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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Recollecting Impermanence

Hello, Readers. Since last I wrote, the beloved pooch has died. This is terribly sad, and I notice his absence everywhere, for example when I wake up and no longer have to step over a large, sleeping dog. Or when I peel a carrot, and I realize he is not waiting patiently on the doormat for me to toss him the ends. It’s sad and we are all grieving, and yet it was inevitable that we would outlive him, barring unforseen circumstances.To avoid this situation, I would have had to adopt a tortoise, I suppose, but they’re not much good for midday walks. 



Impermanence has, therefore, been on my mind. The truth of impermanence is one of those truths to which we pay lip service. We know life is short, and that change is the only certainty in life, but we usually only know it theoretically, or intellectually, not in a bone-deep way. Yet knowing the deep truth of impermanence is key to appreciating what’s happening right now. Understanding impermanence is the doorway to wisdom, so they say. They, in this case, being Buddhist teachers. 

Buddhist philosophy feels impermanence is so important that everyone, layperson or monk, should contemplate it daily in the form of the five daily remembrances. They are as follows:

  1. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to experience illness. I cannot avoid sickness
  2. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot avoid aging. 
  3. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death. 
  4. I am the owner of and heir to all my actions. 
  5. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
Those last two are listed in different order, depending on the translation.

—Upajjhatthana Sutta 


I’m not going to lie, these seem like a bummer. Number five is really hard to take, these days. I lost an earring down the bathroom sink the other day. I swear that thing committed harakiri, because otherwise there is no explanation. Unless it is that my ear holes have stretched and sagged along with everything else on my person? But I mean maybe the earring disappeared to get me to pay attention to the blog post I’ve delayed writing for days. Was this not karma showing me the truth of this contemplation? Really, it’s very sad, this truth. In the way I understand the practice, by facing this idea daily, I am to become less grasping after stasis and more accepting of the true nature of life, that it is transitory, from the briefest mental image or thought, from the strongest emotion to the longest life. Once I accept this, I suppose, I am free from a layer of sadness and anxiety about the inevitable changes, and this extra space allows me to appreciate what is before me more fully than I do when I am worried about something or someone slipping away. Earring. Dog. Daughters. Life. 

I may be a little tender on this reflection, considering the dog, considering that we’ve just dropped the younger daughter at college for the first time. The elder daughter will soon decamp from our comfortable pandemic bubble for a job in Boston. My sister the psychoanalyst is one year older today, which means I am, too. And none of your “she’s only one day older than she was yesterday” folderol. Sometimes the milestones hit you. 



Here’s a secret. I’ve found that when I contemplate these five remembrances, I feel a bit of relief. It’s just the teensiest bit of relief, more of a minute relaxation deep in my gut. I think it has to do with letting go of some of the struggle to collect and keep everyone and everything dear near. I think it has to do with releasing some shame around aging, illness, death, responsibility, and loss. I think there is shame around these things sometimes. We feel that if we experience them, it is our fault for not managing well enough in the world. We didn’t exercise enough, or eat the right food in the right amounts. We didn’t appreciate the gravity of our choices at the time and could have chosen better. Maybe you don’t feel that way, Readers. If so, I am glad for you. For me, I have found it so. Which means, that counterintuitive as it seems for me, these recollections do help me be more comfortable. 

I was informed that my earring, a thing I hold dear, was most likely retrievable from the trap under the bathroom sink. I marshaled my resources to figure that out—by which I mean I texted the husband, who said he would do it when he got home from work.

The husband did indeed find my earring. So what does that mean? It means that sometimes things from which we are separated come back to us. As Sting told us, back in the early 1980s, “If you love something, set it free, free, free.”

Sting’s lyric doesn’t exactly apply to losing an earring. It might apply, however, to letting your child leave for college, and your other no-longer-a-child child leave for a new phase of life as a college graduate working for peanuts and trying to make the world a bit better. By "letting your child" I don't suggest I have any choice in these things. The letting is internal.

However, because of the covid, the new college student will indeed be coming back to us. Her college is only allowing the first years one semester on campus. The rest of the academic year will be remote learning, so that the older students can have a semester there. Oy. Such is the ever-changing nature of things. 

