Writing Out Loud

I started writing him a letter today, but I remembered when someone suggested years ago, right after he died, that I go to a card shop and pick out the Father’s Day card I would have chosen for him for his first Father’s Day. I didn’t do it because it felt silly and because I refused to live in a fantasy in which I bought him a card and maybe a tie and he would open it while he bounced Carlene on his lap, and then I serve him a slice of his favorite cake, German chocolate…

OK, so maybe that’s probably what would have happened if he hadn’t died, but he did die and my feet are planted firmly in reality. No “what ifs” pass through my lips.

Bruce and yours truly, Christmas 1981

But here’s what I wish I could tell him: I’m writing a memoir about our life together and his death and its impact, and while it’s mostly about me, it’s also about him. At times he’s a protagonist and at others, he’s an antagonist. I mean, I know he didn’t mean to die, but nonetheless, his death makes him seem like the bad guy once in a while.

We’ve all been in those two-way conversations that should be three-way conversations in which you’re talking to someone about someone, about what they did or didn’t do that was funny or embarrassing or pissed you off, and they weren’t there to defend or explain themselves. This is a little what writing this book feels like. How do you tell the truth about someone who isn’t around to correct you?

I’ve been thinking about how, at this moment in my life, writing this book, Bruce has book-ended my entire adult life. I met him when I was seventeen and he became everything to me, and here I am, nearly forty years later, putting him front and center again. What I don’t want to do is turn our life into a Glamour shot, blurring it and making it more beautiful than it really was. But since I can’t talk to him, I’m talking to you. Writing this out loud is helping me see things more clearly, holding me accountable to the truth, at least the truth as I remember, and it keeps my feet grounded in what was real then and what is real now. So a big thank you for reading! I feel better already.

To See, Change, and Unlearn: Confronting My White Privilege

In therapy, I was taught that the key to effective communication is through “I” statements. They are meant to relate the speaker’s needs and/or feelings to the listener, as opposed “you” statements, which are usually accusatory, blaming, and contain negative attributions about the listener.

Whites/people in positions of power have a long history of using “I” statements when communicating with minorities, but not in a therapeutic manner. “I need you to listen to me/do what I say/talk this way/behave this way.” And the “you” statements…oh, yes…the “you” statements. They continue to spew like spit off the lips of the ignorant and the hate-filled. As a nation, we really suck at communication with minority groups in general, and particularly people of color.

In the last ten days, I’ve heard a lot of well-intentioned white people using a lot of “I” statements, asserting their needs and feelings about the death of George Floyd, Amy Cooper’s ridiculous actions in Central Park, and, of course (and perhaps especially), the protests, riots, and looting. Mostly, they want people of color to know that they aren’t like those police officers. They aren’t like Central Park Karen. “I need you to understand that I have black friends, I had a black doll when I was a child, I work with black people…” and on and on, and people of color roll their eyes because they’re used to hearing how good we think we are, how we “get” it, when really, do we?

It was Breonna Taylor’s murder on March 13 that brought me back to the table, and by table I mean the place of learning about racism and white supremacy and acknowledging my role in it. It’s a table I never should have left, but because I am not a person of color, I have the privilege of forgetting about that table because I don’t live every day having to prove myself worthy of health care, justice, housing, or even my life because of the color of my skin.

I’ve learned more in the last three months by shutting up, listening, and reading than I ever would have defending myself with my personal experiences with the black community, and the only “I” statement I want to offer to people of color right now is: I was wrong. My silence equals complicity, and I am sorry.

My intention, when I speak of race, especially with people of color, is to be mindful of “I” statements that seek to assert my need for others to understand me. Instead, I will ask questions like “How can I…(help, participate)”, “What do you need me to…(understand, change)”, “Where can I…(donate, volunteer)” and “Who should I…(contact, read)”. I want to change what I didn’t know I needed to change, to see what I didn’t know was inside me to see, and to unlearn what my comfortable privilege has taught me.

A helpful resource for me has been the 1619 Project: “It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

A friend shared this resource today from Smithsonian Magazine, “158 Resources to Understand Racism in America.” I’ve only had a chance to read through it briefly, but links to the resources and articles are embedded in the chapters: Historical Context, Systemic Inequality, Anti-Black Violence, Protest, Intersectionality, and Allyship and Education.

Today is Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She would have been 27. If you’re interested in donating money to her family’s Go Fund Me account, click here.

Please, join the table. Stay. Don’t leave like I did. I truly believe we are on the brink of positive change in this country. It’s been messy and violent, and it will most likely get messier, but please, please, don’t give up.

