Living Smaller

 

AC56383B-4DD0-4AE0-B662-8A7B039B77A2A good friend of mine told me a while back that I was “living large.” I guess I’d have to agree with her. After Michael died, I thought very hard about how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I’d always thought that based on the longevity in Michael’s family, that I’d either die before him or that we’d age together. I didn’t know what I’d feel like after the five years of his cancer dominating our lives. In the months before his death, he’d ask me what I was going to do without him. I truthfully responded that I had absolutely no clue. We’d been together for so many decades. I never imagined life absent his presence. He encouraged me to find partnership, saying I was born to be with someone. As it turns out, that was true. But apparently he was the only someone. I haven’t had the slightest interest in these past few years of seeking out a new companion. I’m still with him. But I have chosen to live in ways that I would’ve liked to share with him. Ways that I know would he’d be glad I’d chosen, an active adventurous life, both mentally and physically. The mental part has been easy. I’ve always been intellectually motivated and curious so there’s no end to my interests. I can say that happily, I’m never bored. I’m more likely to be frustrated that there isn’t enough time in a day for me to explore all my ideas.

The more physically demanding life was more of a challenge. After hobbling around with two bone-on-bone knees, I finally got replacements which changed the way I could experience the world. But even before that, I struck out on my own, traveling alone to Sedona and the National Monuments of Arizona. I spent a week in Cincinnati, enjoying my first ever professional tennis tournament and seeing my beloved Roger Federer. I went alone to Glacier National Park and also took a fifteen day road trip with my son which covered twelve states. I planned a 50th high school reunion, attended the Laver Cup in Chicago and have seen a half dozen live concerts which included Paul McCartney. I then drove south with my sister and knocked three more states off my list, hoping to see all fifty of them before I die. I only have a few left.19746B7A-406D-4F0E-ADFE-967B82E811FAI had a big adventure planned for May, a trip to Vancouver, followed by an Alaska/Denali sea and land journey which would ultimately end in Anchorage. Fifteen days of new experiences which would offset the challenges of May. My wedding anniversary is on the 1st, followed by Mother’s Day, the birthday of my oldest friend who’s been dead now for 32 years, then my birthday, the anniversary of Michael’s death and finally, his birthday. A rugged month. But then along came Covid19.

I was lucky enough to squeeze in a trip to Naples, Florida to visit friends  before the pandemic began to pick up steam. By the time my ten day vacation ended, I had a harrowing, paranoid journey home through two airports, one flight and one bus ride,  during which I sanitized my hands until they felt like sandpaper and avoided close contact with anyone breathing nearby. From then on, March 11th, it’s been self-isolation until my kids and I got to the point where we felt safe enough to see each other. I’m one of the lucky ones who has family nearby. They are working online and trying to educate their kids for whom school has been cancelled. Needless to say, the Alaska trip is off-all that’s left of it is trying to recover the money that was paid in advance. Certainly not the most wonderful experience. I can’t go swimming any more because the pool is closed, but I am grateful that I can walk without pain. I wish I could get some of those endorphins that always emerge from me in water but that’s not happening. Life has become unpredictable and much smaller. The question is, for how long? I’ve been thinking about what will happen when this need to re-open life in my part of the world becomes real. Will I ever live large again? Or is it time to scale back and live in a limited space.


Doctors are reporting that a mysterious blood-clotting complication is killing their coronavirus patients.

Every day there are new scary headlines. It seems that in rapid jolts, a small, threatening twist to this unpredictable virus is unearthed. If you shut the political noise out and study the science reporting, it seems clear that the predictive algorithms are fluctuating. It’s not only older people who are vulnerable. Anyone can get sick and anyone can be a silent carrier. Significant and widespread therapeutic treatments seem to be pretty distant right now as does a vaccine. And who knows about the efficacy of a vaccine? Flu vaccines help, but in some years they’re hit or miss. What is the overall implication of that formula?  

This is my bedroom, my sanctuary where I retreated every night with Michael, where we found comfort and respite with each other. Thankfully, I still feel the same about my room. This is where I think about these uncertain times and how I want to handle myself in the midst of them. I look around and see the choices of my life. My partner and my family photos. The Beatles and Federer.

My favorite artworks and my books are close by. I have my small fish tank with the little swimmers whose bright rhythmic darting is so relaxing at night. There are volumes of photo albums and a hoard of Michael’s movies on dvd. I have beautiful notes he wrote me long ago, in the beginning, which warm me still, after a lifetime.

