I predict that in 2022, I’ll never miss an appointment, and even better, every single day I’ll be surrounded by fuzzy animal babies and birds with wingspans of 747’s. All thanks to the National Wildlife Federation, Earth Justice, The Wilderness Society, National Park Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, the Humane Society, and Audubon Society, who’ve seen fit to honor me with their calendars. And in some cases, not just one, but two calendars. A new one arrived yesterday, bringing my total to ten.
I admit I sent small donations to three of these organizations, who, as soon as they saw my check, whipped a wildlife calendar into an envelope and raced to the post office. They then shared my name and address with other organizations, all of which believed I couldn’t keep track of the days of the month. In some sense they’re right. Since retiring I have a terrible time remembering whether I’m living through a Tuesday or Wednesday, much less the actual date. But that’s where phones and computers come in handy.
My new calendars are wall calendars, which means all but the bathrooms can have their own. And when it comes to acquiring 2022 calendars, 2021 is still young. I anticipate the arrival of several more before January.
The only solution to my overabundance of calendars is to treat them like neighbors treat their homegrown zucchinis and leave them on porches in the middle of the night.
other cultures’ masks for purposes other than pandemic safety
Last week, Washington’s governor lifted most Covid-19 restrictions and pushed us out of our protective nests into the post-pandemic “life is nearly normal” world. For the fully vaccinated, no masks, no social distancing, and hugs are allowed.
This is what the new normal looks like: cooking something new for dinner guests after having eaten the same three meals for the past fifteen months; preparing a dish for twenty-five instead of two for a neighborhood potluck; adding lunch dates to the calendar after such a long period of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at home; entering a shopping mall for the first time since Christmas 2019; filling the calendar with upcoming appointments for teeth, eyes, limbs, and other body parts; and putting on makeup every day instead of once every six months. Already, the changes are stressing me out.
These aren’t the only stressors. Psychologists say it takes ten weeks to break a habit. We’ve had nearly a year and a half to add a new one: mask wearing. Will it take another ten weeks to throw off our masks?
I figure there are at least three levels of adjustment to the new normal.
I put movie theaters in the non-risky category. We went to movies when theaters could allow twenty-five percent capacity, which was less than the Senior Tuesday audience before the pandemic. Then, finding ten people scattered around the auditorium would have been a crowd.
The easiest adjustment is having guests in your home. Last week, we invited a couple to dinner with whom we had dined on our patio a year ago. At that time, they stocked their car with enough goods to live in the wilderness for days. Traveling the mile from their home to ours, they packed suitcases of ice, water, utensils, plates, hand sanitizer, and napkins. This year, they trusted us to handle these basics.
Public places where people are packed together, as in the produce section of my grocery story, represents one more level of difficulty. You’ve worn your mask for months. It’s protected you. For several days after the governor’s announcement, anyone walking into my local grocery store and looking around at the customers would be certain the mask rule was still in place. Who knew if the person fighting with you over a cantaloupe had been vaccinated?
Harder to adjust to than a trip to the grocery store is one to a shopping mall. Yesterday, I made a trip to buy socks. I didn’t put on a mask, but the whole experience of stepping into such a large indoor facility with so many people wandering loose was very disorienting. I couldn’t even remember what stores were there the last time I looked and where they were located. I stopped at the first store I saw with exercise clothing on display, paid more than I’ve ever paid for a pair of socks, and dashed out.
I estimated about two-thirds of the shoppers wore masks.
The highest level of anxiety for me would involve going to a large event unmasked — no, even going with a mask — to a crowded event where I had to sit next to strangers. A photo in the local paper of fans packed into a sports stadium made me shiver. Concerts? Plays? Large events? I will adjust to not covering my face—and putting on makeup—but it will be a long time before I’m ready to greet a fellow baseball fan or music lover face to face.
I expect nearly every mother in this world has said to her child, “Stand up straight!”
My mother warned me about my bad posture at the beginning of seventh grade. Back then, I had no excuse. Today, I’d be off the hook by blaming my cell phone or computer.
Not only do I still slouch, but when in front of a keyboard, I stick my neck out like a giraffe.
Perhaps I first rounded my shoulders because I was the tallest girl in my class. While my friends didn’t seem to notice, their mothers did. “You’re growing like a weed,” they’d say. What girl age thirteen wants to look like a dandelion? I wanted to be mistaken for a shorter flower. By the time I realized my height put me at an advantage in many ways, my shoulders had already made the downward journey.
Maintaining good posture takes work, hard work. And most days it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
It’s much easier to relax and mimic the neckless Great Blue Heron when it’s resting.