Meanwhile, Readers, I started full time graduate school for social work this week. At the ripe old age of one thousand and ten, I am returning to school for a master’s degree, with a plan to become a therapist. I don’t know if this is wisdom or foolishness, embracing of life, or denial of time passing. Nevertheless, I go forward. I cannot escape illness, death, or aging. I cannot avoid responsibility for my choices or letting go of all I love. Okay. So be it. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Success in Stasis: Dealing with the Doldrums

I was working my way towards something inspirational and success-related for you, Readers, but then the doggo was sick all night, and I got no sleep. So it seems like a time to remind myself and you that sometimes success is simply hanging on. Progress is not always an option. Sometimes there’s stasis. Sometimes there’s downward plunging. Sometimes there’s circling the drain. What’s that word for when you’re sailing and the wind dies? I would probably remember it if I weren’t so tired. Oh yeah, the doldrums. Sometimes it’s the doldrums. Don’t have a lot of control over that. Sometimes the wind just dies. Meaning you’re sailing along and heading somewhere, the wind ruffling your hair, and you’re feeling all windblown and healthy and looking towards the horizon. Sometimes, though, there’s no breeze, just nothing and humidity and your hair is frizzy and stuck to your cheeks and you’re suddenly hyper aware of your damp bathing suit and how unpleasant it feels. Of course, you are also gripped by the anxiety that this state will never change, that you’ll be bobbing along in the current with no control over the sails ever again. This anxiety that the doldrums will last forever is called catastrophizing, and it comes with the territory. It is, by the way, never helpful. 




Why the sailing metaphor, you may well ask. Well, before the doldrums hit, aka, the dog having a terrible night, I was enjoying my weekend thoroughly, sitting on a warm rock and dangling my feet into a lake, watching a sailboat race of little sunfish sailboats. It was a truly lovely time, involving lovely sailboats moving in the breeze, despite many sad things going on in the world and within my circle of influence. Today, though, I am just trying to get through the day. It helps to remember that just a day ago, the mood was much better, because the next step is a plunge into catastrophizing, which I just told you is never helpful, despite being a regular occurrence. 

Eventually, the wind will shift because you’ve drifted along in the current just enough to get to a slightly different place. Then you’ll be able to fill your sails and start moving again. Until then, well, you are stuck with where and who you are, so you might as well accept that. Self-acceptance. Acknowledging what is right now, and acknowledging that what is right now is not what will be forever. Radical self-acceptance. That might just be the very thing that gets the wind moving again. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Annals of Pandemic Life: What is Success When the World is Full of Suffering?

Readers, my eye has been twitching for days. Lower lid twitch. It’s a minor annoyance. I think my eyes are tired of everything they’re seeing. Plague, protests. Racism, authoritarianism, cynicism, pessimism. Climate change. The paterfamilias is suffering from frailty and isolation. The doggo needs surgery for a fast spreading cancer and yes, he is going to get it, but will it be in time? It was damn hard to get an appointment for him, because the surgeon veterinarians are all booked up, now that they’ve reopened. My circle of concern is on fire, and my circle of influence seems about the size of a pinprick.

What does success mean when the world is full of suffering? What does it mean to be successful in a world like ours? Can there be any success when so many people have no chance for it? There are moments when continuing to address the single-focused need to self-actualize seems too small.

“How do you want to be changed?” Gil Fronsdal asks in his dharma talk about the protests in response to the murder by police of George Floyd.

How do I want to be changed? Essentially. That’s how. I want to operate from that place, and I want to make things better for Black people. That will make things better for all people. So helping to eliminate racism is key.

How does that relate to success? Well, the scrabble after accumulating material goods and money that so often defines success seems to be accentuated by the recognition that the world is so much about about haves and have nots. In other words, the drive for material success is powered by fear of becoming a have-not. So helping eliminate the have-nots is one key. By “eliminate”, I do not mean genocide. People, do not quote me out of context! I mean eliminate the have-nots by eliminating their state of want. If the worst-off in society had basic needs met, had health care, had housing, had education, had food and clothing and community, then the fear would abate, and the scramble for accumulating maximum resources would abate, too. And the racism would abate, too. Or so it seems to me.


