What Ism Are you?

Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group.”

Patriotism is a “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.”

Conservatism is “the disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional and to limit change.”

Nihilism is “total rejection of established laws and institutions, total and absolute destructiveness, especially toward the world at large and including oneself.”

Left. Right. Black. White.

These days, now both sides are raging against the machine, yet under the impression that their rage is against one another.

Rioting almost seemed the next natural step on this path. On both sides of the political spectrum people are lost, despairing, fed up.

To say this is about racism simplifies it too much.

I do not think what we are seeing in the public square is so much the fight against racism as it is the fight against life as we know it, because for many, their lives have become unbearable. If they knew the answers in the past, answers about a meaningful life, lasting love, trustworthy relationships, and unchanging truths, then competing philosophies drove these ideas out. The answers that replaced them have failed.

Why are people turning over statues?

These are the ones affected by the shutdown, to the street violence, to the instability of family and economic life and lack of upward mobility in America that has been building for decades. Those statues represented America, either “America the Beautiful” or “America built on her original sin.”

People feel betrayed when promises for improvement are made, but go unfulfilled. They were promised representation, a champion for their cause. Instead of an answer, they felt used for a vote, for a buck, for the attention of their eyes. They put their hope in something, the “ism,” and came up empty.

So, of course, those who have lost hope began to hate America, because it felt like America hated them. Hated them because they were black or brown or yellow or Christian or traditional or patriotic.

Our history is tainted with sin, because the patriots were not saints.

They were never honored because of their sanctity, but because they helped move us one step closer towards the ideal, an ideal we used to understand.

There are reasons we’ve come to this place. We can either continue to move into greater chaos or we can rebuild. Whichever way we go, we can never stay still. We either grow or weaken, we can never stay still.

First the problem must be diagnosed.

I think there are many out there who are facing hopelessness like never before. The future looks bleak, full of a virus, war, poverty, and injustice.

We cannot fight hopelessness from the top down. It has to start in the place closest to the heart, where we meet each other, face to face. It begins in the lessons we teach our children about the hope we have in our future. It stems from the actions we take in our lives that speak to a future of hope. It grows in the communities where we build for future generations, because we hope.

On it goes.

Why does our little rural oasis of Hughson seem quiet in all this unrest?

I suspect it is because in every interview about this town I have ever done, I hear the story of past generations and future generations, connected by pride in the past and hope in the future.

Optimism is “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome; the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.”

Know your “ism” and know that no “ism” hold the answers all the time.

How do you Meet The Lament?

With pandemic reading coming to a close, I began to read short stories to my husband. First, a little Flannery O’Connor, then to check the item off my to-do list, we settled on the couch and I began reading “The Lament” by Anton Chekhov.

The art of the short story is the art of capturing an entire world in a single moment.

The more ordinary the moment, the better the author has done it. I once approached short stories as a news article, give me the facts, or a magazine feature, paint me a detailed and wide-ranging illustration of what we are about. This expectation made some short stories, like “Springtime á La Carte” by O. Henry very satisfying and “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor approachable, but left others utterly baffling (see “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway).

As my husband and I came to the last words of “The Lament” our reaction, both of us was to pause and say, “hmm.” It was hard to know what else to say.

In series of short stories titled, “The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale” by G. K. Chesterton, through a comic-murder-mystery telling, Chesterton explains to the world this breed of a person is called a poet. It may be “a person who writes poems” but, to put it more, ahem, poetically, a poet is one who “possesses special powers of imagination or expression.” According to Chesterton, this might make him one step away from lunacy, but it certainly makes him more insightful. Only the truest poet can capture the short story because only the poet can whole worlds in a brief exchange.

“The Lament”

“The Lament” captures a moment, a man on a cab, drawn by a horse in the snow, who takes a single passenger and then a group of passengers before turning in for the night. He attempts multiple times to begin the same conversation, “My son…died this week,” he starts.

