And So It Goes …

What. A. Year.

You know how people (used to) say: “That seems like only yesterday.” Well, my last birthday, April 2020, seems like a century ago. Or maybe something that occurred in the Pleistocene.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, April is the month I do a little tally of the lessons life has imparted—or dumped on me—in the preceding year. Often, they are variations on one of my basic life philosophies: One disaster at a time. Never ask what else could go wrong.

Well, our year of COVID dynamited such neat aphorisms. Blew them sky high. One disaster at a time? Troubles came so thick and fast, I felt like some manic plate spinner, unable to pause for breath, threats of a total crash looming left, right, and center at every moment. Never ask what else could go wrong? I didn’t have time to ask. An avalanche of problems/woes/insanity erupted in the opening months of 2020 and just kept coming.

A wee sampling of the “highlights”: My social security history—you know, the file that tracks your lifetime earnings—mysteriously “disappeared” from the SSA system. A full-on Vertigo attack literally hit me upside the head and sent me to the ER. A 50-foottree limb fell on my car. Ed had emergency hernia surgery. A medical billing snafu (six months and counting!) has produced mountains of documentation—but no solution to date. And the state website for COVID-vaccine appointments? It crashed on the first day I was eligible to sign up, and remained inoperable for some weeks.

Plus, my hair, which has not been cut since December 11, 2019, was well past my shoulders, heading for mid-back. Untangling its curly mass in the shower each day was seriously eating into valuable problem-solving time. (And clogging the drain.)

Troubles are always with us, as some sage has surely noted. The thing about COVID, though—as you’ve no doubt noticed—is that solving those troubles has been agonizingly s-l-o-w because nothing has worked as it “should have”—a phrase I have now scrubbed from my vocabulary.

The car the 50-foot tree limb smashed? It remained in the auto repair shop for more than a month. In response to my polite queries (okay, my teeth may have been slightly “gritted”) about the delay, I was told: “You didn’t have an appointment.”

Didn’t have an appointment? Didn’t have an appointment?! No $#%! Sherlock. I didn’t have an appointment because I didn’t know a tree would fall on my car until it did.

I didn’t actually utter those words because I understood: 1) nobody cared, and 2) nobody cared. 

Necessity is the Mother of Invention Patience

The great lesson of 2020 turned out to be patience. As in, I had to develop some, okay, a ton of it, because everything that went wrong took ten times the usual time to get right, and some stuff never did, so I’m out a few hundred $$$ and change; but more—much more—critically, days and days of life that might have been devoted to something joy-inducing: writing fiction, beating Ed at Scrabble, watching “The Crown”, were consumed in listening to looonnnggg yawn-provoking/hair-rending, taped updates on “How the coronavirus is affecting our services now” at every number I dialed.

And I dialed a lot of numbers a lot of times, searching for someone, anyone, who could correct incorrect medical billing—an ongoing mission that has introduced me to a lengthy list of customer service reps—never the same folks twice—all contradicting one another. Or someone who could assist me in getting the required new license plate so that I could:

1) get the required annual state inspection sticker for my car, which

(2) had passed inspection, except for the required new license plate, which

(3) I couldn’t obtain for months and months because COVID prevented the state’s prisoners from producing them(!!!).

The day this was finally resolved—that was the day the tree fell on my car. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Truly, never ask what else could do wrong.

Sometimes, there wasn’t even the hope of expediting the untangling of a snafu by phoning someone 687 trillion times because there was no one to call. The holiday gifts I ordered in October for far-flung family members? I was curtly informed in emails from Amazon, Etsy, and other online vendors that “due to anticipated postal delivery problems” (understatement of the century!), these items would not arrive before Christmas.