“New Yorker” writer Patricia Marx also thinks about posture. In the March 19, 2021 issue, she reports on all the different devices we can use to pull back our shoulders and whether they work. She used a whole army of equipment testers to try out what she calls, “restrictive braces, harnesses, shirts and bras…or small electronic gizmos, the size of brownies, that ping or vibrate at the inkling of a slump.”
Her personal researchers didn’t come to a conclusion about which tool worked best for improving posture, because by the end of the day their backs hurt and they gave up their devices.
Are there good reasons not to slump? Marx quotes a professor from the University of Pennsylvania who says, “In the early nineteen hundreds, hunching over was said to cause ‘sinking organs.'” While that information might not lead to behavior changes in contemporary bi-peds, I believe posture still makes a difference in how you’re judged in job interviews (though not Zoom interviews) or by potential dates. Besides, Royals always had good posture, so if becoming a Royal is on your wish list, you know what you have to do.
For almost two years, I’ve been undergoing physical therapy for a rotator cuff tear. One reason it’s taken so long was that months of PT were done during Covid-isolation via the phone, making it harder to picture my homework: “We’ll start with shoulder external rotation and scapular retraction with resistance before moving into standing bilateral low shoulder row with anchored resistance.”
Recently, I figured out that all the exercises I’m doing to reduce shoulder pain are actually changing my posture. I’ve reached the point where I can do a quick shoulder roll and my shoulders stay back, at least for a while.
The volunteer researchers were right. My shoulder pain is lessening only to be replaced by upper back pain. Changing your posture hurts, whether it’s from using the “upper-back brace, or the padded panel that pushes a metal plate against your lower back,” or the physical therapist’s tools of hand weights and rubber tubing.
But I’m not giving up, even without a mother to nag me. I love looking sideways in the mirror and seeing that my neck and shoulders would not remind anyone of a Great Blue Heron. And perhaps my sinking organs also are grateful.
“An average attention span— the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted — has decreased to just 8 seconds. This is 50% less than 17 years ago!”
I can vouch for the truth of this claim, based solely on my own experiences. In the time it’s taken me to write these sentences, I’ve answered one email, followed a link on another, gone to the kitchen for a Graham cracker, researched lawn care services, and complained about this new WordPress format a hundred times.
The topic of paying attention on the job and in school is well-covered on many web sites, as is paying attention to others and to the world around you.
Equally important is paying attention to everyday situations, and that’s where my examples come in.
A few months ago, my husband and I bought new running/walking shoes. We happened to choose the same style shoe. The clerk had not checked our foot sizes, perhaps because to do so would require her to be closer than six feet from our faces; instead, she relied on our word for what sizes we wore. The first shoe I tried on was tight, so I went for a larger size than I’d ever worn before and hoped I’d judged correctly.
After wearing the shoes for a couple of days, I decided I had made a mistake. On my walk around the track at the local Y, I knew exactly what clown’s shoes felt like. How did circus performers manage to navigate in these floppy, wide-toed monsters? And what was I going to do about my obvious mistake? After a few days of complaining to my husband, he noticed another pair of shoes sitting near the fireplace and said, “Did you know you’re wearing my shoes?
No. I didn’t. I hadn’t paid attention.
Not long after this event, my wire whisk developed a problem. I use a whisk often, and always found this one a little short at twelve inches, because my hand became very warm in the course of stirring it in a pan on the burner. I began a search for a new one. In the kitchen shop the whisks were even shorter than mine. After much research, I finally found one on-line. Not thinking about anything but the fact that my hand would not overheat using this one, I ordered it right away. When it arrived, I had to ask my husband, “What size pan do you think this twenty-two inch whisk would work best in?”
“A cauldron,” was his answer. And that sums up why I have to start paying more attention.
For this blog— on the topic of gratitude— I’m returning to the same source that inspired my previous post called, “Every day is Earth Day.” The source is the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, professor, writer and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in New York.
For the past few decades, researchers have been studying the effects of gratitude on our mental health. In their book, The Psychology of Gratitude,” Emmons and McCullough have concluded “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible, is one of the most neglected emotions and the most underestimated of the virtues.”
According to Harvard Health publishing, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”
The problem with ordinary notions of gratitude is that often gratitude is all about us. If things are going our way, we feel grateful, and if they’re not, we struggle to find something we genuinely feel appreciation for, apart from our families. During a year of quarantine, we might feel gratitude that we had escaped the virus, but not that we had also missed our friends, dining out, entertainment, and travel.