There are moments of awkward sympathy and comic dismissal. Overall, the world around him does not care. The narrator tells us, “It will soon be a week since his son died, and he has not been able to speak about it properly to anyone. One must tell it slowly and carefully; how his son fell ill … surely the listener would gasp and sigh, and sympathize with him?”

It is certainly a story for our times!

The world is moving so fast, so anonymously around him, and in the end, there is no one else to listen to him but his horse, because no one else has the time, the care, or the relationship to listen.

It relates to the world now because people are lonely, their pets become like children. For too many, they have no one else to love them, or with whom they feel safe enough to open their hearts to vulnerably.

Mother Teresa said,

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

The world without may see to be burning down around us, but what goes on within us? To love and to be connected to others breaks the heart that it might soften. When it softens, it will meet with grief and heartache. The power of enduring love is the choice to continue even though.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Chekhov sees in his cab driver that desire to preserve the softness of his love for his son in his grief, by holding the story of his death sacred. There is no one with whom he can share it.

In the end,

“Iona’s feelings are too much for him and he tells the little horse the whole story.”

Let’s not allow our communities to come to this point. Let us hear the stories. Let our hearts break a little when some suffering comes our way so that we can, as a community, be built stronger together than divided apart.

Previously published in the weekly column, Here’s to too Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Respect the Creation

When September arrived, my heart was caught in flurry of garden must-do’s. It was perennial time and sweet pea planting time. We worked feverishly through Labor Day weekend. My excitement drove my energy forward despite the pregnancy. One of the most important tasks, in my mind, was to plant the sweet peas. Unable to bend, I dug the holes with a shovel and set my five-year-old to sow the seeds. “They’ll be your sweet peas,” I told her for motivation, “and when they bloom you can pick them and make a bouquet.”

But we were in too great a rush. I never installed the necessary trellis to support these vining plants. Spring came and with it the shoots of sweet peas who mangled other plants, housed pincher bugs and one black widow.

They were beautiful, albeit demanding.

This past weekend, at the beginning of June, it was time to take them out, half-dried, and allow the other plants to breathe. I set my girls to work.

I hauled the bushy bundles to the sidewalk, gave one daughter a pair of snips and other scissors, and said, “look for the dry, brown pods and put them in this basket.”

We talked about selling the seeds, about gifting the seeds and replanting the seeds.

“Why are we doing this?” Asked my nine-year-old, who has bigger things to do.

“Because we should,”

I answered, a jumble of other thoughts bouncing around my sleep-deprived mind.

We have the seeds. The seeds are easy to harvest. We should not waste them.

Creation demands a little respect.

But I can only hear its demands when I bow to the fact that I am a steward and not the creator.

We stop all other projects in September to plant.

We drop them again in spring to plant, weed, and ensure good watering practices before the heat comes.

And again in summer when the field needs irrigating, the vegetables need trellising and the flowers need picking.

We make this choice to submit. We could simply go to the grocery store, instead.

But in the labor, in the commitment, in the mistakes, we are reminded of the bigger thing. We did not make it, and so we have rules to follow that are not ours. I do not create the rules myself. I cannot plant the sun-loving plant in the shade and I cannot will the shade loving plant to flourish in full California sun. “I think therefore I am” has no place when faced with the reality of nature.

I must observe, listen, accept the reality of things and adapt my plans.

Like life, I cannot will this plant to thrive.

Like the garden, the quality of another is not dependent on my saying it is.

It is my life that is lacking if I fail to recognize the value, the uniqueness and the beauty that lies around me, outside of me, not made by me, not determined by me.

My life is better when I open myself up to discover, to be in awe. And I feel the value of my life recognized when others do the same for me. That value is easier to hold against the temptation to self-deprecation or despair when my weaknesses rear their ugly little heads.

