TMI

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Living in the information age is not all it’s cracked up to be. We are constantly bombarded with stories, but I fear we are not always being fed the truth.

Recent events have highlighted the ways in which our media bubbles reinforce our world views. Take the coronavirus. Since news of the pandemic broke and the world began to grapple with its realities, there have been conflicting reports on its severity, the mortality rates, and most importantly, how best to combat the virus. On the one hand, we had disastrous reports from places like Italy and New York, urging the rest of the world to take heed of their overburdened health care systems and shut down. On the other hand, we had leaders downplaying the severity of the outbreak and insisting COVID-19 isn’t much worse than the seasonal flu.

Our latest info wars about coronavirus have involved whether to open schools in the fall for in-person learning. No matter what your position, you can find experts and studies to back up your opinions. The outcry from desperate parents on the one hand is met with resistance from the frightened teaching community on the other. Searching for answers involves wading through a morass of conflicting theories. We are flying blind, yet many of us are certain we know what the best course of action is.

Even with so-called news – that is, factual reporting of real events – we can find stories tailor made for our political and social stances. The unrest in Portland, Oregon, and other big cities is a perfect example. Conservative media outlets portray the protests as lawless nightmares of left-wing anarchists bent on destroying the American way. Left-leaning media depict outrageous militaristic and abusive behavior on the part of police and federal agents against unarmed and defenseless protesters. We can’t even trust the images we see with our own eyes because they are selected with a particular bias.

Lately my husband and I have been arguing about voting by mail, him insisting that voter fraud is a huge problem in America while I argue that reports of so-called fraud are exaggerated by Republicans bent on voter suppression. We are, of course, certain we are right and can trot out stories to bolster our claims. It’s just exhausting.

As a responsible citizen and thinking person, I try my best to stay informed. But with so much information out there, it is a constant and thankless task.

 

The New Normal

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I have started to get used to the new normal in the age of coronavirus.

When the pandemic first made its way into the US, causing a massive halt to all normal activity, I was filled with anxiety. Every other day I would swear that my mild asthma was flaring up and worried that I had been infected. I stocked up on groceries, fearful that stores would be shuttered or that my family would be totally quarantined.

When I ventured out once a week to the supermarket, I had a feeling of being on another planet, one that looked like Earth but was eerily quiet and devoid of cars and people. I felt like a figure in a Pac-Man game, dashing down alternate aisles to avoid other shoppers. Coming home, I’d collapse in an exhausted heap as if I’d just run a perilous gantlet.

Nowadays, I feel more comfortable venturing out for an extra run to the store if I’ve forgotten something. It has become routine to don my mask and accomplish my errands. Not having contracted the virus to this point, I feel a little calmer and less apt to interpret every cough as a sure sign that I have caught it.

I am still very cautious. I only go places I need to go to and have strictly limited the number of people I see. My husband and I have always loved to go out for breakfast, but we are resigned to home-cooked omelets for the foreseeable future. I have yet to brave my local library, and movies on my TV will have to do. I can make my own popcorn!

This is the new normal, a somewhat circumscribed but manageable one. I lack for nothing here at home, and I am blessed not to be totally alone. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and my health. And I pray for the day when coronavirus becomes an illness we can reliably prevent and manage – so that we can once again shower our friends and family members with our bountiful affection.

Writing for Your Life

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Writing has always been an important part of my life. As a child, it gave me an outlet for my imagination, and I also got favorable attention both at home and in school for  the stories, poems, and essays I would write. In college a creative writing teacher encouraged daily journal writing, and I developed the habit of exploring my life privately in dozens of black and white composition notebooks over the years.

