Saturday, March 6, 2021

In the Midst of Winter

 “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” ― Albert Camus.

As I sit to write today, it is still winter in my new home in upper New York.  In some ways, it feels as though it has been winter for months now.  It is, in fact, almost a year to the day when, at that time still in UT, it became obvious to me and my friends that we should cancel gatherings and practice stay at home strategies to protect ourselves and each other from the corona virus.  In fact, as a friend just reminded me, March 10, 2020 was the last time we gathered to celebrate another friend's birthday.

One year, and here I am.  Looking out across the remnants of several snowfalls, out to a bank of evergreens.  Looking out across a new living space, in an apartment for the first time in over 40 years, typing in a stillness broken only by the sound of of my breathing, the hum of one of the several space heaters employed to break the chill I cannot seem to otherwise dispel, or the creaking of the footsteps of upstairs' neighbors I've yet to meet.  

The boxes of belongings have all been opened, though piles exist in almost every room, waiting for my final decision - do I keep or do I let go?  For I have brought more than I need, more than I can use, and, increasingly, more than I want.  

Rufus has adjusted well, perhaps even more quickly than I did.  He has learned to climb the stairs that I bought for him when I could hear myself question how long I would be able to lift him into bed.  He sleeps there now as I type.  He has become attached to my sister, the main reason I decided to move this past fall.  And no, he doesn't like the snow which is a good thing.  As small as he is and as high as the snow drifts have been, I would have had to dig him out had he gone romping into it.

I would be remiss if I did not admit that this move has been harder than I expected.  For almost two months my belongings remained in Utah while the search for a van driver went unheeded.  For almost two months we lived with my sister and brother-in-law who were generous, loving and supportive.  But for someone who has been independent for over 40 years, these were a long two months.  And for someone who has lived in a house for over 40 years, apartment living has been a challenge to my creativity and an adjustment that is only getting easier now.  

And then there was my birthday, my 80th birthday.  The birthday John and I had talked about in recent years as an occasion to host a big party as we had done for my 50th.  Followed the same week by Valentine's Day.  Alone.  With too much time and space to dwell on past birthdays and Valentine's Days with him, taking the entire week to celebrate, to read the beautiful cards he would send, cards I came upon opening the last box.

Then, yesterday, a message from someone I hope will become a new friend calling me amazing for having the courage to move across country, by myself, at this stage of my life.  So, I took pause to let that in.  To write in my personal journal this morning all that I have accomplished since moving in.  All the boxes unpacked, all the services I have found, the hard decisions I have made, the many ways I've reached out to stay connected, the new ways I am using technology, the environment I am creating to sustain and nourish myself and my little Rufus.

I also took time to acknowledge all the help I've received - from  the staff in the leasing office and the young handymen who put together shelf upon shelf and took apart box after box, to new insurance agents and clerks in the grocery and hardware stores, and strangers who, hearing I am new to the area, have been warm and welcoming.  Mostly, to my sister and brother-in-law who have welcomed me with open arms and generous hearts and to all my friends who call and Skype and Zoom and send notes to remind me that I really am not alone.

So, amazing?  I'm not sure.  But strong, yes.  Courageous, yes.  Creative, yes.  Determined, yes.  Optimistic, yes.  And certainly, blessed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

On This Thanksgiving


"Optimism is really rooted in gratitude."

~ Michael J. Fox 

As this third Thanksgiving since John died approaches, I find myself with a sense of optimism I have not felt for many months.  Surprisingly so, considering this past year filled with a global pandemic, isolation, political unrest, and the rampant fear, anxiety, and anger that resulted.  But reading this quote by the actor, Michael J. Fox, makes so much sense to me because in spite of daily upsets and conspiracy theories, in spite of constant "the sky is falling" and threats and recriminations, I have managed somehow to record 3-5 statements of gratitude every night.  On only one occasion were the statements a repeat of "I made it through the day."  And though not always optimistic, I know the practice kept me from despair.

Were John alive, we would have engaged with a Thanksgiving ritual of taking turns expressing what we were grateful for over the past year.  This year, I will initiate the ritual with my sister and brother-in-law with whom I am staying while I await the availability of my own apartment in the rolling hills of central NY.  For, this, in itself, is certainly one of the most important items on my year's list of gratitudes.  

I offer my list in the hope that it will trigger yours, initiate the possibility that you will adopt this ritual, and conclude with a feeling of optimism for the coming year.

