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. 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Hope is our only Hope

A disclaimer before I begin: As many of you know, I don’t usually write publicly about politics generally or about my political ideology specifically. Politics, especially in recent years, can be so divisive, and I truly believe we have way more in common than not, so I focus my writing mainly on common grounds rather than what could trigger irreparable divisions. But you also know, especially long-time readers, that when I feel strongly about something, I will say it and share it (and I never expect you to fall in line with my way of thinking), and right now, I really want to say and share my feelings about the current political climate.

Yesterday, after coming home from a one-night stay in downtown Youngstown (Ohio), I was pumped to write about how much fun I had spending time with my daughter, Carlene, and meeting comedian Brent Terhune. Then I heard that Pete Buttigieg was ending his bid for the Democratic nomination for President and I got stabby. I even cried. No politician has made me cry before. Well, at least not sad tears. I shed plenty of angry tears in November 2016.

I first learned of Pete early last year in an interview with Joshua Johnson (@jejohnson322) on the NPR show the 1A. I was not only impressed with what he said, but how he said it. Hands down, Pete is/was the most articulate and composed candidate, and he is a helluva debater, and his was the first political campaign I’d ever supported financially.

Openly gay and proud to be married to his husband, Chasten, Pete (and Chasten) restored my faith that kindness can exist in politics, that it must exist in politics. Hearing he’d dropped out made me feel so…lost. I’m not mad; I understand why he did it, and I support his decision. But I will miss his voice, his calm, his intelligence, his hope, and his vision of a united America. The paranoid, deceitful, and hate-filled America that has emerged in four years has left so many people marginalized, afraid, unheard, and – at least in my case – dumbfounded that that truth is almost always usurped by lies and that so few people seem to care. Pete’s message of hope gave me hope that one day, truth, genuine care for people, and common sense could reside in the White House.

I’m tired of angry. I’m tired of the shouting. I’m tired of the finger-pointing. I’m tired of the lying. I’m tired of old.

What Pete’s campaign did was to encourage our country to find its conscience again. We live in a capitalistic, democratic country, I get that. But how about those currently in power stop supporting racist rhetoric or rhetoricians and separating families who are seeking asylum? Stop voter suppression and allowing people to die because they can’t afford life-saving medicine? Start acknowledging that climate change is happening, and fast? That’s not socialism. That’s just plain morally right.

Political power is not the be all and end all in life. Death will come whether we have $$$$$, power, or a high horse. We have a responsibility to each other in life, despite of ideology, and I hope Pete’s message of hope is reflected at the polls in November.

A Tale of Two Valentines

Love has come and gone in my life (through a revolving door, some might say), but it’s the big-time first one I will always remember, as well as the two Valentine’s Days that infused that relationship.

Valentine’s Day, 1982

I was pregnant. I didn’t mean to be. Bruce and I were planning a May 29th wedding and a honeymoon in the Poconos. (Heart-shaped beds were the rage!) I was living in Minneapolis with my parents and Bruce was living with his parents on their family farm 200 miles away. We commuted on weekends to see each other, and Valentine’s weekend was my turn to be on the farm.

We found out about the baby 10 days earlier and our relationship had become strained, mostly because his parents were politely pissed. Well, at least his mother was polite. His father wasn’t one to hold back how he felt about anything, especially when it came to me. He didn’t like me. Not. One. Bit.* But Bruce gave me this V-Day card, and it filled me with hope:

V21982

As I got ready to drive back to Minneapolis (which in hindsight, I should have), I noticed blood on my underwear. Panicked, I told Bruce and he told me to ask his mother about it (one of those times when a cell phone would have been really useful…). She and their Sunday company were drinking coffee in the kitchen, so I asked if I could talk to her privately in the living room. She was noticeably nervous talking about such a private matter, but I was desperate. She said she’d heard that spotting could happen during early pregnancy (my words, not hers) and advised me to call a doctor. I found one in the Yellow Pages, and when he called back, he told me to meet him in the county hospital emergency room 11 miles away.

I was 18, and only one other doctor had ever been in my VJ region before. I was scared and I didn’t have the words to ask the right questions. Bruce was clueless, too, but he stayed with me. After the exam, the doctor told me to go home and to call if I experienced any more bleeding. Home was 200 miles away, so I went back to Bruce’s parents’ house, and in the early morning hours of February 15, I painfully and quietly miscarried in the upstairs bathroom.

Bruce took me back to the hospital and I had a D&C. His mother visited later that afternoon and brought me a jar of peanuts. I can only imagine she didn’t know what to do or say, but she showed up and, god love her, I appreciated that. The next day, I went back to Bruce’s parents’ house to recover, which lasted five minutes before the fight. His father told Bruce that he no longer “had” to marry me, and my response was epic: I threw my engagement ring at him, and I launched f-bombs everywhere. I was tired, grieving, and not at all prepared for a reasoned response. Bruce took me to a friend’s house and somehow…we got married on April 3, the earlier date we’d chosen because of the baby.