But in a world where we are told we make our own reality, we define our terms, it is easier and easier to forget that there are rules, laws, and rights to be recognized, submitted to and upheld. The world is a grief-filled, gritty place, like this rocky soil I tend each week. It is filled with trouble, like the weeds I pull to protect the growth of something inexplicably beautiful. It takes work to make the world as it could be.

But when we do it, the result is something more true, more unifying and more beautiful than we could ever imagine. And that is worth the humility of moving a plant and tying a trellis in the allotted time.

Give Each His Due – Thoughts on Equality and Justice

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thus begins the second paragraph The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, illustrating the ideal before demonstrating the ways the British government failed to uphold it. American citizens have zealously defended the concept of ideals ever since.

An ideal is not a pie-in-the-sky idea

where people who lack real world experience live with their puppies and unicorns. Ideals speak to the longing inside us, the sense that there is more than this, there is a better way. When we encounter things in this world that open that ache inside us to a knowledge of something bigger than ourselves, these are the transcendental. They are the true, the good and the beautiful.

The sense is not a passing emotion, an illusion in smoke, but an inkling to the thing that is actually true. Reality exists, whether or not I acknowledge it.

Equality is part of that reality, that all persons are created equal. They are equal in some deep mysterious way, whether or not I choose to recognize it, and whether or not I act accordingly. The fact, just, is.

Equality is

“the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. ‘an organization aiming to promote racial equality.’”

The Oxford English Dictionary

This definition implies cooperation among members of society, which I would refer to as equal treatment under the law. However, we are equals, whether or not the law and its treatment would have it so.

Since this reality, justice, then, becomes the virtue which, according to Aristotle “man renders to each one his due” (Summa II.II.58.1).

He does not merely “render” it, that is “provide or give” but renders it “by a constant and perpetual will.” This justice, this act for receiving his due is willed and desired and brought about by choice. The equality exists, but it is the action of justice that seeks to make sure the equality that exists is manifest in society.

When one’s equality to others is not manifest, then the desire of justice and one’s focus will shift to the unequal treatment in order to bring justice about. A focus on one group does not mean equality it not supported, but that justice demands effort in the face of this inequality, and effort requires words and maybe slogans.

I cannot get there without some external set of ideals and beliefs that exist beyond my own making. I cannot get there if I decide what is right and wrong by my own mental effort. I cannot get there if “anything goes” so long as I harm no one.

I need a system of belief that make sense, that is in touch with the reality, that exists whether or not I recognize it or act accordingly, I need a system of belief that will help me understand and interpret the present action in our country.

Not everyone acts according to these ideas, and there is a reason for that.

“One of the greatest gifts we can give someone is to actively listen to their story and to try to understand their experience. It’s another way of saying, ‘You matter. You are loved.’”

Julia Hogan, LPLC

Their actions maybe incomprehensible to me, their position may be incomprehensible, but they have a story and an experience. The act of listening to it, to respecting it as equally as I would want my story and experience listened to, will take us to the next level in this ideal we are trying to reach, in which all persons are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, right no one bestowed on them, they possess them simply because they, as persons, exist.

How Schema Theory Can Help Us Understand Each Other During Covid-19

We don’t know who is carrying coronavirus so we have to assume everyone is carrying it. If we are at war, and coronavirus is the enemy then the vehicle of my enemy is my enemy. That makes everyone my enemy. My neighbor is now my enemy. This is a miserable way to live and conduct grocery shopping.

How do we overcome this mindset?

For some, the answer lies in The Mask.

It is a sign that even if my neighbor is unknowingly infected, my neighbor is trying to protect me. Now, my neighbor is not my enemy. My neighbor is my ally.

But what about the one across the aisle not wearing a mask? The one I read about the paper causing bodily harm over the question of The Mask.

Our divided nation is no longer news, but schema theory might offer a possible solution to how we can overcome this deepening and ugly cleft between neighbors during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Schema theory, in layman terms, means perspective. In illustrative terms, it means a lens. In poetic terms, schema might mean wearing rose-colored glasses (or green or dark and murky).

