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.

OK Zoomer

Do you want to Zoom? After “What’s for dinner?”, this is perhaps the number one most asked question during this COVID-19 quarantine. Kids do it, grandparents do it, even educated nerds do it. Seems like everyone’s doing it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Bless their hearts.

SNL comically captured this Zoomundrum on this past Saturday night’s digital episode. In a skit, co-workers, including two women who serve as support staff, hilariously portrayed by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, connect on a Zoom staff meeting. They are Zoom virgins and their discomfort and fear with the technology is palpable. At one point on the call, Bryant’s character carries her laptop into the bathroom – not knowing that she is still on camera. Watch it on YouTube and thank me later.

Now let me be clear – I am far from technically savvy, so I’m not throwing any cyber stones here. I’m just making a few observations and trying to get your mind off what you’re going to make for dinner. My community service during the time of plague if you will.

So, here are a few personas I have observed in my glut of Zoom gatherings:

The Newbie. This person is taking the plunge because someone they love asked them to, but they are clearly out of their comfort zone. Once they enter the Zoom room, they have a panicked look on their face – like they’ve gotten on the wrong flight. Their eyes are darting around all over the place as if they’re looking for the exit door. The first words they utter are usually, “Am I on?”. When someone answers them, they almost jump out of the screen as if they’re hearing the voice of God. It’s okay, newbie, everyone remembers their first time.

The Hostage. This Zoomer acts like they are being held against their will. They slip in without saying anything and are usually sitting in dim lighting in a room normally reserved for storage – like you can see the tubs of Christmas decorations in the background. They rarely participate and sometimes even forget to blink. They can’t wait for the meeting to be over.

The Showoff. You know this person. They’ve downloaded all the “cool” Zoom backgrounds because well, this isn’t their first Zoom rodeo. They just can’t wait for someone to comment on their backdrop and gush about how clever they are. I find these backgrounds disturbing. I was on a Zoom with a guy who had the Golden Gate Bridge as his backdrop, and it looked like he was going to jump. Very distracting.

The Chatterbox. It doesn’t matter if this person is in a room with you or a Zoom with you – they are always going to talk the most and interrupt the most. And annoy you (okay, me) the most. Pro tip: Eye-rolling must be nuanced on Zoom – never forget that the camera is on.

The Unmutable. This is often a subset of the Chatterbox. This person is oblivious to the mute button and will often provide unnecessary – and unwanted – commentary on whatever the center square is saying. They also often tend to ignore the other folks on the meeting who are pleading, “Mute your mic!”. I think it’s fine to throw in a quick on-screen eye-roll if they continue to not mute.

The Family Guy. This dude is quarantined with a large family and thinks the best place to log on is the kitchen table, so we get to see his cranky kids and black Lab running in and out of the screen frame. The dog is adorable, but stay in your square, man!

I’m personally not accepting that many Zoom invitations. And, no, it’s not because I’m 100% that bitch. My dear wife is a psychotherapist and has been seeing her clients via teletherapy for the past month. We live in a 1,200 sq. ft. condo and her new office is our dining room table. It has been a stressful transition – for her, for me, and for her clients – many of whom are older and not used to such technology. God bless ‘em for being game for keeping their appointments. Sometimes it takes a while to get them connected, but everyone seems to be getting with the new normal as the days go by.

My wife is the poster girl for Good Boundaries (something I deeply admire about her) and we are strictly adhering to HIPAA guidelines. She has a white noise machine she has running during her appointments and if I’m home – I’m in my office with my headphones on. Our cat has tried to interrupt a few sessions, but she isn’t one to talk out of school. That said, I have enjoyed hearing some funny stories when my wife is done with work. A few weeks ago, she called a client who had not logged on for her appointment. The client answered the phone and when my wife reminded her of the appointment she said, “Oh, yeah, but I’m not wearing a shirt.” True story. Note: She found a shirt before she logged on.

At the end of the day, my wife is absolutely fried. She thinks teletherapy is more difficult than in-person therapy for a myriad of reasons, but she’s profoundly grateful that she can continue doing her job during this pandemic. And I feel really good about her job security since I think therapists, after hairdressers, will be the busiest people once we are released from our COVID captivity.

The last thing she wants to do after work is join a Zoom anything. She often takes a walk or steps outside for some fresh air. We both enjoy the silence at the end of the day and a no screen zone for a bit. And then we’ll have some dinner and relax with a nice Netflix drama about serial killers.

