I took a break from writing yesterday because I was sick of thinking about, hearing about, and whinging about COVID-19. I needed a mental health day from this health crisis. So, I turned off the television, stepped back from the social media, and spent most of my day completing a brightly colored, 500-piece puzzle of African mammals instead. While my husband worked in his office and my sons were in their lair building in Minecraft while using FaceTime to chat with friends, I sat at our dining table trying to line up the stripes on a zebra and make sense of a lion’s mane. It was precisely what my soul needed, a balm to cover the uncertainty and overwhelm.
This week that has felt like a year has been eerily similar to the couple weeks my husband and I spent at home directly following the birth of our first son. Our oldest arrived early and weighed only 5 pounds. He was, thankfully, fully developed and healthy in all respects. Despite our trepidation, having been crowned as parents seven weeks earlier than we expected (damn the miscalculated due date), the doctors and nurses told us it was time to go home. We lived only a half-mile from the hospital, but Steve came to pick me and baby Joe up, recently unwrapped infant car seat in hand. Trying to finagle and then secure a scrawny, 5-pound newborn into the seat took at least fifteen minutes, even though we would be in the car for less than two minutes on the slow drive home around the park with our precious cargo. We were overwhelmed, overtired, and overly cautious. And despite all the reading we had done, we felt we were flying blind. Everything was scary, awkward, and new.
That is where we are again. We are questioning everything we do. Should we have made that last trip to the store? Did we get too close to that clerk? Should we have wiped down every item we brought into the house? People were wearing face masks and gloves; should I have been doing that too? How many times a day should we be disinfecting surfaces? Should we eat what we have at home or order take out to support our favorite local restaurants? Do we have an adequate toilet paper back up plan? Why didn’t I buy and stash more candy and Cheetos from my teenage sons? We suspect we are overreacting about everything, but it is the only thing that feels appropriate. We don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re nervous and inexperienced. And we desperately want to do the “right” things.
We’re bound to fumble as we navigate a period of time unlike anything any of us have experienced before. Like parents of newborns, though, we need to trust that we are doing our best and that is all we can do in a changing environment with a novel disease that scientists are learning about on the go. You take precautions. You follow the current advisements and adjust when they change. You think critically and act prudently. And then you live your damn life — inside your house as much as possible and outside when you can be safe. Time will pass and, at some point in what will feel like a million years from now, we will be healthy, free, and confident again. In the meantime, we keep calm and carry on, but with an extra packet of antibacterial wipes, just like we carried when we had a newborn. At least this time around, we should be more well rested.
“When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” ~ The Sound of Music
Throughout the day yesterday, I took sizable mental health breaks from updating myself on the news on television and social media. In between those breaks when I tuned in, however, what I saw and heard hurt my brain. First it was a post by a friend who offered an update from a health care worker reminding us that this virus can be indiscriminate, killing younger people along with the elderly and immunocompromised. Later I came back to see another friend had shared video of crowded beaches in Clearwater, Florida, a sight alarming in itself, but worsened by comments her friends made claiming the story was Fake News. Finally, after my son’s educational, evening presentation on a battle between Julius Caesar’s Roman army and the Gallic army led by Vercingetorix (you really can learn something new every day), I turned on the news and caught a couple minutes with New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio as he discussed the potential need for military intervention to deliver food during the pandemic. The notion of military food drops in New York City sent me over the edge. What fresh hell is this? I started to cry, turned off the television, and began doing the dishes because at least that was something my brain and I could handle.
The news is bad. It is very bad. And it is, sadly and most definitely, going to get unimaginably worse over the coming weeks and months. Death tolls will climb. The world economy will tank. People will lose jobs, and the unemployment rate will rise. Families will find themselves in dire circumstances. Like the virus itself, these negatives will grow exponentially for a while. No part of this is pretty.
I woke up this morning determined to hit reboot on my positive attitude in the face of this global nightmare. I started thinking about the reduction in emissions northern Italy has seen since their country lockdown began. Not the way we planned to cut global emissions, but still that’s a pretty positive side effect of this nightmare scenario. I thought about the way I have seen others reaching out to shop for the elderly and help strangers find child care and offer extra rolls of toilet paper to those unable to find any. We’re starting to remember we’re part of a something bigger. I considered the amount of time together families will have now. Just before my son was getting ready to head to college, for example, I get uninterrupted time at home with him, which is an unimaginable gift. As with all things in life, where there is a yin, there is a yang.
