Night swimming

This might sound strange, but I have been sleeping better during this pandemic. Of course, there is a low bar for strange these days – and months. I’ve suffered with insomnia for several years. I fall asleep okay and then I find myself eyes wide open at 3:00 AM. I usually drag myself to the couch while my dear wife sleeps like a drunken sailor. She sleeps better than any person still alive and it makes me freaking jealous.

Pandemic sleep for me has been very deep. Remember diving for quarters in the deep end of the pool when you were a kid? It was such fun and I loved that sensation of swimming closer to the bottom – feeling the water getting colder and the sounds from above becoming more muffled. I could hold my breath for a surprisingly long time and I often went home with the most quarters.

My dreams have run the gamut from sweet to crazy to frightening to funny. Just last night I dreamed I was hanging out with Nicolle Wallace from MSNBC. Yes, she is my spirit animal but that’s just funny. I call these my Insta Dreams because I follow these folks on Instagram. The best one so far was a few weeks ago when JLo and I were sitting on a patio and I was telling her how much I loved her Super Bowl appearance and that I named my new car after her. She got me.

I have dreamed a lot about my dead parents over the past few months. I am grateful that these dreams have been peaceful and comforting. In most of them, we are together and doing something quite ordinary – like making dinner.

The other night, I dreamed I was with my mother in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. I was telling her goodbye because I was heading back home. In this dream, I lived in California which is pretty cool because I’ve always dreamed of living there. I guess that falls under wishful dreaming. Anyway, my mother was wearing a dark blue velour robe – which was historically accurate – and we hugged for a very long time. Almost as long as I could hold my breath in the deep end all those years ago.

I’ve dreamed of former partners – one sweet, one not – again, historically accurate – and friends I haven’t seen in years. A few nights ago, I was on the Metro in DC with Ann and Cathy, two much younger women I worked with over 20 years ago. We were chatting away like it was yesterday, and the cherry blossoms were in bloom. That period I lived in DC was one of the happiest times of my life and it was lovely to revisit it in a dream.

Of course, not all my dreams have been sweet. I’ve dreamed a lot about broken relationships with family and friends that remain unmended. Some nights I feel like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life reviewing all the what ifs of my life. These dreams are distressing and yet I linger in them and when I wake, I am often filled with regret and despair and this pandemic feels even more ominous to me. The hangover of these dreams can last a while and I carry a heaviness throughout the day. I feel like I’m wearing one of those lead aprons they put on you when you get an X-ray at the dentist’s office. Those days are longer than most.

I have spent a lot of time pondering what these dreams mean and I always come back to mortality and the unfinished things in my life. Light, right? Sometimes I wish I were a puzzle person – that seems like a far less bleak pandemic activity than pondering one’s own mortality, but I don’t have the patience for that. I think about trying to put the pieces of those broken relationships back together, but it feels so overwhelming – a 5,000-piece puzzle of the color white.

So, I write to try and help me make some sense of these things that make no sense these days. My friend, Jen, is a professor of English literature at UNCG. She is the kind of smart that makes you feel like your brain is not set on the same speed as hers. She is always taking notes – as if to not miss anything – and she recently wrote a beautiful essay, “Finding the Courage to Write.” Click on the title to read it – and I really hope you do. Jen talks about writing against the despair of this pandemic and connecting with as many others as you can. I love that phrase – “writing against the despair” – it feels hopeful and makes me feel like if I keep writing, I can hold my breath long enough to make it back to the surface with that quarter safely in my hand.

Taking flight

I don’t know about you, but for me, this pandemic has been a daily roller coaster ride. And I hate roller coasters. I try to start out most days with a moderately positive attitude so I can navigate the deep dips that may come – as they invariably do. Yesterday, was a most pleasant reversal of this ride – more like a Ferris wheel. And I love Ferris wheels.

Yesterday morning, I was below ground level after my weekly trip to the grocery store. And honestly, it had nothing to do with the grocery store, but the unmasked shoppers I encountered. I just don’t get it! What is so hard about wearing a mask? I had a running conversation with myself as I passed person after person without a mask. The twenty-something guy without one – stupid or just arrogant? Probably both. The old – like really old people – not wearing one. Death wish? Resignation? I had no answers, but plenty of side-eye as I passed the unmasked. Unfortunately, my side-eye, rather legendary, has apparently been rendered ineffective behind the veil of a mask.

I was just so damn mad and disgusted when I left the grocery store that I decided I needed what my dear wife likes to call a “corrective” experience. I ran home to give the groceries a quick Silkwood scrubdown and decided to take a drive to a local strawberry farm to pick up some seasonal deliciousness. This farm advertised drive-thru pickup, so I felt relatively comfortable with the outing.