Kimmerer writes of a different approach to gratitude observed on the ancestral homelands of the Onandaga Nation in New York, now the home of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. This gratitude is expressed as a Thanksgiving Address by members who were instructed by their ancestors to “stand and offer these words wherever they were gathered.”
Speakers, who in the book were schoolchildren, take turns presenting a portion of the address, each of which ends with, “Now our minds are one.”
The address begins with, “Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We each have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with all living things.”
The next recitation gives thanks for Mother Earth, and the ones that follow for all the waters of the world; fish life; plant life; food plants; medicine herbs; trees; animal life; birds; the four winds; thunder, lightening, and the sun; the moon and the stars; enlightened teachers, and the Creator.
When taken together, the recitations of the Address are long. They are not a prayer, but “greetings to all who sustain us.”
Even if I feel no gratitude for the events of a particular day, expressing appreciation for what sustains my life, comes easily.
I spent part of Earth Day gardening, one day after I heard a lecture by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, professor, writer and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. And then I listened to several of her speeches on Youtube. I wish I could say that listening to her led me to weeding and garden cleanup with a new, uncomplaining spirit–it didn’t–but it could change how I view the plant world and the earth itself. The last word, ‘itself,’ which I wrote without thinking, is proof that I haven’t absorbed her wisdom. Dr. Kimmerer would say that calling the earth ‘it,’ is equivalent to calling your gray-headed grandmother ‘it.’
We view the land as property, capital, a resource to provide for us. The indigenous view is that land is not property, but a living, breathing being for whom we have a moral responsibility. “It is our home, our library, our healer.”
Dr. Kimmerer noted that plants are our oldest teachers. “They were here first. They can take light, air, and water and turn it into food that they give away, and medicine.” The problem is that we haven’t been either good students or stewards. “More plant species have become extinct than are alive today.”
She spoke of the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize for creating a system to permanently remove greenhouse gases, which was never awarded despite several high quality entries. While not denying that creating such a system would demand human ingenuity, “a system already exists to build oxygen, remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for centuries. It’s called the forest.”
I learned that the oldest plants alive are the seventeen to twenty-five thousand species of moss, some of which are thriving in my yard. While I might not appreciate the moss’s invasion of my grass, I do have to look at it with some admiration for having avoided extinction over the course of four hundred million years.
This time of year, it’s easy to appreciate Dr. Kimmerer’s words. Even if we’re not growing our own vegetables, or picking wild mushrooms and digging roots for food, the sheer beauty of cherry and apple blossoms, the panorama of trees leafing out in every shade of green, and the burst of growth all around us makes it easy to be grateful to the earth. The next step beyond gratitude is to consider how to change our own behavior and reduce our carbon footprint.
Longer days, blue skies, vaccinations, and flowers are the best treatments to erase the winter and Covid blues, and lately I’ve been able to experience them all. But there’s no guarantee of daily sun until after the Fourth of July; it will take until mid-June for days to reach their full length; and now that two months have passed since our last shot, vaccination excitement is waning.
However, I can count on flowers to cheer me from now till October. Any blooms the spring has to offer bring me joy. I’ve asked William Shakespeare, to help me with this blog. We might know him more of a connoisseur of roses and violets, but he has much to say about many flowers.
‘At Christmas I no more desire a rose Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth; But like of each thing that in season grows.’ Love’s Labours Lost
Daffodils, That come before the swallow dared, and take The winds of March with beauty.’ The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeare and I are not alone in our appreciation of flowers. Researchers at the University of Rutgers in New Jersey, found that “the presence of flowers triggers happy emotions, heightens feelings of life satisfaction and affects social behavior in a positive manner far beyond what is normally believed. And study participants reported feeling less depressed, anxious and agitated after receiving flowers, and demonstrated a higher sense of enjoyment and life satisfaction.”
It’s true that women reacted more visibly to flowers than did the men in a separate study, but the men who received flowers also “increased their social behavior and expressed extraordinary delight.”
‘Here’s flowers for you; Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram; The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun And with him rises weeping: these are flowers Of middle summer, and I think they are given To men of middle age.’ The Winter’s Tale
The Rutgers study is cited widely by florists, which made me question whether FTD had funded it. But if the research was just a way to support flower sales, why do hospitals have flower shops and why do people take blooms to visit the sick? Because flowers can help heal. “Park and Mattson conducted a study in 2008 and found that patients in hospital rooms decorated with flowers and potted plants needed less postoperative pain medication, had lower systolic blood pressure and pulse rates, were less anxious and tired, and generally were in a more positive psychological state than patients in rooms without flowers.”
