Pandemic Pleasures? A Thanksgiving Virus Diary

On a rainy day, I sit in my home office with the windows open and a candle lit as my workday hums along.  In my “real” office, the windows don’t open, and I’ve never thought of lighting a candle. Here at home, I make a cappuccino for my 8th grader every morning as a special treat. I eat lunch with my husband. Without any choices to make — we don’t have to agree on a time and place to meet for a special workday lunch together. There’s more time to read and write. These are pandemic pleasures and there are more.

Every Sunday, the New York Times “At Home” section features five new recipes to try. Since March, I’ve added to a growing stack I think will appeal to my crew. My husband knows every trail, well- traveled or super-secret, in this town. We walk our dog in the woods accompanied by moonlight and owl song. Here at home, we have winter gatherings on our screened porch, heater and blankets at the ready. This Thanksgiving, without our extended circle, we are free to choose our own menu, nothing made because we’re supposed to meet others’ expectations. 

But as grateful as I am for the gifts this pandemic has strangely given, gloom and melancholy are ever-present specters that I don’t know whether to run from or embrace. As a country, we are closer, but still so far away from anything that we used to think of as normal. Yesterday there was reporting that the first vaccines would be given in mid-December. Does this mean we can plan a trip for the summer? Maybe a big party in the spring? How I wish…The road to normal is a difficult one and it will be littered with grief. The temptation, so strong right now, to gather around holiday tables will sicken so many. Others will get lucky and return to daily life unscathed. Still others will die.  

To be thankful in all things, as the Psalmist writes, is a mantra I try to live by, something I have said to my sons over and over throughout this time when they have become discouraged. The temptation to either/or thinking is strong. If I am thankful and have found some new pleasures during this time, does that make me toxically positive? What does it mean to be grateful for aspects of my own life when I know so many are suffering? When I don’t feel grateful, when I lapse into self-pity, impatience, and frustration, can I accept that in myself without judgement? Can I accept it in others? Can I leave off planning for a little while longer and find what pleasures I can in this pandemic cocoon? Sometimes, I’m just not sure. 

There is an author I like who sends quotes to my inbox most days. Sometimes when things are busy, I skip right over them and delete the message without a second thought. But today I opened it and found this:

“This is the day which the Lord has made,” says Psalm 118. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24). Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is, because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you’re wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you’ve been waiting for always that you’re missing. All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from it. Today is the only day there is.  

(Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark)

Perhaps this is the best I can aspire to, greeting the specters of gloom and melancholy not so much with disappointment, but with acceptance. It’s hard to be away from those we love at the holidays. It’s hard to continue to live in uncertainty. But it is really the only choice. Try the new recipe. Read the new novel. Watch the long-awaited TV series. Walk the dog under the crescent moon. Do my work. Bundle up and see friends in small doses. It is enough for now. 

Photo Credit: Skylar Searing (Follow him on Instagram @raelyks)

Faculty Life Miscellaneous

A Room of My own: another Virus Diary

The first time I had my own apartment was in graduate school in Austin. I remember the feeling of organizing the space to my, and only my, liking. My very small kitchen with magnets holding “quotable quotes” that I did not want to forget, a kitchen table where I could drink as much coffee as I wanted, a refrigerator to fill with food that I wanted to eat. My desk in the window bay that looked out on no view whatsoever, a bedroom decorated with cheap prints of my choosing and piled with books I wanted to read. Exhilarating. 

When we all came home last March to live and work, I set up shop in our bedroom. I already had a small desk there next to a window overlooking the backyard, where I might write thank you notes or manage my father’s affairs when he was alive. I could close the door and be undisturbed. That seemed the logical space to locate my work life. By July I had added a second desk, a ring light, some filing baskets, and a new office chair. When my husband began scheduling a 20-minute interval between my morning zoom calls to take a shower, I found myself thinking about the proverbial room of my own. Perhaps the guest room? But for months, I put it off. Too much trouble, what if someone wanted to come visit, did I really need it? It had been so long since I had “my own space” outside of my office on campus, just the idea felt self-indulgent. 

When I was younger, I had a few other apartments of my own–one in Washington D.C. had the Rear Window effect sans the courtyard and the missing dog. There I bought the first furniture I ever chose for myself, an impractical white love seat and an IKEA dresser with its dreaded pictorial directions and the little wrench. There was a woman who also lived there and sat in the lobby for much of the day talking always about how she was from New Hampshire and the state we call home is “the most important thing.” Later, there was the relief of moving into my own apartment here in Chapel Hill as I separated from an ex, someone who wanted to control everything from the temperature in the house to whether or not we could buy a blender. I was so thankful just to be warm in the winter, to have the thermostat and the appliances under my own control. 

