re still safe to drive. They are a wonderful convenience. Today, that trusty grey chunk of metal was my way around the rule that I’m choosing to follow. I thought I’d share my kind of social distancing with those who choose to read my blog. I live in a community where in only a matter of minutes, urban views can be left behind. The vistas of the big sky Midwest quickly erase any sense of confinement. You can be utterly alone and feel very free from the sense of being confined. I hope you enjoy these scenes as much as I did on a sunny, cool day in the world of coronavirus.

When Life is Cancelled

While I was away in sunny Florida, the COVID-19 virus picked up steam in its inexorable manifestation across the country. I had some trepidation about taking my trip. Because I was in what I’ve referred to as the “death group,” people over the age of sixty, the prospect of being on both a bus and an airplane, along with the requisite time in the airport, seemed a little risky. I supplied myself with hand sanitizer, some surface wipes, and decided to take a gamble. I took off on a plane seating 174 passengers, full to capacity. The day after I arrived, I rested from my long travel slog. Then I spent a low-key week and a half relaxing with old friends.

But amidst the relaxation, we watched a lot of news. And every day, it became more clear that the virus was spreading rapidly, bringing with it new warnings, event cancellations and the growing sense that life as we’d known it was changing very quickly. Our trips to grocery and drug stores uncovered an escalating decline in pantry staples as well as products used for personal sanitizing. I started worrying about whether I’d be able to buy any toilet paper back home.

When I’d planned my trip I was mindful of my budget – I had one more finance-stretching adventure planned for May and two trips in a year is not a common expenditure for me. So my return flight was a redeye, which made my ticket price cheap. I was glad because I hoped that given the increase in worries about COVID-19, there might be fewer people near me on my journey home. When I boarded my plane for the 5:40 am flight, there were only 57 passengers on the same plane that had carried 174 just days earlier. As I flew into sunrise I was pondering how life in my midwest college community would look when I got back.

The number of changes that had already transpired was dizzying. The Austin, Texas South by Southwest conference, the big annual music and media gathering which my husband had attended for many years when he owned a music store, was cancelled. That was followed by the voiding of many sporting events, at the professional level as well as those of colleges and most secondary schools. Every hour it seemed like some other event that drew large crowds was going to bumped off the calendar and indeed, that’s what happened. Meetings and concerts were disappearing. That was just the beginning.

I made a quick trip to the grocery store the day after I returned and was able to grab enough supplies for the “social distancing” being recommended. Or the voluntary quarantine, depending on how you look at it. There’d been a run on hand sanitizers. Fortunately I still had a stash left over from the days of hyper vigilance during my husband’s five year cancer experience. I didn’t go to see my daughter and her family, nor did they come to see me. I left the Florida salt water taffy I’d brought them on my porch a few days after my return – my son-in-law retrieved it.

Within a few days of my return, both of my children called off trips that they’d had planned for many months. As of today, they couldn’t have gone even if they’d defied the medical recommendations, as their destinations no longer have open borders. School has been cancelled for both my grandchildren while my son-in-law is preparing to implement online teaching for his university students. Museums are closed. So are movie theaters. And Broadway plays. Amusement parks. I watched an episode of the Stephen Colbert show when he had no audience which was really strange. All the late night shows will be absent their fans. Religion will take place at home. On and on come the changes.

Everything is so strange. I’ve lived through swine flu, Ebola and MRSA and SARS. There have been plenty of scary warnings in my life. But I’ve never seen such a wholesale shutdown of the institutions of daily life. As Colbert announced, “America is Closed.” And so are lots of other countries. I know that there are countless people who think this is an overblown reaction. Our government’s handling of this pandemic has been subpar at best, including the attempt to paint this illness as a hoax. Because of the strong political divisions in this country, there will be responses from the public which highlight the chasms that separate us. For me, I’m trying to listen to the medical professionals, the scientists who are emphasizing the importance of staying isolated to slow the spread of disease. So that’s what I’m going to do, for myself, for my family and my community at large. No more gathering in large groups for me. I don’t know how long this will last but I’m paying attention.