Rocks and seeds sit on my bookshelf. Shells that I gathered on the Gulf shore beaches are arranged on a wall plaque I made, right next to the Mayan calendar date of our May 1st wedding anniversary, made in Tulum, Mexico where we went for our 25th. This is my small life, inside this space. I’m happy here. I feel like choosing this for now is the wisest thing to do, given the current murky future out there in the bigger world. Going to a movie theater? How about the pool which might remind me of a petri dish? Will I feel comfortable going to get my hair cut soon? That question is funny. I’ve already cut my bangs twice. But I’m not ready to take on all these mystifying layers on my head. Back when I was thinking about Marie Kondo’s minimalist guide, holding an object in your hand to see if it gave you joy and if not, discarding it, I grabbed my bag of hair accessories from my dresser. Back when I had long hair I used them all the time. I did the looking thing and just got annoyed so I put them back where they came from. That must have been a prescient moment – I’m certainly glad I’ve kept them around to help me manage my untamed mane. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have one more crack at a ponytail before I die. D458BACF-64B8-4291-95F4-075CFA94A8AESo no more big trips for the foreseeable future. And I’m on the fence about whether the benefits will outweigh the risks for what were seemingly normal activities BC – Before Covid19. But I still have my garden which provides ample opportunities for fresh air, exercise and interesting yard visitors. I’ve been having car social hours with my friends, meeting at parks or in other natural areas where we can chat from within our safe spaces and still feel connected. 4D22A34F-B97B-4E52-AAEC-8B37CF534D12There are plenty of clouds to photograph and paving bricks to decorate with my collections of shells and rocks from travels. I’ve been trying to recover my drawing skills, primitive though they were. There are lots of Netflix shows, of course, and many old movies to watch.  I always have books.539EC19C-36F3-4110-BD82-D42A13EF210E

If I’m going to be leading this smaller life, though, I felt like I needed something more, a new thing to love. I was thinking I’d just hang around waiting for “it” to come to me. Suddenly I remembered what I’d loved a long time ago, back in the time before computers and cell phones with keyboards. Back in the time when cursive was still a thing. I remembered learning to write cursive in elementary school. First we had to get through printing. All of this learning and practicing was done in pencil first. There had to be a way to erase mistakes and pencil erasers were easier to use than ink ones. We had these little lined workbooks, the lines that delineated the heights of upper and lower case letters. I just loved the whole process. We got penmanship grades. I was good at all of it. When you got really good, making few, if any mistakes, you graduated to pens. I loved pens. For the longest time, my favorites were Parker T-ball jotters. They moved so smoothly across a piece of paper. But better things awaited and I found them. Fountain pens. Beautiful fountain pens with little tubes of ink that you popped into their chassis. For a time, I collected them. They were sleek and romantic, perfect for the aspiring writer or at least, a writer of journals. I went into the office Michael and I shared and rummaged around in my supplies. And there it was, in a beaten up metal case.

It hadn’t been used in ages so I had to order ink. When I loaded it in, voila! A working fountain pen after so many years. Indeed, this is a really small thing, this slender little pen. But vistas have opened to me and it’s going to be a wonderful companion for this time when I’ll be living smaller.

 

The Off Button

I’ve never been able to find the off button. Several years into our relationship, Michael told me he’d figured out the worst thing about living with me. He said he knew that as long as there was somebody, somewhere, who might be having a problem, I’d be upset about it. Decades later that’s still pretty much the truth. These days there’s certainly plenty to be upset about, from my little microcosm up and through the big picture. Small things first.

In my eagerness to scramble outside and get my garden going, I looked at a week-long forecast, felt good about it,  hightailed it over to the plant nursery, bought two flats of annuals and hurled them into pots and raised beds. All was glorious until winter decided to make another pass through town, bringing blustery winds and below freezing temperatures. I should have known how arbitrary spring can be – I’ve been around long enough to have had my naïveté crushed by capricious April many times in the past. But I let it happen anyway, wanting so much to fill my surroundings, isolated though they may be, with nature’s brilliant colors. I’ve been battling the elements for days. My once fiery lantana is pathetic.

The poor thing has shriveled up and now sits on my dining room table where I’m attempting coax it into staying alive with warm water, gentle touches and quiet murmurs of encouragement. The other guys are still battling the elements. Every early evening, I go outside to cover them all, hoping they can limp through a few more nights of frigid air, that they’ll perk up and revive when warmth returns. I’ll be lucky if I lose only about a third of the plants I bought. Money down the drain and old lessons relearned.

