Reflections

Sometime last month, as the weather started warming up and the days began to get longer, I realized that I was breathing deeper, feeling hopeful, and closer to “normal” than I had in a long while. It made me aware of just how tense I had been this past year: shoulders tight, jaw tight, brow furrowed. All the time.

Like many of you, I have spent much of the last year tight with fear and anxiety, worrying about how to keep my loved ones safe, how to help the kids get through this, how to create positive memories in the midst of it all, how to practice gratitude, how to try and support those who need help and those who are working to make things better, how to be a friend without the luxury of shared time and space, how to prioritize, self-care, and keep connections.

My friend Nancy Hightower is a college professor and writer living in New York City. She spent much of the last year of quarantine alone in a city that is well-known for bringing people together.

Nancy, like many people, moved to NYC to be with people. What happens when all those New Yorkers, who usually breathe life into the public spaces that are the nervous systems of that vibrant city, are forced to disengage and isolate themselves?

Nancy would mask up and go on walks every day in her neighborhood, and she started taking photographs of what she encountered.

Nancy reflected in a mirror with trash on the streets of NYC.
Nancy reflected, from her Patreon post, “The Shadow Pandemic.”

What Nancy photographed over the last year is the subject of her Patreon (and for those who don’t know what that is, Patreon is a crowdfunding platform that enables supporters/patrons to pay and support artists for their work). She shared a lot of her photos with me over the changing seasons, and they were rich food for my imagination. I think it’s a similar reason that so many people took refuge in Animal Crossing, Instagram, and TikTok. We needed windows into worlds outside our own.

Nancy’s photos capture relics of this moment; they are tiny portals into people’s lives left on doorsteps and balanced on mailboxes, draped over fences and hung from lamp posts. It was as if New Yorkers, forced into their apartments and unable to inhabit their museums, cafes, restaurants, galleries, bars, and parks, started leaking bits of their lives and themselves onto the streets. Here was a cookie jar beside a pair of vintage cowboy boots filled with plastic flowers, there was a lamp and a typewriter and a bag of rice. Sometimes it felt like poetry, other times like an art installation, or a Rorschach test for the state of mind of a city mourning and struggling.

Nancy has started sharing those photos with accompanying essays on her Patreon. The most recent one about how we have been changed by the pandemic struck a chord with me, and I wanted to share it. She’s made it public, so you can follow the link to see all the photos. You can join her Patreon if you’d like to read/see more.

Nancy writes: “This Spring you might find yourself being simultaneously hopeful and exhausted. You might not know who you are anymore–alone, or with other people. I’ve had sporadic dinners with pod friends over the past year, but nothing close to real, sustainable community, no touch longer than quick hug. I wonder what I’ll look like by the time I can be in a group, maskless and yet changed, a time traveler finally trapped by time.”

We have all been changed by the events of the past year, for better and for worse—as a nation, as cities, as neighborhoods, families, and individuals. We won’t be able to see just how far those changes go for a a while, but I think they will go deep.

Pandemic self-portrait post-vaccination.

We are still in a pandemic. The numbers are rising even as more people are getting vaccinated. There is hope, but there is also a need to remain disciplined. I feel like when I look into the mirror, I’m more than a year older. I think about my grandparents and their parents before them, who lived through war and famine and so much death and sacrifice. They were changed by those events too. Some of them shared their stories, and I am grateful.

It’s going to be important to remember, to document this time, to share our stories, to listen to one another when we finally come together, to really see ourselves and our neighbors  as we emerge from this—inevitably changed.

We Are Still Here

I have not blogged in six months. I have not really posted anything on social media in all that time. I try to respond to messages and keep up with news, but I’ve fallen behind with most things.

Like many of you, I suspect, my orbit has been small in these strange times. Daily life has been revolving around the day job and the kids, managing risk from the virus while trying to serve as a support system.

Writing has taken a backseat to most things, and other relationships have not been given much attention at all—not for lack of caring, but for lack of energy and hours. And self-care? Self-care is not something I’m good at. I come from a line of self-sacrificing nurturers who don’t really do boundaries. Nothing like a pandemic to hold up a mirror.

Stephen has been a good partner through it all, and Mark has been a good co-parent. Ever since I had kids, I keep coming back to that adage, “It takes a village.” It really does. I am grateful for our little village. It has taken our team of three adults to parent our three teenagers in this pandemic. Each kid has unique academic, social, and emotional challenges exacerbated by remote learning and quarantine.

There are highlights: We have a lot of animated dinner conversations. They are often the high point of my day. We pay close attention to the spectacular sunsets outside our windows. Maya has applied to colleges for next year and has already been accepted to several. Liam is making beautiful music and came in second for Student Council president in his high school election. Lana creates rainbow sculptures that dot our house, and she is my steadfast kitchen helper. They don’t like remote learning. They miss their friends. They are worried about the future. Their emotions are all over the place. They are doing the best they can.

I have heard versions of this from other parents and caregivers, or from teachers  dealing with students. The kids living in this time are not really ok. The people who are trying to help them are not really ok.  None of us are really ok.

