“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.