So when a friend texted my husband saying he’d seen our bedroom on the local news (after I had given a Zoom interview from my desk there) and I realized the last thing I saw before bed and the first upon waking was work, I told my husband I thought I should make a change.  Apparently, he had thought it was a good idea all along; he started orchestrating the move upstairs to the guest room that afternoon.

With hardly any effort, this room looks and feels like so many that have been mine throughout my life. The walls are an off-white with a slightly pinkish cast, a butterfly quilt made for me by my grandmother covers the bed, my mother’s Florentine night table is here, along with two shelves filled with books that range from my great grandmother’s “Book of Spells” that I discovered in an old trunk when I was in the 8th grade to poetry I came to know in a favorite college class. There are a few mementos of my father’s, offerings from my children, and a mug my husband brought me from a long-ago trip now filled with pencils. Once again, the pictures on the wall are of my choosing. There are fresh flowers in a vase and I’ve taken to burning a candle while I’m working to add calm in the midst of the daily storms.

I’ve not had “a room of my own” since my children were born, almost 20 years ago now. Every morning during this pandemic, I wake up thankful that my children are no longer small. The idea of managing their schooling, changing diapers, keeping them entertained, as well as clean and fed all day, every day while maintaining a demanding career would send me into despair. As much as I loved my children when they were little and as much as I found them delightfully round and funny, if given the chance, I would return to those days for only a sweet hour or two. Those years were so hard even with lots of great babysitters and a great partner. My husband has been a fully engaged parent since day one. I remember conference calls while pushing one son in a swing, being called to pre-school to take my other son home because he was a biter. (BTW, don’t worry too much if you are the mother of a biter. Your child is not a serial killer in the making.)  I remember my husband and I trading off a feverish little person so that we could get the grant in, teach the class, or show our faces at some all-important meeting. I really cannot imagine what parents of young children, and particularly mothers, are enduring right now. In academia, the current state of affairs threatens progress for women for the next ten years.

Like everything else, the pandemic has exposed the ways in which so many of us scramble to make our lives work. Everything goes perfectly, as long as everything goes perfectly. And now we are far, far away from perfection. 

Men who contribute to parenting are seen as heroes, but not so for moms, even though they are most often the default for sorting out their children’s schooling, meals, the doctor, the dentist, the therapist, the elder care…I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting. There is always more. And we are told in ways subtle and not so, that we are not to ask for too much more. Over the years, more than one person has said to me that when I spoke of the complications of working while having children or caring for elders that I was implicitly “devaluing other people’s stress.”  These comments were made by people taking care of no one but themselves at the time. I’ve been “affirmed” by highly productive men whose wives stayed home with their children, explaining to me how they understood exactly what I was going through, though not for a minute adjusting their expectations for productivity. Over time, I made two choices in response: to always mention whatever was going on with my children so that people could not pretend that I and other women colleagues existed in a vacuum where motherhood was somehow conveniently managed out of sight. I also chose not to “complain.” I did not want to give anyone an excuse to write off reality because they had decided I was “too difficult.” I still don’t know whether or not these were the right choices. 

There is a picture I keep on one of the now three desks in this room – not of my family – but of me as a senior in college. My dad kept it on his desk next to a little koala bear I had given him for father’s day that year. It is not something I would ever keep in a professional office, but I keep it here. In it, I see both who I was and who I am. The mix of objects in this room grounds me in the midst of complicated choices and difficult days, acknowledges the expectations I’ve had for myself and those put on me by others. 

I am lucky to have a room of my own. I see it as such a gift, a necessity and a luxury all at the same time. I am thankful that I have it and I wish it for other women, perhaps especially for those who are juggling so much right now. For years, I have been making space for other people. But this room has been here all along waiting for an occasion for me to claim it. The pandemic has given me permission to do that. Did I need that permission? Apparently so, but I wonder why.

While I figure it out, I’ll light my candle and do my work, smile at the memories that surround me, wish for more time to return to those poetry books, and mark my new space as a win during this pandemic, a gift I’ve given myself out of necessity, but one I should’ve claimed a long time ago.  