I appreciate that Zoom has been vital to enabling people to do important things from home – work, worship and stay connected to family and friends, but I find myself defaulting more and more to old school communication as this pandemic wears on. I’ve always been a note writer, but I’m rapidly depleting my robust stash of cards and stationery. There’s something so intimate to taking pen to paper to communicate with another human being. And isn’t it nice to get something in the mail besides a bill?

I’ve also been reminded that my phone can be used for something besides texting. The other day, I was on the phone with my best friend from college for almost two hours. I was aware that my right ear was getting kind of hot, but I had absolutely no idea we had been talking for that long. It was delicious and I felt so much lighter after our conversation. She lives in Berkeley, CA and has been living in quarantine since early March. The reality of COVID-19 is much closer to her and I am reminded to be grateful that NC is weathering this mighty storm pretty well.

Maybe Zoom is working for you and if it is, that’s great. I just know that I need to connect in a more visceral way with the people I care about. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how you do it, just stay connected – to others and your own humanity. At the end of the day, it’s our only superpower.

Well, that and Amy’s frozen pizza. Stay home, stay safe.

Next year in Jerusalem

COVID-19 Spring.

I’ve been dreaming a lot about my parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve been gone almost 20 years so I’m grateful that these are sweet dreams and not nightmares, but I’ve had plenty of those, too. We all have.

Last night I dreamt that I was walking in a big city with my father. My dad was a giant of a man – 6’4’’ – and you could always find him in a crowd. He had the long legs of a basketball player and it was hard to keep up with him – which always greatly annoyed my 5’4’’ mother. She spent a lot of their 52 years together looking at his backside – and bitching about how fast he walked.

When I look up “safe” in my dictionary, this picture pops up. My dad.

In my dream, we were suddenly separated, and I was surrounded by hundreds of strangers, all walking rapidly as if to catch a train. My heart was pounding, and I wanted to cry when I looked up far in the distance and saw my handsome father’s head towering above everyone else. I called out as loud as I could, “Dad,” over and over again until, finally, he turned and saw me.  He smiled and waited as I ran towards him and into that magical feeling of being safe.

Do you remember that feeling? That moment when your breath stills to a whisper and you feel your feet firmly grounded. That moment when you can almost hear your heart humming. God, I miss those moments.

Most of us have been reeling in a maze of confusion and fear and a fair amount of anger the past month or so. My March certainly came in like a lion when a drugged-out guy in a van slammed into my car while I was sitting at a stoplight near RDU. It’s a cliché, but I never saw it coming. I suppose that’s often a blessing – in so many situations. Once the screeching and sound of crushing metal ceased, I heard a calm, sweet voice saying, “Are you okay?” The voice belonged to Dee – a lovely truck driver who was stopped next to me and saw the whole thing happen. She helped me out of my car on the passenger side and stayed with me until the EMTs and state trooper arrived.

It is not well with my Soul.

My car was totaled and I’m lucky I wasn’t seriously maimed – or worse. I did have some mega bruises on my left hip for a few weeks that looked like a map of the world. Oh, and the guy who hit me abandoned his vehicle – and one of his shoes – and ran away. So, I saw the best and worst of humanity that day – my dear highway guardian Dee who stopped her big rig to check on me and that guy that left me for dead. Moral to this story: Be like Dee.

I’m not exactly an optimist, but I did think that my car being totaled would be the worst thing that would happen in my life in the month of March. Again, such a blessing that we don’t see these things coming. Little did I know that the accident was just the opening act for the cancellation of a long-planned trip to the Holy Land and oh yeah, a global pandemic. Perspective can be a powerful thing.

Even though March was 137 days long, it feels so far away today. Gone are the days where we might have thought this was going to be okay in a few weeks. A week before my trip to Israel was cancelled, the United States reported 70 COVID-19 cases and the nation’s first death in Washington state. That was less than six weeks ago. Today, there are almost half a million cases and over 13,000 deaths. That hoax theory is not aging well, and neither am I. These days are long and the nights often longer.