“Normal”

I talked to my milkman Wednesday, and I’m sure we’ll talk again tomorrow. He’s the only person I talk to in real life on a regular basis other than my partner Jim and a guy named Ben from Martin’s who puts groceries in my Jeep every other week.

Each week, the milkman, also named Jim, stands a few feet off the front stoop and I open a window and we talk through the screen, about eight feet apart. He’s a nice guy, 30ish, and married with a young daughter. He lives in the country and is wickedly sarcastic, not that the two are related. I think I’d like his mother from the stories he tells about her.

During our last conversation, he asked if I’d heard about the customer at the Johnstown Walmart who was cited and fined for spraying Lysol on lettuce. No, I said. We rolled our eyes.

He told me about the bear that startled him in the early morning as he walked out to his car to go to work. I told him about our bear and how he has figured out how to open our garbage can, despite the bungee cord.

Except for talking through a screen, our weekly chats are about the only somewhat pre-March 12th normal thing I do anymore. Our conversations are always light and ordinary, but on recent Wednesdays, for those ten or fifteen minutes, I feel the importance of ordinary. While the rest of the world feels uneasy and scary, there’s always the milkman, delivering milk and sour cream and butter. His schedule tethers me to what’s left of the rituals that ground me.

Birds are like that, too. They are predictable, rhythmic, and steadfast.

I’ve maintained at least one bird feeder everywhere I’ve lived, thinking, “Oh look, I’m helping birds,” which is silly really because they’ve managed to survive for millions of years without humans throwing out birdseed and peanuts and mealworms. This spring, though, they probably did need a bit of help. We had several nights of below-freezing temperatures the first two weeks of May and a birding friend told me that the cold meant no bugs were flying around for them to eat and that bird feeders are their emergency food pantries. So, yes, in a way I was “helping” birds, but mostly it’s for selfish reasons that I feed birds.

I need birds. I need their physical beauty and the beauty of their flight. I need their songs. Their voices fill the void of the so much quiet of these days, especially the difficult ones. Also, they behave like humans – bitchy, testy, helpful, picky – so that I don’t miss humans quite as much. A Blue Jay calls for his mate that he’s found food. She arrives and chases away the Cardinal, who doesn’t return until the coast is clear. The male Oriole chases away his mate from the orange half he’s enjoying and she flies off to the suet feeder. He decides he wants suet instead and so she goes to the orange until he decides that the orange is his favorite after all…and on and on it goes.

Some states, not mine, are opening up everything, and people are flocking to shops, restaurants, bars, and nail salons, many unmasked, because they say they want to feel “normal” again. My normal is that it will be a while before I am comfortable eating in a restaurant, getting my hair cut, or having a pedicure. I’d like to go to a baseball game, and I’d especially love to embrace my family and snuggle with my granddaughter as she sucks her thumb and fingers her blankie and chats about a friend I don’t know or the bug she found on the ceiling. But right now, normal is in my backyard. It’s chatting with the milkman once a week through a window screen. It’s watching Jeopardy at 7:00 and playing Battleship via Facetime with another granddaughter. It’s texting with my daughters and friends about their days.

This is in no way to say that my life right now is some Xanadu-like existence. Please don’t think I don’t think about the paycheck, or how to put food in the cupboard or pay the phone bill. Normal – no matter how we define it, and whether we like it or not – is fluid. It always has been, but it’s especially fluid now, and we can’t afford to seek the normal we once knew, to look the other way, as though there isn’t a presence looming over us, an invisible “what if.”

Deep breath… It’s so easy to get caught up in all the chaos, noise and chatter, right?

My hope is that, for even a few moments during your days, you can find normal and ordinary in the view of a bird, a social-distancing chat with a friend (or milkman), or even in your own breath.

I really mean this…namaste (you are divine, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not).

Care in the Time of COVID

In a recent poll,fifty percent of Americans said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. My guess is the percentage is much higher because, you know, denial. “I’m fine!” is our trained response to “How are you?” even when, or perhaps especially when, we ask ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to care about people in the abstract and people we know up-close and personal, including ourselves, and how we can’t effectively have one without the other. When I saw a recent photo of a large, white (and unmasked) man screaming in the face of a state trooper in Michigan during a protest against government mandates put in place to flatten the curve, my initial response was, Wow, what a jerk! and then, after some time to think, I wondered, What do we have in common?

Take away his disregard for the health and safety of those around him, I saw a person whose actions were motivated by fear (both rational and irrational) and not by an overarching compassion for humanity. “The government can’t tell me what to do!” is not born out of anger. Anger itself originates in fear, and in this case, fear that the government can, and will, tell people what they can do.