Photo Credit: Skylar Searing, UNC Chapel Hill, Class of 2023

I was 17 when I first walked across UNC’s campus alongside an older friend from home who was a sophomore. It was November and most of the fall leaves had already dropped, creating a crunchy carpet on McCorkle Place as we crossed it late at night. The old brick buildings, the bells, the towering trees, the funky jewelry store on Franklin Street, the Carolina Coffee Shop where I would one day have my first date with my husband, the Varsity Theater, Sutton’s Drug Store, Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Spanky’s — to me it was a place of wonder, somewhere young people might give themselves over to first one and then another version of themselves, until they found out who they were to be in the world. Of course, that task actually lasts a lifetime. Although as a17-year-old, I was not competitive for admission as an out of state student, I eventually made my way to Chapel Hill, where I did my Ph.D. and eventually joined the faculty. Seventeen-year-old me must have known home when I saw it. 

I still love the fall in Chapel Hill, when the air turns slightly crisp and the weather vacillates between summer heat and absolute perfection before giving in to a gray winter chill. Decades later, I still get a thrill from the electric vibe, the students blanketing the quad, the music blaring from a fraternity house as students reunite on the street, and colleagues who have been separated over the summer greet one another. It gives me the sense that even though I’m past the mid-point of life, I’m still a part of what will come next.  

Now that I am the Chair of the Faculty, many people are suddenly interested in what I have to say. In the last week, many people I don’t know have posted on my Twitter feed. One of them talked about mocking Chapel Hill’s stumbles in the current moment even as they offered a sort of compliment. My hackles went up at that word “mock.”  Finger-pointing and blame are so often the default. Rather than partake in the semi-gleeful gotchas, the what-did-we-expects, and the I told you so’s, I find I’d rather swim for a bit in the river of sadness that is washing over our campus as we send students home and wait, like everyone else, for brighter days.

A few years ago, I was invited to give a talk at a small, Mid-western college. The campus, in the heart of Amish country, was so quiet and green. Being there felt calming, like a retreat and I could see the appeal of being part of a small academic community like that.  Two days later, I was back at Carolina crisscrossing campus. I passed the School of Government, the soccer fields full of young people in their prime. I headed to central campus where I passed a memorial to Thomas Wolfe, an angel of course, and my mother’s favorite author. I headed to the Ackland Art Museum, a place that has invigorated my teaching and research in recent years. Tarheel One, the helicopter that brings sick folks from across the state to our medical school, touched down on the hospital’s helipad. As I made my way to my own academic home, the School of Social Work, I felt such good fortune to work on a campus where curiosity, discovery, and service is a way of life. Perhaps there are other places where an English professor is so creative as to use Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a motif for the American health care system, but for me, it’s all here and it always will be. 

This virus is not going away; every person, every institution, and every business is trying to figure out how to live with it in in the absence of a national strategy. Our UNC System leaders, meaning the Board of Governors, told us to figure out how to open for residential learning. That impossible dream that we tried to actualize is turning into a nightmare with news of more infections in more places on our campus coming in by the day. A “post-mortem” to understand which parts we got right and which parts we got wrong is in order, and not just as an intellectual or ethical exercise; spring is coming and so is Fall 2021.  None of us knows how long we will have to live with this virus. We will learn from what’s happened to better plan for what’s next. But in the meantime, keep Carolina on your mind and let our bad experience serve as a cautionary tale for your communities and institutions. And students, on campus we’ll miss your fire, your fury, your sense of the future. In the meantime, we’ll find it with you on zoom, but your home is still here. Your faculty will be waiting to welcome you back. 


The Salon: A Different Sort of Virus Diary

My stylist calls herself a “hairapist” –rhymes with therapist– and as we’ve talked about this moniker over the years, I have come to recognize how apt a descriptor it is at least for our relationship. My stylist is an artist and healer in other parts of her life and she brings those qualities to her work “behind the chair.”  Yet, unlike therapists, who are encouraged and trained to maintain some level of professional distance, in the salon personal sharing is not a one-way street. Even as I choose to share a current struggle, dilemma, or triumph she may also choose to share such things with me. You might say, “Well, sounds like to me like you’re friends.”  Yes, certainly. But it’s a different kind of friendship, not characterized by Saturday get togethers or dinner parties. Yet, for me, a woman approaching a certain age, this salon friendship has taken on particular significance.  