I spend a lot of time grieving. It’s a horrible new version of a celebrity parlor game – Six Degrees of COVID-19. Most of us know someone who has or had COVID-19 and each passing day, more of us will know someone who has died from the virus. And certainly, everyone knows someone who is on the front lines of caregiving in one way or another. For me, that is my dear sister who is the director of Stanford Healthcare’s oncology clinics in the East Bay California area. Weeks before COVID-19 was on the front burner here in North Carolina, my sister was warning me of how bad it was going to get. She has adapted exceptionally well to her strange new normal. She works long days – always gloved and masked – comes home and takes off her shoes on the front porch. She heads straight to her laundry room, undresses and throws her clothes in the washer before heading to the shower. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Just another day at the office. My sister.

She has a vulnerable respiratory system and I worry (understatement) about her, but her spirit is indomitable and when I speak with her on the phone every day, she makes me feel hopeful that we will get to the other side of this.

I spent a good chunk of my career working in public health to support people living with HIV/AIDS and I learned early on that people were more likely to care about a pandemic when it became personal to them. Every one of us will have a very personal COVID-19 story to share before this is over and we need to tell them in the ways that feel right to us. The dead deserve that. The helpers deserve that. The grieving deserve that, too.

Shelter in place is a phrase we keep hearing repeatedly and I find a disconnect in it. I understand the literal definition of the term, but there are days that I wrestle with it. Those are the days I feel angry and frustrated that I can’t seek shelter in the places that make me feel safe. Places like my church. This week is Holy Week – a sacred and somber week in Christianity as we recount the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection.

I am an Episcopalian and like many denominations we have special services on each day this week. About a decade ago, I was going through a dark crisis in my life and suffering deeply. The young intern at my church encouraged me to attend every service of Holy Week. I thought that sounded a little severe, but she suggested that the liturgy of Holy Week might speak to me in a deeper way if I was present at every service. I think she knew I was broken open enough to hear those words in a new way. She could not have been more right. (Disclaimer: Non-believers can bail on this post if this is too much Jesus for you. No hard feelings.) For the first time in my life, I saw my suffering in the suffering of Christ. I felt his wounds as my wounds and perhaps, most importantly, I experienced my resurrection in his. I felt whole again in a way I never had before.

Palm (weeds from our yard) Sunday, 2020. Let us Zoom.

Ever since then, I have attended Holy Week services, well, religiously. So, who knew we would have to give up church for Lent? The rector at my current church is young and cyber savvy and has done a remarkable job of creating online worship opportunities. Zoom is our sanctuary and it has been lovely to see the sweet faces of my community of faith. That said, I’m a cradle Episcopalian and I still feel uneasy wearing flip flops and a T-shirt to church. And I really miss the passing of the peace. At my church, this part of the service goes on for what must feel like an eternity for all the introverts in the parish. But what I miss most is communion – the sharing of the consecrated bread and wine. Without a doubt, this passage from The Book of Common Prayer is why I am an Episcopalian:

“We who are many are one body, because we all share on bread, one cup.”

Even as a child, I think my little bleeding liberal heart loved the idea that a pauper and a prince would drink from the same cup. I worry that COVID-19 might change this sacrament and that makes my heart ache.

The truth is that a lot of things are never going to be quite the same again – and it’s okay to grieve that. Yes, we’re all in this together and the tsunami of gorgeous stories of people helping each other sustains us each day, but before this began, the fear of the other was a real one in our country. A global pandemic won’t help reduce that fear. Neither will government leadership that promotes xenophobia. Yes, the struggle is real and so is the anxiety.

Sidewalk inspiration.

As I stumble through the surreal wilderness of this Holy Week, I am most comforted by thoughts of a beautiful Seder my wife and I attended last year. We were in Washington, DC for the celebration of my most beloved mentor/friend/touchstone Phyllis’ 70th birthday. Her birthday was on Good Friday, which coincided with Passover. Phyllis’ cousin traditionally hosts a huge family Seder – tables and tables pushed together with attendees ranging from about 5 to 95. She graciously invited us as the fortunate chosen Gentiles.

Phyllis Freedman. My favorite Jew.

It had been a long time since I had been to a Seder, and I had never been to one so big or elaborate. As the evening began, we took turns reading the stories of the terrible plagues sent by God and inflicted upon Egypt in order to allow the Israelites to depart from slavery and their journey to freedom in Israel. I loved the symbolism and connection of the meal to the story – dipping hard-cooked eggs in salt water to remember the tears of the ancient Israelites and the sharp herbs representing the bitterness of slavery. It was deeply moving and well, I’m not going to lie – I am a big fan of Cousin Davida’s kugel.

