“There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”
—Wendell Barry, Jayber Crow
“There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”
—Wendell Barry, Jayber Crow
(Content warning: all sorts of autumnal clichés)
Later this month an article I’ve written will appear in a women’s wellness journal. I feel like it’s a “coming out” of sorts, I admit to my “condition”–a pulmonary auto immune disorder–and how I work to accept and manage it.
It’s one of those “invisible” disabilities that people talk about. You wouldn’t notice it unless you were to walk up a flight of stairs with me or watch me climb a hill. Or if you knew me before–rushing through my eighteen-hour days–a fast walker and a fast talker. I’m still productive; I make sure of that, only different–almost embarrassing. On inclines I stop when I have to, winded. I take some deep breaths and keep going. Even though the effort cramps my calves and sucks the air right out of me. “It’s a metaphor,” I smile to myself. Mountains, hills, difficulties, complications. Or, “It’s not cancer, so stop whining.” I have one friend that I will take walks with, otherwise it’s just me and the dog.
The steep hill behind our house, the part we own, is about six acres. It used to be a young ladies’ equestrian school run by Jessie Fisk in the 1930s. Jessie climbed many hills in days before it was normal for a woman to accomplish what she had. A botanist, first female professor at a major eastern college, owner of one of the first cars in our village, a postmistress. And with her partner, Miss Butters, she ran an inn, a riding school, and a restaurant on our property. When we were running the inn, my mantra during hard times was, “WWJD”…What Would Jessie Do? She wouldn’t whine, that’s for sure.
During the Covid era I have grown to love our hill, part of the bubble that surrounds us, the trails into the woods that the horses used to trot, the bench at the top where I sit with the dog. Right now it is ablaze with color as I look out over the hills and the sliver of lake below. More precious for the effort it took to get there.
My Kundalini yoga teacher sends out invitations to her yoga hikes. Kundalini breath work has become integral to my disease management. I scan the invitations for hints, how steep is the hike, how strenuous the yoga, how hot will it be? My breathing is worse in the heat and humidity so I check my weather app.
I know I can’t sign up. I’d slow everyone else down. The anxiety alone would choke me.
So I roll up my yoga mat, stick dog treats in my pocket, and head up my own hill. As I lay out my mat, the dog fights to lie on it, delightedly confused. An old playlist on my iPhone starts out with Andra Day’s “Rise Up” and I just set in to do whatever comes to mind, finding that my Kundalini aerobic set works perfectly to “Life During Wartime.” I lay in Shavasana with the dog on top of me. We watch the clouds trace patterns across the bluest sky. Now October, the wind is crispening. For a moment I become a wonder-filled child with perfect lungs, making up stories in the shapes above, until the dog gets restless. I do a simple mountain pose and it’s time to descend.
In conversation one day with an older gentleman, I had to caution him before he went any further.
“ You know how the Jews are…”he started to say.
I jumped in quickly. “Gary. I need to…”
“Oh shit. I was afraid of that,” he said. “You’re Jewish.”
“Yes, yes I am.” After seventy years of this sort of thing, especially after growing up in a blue-collar Italian/Irish/Greek/Polish neighborhood as the only Jewish kid, I’m pretty immune to the slights.
“I’m not anti-Semitic,” Gary says, “I hate everybody.”
Our conversation led us both backwards, his as a bullied, effeminate gay child and me as a slightly pudgy Jewish kid on our respective playgrounds of the 1950’s.
“Things are better for us now,” he says. “But they are getting worse again for you.”
“Who would have imagined?” I don’t go in to detail how terrified I am.
“I’m really sorry,” Gary says.
It’s the day before Rosh Ha’Shana 2020. New research is just out that there is a significant lack of knowledge among young adults aged 18-39 in America about the Holocaust and 15-20% think it’s either overblown or a hoax (The Forward). According to the ADL, acts of Anti-Semitism are the fastest growing hate crimes internationally.