I consider myself fortunate to have a pretty deep bench when it comes to women friends starting with childhood and moving through my professional life.  Among them there are many I could call in an emergency and some that know the secrets of my past. There are women that taught me that my baby’s bath water was “still too hot” or that maybe I really should talk with the doctor about this or that pediatric issue. There are women that laugh with me about my husband’s obsession with bikes and trail-building and those that have joined me at my mother’s grave to leave flowers. There are women I talk books or university politics with and some who are always willing to share a dessert (too few of those sadly!). But as I’ve continued through adulthood, my time to talk deeply with friends has shrunk. I remember so fondly those late nights in high school and college when there were endless hours to talk about who my friends and I thought we were, how we might achieve whatever it was we wanted to achieve, what would make a meaningful life. How often do I have a conversation like that now as I run from meeting to meeting or more recently zoom to zoom? Nowadays, it’s a group dinner here, a walk there, a quick lunch out during the week. Once in a while the weekend get-away. I suppose some people might think that women at our age have it figured out; there’s really no reason to ask questions about meaning, purpose, and identity when life is certainly in its second half and we’ve made our choices. But, for me, the opposite is true. I think I am asking those questions now more than ever and I find I crave “the deep” in conversation. And, oddly enough, the place where I most regularly feed that craving is a place that seemingly focuses on the literal surface of who I am.

My “hairapist” knows a lot about me. When I tell Andrea I want a cut with “a little edge,” she can guess I’m a little bored with my current circumstances.  Want to go shorter? Looking for control. More low lights? Feeling bad about my aging skin. Longer, with some layers? Worried about my weight.  She also knows how much daily time I’m willing to invest to achieve a particular presentation. Not much. How much money I’ll spend to to minimize the daily time on my appearance. A fair amount. With all this as baseline, it doesn’t take much to make the salon a space where, in front of a large mirror for several hours every six weeks, I take a deep breath and confront the reflection staring back at me and the me I hope to take into the world upon leaving.  Happily, Andrea is a willing ally in the switchbacks between the interior and the exterior exploration that goes on in the salon. 

I am not the only one apparently who gravitates toward this interior/exterior salon meet-up. My hairapist has other clients and sometimes our conversations draw them in. Because we both have creative pursuits that are sidelines to our day jobs, Andrea and I talk about them and share our progress. Recently, I shared a piece of writing I was thinking about submitting for publication. Deeply personal, it featured a first love who recently made contact after many years. I looked like a Martian with foil all over my head as Andrea quietly read the piece through twice or maybe three times. Her focus is never on the craft of the writing; she responds to the emotional gestalt. She loved it and said so, piquing the curiosity of another client who asked to read it. I was nervous, but then again, my plan was to submit it to a national publication. I turned it over to this stranger and tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach. The conversation that unfolded was a delight. Three women sharing their experiences and memories long locked away about early love lessons, those men we leave behind, and how we are shaped by them. At the appointment’s end, I looked in the mirror and saw both the girl I was and the woman of a certain age that I am. The gray was gone. The ends looked sharper. I had new questions to consider. 

Grief Miscellaneous

Constant Companions

In spite of a friend’s deep suffering, the death of an elder neighbor, a loved one’s diagnosis of an advanced cancer, life rolls on straight through my son’s 13th birthday, and keeps going through my worries for my father, my sadness for an acquaintance grieving a too early death, and despite my own need for rest. The last several nights I have slept deeply, my body and mind tired from intensity in my work and pain in so many parts of my social circle.  Although the season is changing to autumn –just this week there’s been crispness in the morning air—there is no beauty yet. In fact, right now, the earth is dry and everything looks a little down at the heels and sad.

I feel parched too. Tapped out, stunned by the suffering that seems to be around every corner. (And this is in the personal realm – don’t get me started on the suffering being perpetrated in our collective, national life.) A few days ago I was walking with a friend. We get together every couple of weeks and almost every time, we have to give each other what we are now referring to as “the horror report.”  The list of awful things that have befallen people we know: friends losing parents, colleagues diagnosed with grave illnesses, aquaintances experiencing the sudden loss of a spouse. Not to mention, because really who can bear to, the soul crushing losses of a child to drugs or a friend to suicide. As we talked two days ago, we were both a little overcome by how many of these events we had to process. How to make sense of it…

At almost 55, my father’s long-lived genes not withstanding, I am well into my own autumn. A season that has always been my favorite and yet, as I am now realizing, a season in which loss and grief will be constant companions.  I remember this happening to my mother probably 25 plus years ago.  I would call home for a chat and she would tell me about someone that was sick, a funeral she had to attend, a comfort meal she was planning to deliver. I think I said the appropriate things, but asked very little about her experience of it all, and thought about it even less. Her words echo now: “It’s so hard to lose your friends. No one ever tells you how hard it is.” Over time, I realized none of the people she was regularly spending time with were the family friends I had known growing up.  She wanted me to get to know her new friends and at first I was hesitant. Why did I need to know these new people she and my dad were so good at incorporating into their lives?   Eventually, I gave in and of course my life is richer because of it.  And, what’s more, in so doing, she taught me the importance of continuing to incorporate new people into my life, so that the circle can continue and not collapse. 