There will always be folks who lose their shi*t and those who keep it together no matter what crisis they’re faced with. While I am often the former, I live with the latter, one such folk who keeps it together. Even though Jim feels the underlying emotional impact of the uncertainty right now, and the fear of “What if I get it?” and the economic toll it’s having all around, he expresses his fear by caring about people, not screaming in their face.

Here’s what I mean. You know when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you can’t type another word or read another word or watch another minute of news? I reached that place on Friday. I couldn’t think anymore. I needed to talk to Jim. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and started walking across the yard to the garage, gathering emotional steam along the way.

The dog had run out of the door ahead of me and she announced my impending arrival.  Jim appeared in the doorway and his smile quickly turned to concern.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and all that pent-up fear disguised as anger came tumbling out.

“I miss my kids, I miss my grandkids, my knee hurts, and I’m a horrible writer!”

He wrapped his arms around me and I sobbed into his sweatshirt for what felt like an hour. When I started to pull away, he pulled me closer, and I cried even harder.

“You did the right thing coming out here.” He knows I would stew in silence, or make mountains out of mole hills that had nothing to do with what was really bothering me, kind of like the protester.

We sat down and devised a plan for a social distancing visit with my daughters and the grandkids the next day. There was nothing we could do about my knee except talk about it, but acknowledging that it’s messed up and needs to be replaced helped untangle the abstract fear I have of never walking again. As for being a horrible writer, I know this is not true, but the fear in that statement is that I’m not good enough and that I’ll never be good enough, and saying it out loud lay bare that fear, too.

Listening, saying “I hear you,” can mean so much anytime, but especially now.

It doesn’t mean fears go away just by saying them out loud. But saying them out loud to someone who cares takes them down to their bare bones and they become more manageable. Solutions become more clear. Or if there are no immediate solutions, we can better eke out a way to handle the fear rather than deflecting it on to other people.

I’m heartened to see, in contrast to protesting, so many people demonstrating their care for others through their gifts and talents, their livelihood, and through simple random acts of kindness (even wearing a mask is an act of caring). Something I look forward to almost every evening is poet Billy Collins’s twenty-minute poetry reading/mini lecture on Facebook. Instead of watching it on full screen, I like to read and sometimes participate in the comment conversation that streams up the page. I feel less isolated, even for a short time.

Statistically, half of you are in the pandemic-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-your-mental-health camp. Or as I said earlier, probably more than half. How are you taking care of yourself? That is both a rhetorical question and a genuine inquiry. I might not know you, but I care.

 

A Love That Could Never Be

I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him. 

A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return. 

My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.

That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age. 

On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, heanthurium-red called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.

On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter. 

“This is Carlene,” I said. 

“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other. 

He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture. 

Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer. 

One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he. 

Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way. 

cassboys

Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too. 

 

Let’s Do the Time Warp. A Photo Time Warp.

Over the last several weekends, I’ve been (finally) sorting through photos from each of my daughters’ photo albums, the ones I started when they were born. When they grew up and moved into places that weren’t dorms or student housing, I gave each of them their photo album, then in late 2018, they gave them back to me because I promised to have them digitized. They sat in a box in the garage until…well, let’s just say right now I have no excuse not to get this project done.

As of today, I’ve sorted through each photo, and in the process, I came up with my own weird Dewey Decimal System for categorizing them. What is abundantly clear is that for every one photo of Cassie alone (the younger), there are five of Carlene (the older). Part of the reason is the wholly different circumstances in which they came into this world (see “Twin Daughters of Different Fathers”), but mostly it’s because, like many parents, second children – when they are young, at least – simply aren’t photographed alone as often as their older sibling was. Besides, even if I wanted to take a picture of just one, they were almost always together.

Kids3
Carlene (left), 4 and Cassie, 2

It’s not just faces in photos that make them special or memorable. In one photo I found, my mother – who is talking to someone outside the frame – is holding one-year-old Carlene on her lap in my grandmother’s apartment. They are formally dressed. There’s an unlit cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table and a bit of red wine in a water tumbler. I know it’s wine because it’s next to my mother. Within the frame is the side of Grandma’s refrigerator, decorated with cactus and cowboy magnets, gifts no doubt from her sister, my great-aunt Martha, who wintered every year in Arizona. I was able to deduce that the photo was taken in February 1984 on the weekend of my grandma’s eightieth birthday celebration. My dad and his brother, her only children, bought her a curio cabinet and each of us grandchildren and grgirlpigeat-grandchildren – about 10 of us at the time – bought her curios. I remember I chose a small figurine of a child dressed in coveralls and riding a pig. My husband had died the year before and I wanted something that represented the memory of us: Carlene, him and me raising pigs on a farm not far from my grandmother’s apartment. This memory led me to eBay and to the exact figurine and $7.50 (including shipping) later…it will be here on Friday.

