As I read the email alerting me to the availability of appointments for my first COVID-19 vaccination, I experienced an immediate, visceral loosening of a tension that I barely knew was there. I’ve adapted overall to the pandemic restrictions and found my life still will contain joy, even passing moments. But I’ve been waiting a while for this, as most of us have. The surprise was my palpable relief: it is going to happen, at last. One might think I’d be worrying about side effects since reactions vary widely and can be tough. It’s not that I have no concern about this vaccination; I just am doing it. I believe it crucial to help myself and others to stay healthier and move forward.
I only recently have begun to have dreams of people doing ordinary things–grocery shopping, for instance–and no one has masks on. That was not the case in many dreams the past year when, if someone did not wear a mask in a group, my overlooking consciousness was entirely perplexed–and even worried as I came to a wakeful state. It has become the way things are, how we live in this world. Yet nothing is static or, at least, for long.
Yesterday I began to consider how things will gradually change for society as “herd immunity” is met. For my family, for my friends–just for humanity. It was as if a door that was bolted shut was unsprung enough for me to glimpse in my mind and heart how life can become safer, freer, better. The realization of possibilities happened the moment I made my appointment for the shot. I’m not a foolish dreamer, more a practical one–I sure don’t expect fast, 100% improvements to gleefully restore us to carefree days. (I’m not convinced they were that carefree–there is always another pathogen about, other health events, the grind of financial stresses or relationship complications to surmount in life.) But these new images were beyond my control: full gatherings with others wafted across my mental screen off and on. A group about my table. I thought: I will be able at last to step into my family’s and friends’ physical bubble, just as before. We can share an animated conversation and home cooked meal, both indoors or out. I can visit with neighbors without uneasy wariness. Hike without stepping off a trail as another walks by, masked faces fully averted. And return to outdoor markets and other stores as needed–and desired. And perhaps, by next year, travel to places I have sorely missed or even new destinations can even happen.
Visiting in-person with faraway daughters and a grandchildren will be amazing. The very thought elicits excitement, energy jumping up and down inside me, squealing in joy. How much has not been readily shared! Phone calls, texting and messaging have not been enough even as we’ve told ourselves they are; we do it oftener. The weekly video calls that were so important the first year began to dwindle. It was tiring to keep up, and hard to meet with our five kids all at one time–they all kept their jobs, luckily, and were busier than Marc and me. And let’s face it, virtual interactions cannot meet the great need we have to be face-to-face, hand-to hand. And I am a natural hugger, as so many are. Yet being essentially okay with reality’s strictures, living in this bare bones manner satisfied just enough. That is what I’ve told myself. After all, I’m an adaptable person–we all are, aren’t we; we’re human beings so can and do perform mental gymnastics to get through trials. And I have long been used to lots of relocations in my life, health issues restricting my interactions and more–but I had never lived through a pandemic as my parents had to do (polio, influenza). Adaptability does not preclude a need of others. It just means to survive or make progress, we learn how to make things work.
The one constant has remained a deep desire to spend ordinary spend time with those I enjoy and those I dearly love. I do appreciate time alone, with interests and passions that keep me well occupied. A requirement for me is being among nature’s wonders via daily walks or hikes. I still have chafed against our societal mandate to distance… too much isolated time can undermine equilibrium and, maybe, stamina. Even seeing people walking beyond my balcony makes me feel lighter. Hearing children yelp and whoop in play immediately heartens. Laughter wending its ways through open windows makes me want to laugh along, get in on the happiness. Seeing my twin granddaughters toddle-run across a grassy field sends me over the moon. Yet, it is all from that remove; it is not full-on mingling among the living.
I learned long ago that a good life trick is to not demand that things be only what I desire them to be. Rather, it is my intent to fashion a daily process of give and take, to be open to surprises, seek the best in others while giving my own best self if at all possible. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in being present in life and availing myself of it. When I have trouble with those precepts, I brainstorm while praying like mad for help; I don’t like having poor insight or no applicable answers.