But what she didn’t teach me is how to deal with these other characters that seem to want to worm their way in? How do I welcome Grief and Loss into my house?  How do I acknowledge the pain they escort in, honor those experiences when they come fast and furious, without numbing out via one of the 30-wonderful flavors: alcohol, shopping, religious platitudes, busyness? Hmmm… Perhaps the first step is to stare down that complicated cousin they bring along, the one called Regret.

Regret is what makes any sorrow unbearable. And even as regret may begin with specifics of any particular situation, once it takes hold, it goes systemic: Did I say what I should’ve said?  Was I kind enough, patient enough, giving enough? Should I have kept the china cabinet that was my grandmother’s? Did I clear out my father’s things too soon? Why didn’t I pay more attention to my mother’s suffering as she lost her friends one by one or two by two? Why did I say yes to that relationship, but not to that other one? What if I’d kept travelling that summer instead of coming home to summer school? What if I’d called the one I left behind? What if I’d married the one my parents’ hoped I would and stayed in my hometown?  What if I’d gone overseas and not come home? What if I’d mastered the second or third language? Called the visiting professor/New York newspaper editor that gave me his card? Regret over some of it, becomes regret over all of it. There are only so many roads we can travel. We have to choose. And no matter which one we choose, Autumn comes and as we watch other’s lives being over too soon, we revisit our own, spending at least a moment at each cross-road wondering what if and wishing we could rewind the tape to see where a different set of choices would lead. 

Thank God for Kierkegaard.

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”

SOREN KIERKEGAARD, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

When I internalize these words, then I can accept my new house-guests and the tears and disbelief they bring with them. I can recognize that these guests come with all the others: pleasure, achievement, joy, hopefulness, and gratitude.  I can recognize that there is truly no way around these seasons and that really, I would not want to miss them. Perhaps I can allow myself to settle deep into enjoyment of all that is in this moment: the morning glories that are finally blooming, the time spent eating dinner with new friends on the porch, the excitement of a young person’s latest success, the delight in a friend’s soon-to-be born grandchild, the pleasure of a long walk and friends’ good company.  I can cry the tears when I have to, allow myself to spend a few moments on what if, and then get back to the business of this, sometimes parched, sometimes painful, always complicated, capacious, and wonderful life. 



Soon I’ll leave for a brief trip back to Texas. I go most every month to see my father. Because I go so often now, the reality is I see friends from childhood more often than I see my friends here in Chapel Hill. This trip will be particularly festive since I’ll make a brief stop at my college alma mater for an evening with buddies from those days kind enough to make time for me.  I am grateful for these friendships that have lasted a lifetime and mournful that everyday life crowds out the time for friends in my own proverbial backyard.

For those of you who’ve not followed it, I highly recommend the Dear Sugars podcast. The podcast is over but the archives are available for free download.  You won’t regret any 20 minute interval you devote to listening to these two friends reflect on the complications their letter-writers describe. In one series of episodes, they describe the ways in which friendship is different most other relationships. In others, there are external forces that promote hanging-in-there when, however occasionally, frustration, anger, boredom, or any other negativity that finds a way in. With family, in addition to love, memories, and commitment, we are bound by law, blood, finances, and the rest of it. Webs deliberately hard to escape – a situation that gives us time to regain our appreciation for those we love and are committed to when our better angels get lost.  Likewise, at work, our employment may depend on being able to make relationships work with individuals we might otherwise run from. But friendship, whether we find it in the office, with our partners, in a high school class, a college dorm, or the neighbor next door, happens because we choose it.  Again and again, today and tomorrow, until we can’t or because we decide we won’t. In friendship we choose and are chosen even as we gradually, or sometimes all at once, allow those we call friends to know the good and the bad of all that we are.