So it has come as no surprise to me that studies have increasingly shown how writing can help people become happier and more productive. A Canadian psychology professor found that when college students wrote a series of personal pieces and goal-setting exercises, they were more likely to achieve and less likely to drop out of school. (Kamenetz, Anya, “The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives,” npr.org, July 10, 2015) Completing Jordan Peterson’s Map of Meaning course also dramatically narrowed achievement gaps based on gender and race. Similar results were found at Duke and Stanford Universities when students were asked to explore their image of themselves and to question the narratives they had always told themselves. (Parker-Pope, Tara, “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2015)

Writing has been used for many years for its therapeutic effects. Patients who practice journaling regularly have been able to reduce depression and even physical symptoms of illness. The ability to reflect on our experiences sometimes gives us greater insight into why we feel anxious, sad, or fearful. Writing can also help us be honest with ourselves. One woman discovered when writing and then editing her thoughts about physical exercise that she was using her responsibilities as a mother as an excuse to avoid an activity she didn’t really enjoy. (NYT) With such awareness, it is easier to make changes and commit to goals in our lives.

Often when I begin writing a blog post, I have one idea in mind. Then by the time I have wound through my associated thoughts and ideas on the subject, I discover a new and illuminating point, one that brings me to a greater understanding of the issue than when I began.

When I was a high school English teacher, I began each class period with a few minutes of free writing. Students had journals, and I would check them periodically, reading and commenting, but mostly just making sure they were taking the time to get words on paper. I assigned the journaling primarily to encourage writing fluency.  But I noticed that many students enjoyed having the time to express themselves and write about their lives. It’s gratifying to know that this writing time may have helped them in more ways than I knew.

Writing has always been an important ingredient in my life. I highly recommend it as a way to create, explore, and process the emotions and thoughts in our complex human minds.

 

Unmasking Selfishness

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The fact that wearing or not wearing a mask to protect oneself and others from coronavirus has become a political football is the ultimate in ridiculous and meaningless partisanship. The Mask Wars are the direct result of a president who is so vain, insecure, and egotistical that he refuses, even when directly asked, to wear a protective mask in any public venue.

Initially, public health officials hesitated to recommend that the general public wear masks in the wake of the outbreak. Beyond the belief that masks provided minimal protection from getting infected, experts worried that a rush on N95 masks would preclude health care workers from having an adequate supply as they battled on the front lines of the disease.

However, the CDC has since revised its recommendations and is urging Americans to wear a mask covering one’s nose and mouth while in public places, especially inside grocery stores and other establishments. For the most part, people have complied, seeing the directive as a minor imposition that can help prevent the spread of a virus that has had deadly consequences for more than 100,000 individuals in the U.S. so far.

It’s true that wearing a mask is uncomfortable and probably won’t get us on the cover of Vogue or GQany time soon. I’ve heard people joking that they look like bandits or bank robbers as a way to mask their discomfort with looking odd. But if we are all in this together, then we all look like weirdos or criminals. Once while standing in line outside my favorite bakery, I made eye contact with the woman six feet in front of me and she said, “I’m smiling.” I told her I could tell since genuine smiles reach the eyes.

Supporters of a certain orange-faced egomaniac have bridled at their rights being trampled on by stay at home orders and even having to wear a mask in public. They show up at statehouses packing their ridiculously unnecessary arsenal and protesting governors’ orders that restrict their access to bars, restaurants, retailers and other establishments. As has been pointed out in memes on Facebook, these same “freedom fighters” don’t argue about invasive TSA restrictions, seatbelts or other reasonable regulations aimed at protecting ourselves.

Some of my friends on Facebook have framed the issue as an “agree to disagree” one. Don’t condemn me for my choices just because they’re different from yours, they argue. The problem is that, as with anti-vaxxers, their decision to flout the rules can have deadly consequences for me. As my father used to say, “My rights end at the tip of someone else’s nose.”

The fact that a public health crisis has become a political one is a measure of how divided our country has become. Unlike in the Civil War, it is not a division based on geography, but on ideology. Maybe it’s time to retire the two-party system in our country and find a way to make meaningful progress on issues that we all face together.

Meanwhile, please wear a mask. The life you save may be your own.