The daily wondering about the life-altering changes perpetrated by Covid19 has me in a constant state of evaluation. I worry about my aging dog. I got Violet from a shelter just a few months after Michael died, in the summer of 2017. I wasn’t intending to get a big dog, much less one that was already eight and a half years old. But when I saw her, I knew she wasn’t likely to be adopted any time soon. She was strikingly beautiful but she had a sad story. A show dog, from a long line of show dogs, she’d lived her life as a “thing,” rather than a pet. She had lots of blue ribbons, but she’d been debarked, a cruel procedure done to stifle her naturally vocal instincts. She’d lived most of her life in a crate, easy to deduce when I realized she would only eat from a lying-down position. She made no eye contact, looking only at your hand which was the way she interpreted what was required of her. And she didn’t lick. Not once then, when I took her, or since, even after I dipped my entire hand into a peanut butter jar and held it to her nose. Such abnormal dog behavior. I was compelled to adopt her. I was wounded from Michael’s death while she was wounded from her life. It took me a couple of weeks to convince her to eat anything but a bit of kibble from my hand. Now, over time, she’s learned her new name, to make eye contact with me and others, and to enjoy being free to run in the yard. Just now, she went gamboling through the garden, chasing squirrels and trumpeting her whispery remnant of a bark.

But she’s getting old. The other day, she started dragging her left rear leg. She just couldn’t keep it underneath her. She was weaving a bit and seemed disoriented. Some of her actions have always been weird, but I really couldn’t tell if she was just stiff from lying down for too long or if I was witnessing a neurological event. I called my vet who’s running a limited practice during this time and was told to just keep an eye on her. So far, she seems to have returned to as normal a state as she’s ever in, but who knows? I’m doing my best to keep her alive, but you never know. Life can be extinguished in no time.

 

I’m even worried about my two nameless fish. I’ve always loved tropical fish and have gone through phases of keeping them in different sized tanks during my adult life. I have a 10 gallon tank in my bedroom. I started out with six fish, four of whom eventually died. These guys are the survivors who despite my modest attention are going into their third year of life. Watching them swim around is relaxing for me. But three years is old for a tropical fish. How long can they keep going? It occurs to me that a portion of every one of my days is given over to trying to keep things alive. Plants, fish, the dog and the birds I’ve coaxed into my yard with feeders, birdhouses and plenty of hiding places.

But of course, those tales are about the microcosm of my little life. What’s more overwhelming is the macrocosm, the big picture of what’s happening in my country and around the world. Figuring out how to assimilate the barrage of information, the scary uncertainties coupled with the daily tragedies, and the enraging political behavior of the leadership all up in our faces every day, is quite a load to carry. The self that I bring to these reality-altering issues was shaped by the events of my life, just like everyone else. I’ve experienced my share of deaths, up close and personal. I was at the bedsides of both my parents and my darling Michael. I was able to minister to them all as they slipped away across the fragile border between breath and stillness. Those were grievous, painful experiences. But they were also kind and respectful, comforting and filled with love. If someone has to die, the deaths should be like those. 382A8FA3-2445-45A5-9B47-C64520C1E3D3