So what do I do when my circle of concern is ever-expanding and my circle of influence seems like a pinhead? Well, a pinhead can be just enough space. This reminds me of the cute townie boy I used to chat with in the second hand store in Oxford, my junior year abroad. I could tell he was half-annoyed by me, because I was a privileged gownie, but also half interested in me because I was, well, cute and American. Anyway, I digress. The point is that one time he told me that Oxford had many elements. “It’s the whole world on the head of a pin,” he said. He was really cute. Did I mention that? I don’t know how broadly he had traveled, but nevermind. He meant I should look beyond the spires of the university. There were layers and problems right there. So it may be small, a circle of influence the size of a pinhead, but it’s still a circle of influence.

So, what can I do? Well, turn to the teachers, of course, because teachers are focused on creating the next generation. And before we say what my graduates have been hearing, over and over, that they are the future and our hope, that they have to fix the mess they’re inheriting, let’s realize what the husband said the other night: We don’t have to hand it all over to them and wait for them to fix things. We can fix things right now.

Some of the teachers at the high school posted videos for the seniors with their two cents. Since I don’t have any cents to pass on these days, I am once again and always beholden to the amazing, dedicated educators who have taught my children. Teaching is a truly noble profession, and teachers have really stepped up during the pandemic.

From beloved math teacher, Mrs. Mahmood., came her famous, or infamous, acronym “RODH to success”. To succeed, she said, you need to focus on the following four values: Responsibility; Organization; Discipline; and Honesty. These are solid traits to develop, for sure. I think what she said by way of greeting, however, is equally important, and chosen with intent. “To the loving, caring, cute class of 2020” she began, and I couldn’t help notice those values either. She teaches  Calculus and Math 3/Linear Algebra, so focusing on achievement might be what you would assume is most important to her. However, she focuses on character, and on love and caring. I think that’s telling.

R Responsibility
O Organization
D Discipline
H Honesty

Bear witness.
Protest racism.
Make phone calls to the veterinarian.
Make phone calls to the paterfamilias and to my sister the psychoanalyst.
Bear witness. It’s a choice, bearing witness. The other option is to distract myself or turn away. So, yeah. Bear witness.
Argue for fairer policy and law. Educate myself (more bearing witness).
And of course, vote.
Thank you, Mrs. Mahmood.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Annals of Pandemic Life: Journaling Through

Dear Readers,

Lacking a coherent idea, I am sharing some thoughts from the last few days. Sure, I could wait and try to distill this into something more polished, but I think that might take too long. Perhaps the theme is see-saw: up and down, good and bad, plus and minus, happy and sad.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Time for a blog post.
What I am thinking about.

Okay, so we all know by now that unless we are essential workers, who have to show up at their workplaces as usual, or teachers, who are expected to teach all day via the interwebs, we have time now to think about Things. We have time to spend with our families, or perhaps with ourselves, with only our image in the mirror for company. I have been taking advantage of this opportunity, Readers, to really notice things.

For example, one of the things I have noticed is that one of my ears is lower than the other one.

Is this deep and important? Well, it is to me. I mean, what the heck? You know how they say if you have a very asymmetrical face, the asymmetry is indicative of some kind of twisted evil inside you? Well, does that apply to ear level?

I’m serious. After five-plus decades of life, is my inner evil, twisted landscape finally manifesting in some asymmetry that’s going to become more and more obvious as the next decades (God willing) go by?

Such are the thoughts of which isolation is made.

Friday, May 15, 2020

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.  Toni Morrison.

My friend, writer Catherine Goldhammer, posted that quotation on her Facebook page and it was the perfect thing to read. The words pierced through the haze, the scrim, the plaque on the teeth of daily life that I seem to be encountering. Of course, the next thought I had was a little slonk on my virtual kneecaps*: What you write, a blog? That ain’t art. That ain’t books. Not literature. That’s nothing. You’re not an artist. Not an artist-artist.

