the COVID times, part one

So.

The COVID times, part one: understanding our neighbors who have chosen to be conspiracy theorists

Let’s start by saying, I believe that COVID-19 is a real, highly contagious and dangerous virus. I don’t want anyone to get it. I am willing to wear a mask and social distance as long as is needed. I live in New Jersey.

This post is about coming to terms with the rapid deterioration of the modicum of civility the United States still had left after the 2016 election. I am having a tough go of it, and, spoiler alert, I’m still not at terms with it.

When I was younger, in the ancient times of the 1990s, a very common question was, “what superpower would you wish for, if you could have any superpower?” I used to say that I would want to be able to read minds so that I could understand why people do the things they do.

The internet granted us that superpower by accident, and dear lord, I’d take back that wish in a heartbeat. Perhaps taco hands* would have been a better superpower after all. Before the internet, before I knew what was on peoples’ minds all the time, I assumed that people were inherently good, and I could easily see my own best qualities in others. And now…now we know what they’re thinking. And they’re thinking about conspiracies. And it’s insulting to the people who are suffering from COVID-19 and to the people who have watched a family member suffer from COVID-19. And I don’t know what to make of any of them.

Conspiracy theory social media posts render neighbors, fringe friends, and fellow human beings unrecognizable to me. I assumed many of the posts I was seeing had to be from hackers and bots or whatever devious individuals lurk on the web, but they’re not. They’re people I’ve met. They’re friends and family of people I know. Their Facebook profiles weren’t created a few weeks ago. They’re CEOs, CFOs, business owners, and (brace yourselves) medical professionals. They all seem human!

It calls into question my perceived notion of what makes someone seem human. It’s forcing me to adjust my perception. The commonality of suffering is real, and there is no denying the the people we agree with AND the people we disagree with are suffering in some way. We have had to practice a lot of radical acceptance on that front, though, right? (At least since the 2016 election?) What qualifies as suffering? Do we have to agree on that? How do we respond to suffering? Can we accept others’ responses to suffering even when they are radically different from what we as individuals deem appropriate? It’s a journey that I am on, personally, and I hope other people are still working on it too.

In a few years, though, can we lump the COVID-deniers into the same group as holocaust deniers, “9/11 was an inside job” people, people who believe that Sandy Hook didn’t really happen, and the Alaska mind-control lab people? Do we have to wait a few years to do that or can we just do it now?

*Taco hands is a superpower by which you can create an endless supply of tacos because they appear in your hands upon command. We were weird kids, and now we’re weird adults.

Defining gratitude

Gratitude is an outward expression of appreciation to an outside force or person. Thankfulness is an inward feeling. I’m thankful that Joe was nice to me. I’m grateful to Joe for making me feel appreciated. Gratitude gives credit to Joe; thankfulness is focused on me and how it made me feel.

Let’s begin with this idea I see over and over again about gratitude, “Stop comparing yourself to others and be grateful for what you have.” It seems easy enough, right? But here I am, your friendly neighborhood Libra who just can’t leave well enough alone. 

When we say, stop comparing yourself to others and be grateful for what you have, aren’t we still comparing? Aren’t we just then, comparing ourselves to people who have less than we do? If we’re grateful for food on the table, aren’t we comparing ourselves to people who don’t? If we’re grateful for warm shelter, aren’t we comparing ourselves to people out in the cold? Is this only something we can say when we come from a place of relative privilege? 

The short answer is no, being grateful for warmth, food, and the necessities is legit. The difference is in how you come by this feeling. Did you have to stop to reflect on people who have it worse than you do? Smacks of privilege (ok, it reeks of privilege). Or did you wake up with joy in your heart and the sun on your face and say, thanks, (supreme being), this is rad, and I am grateful. I’m striving for the latter every day. 

I learned earlier this year that anger is like an iceberg. Google this, it’s neat. Anger is what we express when we don’t actively cope with other ‘negative’ emotions, like frustration, disappointment, helplessness, and so on. The next time you’re angry, examine why. We see the iceberg, the anger, expressed outwardly, above the surface, and what’s hidden underwater is the emotion we have yet to confront appropriately. Like I said, Google. (but not yet, read my post first, please). People who know, like, really smart things about psychology, can, like, totally tell you more about this than I can.

So, is gratitude like that? Think of the last time you felt grateful. Was that all? Was it relative? 