It seems my life has been shaped by a critical need to be brave, no matter what. I’ve had practice, with enough reasons to shrink back amid circumstances that arouse great fear. Accessing courage or even acting brave always brings me more courage and strength. Shakiness is transformed into sturdiness by virtue of bravery’s inherent core (ability to face or endure danger and difficulty); I am asked by this living to stand strong. But to me it also means knowing when and how to seek resources, find new ways to lift myself up, and take care of my whole self with good habits long established– even if feeling about depleted. Connecting with others increases this sense of sufficiency. I can only do so much alone. And I know for a fact that a greater mix ideas and caring make for a better human being.
Coping with trouble also elicits an urge–lets face it–to escape or deny situations awhile. If I take that time for respite and recharge, these are useful tools, not barriers to health as people suspect denial really is. Certainly it has been a go-to in the past year when I, like others, have read even more, listened to music and watched online entertainment more, dragged out old games, sat and daydreamed, etc. The point is, when faced with hardships, we can always do more to live our lives better. I refuse to see less than; I see more than. And it is a choice I make during times when that feels less natural. Coping with these difficult times with someone else–even if 6 feet apart–helps further more often than not.
I do seek solitude (or a time of escape) for calming rejuvenation, but afterwards I want to engage again with others, a little or a lot. How do I keep doing that when we are in this in-between time, when it will slowly become safer for us out there yet we still should live within safety’s rules? And with whom will we choose to practice this return to living more fully in the regrouping of diverse and curious human beings?
The truth is, over the last few months things have changed within my more intimate circle. Mere social acquaintances are nil except when chatting via social media. (Plus, I’ve caught up with several old high school classmates.) My closer relationships are impacted in various ways and have been different. And I’m not even writing about my several children and grandchildren this time…”way too much distance, how weird this is” is the number one complaint from all of them. And me.
Eileen, one of my two closest friends, moved during last Halloween. One moment she was planning on retiring and moving to Arizona to be closer to family. I almost didn’t believe it would happen despite her resolve from the start. She had loved and lived in Portland for 40 years. Before the move I visited her briefly and saw she was about finished packing. Then she was putting her house on the market, and at one last visit when she gave me an afghan she crocheted for me while I gave her a pretty carp windsock from the Japanese Garden. And then she was gone. I didn’t even see her take off in a plane. We called each other often at first, texted daily. I sent her pictures of Oregon rambles; she sent me pictures of austere desert landscapes. We swapped stories of life with eccentric family members; she updated me on a new house search while she lived with a brother. The house she bought there is strikingly similar to the one she sold. But no grass for a lawn, only rock and sand. The back of her house opens to a spiky mountain range and more desert; she so misses her old lush garden. We’ve lately spent less time talking and texting although (or because) she’s homesick for Oregon–she has almost moved back twice. But she is still settling in.
I don’t expect things to remain the same for her. I do expect we will stay close, in this changed manner. Later, when things are safer, Eileen will go swimming three times a week, go to the neighborhood country club to poke around. I know her; she loves to meet people, do new stuff. It will be so good for her (even though I don’t get the draw to retirement communities). When we do talk, I feel the allure of her new place sinking in, grabbing hold; she will put down new roots. I know it’ll take a couple years to get more comfortable. Yet, though I hope she will be happy there, I miss her deeply and often, as her presence in my life has been inestimable joy and comfort for decades. We’ll visit each other; she tells me all the time she can’t wait for me to fly down, how much fun it will be… Her eruptions of laughter are prized, as is how we can talk arts and sciences, politics, spiritual matters and people all in one rich gabfest. And those shared bear hugs… Maybe next winter? I will plan for that.
Another dear friend, Brenda, is here– but not quite fully. I just talked with her tonight on our cells and it was, after an hour, still not enough.
She has multiple, hard-to-manage health problems, so is very high risk for contracting the severe form of COVID-19. Long ago she could have stopped working and gotten on disability, but she has no interest in that. She loves to be of service to others in the midst of life’s chaos and beauty. Since last March she has worked at home, virtually (until last week), for a women’s prison treatment program, counselling inmates. Today she reminded me she has been there 11 years. It seems impossible. We met in 1993 and worked together with gang members and other at-risk youth; we finally worked as part of teams at three agencies. She recently returned to working in the prison. Everyone on staff has been vaccinated and,as well, many prisoners. Brenda feels safe enough so I must trust that she knows her limits and the situation. In the past year we were able to meet in parks or for coffee outdoors every 10-14 days. In the middle of wintry rain it became harder to do. (She also helps her 91 year old mother and a 9 year old niece. Talk about bravery.) So we update and support one another on the phone mostly. We’ve started planning how we might do this and that, how great it will be to be more spontaneous. Maybe we’ll even attend another Bonnie Raitt concert or go music shopping at Music Millenium before 2022. Some things are long and hallowed traditions for us.