Setting aside the question of what makes an artist, I responded to that quotation because I did recognize myself in it. Artists examining the world and trying to make sense of it is an aspect of what I do, even in my lowly blog. One may recognize that one is engaged in Important Work, even if one is not engaged in the Most Important Work.

There is art to that, Readers.

That said, what can I tell you? It’s Friday, and every time Friday whips around, I can’t believe it means another week has gone by in Coronavirus isolation. It seems so fast, even though during the other seven days, time seems to stretch and stretch, the days jumbled and somewhat indistinguisable. The husband still goes to work at the hospital, so in fact, our schedule still has weekends. I am thankful for that.

When this shut down began, I was dismayed that my guilty pleasure, the weekday morning talk show “Live With Kelly and Ryan”, was running old episodes. I didn’t want reruns. Reruns seemed so hopelessly outdated when everyone was talking about the new world order. I didn’t want to see the studio audience, when now I knew there was none. So I was relieved when, a few days later, Kelly and Ryan appeared via Skype to do the show live once again. The quality of the broadcast was about as good as it could be via video feed, and that was okay. It was a comfort to see Kelly and Ryan, one holed up in her (probably vast triplex) appartment in New York, the other in his (probably vast) house in Los Angeles. We need to see how others are coping. How others are carrying on right now. We need to remember that the mundane and the frivolous continue, even amid chaos.

Entertainment is essential work, too. We are all depending on the entertainment industrial complex to divert us from the coronacrisis.

*    *     *    *   

I put on a 95th birthday party for the paterfamilias on Zoom this week. Well, when I say “the paterfamilias” I mean the paterfamilias of my family of origin. The husband might take exception to the term if not applied to him in the family we created. Anyway, I was almost as stressed out by this event as if it were an in-person party. Wrangling Zoom boxes full of people who want to talk is a nightmare waiting to happen. Well, it happened. Thanks to the mute button and the stealth and tech savvy of the college senior and the high school senior, the event passed rather well. I had invited everyone to share a memory of the paterfamilias, and to decorate their Zoom rooms if they wished. People had balloons and party hats and banners. We all sang “Happy Birthday” in our little boxes. It was fun. And, not to overdo the silver lining blather, I will say this. If we had met in person, it would have been a bigger party, but some of the people who Zoomed in might not have been able to attend in person. Furthermore, at an in-person party, people would be clustered in their little groups, and it would be very unlikely that everyone there would have the time or ability to listen carefully to what each guest had to say about the guest of honor. So, yes, that was nice.

Monday, May 18, 2020


President Obama gave a televised address to high school seniors. Don’t ask me when, because the days are melting together. All I know is that he spoke, and we in this household listened. Some of us needed Kleenex. One of us, to be exact. Obama was brief, coherent, and inspiring.

Brief, coherent, inspiring. Let that sink in, if you will. National addresses of late have been none of those.

Anyway, his message was simple: do not be afraid of the future; do what you know is the right thing to do, even if it is not the easy choice; and build community.

It was a lot to ask, but it came out simple. Do not be afraid of the future. The United States has gone through terrible times before and has come out stronger. Despite all the bad that’s evident in the country right now, there is no doubt we are better off than before. Well, is that true? I think so. It’s better that all that awful stuff is out in the open. It’s disheartening to realize how much hatred and anger is all around, but if we don’t see it, we can’t address it. Even if it's not true that we are better off now than we were before, now is where we are. The future can be better. So, really, what is the point of fearing the future? We have to meet it, afraid or not, so it’s better to accept that and move forward without fear. That way it will be easier to see the next right thing to do.

*
I am trying to write a blog post and it’s hard. It’s hard to think of something to write when the most exciting thing we did this weekend was go to Target and then to our lawyer’s house to sign wills, powers of attorney, and health care proxies on her back deck.