Someone you know says she does not want to wear a mask.

One person thinks, “Another person against masks? Doesn’t she care? Lives are at risk! We should do all we can to protect people?”

Another person thinks, “Good! They are stupid anyway. Just another way to keep people afraid and set against each other.”

How do you see the act of wearing a mask? Is it act of love to protect those around you? Is it an act of defensive protection to help the most vulnerable. The lens through which you interpret the events taking place and motivation of others is your schema.

Surgical masks were already part of my life. I wear one once a week. It comes in a package with sterile gloves as well. My husband and I don our masks, our gloves, mask our four-year-old and begin a sterile medical procedure, every week. But during the everyday medical procedures, we do not wear masks.

While some see masks as a tangible example of the interference of liberty and others see masks as the way to be a neighbor and not an enemy, my perspective came from our experience as caregivers to a child with a complex medical condition.

Medically, there are particular conditions in which a mask is beneficial and other conditions in which is neutral, where no proven physical benefit or harm is apparent. We are however, more than just bodies, and the passion surrounding mask wearing taps into that immaterial part of us.

In “Secret Desires: The Great Dancing Plague of 1518,“ Luke Arthur Burgis describes the intriguing practices that sprang up around the Dancing Plague. The dance associated with the disorder, called the tarantata became, according to the Italian cultural anthropologist and ethno-psychiatrist Ernesto De Martino, “a ‘minor religious ritual’ which had the effect of restoring order from chaos. The ritual functioned to protect the people and their community from an even bigger crisis: it provided a form of catharsis that helped resolve social tension.”

Burgis proposes, “Anytime humanity has been threatened by a plague, the most contagious thing has never been the disease itself. Humans are social creatures. Our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.”

While there may not be a reliable body of research to show the benefit of wearing masks in public, the reassurance they provide that my neighbor is my neighbor, or that I am not helpless, I am doing all I can, may be less about the medical aspects and more targeted towards stabilizing the social order and reducing the anxiety of public interactions.

This value or virtue attributed to The Mask, puts a spotlight on those refusing to wear it. For some, The Mask is wrapped up in the destabilization of society that came with mandated state-wide shutdowns. They feel coronavirus is the least of their worries as they struggle to keep their business from folding or to put food on the table. The Mask becomes a sign of one more effort to destroy the livelihood built by these individuals.

These are two different lenses, or schemata

through which the question of face masks, and frankly most of the top-down measures regarding the Covid-19 Pandemic, can take, with individual nuances to boot.

Coronavirus is extremely contagious. But I agree with Burgis on the powerful contagion of our anxiety, fears, hopes, and desires are the most contagious.

This is not to say wear a mask or don’t wear a mask, but rather that something that seems as simple as wearing a mask is more complicated than meets the eye.

What is your lens through which you see the present crisis? And is there a way that you apply this understanding to those who might be thinking or acting differently than you?

That very act of understanding, of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, bridges the gap that turns the unseen enemy to the neighbor I can see.

Learning to Live With Risk

Every month is an awareness month.

It takes only a particular number of signatures to make it so. This month holds two foci of importance to me. May 2-10 was Cleft Lip and Palate Awareness Week. May 15 is Anencephaly Awareness Day. My son was born with a gaping hole dividing his upper lip and roof of his mouth. My daughter was born without a brain.

As I turn these over in my mind, I recall my conversation last week with Melissa Marceau who runs Miss Potts Attic with Bobbi Saenz. “Adapt or die,” she said. I chuckled to myself. Yes, adapt or die, that was my motto in those early days when my son was born.

Each time he woke, I fed him with a cleft specialty bottle, managed his spit up, set him down somehow or handed him off and pumped for the next twenty minutes. He failed to thrive for reasons unknown at the time and our life with a medical baby began. He visited the ICU twice, and lived the rest of the time off and on in the TCU, the transitional care unit, a world in between ICU and the regular floor.