Undaunted, I printed and wrapped photos of these gifts so that our kids, scattered across the country, would still have something to open on “the day” (Good Mommy!). These beribboned “sneak peaks” at presents-yet-to-come, I mailed off in early December. And then the checking of postal tracking numbers, via computer, began. And continued. And continued…

One of the four packages arrived on Christmas Eve. Yes! The others, according to the USPS website, were enjoying a tour of the country that we in COVID lockdown would envy. A package mailed from Mass and bound for New York, traveled first to Virginia, then North Carolina (Come back, come back, I wailed into my computer, helpless) before returning to the Northeast. Another went to New Jersey by way of Missouri. A third appears to have sat at a transfer station 18 miles away for six weeks.

Christmas came and went. Ditto New Year’s. In mid-January, the actual gift items started arriving—I packed them up, mailed them off, and began playing the tracking game again…   

You are Number 36,784 in Line

As mind-numbingly maddening as Post Office Roulette was, it turned out to be excellent prep for nailing an appointment for the COVID vaccine. Winter melted slowly into Spring as I surfed back and forth, hourly, across six locations, seeking an appointment. Moderna. Pfizer. J&J. I didn’t care. Molasses would have sufficed had it been on offer and I could have snared a slot. My favorite—not!—were the sites that promised “book your appointment now”, then took all my info, only to report You are number 36,784 in line or There are no appointments at this time. Mind you, these were state- and local-sponsored, official websites, not some QAnon, drink-the-kool-aid, give us your credit card details (wink, wink) link on Facebook.

Meanwhile, nothing was getting written—my various works-in-progress languished as a tsunami of dust gathered around my ankles and mounds of other stuff that really needed doing piled deliriously high.

Hour after hour, day upon day, I clicked and clicked, checking and re-checking. Much of the time, I felt like my cat Tibby who, in the worst cold of winter, sits at the foot of the stairwell, wailing loudly will this never end!

But as we all know, what cannot be changed must be endured. One Friday in March, I was running my usual checks when I saw it: New appointments released at 6:00 tonight. Previous experience had taught me that the person who waits until the listed time, clicks on only to discover a small-country’s population is already in queue. So, I checked every 30 minutes through the morning, then every 10 minutes in the afternoon. The last hour, I refreshed the page every minute. At precisely 6 p.m., a message came up: Choose your pair of dates from the list.  

Thrilled, dubious, afraid to hope—I had seen this message a few times before, and it always turned out that the link didn’t work, or the moment I clicked was the moment We have no more appointments available at this time.

But it did work. I got my chosen dates. I got a confirmation a minute later in my Inbox. I had real appointment codes, a time, a place. And when I went, I got my first vaccine. YES! Patience triumphs!

The. Only. Thing. That. Matters.

I’d like to say I’ve mastered the lesson of patience or that patience has paid off in every circumstance, but that would be … apocryphal. The medical billing snafu is still… a snafu, which I’m seriously considering writing off as the cost of living in a country without universal healthcare. I mean, life is short, so how do you want to spend it?

I have learned however to carry my phone everywhere I go(and I do mean everywhere), along with a pen and all the relevant papers, receipts, etc. of whatever crisis I’m dealing with at the moment—I won’t let a trip to the loo cause me to miss the one chance I have to actually talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. (Does this person exist?)   

Up top I mentioned two of my basic life philosophies: One disaster at a time. Never ask what else could go wrong. There’s a third one, courtesy of Winston Churchill: If you’re going through hell, keep going.  

Patience, as it turns out, was just a prelude to the real lesson of 2020, the deeper, do-or-die lesson: Resilience.

I’ve always thought of myself as resilient—most of us probably have. Able to manage. Be flexible. Bounce back. Move on. But most of us—the lucky ones in lucky countries anyway—have never had to deal with anything remotely like COVID.

This year of COVID has made me see that as helpful and healthful as patience is—and damn near impossible to muster 24/7—what’s really needed is resilience. That finding oneself in hell, one keeps going. In the final analysis, it may be: The. Only. Thing. That. Matters.