The president keeps making the rather ridiculous observation that “America is just not built for this.” I suppose he means the shutdown that most of us are navigating, but I would guess he also means all the suffering this pandemic entails. I think that’s why I’ve been reminiscing about last year’s Seder and hearing – and perhaps understanding in a new way – the tremendous struggles that Jews have endured. I’m not saying that the Jews were built for this, but they surely can teach us a lot about resilience and dealing with despair.

The traditional Passover Seder ends with the Hebrew, “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim.” Next year in Jerusalem. This prayer finishes the Seder’s journey from a reminder of the suffering of the past to hopes for the wholeness and peace of the future.

Next year in Jerusalem. Whatever that might look like to you.

Wholeness. Peace. May it be so for each of us.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping to see that tall handsome man in my dreams again soon.

This post is dedicated to the late great John Prine who died from complications of COVID-19 on April 7, 2020. We’ll miss you like crazy, John.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go


The myth of the ruby slippers

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors and a certified treasure to humanity, has some simple and direct advice when it comes to writing. It goes like this: “Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”

I’ve been writing – or pretending to write – this blog post for months and it’s high time I got my butt back in the chair, although it’s not always a bad thing to let a piece of writing sit for a bit. I’ve found it often marinates into something richer than it might have been. I guess it could also grow mold, but I’m hoping that’s not the case with this post.

My original piece was going to be a reflection on my summer sabbatical in California and the importance of place in my life. For some reason I stopped working on it in early November and well, somehow the daffodils are now in bloom. To be honest, I know the some reason was that the holiday season is a roller coaster of emotions for me (and a bazillion other people).

Me as soon as I see the first Lexus Christmas commercial.

A typical day for me during that time from Thanksgiving to Christmas is not unlike a NC weather forecast – sunny skies early, thunderstorms in the afternoon, some containing hail and heavy winds, followed by partial clearing. In short, I’m all over the place – which is where this post originated – place.

When I returned from my summer (a civilized no humidity summer) in California, I began thinking a lot about Dorothy – yeah, that young girl from Kansas. Or was it Missouri? How was she so very certain that there’s no place like home? Maybe it was those ruby slippers that fortified her resolve. Me? I’m more of an Allbirds kind of girl and when I bump my rubber heels together, well, there’s no magic.

Don’t get me wrong – I was delighted to be back with my dear wife, but it hit me when my return flight approached PTI that my connection to North Carolina becomes more tenuous each time I leave this state. It was dark as we made our descent and I could see the lights of familiar places, but I didn’t feel much different than when I landed in Atlanta on my layover. I realized that Winston Salem is a destination for me, but it doesn’t feel like home. It never has.

Home is not always in plane view.

I envied those passengers I heard talking about how good it was to be home and I tried to remember when I last had that feeling. It made me sad that I really had to think about it. I suppose I would have to go back several years ago to when my parents were still alive.

The truth is that I’ve always felt like an accidental tourist in North Carolina. I moved here in 1995 when my partner at the time was recruited for a good job opportunity. I was a Virginian for the first 39 years of my life, and I had always thought of myself as a southerner – until I arrived in the Old North State. I’ll never forget my first trip to the post office and after a brief conversation with the clerk behind the counter, he looked at me a bit suspiciously and said, “You’re not from around here.” Not a question. I felt like I was in one of those old Westerns and waited for him to say, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” He wasn’t unfriendly, but his statement surprised me and before I could respond, he asked if was from up north. I said, “Yes. Northern Virginia.” He nodded slowly and told me he thought I was from New York City. That’s exactly how he said – true story.

My first trip to a NC post office. He didn’t make my day.

That memory is harmlessly amusing and oddly affirming to me today as I ponder the nuances of home. NC is never going to be home to me no matter how long I live here. And that’s okay, because I figured out this summer that for some of us, home is more abstract than an address. Most often for me, it’s a state of mind – and heart.

I talked to Kelly, my hairdresser/therapist/dear friend about this recently. She’s married and has two young children and moved to this area in her late teens. I asked her what popped into her head when she thinks of the word home. She took her time answering and said, “Home is the place I feel most filled.” I think I startled her when I responded, quite enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, that’s it.” I’m so lucky that my hair stylist completes me.