Adapt or die.

His sodium levels were dangerous low. He could not gain weight. He went on TPN, total parenteral nutrition, bypassing the gut system’s method of extracting nutrients from the food to the blood and putting all that good stuff right into him, intravenously through a central line catheter.

This open access to his blood system means we live with the daily risk that he will develop a blood infection, nose dive, and end up in the hospital on fierce antibiotics trying to rid his body of this evil thing that could kill him quickly. In his routine care, those thrice daily medical activities, there is risk. As temperatures swell, and the dressing covering his site where this catheter enters the skin loosens from the sweat that is part and pare of living in California, there is risk. In the normal household hustle and bustle of family life, scissors smuggled into the bedroom by another child, there is risk if the kid gets too curious.

But “adapt or die,” I said. I could crawl into a hole of depression, or we could find a way to live.

Fast forward. The boy is now four and we live in two worlds.

One foot stands in the world medical gloves, masks, sterile procedures, weekly conversations and shipments from a pharmacy in Sacramento, eyeing his dressing on the hotter days, acting as if the older brother had punched someone in the face when we find those smuggled scissors, dancing with a medical pole, and crawling out of bed in the night to tend to a medical pump.

Wearing masks before it was cool

The other foot stands in the world of a four-year-old boy, a bundle of raw emotions, good humor and physical reactivity. He is absolutely normal, drawing on walls, putting underwear on his head as a hat, telling me “I like you, mommy” every couple hours demanding the response “I like you, too,” and chasing the cat around to give it love or pull its tail, which to a boy are about the same thing.

Adapt or die.

After watching the international news in January and February, I watched as locally our society fell to pieces in March and April. The curve flattened and growth in cases slowed nationally and locally, with the exception of the tragic situation of the Turlock Nursing Home, I see those around me facing a choice.

We are beginning a new normal, living with risk.

You can live in two worlds: one with this shutdown on your mind, masks, hand washing and another with all those things that make life good, energizing and livable.

You can persist in the former with dread of another wave, checking statistics, refraining from even those things you might need to maintain relationships or good mental health.

Or you can throw caution to the wind in order to obtain the latter.

But both are possible. Caution without forgetting what we need to live life beyond survival mode, but doing so with more awareness.

So I decided to add a weekly phone chat, horseback riding and a driveway conversation with a friend.

What can you do?

Where Does your Treasure lie?

My six-year-old daughter has her treasures.

A pipe remnant from her father’s custom wind chime building, a drawing of her deceased cat, a rock, a scrap of fabric, a stuffed animal, a pipe cleaner, a necklace, a broken shell and the list goes on.

“Do you have any treasures?” She asks me.

The first time she asked, I was unprepared, “Yes,” I said assuming I must.

She tilted her head and smiled, “Then where are they?”

The next time the subject came up, as I cradled a tulip-shaped milk glass vase in my hands, I said, “this is one of my treasures, and the light blue bowl on my nightstand, and my little turtle.”

The bowl as purchased at the Ferry Building in San Francisco the day I walked the three miles from Benioff Children’s Hospital during a break from staying bedside when my son was admitted. The turtle is a small, shiny, bejeweled looking thing given to me by his inpatient case manager. I have had to steal it back from my children.

“And any of your jewelry?” my nine-year-old daughter asks, her smirk tilting to one side.

“Yes…anything your father gave me.”

“Like your wedding ring and your engagement ring. Did he give you that pearl ring, too?”

“Yes…”

She pointed knowingly to the four-month-old, chubby-cheeked daughter, “that’s the one Stella is going to get.”

There are other treasures in our home.

A baby grand piano purchased from the consignment store that is now Miss Potts Attic. New coupe glasses. Libbey Gold Autumn Leaves high ball glasses. My Currier and Ives dishes.

Outdoors, the treasures are more fleeting.