Photo Collection: Anne Frank Stichting, Amsterdam

As weeks turned to months, then a year of the COVID nightmare, and 5,000 deaths grew to 543,000—and counting—my thoughts often turned to Anne Frank, the young German-Dutch Jewish girl, who had the miserable luck to be born in a time of unparalleled fascism and mass brutality. Anne Frank has always been my gold standard of courage and resilience. 

Anne spent 761days hiding from the Nazis in an attic, never once knowing how it would turn out (and it did not turn out well—Anne was deported to Auschwitz then Bergen-Belsen where she died just two months before British and Canadian troops liberated the camp).

What would she have given for a walk in the sunshine, even if just to the grocery store? Even with the required mask? Or for a day of hiking in the woods or mountains? For a chance to turn up the music and dance? For another decade of life?

Seven-hundred, sixty-one days. When I feel myself starting to cave to the petty annoyances of the last year, the lost hours and opportunities, the irritating-but-not-fatal troubles, Anne Frank pops up: You’ve got this, she assures me. You can make it. And I realize rare is the full life span in history that does not encompass some disaster, natural or human-made.

In previous birthday posts, I framed the year’s lessons as benchmarks in my eternal quest for grace, defined as the ability to remain calm and carry on no matter what—the possession of which would enable me to transcend all things petty, leaving me unshakably calm.

Perhaps resilience is that grace. 

Yesterday, I made an appointment for a haircut April 20, two weeks to the day after my second vaccine.

And the ear-splitting, mind-shattering bang, bang, bang of multiple hammers that has jarred me out of much-needed sleep at 7:00 a.m. every morning since November (construction on the lot across the backyard)? That hammering stopped this week.

We stagger on.

Skip the Resolutions and Pass the Gravy

“I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.”  (Rita Mae Brown)

“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.” (Hans Christian Andersen) 

“Do anything, but let it produce joy.” (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

“You’re looking at the waves, but ignoring the sea.” (Rumi)

[NOTE: Another “oldie but goodie” for you. This one ran in January 2018. Remember 2018? When “pandemic” was just a word from post-apocalyptic novels, you could actually see people’s smiles, and Waiting for Godot was the title of a play, rather than the reality of getting a COVID vaccine appointment. You may wonder: Why is she talking New Year’s resolutions in March? Because, like northern snows, our resolutions tend to melt away by this time. So throw out the hair shirt of guilt, and put on those glad rags. It’s Spring, and we’re alive!]

It’s that time of year once again when people are asking, “What’s your plan for 2018? What New Year’s resolutions did you make?”

My inner Sassy Girl is tempted to reply: “I’m giving up pinochle.” Or, “I’m swearing off glyphosate as a salad dressing.” But as most of these folks are friends (let’s face it—who else really cares what’s going on with you?), I give them the straight truth with a solemn face: I didn’t make any resolutions. I don’t have a plan.

Which is just a tiny bit disingenuous because that is my plan.

Like 320 million other ordinary Americans, I’m always trying to figure out how to do this thing called Life. Lacking a roster of servants to do my bidding, and having never purchased a winning lottery ticket, I’m left to struggle with the eternal question: How the hell do I fit everything into the narrow confines of a 24-hour day?  The stuff I’m passionate about—writing, family, political action. The daily drudgework like dishes and laundry. The unending avalanche of forms/bills/notices that if not filed/paid/answered may result in a stiff penalty. Or a short jail sentence.

And sometimes I just need to sleep.

Resolution Madness

The single uniting force in the human race appears to be our mania for resolutions. If we share nothing else, come January 1, we all want to: 1) get in shape; 2) be more productive, and 3) manage the stress caused by #s 1 and 2.

Googling the subject, I see that 50 is THE number to shoot for this year. Fifty New Year’s resolutions came up more than once on my search. Ay caramba! Well, I suppose it seems less daunting than, say, 100, but it’s still madness. I mean, you’re gonna need a lot more than a Fitbit to keep track of that load. By the time I hit #16 (Get a Side Hustle) on the first 50-list my head was exploding.