Almost a month ago now, I received news that someone not quite a friend, but who ran in the circles I did in college had suddenly and inexplicably lost her beautiful, apparently healthy daughter. I have looked repeatedly at the posted picture, a picture so lovely and filled with hope that it seems impossible such a young woman could ever die. It is friends that are walking with this mother through this terrible valley. She has yet to stay alone or cook a meal. Her friends are listening to the stories, embracing her sobs, and holding her up as her feet struggle to find solid ground. And they are doing that because they choose to; there is nothing forcing them, no obligation, only the choice of friendship.

That beautiful picture of that beautiful girl that I never knew keeps reminding me that our life goes by so quickly and we are all so busy and it can all be taken away in a twinkling. But for this moment, I give thanks and praise for friends old and new, those I talk to every week, every month, and those I see once every few years. You know who you are.



Current Events Miscellaneous

San Francisco


Just back after four days in San Francisco, a city I don’t know well but that has captivated my imagination since I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series in my 20s. For the most part, I spent my time this visit doing pretty standard work conference activities. But the last night, a colleague cum friend sent a text inviting me to join her and her husband at a Market Street wine bar.  After a longer-than-expected walk, I arrived to a quiet scene.  My friends were there along with two gender bending, male-identified men behind the bar and two women, apparently a couple, sharing quiet conversation.

We were enjoying appetizers and a bottle of wine when my colleague’s husband burst into song with a falsetto that let me know this was going to be no ordinary night.  The three of us are in our 50’s and the songs of our youth were topping the playlist. As my colleague and I talked shop, her husband kept singing and befriended the couple to his left.  Soon enough we put away our workplace concerns and let the impulse to sing and dance take over.  At first, it was the three of us.  One of the bartenders began to act as DJ, taking requests. First Journey, Queen, Pat Benetar, then Bye Bye Miss American Pie, The Cars, more Journey….music that took me back. Another colleague arrived and joined the fun. Eventually, one member of the unknown couple decided to dance with us, and with some trepidation her reluctant partner joined in.  Soon enough the bar tenders were strutting their stuff and we jumped into a joyous, raucous-for-me, evening. I’ve been basking in the glow of the laughter and camaraderie ever since.

But there was so much more to that evening than a spontaneous dance party in a far away city.  Our evening stood in contrast to the news story that had broken that afternoon in which a group of boys from a Catholic school in full MAGA gear appeared to taunt and disrespect a Native American elder at a protest in Washington D.C. What actually happened is now the subject of debate and I’ve not followed every nuance. But our current national life is so filled with stories of open prejudice and hatred that the complexity of this situation hardly matters. We hear similar things almost weekly, incidents that are either ignored or celebrated by our leaders.

Indeed at one point in the night, in the midst of the dancing and laughter, one of the women we met began to cry. A Latinx lesbian woman who valued her Catholic faith even though many who share it would reject her, she was dismayed by the boys’ behavior.  (For the record, many claiming Christ would reject this woman. Her Catholic Church is not alone its exclusion.) For her, because the boys were Catholic she hoped that they would choose to represent a message of Christian love. When we saw her sit down and her tears begin, we dropped to our knees in front of her and joined hands forming a circle to share and acknowledge her sorrow. What a gift to share our collective grief  with this stranger-friend for a moment.

The tears passed and we kept dancing, singing, and laughing. Two very young couples joined the mix, and soon thereafter it was time to call it a night. As we said good-bye, one of the bar tenders explained it was his first night on the job and said we had made it great for him. But really we all made it great for each other. For one evening, by tacit agreement, we all remembered what it was like to be young and open to new people and experiences. We agreed to let our stereotypes drop, stereotypes about how 50 plus straight people, and 40 plus lesbian people, and 30-ish gender bending people are “supposed to” act and relate. Those stereotypes would have kept us in our corners, no spontaneous falsetto, no singing, no dancing, no understanding, no joyful connection. For a moment, as the song goes, we belonged to the light, we belonged to each other, and we belonged together.


Family Miscellaneous

When we’ve opened a vein…

In the end, my mother died of hypovolemic shock. This means that during the 48 or so hours between when we decided to stop treatment and when she died, the blood drained from her body. With nothing to deliver oxygen to her organs they stopped working. I watched as she became paler, weaker, turned inward, and then took leave. Little did I know that, even then, she was teaching me a lesson I would need very soon.