So many of these Covid19 patients are hustled away from their loved ones, dying alone unless they’re lucky enough to have medical staff near them to say goodbye. Of course there are always deaths like this, accidents, sudden heart attacks or strokes and of course, those lives lost in the countless wars of history, people felled far from home. I’m sure that every pandemic, the Black Death and the Spanish Flu that each killed millions, created a numbing horror that dwarfs what is happening today. At least so far. But contemplating the frightening possibilities as this virus moves around the globe, and knowing so much in real time because of technology, the information can feel like a daily tidal wave. In the past several days, a few stories have emerged that are horrifying in their detail. One is from a New Jersey nursing home, where police were called because the number of deaths was beyond the staff’s control. Seventeen bodies were found in a small holding space with room for two. What an ignominious end for those people and their families. 5DA6E4FB-32C1-4D7A-81F0-FB372F790FD4
The other is the photos of the unclaimed bodies being buried in trenches in the Potter’s Field on Hart Island near New York City. These are the unknown victims of the virus, at least for now. There they lay with countless others who wound up buried there for widely diverging reasons. It seems impossible that this can be happening in real time, in this very  surreal health crisis which is unveiling deeper societal problems in this culture. Problems that many would prefer to ignore. 9F0823B4-FA7C-4F4D-8CAA-115D511B0A18
Several years ago, I read This Republic of Suffering. During the four years of the American Civil War, approximately 620,000 people died. That was about 2% of the population of the United States at the time of the 1860 census. This was a staggering number and indeed, as the war dragged on, the sheer volume of bodies overwhelmed both the practical realities of burials and funerals, along with deeply wounding the psyche of the country’s citizens. History has these moments in time, the points from which there is a perceptible change in the collective consciousness. Although what we are experiencing is not yet as extreme as those dreadful figures, I can’t help but wonder what the collateral emotional damage will be for those who are paying attention, who are aware of the gravity of this pandemic. For myself, it feels like anything resembling the pre-virus life will be a long time coming back in its previous form, if it ever does. Every day there are new bits of information which change what is known about this organism. With all the variables still emerging, the only way to feel certain about anything seems to me to be the privilege of those who either aren’t paying attention, or who deliberately refuse to understand. Social distancing feels like the way things will need to stay for a lot longer than these artificial “re-opening of the country” dates. This isn’t exactly an amusement park’s grand entrance into the world after a full make-over. I fear the cost in human life as the urge to reclaim normalcy clamor gets louder. 

Between the gardening and the animals and of course, my family and loved ones, I’m cogitating daily on this big picture. I hear that familiar voice of Michael’s in my head saying, “ lighten up before you drive yourself crazy, not to mention me!” Well, he’s not here. But I am, still looking for “the off button.”

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Ancestral Noise

Two days ago, the temperature where I live was 82 degrees F. or 27.8 C. for most of the world. Today it was 79 and now tonight, it’s 46. The wind is howling outside my bedroom window. When I went to call my dog inside from the yard, I saw one of my shepherd’s hooks lying on the ground, the hanging basket of purple calibrachoa which I’d hung yesterday having fallen, most fortunately, in an upright position next to it. In the morning light, I realized that the wind had more kick than I’d initially realized.

With the mostly mild but still fluctuating weather, I got excited about getting an early start on planting vegetables and annual flowers. I took advantage of curbside pickup from a local nursery and grabbed tomato plants along with peppers and some brilliantly hued blossoms. After planting a number of flowers in pots and hanging baskets, I rechecked the weather forecasts and realized that the cold wasn’t finished with this part of the world yet. Thankfully, I was restrained enough to keep my seeds in their packets, the vegetables in their containers and half the flowers out of their summer homes. Now I’ll be spending time trying to keep everyone from freezing to death until the weather is less wayward.

The unpredictable temperatures are in keeping with how everything feels these days. Despite our best attempts, we are frequently in control of nothing. Nature can assert itself any time, just like it dished out this novel virus that has turned global human life upside down and sideways. Watching the perhaps temporary environmental gains which are a byproduct of this pandemic, you have to marvel at the poetic justice of it all.

CNN – “Coronavirus shutdowns have unintended climate benefits: cleaner air, clearer water…”

For those of us who are trying to abide by the social distancing recommendations of health and government officials, the challenges of rapid adaptation to our new limitations can be overwhelming. Life’s daily structures have fallen away. Some people stay in pajamas all day and forget whether it’s Tuesday or Friday. Some are bored, some are antsy and others are depressed.

I’m trying to create structure for myself. Gardening is one of the ways I can have an element of normalcy in my life. It certainly beats sitting inside all day, doing deep dives into Instagram, reading the same news over and over again, not to mention avoiding the tantalizing pull of the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets. Without my regular swimming regimen, that is dangerous to my health. The other day I read an article about how people were stocking their homes with prepackaged and canned foods that were nostalgia-producing, reminding them of their childhoods. Then there are those folks who are immersed in baking frenzies, churning out breads and cookies to the point where the hunt for flour and yeast has caught up with the quest for toilet paper. I’ve done a bit of that, even taking photos of the comfort foods that remind me of life as a girl in my parents’ house. Not my usual photo subjects.