 

 

 

The Fragility of Life

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IMG_2388My husband and I were unable to sleep in our bedroom the other night due to a minor infestation of flying pests. We are staying at a lake in Michigan, and I had stashed a couple of outdoor seat cushions in the closet while failing to inspect them for hitchhikers.

Every spring here, a certain type of fly hatches en masse only to mate, lay eggs, and die – all within a matter of a few days. They rise up in a frenzy when we stomp through their nesting grounds in the grass, and they cling to outdoor furniture, boats, docks, and yes, seat cushions. Their brief existence, along with daily news reports of coronavirus deaths, is reminding me of how fragile and finite life is.

My husband and I both have elderly mothers who are at extremely high risk of dying if they come into contact with the virus. We are both over 60 and thus considered in the high risk group ourselves. So we have been taking social distancing and other precautions very seriously, as have our children, I’m happy to say.

And yet, the fleeting nature of our lives should give us pause. We are not guaranteed the next hour, let alone the next year. It’s important to cherish the time we have, even if that time now seems circumscribed by events beyond our control.

With five of us sharing space here, nerves occasionally fray and sometimes snap. We are able to laugh and enjoy ourselves one day but feel gloom or discontent the next. In some ways, that situation is not unique to being quarantined. It’s part of the restlessness within the human soul.

I’m happy to say that my husband and I were able to enjoy a good night’s sleep in our own bed last night. Having spent the better (or worse!) part of the night before catching and squishing flies, I am grateful for the ability to sleep unmolested by flying or creeping things. Yet I feel for the little black critters and their oh-so-brief existences. And I appreciate their ability to remind me of the preciousness of my own.

 

 

Measuring Happiness

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A recent Gallup Poll indicated that Americans are reporting less worry and more happiness than two months ago. The change has coincided with more states reopening, so it may be because more people are able to resume work and other normal activities. Social distancing has also helped prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, so the dire situation we saw in Italy has not come to pass for the most part.

Yet there were some demographic disparities in the levels of happiness reported by Gallup that I find disturbing, if not surprising. The most significant one is that higher income individuals were more likely to report greater levels of happiness and less anxiety than lower income ones. Of course, this makes sense. Losing employment income is both more likely at the lower socioeconomic end of the scale and more devastating to one’s living situation. Wealthier people can weather the setback of the stay-at-home orders because they are more likely to have savings and other assets as a buffer. They are also more likely to work in office situations that can go to a work-from-home mode than can blue collar workers.

The sky high numbers of unemployment claims and the increased demand at food pantries across the country speak to the fact that many people are living one paycheck away from insolvency. Despite the historically high levels of employment and the financial markets preceding the pandemic, many Americans are stuck in low wage jobs that preclude them from saving for a rainy day. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the disparity between rich and poor. The virus has disproportionally hit low income Americans, especially blacks, because they have been forced to continue going to work while many of us are able to stay home and protect ourselves. Between the stress of working under these conditions and the loss of income many have faced due to businesses shutting down, it’s no wonder that the poor feel more worry and less happiness.

A prominent study a few years back showed that an income of $75,000 a year would make people happier. Beyond that level, there seems to be no significant increase in a person’s level of happiness.  The study formed the basis for an increasingly popular political idea: the universal basic income. With a fundamental sense of financial security, it is easier to practice that goal enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness.

There are, of course, many other factors that relate to happiness. The Gallup Poll also exposed the fact that single people reported less happiness than did married people. (Megan Brenan, “U.S. Adults Report Less Worry, More Happiness,” news.gallup.com, May 18, 2020) Being alone during this ordeal must be lonely and stressful for many of us. I know I would find it difficult to pass my days without my family nearby. Yet there are so many Americans, particularly the elderly, that were living lonely and invisible lives before the pandemic.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of living through this ordeal is the perspective it can give us as individuals and as a society. Maybe if we can take the lessons we’ve learned here and try to find ways to help others, whether materially or emotionally, our nation can emerge from the pandemic stronger – and happier.