Her death this summer was not the only trial our family suffered. And while difficult, her death and my grief feels natural and bittersweet, shot through with grace and extraordinary kindness . The experience of her funeral was one of the most beautiful days of my life. People came to be with me when I needed it most. My oldest friend from childhood and her mother were waiting when we arrived at the funeral home. It was the most comforting site I’ve ever seen. My childhood minister’s successor and his wife, spent hours helping my father and me talk about my complex, beautiful, difficult mother. Teachers and friends from high school, friends of my parents, my father’s colleagues, people I’d not seen in years came together in support. There were repeated daily phone calls from friends who could not be physically present. The invisible web we create over time became visible and held me up. My husband, always a prince among men, out did himself in his tenderness. My children learned what it means to say goodbye in the best way, why the life of the spirit is important, and how to honor someone when life is through. Watching their maturity and grace that day was the greatest gift I have received as a mother.

But sadly, another death followed my mother’s “good death” and chaos came with it. One person was literally on life support and someone else was figuratively there. As I’ve thought of all that unfolded , the phrase “opening a vein” came to mind. But, in current parlance, “to open a vein” indicates that you no longer find whatever you are experiencing worth your time and you want to open a vein to escape. That is not what I mean.  Fredrick Buechner uses the phrase to describe a writer pouring their experience into a reader. This definition hits closer to my own:  lending life to someone deeply and dangerously suffering. Such an outpouring is sometimes necessary and always perilous. The blood supply, whether literal or figurative, can be depleted much faster than the body can replenish it. When you “open a vein” for another, you risk your life to save theirs. In my case, others stepped in just as I was approaching the emotional doppelganger of hypovolemic shock. Patience, empathy, and compassion –  the vital organs of the spirit – were on the brink of shutting down. The subsequent tiredness that enveloped me is like nothing I’ve ever known. Yet, I would “open that vein” again and do not believe that I should receive particular sympathy or accolade for what I did. None of us know when we will find ourselves battered and bleeding on our own Jericho road. There but for the grace of God…

Soon it will be time to fully return to the world of the living. But I know I have to replenish. Just for awhile, I am giving myself what I want as often as I can. And what I want is quiet. To sit on the screen porch listening to the natural world, to drink coffee, to walk with my dog as the leaves begin to fall, to survey the profusely blooming morning glories that I planted just before all of this started. I want to be with the truth-tellers, the mystics, those who are gracious, nurturing, joyful, compassionate, funny, and sincere. Those qualities in others feed the spirit and will call me back to who I am at my best. So for right now, don’t count on me to engage in every fight, solve problems, or right wrongs.  The blood supply is coming back up and I am feeling stronger each day. But the porch is open and I welcome good company.


Pandora and that Box

Somewhat paradoxically, social media keeps me from living in echo chambers in which the only people I engage with are people that think pretty much like I do. Through these platforms, I’ve learned about news sources I’d never heard of, seen views expressed that shock and surprise me, and I’m sure have expressed views that might shock and surprise others. So I was worried about the election until just before when I became completely convinced that HRC would be elected as our first woman president. And I was excited. She has 30 plus years in public service, has worked for kids and families her whole career, and has raised a family while doing demanding work outside of the home. I guess, although I’m not nearly as accomplished as she, I identified with her. And her loss, accordingly, has felt very personal.

At first, my immediate concern was my children, how to keep them from getting mired in cynicism, fear, and negativity. That effort kept me distanced from my own emotions for a day or so. And then the news reports and personal anecdotes began. The KKK will have a victory celebration for the president elect in North Carolina. A friend witnessed a pick up truck full of young men at a gas station harassing a young woman – telling her they were going to “grab her by the p___y,“ quoting the president elect. A former student described a note left on a neighbor’s door signed “Trump Train” telling a gay couple they were “sick” and should “get out” of the neighborhood. The couple has lived there for years.

My colleagues who I work with on behalf of new immigrant kids and families are getting desperate calls from students in local community colleges most of whom are participants in the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program seeking information and support, some feeling suicidal, and some acting on those feelings. These incidents are not in some far away place. They are not third hand reports. They are happening to people I know in my community. I am heartsick.

Likewise, old friends who I rarely see but who have meant a lot to me at different times in my life feel targeted for their political choices, labeled bigots, etc. Most of the people I know that voted for Trump or a third party candidate are not bigots. They may not be well-versed in power and privilege. But they do not want to persecute others based on race, creed, or sexuality. They voted their financial interests. Or they are deeply anti-abortion. Or they have hated the Clintons for decades and could not move beyond that. I also doubt they think there will be steel mills again in Ohio or textile manufacturing in North Carolina given a Trump presidency. They voted based on one or two issues personally important to them and they are angry that they are being labeled. As I read their posts, silence seems to be the best option but also a betrayal of my own principles and of those people made so vulnerable by the outcome of this election.