This year I am grateful for:

  • having made it without contracting the virus
  • having friends who were as careful as I was, thus never endangering me
  • the technology that made it, and will make it, possible for us to stay in contact, possibly the silver lining in this mess
  • the e-mails and jokes that brought moments of laughter and respite from the steady stream of vitriol on the airwaves and social media
  • my circle of "sisters" - you know who you are - who message every morning and every evening to stay in touch, just in case
  • dessert sunsets in Utah
  • autumn colors in NY
  • the constant companionship of my sweet rescue dog, Rufus
  • having sold my home in UT in 2 days
  • the incredible efforts of support from friends who were there when I most needed them and helped to make the move a success in a very short time
  • the kind notes and e-mails that acknowledged the contributions I tried to make to my little Utah community and the many friendships I forged in the process;  the notes and e-mails from old friends to encourage and cheer me on
  • a safe automobile journey across the country, thanks to the chauffeuring of a young friend and the absence of snow
  • her continued help in tying up loose ends; I never could have pulled this off without her
  • the care and generosity of my sister and brother-in-law, especially his wonderful cooking and both of their patience and tutelage as I learn my way around newer technology and newer environs
  • getting to know them at a different level, growing to love and appreciate them even more
  • chocolate covered blueberries and glasses of chilled white wine
  • finding an apartment that meets all of my criteria 
  • the unexpected kindnesses of strangers, strangers who are willing to wear masks
  • the prospect of seeing old friends I haven't seen in years and family I have yet to meet
  • being with my sister on the second anniversary of John's death, she who was with us that night
  • warm memories that bring smiles now instead of tears
  • being in the position to explore the area, make new friends, strengthen family ties, indulge in hobbies - how fortunate am I?
  • and last, but most certainly not least, the e-mail from an old friend on the day I was questioning my decision to move, wondering what lies ahead of me, filled with doubts and misgivings.  Her kind assurance that John would surely say, "that's my Angie", was the perfect boost. I, too, know he would. 

With so much to be grateful for, how could I not be optimistic?  




Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Sounds of Silence

"To hear, one must be silent."
~ Ursula K. Le Guin

It has taken me a few months to venture into the waters of silence. I'd like to say I purposely chose to wade in, but it has happened gradually and accidentally at first. Like so many folks these days, technology has made it all too easy for me to be distracted - the computer, the TV, the phone, notepads - so easy and enticing.

With John's death, 21 months ago today to be exact, I initially found silence to be foreboding. In the middle of the night, when I would wake to overwhelming grief and anxiety, it became a habit to get up, turn on the TV or music and distract myself until I could fall back to sleep. During the day, I would read (usually with a background of music), or call a friend, or run off to do errands or attend a meeting—anything to keep the pain at bay, at least for a little while. At least until I could parcel it out in doses and drum up tried and true approaches that had guided me through other challenges of my life - approaches, in retrospect, that only kept the demons at bay. 

And then, the virus hit, and though I thought and hoped, as many of us did, that everything would be back to normal by autumn, the rising statistics this summer soon proved me wrong. June and July presented a confrontation with everything I believed about myself, the future, and my ability to quiet the cacophony in my head and plan for the future. How does one plan for such an unknown future?

Then, one recent morning, with no particular reason that I can recall, I started to journal in total silence. No music, no news, silence, and the quality of my writing and the level of honesty was so noticeably different that I knew immediately that I could only still the inner noise and confusion by being willing to be quiet enough to hear and deal with it.

At first, I was stunned by a level of grief that I now realize I had simply covered up. Cloudbursts of tears became thunderstorms at the mere glance at John's photo or the discovery of a loving card. I could feel waves of irritation or anxiety physically when I prepared to run even the simplest errand. The more I wrote in silence, the more I got in touch with outrage over how this virus has been mishandled and my dismay over the distrust, nastiness, and division I see in my country. The more I wrote, I more I got in touch with a fear of incompetence and a degree of loneliness I had not felt in decades.

Gradually, I lengthened the periods of silence. I wrote more and more. Began to take my lunch out to the patio and just listen for birds or children playing behind the backyard wall. Slowed down and enjoyed my food. Noticed the sound of the breeze through the trees in the early hours of the morning or Rufus' gentle breathing as he curled up beside me in bed. Caught an idea as it surfaced unexpectedly. 

But most importantly, I recognized, quite abruptly in fact, that my underlying fear was not that I couldn't cope with the present, but instead that I had no sense of purpose for the future, and that I knew errands, and house maintenance and even volunteering were no longer enough. That, without John, I have come to yearn for family and physical proximity to people with whom I have a longer and more intimate shared history. At that very moment, I decided that I will move to New York State when my younger sister retires. At that very moment, I accepted that just as a future decision has emerged in my willingness to be still, so will a larger purpose.