We are in a drought so I figure I won’t bother with either of the waterfalls where I usually do my Tashlich ritual of casting crumbs from my pocket into the rushing water, because there is no rushing water. I don’t belong to a synagogue but sometimes go to the one in Montpelier and keep thinking I should join, but this year it’s closed. My family is far away and they don’t celebrate. And my husband is an atheist. He’d enjoy a braised chicken and a sweet treat for dessert, but won’t go out of his way.
One person this year has wished me L’ Shana Tova.
He said, “I don’t even know what it is, but Happy Rosh Ha’Shana.”
“Thanks so much, Gary,” and I mean it. “Happy New Year.”
Dam across the road, also dry Continue reading →
I was prepared for the Covid 19 quarantine with my husband because we had just spent four months pretty much stuck at home with each other after his foot surgery in November. I took time off from my two day a week clinic job to stay home with him, and he returned to work very part time in February–he drives an automatic and it was his left foot operated on, so it was a done deal. His colleagues were helpful and he only fell down a flight of stairs once. It being February in Vermont meant ice, snow and power outages, all of which necessitated my clearing a path for him every morning (in the dark) and sanding it, clearing his Jeep from six to twelve inches of snow, making and carrying his lunch, laptop and briefcase out, securing the door a certain way so he could negotiate it with his crutches while keeping the cats inside and making sure the dog didn’t trip him, all the while walking just behind him so if he slipped, my body would break his fall. Then reversing the whole thing in the evening (also in the dark).
It meant learning how to operate the generator. I barely even use the term feminist to describe myself anymore. There are just too many things I don’t want to do and have refused to learn. The loud, gasoline operated, fuming monster of the generator in the barn is one of those things. But of course, without it, we lose HBO. Not to mention the freezer full of Haagen Dazs purchased specially for this post-operative time. The idea of a post-operative Craig without TV and carbs was almost as scary as trying to remember all the steps to working the generator; any of those steps mishandled could blow up the house. Or so I understood.
I got over that with the help of the friend who had installed it and his daughter who came along to deal with me, and soon I was even okay with dragging 20 (or maybe they were 5) gallon containers from the gas station through the ice and up into the barn and marveled at all the things my husband did that I barely noticed.
“Barely noticing” is kind of where couple who have been together for years are at. I reveled in my alone time, my long days in our old house with my writing and my artwork and my sorting and sometimes just staring at the fire in the wood stove. Absolute quiet or crashingly loud vintage Springsteen, and sometimes the Carpenters or other pop that my jazz-loving husband hated. Whatever I wanted, as silent or loud as I wanted it. I secretly joked to friends that we might have to divorce when retirement happened. I reminded everyone that there’s a name for this specific depression in Japanese, a hopelessness that Japanese women get when their husbands retire. A whole syndrome. Shujin Zaitaku Sutoresu Shoukougun, literally “One’s Husband Being at Home Stress Syndrome.” But it wasn’t a joke. I prepared for his surgery by reminding myself that he would take care of me if it were the other way around, with no snide secrets to friends or hidden resentment. He would just do the right thing because that is who he is. And in this day and age you can’t do better than that.
Life was almost back to normal when the pandemic drove us all back into the shelter of our homes, some of us stockpiling Velveeta and canned corn, nothing we would ever have normally in the house. This time I loaded the freezer with our favorite Speeder and Earls coffee and dried creamer to replace my half and half, just in case. When I couldn’t get any dried milk or flour anywhere it added to my sense of panic. So we ritualized our days. Lunch was an event, colorful little plates consumed in front of CNN watching Andrew Cuomo, and evenings spent with his little brother Chris. The dog wrapped himself around Craig, protecting his aching foot. I made soups, constantly, as if our lives depended on the immune boosting turmeric, ginger, garlic. Every night Craig acted the role of a delighted diner in a four star restaurant. “I think this is the best soup you have ever made!” “The toast is great tonight!” “Wow, carrot sticks!”