Still, I miss Brenda though she’s nearby, unlike Eileen who is so far. I miss her more now, perhaps, because she nearly died from pneumonia not that long before the pandemic began (was it COVID?–she doesn’t know, it was hell), and still has congestive heart failure, Lupus, severe osteoarthritis and more. I don’t know how long I’ll have her though she is just 62 (and I’ve always known her to battle illness). Every time I’m not hanging out with her, it’s a bit like I’m losing more of her–clearly, at least, time spent. Because you never do know, do you–if not a virus, it can be something else. In fact, it will be–we just don’t know when. But I remain reasonably sure we’ll meet up when the weather warms, when she has more time to spare. That prospect is wonderful.
And my sweet, wise older sister, Allanya. Maybe it would be enough to say she has dementia, and it’s getting worse. For a long while it seemed we could navigate around it, be as we’ve always been–best friends, deeply blood connected. So in sync that we knew what the other was thinking. But it’s not quite like that now. It’s touch and go as I visit her in an open air structure next to a fine retirement community in which she resides. I don’t know when we’ll loop back to a topic we talked about just 10 minutes ago. I don’t know for certain if she’ll be in a fog or prone to morose or aggravated thoughts, or cheery as she always tended to be, ready to talk politics, books, art projects, family and the weather. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride but I will get on it every time to be with Allanya. Her general health is good. Her apartment is decent; she shares it with an ill spouse. So I’ll be seeing her as long as it can be done. She keeps telling me it is high time to go out for lunch or shopping at the resale stores she loves–and I tell her yes, I know, soon–when the pandemic wanes and fully vaccinated as is she. And thank God we can look forward to this.
We have lost parts of the year–she has lost even more–but we are both still here, will forever be truest of friends. Sisters of the soul. She once found a huge heart-shaped rock and painted it. Then wrote on it: “Heart of the universe. Love, Allanya, 2013,” I knew exactly what that meant to us both.
I dreamed awhile back of those who have passed on, members of family, A few times they all seemed to have convened to visit me, specifically, and I, them. I could clearly see them moving about and then circling, faces well defined as if they were in the room with me, theri energy as recognizable as when they were sentient. I counted 5, sometimes 6, (so many have died the last few years) but felt the presence of more–elder aunts and uncles very long gone. I heard them speak but cannot tell you now what they said right now. They were encouraging me, with warm smiles and good words. Each time I awoke I felt they were there to help and encourage me to be optimistic, to not be afraid of the future, tired out by things. To be assured I am loved and not alone– that they are near in spirit. They are family, ancestors interlinked with each other and me. Of course they would do that. Despite differences or misunderstandings in the past, we know how much I love them and they, me.
And that’s the thing: it’s all about that most basic yet sometimes the stickiest of experiences: love. If only we saw such caring as true compassion in action and just acted on it. We need a reminder now and again if things are rockier before they get better. The last year has been one tough terrain to cross over. Not, however, the worst time in my life. But one of the most puzzling and mournful, requiring patience and gentle surrender, innovation and faith. I have no doubt there will be more opportunities for happiness as well as times of sorrow as we sort it out. How will we have been changed? What will we pick back up or toss out, realign or welcome? Who will we first spend an afternoon with–in the first-person-miracle of flesh, blood and bone? (How can I get all my kids/grandkids/friends here to celebrate each other and life?) What will become a more sacred ritual; what will be dismissed as wasteful, trivial? We can look to the natural world for clues. The calculated designs of nature display a genius of efficiency. They regenerate wounded parts and aid one another, even those not their apparent own “sort”, as all are part of the whole.
I’m looking forward to seeing what alterations of mind and spirit bring us to new appraisements. But first and finally, may there be generous love, greater charity rediscovered to pass between us. We will find our way better.