Grounded

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This week’s yoga focus is being grounded. Having raised four children into adulthood, I am used to thinking of the term “grounded” as something pejorative: a loss of privileges, a sense of being imprisoned in one’s own home. And to be sure, many of us feel like prisoners these days. Yet the thought of feeling grounded can also be a positive thing.

Being grounded means being supported. In yoga, we practice mountain pose. In this pose, our feet and legs push firmly into the earth for a sense of strength and stability. The rock solid earth will hold us. Lying down on my mat, I turn my palms face down into the earth, feeling her steadiness and presence. I am grounded.

Being grounded means being safe. Electrical connections need grounding so that the current doesn’t harm us. And as parents, we know that grounding our children is a way of keeping them from dangerous activities and people. While they are home safe with us, we can breathe.

Being grounded also means comfort. We often describe people with whom we are comfortable as “grounded” or “down to earth.” Their homespun wisdom and practicality can cut through so much intellectual tumult or psychological stress. People with sensory issues use weighted blankets to help them feel more secure as they sleep.

Mother Earth is the nurturer. From the ground comes our sustenance. Life-sustaining trees have roots that reach deep into the ground for nourishment and support. We build the foundations of our homes in the ground, and our homes become the source of all we need: comfort, nourishment, warmth, and stability.

As an adult, I have developed a fear of heights. Ferris wheels, high rises, ski lifts: I find the idea of being up in the air terrifying. Here in Chicago, the Willis Tower has plexiglass shelves that jut out into the air at 1,353 feet above the ground. People stand on them and pose for selfies with giant grins on their faces. No thanks. Take me down the speeding elevator and get my feet back on solid ground.

Children love to play in the earth. They squish their toes in mud or sand, digging and building sand castles or mud pies. I think they recognize the fundamental comfort of being grounded, no matter how exhilarating the heights of jungle gyms or the top of playground slides can be. They want to be held secure in their parents’ arms.

It is good to be grounded, especially in times of fear and uncertainty. In these times, I will treasure the embrace of Mother Earth and plant myself firmly in her arms.

Mother’s Day Apart

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It has been a number of years since I have had all my children around me on Mother’s Day. As they left for college, my kids were unable to come home for the holiday, landing as it did so close to final exams. Nowadays, I have a son residing in Texas and a daughter in New York. So it’s virtually impossible for us all to be together on the second Sunday in May.

This Mother’s Day many of us will be unable to be with our mothers or our children in person. Older mothers, in particular, are too vulnerable for their loved ones to take the chance of visiting with them in person. We can still send cards and flowers, make phone calls, and even have a virtual party with the more tech-savvy of moms. But we won’t be able to hold them in a warm embrace and thank them for their care and love.

Interestingly, the holiday of Mother’s Day was started by female activists around the time of the Civil War. These women fought for better living conditions for families, sanitation for treating the wounded during the war, and peace and healing of the divisions that created the conflict. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, one of their daughters, Anna M. Jarvis, pushed to commemorate the work of her mother and others by holding a remembrance day for all mothers. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared a national Mother’s Day. (Catherine Boeckmann and Heidi Stonehill, “The History of Mother’s Day in the United States, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, April 20, 2020)

Although we may not be able to celebrate with our mothers in person this Mother’s Day,  we can honor them with our commitment to helping see the U.S. through the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic. We can do our part by staying home as much as possible, practicing safe distancing when we are in public, contributing to those in need, and keeping our beloved mothers safe by being apart. On Mother’s Day we honor women for their sacrifices on behalf of their families and communities. Let our personal sacrifices this Mother’s Day be a testament to their love for us and ours for them.

 

Reaching Out

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While healthcare workers, grocery store employees, truckers, delivery personnel and other essential service providers do the important job of keeping us alive and well during the coronavirus outbreak, it can be discouraging to feel that we are stuck at home, unable to go out into the world and help others. One of the most fundamental human needs is to be useful. Luckily, there are many ways for people to make a real difference during this scary and difficult time.