For some of us, home is not an address or a house. It’s a space where we feel in harmony with the world. Maybe it’s not even a space – it can be a sound or a smell. The Episcopal church I grew up in had a musty woody smell when you entered the front door. I left the church for several decades as an adult and when I made my way back to a small church in Greensboro on Easter Sunday in 2007, that same smell engulfed me like a hug. I was home.

The red door of just about any Episcopal church feels like home to me. This one is All Saint’s in Greensboro, NC. Watercolor by Mike Tiddy.

And I suppose that my church here in Winston Salem is one of the physical spaces that feels most like home to me these days. And that was certainly the case this holiday season. Church was a sanctuary for me in all manner of ways.

My mother died almost twenty years ago, but I’m still stopped in my tracks when I smell Chanel No. 5. That was her perfume. The morning after she died, I walked into her closet just to breathe in that scent still lingering on some of her clothing. I felt comforted. I was home.

Tastes can feel like home, too. My father always made oyster stew for breakfast on Christmas morning. Hey, don’t judge, I’m from Virginia and we didn’t have Moravian sugar cake. The first Christmas without him, I steeled myself over the stove to try and replicate his no-recipe recipe. It must have been divine intervention, because I came pretty darn close. I remember taking a deep breath before that first taste and there it was – that familiar briny tang.

I spent some time in Charlottesville over New Year’s – a place I lived for over a decade. Several times during my stay, my heart felt full – most especially when I shared time with my friend of over three decades, Chris. She and her husband Ed live on a farm in Crozet, just outside of Charlottesville. The farm has long been the backdrop for all sorts of celebrations – including a memorable 4th of July when we almost burned the front yard down. Our bad – Ed did warn us that the grass was too dry for sparklers.

Friends since the first Reagan administration. Hoping to live long enough to see a Democrat in the White House again.

Chris and Ed were both so dear to my parents – in life and death – and it is an abiding comfort to me to have such a rich history with them. Their house feels like home. And hugging Ed reminds me of being in my father’s arms – he’s a strong but kind man like my dad and he’s okay with me crying into his warm flannel shirt. And just like my dad, he is always so happy to see me. He greeted me this time with perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. “Addy, you know we just sort of set our watches until the next time we see you.” I mean, who says that? Ed does. And then I cry.

Me after hugging Ed.

I often feel at home in nature and what a glorious gift that is. I’ve always enjoyed walking, but after the apocalypse of November 8, 2016, walking became a spiritual practice for me. Yes, it’s good exercise, but it also gets me away from the turmoil of our BREAKING NEWS world. There are just so many screaming words flying back and forth, and I for one would much rather hear the tweet of a bird over one from a president.

Budding blooms > Breaking news.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that for me, home will probably always be a moving target, a fleeting yet often visceral moment. On my best days, there are several moments when I feel at home and as Kelly said, I am filled in glorious ways.

Mary Oliver, the beloved goddess of poetry who passed away last year, exquisitely captures the feeling of home in the poem below. I read it at my best friend’s wedding several years ago outside on a warm day in May while her dog barked. It was perfect.

Coming Home

by Mary Oliver

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place–
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

I’m glad Dorothy made it back to Kansas, but I’m going to just keep trying to enjoy the ride home wherever it takes me. You see, for some of us, there’s no home like place.

Chris and Ed make my heart feel home.
When a familiar view feels like home. Holidays up on the farm.

The weight of it all

Lizzo. Yaas, Queen.

Slow songs, they for skinny hoes

Can’t move all of this here to one of those

I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo

Fuck it up to the tempo

Lyrics from “Tempo” by Lizzo

My musical tastes are the fashion equivalent of Mom jeans. In other words, decidedly unhip. My Sirius XM radio is preset to stations like Coffee House, On Broadway and Siriusly Sinatra. I never listen to popular radio.

It’s a bit of a disconnect, because I’m fairly obsessed with popular culture. I mean, I can tell you who Chris Martin is dating – Dakota Johnson – the breakup was just a rumor. But current music – I’m clueless. Thankfully, my bestie Carla is 20-something years younger than me and keeps me from being that old person. She introduced me to the singer Lizzo a few weeks ago and her music is everything I never knew I needed. For reals.