We were polite. Funny. I vowed to be cheerful instead of irritable and terrified. His foot wasn’t healing so I brought him Epsom Salt soaks every night, like my grandmother did for my grandfather. They lasted over sixty years.
We were quite different than the volatile couple who read our vows on a party boat on Lake Ontario thirty three years ago despite the fact that all three of our therapists did not think getting married was such a great idea. (Now that Craig and I have both been therapists for thirty years we realize we had really bad therapists.) I’m hardly the same woman who threw her wedding ring into Canandaigua Lake the day after the wedding. (I knew exactly what the conditions and the rocky bottom would do with it, and I got it right out. I couldn’t do anything like that today because my finger is too fat to get the ring off. Not that I would.)
The pandemic gave us some time to pay more attention. It taught me to act nice no matter how I felt. To be grateful that someone was there with me, not just someone but a person who over time has proven to be an unwavering support, a wise and thoughtful father, an ethical and creative clinician and someone who even tried to hobble out into the snow to start the generator because he knew it terrified me.
Now, because of a couple underlying risk factors, I need to work from home for the foreseeable future, but Craig is back at his clinic three days a week. I worried about his lunch for two days, that he would be eating alone. Worried about exposure to the virus. I didn’t play any music. Even Cuomo didn’t come on at lunchtime that first day that Craig was at work. I just kind of sat there.
Just me and the dog, wondering what is the opposite of Shujin Zaitaku Sutoresu Shoukougun.
I have spent six hours this morning in virtual conferencing with experts from The Harvard Psychopharmacology Master Class. I have fourteen hours to go this weekend. Usually the conference is held in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Copley in Boston but this year I am in striped socks, hoody, a warm hat, lying on my toile fainting couch with no lines for the bathroom and no fancy lunch. I am writing from my own understanding of today’s information, and my decades of experience with these issues, not the interpretation of the presenters. No one mentioned our administration, no politics. Just to be clear on that.
As I followed along on my screen today I correlated much of what I was hearing to the environment of our present world, considering how I can apply this research to examine how we move beyond all this intact. Or can we?
Dr. Charles Nemeroff, researcher, professor and consultant states in his presentation–“Interface of Medical and Psychiatric Disorders”: “Covid 19 is associated with a cytokine storm (cytokine is a category of peptide proteins associated with inflamation). There will be consequences.”As he continues it becomes apparent that he may not just be speaking to the immediate Corona illness, but to the interconnectedness of systems which we can extrapolate far beyond our own bodies. That is why I think of our survival and the Trump administration and its dangerous effect on that survival.
So these are nuggets from the research presented today about mental and physical health. I will simplify so we can make own extrapolations to why these dangerous times are are deeply exaggerated by our present administration, and administration that promotes hate and greed when simple kindness would go far to ameliorate the physiological responses I am about to describe. When action based on fact and not opinion would go far to ameliorate the world’s stress.
I cannot replicate any of the slides without permission so you will just have to take my word for it.
I already wrote the rambling preamble for this hybrid piece which the Brevity blog so generously published. What I didn’t talk about, for the sake of brevity, is finding small islands of sanity in these times of grave darkness. At least for many of us, the current political climate stains us even as we work hard to keep our own hearts and minds above the murky water line. For me, I can find some peace–at times–cutting paper with tiny scissors, holding a yoga pose or chanting in my Kundalini class, or writing the perfect sentence. Sometimes contentment finds me as I listen to a patient make sense of their own pain or tell me that a medication is working and they feel, at least in a tiny way, that their life is back on track. Sometimes at 4 AM, that crazy witching hour, my little, once feral cat sits on my chest and purrs me back to sleep.
Whatever that is for you, I hope you find it tenfold in this season of darkness to light. Happy holiday, whichever one you choose.
“We chose a sunny Sunday. She was about four or five. We bought bunches of daisies for the graves of our family members and and a big cherry pie for later from the farm stand across the road. As we drove around the park with the saleswoman, looking for the four plots we were planning to pre-buy, I asked the saleswoman to stop the car in the section we were considering. I got out, much as one might do when looking at real estate, and lay down in the grass under the tree at the head of one of the plots.”