It is true. That was the most exciting thing. I put on hard pants** and a belt and a blazer. Yes, I said blazer. It wasn’t a tweed blazer, it was made of denim. I also put on my very cute slides with bows that I got last spring. Very impractical shoes. Perfect for a ride in the car and quick run to Target and to walk around to the back of the lawyer’s house. The eighteen year old and the twenty-one year old had the same impulse to dress for the occasion, I might add. I am adding. Their versions of dressing were different from each other’s and from mine, but the effort was there. This reminds me of a phase through which the twenty-one-year old passed in high school. She and her friends would discuss how many “efforts” they put into their outfits that day. Clothes, hair, makeup, shoes were all part of the count. So for me, I would say, for this excursion I put in about five efforts. Out of ten, shall we say? The eighteen-year-old put on a skirt and some platform jelly shoes, and mascara. She did her hair. Eight efforts?

My shoes

The high school senior's shoes

We went to Target first. The husband and I went in. The other two, despite their efforts, “efforts”, stayed in the car, listening to music. I am not lying. They were being respectful of the Coronavirus guidelines. After that, we drove to the lawyer’s house, conducted our signing business on her back deck, wearing masks while she spoke to us through her screen door. Then we went home. The masks went in the laundry and the cute shoes scattered across the mudroom floor. Cooking dinner seemed exhausting, so we ordered pizza.


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The eighteen-year-old has baked the most delicious chocolate chip muffins. I think my muffin top would agree I don’t need to eat any of them. I should probably opt for enjoying their aroma, which is so wondrous it might just spirit the twenty-one-year-old out of her room. However, I have opted to also eat. Screw vicarious pleasure! So, here’s to muffins and to muffin-tops.

The part of me that meditates, the part that is propelling me towards becoming a therapist, is somewhat stymied by the part of me that is guarded, barbed, sarcastic, and self-conscious. There is a part of me that wants to get down to the truth in a mushy, serious, loving, helpful way, to be Glennon Doyle Meltonish in my sharing and encouraging of others. Or Brene Brownish. But there is this other part of me that just can’t let go. It’s because I feel embarrassed. Or maybe ashamed. Or unworthy. What would I say if I weren’t afraid or inhibited? I would say that this pandemic isolation period is a time to really connect and knit together down low, completely. Some of us are knitting together, stitching together over the top of a split. Knitting together is good, but knitting together from down low, where a split happened is much deeper and more thorough. This opportunity comes from a place of privilege, it’s a positive, it’s a golden opportunity, and it’s available to me and to mine because we are lucky not to have to risk our lives to earn a living. We are not, like one of my students, working full time at Trader Joe’s while trying to finish a full time semester of college because we’re the only person in our immediate family with a job. We are not like another of my students whose family situation has made attending virtual classes so challenging that now her grades are too low for her to receive her financial aid money for next semester. We are home, worrying about our muffin tops and our misaligned ears and enjoying, despite the anxiety and ennui and depression we sometimes feel, bonus time with our spouses and children.

Not gonna lie. There’s some bathos and some pathos to the situation. I felt it when I shut the door in the Target parking lot and left the kids in the car. All dressed up and nowhere to go. Zooming for a milestone like a 95th birthday instead of being there to share the same cake. However, there is some grace, too. It was wonderful to see my far-flung cousins and their partners on Zoom. It was heartening to remember that Barack Obama is out there in the world. It is heartening to remember the future will come, whether we fear it or no. It is heartening to know that my children and my friends’ children are graduating into that future, and they will remember how this time affected them, and they will shape things to make them better. It’s a lot to ask of them, but in my experience, it’s good to have things asked of you. We rise to expectations. All rise!

*      *      *        *

*”Slonk on the kneecaps” is a literary reference. That’s a lie. It’s a children’s literature reference. Twenty points to the person who knows what book I’m referencing.

** “Hard pants” are pants with a non-elastic waist. I just heard that term for the first time last week, but the college student already knew it.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Flattening the Pollyanna Curve--It's OKAY

Hello, Readers. What’s new? I know,  nothing much. Truly. Come to think of it, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say. Nothing is new. We are still here. Still safe. Still healthy. Yes, it’s tedious, but also, isn’t it just a joy? Isn't it just wonderful? Isn't it just the silverest of silver lingings?

Too much? Too zesty? Too Pollyanna? Have you ever seen the movie about Pollyanna? I believe it is called “Pollyanna”and stars Hayley Mills. Boy, is she annoying in the film. I don’t recall all the details, but by golly if she doesn’t make the best of just about everything. Every shitty thing that happens to her. Her leg breaks? Bummer, but she’s got lots of time to read, now! And so on.