Through this quagmire, the universe will provide us with an opportunity to rise. To do that, though, we are going to slog uphill through mounds of shit. We are currently at the bottom of that hill, mired in muck, and we may be stuck here for a while. It’s overwhelming. So, give yourself permission to cry, to tantrum, to stress, to feel all the feels you are feeling. Those emotions are as important to our future recovery as action is, but perseverate not solely on what is happening but continue to imagine where we might be able to go later because of this experience. Horrible, tragic events have occurred since this rock we live on started growing life, but incredible recoveries have also occurred. Make yourself a promise to look for the good. Wake up and take a few deep breaths. Compose a list of positives. With concentrated intention, recognize and be grateful for the good you can see. Step outside, turn your face towards the sun for a minute and ruminate on its warmth. Not everything is bad, even if it feels that way. We can and will do hard things, my friends. For now, though, put down the unbearable load of the future, go wash some dishes, and open a damn window.
The worst thing about our current situation for me now (as I sit at home, a *fingers crossed* healthy person with self-sufficient kids and more free time than I’ve ever had) is the feeling of helplessness and isolation it is creating. So I have been brainstorming ways to keep myself sane as the news grows exponentially worse. The only way not to feel overwhelmed is to focus on what we can do rather than what we cannot.
Here are a few things my family has decided to do while we’re stuck at home that will keep us connected and involved and yet usefully distracted.
We are going to learn about each other. Yeah. We know the basics. I know Luke is into sci-fi and Joe is fascinated with world cultures and history, but what do I know about those topics? Not enough that I can share in their joy about them. So, in this isolation period, we’ve decided to teach each other about things we care about. Every week, we each will have a 30-45 minute opportunity after dinner to share our passions with the rest. The rules we’ve laid out around this are lax. You choose your topic and how you want to present it and the rest of us have to be patient and commit to learning and understanding the topic. You can use any means you want to share your chosen topic for the week. You can read aloud from a text. You can share a video (even if that video is just your favorite episode of Friends). You can put together a slideshow presentation. You can pick a favorite game and have everyone to play along. You can run your session like a classroom experience or make it interactive. The sky is the limit. The floor is yours.
I have committed myself also to reaching outside of our house by any means possible, starting with snail mail. I have stamps that have been sitting in a drawer, so I am digging through my card stash and sending out greetings the old fashioned way. When I run out of cards, I will make more using printer paper and markers or I will write notes and stick them in the business envelopes we have in abundance and never use anymore. Stamps are easily ordered online and delivered to you if you need them too, and the USPS has dozens of fun, themed stamps available, which makes the whole endeavor even more joyful. Shop the Postal Store. We currently have stamps with dinosaurs, sharks, and military dogs. And I have stickers stashed in a box from a chore chart I used to fill in for the boys, so I will be using them to decorate those envelopes and messages like a nine year old girl passing notes. Of course, there’s always FaceTime, Skype, Whats App, and regular old phone calls and texts too, if you prefer that. Have virtual coffee with someone or, like our family, set up grog time. At 5 pm, we are going to connect via FaceTime from our separate homes with our cocktails and catch up. Separate does not have to mean alone.
Another thing I am doing is going through my house and using items I bought with the best of intentions that are gathering dust because I never followed through. Last Christmas I decided I wanted to learn to write in some cool fonts, so I received books and pens that have remained untouched because I didn’t have or make the time. I have a stack of books I meant to read that are collecting dust. I have yoga videos saved. I have books of sudoku and word search puzzles I bought for flights that haven’t been completed. There are a gazillion digital photos that I’ve been meaning to go through and pare down and back up. And as the weather warms up there are yard games, like Spikeball, I bought for us to play that we need to learn and can practice outdoors in the fresh air of our yard. Pick an hour a day, turn off the television, and focus on growing yourself in a positive way because at some point we will come out on the other side of this.
In an isolated situation, what we have been given is time, the time we have all in the recent past complained we didn’t have. Make conscious choices about how you use your time now. Don’t just distract yourself. Grow yourself. Perhaps we can come out of this scary portion of history with some positives that will assist us as we re-enter a world that has changed.