Nina Gaby, “On Mentioning that our Daughter Wants to be a Mortician” from What Remains,the many ways we say goodbye (Ed: Sandi Gelles-Cole and Kenneth Salzmann, 2019, Gelles-Cole Literary Enterprises)
In the periphery of my consciousness is the date, December 6, 2019, and that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death in 1989. Brought even closer to home by my Facebook memory page which pops up with a photo of Mexican candles and my parent’s old Danish Modern mid-century menorah, the one I always hated as a child for it’s lack of traditional design, in which I mention my father’s passing. Ahh, I say to myself as I move on with my morning.
I sit down with a cup of coffee and share some emails with a dear old friend from high school who is trudging through her first holiday season without her husband. This is a phenomenon I know I will be experiencing more and more as I look towards my 70thbirthday. Who will be next has become a daily question. After the emails I visit my favorite literary site, the Brevity blog, to read today’s selection which is all about writing memoir after people have died. Clearly a theme for the day has emerged. Then I post on my Central Vermont Writer page about our upcoming planning meeting next week and use a photo of my father’s old Underwood typewriter in the post. OK. It’s starting to snow and the dog is pestering me to go out and play but my phone is buzzing.
My precious daughter texts from her office and we volley back and forth as I try to provide support for a work related decision she has had to make and the ramifications thereof. It’s snowing harder outside and I start to feel a familiar feeling that I can’t yet place. I am feeling so glad that I am home today and I can be at the other end of these emails and texts. And then of course it hits. Just before my father died, on a snowy winter day, I was a new therapist sitting in my new office, having just realized that the system I was working for–and health care in general–was a sea of shark infested waters, that maybe I had made a huge mistake, and in the midst of a panic attack I called my father. Now retired, infirm, sitting in his recliner watching the snow from his own window, he spent time reassuring me that I was fine. That systems suck. That I was above all the crap that was going on, and then he told me…. “You always have us.” Of course, I didn’t, at least not at the end of the phone line. He had not always been that supportive, but he had mellowed into a wise old man, not much older than I am now, and very much like how I am trying to be for my own daughter. The dog looks on in horror as I sob into the sleeve of my hoodie instead of taking him out for a frolic.
Shortly after that phone call with my father, maybe a week or two, on an equally snowy night, he died suddenly, his generous and crazy heart exploding while he watched Wheel of Fortune and now every year as winter approaches, I get a tic either in my left thumb or my right eye. It’s already been and gone this year so I figured we were pretty much done with the grieving. Although I know better. Grief has it’s own shape and takes it’s own time. And when it surprises us it’s like we have that person back, even for a moment or two.
Anyway, here’s to all of us who have had losses near and far, old and new. Take your time, be kind to yourselves.
Some great books on grief and writing about it…….
From an early draft of the memoir, Looking South on Main, a work in progress.
Photographs don’t really show the gradient of the incline in the ten acres behind what used to be the inn, the land that used to be Jesse Fisk’s horse training area and exhibition paddock, and the trails that run from that up through the woods to the little cabin that now belongs to the heirs of Esther from down the dirt road, although I’m not sure if she has died yet. Her two sons have, however, died, and while we had an odd relationship with our peculiar neighbors, I feel a tremendous grief.
The November snow has just blanketed the hill from what is now our home up through the woods to the cabin. The larger inn building just below us stands empty as that neighbor has died as well. The woman who was Jessie Fisk’s great-grand niece could tell me a lot more about winters on our acreage but she was never one to talk much to us and now she is dead too. As I climb the hill with our Golden Retriever, I can look down over the village and see the roofs of everyone’s houses.
When we first purchased the property we ran it as an inn, both buildings and two barns, one collapsed in 2003 and the other, Jesse’s horse barn, barely made it through this past winter. Costly surgical incisions on the barn’s midsection and five dumpsters later, it stands hopefully for another two hundred years. I believe Jesse’s ghost is pleased.