You know the type.

The other day, I was Zooming with some friends and we all agreed that whatever initiative and enthusiasm with which we had initially approached this stay home business had dissipated.

Dare I say has flattened? The curve of initiative?

You know, after the initial disbelief that this was really happening, then being floored, we all decided we were going to learn Spanish or clean out our closets or finish up our projects in a frenzy. We were going to empty those junk drawers and learn to subsist entirely on almost-expired foods in our pantries and be better for it. We were going to darn those socks and hem those pants and write those novels. We were going to work out like demons and emerge from quarantine as sleek as dolphins.

Well, it turns it, many of us are not. We are just existing. Sure, my friend A is working her way through her unfinished projects, but honestly, she was project-based all along. Another acquaintance is planning to finish all her unfinished quilts and is posting photos of them on Instagram. So we shall see. I believe they are the exceptions. A few days of over-filled trash and recycling bins followed by several exhortations from sanitation workers not to overwhelm the trash collectors, because they were just trying to stay safe themselves, were enough to convince me. I heeded such pleas. I put aside the idea of going through the closet with all the old pool noodles—no, I do not have a pool—and Ogosports sans balls and ten year old sidewalk chalk nubbins.  It was only my civic duty to leave the mess where it is for now.
This junk stays


Stay inefficient. Flatten the curve. The Pollyanna curve.

What I have done instead is I’ve been downloading TV apps with their free trials, knowing full well I’m never going to remember to cancel them when the free part ends. Since then, I have churned through season one of “Agatha Raisin” on Acorn TV. Life in a beautiful town in the Cotswolds with an amateur detective woman of a certain age with humorous sidekicks is just the thing, it turns out, to defray an anxiety attack.

Actually, what with all the fabulous free meditations and dharma talks the senior Buddhist teachers are giving every day, I am feeling pretty good, anxiety-wise.

In other news, I have responded to all of my students’ emails, but have not graded a single essay. I’m thinking of just giving everyone an A and flattening another curve. Partly, because I think they’re all shell-shocked and should be put on a pass/fail basis this semester, but their college disagrees, and partly because, as someone rough from the Cotswolds might say, I can’t be arsed.

Truly, I cannot be arsed.

Oh, and in other news, I scraped my thumb. (It happened two days after I cut the tip of my index finger with the chef’s knife. That was just a teensy cut, and we were having a tomato sauce that night anyway.) But then I scraped my thumb and it was just in the exact place to keep opening up and bleeding for the next thirty hours or so (But who’s counting?) and I have to say, this little injury, which was really minor, pretty much brought me to tears constantly. Tears of rage. Tears of self-pity. My water table is just that high. I mean, sure, those niggling minor injuries always cause a burst of fury, and they often prove so much more painful than they should be. However, this one caused such an extra response from me. I chalk it up to having a very low threshold for upset these days.Or an over-active trigger point. These things take energy, too, you know. Flatten the curve of upset.

Speaking of chalk, chalk was one of the the things in that spare closet that I was going to chuck. Decade-old sidewalk chalk stubs. Who needs ‘em? However, am I glad I have them still, because I can go out and chalk the driveway with a big ole S. O. S., so maybe a Scandinavian airliner flying overhead can send down a rescue basket and whisk us off to a better-run country than ours.

Too negative? Sorry, I should have said we can use the chalk to chalk a big ole rainbow on the driveway when the weather warms up. Solidarity and all that.

I am glad my kids are older now. They can take care of themselves. They can bake, I probably mentioned. And sometimes they can walk the dog or empty the dishwasher. As I told my beloved cousin L, I wish I could be the quirky fun mom and come up with great reasons to hang around me and stick together during this, but what I really want to do is flop on the couch and watch another episode of "Agatha Raisin". Sometimes they sit with me and scroll through their phones at the same time. That counts as togetherness and fun activities, don't you think?

Which reminds me, here’s another thing I’ve been doing.  I have been eating lots of delicious, homemade goodies. So there’s a curve I won’t be flattening, and it’s on me.