It’s 4:45 am and I have been awake for an hour and a half already. My busy mind has been debating the pros and cons of one last trip to the grocery store before sheltering in place with my family. A couple weeks ago, a planned grocery store trip would not cause this much consternation and sleeplessness. A couple weeks ago, on the heels of a CDC recommendation that we stock up, I visited Costco ahead of the rush with little concern. I didn’t hoard. I bought my usual items plus a few extra for good measure. I returned home feeling better, more secure somehow knowing I had done some preparation. Our cupboards were full. There was food in the freezer. A couple weeks ago, that seemed like enough. The unmitigated spread of this coronavirus seemed like a possibility. Now it’s reality.
It feels I have lived years since that Costco trip. I’m not a natural-born worrier, but as I watched the health crisis in Italy unfold and witnessed a locked-down Venice and an empty Piazza San Marco, I began to envision our future. And now, two weeks later, the future is here. And here I am, awake when I am normally asleep, weighing a trip to the grocery store as a risky proposition, wondering if boxes of Goldfish crackers and some eggs (if I can find any) are worth it. While at this moment there are only 131 confirmed cases of the virus in Colorado, I know from scientists that number may more likely hover around 1,300 cases, if not more. I know we need to flatten the curve, and I don’t want to do anything to work against that societal goal. Should I stay or should I go now?
Vulnerable and small sum up how I feel in this moment. The past few days have been a rollercoaster as I tried to strike a balance between being proactive and not overreacting. I acquiesced Saturday and allowed my son out for the day, knowing both that he should probably stay in and that this might be his last time to hang out with friends, his senior year likely preemptively ended. A couple times this last weekend I fell down on my self-made, silent promise to remain calm and appear brave. My sons now know I am concerned about our loved ones, about our health, about plans that should be rescheduled yet may never come to fruition, about the economy and our country and the whole world, and about the long-term changes we will face as a result of this pandemic. I’ve tipped my hand, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe they need to know that this is serious and that it’s okay and normal to feel concerned and overwhelmed. They didn’t experience 9/11, so they didn’t watch as the towers fell the way their mother grow instantly smaller like Alice in Wonderland only to grow large again in the months following. They don’t know, as I do, that this is how this works. There is fear and uncertainty and then there is a slow climb back to normalcy, whatever that new normalcy looks like.
The sun is rising now. I think I will make that last trip to the store and then work hard not to touch my face before returning home and scrubbing up like a surgeon again. Then I will stay home. I will spend weeks pulling things from the bag of tricks 18 years of motherhood have gifted me. I will create meals out of whatever is left in the fridge. I will make life in our home feel comfortable by chiding my sons to put their clothes in the hamper and turn down their vocal volume. I will listen to my youngest sing and share stories and I will watch the umpteen You Tube videos about French Canada and the Ottoman Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt my other son wants to share with me. I will beg them to take walks with me, and I will annoy them by playing the drums and setting up shop at our only table with puzzles that will leave us eating in front of the television. I will try to be patient and brave and I will fail. I will show them that you get through tough situations one minute at a time by occasionally losing your shit. But I will rise, one way or another. Maybe, like today, a bit earlier than I expected.
Fifty (or fifty-one if we’re being specific) is a marvelous thing. With five decades behind me, I now understand my place in this world much better than I have before. I’ve learned that I am not as important or influential as I thought. I am not responsible for everyone else’s feelings. After fifty years, I am free of the burdens and expectations of others. Mostly.
I was raised to believe I was the direct cause of other people’s suffering. You know the phrase, “That sounds like a you problem?” Well, everything negative that happened in my interactions with others was a me problem. It all rested squarely on my shoulders. If someone was unhappy with me, it was because I was selfish or lazy or thoughtless. There was no onus on the other person. I was to blame. Always.
The natural consequence of believing that my every mistake, misstep, or misspoken word made me less likable was a conditioned level of fearfulness around other people. I didn’t dare express what I liked because someone else might not agree and that would be awkward. I didn’t feel comfortable asking for what I wanted because that might put someone else out. I was terrified others would see how naive and foolish I was if I spoke up, so I kept to myself. I played along. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t impose. I didn’t want to rock anyone else’s boat. It wasn’t until I hit fifty that I realized my concern for not rocking anyone else’s boat meant I never learned to sail my own.