I don’t even know how to describe Lizzo’s music – you just must listen to it. She’s a classically trained flautist turned alternative hip-hop rapper and singer who’s single “Truth Hurts”is currently No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

I’m certain I look a bit like John Travolta in the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever when I’m listening to Lizzo on my morning walks. I strut. Well, as much as I’m capable of strutting. Her themes of body-positivity and self-love are empowering, thrilling and thoroughly badass.

And Lizzo’s lyrics have given me the guts to finally – FINALLY – write about something that has been heavy on my mind for years – weight. My weight. Your weight. Anyone’s weight who has been made to feel less than because you’re considered too much by THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. I’m downsizing – see what I did there? I’m Marie Kondoing this bulky burden and celebrating the fierce and beautiful women like Lizzo who have dragged me to today – author Roxane Gay, actress and writer Aidy Bryant, and my sister to name a few.

I’ll start with some facts. I come from a family of large women – particularly on my father’s side. The Ore women are built Ford tough – it’s in our DNA. There are no petite women in our family. We also have freakishly large heads. True story. Years ago, my sister had a straw hat made for me by Oprah’s hatmaker – who informed her that the circumference of my head is larger than Oprah’s. You get a hat!

Dear wife eclipsed by Big Head.

The first memory I have of my mother complaining about her weight was probably around the time I was in the 4th grade. My younger sister, my mother’s fourth child, was two, and mom had that baby weight gain that never quite went away. That would have also been the time I was introduced to Tab – one of the first diet soft drinks and quite possibly the vilest tasting beverage ever created. How do I describe it? If aluminum foil was a soft drink, it would be Tab.

Where taste goes to die.

My mother and her friends drank it all the time and I grew up thinking it was a mom thing that I would one day have to emulate. Well, I never had kids and I never drank Tab – but I crushed some Fresca and Diet Dr. Pepper back in the day. Disclaimer: Now that I know that diet sodas can cause strokes in lab rats and other fun stuff, I only have an occasional Diet Coke when I have a headache.

Mom and her coffee klatch all had multiple kids, all lamented their round stomachs, and all invested a lot of time in trying the latest fad diets – the Grapefruit Diet, the Pineapple Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet were just a few of them. The diets all had two things in common – they were horrible, and they made my mother and her friends very grouchy.

So, I grew up thinking dieting was normal – well, at least for girls. I don’t remember the first diet I did but I guess I must have been in junior high. Funny, when I look back on pictures from that time, I look like most of the other girls in the photos – long hair parted down the middle and the awkwardly glum expression of a teenager, but I always felt bigger. Maybe it was because I never had a flat stomach – ever. The concept is still as foreign to me as cold fusion.

Baby, I was born this way. Me, shortly before starting my first diet, circa 1958.

I never wore a two-piece swimsuit, much less a bikini. Just the thought of it would have made me spontaneously combust into flames. A sensible one piece has been the story of my life and shopping with my mother as a teenager are some of the worst memories of my childhood. There were almost always tears – mine and hers. I’m sure I blamed her for my inability to fit into what my girlfriends were wearing. Through the wisdom of years, I now understand that I probably didn’t really want to be wearing most of those things anyway. I was different than my friends and not having a flat stomach was just a part of it. I was gay, but back then I didn’t have the language for it – it was just another thing that made me not the same, but it was a thing I could more easily hide than a belly.

I loved sports and played on the girls’ basketball team. I was a pretty decent athlete, but I was not fast. And that was never more apparent than every fall when each student was required to participate in the sadistic Presidential Fitness Test. This was an archaic six event torture test instituted by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s because US kids weren’t measuring up to European kids in physical fitness tests.

I hope karma caught up with those PE teachers. And I hope it was faster than me.

The sinister P.E. teacher would stand with a clipboard and a stopwatch and time you doing things like the 600-yard walk/run (I mostly walked) and the ludicrous flexed arm hang that only the super skinny girls could do for more than a millisecond. I only remember these two specific events because they were the most humiliating. The good news is that the test was discontinued in 2013 and military training exercises apparently are no longer required for a high school diploma, but the psychological damage remains for some of us.

I gained weight after college and followed in my mother’s diet footsteps trying almost every weight loss program du jour – including Atkins – which when properly followed gives you the breath of a black bear – and the Scarsdale diet, created by cardiologist Herman Tarnower in the late 70’s. This plan was the precursor to all the high protein/low carb diets of today. Dr. Tarnower was famously shot to death in 1980 by his lover Jean Harris, the headmistress of the prestigious Madeira School. After two weeks on the Scarsdale diet, I had a better understanding of her motives.