Sweet peas my six-year-old and I planted. Red and white amarillas from my mother. Purple irises transplanted from our last home before we moved.

My dahlias were a treasure. Bought as little plants from Kelley Flower Farm, I separated tubers, washed in a partial bleach solution and carefully stored for spring planting before we moved to this home. I thought I could keep them in the ground over winter. I thought California winters might be mild enough. As only one started up through the ground and grew taller, I took the shovel to dig and investigate what happened to the rest. They were gone.

There was no sign of gophers. I assume they rotted over winter and went back into the earth from whence they came.

All treasures are this way, in a way, fleeting.

The very greatest treasures are the ones we cannot hold so tightly: my growing four-year-old who will no longer suffer himself to be snuggled and kissed, a breeze in the warm spring sunshine, the coy words from my eldest as she tried to share without revealing secrets about my Mother’s Day gift, the words I quote from “Lord of the Rings” to my husband as a way of telling him I love him.

This is the season in which we might consider our treasures more than usual. Do we love our home? Do we take the time to care for it as an act of love? Do we surround ourselves with those inanimate objects that, for whatever reason, spark joy? We have been enclosed long enough within these walls. Let them be ornamented with things that cause us to pause, remember, and cherish, even if we do not have anyone with whom we can share them.

And relationships? There is something unnatural about social distancing and wearing face masks. It blocks something we are so inclined to do. We hug as a greeting to one another. Sympathy prompts a hand on the shoulder. Children beg to be held.

In a well-known study, rhesus monkeys would rather receive physical comfort with a terry-cloth “mother” than eat.

We continue to comply with the public health order and social distancing, but it is becoming more and more apparent that these things are our treasures: the touch, the smile, the kind word and sympathetic look as we unconsciously read each other’s emotions while sitting across the coffee shop table.

Such treasures are fleeting.

But like all beautiful things, the thing that is beautiful is delighted in for its own sake. Maybe, when this season is over, no matter how the world has changed, we’ll delight in it a little more.

This Day is for you, Mothers

Mother’s Day.

I wake to the smell of homemade lavender scones and the gentle rattle of a nine-year-old opening the door bearing a platter of such scones, lemon curd, a cup of black coffee ethically harvested and locally roasted, a small bud vase from Heath Ceramics filled with delicate buds from my blooming garden.

I page the advertisements and beauty advice from Real Simple as I bite into the scone, still warm from the oven. One by one, my dressed, showered and groomed children come to give me a kiss and wish me a “Happy Mother’s Day.”

My husband bears the baby to me who has nestled his shoulder just right to indicate she is ready to be fed. After a nurturing moment, I return her to his eager arms. I lay in bed, indulge in the morning of relaxation and peace.

We refer to this as a “vocation vacation”

and they only happen in advertisements and in our dreams.

The vocation of motherhood itself has the same sweetened brushstrokes over its surface. She is tender, kind, patient, a teacher, a lover, a chef, a housekeeper, a hospitality goddess. She is our solace and our refuge.

Or, in more modern times, she is the ultimate multi-tasker, the woman who shows us we can have it all, a powerful presence inside and outside the home. She is a strong advocate. She is fearless. She will never give up. She is our hero.

Or, in more desperate times, she is the resourceful one, the woman doing the grocery shopping, scanning every receipt and entering data into coupon apps. She hems torn pants into shorts. She grows vegetables. She is the Good-will guru. She made it possible to go to college. We saw her little but knew her endurance and sacrifice was the reason we are where we are.

We tell these stories, hold these memories and then look at ourselves.

Because I have not yet finished snarling over my own meal, I brush the child away who sneaks up behind me to ask if he can have a bite of his brother’s unfinished food. I turn aside from the sniveling six-year-old. I yell “no!” when the four-year-old begs for something across the house and I am juggling the baby and ingredients for a dinner I will work myself into a frenzy over, only to collapse on the couch in tears and blame myself for all kinds of failures.