I took a few weeks to observe my own gratitude and what I do with it. I act on my emotions – not always, and not recklessly – but much of what I do is driven by emotion. 

It was never just gratitude. It was gratitude and fear. It was gratitude and anger. It was gratitude and guilt. It was gratitude and hopefulness. It was gratitude and love.

I was serving food at a warming shelter and a man said to me that the meal he was eating that night was the best meal he had all week. I was grateful to be able to provide this meal for him. I was reminded to be grateful for the stocked pantry I have at home. More than anything, though, I was angry as all get-out. My emotions took a sharp turn, and my gratitude spun to anger as I considered the injustices of a system that fails miserably for this man and so many others. 

After a family member received news that she is starting treatment for cancer, I felt grateful to our family caring for her and being with her at doctors’ appointments. I am grateful to her doctors for using their talent to help her recover. I observed thankfulness for health insurance, transportation to the hospital, and my available time. I’ll simply say that this is gratitude and love.

So here’s the deal, in experiencing gratitude (however we get there), we’re giving credit to the people and forces in our life that have created our fortune. You can’t keep that to yourself. 

I can use all of these other emotions that come along with gratitude to guide what I do to effect change in others’ gratitude journeys.

My anger at the warming shelter? Yeah, I am going to keep making and serving food, but maybe I need to put energy into volunteering with a policy advocacy organization too. Being grateful for my health insurance and not having to worry about those fears? Maybe I need to be voting for and campaigning for people who believe that your ability to afford an insurance premium shouldn’t dictate your access to anti-seizure medication. Feeling guilty about doing the important work in my home that doesn’t add anything to our bank account? Maybe I need to actively figure out a way to shift us to a culture that celebrates being and nurturing decent human beings before it celebrates everything expensive.

What are you grateful for and how can you use this turn yourself into an agent of gratitude for others? 

National Alliance to End Homelessness
Family Promise
Sightsavers
Jersey Shore Dream Center
CancerCare Co-Payment Assistance Foundation
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Jersey Shore Rescue Mission

Making unreasonable requests of the deceased

I’m writing to update a piece I wrote last year around Christmas. 

My grandpop worked in the Budweiser brewery in the mid-1900s at a job that afforded my family many opportunities. While that job and company gave us so much, working in the factory also gave him the painful cancer that led to his death. 

I was talking to a very dear friend about this yesterday, because it’s the holidays and nostalgia happens. We spoke about all of the good this job did for our family and when we got to the part about developing lung cancer, my friend stopped me and asked, “so do you think he would have done it any differently if he had to do it over again?” Probably not. Definitely not. 

The designers at Department 56 Snow Village released item 55361 in 2004. They imagine the Budweiser Brew House with garland and a clock and warm, inviting lighting inside. It’s sweet. It’s scenic. It sits on my dresser all year.

Emotionally-Complicated Christmas Decorations

My dad, ever the poet, will say this: 

“Grandpop worked in the Brew House, which didn’t look quite as quaint as this. It was basically just a big industrial building with big metal tanks, and it was full of beechwood chips and cotton and asbestos and all that other shit that killed him.” 

-December 15, 2018

I visited my grandpop’s final resting place a few weeks ago to let him know I was thinking of him at Christmas. I found our family name. I traced the engraving with my fingers and  sat down.

Grandpop’s grave, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Newark, NJ

I crumbled under the weight of everything I have been enduring and trying to brush off for months. It was the ecstatic relief of coming home after 15 years away and the painful realization that I haven’t been honest with myself about how much I miss him and my other grandparents. I sat on the cold, wet grass and rested my head on the tombstone and cried, like a little kid sitting in a grown-up’s lap. I surrendered to the complexity of everything in my head and heart swallowing me whole and cried harder. 

His wife, my grandmother, is buried with him. She died in the mid-1980s, before I was born. I’m talking to her, too, and I miss her too. She is everything we imagine our grandmothers should be: sweet, kind, caring, fun. Maybe she was even better than all of that.

I begged them to come back to life. I asked them to take care of my family and take care of me.  I asked them to show me the way.

Maybe I was asking a lot – mere mortals, etc.

They are buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery for Roman Catholics in Newark, New Jersey. Many family members who came before them were already buried there when my grandmother passed in the 1980s, and it was near where my family lived.