Just as one photo can make you smile, another can bring up a worry you’ll never forget. This is definitely one of them:

CarleneBurn

My little sister, who was nine, is holding up Carlene, who was about fourteen months, on her bike. Notice the thick bandage on little Carlene’s hand. A few days before, I was in the bathroom putting on makeup while my curling iron heated up. Carlene toddled in, and before I knew she was there, she grabbed the curling iron. Just typing that makes me sick to my stomach. She screamed, I screamed. I grabbed her and ran to the kitchen to put her hand under cool running water. As she cried, I called the pediatrician’s office (I’m surprised they could hear a thing I was saying) and they told me to put her hand in ice water and get her to their office as soon as possible.

When we got there, Carlene was staring out the window, and her cries were now a staccato-breath whimper. The doctor carefully opened her hand and the poor thing had first and second degree burns on her palm and halfway up her little thumb and index finger. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to scare Carlene any more than she was, but I assure you I felt like the worst mother in the history of motherhood. In the days that followed I didn’t let her out of my sight, and she fell asleep in my arms every night to me whispering “I’m sorry.”

Looking at so many photos is bound to send anyone down a few rabbit holes and into a time warp coma. But going through my girls’ photos has helped focus my attention, if even for a few hours, on a time that wasn’t always perfect, but isn’t right now.

Kids5
Oh, the cuteness!

 

Emotional Transportation

My sister texted me last night to say she was on the struggle bus. I wrote back saying I was on the vacant train. I can’t think my way out of a bag this week, and I can’t retain the plot of a movie or TV show without referring to IMDb. To help shake these cobwebs, I’m cooking things that, unlike slapping together a grilled cheese, require thought and concentration. Even then, I follow a recipe like I’m stoned. It took me over an hour to make rice pilaf yesterday.

On Monday I made bread in the bread maker, which is simple enough to do, but I measured out the yeast like it was the last glass of wine I’d ever drink. I have one and half yeast packets left, enough for one loaf of English muffin bread and another loaf of bread maker bread, and it feels weird and waaaaay hypervigilant that I know that. I can buy bread in the store, but like many of you, I’m trying to limit where I go. It’s been nine days since I was in a physical store (Lowe’s for water softener salt) and it was the first time I’d worn a mask. I support wearing a mask in public, but wow…I didn’t realize how confining they are. Nothing like a little claustrophobia to go along with a heightened state of germaphobia.

I understand that this vacant feeling is part of my emotional response to the pandemic, and I admit that I have adopted old coping mechanisms, including self-judgement for utilizing old coping mechanisms, and I really need to stop “doomscrolling” before going to bed. But the one emotional transport my sister and I agreed we wouldn’t hop on is the guilt wagon.

I’m all for utilizing time creatively…in normal times. But right now, I’m not up to faking creativity. Sure, I would love to write something brilliant with this “extra” time on my hands, but never in a million years could I guilt myself into it. What I’m writing right here is borderline boring, or maybe it’s all-in boring, but it’s all I’ve got right now and that’s OK. And if I feel like reading a book or watching a show at 1:00 in the afternoon instead of being brilliant, I do it. Now, sometimes I do it with a glass of wine or I eat crackers and cheese in bed with the dog (*see the last paragraph about coping mechanisms), and sometimes I say to myself, “You should ____” (write, exercise, sweep the deck…), but I’ve gotten pretty good at shutting myself up.

Nesting Interrupted

We thought the snakes would work, but they only scared the tufted titmouse, who was back this year to make a nest on top of a spotlight bolted to a rafter on our back porch. I was sitting at my desk last week when she arrived, and from my window, I watched her fly around the rubber snake and fly away, never to be seen again. A sparrow, however, was not deterred, and yesterday, she went about building a nest in that precarious, fateful place where few baby birds survive. They often fall out of the nest or die from the oppressive heat coming off the tin roof.

It’s fun to watch a mama bird sitting on her nest and then feed the babies once they hatch, but I couldn’t take another year of watching them die, so before the little sparrow could go any further, Jim got up on a ladder and removed the dried grass and leaves she’d so carefully put in place, and removed the light. He also covered the small electric box with heavy duty tin foil and stapled it to the rafter.

As he worked, I watched the little bird, with a scrap of grass in her mouth, fly from the clothes line to the hemlock on the edge of the porch to the opposite corner of the porch and back to the clothes line, no doubt concerned by what she was witnessing. I said, “We’re doing this for your own good,” but you can’t reason with a bird, of course. Now, sitting here in my office, I watch her flying around the rafters, wondering where her little nest went. She circles through every few minutes, like what I do when I’m looking for something I’ve lost and I keep looking in the same place, hoping it will magically appear.