For most of my life, the you problem comment bothered me. I found it haughty and mean-spirited. Eventually with therapy, I began to understand that diagnosing a you problem had less to do with being dismissive of someone else’s feelings than it had to do with being responsible for my own. A you problem is a problem you are responsible for. Nothing more. Nothing less. As long as I own my part, it’s okay to wish, hope, or expect another will own theirs. Believing someone else is responsible for their own feelings is not dismissive of my responsibility to them. It acknowledges that I am responsible for only my part in the transactional nature of our human relationship. It allows another the opportunity and responsibility to accept their fair share. It’s equality.
I still live my life trying to be decent and fair to others. I still try to consider other’s feelings and cause no harm. I still strive not to be a burden. I just no longer accept that I am 100% responsible for someone else’s reaction to what I say or do. I can only be responsible for myself. If you’re reacting negatively to what I say or what I need, you should examine why it bothers you because that is a you problem. It feels good to let you shoulder your own feelings and expectations. It feels good to let that go.
After our first incredible day on safari, I thought nothing could compare. I was wrong. On day two of our sojourn, New Year’s Eve, our hosts raised the bar. This will live on as one of the favorite days of my life ever. And, to be fair, I’ve lived a fortunate life, have traveled to four continents, and enjoyed many “once in a lifetime” experiences.
We awoke early to breakfast with the morning plan being a guided safari walk. We were outfitted with gaiters to protect our legs and feet from acacia thorns and bugs, stainless steel water bottles and holders, and horse-tail swatters to discourage biting flies. Our guide drove out a short way from camp begin our walk. Before we had left the security of the vehicle, we were debriefed on safety. We would be walking with our guide who was carrying a high-powered rifle and a park ranger who had a fully automatic assault weapon. Realizing we would be on the ground with creatures larger, bigger, and faster than us that could stomp, gore, claw, kick, bite, and ingest us if they felt threatened was intimidating. We were not to speak unless directed. We were to remain in a single file line. We learned hand commands meant to keep us safe if wildlife grew agitated or aggressive. If an animal charged, we were not to run.
The first thing we spotted was a mating pair of tortoises. A bit later we noticed females and young elephants grazing. In the other direction, two bull elephants were doing the same. Our guide was careful to check our position and the wind direction so we would not be detected. We walked silently through the bush. The flies were relentless in heavily foliaged areas, and the swatters were a godsend. We saw ostrich, varieties of antelope, and warthog, and fortunately did not encounter any predators. We stopped to identify a buffalo that had been killed, its bones scattered by scavengers.
Of the creatures we found, none were more shy than the antelope. They watched us warily from great distances and were only able to be photographed decently with my husband’s high-powered camera lens. The warthogs were the most fun to be around because, while still reticent, they were animated, curious, and checked up on us often.
We somehow wandered right back to our vehicle, although I had no clue how given our circuitous route not following any given trail. I was grateful the guides hadn’t had to use a weapon, although they admitted they rarely had to. Through extensive wildlife safari training and experience, they know how to keep people and wildlife safe.
That afternoon, four of the six of us went out for a drive and were treated to an elephant extravaganza. We encountered several herds up close. Their bodies were tinged red after time in the water followed by a roll in the earth to smother the ticks they regularly acquired. Some scratched themselves on massive, abandoned termite mounds. Some used their trunks to cover themselves in dirt. Being this close to an elephant, close enough to see her eyelashes and be dusted with the dirt she threw on herself, was a gift I will never forget. (Video here)
I was not prepared for Tanzania to be as beautiful as it was. The short rains of November and December had created an environment that was fertile for grazing with short grasses that offered us unimpeded viewing of the creatures who call this place home. We had flawless weather (warm days, temperate nights, very little rain) and the benefit of an endlessly green landscape. I was awestruck by the scenery.
As we were driving towards our evening plans, we witnessed large family groups of elephants trumpeting and beating either a hurried rush towards a sunset get together or a hasty retreat from some unseen predators. Ammy told us he had not seen so many groups exhibiting this same behavior, and he had no idea what might be the cause. I wish I had photographs of it but, because of the distance at which the elephants were and the fading light of day, it was not to be captured. Still, as a lover of these grand beasts, I felt as if someone had commanded them to put on a display just for me. Over a hundred, perhaps several hundred, were all on their way their way somewhere with great purpose. Maybe it was the beginning of their New Year’s Eve ritual. Who knows? It was my Day of the Elephants and my heart was full.