Mount Olivet Cemetery is 600 feet away from the Budweiser factory. My grandparents sit all day and night in the shadow of the the thriving corporation that used asbestos in brewing at the peril of the bodies inside. It’s a striking juxtaposition if I’ve ever seen one and an explicit and upsetting display of corporate America’s disdain for the blue collar workers on whose backs they’re built. 

Budweiser plant overlooking Mount Olivet Cemetery, Newark, NJ

I sat between them, my back to the factory, digging a little and putting in the small cross I brought with me. “There, that’s good,” I said (probably out loud) to myself. I picked myself up and carried on with my day. It’s what he would have wanted. 

This is an excerpt from a larger and more complex piece still in progress, or maybe it has not been written yet, whatever.

Mindfulness Coloring

I’m a few years late to the party, but I finally got around to trying Mindfulness Coloring for Adults, or as I like to call it, coloring. I have to sing its praises.

I was working on the reindeer’s ears when my Violet-Rouge Crayola snapped in half. Three more crayons met the same demise (RIP Yellow-Green, Bluetiful, and Yellow). This was when I knew the Mindfulness Coloring for Adults was starting to work its magic.

After a breath, and then another breath, I relaxed my hand (and subsequently my arm, and subsequently my whole body) enough to get through the whole reindeer without breaking another crayon.

I have now done some online research and, from what I understand, breaking crayons is not the point – nor should it be part of the exercise. I may have done this wrong. I recommend coloring in any case.

Get the Look: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Jumbo Coloring and Activity Book, bendonpub.com; Crayola Crayons 24-pack, crayola.com.

Farm time

I am one of those people who derives great joy from ‘shopping’ for groceries in a field. I also like saving money on incredible organic produce and flowers, so there’s that, too.

We joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm earlier this year. We pick up a box of produce weekly from a local grocery store. We also have privileges to go to the farm and pick flowers, herbs, additional produce…etc.

tl;dr – veggies are good for you and flowers are pretty and picking them right from the earth is the best ever.

wandering around an open field by myself and connecting with the earth and with the food that nourishes my body provides my mind with peace and a calm that I’ve had a hard time finding elsewhere.

Sounds expensive.

it’s not. the farm gives you the option to pay in two or three installments. for a household of two adults and one child, our share averages out to $30/week. for that $30, we sometimes end up with more food than I can even cook in a week. I really don’t know how we lived without it.

this week, we ended up with about 15 sunflowers, a pumpkin, several huge bags of greens, bunches of fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, lavender, sage, oregano, basil), 3+ quarts of sauce tomatoes, 1 quart of cherry tomatoes, 1 pint of husk cherries, a pint of hot peppers, a few regular bell peppers, 1 quart of green beans, and a pint of tomatillos.

i will reiterate t h i r t y d o l l a r s. for all of that. and I could have picked more if I had wanted to.

the other things – the intangibles – are priceless. what my skin smells like after picking herbs. the peace of mind i take home with me. acknowledging and appreciating the life that buzzes and hums and grows and exists around me.

we are members at honey brook organic farm.

why do i have time for a blog

Like so many good blogs, this one was born during a bout of involuntary unemployment. i wouldn’t say i was ever sad about being let go. my office restructured and it wasn’t due to anything I had done wrong or right. often these changes are for the best. I don’t mean to be indelicate, because I know that for many people, losing a job is tough (to say the least), but for me, i am able to see it as an opportunity.

as of this writing, I have been unemployed for almost a month. i am finally starting to notice the little things about life that went unnoticed when my thoughts were consumed by work, and rushing around, and my next meeting, and my next event.

the cracks in the yellow paint on the curb.
the way that dried up leaves dance in the wind.
the creaking street sign that sounds like someone crying out for attention

most of all, i notice peoples’ facial expressions walking down the street.

i saw someone strolling down the street today – yes, I’d call it a stroll. Walking slowly, taking in the world around him. sipping coffee. it looked almost luxurious.

not long after, i saw a man who couldn’t chug his coffee fast enough, on his way somewhere, his mind was already at his next stop.

I was that guy! I used to be that second guy!

the moral of this stupid, simple story is be here now. Your job will let you go and you’ll be stuck writing a blog and wondering what art you missed in the world around you while you were being that second guy – the dancing leaves, the cracks in paint, the singing creaking signs on windy mornings.