I just cancelled my trip of a lifetime to Vancouver, Alaska and Denali National Park. A cruise was part of the deal and it’s first on the list of what’s not recommended for people in my age group. Maybe I’ll get another opportunity. Who knows? It seems pretty insignificant compared to the greater issue. That’s another thing about this crisis that’s on my mind – the somewhat arrogant attitude I’ve seen in a number of dismissive articles which pit the understanding of this pandemic by millennials against that of boomers. A friend forwarded one to me with this heading: “Hello, Boomer? It’s Millennials. We need to talk about coronavirus.”

I find it annoying to be treated as if I’m not capable of understanding the seriousness of this issue because of my age. Why the compulsion to sling insults right now? Maybe it’s reflective of the ugliness in our culture right now. That seems pervasive to me and counterproductive. In the midst of everything, we need to add ageism to our problems? But I digress….

So there will be a time when normal life, such as it is with its wide ranging variations for millions of us, is suspended. I headed outside to my garden, the place which is safe from congregations of people and always a respite for me. I note that it’s sprouting with spring perennials, some right on time and others a bit early. I’m remembering last year’s brutal polar vortex and the empty spaces that showed up after some of my reliable bloomers simply disappeared. I look forward to coping with some of the anxiety associated with this challenging time by digging in the dirt. While I do it, I’ll be trying to understand how the economic manifestations of this global challenge will play out. I’m worried about poor people. I have no idea, nor does anyone else, how long this enforced cancellation of normalcy will go on. And I’m going to stew about that. I’m going to hope that the scientists will deconstruct the virus to the point where they will have treatments and/or vaccines. I’ll do that thinking as I dig.

I’m going to read books. I’m in the middle of a few right now. One is for my book club but I have no idea whether we’ll be meeting this month. I’m going to finish it anyway. I know I’ll never catch up with the long list that I add to every time I see an article about new releases or receive an email from some place or other with lots of suggestions. But that’s alright. I’m just going to work my way along, with no pressure.

I’m going to go for walks and be grateful that I had both my knees done so I can do it without pain. My beloved pool is closed. I’ll miss swimming and the daily contact I have with my swimming cohort but I’ll have to adjust. I’m the person who’s always walking around saying things like “adapt or die.” I mean it, especially for myself.

I’m going to try to not get too scared by the news. I tend to read and watch news obsessively. After a time, it starts to drive me a little crazy. When you start imagining all the worst possibilities, it’s break time. I’m lucky enough to have streaming entertainment services and I’m taking advantage of them to watch distracting films, television series and documentaries. I’ve missed a lot over the years so I’m going to fill those gaps. And to bolster my spirits I’m going to re-watch some shows that make me feel good. For that I’m currently in Season 2 of The West Wing which is an antidote to the present administration occupying that place in the White House.

I’m also going to listen to lots of music. I’m going to self-soothe with guitar players like William Ackerman and Leo Kottke. I’m going to play The Band and Van Morrison. And Pete Yorn. Taj Mahal. Stevie Wonder. Beck. The Allman Brothers. Reggae. Jazz Masters. Classical. And of course, the Beatles.

I’m going to be mindful of the fact that there are people I know who are sick or having difficult times for other reasons. A dear old friend of mine died last week after spending months in hospice. Aside from our current overwhelming issue folks have all kinds of other situations running concurrently with this one. Somehow, even with social distancing, I want to be present for them. Friendship matters.

I’m glad I’ve gotten good at living by myself. It’s an important skill in these unexpected times. I have internal strength which I guess I’ve grown over the decades. I’m still surprised sometimes about how resourceful I can be. My daughter has called me a cockroach which makes me laugh, and which I take as a compliment. I know she means that she’s watched me continue to survive despite lots of hard times that have come my way. I do miss my husband every day. My impulse to share my thoughts with him remains a powerful force that for some inexplicable reason keeps me buoyant. I put together the pictures of his eyes looking at me, one shot from the first year we met and the other from over 40 years later. I love the expressions in them. The photo is off to my right side in my living room. When I sit here, working, thinking, relaxing, I look over at him and feel his presence. I hope what I call ” essence of Michael” helps me navigate the uncertain times ahead.