Ammy told us it was time to move on and began driving with serious purpose as the sun began to sink on the western horizon. At last we rounded a bend and I understood what his rush had been. Sundowners! I’d read about this, but honestly had no idea the level to which this tradition was taken seriously.
Sundowners are drinks at sundown in the bush. I saw several safari vehicles congregated near a set up of camp chairs with a table and a makeshift-but-well-stocked bar. I couldn’t help myself and uttered to Ammy several statements of disbelief and joy. What? Are you kidding me? This is nuts! You guys are unbelievable.
Karen, my sister-in-law, popped open a bottle of champagne they had on ice for us. This was accompanied by freshly made potato chips and followed by made-to-order drinks of our choosing. Our oldest son, who is only 17, was treated to a glass of champagne too, making him feel extra special. And while we stood there sipping our drinks, the sun went down in a spectacular flourish of yellow, orange, pink, red, and violet.
After dinner, our final event was a nighttime game drive in an open air vehicle. With the use of high-bean flashlights, we watched a genet climb stealthily through tree branches, hoping to capture a bird who was perched there. We also saw a variety of mongoose on the prowl. And while the creatures were not as generous with their time or numbers as they had been earlier in the day, the experience of driving at night, seeing stars which we had never seen in such multitude, was unforgettable. We might as well have been the only people on the planet. So far removed we were from our usual lives at home, from the bustle of cities and relentless visual noise of light pollution and the distraction of electronics and to-do-lists.
We returned to camp overwhelmed by our day and settled in for late dinner around the campfire. Every new year should begin from this point of peace and oneness with nature and Mother Earth. Every new year should begin by taking a moment to inhale and exhale consciously and appreciate the current moment. The future is not a guarantee, but a wish. Live now the wind whispered to me through the trees.
Yesterday I had one of those life-altering conversations you can only have with someone who is your dedicated cheerleader. It started as a call to vent a frustration I was having over something I should have not been surprised about, and it ended over three hours later with me having reached 10,000 steps on my Fitbit (I nervously pace while on the phone). My friend, saint that she is, when she could get in a word in, said precisely the things I’d been needing to hear to jumpstart my life on the backside of a yearlong depression. For some reason, everything she said and everything I rambled on about suddenly made perfect sense. It all clicked into place. Only your best friends can give you the kick-in-the-ass encouragement you need precisely when you need it most.
Last year was not my best. I was in a fog of self-pity. I was turning 50 and didn’t know how that had happened. I’d let go of my health and fitness when I’d stopped exercising (because I was officially OLD now and who cares) and, because of my sloth, I was at my personally allowed maximum density, and my clothes weren’t fitting right or at all. My sons were growing up and moving on, and it was an ever-present reminder that they are on their way out of our home and my job description and that I had no idea what my next career move is or can be. My therapist, the one who had changed my life with EMDR therapy, moved away. And my sister was having serious health issues that blindsided the whole family. I was relying on outside sources to provide happiness without doing the work on the inside that would make a difference. I was spending way too much time playing mindless games on my phone as a diversion tactic. I sat in bed way too often. I was cancelling plans to stay home and binge watch shows in my pajamas. I could not be bothered to care. And I was making things worse by convincing myself that there was no real reason for me to be depressed. Certainly there were people in the world who were far worse off than I was with my first-world, privileged-white-girl problems; therefore, my lazy, apathetic behavior was anathema to me and only produced more self-loathing.
After yesterday’s conversation, this morning I felt clarity and drive again. I woke up at 6 a.m. and began writing about our trip to Africa over Christmas break. I drove the kids to school and on the way home I got a further boost from this morning’s sing-along song, The Middle(full lyrics here) by Jimmy Eat World. I’ve heard this song a million times, but today it felt meant for me.
Hey Don’t write yourself off yet It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on Just try your best Try everything you can And don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away
It just takes some time Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride Everything, everything will be just fine Everything, everything will be all right
As soon as I arrived home, I saw a text from my friend, a continuation of our conversation from yesterday that essentially echoed the song lyrics that had finally reached my heart. I decided that the stars must be aligning. It’s the only explanation for how Regan at Alt Nation and my friend, Heather, would know exactly what I needed to hear this morning. I’d like to share, with permission, what Heather said to me because maybe you need to hear it too.