It was a magnificent spring day – a Tarheel blue sky that NC is famous for. I made myself not listen to MSNBC on my Apple CarPlay on the ride out to the country and went with the Joni Mitchell channel on Spotify. Good call, right? I could feel my mask malaise dissipating as I turned down the little dirt road to the farm. I was greeted by a young man – wearing a MASK, thank you – holding a box of beautiful strawberries. He greeted me kindly and asked what I would like. I said, “Those.” I gave him my debit card – he ran it – and just like that I was driving home with my strawberries riding shotgun.

Mother Nature is a remarkable thing. As I looked back at the field of strawberries, COVID-19 felt far away – sort of like when you look down at the ground when you get to the top of a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling as sweet as those berries on the seat next to me.

I kept listening to music on my way back to town and decided to really live it up and go through the Starbucks drive-through for a cappuccino. I pulled into the parking lot and there were just a few cars ahead of me. I was on a roll. I ordered and when I got to the window, a very friendly young man – MASKED, thank you – handed me a perfect dry cappuccino – just like I like it. For the uninitiated, a dry cappuccino has less milk than a standard one and is topped off with a thick layer of milk foam. You can tell immediately if it has been made correctly when you lift the cup – it feels half-empty – just like the one in my hand. How high could this day go?

I was feeling so good that I decided to leave my bestie Carla a Marco Polo message. Marco Polo is a video chat app that lets you send messages back and forth with folks. As a dinosaur, the only Marco Polo I was familiar with was that annoying tag game we played in the pool when we were kids, but Carla keeps me young and on Day 2 of quarantine, she made me download the app. It has been our most used mode of communication these past two months. I like that it is so in the moment – good, bad, and ugly – and it has really kept us connected. A few weeks in of Poloing (our word) – Carla upped her game and started sending me videos of her playing the guitar and singing. This was a surprise to me because I didn’t know she could do either of those things, much less so well. We call these videos “Kiki’s Coffeehouse” – and I love them. It’s so fun to get a personal tiny desk concert now and then.

My last few Polos to Carla had been rather blue, so I wanted to share my up morning with her. While I was recording my video, I noticed that a lot of people were pulling into the parking lot next to Starbucks. Then I noticed two firetrucks and several police cars. I finished my chat and looked around to see lots of people standing by their cars staring up at the sky. Did I miss a pandemic eclipse? Then I remembered that the NC National Guard’s Airlift Wing was conducting flyover salutes to medical staff and other frontline workers. Somehow, I had landed smack dab in the perfect viewing site. Could this day get any better? Yes, it would.

I got out of my car – with my MASK – and surveyed the crowd. And it was a crowd. Families with little kids, lots of law enforcement as spectators, but running the lights on their cars to make it all a bit more festive. There was that excitement in the air you feel on the 4th of July while you’re waiting for the fireworks to begin or the parade to start. People were happy and talking to each other in that benign friendly way we speak to strangers. I had a nice chat (socially distanced) with an older man wearing a Marine baseball cap.

I looked over across the street to the parking deck of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and saw a huge group of hospital workers (DEFINITELY MASKED) standing by the wall looking up toward the sky. And that’s when I got the first lump in my throat. Then I heard a loud roar from the sky and there it was – coming right at us – a huge C-17 airplane. Disclaimer: I know less about planes than I do about cars – which is nothing. I looked it up. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft.

It was so close I felt like I was ducking when it raced over my head. And then I heard people clapping and cheering. And that’s when the lump in my throat came out as tears – lots of them. What was this familiar feeling that started in my toes and rose to fill my heart? It was that feeling you get when the National Anthem plays before a football game. Goosebumps. That feeling of being an American. God, I haven’t felt that feeling in so very long. It was glorious and I didn’t want it to be over. No one did. Everyone lingered long after the plane was gone – not wanting to go back – to where we are now.

This pandemic has felt so different than 9/11. I mean, of course, it is different, but there has not been that tsunami of unity that a lot of us felt after that unspeakable tragedy. It might have been for just a few weeks, it’s easy to romanticize compared to our current shit show, but it felt like for a very long time, we were connected as Americans. I wonder if those not of age then will ever experience such a feeling. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever know that feeling again.

But I did – yesterday. And after I had sucked in every breath of that magical moment, I finally got back in my car to drive home. I turned Spotify back on and what song was playing? Carolina in My Mind. Even I couldn’t make that up.

I stayed in the top car of that Ferris wheel the rest of the day, letting my feet dangle with not a worry in the world – smiling down at what I had been so deeply missing. My country.

Do not adjust your set

The second week of quarantine in early March, two years, um, months ago, the sound on the television in our living room went out. The picture was fine – just no sound. Now let me preface this story with the humbling confession that my dear wife and I are woefully inept when it comes to any repairs of a technical nature. In short, there will be cussing (mine) and there might be tears (both).