One recent night I realized that I hadn't watched TV for a week other than to turn on some music while I cleaned the house. And that I am going to bed earlier and sleeping better. That when I do wake, I don't get upset. I merely read awhile until I go back to sleep. That projects are emerging more naturally, like simplifying the house, not just organizing it. Or finding it easier to let go of "stuff" because I'm already thinking of moving. Or knowing what I want to blog about without false starts and second-guessing!

Am I totally comfortable with silence? Not by a long shot. Do I plan to take up meditation? Not now, not yet. But I am growing comfortable with long stretches of silence, more confident that I will hear what I need to hear. And, surprisingly, grateful for this period of solitude.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Once Again

"I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again."
~ from "Pick Yourself Up"
Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Just When I Think.....

"Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time. "
"The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn." 
~Alvin Toffler  

Typically, I would choose only one quote to launch a post, but these are not typical times. They are, in fact, the times that Alvin Toffler, the futurist, first described in 1970 in Future Shock, a future time of unprecedented change at an unprecedented acceleration. 

I was privileged to hear Toffler speak at a convention where he described the future of change not only in the United States but globally.   What I remember most vividly is the first question that was asked in the Q and A period following his presentation, and his response.  Question:  "When will this slow down?"  Response:  A smile and then, "I'm smiling because yours is the first question I always get and my reply is the one I always give, not in your lifetime."

I went back to Toffler after reading my personal journal entries from April and May and recognizing how much had changed in the outer world reported in the news and my inner world recorded in my journals in only these past two months.  After I could see how much I felt like a ping pong ball bouncing from player to player to player to player.  After seeing how I could vacillate between the throes of frustration, outrage, and self-doubt one day and the reassurance that my coping skills were more than adequate and then back again, sometimes within one day. Yup, stress and disorientation.

So, I have chosen to reflect on what I am learning, what I may have forgotten that could be helpful, and maybe most important, on evidence that I am learning from this.
  • Just when I think I've recovered a modicum sense of equilibrium, something happens to throw me back into free fall.  I come across conflicting information or distressing national news, I forget or lose or break something, I learn of a friend with a serious health challenge.  Sometimes all within one day.  Change does seem to be happening at warp speed.
  • Data and information are not enough.  I own the responsibility to seek out the appropriate experts and check the veracity of the information.  (Taking the medical advice of a politician is akin to asking my auto mechanic to clean my teeth!)  
  • I need occasional breaks from outside information for my mental and emotional health.  I woke up yesterday to the news and images of protests springing up across the US, to some of the violence that was occurring, to the inflammatory responses being reported from people who could and should offer otherwise.  I could feel the sorrow and outrage bubbling up, so I chose to turn off the TV and clean a closet.
  • Taking care of my mental and emotional health is as important as taking care of my physical health.
  • An occasional escape from the harsh realities we can now see 24/7 in technicolor is respite rather than denial, healthy respite.
  • I'm recognizing sooner the things I find stressful.  Too much negative news at one time.  Generalizations, attack, hatred, denial, although understandable, don't help in the long run.  Maybe at the moment, but not in the long run. Including, and especially, my own even if silently expressed.  Sharing worries and anger, frustrations, vitriol, and fears, although helpful for awhile, indulged too long only seem to exacerbate them.
  • I'm also learning to recognize the signs of disorientation soon enough to reorganize - waking in the middle of the night and being unable to return to sleep, becoming clumsy or unusually forgetful, talking faster, feeling irritable or blue for no apparent reason, leaving simple tasks unfinished.  These are my signs.
  • Three things help me adjust more gracefully to the next change - staying as conscious and present to the immediate moment, paying attention to what is positive and works for me (rather than worrying about what's "right" or what others think I should do) and looking for creative solutions to the problems I can control.  I'm far from mastering any of this.  I wish I were more agile, but I guess I'm a work in progress.
  • It is more helpful to me to challenge my own thinking than the thinking of everyone else.  More satisfying, more possible, and more effective.
  • I am more of an introvert than I ever would have suspected.  But I also need to connect with someone every day, and seeing that person, if only on Zoom or Skype, is a pleasure.  I love my little rescue dog, Rufus.  I find myself talking to him a lot, but beyond wagging his tail and rolling over on his belly to be scratched, he can't answer me.  He can't ask the question that helps me slow down my inner dialogue or evoke some laughter when I most need it.
  • There is something exhilarating about solving my own problems.  You'd think I had conquered Mt. Kilamanjaro whenever I solve a computer issue on my own.
  • Nevertheless, I am still learning when to ask for help.
  • To quote Sheldon Kopp, "The world is not necessarily just.  Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.  You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless."
  • Either/or thinking at best limits possibilities, at worst, it's creating havoc in our public life.  I am striving to remain vigilant when I fall into that trap. 
  • It helps to focus on the possibilities inherent in all this change, as much as the breakdowns and problems that present themselves.  I appreciate my home more.  I relish my time with friends.  Having learned that I can weather the depths of my grief over John's passing, I know I can weather the grief of my current disappointment and disillusion in my country.  Eventually, if not now.  I have a much neater home and I'm even learning to enjoy cooking and playing around with technology.    
  • The little things.  Thank heaven for a bumper crop of roses, a stranger who offers help, a breeze when it's hot and air conditioning (!), the desert sky at dusk, a friend who calls just to check in, a good piece of chocolate or a glass of homemade lemonade, a happy memory, the quote that helps me make sense of what I'm seeing or feeling or thinking, and always, my sweet little Rufus.  The little things that are always available, just waiting to be noticed and appreciated.  The little things that I am noticing and appreciating more than ever.
Well, I can at least take some comfort in knowing I can't be called illiterate!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