There’s more to spring blooms than color, as in the sweet scents that come from the daphne odora and rosemary bushes above.
‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.’Hamlet
Studies show us another group that benefits from flowers: office workers.
A Texas A&M University study found that in the business world, “workers’ idea generation, creative performance and problem-solving skills improve substantially in workplace environments that include flowers and plants.”
‘There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy’ Hamlet
My lavender, day lilies, and rock roses will keep me content until July, and by then the dahlias and zinnias will have me smiling. The season of flowers has begun and it will be a long and rewarding one.
Many writers are talking about the new normal as if it was about to fling its door open and welcome everyone in; more suspect is the notion that everyone is clamoring to get in.
I struggle between living in the abnormal and in the return to the new normal, and whatever will follow that.
A year ago this month, my husband and I stopped attending group exercise classes at our local Y. Optimists always speak of losing one thing only to gain another. They’re right. We lost our exercise class for a year and gained ten pounds.
Now the Y is offering a limited number of classes, and I returned to try one out. I had such a good time, I became more optimistic about the new normal.
This time last year, grocery stores began to advertise special senior hours. With so many seniors getting vaccinated, stores should consider special hours for younger shoppers. Acquaintances my age and older have had at least one shot and are more comfortable going out, though none are rushing to Florida for spring break.
Masks are part of our daily attire, as are–in my case–jean legs with fraying hems and holes in the knees. And that’s for dress-up. Jewelry is out. It’s not that visible on Zoom. With everyone growing their hair longer, earrings are also hidden from view. And who needs lipstick with masks? If and when the new normal arrives, I can’t picture myself shopping for clothes or wanting to dress up. A year spent at home has cemented my position as a slob.
A friend who heard a recent talk from a local publisher learned that dark stories and gore are on their way out, because of the pandemic, and perhaps because real-life dark stories are causing depression in a large percentage of the population. “More than 4 in 10 U.S. adults had developed symptoms of depression or anxiety by the end of 2020, a sharp increase over the results of a comparable survey conducted in the first half of 2019.” I have sought out lighter stories on network TV, Netflix and PBS. The latter is reviving twenty-year old police procedurals that didn’t bother me the first time I saw them, but are too dark to watch now.
On the other hand, I have been immersing myself in mystery novels. These tend to be fast reads that allow me to escape from the isolation of the pandemic and join mobile characters who live all over the world and are able to solve the most challenging problems over the course of 300 pages.
Since we’ve been vaccinated, a new world is opening up, but I’m not rushing into it. We’ve ventured into one movie theatre and are planning to visit several museums. For all these we have to book a time and keep our distance.
Though our washing machine is headed toward the appliance graveyard, we haven’t made a single move to replace it. It’s not so much fear of the virus as lethargy. Engaging in the new normal often seems like too much trouble.
In a recent issue of “The New Yorker,” writer Margaret Talbot reviewed three related books* that argue for “the value of learning to do things you’ll never do well.” Not only is trying something new an “antidote to perfectionism,” but it is good for our brains.
The only negative effect associated with trying something new is that you might make a fool of yourself and the results crush your ego. But the writers of these books say that doesn’t matter. Hah! Of course it matters.
Last weekend, with nearly a foot of snow outside and not having much to keep busy, I decided to tackle a small decluttering project. I cleaned out part of an IKEA chest of drawers that held materials for craft projects: colored papers; rubber stamps; cancelled stamps from around the world; envelopes; inks and other supplies. It was the other supplies I wanted to investigate. I’d jammed these into three drawers, making them hard to open and their contents unknown.
The inspiration for cleaning out was an article about a PBS program called “Legacy List with Matt Paxton.” What interested me about Paxton’s approach was that he included decluttering for older folks, He says, “We hang onto many possessions because of the memories attached to them. But, he warns, “If you don’t get the stories out, you won’t get the stuff out and your life doesn’t move forward.”
What I found, instead, was three drawers filled with memories, memories of all the things I had studied that had made me happy at the time.
Part of one drawer contained a dozen handmade greeting cards made by artist friends. One set came from a couple–a painter and an architect–who house sat/cat sat for us one summer. Not only did the painter recreate one of my photos as a lovely acrylic painting, but the couple sent us Christmas Cards for the next six years alternating photos of paintings and architectural designs.
The other set of cards came from an artist friend who cut out pieces of his watercolors and sent them as Christmas cards. All three of these artists have passed away. While Paxton would urge us to talk about our memories of these artists and then dispose of the cards, I’m not ready to part with them.