In the years after 9-11, the tourism industry and the insurance industry changed and most of the old mom and pop inns in central Vermont closed. I’m writing a book about all that but it is slow going. I get caught up in memories.
I stand up at the top after my slow climb, the climb I make myself do on a regular basis to combat the autoimmune crap that has invaded my lungs, and I look out over the snow, grateful for the memories that come to me every so often.
In the winter of 2003, a family from Texas came to the inn for a week’s stay. Mother, father, 13 year old boy and his friend. These boys had never seen snow. The snow in our village was particularly deep and white and perfect that year. There were lights and decorations and people and a lot of holiday energy. Lumineria lined the dirt road on Christmas Eve. A fire roared in the old shale fireplace. The inn was full.
We only had dial-up then, one cord from the phone jack in the dining room. No Wi-Fi. Cell phones barely worked. A black and white TV in the smaller building, which is now our home, ran off an antenna with two local stations. The boys didn’t miss a beat. Snow! My husband found them some warmer clothes, extra mittens, shovels and plastic bags to line their boots, and off they went, up the hill with our Black Lab George (who had waited his whole life for this moment) to figure out this thing called snow. Our daughter, then 11, looked up briefly from her Game Boy and grimaced.
Five days later we had a luge run from the tree line to the road. There must be some metaphor for my thinking of this today, some reason I can’t find a single photograph of those boys and their hard won masterpiece. The only evidence is a handwritten letter from the parents addressed to George thanking him for such a good time. And besides a surprising gratitude to have remembered this, all I have is just a deep regret that I didn’t climb up the hill and sail down the pipeline to the road myself. Was I too busy with a full inn? Did I think the opportunity would present itself again? Was it before of after my mother died? Maybe I did it and have forgotten?
I follow another neighbor’s cross-country ski tracks down the hill and find all sorts of critter markings and watch our dog make snow angels and promise myself to come back up here more often, next time with a sled.
Whatever it may be, just do it. Write that essay. Sign up for that pottery class. Call your aunt. Send in that donation. Tell someone you miss them. Roll over that retirement fund. Fix the barn roof. Finally take T’ai Chi or read War and Peace.
I am not very good at all that. I am, however, way past the line of abundance–that time in life where friends are numerous and new relationships and experiences are ripe for the plucking. I need to invest better, I need to get better at all that. Because the plucking has become pretty sparse. The last of the older generation is gone, an aunt that at least I did go to visit. But that was the last of the old guard leaving me at the edge of the abyss with no one else ahead of me in line.
Many of my investments have not paid off. I review them regularly at four am. I am almost seventy so that highway of regret is long and dotted with many turn offs where I can spend a sleepless hour wondering what happened. When the ice and snow melted this May after a long and brutal winter that started in October, the barn roof had collapsed, a storm window blew off the house, the pine and the elm are beyond repair. Not really sudden but brewing. It’s the brewing.
During the long winter three more neighbors died. One does not bother me as I intervened, saved his cats, and that is a chapter in the book I am trying to write. But the other two bother me. One is a woman I wanted to interview for the book, and the other a neighbor we’d had an altercation with a decade ago and have not spoken with since. I look at myself and ask, what kind of person doesn’t forgive? But I have yet to send a condolence card to the spouse and I likely will not. I will put it off.
I had a coworker in 1990, Linda, an LPN and case manager for our mental health Crisis Team. It was an innovative program and I was the first Clinical Nurse Specialist hired for this job, it was important to succeed and important to keep all these patients in crisis out of the Emergency Department and out of the hospital because they were too expensive and there were too many of them. I know now that Linda and I were somewhat exploited in terms of expectations, but we did not know that then. We were enthusiastic and compassionate and sometimes we even lied a little to get our patients the level of care they needed.