You Are Not Alone

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
~ Allen Saunders

This is a longer and much different post that I intended to write in February.  Life did indeed happen while I was making other plans.  What follows is a compilation of excerpts from my personal journal.  I share them, not to offer any profound insights or solutions, but in the hope that you can identify with some of my thoughts and emotions and find that at least a little comforting.

Mar. 3 - This virus - why am I only attending to it now?  Apparently, it's been ravaging other countries for weeks now.  This is the downside of not watching the news.  How many other Americans are unaware of the problems that may be coming our way?

Mar. 4 - At a recent rally, the President actually said we could wake up one day and it would be gone.  It's one thing for me to be oblivious, but the President?

Mar. 6 - Italy has shut down all of its schools.  And still, we do not seem to be taking this seriously.  This denial and even arrogance is astonishing and bodes serious concerns for us, I fear.

Mar. 9 - Why am I feeling such a sense of trepidation?

Mar. 11 - Italy is in complete lockdown.  I just watched videos of Italians in Siena, Naples and somewhere in Sicily standing on their balconies singing together to try to uplift their spirits.  One of my favorite memories is of a visit with friends to Siena on a bright afternoon, eating gelato among a throng of tourists.  Today both husbands are gone, taken by cancer within the same week and Siena looks like a ghost town. I weep at the breadth of loss.

Mar. 12 - We've canceled our April and May luncheons.  If our government won't give us a clear direction, we have to make decisions to protect our selves and our membership.  I am so proud of this Board.  And speaking of decisions, I am putting boundaries around watching the news.  I've been glued to the TV, seeking information and recommendations from the scientific and medical communities.  But too much information and I leapfrog across depression into despair.  I need to pay as much attention to my mental and emotional health as I do my physical health.

Mar. 13 - Emerging voices are sounding an alarm that we are not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude.  Not enough ICU beds, not enough supplies or personnel should this hit us the way it has hit Italy or Spain.  Not enough people taking this seriously.  The attack on science and our press in recent months has diminished their authority.  I fear this pandemic is going to accentuate the cost of our political polarity and expose the underbelly of our society.  We are certainly going to see an interesting cast of heroes and villains.

Mar. 14 - A FOX commentator asserting this is a hoax, accusing opponents of using the virus to embarrass the President.  This is not helpful.  We need facts and reliable information.  How do I remain responsible and sane amidst comments like this and the name-calling and diatribe on TV and social media venues?!  Boundaries, boundaries!

Mar. 15 - I just created a binder of lists - books to read, friends to contact, projects to complete, topics/ideas to explore, hobbies to take up again, etc.  At least, it helped to restore a minimal sense of control.

Mar. 17 - I woke this morning and set about my usual routine - breakfast, taking a few moments to notice and appreciate the shrub beyond the courtyard wall in its coat of purple spring buds, then curling up in my favorite chair with my journal in hand.  Then, I made the mistake of checking the stats - 4565 cases in the U.S. and 87 dead.  The juxtaposition leaves me at best confused and at worst, anxious.  And if I am anxious, retired here in the safety of southwestern UT, what about all those millions of people out of work, many in congested cities?  How are they coping?