Yet as a society, we are not good at talking about mental health or the role of it during this pandemic. People are being asked to perform as close to “normal” as possible when so little about this is normal, especially for the children and teenagers.

So we do our best, and then we often feel woefully inadequate at the end of the day.

It’s a lot. For all of us.

The caregivers trying to fill other people’s “buckets” are drained. Those confined with (and grateful for) family and friends crave a little time and space for themselves. Those who are alone are starved for contact and touch (even the introverts).

There’s a song by Florence and the Machine that keeps running through my head. The refrain is: “We all have a hunger.”

Yep.

So many needs not being met. So many people hungry.

And tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. In a pandemic. In a country raw from disparity, unrest, and resistance.

Am I grateful? Every day. Does that mean that everything is ok? Nope. Our world is not ok. Is there hope? I think so. Are there moments of grace and joy and profound beauty in the middle of it all? Absolutely. Thank goodness. Is it easy to lose sight of that sometimes? Also yes. Is there a lot of work to be done to make things better for the future? Again, absolutely.

I wanted to write something today because people have sent messages recently asking me if I’m ok, concerned that they haven’t heard from me in a long time.

It’s mostly been that thing where you have five minutes free, and you want to call a friend or write a message, but you know that five minutes is just not enough time and there’s just so much to catch up on, but nothing at all so urgent or monumental.

How do you fit an honest response into five minutes, especially if brevity is not your strong point? (And if you know me, you know that brevity is NOT my strong point.) 😉

So instead of saying, “I’m fine,” or “I’m ok,” I tend to get quiet when there’s too much to say and not enough time. I’m sorry.

This time, I wrote this. Hopefully the next post will be sooner than six months.

I am looking forward to cooking dinner for tomorrow, but I am going to miss all our family who would usually gather together. I wish we could all be with the people we love. I look forward to the time when that’s possible.

Sending love and all the hugs.

The Taste of Something Sweet: A Small Ritual of Gratitude

As someone whose birthday falls ten days before Valentine’s Day, there were always a lot of red and pink decorations around the stores for my mother to draw inspiration from when decorating for my birthday; and I loved the lacy decorations, the red balloons, the hearts and roses. I still do. They are pretty and passionate and powerful and provocative, and I adore them, especially vintage cards and decorations and handmade tokens of love.

St. Valentine’s Day is also my “Name Day,” the feast day of the saint whose name I share. This is a tradition celebrated by many Ukrainians, and it can be tied to the feast day or birthday of various saints or martyrs. Valya is derived from Valentine, and I always felt a special connection to the saint whose mission was enabling and celebrating love.

I write many different things: some of them are grounded in the real world while others go to mythic places, some of them grapple with the darkness, many of them celebrate beauty. No matter what I am writing, I am a poet at heart and a Romantic. My writing tends to be sensual and descriptive, emotional and wonder-filled. I very much think in scenes and symbols.

Symbols are powerful because they give shape to ideas and emotions. They help us to imagine the possibilities, to manifest what we need by allowing us to visualize with intention. That is so much of what “magic” is—visualizing with intention. And as far as intention, we could definitely use more love in this world.

Viktor E. Frankl, whom I’ve written about before, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

I know people dislike or have a love-hate relationship with this holiday. I understand that it’s complicated and muddied by the messages of the media, by toxic relationships we have lived through, by our personal struggles, and by systems put in place that have done irrevocable harm. There’s a lot there, and it’s important, and we certainly do not need to be told on this day, or any day, what love is or should be or how it should be celebrated.

I do think we all need love, however, and I choose to honor this day in that spirit, to see it as a day that remembers and celebrates the kind of love and optimism that Mr. Rogers talked about. For me, the way that he walked through this world with love and kindness embodies the heart of Valentine’s Day:

Deep within us—no matter who we are—there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.  

From The World According To Mister Rogers

and

Love is like infinity: You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re ‘equally infinite.’ Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too.

FromThe World According To Mister Rogers

Some years this holiday has been happy or sad depending on what was going on in my life and in the world. There have been holidays hectic with kid-related activities, or deadlines and responsibilities that ate up all the time, or emotional heartaches and losses that left little room for optimism.

However, there is one thing I have always tried to do on Valentine’s Day, ever since my parents gave me a small heart-shaped box of chocolates when I was a girl. That Valentine’s Day so long ago, it was the only gift a lonely, disappointed, romantic girl received; and after I got over the feeling of being sad, I took the time to eat one of the chocolates, and it tasted like love.

Ever since then, this is my small, private ritual. On Valentine’s Day, I take a few minutes to savor the taste of something sweet on my tongue (preferably a piece of nice chocolate, but sometimes it’s been a sugar cube or a spoon of honey), and as it melts, I close my eyes and remember the feeling of love: of being loved, of loving wholeheartedly. Because love is a gift, and I am so very grateful. Thank you.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

(If you’d like to read more about the history, lore, recipes, and rituals associated with Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to check out this three-part article written by my friend, Katelan Foisy. Click here for more!)

Valentine by Katelan Foisy. You can buy them digitally on her website: https://www.katelanfoisy.com/market