Sometimes success is about knowing how to let go.

Yup, that’s about it for me, Readers. How’s things with you?

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Annal of a Pandemic: Success is about What We Can Control

The other day, I saw an article by memoirist and writing teacher Marion Roach Smith about writing list memoirs, if writing a full one seems overwhelming. And times, they do seem a bit overwhelming, so I am taking MRS’s advice, which is to lower the bar and offer a few snippets of things happening in my life.

1/ In attempting to teach online, I have learned to lower the bar. Lower the bar, by the way, is a good catchphrase for the era of the virus. Especially if you’re a teacher, as I am, thrust into online teaching, as I have been. There’s much talk of trying to manage to connect with students as best we all can. Scaling back. Simplifying. As my mentor teacher says, take it a week at a time. Also my friend Diane offered that suggestion. And really, readers, I don’t need to be told twice. Lowering the bar is a specialty. So, my goal for my first online class is to take attendance and see if everyone makes it online, if they can hear me and we can hear each other, and ask them how things are going. That’s about it for today.

2/ I made the decision to skip most of the news and it’s going well. So here’s another tip, Readers: ignore things you don’t want to read. There is a lot out there that’s not strictly necessary, especially on social media, and guess what? I don’t have to read it. Neither do you. What a relief! When I ignore the scary graphs and the misinformation and the contradictory advice about masks, I am left with being at home, with a blank page, with my daughters, with a house full of books and old movies, and the ability to breathe, move my body through space, and eat baked goods. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, if you're breathing, more is right with you than wrong.

3/The college senior found an unopened box of matzoh in the cupboard. Just in time for this year’s Passover, she is finishing last Passover’s matzoh by turning it into chocolate caramel matzoh.

4/The other day, in the spirit of lowering the bar, I skipped my morning workout and spent a lot of time in my bathrobe. Then I decided this won’t do, as I feel that lowering the bar below getting dressed is too low. One must keep up appearances.

5/Reading a five volume family saga set in Great Britain before, during, and right after World War Two turns out to be just the thing for enduring privation. I mean, they didn’t have things like gourmet cheese, or disinfecting wipes. They had those dreadful rations for years after the war, and everyone went about in old suits and darned socks. They barely had heat, for heaven’s sake. Coal rations. So, they practiced ingenuity in confronting scarcity. Also, just reading about learning to eat tinned beans on toast and saving clothing coupons to be able to buy a new outfit, makes me feel plucky. We’ll get through, as the Brits did. And maybe we’ll end up with a better, more equitable healthcare and social safety net, too. What’s the book? The Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

6/ In re: number 4/ above—I don’t know about your house, but mine is full of bakers. They’re baking desserts at a terrific pace. It’s nice and all, but I have a terrible sweet tooth, so I’m lobbing suggestions for minty desserts, because I don’t like minty desserts. As I write this, I am trying to help bring butter quickly from freezer temperature to room temperature by holding it in my armpits.

Too much information?

Desperate times and all that jazz…

7/I in no way intend to  make light of the current pandemic, by the way. It’s just that it feels important right now to focus on what I can control. This is Stephen Covey’s first habit of highly effective people. Remember that old chestnut? Seems like the perfect time to revisit the concept of the circle of influence versus the circle of concern.


To refresh your memory, here’s what the diagram represents. The yellow circle is your Circle of Influence. This is the stuff over which you have some control. The blue outer circle is your Circle of Concern. This is the stuff that you’re thinking about, worrying about, fretting over, perseverating about, but really can’t control. So, to bring it down to the current situation, I can control whether I eat one of the Rosie’s Bakery Noah Bedoahs currently getting whipped up in the kitchen, but I cannot control whether they get baked. Apparently. I mean, sure, theoretically, I am the parent, and I could put my foot down. However, both bakers are of age, 18 and 21, and the broader question of how much control I can exert over them comes down on the side of having to hide the flour if I really don’t want them to bake. If you see what I mean. 

So, what can I do? I can eat or not eat a cookie. I can wash my hands before I do that. I can limit my trips to the grocery store. I can stay home. I can enjoy my children being with me. There is so much out of my control, all I can do is try to accept my limits and work within them.