My father died suddenly. Linda made sure I got flowers at work. As personal and professional crises abounded, as they do in life, we happily trashed everything that was not going right in our daily team meetings. Bad things never seem quite as bad with people like us around.
One day Linda locked me in my office and shoved the phone across the desk. “You aren’t going anywhere till you call your obstetrician.” I was forty, first pregnancy, and Linda was a bit of a mother hen. I hadn’t been feeling well and was not dealing with it. I described my symptoms to the nurse at the OB-GYN office and she told me to come over immediately. I was put on bed rest and did not see my own office again for five months. (Actually I never saw it again as after maternity leave they’d given it to someone else and I was placed in an old janitor’s closet with no window and no panic button.)
During bed rest a day did not go by that Linda didn’t call me. I became more depressed and didn’t want to answer the phone if she called during the soaps or Geraldo Rivera. She helped host a baby shower, and her boys, then about ten and twelve, made me cards with candy pasted in them. They named the baby “Skittles.” I hope Linda knows how much I appreciated her kindness.
I left Crisis Team, we gently fell out of touch. I eventually moved to Vermont and Linda to Florida. Last I heard from her she was happily working as a nurse in a tennis camp and had a new boyfriend.
Fast forward eighteen years to Facebook and her grown son with whom I am now friends. This is how I find out that Linda has dementia, and yesterday I see that she is on hospice. I can’t help but think that if I were on hospice, I would want Linda to be my nurse.
I still have the card with the dried up Skittle. And I will pass through our hometown next week and stop and say hi. I will. I swear I will. I’m teary and can’t stop grieving for those days of energy and abundance. And kindness.
But today the winter’s wood is being delivered, it needs stacking. There’s no putting that off.
“Unsent”…porcelain pages bound in rusted wire
“If Counting Could Betray Disaster”…slip rolled porcelain scrolls bound in gravel and vintage boxWhat do we owe to inspiration? Happenstance? Several years ago–six, seven, we lose count at my age–I came upon a book arts show outside of Woodstock, Vermont at a then small gallery (it has since moved to a beautiful building with a barn and theater) I’d never been to before. “UNBOUND (maybe V, maybe VI)” was up, their annual show. That voice in my head that I know so well, the “I want to do this” voice, rang out loud and clear. It’s happened before–holding a baby when I was young and hearing the voice convince me I wanted to have one someday. While considering my options for the future (I was in therapy at the time) the voice encouraged me to become a therapist myself. While devouring a book I realized, “I want to do this myself,” and I became a writer. And the first time I touched a mound of clay in the art studio in high school–”I gotta do this”–followed by looking at contemporary porcelain emerging as its own art form while I was a student at School for the American Crafts. And then seeing the show at Artistree Gallery–the many ways narrative could take form. BAM. I was at a low point creatively, was in a job that was less fulfilling than I’d hoped, and reeling from the financial and emotional disasters of the still recent past–and I got to work and my mixed-media-loosely-called-book-arts pieces were accepted the following year. A year or two after that I won First Prize. I owe so much to that moment of happenstance coupled with inspiration.
In the past, as an artist, I was lucky, hardworking, had many shows at galleries across the country. Galleries clamored for me, it seemed so easy. The wonderful art community in Rochester, NY and the Shoestring Gallery, the Memorial Art Gallery, pieces in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and Arizona State University–I was embraced as a young artist. An old friend warned me back in 1977 that I “self actualized” too early, and it would be downhill. Certainly these recent years in Vermont have been more difficult at times, nonetheless, at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, rejection makes acceptance that much sweeter.
Yesterday at the clinic I was working with a patient who, while struggling with depression and anxiety, has some exquisite moments in their studio. We paused together and celebrated that lucky crapshoot of creativity and the amazing energy it can bring if we pay attention. What would happen to us if those moments were made unavailable by funding cuts and the disappearance of brick-and-mortar galleries, museums, bookstores? A subject for another day.
UNBOUND IX opens tonight. It’s always a fun time.