So, I made the dreaded call to Spectrum and went through the automated menu to learn that there were no outages reported in my area. Thanks. Then I held and held and held to talk to a human who walked me through refreshing (stupid word for unplugging everything) my TV. Yep, still no sound. The same thing happened a few months ago and we were told it was probably a bad cable and we should use another cable outlet for the audio. Somehow, we managed to do this, and sound was restored.

No such luck on this Sunday morning. I had purchased a new cable cord to have on hand for such a situation, so we entered the Black Hole of Cords behind the television set. Of course, there’s only room for a small child (and lots of dust) behind there, so that only adds to the frustration. We tried what felt like 101 variations of plugging things in to no avail. And then we did what so many good people who had gone before us have done – we gave up. Yep. We made a conscious decision that our marriage was more important than the sound on our TV and I feel pretty good about that.

Full disclosure – this situation was not as dire as it might have been. The sound on our Roku worked just fine so our streaming lives were saved. We hardly ever watch anything on regular TV anyway – except sports (me) and MSNBC (me). My wife enjoys some HGTV when she has a rare break from her live-in program director (me).

So, we really haven’t been all that inconvenienced by no sound on our TV and in the case of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force briefings, it has been a true blessing. I started “watching” them on Twitter so I would not miss anything important like what a great job he is doing and where to insert my glow stick if I begin to feel ill.

And just the other day, I realized that a television with no sound is the perfect metaphor for this pandemic. We can see, but we really have no idea what is going on. And we can try and change the channel, but the result is still the same – nothing. Most of us are sitting at home anxiously waiting to hear what the new not normal normal will be. We see talking heads and fancy graphs, but we aren’t hearing what we long to hear… “It’s going to be okay.“

Crickets.

So, we return to the Neverland of Netflix where people are still going out to dinner and hugging their friends and getting on airplanes to go to beautiful places.

Damn. We may never get that TV fixed.

Gate change

“Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy, because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.”

~ John Patrick Shanley

Maybe that is why we are all so tired these days. Blame it on doubt. I usually blame it on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – and you can certainly connect the dots on that one, but I’m doubling down on doubt today. We are living in a constant state of uncertainty and it is absolutely exhausting.

Some days I feel like I’m on a moving walkway at an airport. You remember airports, don’t you? Anyway, I have my suitcase and I am making my way to my gate – only I don’t know where my gate is. In fact, I have no idea where I am going. I don’t even have a ticket, but it doesn’t really matter because the walkway never ends. It just keeps moving forward into the unknown.

This is life in a global pandemic. A one-way ticket to uncertainty. Who the hell knows what to pack? Besides lots of snacks, of course. No kidding, this is hard and the reality of it sent me into the dark hole of despair this week.

I have written before about my superpowers of denial, but they dissolved this week. I’m sure it was the cumulative effect of everything most of us are dealing with – fears about our health and our loved ones, fears about security, fears about what the future will look like when the gates open again.

Putting the COVID-19 smorgasbord of anxiety aside, there were two things that happened this week that made me feel the brutal reality of this pandemic in my gut. The first, innocently enough, was a virtual vestry meeting after a Zoom worship service on Sunday. In the Episcopal church, my church, the vestry is like a board of directors – conducting parochial business. We normally meet once a month, but since the quarantine in early March, we have been connecting weekly.

We divided up the church directory and each vestry member has been responsible for checking in on parishioners. Each week we spend the top of our meeting with updates and last Sunday, our rector told us that she had heard from some older members of our parish that they won’t be returning to the physical church until there is a vaccine. Lysol and grow lights aside, the most optimistic projections for a vaccine are a year or more away. Believe me, I want these dear wise owls at my church to stay home and safe, but I just can’t imagine not seeing them in person for that long. Damn you, reality.

The other event that leveled me was more of a Six Degrees of COVID-19. My sister, who manages some oncology clinics in East Bay, CA, had to inform her staff of a 20% pay cut. The freeze on elective surgeries during this pandemic has left medical providers reeling from a revenue perspective. She also had to lay off some temporary staff, including a cheerful young man who has been living in his car. Cue gut punch.

My sister had told me about this man weeks ago – how earnest and kind he was and how much he appreciated his job. He worked at the front desk and greeted everyone enthusiastically. He had shared his housing situation with my sister and she and her assistant were able to discreetly help him with some new clothing and toiletries. She dreaded giving him the news earlier this week and when I talked to her that evening, I asked her how it went. She said the young man said, “Thank you for this opportunity. I’ve learned so much.” True story.