There is definitely good fortune in having a beautiful natural space just outside my door where I can work and enjoy the birds flying over my head or the animals skittering through the grass. I’m also glad I have the ability to get in my car and just drive around for a change of scenery. But along with appreciating and exploring the natural world, there is certainly plenty of time for interior delving. As our family saying goes, ” wherever you go, there you are.” My busy brain chugs along night and day. I find myself thinking that I don’t have time to think about all the things I’m thinking about – writing that makes me laugh but it’s true. I’ve had some remarkably vivid dreams during the past few weeks that have been interesting and action-packed enough to merit recording them in my journal in the mornings. Usually they’re a mixture of real life scenarios with some oddball twists. I’m always happy when Michael is present in them, but even though some part of me is directing those movies I have no idea about the “why” of their stories.

Even more interesting to me is this aural soundtrack that keeps injecting itself into my waking hours. While I’m outside trudging through my chores, there’s an undercurrent of commentary accompanying my activity. Many times what runs through my mind is evoked by what I’m doing at the moment. When I was stolidly walking through the yard with a two cubic foot bag of wood chips slung over my shoulder, I heard myself saying the lines I’ve repeated for so many years. “I am sturdy peasant stock. If I lived in another time, I would’ve been a peasant woman with a yoke across my shoulders, a water bucket on each end, marching 10 miles up and back to the river.” If you interviewed my family and friends, they’d corroborate that statement.

And then there are the voices of these three, my father, my mother and my maternal grandmother. It’s not like I’m thinking anything profound about any of them. Rather, I just hear them in my head saying random mundane things, comments that were the stuff of daily conversations throughout our lives. Many of them are simply inane. My dad, in particular, was an inveterate jokester, substituting silliness for more direct expressions of affection. Both my parents made grammatically incorrect statements, many of which I tried to point out for awhile and before eventually, just learning to let them go. My grandmother spoke pretty decent English but liberally sprinkled misnomers and Yiddish cursing into her speech. I can also hear the criticisms of my older sister and the wacky ideas of my brother. Why is this string of language rolling along inside my head?

The other day my son, who recently came home after a self-quarantine period in Chicago, looked at me and said he wanted to interview me to learn more about our family history. He’s aware that when I’m gone, I’ll take a lot of information with me. My siblings and I shared the common experience of our parents and grandparents. My brother is dead. My older sister and I have been estranged for 5 years, following the death of our mother. That leaves me and my younger sister in our part of the world as the repositories for all of our childhood memories. When we’re gone, they go with us unless we pass them on. I’m thinking that perhaps this interior soundtrack needs to be codified before it disappears. Maybe that’s why it keeps popping up in this unexpected period in time, when I have fewer external distractions. Ever since Michael died, my inveterate list-making habits of a lifetime, have expanded to include all kinds of things about him that I know better than anyone. Of course our kids and some close friends know some of these random facts, but certainly not as many as the ones stuffed in my brain. Even I, with my prodigious memory, have surely had many little gems get buried by time. These are some of my list categories. I keep them in my phone, adding items as they emerge for whatever odd reason.

I guess it’s the historian part of me that’s clamoring away inside. Being in the midst of an unusually powerful life-changing event with concurrent awareness of its magnitude is uncommon in most people’s lives. How many times have we all looked back to a moment, in retrospect understanding that it marked a turn in the road, unnoticed at the time? This moment is not like that. Everyone is aware of the unusual events. Maybe for me, that’s an explanation for why there’s all this aural traffic going on just below the surface of my consciousness, reminding me that these moments are fleeting, that there’s no time like the present to record memories for posterity. So I’m going to do it. Here are a few random and ridiculous examples of my family’s voices, which my children and theirs will know, long after I’m gone.

Dad to us kids, inquiring about our school day:

“Did you do your scientific studies? Did you marry your teacher today? What’s the matter with you – you got rocks in your head?” And then – “Why don’t you take a long walk off a short pier.” “Dry up.”

Mom – “If you swallow that gum, your insides will stick together.” “Why don’t you go wash around.” “That person is a timtom (stupid.)”

Mom and dad – “You wanna go to show? (a movie)”

My older sister – “Modulate your voice, Renee. You’re terribly loud.”

My brother – “Let’s have a practice birthday party.” “Let’d practice all our holidays.”

Grandma – “Gey avek.” (Go away) “Gey cocken offen yom.” (Go take a shit in the ocean.) “You’re a momzer.” (You’re a bastard.) “I need to get my description filled at the drugstore.”

And a bit of dialogue between Michael and me:

Renee: “Will you put the dog out?” Michael: “Why, is he on fire?”

There. Sometimes I’m thinking profound thoughts. And other times, I’m just chuckling my way through the resonance of ancestral noise. I’m relieved to write some of it down. From the family in my head.

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…