I say “come on!” more than “good job!” during school work and hide in my room in the evenings, drawing out baby nursing times simply so I do not have to see the mess in the kitchen or manage the moods and tempers of tired, hungry, picky, goofy, excited, talkative children who just want to share their lego creations for the day or the absurd play, ahem, vignette, they staged.

But then, on better days,

I see I am the mother who sits and reads picture book after picture book because I, too, am interested. We schedule show-and-tell so they have my undivided attention. I stop talking, sit back and listen to their prattle knowing the value of sharing in a moment together and receiving their words. I do not cook well, if at all, but I know how to throw together raw ingredients with all the colors and food groups in a pleasing manner. I can set the table for my husband, light the candles and initiate a conversation with a family of seven.

Women may be home. They may be at work. Their children may be in their arms, in a homemade school room, off at school, or adults and providing care for the aging parents. There may be grandchildren or an empty home and lost communication. The children may outlive the parents or be held in the quiet grief following miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss. For these children, she lives and breathes and tries to escape at times in search of the self she lost or was tempted to lose as she explored the new normal, as she learned what it means to be mother.

There is no image that will fully capture her in all her complexity.

She is a mother.

However Mother’s Day is carried out may be just as messy as the vocation itself, but it is still a day, a day that is for her.

The Tasks of Grief During COVID-19

Easter came and went.

Author Hayley Stewart wrote online that she had set Easter as the end goal of social distancing and stay-at-home compliance. “Just get to Easter” was the mindset, with the liturgical season of Lent, a time of fasting and sacrifice to motivate her.

Then Easter came, but stay-at-home orders remained in place. For those celebrating, the exterior life was strangely out of sync with the interior life. Celebrating on the outside, however, traditions were modified, but inside still suffering the loneliness, anxiety and want that accompany the supposedly simple order to stay at home.

This is how grief works.

Photo by Mareko Tamaleaa on Unsplash

Time moves on. Life moves on. But it still hurts. The loss is still there, even as is seems to be filled or replaced by other things.

We have overcome one month of these orders, the fallout of government mandates and the fallout of the virus itself.

The first task of grief is to accept the reality of loss.

Within this task are all the well-known stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One never has to say it is good, but accepting means taking it as it is. To accept the reality is to name the experienced reality. This is hard. As a fellow book club member points out, I miss the friends, the late-night discussions, the wine and the chocolate. I miss outings with my children to see those individuals in their lives who are part of the fabric of their lives.

The second task is to work through the grief and pain.

This means facing it, naming it, talking about it and finding ways to cope. Thomas Aquinas’ advice in the 13th century rings as true today as it was then. He recommended coping with sadness by granting yourself something pleasurable, crying, sharing your sorrow with a friend, contemplating the truth and lastly, bathing and sleeping. Easter chocolate, driving to meet a friend for a sidewalk chat six feet away or talking on the phone and finding meaning in what we are doing either by the protection of others or some deeper long-range meaning of growth for yourself like connecting more deeply with those whom you live, growing in trust, etc. For me, it’s the Trader Joe’s jelly beans, the gardening, sitting and reading in the sunshine.

The third task to adjust to life as it is now.

We are living with uncertainty, but not all things are uncertain. Carving out routine, hobbies, planning unique meals and activities. Having gone through a month, very likely you have already adjusted in some measure. If you had made-do, now ramp it up to grow, to thrive, not just survive. I am leaning into this experience and knowing my children better and enjoying the company of my husband. That said, I do daydream that if I lived alone I might dive into some deep study of some topic, like the life and literature of Flannery O’Connor or the concept of woman in history.

The fourth task is to maintain a connection with what was lost.

We are still in the midst of this trial, so it is difficult to say when it will lift or where we will land.

Importantly, now, I think of the words,

“Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

And lastly, whether you live at home with a gaggle of kids, whether you are caregiving for your aged parent, whether all the ways you served others have gone by the wayside because of new guidelines, whether you run a restaurant, a church, an antique store, a music studio, a farm or bag groceries, your work is essential.