I got off the phone with my sister and sat down in the chair in my office in the dark and I wept for a young man I will never meet. To be honest, I also wept for my denial. It was shattered, crumbling like a piece of fine crystal being tapped with a hammer. It was my pandemic tipping point.

There is no denying the uncertainty in which we are all living. 50,000 dead and counting as I write this. A friend shared the tweet below with me and it made me feel better – to know that someone else was feeling this way.

I imagine a lot of people are feeling this way and you know what? It is okay to feel that way – any way you are feeling about all of this. Anxiety, fear, grief, anger – we need to feel it. One of the truest things I ever read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking – her stunningly raw account of her husband’s sudden death and how she navigated that first horrible year without him. She writes that “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” That, my friends, is as real as it gets.

I have been grieving the things I miss in this beautifully broken world and I am grieving the loss of certainty. The late Jane Kenyon is one of my favorite poets and I have found myself returning to her words again over the past several weeks. Her poem Otherwise is an achingly lyrical appreciation for the here and now and a haunting lamentation on uncertainty. I’ve been reading it a lot on the walkway. Hang on to your boarding pass and your humanity, folks. This could be a long one.

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day

But one day, I know

it will be otherwise.

Finding grace at Trader Joe’s

I’ve never really enjoyed grocery shopping, but COVID-19 has made me approach this ordinary task like a Navy SEAL. Gone are the days of just running in to pick up something. Grocery shopping today requires strategy – and PPE. Have mask, will shop.

So, I set out yesterday morning and went through my litany. List. Check. Wipes. Check. Sanitizer. Check. Anxiety. Check. I arrived at Trader Joe’s shortly before nine. Shout out to TJ’s – they have done an excellent job of adhering to safe distancing guidelines. There are blue tape strips on the sidewalk outside the store marking the magical six feet and they have a traffic controller outside only allowing so many people in the store at once. Meanwhile, another employee is constantly sanitizing carts. Once in the store – you’ll see more blue strips, reminding you to stay in your lane.

No one looks like they’re enjoying their outing. There are plenty of awkward moves as folks try to avoid each other while snagging a beautiful avocado. Things get a little more tense when you approach the bin where the highly sought after Danish Kringle resides. Behold the Kringle, a sinfully delicious Scandinavian flat ring of pastry. Trader Joe’s Kringle even has a calendar. True story – the flavors change every quarter and the most popular one, almond, comes out after Thanksgiving. I’m grateful that the COVID-19 Kringle is raspberry – not my favorite so no reason to risk my life to grab one.

I got the essentials – Greek yogurt, hummus and wine. And maybe some more wine. I head to the checkout and find myself behind a very elderly woman. It was a warm and sunny morning, but she was wearing a teal raincoat and had a floral scarf wrapped around her head (not her face). And she was wearing sunglasses. Think Little Edie without the cats.

Her cart was full of various canned goods – beans and tuna and such. She asked the cashier to give her a running total of what she was purchasing. Yes, I had definitely picked the wrong line (per usual) and as I rolled my eyes, I surveyed an escape route. I decided a pandemic is no time to be changing lines and took a deep breath. I must remind myself to do this several times a day now.

Meanwhile, the cashier was patiently and kindly calling out the total to Edie. When the grand total was announced – something close to $60, Edie started pulling out items for the cashier to remove from her bill. Clearly, she had a budget and she was not going over it. I thought for a moment of offering to pay for the discarded items, but there was the bold blue tape reminding me to stay where I was, and I wanted to respect this woman’s space and privacy. Once she got within her budget, she pulled out a roll of paper bills from her pocket. I’m pretty sure I gasped. Paper bills! Surely that’s where COVID-19 goes camping. The sweet cashier (who was wearing gloves) never missed a beat as she counted the multiple bills and gave the woman her change.

Edie didn’t want her items bagged – she told the cashier that she had plenty of room in her trunk. Then the cashier thanked her – again, most cheerfully – and told her she hoped she would enjoy the beautiful day. I was mesmerized by her genuine benevolence to this rather eccentric woman. Surely it could have gone another way with a different cashier.

She greeted me and I took my place in front of her plexiglass shield. And then I heard my own muffled mask voice speaking to her, “You were so kind and patient with that woman. You are a lovely person.” Once it was out, there was nowhere to go. She looked at me a bit surprised, but not startled and as she started to respond to me, I could tell she was tearing up. She said, “That is such a nice thing for you to say. Thank you.” And then I teared up and we both looked at each other through our masks and the plexiglass and into each other’s eyes. And I knew that she was smiling, too. It was the most intimate moment that I’ve experienced during this wretched quarantine. It felt like the passing of the peace.

Two strangers sharing communion through the plexiglass of a pandemic.

I’m fairly certain this is how we save each other.