Life is short. We all know this. And one of the biggest parts of life is enjoyment. We all die, and most of us only leave behind a legacy to those the very closest to us. So we owe it to ourselves (whether we think we deserve it YET or not) to pursue what is driving us. To enjoy what gives us pleasure REGARDLESS of what we produce. Like [the band] Rush says, “The point of the journey is not to arrive.” You’re no less special than anyone else. You’re deserving to pursue what brings you enjoyment and to develop your God-given talents. Doesn’t matter if what you produce is earth shatteringly amazing!!! In fact, what you have already produced has touched people. But that’s not the point and that should not be the goal or the pressure. It’s okay to do something purely because you know it’s what is inside of you and it needs to come out. And on the days when that voice is yelling at you, you yell back! You say, “Hey, Evil Spawn Thought. Welcome. Welcome to my brain because I’m just gonna use you to fuel my enjoyment of what I’m doing because you help me be who I am. I overcome you daily and, though you mean it for my destruction, it’ll be used to make me an even stronger, richer person.”
I printed out these words and I put them on my writing desk where I will see them daily. The fog of depression is lifting. After jettisoning some mental baggage that is no longer necessary to protect me, I am ready to move forward. Halle-fricking-lujah!
Last fall, I planted some bulbs, something I’ve eschewed doing thus far in my life because spring in Colorado is predictable in its unpredictability, and the first buds are often murdered by a heavy, wet snowstorm. But I decided to be bold and take a chance. Having never planted bulbs before, I followed the planting directions to the letter, depositing the future tulips 8″ below the surface. Yes. I measured. This spring, I waited. And I waited. As I saw flowers sprouting up in other people’s yards, my flower bed remained dormant. I began to wonder if they were ever going to grow. Perhaps I’d gotten a bum batch of bulbs? I watched that patch of dirt next to our patio like I was waiting for a million-dollar package to sprout up there. Every day I surveyed it with cautious optimism. I moved the mulch around looking for the tiniest inkling of life. And then, one day, a crocus popped up along the border. Not long after, some narcissus joined in. And at long last the tulip leaves began to push their way into the sun and follow suit. This morning, after weeks of anticipation, I could at last see the vibrant color of one tightly still-closed tulip. It had happened. I’d actually grown something.
Thinking about it now, in the light of the past twenty four hours, maybe that small garden plot was a sign for me too. Maybe it was never about growing something in particular. Perhaps it was always just about growing, however it happened.
A few weeks ago while I was out of town, my husband messaged me and told me he had been watching the popular Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I rolled my eyes. He’s always loved the idea of simplifying, even as he continued to purchase new travel bags and backpacks, the latest home automation gadgets, and new paraphernalia for his hobbies. It’s quite a conundrum for him, the desire to pare down while feeling the pull of shiny things. Still, he said he was cleaning out his closet using the KonMari method, going through boxes of old sweaters and t-shirts I have been begging him to jettison for years. That had to be good, right?
When I got home and witnessed the magic Marie’s art of tidying up had brought to his closet and office, I got a little inspired myself. Although I twice yearly empty my closet of items that didn’t see the light of day over the past few seasons, I emptied my closet of everything, setting it neatly on the bed, and appraising each item in terms of joy. In some cases, the decisions were easy. Love the details on this top. This makes me look ten pounds heavier. This dress gets so many compliments. Pretty sure I’m never getting back into this pair of pants. In other cases, I struggled. Eventually, I unloaded two full kitchen bags of items whose existence caused me a tiny discomfort when I opened my closet, either by being too small and therefore a reminder of how my body has changed or by inspiring guilty feelings knowing I had wasted money on them. And, in the end, when I looked at the closet filled only with items I can and will wear, I felt lighter. I told my husband I was grateful he jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon.
This notion of evaluating things for how they make me feel has set me on a new path. What if I took a critical look at my life and assessed what areas are bringing me joy and commit myself more fully to those? Wouldn’t my joy exponentially increase if I said goodbye to obligations I accepted long ago when they fit me but which no longer make me happy? Could I eliminate some bad habits, like playing Toy Blast on my phone when I need to get out of my brain, and make space for activities that foster growth rather provide mindless escape? What if I off-loaded some limiting thoughts that arose as a necessary protection mechanism but that now only chain me to an outdated version of myself? If removing items from my closet made space for mental tranquility, what were the possibilities if I examined the people and relationships in my life? I could start by reducing my social media footprint. From Facebook I could drop those who aren’t in my life in any substantive way, people whose posts and comments don’t align with the life I want for myself. Through that process, I would gain greater understanding of what is valuable to me and then I could consider the personal relationships in my life. Which ones make me better and more joyful? Which ones support and encourage and which ones frustrate, sadden, and tether me to past negativity? Where can I find peace and space without judgement by acknowledging my gratitude to people and situations I’ve outgrown and then taking a deep breath and moving forward purposefully without them?