PTSD: Post Traumatic Scarsdale Diet

Over the years, as I struggled on and off (literally) with my weight, I realized two maddening truths about our culture – thinness is regarded as a virtue and fat shaming is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination.

Just the word thin makes me uncomfortable – unless it is relating to mint cookies. My beloved Aunt Phyllis used the word as the ultimate compliment to someone. Not pretty, or cute or nice – but thin. And she would say it so it sounded like the “n” was another syllable – dragging it out so it would hang in the air. She was naturally thin most of her life (she was my aunt on my mother’s side!) and probably had no idea how her glorification of thin made me feel so inadequate.

Don’t even.

However, I have known thin people – friends even – who consider themselves superior beings because of their thinness. This is not an appealing trait. Being blessed with the metabolism of a hummingbird is usually the stroke of luck of genetics – not character. And a lot of thin people love to give the unthin unsolicited advice about healthy eating. Here’s a little pro tip: Bag it, we’ve heard it. Ad nauseam.

And for the record, I’m a pescatarian – I haven’t eaten meat in decades – and I walk on average about 25 miles a week. I know about healthy eating and exercising, thank you very much. But hey, some of my best friends are thin and I love them just the way they are. Okay, maybe not when they’re eating that ginormous cupcake with sprinkles.

Chew on this.

Fat shaming is way worse than thin flaunting and I’m over it. Two years ago, I read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay – a raw and searingly honest account of rape, overeating, desire and denial that completely wrecked me. Often when I read a book (old-school, no Kindle), I underline the parts that speak to me. When I looked back at my copy of Hunger the other day, almost every page has an underlined passage. Like this one:

Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes. You may become very adept at playing the role of the wallflower. You may learn how to be the life of the party so that people are too busy laughing at or with you to focus on the elephant in the room. You may do whatever you have to do to survive in a world that has little patience or compassion for a body like yours.

And this one:

In yet another commercial, Oprah somberly says, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” This is a popular notion, the idea that the fat among us are carrying a thin woman inside. Each time I see this particular commercial, I think, I ate that thin woman and she was delicious but unsatisfying. And then I think about how fucked up it is to promote this idea that our truest selves are thin women hiding in our fat bodies like imposters, usurpers, illegitimates.

Gay says some of the things I’ve only thought in my head – or perhaps, on occasion, discussed with my sister. She writes a lot about feeling comfortable in your own body and what a luxury that must be – about untangling the social messages that equate your worth with the size of your body. I’m a lot older than her – she’s 44 – and I am not black, a victim of rape, or morbidly obese, so I don’t begin to pretend that our journeys have been the same. I just know that her writing made me feel heard.

And her writing made me question why I had never written about the weight of weight. Over the years, I’ve written about death, divorce and job loss – all heavy topics – but never weight. I finally realized that I was ashamed to write about it and that made me feel even more ashamed.


About a decade ago, I went through a tumultuous breakup with a partner. It was mean and public and played out on social media. At one point, one of her besties, a man, tried to tag a photo of me on Facebook with the caption LOSER FAT CUNT (yes, all caps). I had just gotten home from work when I saw it. My face was on fire as hot tears spilled onto my chest and I can remember feeling like a SWAT team had just broken down my front door. I felt so exposed – like a kid on the playground being called names in front of the other kids and I could hear the awful din of the collective laughing of the masses.

Spoiler Alert: “Sticks and Stones” is a ruse.

I thought about that Facebook post when I read Roxane Gay’s book and I felt embarrassed that the word that hurt me the most that awful night was fat. Shame on me. I let someone have power over me by feeling bad about myself. That was fucked up and Gay’s book helped me explore my power in a way I never had before.

Since then, I’ve tried my best to not be a party to other people making big people feel small. A few months after I read Hunger, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the huuuge mistake of closing a public beach during a weekend-long shutdown of nonessential services. Hours later, he was photographed sitting in a beach chair with his family on the beach he had just closed. The rest is meme history and the none too flattering photo went viral over social media for weeks. I’ve never liked Christie, and I was itching to get in on the fun until I remembered that just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean it’s okay to make fun of their body in a beach chair. Maybe that sounds a bit Mr. Rogersish, but that’s when the tide turned for me. I’m not the FB police, but if you’re “friends” with me and you post a fat shaming meme or video – you know the ones – a fat woman at Walmart – always Walmart – wearing a tube top doing something tacky – I will call you out. And by the way, no one EVER posts a picture of a thin woman in a tube top doing something tacky at Walmart.