You are essential.

Our society needs you as an essential part of the layers and depths and relationships that make our lives as humans so diverse, interesting and meaningful.

And I’m looking forward to seeing you again soon on the other side of this experience. Until then!

Manage Your Anxiety

“During these uncertain times…”

I hear this phrase often.

Uncertainty. The great unknown. For some of us, that idea sounds like fun when it means venturing into a new city, in a new country, ready to explore and discover new things.

But when that new country is the land of coronavirus we are talking about something decidedly not fun.

If this is my new country, what does it look like after being here for one month?

In Stanislaus County, we have seen only four deaths at the time of this writing, so the medical aspect of the pandemic has not deeply affected the layperson on the street. It is the laws of the land that seem to govern our experience.

  • Everyone stays home except to buy groceries.
  • No one gets near each other.
  • No one shakes hands or hugs those outside their immediate family.
  • Food is delivered to our homes.
  • In this small town, people exhibit this look of relief at the sight of a new face and engage in 6-foot-apart chat.
  • Families go for walks.
  • Parents see their children.
  • Parents become the primary educators of their children.
  • We work from home.
  • We cook at home.
  • We entertain ourselves at home.
  • We spend less.
  • We become resourceful.

There is an opportunity here for good, the shutdown of the country becomes like a deep breath, a pause in our everyday lives.

Still, the uncertainty remains and when faced with an unknown danger

the natural response is fear or anxiety.

You know the feeling. Physically, muscles tense, breathing gets shallower, our heart rate increases. Mentally, we jump at new information, obsess or avoid information, we ruminate replaying ideas again and again. Relationally, we might snap at our loved ones, be more distracted than usual, more protective than usual.

Since the thing creating so much anxiety in our culture right now can be identified, let’s call it for what it is:

coronavirus.

Ask Yourself This

Next ask, “what do I know about this?” It is important to check that what you know aligns with credible sources like WHO or the CDC. Avoid sensational titles and click-bait eager for your eyes to get them more advertising dollars.

“What don’t I know?” Perhaps there are some questions you need to get answered. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding this novel coronavirus, but sometimes, even when we are told information from a credible source, we still do not believe it.

Usually, there is a reason for this. When that happens the biggest question becomes, “what am I afraid of?” Name the fear.

Check your fears against what you know. Check it against what you do not know. Look for answers to the latter if answers are available.

Now, “what can I do?”

Do what you can. Handwashing, limiting outings to essential tasks, social distancing. Check. You have made a good defense.

Go on the offensive if you need to. Maybe you fear for your parents. Talk to them about a plan if they get sick. Maybe you fear for yourself. You can take steps to optimize your health now to make you stronger if you do get sick.

Is the fear related to finances and the future? See if you can order those ducks, access the help that is slowly becoming more available, write down your expenses and track your spending.

When you have done what you can, step away from it all. Distract yourself, practice gratitude, find an activity you can engage in that energizes you and benefits others. For me, writing, reading to my kids and gardening. They are the small things I can do in short spurts that keep me connected and keep me sane.

Make sure every day has some non-coronavirus thoughts and some non-coronavirus talk.

Then, finally, practice acceptance and letting go.

The thoughts will come to mind during your off-hours from corona-worrying. Address them with some mantra that helps refocus you. It could be the wisdom of the ages,

“this too shall pass”

or a right-now reassurance,

“I am doing all I can. It is enough.”

It may sound morbid, but what helps me is the phrase

“death comes to us all”

Having faced the death of my daughter to anencephaly three years ago, it helps me to remind myself that death is part of life. We should try to live long and well, but it is not so foreign as it feels. It is heartbreaking, but if I know that death of part of life, I know the grief will not be insurmountable.

And as the signs and t-shirts tell us,

we will get through this, together.