Valentine’s Day, 1983

Valentine’s Day was on a Monday. We lived on the farm; his parents had retired. After lunch, Bruce said he was going to town, and I probably sent along a grocery list. I was less than a month away from birthing Carlene and I didn’t fit behind the steering wheel anymore. It was probably snowing and minus 100 degrees outside, I don’t remember. What I do remember was that after he left, I was in the living room watching All My Children when he sneaked back in the house through the mud room – the place he took off his coveralls and muddy, shitty (literally shitty, we were farmers) boots after chores – and went down to the basement. I didn’t say anything because it felt…private. His business. If he wanted me to know he was there, he’d have said something.

He tried to be quiet, but I heard him rummaging around. A minute later, he was gone again. When he returned, he handed me two roses in the bud vase from the basement and this card:

v1983

With another year of getting used to each other under our belts, the doe-eyed love we once had was replaced with the real, work-for-it kind of love. When he died five weeks later, I knew no Valentine’s Day – or any day – would ever be the same .

* When Bruce died, his father was devastated. I don’t know exactly what moved him, perhaps it was his faith and guilt, but he lived the rest of his years loving me and his granddaughter with no reservations. And I loved him, too.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fine Line Between Compliment and Judgement

In all the years I’ve written about weight issues, I’ve never addressed the “compliment.” I thought I had, but I checked the archives and, nope, not a word. I know I’ve had that conversation with all of you before, but it was a conversation only in my head, apparently.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about weight issues, mostly because weight lives more in the periphery than the forefront of my life these days. It’s still there. I can see it. But lately I’m more concerned about crossing my legs before I sneeze than what I weigh.

I’m bringing weight back into the conversation here, though, for a few blogs, maybe more, and it is sparked by a recent meeting with a friend I haven’t seen in many months. When she got out of her car, she was notably thinner. I didn’t say anything about it. Instead, I complimented the necklace she was wearing, a lovely triple circle diamond pendant. She said she bought it for herself as a reward for losing weight. She explained that at her last doctor’s visit, her blood pressure was up and she wanted to try to control it through diet and exercise. Considering she is 59 and post-menopausal, that’s no small feat, so extra kudos to her for her success.

I didn’t want to say anything about her obvious weight loss for a few reasons, one being that if she lost weight because she’s sick, that is her story to tell and not my business to neb. The other reason is that I’m careful offering “compliments” regarding any changes I notice about someone’s physical appearance, particularly when it’s clear(ish) that they’ve lost weight. It’s usually without malicious intent that someone says, “You look great! Have you lost weight?” But often what the recipient hears (or at least internalizes) is, “You weren’t good enough before.”

In recent years, people like Lizzo, Kelly Clarkson, Chrissy Metz, and Rebel Wilson have shut down weight critics, but they also admit that the comments still hurt sometimes. And their body acceptance doesn’t mean that everyone’s lovin’ on their own bodies all of a sudden, either. How someone looks still equals approval. Everything we wear (or don’t wear), what we put on our face, all that we weigh and the way we age… what we look like, and especially what we weigh, is important to someone other than ourselves, often people closest to us, even though it’s none of their business.

One example I will remember forever happened while planning my daughter’s wedding back in the days when I was actively losing weight. I was looking for someone to make cupcakes and a small wedding cake. Several friends recommended a woman who baked cakes out of her home. I made an appointment and went to talk to her.

She’d never met me and so of course had no idea I once weighed more than 300 pounds. At the time, I weighed about 170, and if it was the first time you had ever seen me, the thought might cross your mind that I was overweight. We sat down at her dining room table – the woman, me, and the woman’s 20-something daughter, whose leg was in a large metal brace.

After some brief chit-chat, and apropos of absolutely nothing, the woman outright apologized to me for her daughter’s weight. I was speechless, and the poor girl looked mortified. But she seemed used to her mother’s behavior and launched into an explanation (read: she was apologizing, too) about how she used to be on some high school sports team when she was in a horrific accident that crushed her leg. Subsequently, she spent months in rehab, and, apparently, gaining weight. Her mother then said…and I’m sure you can guess what’s coming…“She has such a pretty face, doesn’t she? If only…” and at that moment, I thought I was going to lose my sh*t all over her unforgivable parenting a@@, but I didn’t. I just smiled at the girl and told her how sorry I was. I didn’t get specific.

So what does this have to do with complimenting someone who has lost weight? Everything. Anytime we comment on someone’s weight, we’re making a judgement, even if we mean it in the most sincere, kind way. I know some of you might think it would be rude to ignore the obvious, and really, who doesn’t want to compliment a friend? I get that, and I’ve learned to frame a comment in a way that starts a conversation. Saying something like, “I notice you’ve lost weight. What made you decide to do that?” allows the person to talk about their feelings about their weight rather than us interjecting our feelings (as sincere as they might be) about their weight first.

Just know, if you lose weight because you want to, I support you. But also know this: you look great, you are great, just the way you are right now. Don’t let anyone (especially someone who’s supposed to love you) tell you otherwise. Trust me. As an ex-member of the Pretty Face Club, I know what I’m talking about.