This is the state in which we find ourselves when a candidate makes a deal with the devil like Donald Trump has made. Perhaps his ultimate goal is to support business interests in ways that democrats disagree with. Given that he’s never governed we have no idea what he real motives are. Like past conservative nominees he has used social issues like abortion to stir up his base. As the LA Times reported this week, the chances of the Supreme Court reversing itself on Roe v. Wade are quite slim no matter who is president. But, the great departure, that threatens the reputations of many that voted for him, is his deliberate, undisguised, and consistent appeal to race-baiting combined with disdain for women, people with disabilities, among many others. A friend working the polls in a small town in North Carolina affirmed this and described people coming to the polls saying, “I haven’t voted in years. But I’m coming out to vote for Trump. He says what I think.”

Some thoughts are best left unspoken. Now that they’ve been spoken by an elected leader, Pandora’s box has flown open and the poisonous special sauce that got Trump elected has spilled onto everyone who has helped him along the way. Do I blame my Trump-supporting friends for the KKK rallies, for children being harassed in school because of their religion or skin color, for women being told in Starbucks, “Smile honey. We beat the c_ _t.?” How do I answer such a question? I am furious with them and I love them still.

The election is over. A choice has been made which can’t be undone at least for four years. But we can unify around a message to the new president and send it clearly whether we supported him or did not. This demon that makes neighbors into hated “others” has no place in American democracy. Job one for him is to use his bully pulpit to put that demon back in the box and throw away the key. It is his first test as president and we cannot wait until January for him to undertake it.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum
Epimetheus opening Pandora’s Box.
Giulio Bonasone (Italian, active Rome and Bologna, 1531–after 1576)


Calling Out

Not surprisingly an immigrant family is calling us back to the truth of the American experiment, to E Pluribus Unum, from many, one. Perhaps immigrant families understand best because they’ve often lived without opportunity or liberty and can recognize threats to which those of us not recently immigrated, are blind.

Also unsurprisingly, the military features in this call. The military as a social institution has long brought people from all backgrounds and social strata together for common purpose – not perfectly, not easily, but steadfastly nonetheless. My father fought in World War 2 and several years ago, after a lifetime of silence, he told me the stories of his service in the Pacific. The story began with this vignette. From his home on a farm in Missouri, he was sent to mid-shipman’s school in New York City. There, for six months, he trained to be a Navy navigator with other young men from across the country. He recounted being invited to the home of a classmate who lived in Brooklyn in an Italian-Catholic family. At that point, my father had never been to a Catholic church or known a person of Italian descent. His life would take him many places but it is that cross-cultural moment that he has remembered all of his long life. He spoke of how welcoming the family was, the delicious, traditional Italian meal, how good it felt be in someone’s home, and how much the kindness extended to him meant. It was a small moment in a momentous time that speaks volumes.

Mrs. Kahn writing of her son in the Washington Post, described a young man about the same age as my father when he went to war. Like many before him, her son wanted to do his duty and serve his country. Hear that again: his country, his chosen country. He made that choice with other young people from all walks of life. Surely there were many soldiers he fought beside who did not share his ethnic and religious heritage. Yet, they worked together, earning each other’s respect and loyalty. That common purpose and willingness to embrace difference is the core of the American experiment. The choice for president has become a referendum on that experiment. Can we still be out of many, one?

We dishonor all those who have defended this nation when we degrade those among us who are labeled “outsiders” because of their skin color, their religion, their traditions, or their heritage. The Kahns have called out to us in powerful voice and with great love, to stand up and be counted. If America is exceptional, it is because we are one out of many. To be one out of many means to disagree, to compromise, to let the majority rule, to speak out, and to listen to many voices. It is to see common humanity in those that our sons and daughters fight beside and, indeed, even against. At a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, our tour guide told us that the commanding officer on the good ship Missouri required a military burial for a kamikaze pilot who had crashed into the ship threatening all on board. That commander told his troops that, although the dead pilot was their enemy, like them he was doing a job his country had asked him to do and deserved a dignified burial. Leadership that calls each of us to do our best by our fellows not our worst is what we must seek, leadership that calls us back from the current abyss to be one out of many.

photo credit: ABC News