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” ~ Marie Kondo
I’ll be honest. I’m nervous about undertaking this gargantuan mental and emotional cleanse. Tidying my house is a safe undertaking. Tidying my head space is discomfiting. But, like every other life on this planet, I am daily running down the clock. I can either let go of what doesn’t serve me or I can spend whatever time I have left in this beautiful world being dragged behind it like a water skier who has fallen yet hasn’t realized it’s time to let go of the tow line. It takes a special kind of stupid to keep repeatedly making the same mistakes. So, I’m letting go of what has been dragging me. I’m going to go KonMari on my life so I can wrap my arms around better things.
Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.
Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.
At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.
People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.
Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British army. His teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.
A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.
“I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.” ~The Smiths
A little over a month ago, my youngest sister called to let me know life had dealt her an epic smackdown. She was reeling. I was reeling along with her. And so I packed a bag just barely under the 50-pound limit, said goodbye to my husband and teenage sons, boarded a flight to Hartford, and settled into her home for an extended 5-week stay, presumably to offer comfort and make her life a smidgen easier.
A little over a week into my stay, however, the Universe decided one epic smackdown was not enough. On an unusually rainy day in the midst of an unusually rainy week, I grabbed Julie’s jumbo umbrella and headed out to collect a package UPS had left in the wet driveway. I walked out the back door and was descending the wooden steps from the back patio when my flip-flops betrayed me. With unbelievable flourish and zero panache, I caught serious air in a feels-like-slow-motion wipeout that would have won the day on America’s Funniest Home Videos if I had been unfortunate enough to be caught on camera. I landed butt-side down on the unforgiving edge of a step, one arm wrenching backwards and loosening the umbrella from my grasp, the other slamming onto the step beside me. From there, I proceeded to slide down three more stairs on my already tender tush because, well, I’m just that good.
I gave birth to two sons through induced labor. I suffered through seven years with gallstone pain before finally acquiescing to surgery. I had an emergency appendectomy. I am familiar with pain. When I at last came to a halt on those wicked stairs, the pain was exquisite enough to take my breath away. I began to sob a pathetic whimpering cry reminiscent of The Man in Black after Count Rugen ratchets his torture device up in The Princess Bride. I sat for a couple minutes while my tears disappeared in the soaking rain and tried to determine if I dared to move. I wasn’t sure if I had broken anything. I was afraid if I shifted in any way I would feel worse.
A couple hours afterward, already sporting impressive swelling and dark bruising, I found myself lightheaded, nauseous, and experiencing cold sweats. I had my sister drive me to Urgent Care. After examining me, the PA told me I had only a severe bruise and significant hematoma. The fainting spells were likely vasovagal syncope responses to the trauma. The numbness I felt in my hands was due to swelling and the whiplash I sustained in the fall. All of this was good news. I simply had a severe minor injury, which was still nothing more than a minor injury. Sure, I blacked out again during the car ride home, sending my sister into a near panic, and later I had to crawl up the stairs to bed after another fainting episode, but it could have been much worse. I lucked out.
I’ve had a plethora of time resting my backside on ice and heat since then to reflect on my mishap. I keep coming back to the first Buddhist Noble Truth. In each life, sickness, loss, and death occur. They are inevitable. The Universe, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, insert your higher power here, doesn’t play favorites. The human condition is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what type of life you lead, you will suffer. I arrived in Connecticut on my high horse, prepared to sweep in, full of sunshine and light, to help my sister deal with the unwelcome unexpected. I ended up on my sorry ass at Urgent Care with my own unwelcome unexpected.
It’s not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that matters. I can’t avoid suffering, but I can reframe it and refuse to let it define me. Two weeks have passed since my digger on the stairs. I am still bruised. I have what appears to be a permanent dent in my hindquarters. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my experience. It’s not what I envisioned, but any time I spend railing against what is wastes my time here.
Epic smackdowns are growth opportunities. They are an elbowing nudge from the Universe imploring us to open our eyes. I’m awake now.