I’m over it. It’s just not cool or funny to fat shame.

But I’ll tell you what is cool and funny – Shrill, the Aidy Bryant Hulu series based on author Lindy West’s bestselling 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. Bryant plays Annie, a journalist living in Portland, OR who wants to change her life – not her body. Annie is smart and funny and sexy, and makes bad choices just like smaller women.

At the end of a really bad day, Annie reaches critical mass with the messaging that her body is what needs to be fixed and says, “It’s a fucking mind prison, you know, that every fucking woman everywhere has been programmed to believe. And I’ve wasted so much time and money and energy, for what? I’m fat. I’m fucking fat. Hello, I’m fat.”

The six-episode series made me laugh and cry – sometimes at the same time. Being seen will do that to you. And here’s something else – Bryant is the star of the show and she gets to wear the cool clothes and the cute shoes and have sex and all the other things the big girl isn’t usually allowed to do on TV.

Aidy Bryant, living her best life. Cute shoes!

Annie is most of the women I’ve ever known – big and small – she’s just trying to live her best life and I want to be her best friend. I think I really want to be Aidy Bryant’s best friend. I follow her on Instagram, and she radiates joy. I love her and her message of body positivity and I’m thrilled that the show has been renewed for a second season.

I watched the series again a few weeks ago when I was with my sister in California. My sister is seven years younger than me, but she’s way wiser and braver than I’ll ever dream of being. She has battled – and that’s the right word – severe depression beginning around age nine. In the 70’s, not too many parents or teachers knew what to do with a depressed child – which is not to say they didn’t try, they were just woefully unequipped with the skills they needed to help her. She found comfort in food, her “best friend” as she called it. Food never let her down and it always made her feel better for a while. It also made her one of the most wretched creatures on earth – an overweight teenage girl. For her, that meant no dances, no cheerleading, no drill team – but lots of teasing. It is agonizing for me to hear her memories of being made fun of – even after these many years.

And yet, she was voted Funniest, Best Personality and Most Spirited for senior superlatives. She became that life of the party that Roxane Gay describes.

My sister’s watershed moment of living as a big woman in a small world happened in 1998 near the steps of the U.S. Capitol at a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was beaten and left to die near Laramie, WY. She was living in a MD suburb and was deeply moved by Shepherd’s death. She only recently told me that it was the first time that she had feared for my safety as a gay person. It felt important for her to be there that night to support me.

At one point during the program, she was standing behind two gay men and overheard them making fun of a very large woman in front of them. My sister was mortified and fully realized then the pecking order of discrimination – even the gays make fun of fat people.

My sister lives a full life these days and she would still probably win Most Spirited if her colleagues and friends had a vote. She lives her life out loud – especially when it comes to accessories. She doesn’t make herself smaller to fit anyone else’s expectations. And I wish I had half her chutzpah.

Nobody puts Sissy in the corner. For starters, her hat wouldn’t fit.

For a good chunk of my life, I’ve been told that I’m too much – too big, too loud, too emotional, too intimidating, too sentimental, too nice, too passionate, too sarcastic, too silly, too political, too out, too everything. Lately, I’ve been examining the connection between the messenger and the message and it seems like whenever I adjust my settings to suit them, it never works out well for me. It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’ve finally figured out that my job is not to make the messengers happy.

Whatever Lizzo song I’m listening to is usually my favorite, but if I had to pick one it would be “Soulmate” – her brilliant ode to self-acceptance and self-love.

‘Cause I’m my own soulmate

I know how to love me

I know that I’m always going to hold me down

(Look up in the mirror like damn she the one)

Yeah, I’m my own soulmate

I know I’m lucky. My dear wife loves me and tells me I’m beautiful almost every day – sometimes twice on Sundays. I know she means it and when she says it, I believe her, but these days I’m also listening more and more to my own voice – and it’s telling me that too much is just right.

Hello, it’s me.
Traveling light these days. #nofilter