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I’m sorry, little bird. I know this is a stressful time for you. I remember “nesting,” that inexplicable urge to prepare before my babies were born. It was like I woke up one morning and a switch had gone off in my head: Get ready NOW! You need to do all the things NOW! If someone or something had stopped me, I’m sure I’d have been stressed beyond belief.

A friend of mine who knows a lot about birds (she’s who bought us the rubber snakes) assures me that sparrows are resourceful and that the little bird will soon find another place to build her nest. That is helpful, and hopeful, even though as I complete this, she’s still circling, still with a tuft of grass in her mouth. I think how she is a metaphor for these confusing times. She is stressed, and rightly so. But she’ll be alright, eventually. And so, too, will we.

The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

wedding

Searching for Normal

Normally on Saturdays, Jim and I go on a breakfast adventure. We either try a restaurant we’ve not been to or try something new in the places we have. Jim is always on the lookout for the perfect sausage gravy or creamed chipped beef over home fries. I look for fresh brewed iced tea, non-instant oatmeal, and homemade hash browns. And if the place uses fresh mushrooms in their omelets, five stars on Trip Advisor! Generally we stay within 45 minutes of home, but we’ve been known to wander a bit farther on a nice day.

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Zuzu loves breakfast adventures, too, and when she’s with us, I get her a side of bacon or a slice of ham for the ride home. Today, she enjoyed looking out the window at cows and very large farm dogs who could eat her in one bite.

There’s definitely not much normal about these days. Schedules have changed, activities are greatly limited or restricted (or greatly increased if you are an essential worker, and I can’t thank you enough for what you do). As a germaphobe with anxiety, everyone and every surface is suspect to me anyway, but that sense of germs, germs everywhere(!) is heightened right now. I needed a slice of normal this morning, so Jim and I went on a breakfast adventure, sans breakfast, since the drive is always half the fun.

We took a circuitous route on back roads, across swollen rivers and past a covered bridge. I saw Canada geese floating on ponds, turkeys walking across bare corn fields, chickens free ranging, doing their chicken thing. Daffodils dotted the banks of the hills and the ditches…a sure sign of spring. Listening to the radio, the song “Roll Me Away” by Bob Seger came on and we were acutely aware of that desire for freedom within uncertainty: “Roll, roll me away, Won’t you roll me away tonight. I, too, am lost, I feel double-crossed, And I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right.” 

There’s a freedom in normal, and now that normal has been turned on its head, I realize how much I take my normal for granted. It’s the right thing to stay away from others as much as possible, especially in the upcoming week (although I confess I giggled when I heard a doctor say we need to take “prophylactic measures”), but my hope is that, despite it all, each of us can find a little freedom in our lives every day, either inside our homes or inside our heads or driving down the road listening to the radio.

Or…if you have some cheese and macaroni lying around… Comfort food is not always a bad thing, people 😉.

Macaroni and Cheese (Lynn’s adaptation from an Epicurious recipe)

8 Servings

6 T butter, divided

1 C Panko bread crumbs

8 C shredded cheese (I usually use 6 C extra sharp cheddar, 1 C mild cheddar or Monterey Jack, and 1 C smoked gouda – the secret ingredient 😊)

1 pound macaroni (it’s more fun with spiral pasta or medium shells)

3 ¼ C whole milk

3 T all-purpose flour

1 ½ t dry mustard

¼ to 1 t fine sea salt (I start with ¼ t and adjust later if needed)

½ t ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, although you can make this ahead of time and bake later. Store in the fridge sans the topping, which you make just before it goes in the oven.

Spray/grease a 9×13 baking dish, or use a 3-quart round casserole. I find that the round casserole keeps the mac and cheese more creamy.

Cook the macaroni according to the directions on the package. When done, drain without rinsing and return to the pot they were cooked in.

In a medium saucepan, melt 3 T of butter. Add the flour to make a smooth roux. Add a bit of milk and whisk until smooth. Add remaining milk and cook over medium high heat until the sauce thickens. Just be sure not to let the milk come to a boil. Turn the heat to low and add the mustard, salt, and pepper. Add the cheese and stir constantly until it is completely melted and smooth.

Pour the cheese over the macaroni and mix well. Taste and add more salt if you want. Place in casserole or baking dish.

For the topping, melt 3 T of butter and mix it with the Panko. Sprinkle on top. Bake for at least 30 minutes or until the topping is browned and crispy.

#Coronapocalypse