We’re also keeping several hilarious pieces sent by a junior high social studies teacher friend who shared his feelings about the George W. Bush era through collage and story.
Years back, my best friend, Marilyn, (also no longer with us) and I wanted to live as true dilettantes, defined in my on-line dictionary as “dabblers, putterers, tinkerers,” and more flatteringly as simply “amateurs.” “The New Yorker” piece was kinder, reminding us that in Italian, “dilettante” means delight. Marilyn and I took class after class, workshop after workshop to try our hands at every craft invented in the past forty years. Except macrame.
We didn’t give up our idea of wanting perfection in any of our projects, but lived with what we’d created despite the flaws.
Here’s list that covers the projects I can remember:
making greeting cards using paper from our recycling bins and printers’ offcuts, a class taught by the county’s “solid waste artist in residence,”
how to use every rubber stamp product available at the time,
Polaroid transfer prints,
carving rubber into figures we could ink and stamp,
gyotaku fish prints (inking one side of a fish–we used rockfish–and printing the image on rice paper),
making a mosaic plate,
and beer. (This was our most successful project).
I laughed when I finished the list. How did we have time for work and home life? Also, each of these classes required purchasing materials, equipment and sometimes tools, at no small expense. For gyotakyu, we frequented the farmers’ market to buy rockfish, one reason why cleaning out this chest of drawers was a high priority.
Now that I’ve found these treasures and enjoyed the memories associated with making them, what happens next? I filled a wastebasket with the worst samples and tucked the projects I liked back in the drawers. I think I can use pieces of many of them to send as cards to friends. It will be easier for them to recycle them.
*Book titles: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over; The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning; and Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace.
“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader… As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell, British author with two novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize
“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov
On January 11, the feedback on my novel, for which I’d been waiting a month, arrived. The accompanying letter began innocently: “There are many wonderful things about the manuscript you have created. The era, the exotic location, the big issues (religion, faith, children, family, culture), and characters with enormous obstacles all provide the basis for a very dynamic novel.
It ended with a more dispiriting conclusion. “To that end, I want to give you the strongest tools available for digging into the rewrites. That means I’m going to suggest what may feel like major changes. Keep in mind it’s not just that a person has to write well, they also have to write engaging [sic].”
Fourteen pages of comments later, everything she suggested did feel like a major change, and I didn’t know how to respond except by feeling a huge letdown. I’d been working on this novel for so long and suddenly I felt humiliated, that I’d wasted years of study and work and should have put my retirement to better use. Worse than the disappointment was the thought of facing a complete rewrite.
Friends were consoling and reassuring: “You’re a good writer.” “I like your story.” But the comments couldn’t make up for the critique.
The good thing about receiving disappointing news is that although the words might stick with me, the initial feelings–the tight chest and sense of hopelessness–faded. I got over my disappointment, first by recognizing the truth of what the editor said. Then, I stopped castigating myself for having spent the time writing. The pandemic has kept me and everyone else indoors for nearly a year and my activity choices were to write or clean out closets. At least I’ve been engaging my brain.
In 2015, Psychology Today reported on “8 Ways to Bounce Back from Disappointment.” Tip number eight was, “Find your grit.” It’s difficult to keep showing up, but by doing so, you will gain respect from others and feel better about yourself.”
I am showing up and paying attention to the feedback, starting with chapter one. Last week, I received a critique from my writers’ group with responses that confirmed I had learned something from the editor’s critique. One person said my protagonist was “coming alive.” Another said, “Held my attention throughout. Not a boring word anywhere.” A third said, “I really liked the sense/feel of the scene!””
Positive feedback won’t always be this good and negative feedback won’t always be helpful. So it goes when you’re dealing with “not quite inventions of the devil.”
Recently, I read that the average adult can stay on a mental track for eight seconds, whereas goldfish can stay on track for nine. (How does anyone know the mind of a goldfish?) Fishy story or not, a lot of us find our minds wandering and we feel besieged by distractions. But following Google links … Continue reading →
This post is a continuation of the last one, in which I confessed to my foolishness in signing up for a ten-week course, “The Science of Happiness,” offered by Yale University. Taking the course was an impulse decision, and like most impulse decisions not a wise one. After two-plus years of Covid restrictions I wanted … Continue reading →
After missing a year or two of the large annual bluegrass and folk music festival in my city, I decided to take a chance in 2022 and attend. I didn’t make up my mind until the last minute, when a friend knowledgeable about the event assured me that the planners were taking every precaution to prevent … Continue reading →