The good news, according to Stephen Covey, is that as you focus on your Circle of Influence, it actually begins to expand towards the edges of the Circle of Concern. In short, if you focus on what you can control, the area that you can affect expands.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Not Every Post is Pithy: Part Two

I am taking a break from washing my hands to update you on my life. Isn’t that what you all want to know about? There’s nothing else going on to think about, is there? Did I miss something? Are not we all focused on my big decision: which graduate school should I choose?

Since you asked, Readers, I chose the more convenient, less expensive, less prestigious, more flexible one. And I feel good about it. Many of you chimed in to offer opinions, as I requested, and the preponderance of opinion was that choice. If I were aiming for an academic post, or if I were twenty years younger, I would choose the more prestigious program. But, as many of you said, people understand that when you’re older, you choose what works best for your whole family.

I attended a Q & A event for the program last Thursday evening—online, I hasten to add. I didn’t get to meet and greet the entering members of my class, but I saw some of their names on the chat sidebar and I am sure they’re a wonderful cohort.

I hope I get to meet them eventually.

As it slowly dawns on all of us that we need to practice social distancing, the memories of chance interactions with strangers become sweet.

Recently, I had the mixed pleasure of traveling via aeroplane to visit my father. My aged p (pronounce “age-ed pee” please). Flying during a pandemic had a throwback feel. Half empty planes. Two seats to myself. Extra snacks. I used some of my precious hand sanitzer and hunkered by the window.


While in Washington, I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my aged p. This was a surreal experience, in the age of pandemic. The place was empty. There was another woman waiting for her medicine and she got to chatting with me. Chatting at me would be a more accurate description, but I responded, as a fellow venturer into the weirdly quiet streets. She told me she had flown over from the UK a couple weeks earlier on a jumbo jet with forty people on it. This reminded me of the olden days when a person might buy a coach ticket and get a center row of four or five seats to herself to stretch out upon.

When the medicine was ready, the cashier said she needed to update the profile for this prescription. “Date of birth?” She asked. I told her, “May Eleventh, Nineteen Twenty-Five.”

Readers, the look she gave me, head half-cocked and twisted towards me to take a closer look, crease between her eyebrows making her look quizzical and dubious, was priceless.  It took me half a second. Then I said, “I know. It’s amazing. My secret is Botox, Fraxel Laser, and Pilates.”

We all had a laugh. Tonic for the times, for sure. By the way, of the three things mentioned above, the only one I have used is Pilates.

Yesterday, en route to pick up the college senior from her shut down college, I stopped at an almost deserted rest area on the Mass Pike. I opened the door with my hand in my coat pocket, using the edge of my coat like a potholder. A man walking at least six feet behind me said, “Yup, that’s how I was going to do it.” I felt compelled to say, and did, that I have been opening doors that way for years.  “Me, too,” he said. Solidarity among the germaphobes. It reminded me of a dinner out with friends at an Ethiopian restaurant in Cambridge years ago. Ethiopian food, you may know, is eaten with the hands, off of a communal platter. Before we ate, we each went off to the bathroom to wash hands. The restroom was in a hallway separated from the restaurant by a closed door. This meant there was an extra door to open between the bathroom and the restaurant. This was a door with a regular knob, which meant that on the way back, you had to find a way to twist the knob without getting your clean hands dirty. Knowing my friends as I did—each was decidedly on the “phobe” side of germ—just for fun, I asked the table, “So what did you use to get through the door?” I don’t remember what I used, probably the bottom of my shirt, but I do remember my rock climbing, dear departed friend Steve, said he used his foot. He lifted his leg to demonstrate how he could maneuver a doorknob with a sneaker-clad foot. Impressive.

Also proves the point that one should always open a door with hand protection. You never know whose dirty foot has been on the knob.

Now it is time to figure out how to teach online, and to do laundry.

Before I go, however, here is a picture of a panda:
By Tamarocochinop* - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49327477

Because not all words that begin with "PAND" are bad. (Credit to Frances for her joke about hating all words that begin with "PAND" these days.)