One way to make a difference is with our money. Organizations that help the needy and marginalized of society are always in need, but these needs have become more acute as people lose some access to food and other essentials since schools are closed and both food pantries and shelters have had to curtail interactions with their clientele. For those of us who are not losing our income due to job loss, this can be a good time to be generous to social service agencies. After all, we are not going out spending money on entertainment, and most of us are saving cash on gas. Why not pass these savings on to help the needy?

Another way to help is to provide supplies to health care facilities. In my hometown, for instance, a friend has been collecting personal protection gear such as nitrile gloves and goggles to be donated to our local hospital. Others are spending hours making masks, which are in short supply during this pandemic. I’ve even read of businesses retrofitting themselves to help increase the supply of these direly needed items.

Teens can volunteer their services running errands for elderly and immune-compromised individuals in their neighborhood. Residents can organize takeout meals for local hospital workers who are working long hours on the front lines of this emergency. Children can write cards and letters to elderly residents in nursing homes.

As a Catholic, I have had a hard time with the loss of regular Mass attendance and have struggled to keep the meaning of Lent at the forefront of my thoughts and deeds. Finding ways to reach out can remind us of the call to be a light to others, to make a sacrifice in keeping with the spirit of this penitential season.

Giving of ourselves is a great cure for the doldrums that can take hold of us as one day blurs into another. Let’s all find ways to help – safely and effectively.

Covidiocy

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The coronavirus outbreak has seen the coining of many new words and expressions (quarantini, social distancing) and the widespread use of more familiar ones (hot zone, shelter in place). But my favorite new word to enter the lexicon refers to the behavior of many irresponsible people who look upon this pandemic as one big joke: covidiot.

Stories of young people hosting “coronavirus parties” and licking products in drug store aisles display not only stupidity, but a wanton disregard for the well-being of others. The Justice Department has warned that intentionally exposing others to the coronavirus could result in domestic terrorism charges. (Josh Gerstein, Politico, March 24, 2020) Indeed, such charges were leveled at New Jersey resident George Falcone for purposely coughing on a grocery store employee and claiming that he had the coronavirus. (Ben Kesslen, NBC News, March 25, 2020)

I have to ask: What is wrong with people? Have they missed all the news reports on the rampant spread and mounting death toll of COVID-19? Have they not heard the story of a 25-year-old former lacrosse player who was put in a medically-induced coma and placed on a ventilator to save his life after he contracted the disease? I personally know someone whose first reaction to news of the virus was that she should travel to Wuhan so she could get infected and get it over with. Get what over with? Your life?

In the days before there was a vaccine to protect against chicken pox, mothers would deliberately bring their children over to the homes of friends who were infected – in effect, attending “chicken pox parties.” This always struck me as the height of absurdity and irresponsibility. Despite our image of chicken pox as almost a viral rite of passage, in some cases, it can prove fatal. Again, I personally know a woman who lost her two-year-old son to the disease. While we may not be able to avoid all viruses in our lives, we certainly shouldn’t be seeking them out.

The other definition of covidiot refers to the crazy hoarding behavior of many people who panicked when COVID-19 hit the United States. In particular, Americans seemed terrified of running out of toilet paper despite the fact that the main symptoms are respiratory, not gastrointestinal. Once again, this behavior not only displays stupidity, it reveals a selfish disregard for the needs of others. It is sensible to stock up on essentials so as to make trips to the grocery store less frequent. Yet it is still important to remember that our neighbors need eggs, milk, cleaners, and paper products just as much as we do.

The battle against coronavirus has been met with many heroic, unselfish, and sensible actions. Millions of Americans are heeding the call to stay home and remain calm, allowing medical professionals to care for the sickest patients. We are meeting the challenge of social distancing with good humor, music, and a new appreciation for what is important in our lives. Let’s discourage the covidiots in our midst by refusing to give their antics attention – other than with a pair of handcuffs and a few nights in a stinky jail cell.