Mar. 18 - Watching views of people ignoring the call for social distancing - or is it that they just don't care?

Mar. 19 - Sixteen months today since John died.  I am taken by a wave of relief that he died when and how he died - his valiant heart simply giving up the struggle, in our home, his hand in mine, my sister here to support me.  How would I have handled watching him struggle for air behind a glass barrier as I have seen images of people in just that circumstance?  What if our doctors have to decide who they will try to save as Italian doctors are facing?

Mar. 21 - Structure, focus, mindfulness, gratitude - I cling to these words.  Far too easy to descend into anxiety or outrage at the ineptitude of our federal government.  Thank heaven for some of the governors who are showing up in this leadership vacuum.

Mar. 23 - Thankfully, I have much to be grateful for - friends checking in, the network of support I'm blessed with, learning to use new technology, spring weather, living in a relatively small and safe community, and always the companionship of my sweet rescue dog, Rufus.

Mar. 26 - The cloudbursts of personal grief seem to have subsided, blown away by the larger sense of loss, existential grief as it were.  So much loss - jobs, security, trust in our institutions, in one another, in the belief that we will be strong enough, resilient enough, smart enough and united enough to emerge from this whole and healthy.  My habit of recording five things to be grateful every night is a sanity saver.

Mar. 27 - I have to remember not to try to make sense out of nonsense - it's impossible and exhausting.

Mar. 28 - Thank heavens for images of individuals helping their older neighbors or the creative uses of technology to stay connected, or the generosity of some of our athletes and celebrities and the amazing courage and compassion of our health care workers.  These images comprise a life preserver in this sea of uncertainty. They restore a sense of hope for me.

That's enough for now.  I hope this does as I had hoped for some of you out there - you are not alone.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Looking Back in Order to Look Forward

"Sometimes you have to look back to be able to look forward."
~ unknown

It's that time of the year when I look back to see where I've been, what I've accomplished, and where I want to head in the coming year.  I've done this every year for the past 35 years except last year.  John had died in November and the best I could do was hope that I'd endure the grief and mourning that overwhelmed me - and I wasn't so sure about that.

So, this year I dared to pull out my private journals from 2018 and 2019 (six in all) and began to read, hesitantly, a few pages at a time.  Knowing I would dredge up painful memories, bittersweet memories, but also, hopefully, memories that could sustain me and buoy up my tentative optimism for the coming year.

 I had so many questions:
  • Had I been the compassionate companion I wanted to be?  Did I do enough?
  • What help and support meant the most to John, to me, to us?
  • What help could I or should I have asked for sooner?
  • Why was this past autumn so challenging? Why am I optimistic, even if cautiously, now?
  • What have I learned from these past two years?  How have they shaped me?
  • What could I accomplish or contribute as a result?  What calls to me?
I've started at both ends of those 26 months, the early months after the diagnosis and the last months immediately preceding and succeeding his death.  And the months of this previous autumn.  It's glaringly obvious that this will take me more than a couple weeks to accomplish, as I write a minimum of two college-lined 8 1/2 x 11 pages every day and many of them are challenging to read.  I've taken on a  project that could well take a few months.

But this much I have learned already:
  • This past autumn was so challenging, in part, because the summer flew by with relative ease, and I became complacent.  I was stunned by the impact of darker mornings and earlier dusks and much more anxious than I had anticipated for the impending anniversary of John's death as well as the holidays.  My private journal pages contain more grief and anxiety than is my intention to share here.  Not that I didn't share that with close friends and a counselor, but my intention here is to be helpful and as positive as possible.
  • Speaking of intention, I was reminded that we promised each other from the very first week that, whatever came our way, we would handle it together with as much grace and dignity as we could muster.  And my reading to date reaffirms that we did, some days better than others, of course, but we clung to that promise especially in the final weeks of his life.
  • In the weeks following John's death, I was overcome with regrets.  Normal, I'm told, but so very painful.  It was, therefore, a gift, and an affirmation of the value of all that journal writing, to come across the passage where I captured one of the last things he said to me - "How was I ever so lucky to have found you?"  He thought I did enough, more than enough.  And today, that's good enough for me.  
  • Regarding support,  I learned so much about support - especially about needing it, asking for it and accepting it willingly and graciously when offered.  So much that it will be the topic of my next post(s), maybe eventually, a book.  For me, looking back is helping me to rebuild a bruised sense of self-confidence, to reassure me that I will be ok, maybe stronger than ok, and to point optimistically to a future that holds purpose and satisfaction.  
  • I'm back.