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.

Hibernation: Winter is here

bookends new year 1

I am in full hibernation mode. Winter does this to me. It’s a time to retreat, reflect and restore. A time to sleep in and draw the covers tighter to your chin, linger over cups of coffee and tea, read a book on the couch by the warmth of a fire.

I’ve grown fonder of winter over the last few years. I loved it as a kid. Hot chocolate with pillows of whipped cream, scarves and boots, sledding and snowsuits, mom’s creamy casserole, snowflakes and blankets, hours of movies and mid-afternoon naps, early dismissal and snow days.

Winter makes me feel alive—its crisp, cold air fills my lungs and wakes up my body. I like walking in the woods this time of year, where it’s quieter than other seasons. Just me, my dog, the creak of the pine trees and the crunch of layers of frozen leaves under my boots.

bookends new year 3

Since December 1, my last official day of the semester, I have pretty much done nothing, at least it feels like nothing. This “doing nothing” is difficult for me to do. I struggle with being still, not producing, not in motion. Doing. Doing. Doing. Before December, I spent four months just “doing”, more accurately, overdoing. I stretched and squeezed in as many tasks, errands, emails, pages in a book, dinners, and coffee dates. This is what grad school looks like: eat, sleep, read, study, go to class, go to work, repeat. (Notice how showering wasn’t part of that cycle.) This is what grad school looks like in a counseling program: eat, sleep, read, study, go to work, go to class, cry, reflect, cry some more, feel, feel, feel, cry some more, think, think, think, cry, grow, grow, grow, cry, reflect, repeat.

December 1 arrived and I slipped into my December coma. I haven’t felt like writing. I haven’t felt much like doing anything really. My counselor says I am in recovery from this year. This is human. … This year and all of its challenges, surprises, turbulence, and layer upon layer of traumas. On my first official day of my semester break, I stayed in bed and watched movies. All. Day. Long. Flannel jammies, tea, muffins, naps, white twinkle string lights. Repeat.

bookends new year 2

Day of Nothing. Otherwise known as best day ever.

 

I have been out of it since the middle of December and don’t feel like going back to work.

I overhear someone say this to a friend in the tea shop where I often come to write. I haven’t written here since August, but this place still feels like home and it’s where I tend to do my best writing. I warm my hands wrapped around my cup of spiced orange tea. It was five degrees earlier. I think it’s 15 now. Progress. The South cannot cope with cold. Me? I am leaning into it. Wool socks, boots, plaid scarf layered around my neck, my favorite grey, bulky, wool sweater. In the afternoon I’ll go for a walk in the woods with my four-legged companion and then we’ll take a nap on the couch. This is what you’re supposed to do in winter. Isn’t it?

It doesn’t feel like a new year. On Sunday, I lit every candle in the house, made a special dinner of lobster tail and clam chowder for my husband and me, and we watched movies until midnight approached. I held my flute of Prosecco in my hands as my husband and I cuddled under blankets and watched the ball drop in Times Square. As the countdown to 2018 began, I felt nothing. No excitement. No pang of hope. No giddiness of anticipation. It just was. We clinked glasses, kissed, and I took a sip of my bubbles. I poured the rest down the drain and stumbled sleepy-eyed into bed.

Have no expectations and you won’t be disappointed, I keep telling myself.

bookends new year 5

A book of Jane Kenyon poems and Rumi are near me today. Before you know kindness, you must lose things. Isn’t that what Jane Kenyon said? I keep re-reading Rumi’s “The Guest House.”

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

2017 was a year of unexpected visitors—literally and figuratively. Chronic illness, a diagnosis, and then another and another. A car accident that almost took my life. Trips to the ER. A fatigue that entered my body and settled there for months. A fall and back surgery. And then there were the visitors I welcomed. My acceptance letter to grad school. My job working with assault survivors. Claiming and declaring my identity as a survivor. Marching with my best friend and 5 million others around the world. The summer, the beach, the bliss before I knew what fall would bring. My mother flying 2,000 miles and showing up at my door to take care of me. Our late-night talk, the tears, the understanding, the forgiveness, and the ice cream sundaes we made after. A home-cooked meal from a dear friend, hand-delivered with gooey, fudge brownies. The community I found among my classmates, a balm during the toughest months of this year. My family. My husband. My village. My sweet, comforting dog. And love, love, love. … Always love. This is the joy. This is the pain.

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Unexpected visitors are just that: visitors, temporary passersby. All things must pass.  The good, the bad, the bittersweet, I am thankful for it all. They cannot exist without each other. They are both needed, necessary for living. There lie the lessons.

This year I learned I am resilient. I learned I am a workaholic and what stress can do to the mind, body and spirit. I learned that a mother’s love is like no other—unconditional, unwavering, steady, reliable, constant, whole. I learned to ask for help, to stop trying to prove to myself and to others that I can do this alone. This. What is the this? All of it. I learned that community can be cultivated in the most unexpected places, and how that community will help hold you up when you collapse into tears in the public restroom, deliver homemade meals to your door, send you loving texts and snippets of videos declaring how much they miss you.

bookends new year 6

 

Equipped by pain.

I heard someone say this recently and how they feel their painful experiences have equipped them to step into the New Year, maybe like wearing their pain like a suit of armor or a scarlet letter, as if to say, I’ve been through some shit. Approach carefully. Tread lightly.

I used to look forward to each New Year, but now there is a part of me that fears it, the unknown, whatever is lurking around the corner, the next unexpected visitor. But I am equipped by pain, this pain, like a familiar highway. I know each way it bends and curves, where it ends, where it begins, the stops in between. It’s taught me how to navigate this life. I remember my counselor asking me in 2016: How will you carry your grief? It took me a year before I learned that to carry it, I needed to accept it.

Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?

Rumi, again.

On New Year’s Eve, I read aloud the moments I scribbled on slips of paper and kept in a jar marked “Good Things.” The idea was to capture the bright spots throughout the year, the simple moments of daily gratitude. I vowed to fill up the jar, but only made it halfway. Maybe this year.

Always look for the beauty; that’s me. But I slipped up quite a few times this year and lost sight of it. Pain can do that. Still, when I look back on 2017, love outshines the pain. During this difficult year, love was present; I felt it in my chest, expanding and stretching, taking up space. It never left me. It was there the whole time. And it’s love that what will carry me into the new year. Steady, unconditional, constant.

bookends new year 7

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