But it’s not just the number of resolutions these lists propose, it’s the scope. Another 50-list suggested the reader:

(#3) stop procrastinating—LOL, if we could do that, we wouldn’t need resolutions;

(#17) have better sex (Is there a meter for this? A checklist?);

(#22) get out of debt—has someone volunteered to pick up my tab?

(#33) re-invent yourself. This last strikes me as redundant. If I took up resolutions #1-49, there’d be no need to re-invent myself. I would be unrecognizable.   

For some reason, “drink more water” was a featured item on every list. Turn on the tap already.

Not every catalog of resolutions was so Herculean. Number one on Alexia Dellner’s list “Start your day with a really good stretch” felt both attainable and non-invasive.

Scroll down to #14: “Stop doing one thing.”  

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!

Andrea, dear soul, like a mom holding out dessert for last, dishes up major relief with #50: Cut yourself some slack.

Amen. That’s my kind of list. Stop doing. Lie down. Let sanity find you.  

Sisyphus 0; Rock 100  

The thing, as it turns out, is that though we’re resolution junkies on the front end, we suck at keeping them. It’s a true Sisyphean situation. The rock doesn’t just roll back down that hill. It flattens us. According to, 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February. All that remains is the $1,995 you still owe on that Peloton Indoor Exercise Bike.

Researchers at the University of Scranton don’t even give us that much staying power. They claim that the resolution success rate is in the single digits. Eight percent to be exact. People, I don’t have to tell you this is not a flattering portrait.

Or—and this is the explanation I favor—perhaps we were never meant to be like that Timex watch in the old ads. The one that takes a lickin’ (by an 18-wheeler!) and keeps on tickin’. We are human beings. We have needs: Food, oxygen, sex, online solitaire.  

According to the Huff Po, there are numerous reasons why we fail the resolutions test in such astounding numbers, but they basically boil down to the same thing: A serious lack of realism in the expectations department. Vowing “I’ll never eat sugar again when a) you love sweets, and b) you love sweets, is like swearing you’ll never take another breath until we have someone sane in the White House. However noble your intention, it’s a doomed mission from the start. [Update: White House inhabited by the sane once more! You can definitely breathe again, though not without a mask yet.]

Case in point—one familiar to all writers—the ambitious plan to work on your novel 10 hours a day and/or resolving to pen 5,000 new words before each sunset. If you live in a monastery, where all you have to do is pray and someone prepares your meals, you might make it, but if you have a family, a job, a house, I can tell you from experience: It’s not happening. As Forbes noted: The average person has so many competing priorities that extreme life makeovers sink faster than the Titanic.

Enough Already with the Straitjackets

This post actually started with me considering a “plan” proposed by another self-employed blogger: Do one thing each day. Just that. This resolution grabbed my attention because it sounded so sane. Blog on Monday. Write on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Do household stuff and errands on Wednesday. Rest on the weekend. I could feel my anxiety level plummeting in the clarity and simplicity of the idea. Like the sound of those miniature desk fountains people buy to soothe themselves in the midst of utter chaos.

But then I realized that’s just trading one kind of to-do list for another, and to paraphrase Jackie DeShannon’s 1965 hit (“What the World Needs Now”): Lord, we don’t need another to-do list. Which is what resolutions really boil down to.

I’m a putterer. The thing I treasure most—what truly floats my boat—is to look at a day on the calendar and see nothing penciled in. This is a day to do with as I please, and I can make it all about one big project or several smaller projects. I can go to the gym or grab my honey and head out for a day of adventure. I can paint the kitchen or write a short story. Nothing kills a day for me more than getting up and realizing I’m straitjacketed into must-do tasks from dawn until lights out.

My plan—the one that isn’t a plan—is to minimize those strait-jacket days.

Carpe Diem

Last summer, I started cataloguing my books—all my books—a massive project that evolved out of a deep desire to stop purchasing copies of books I already own (I’m aware this makes sense only to my fellow book junkies). Whenever I got the chance, I would enter a shelf of titles/authors on my laptop. For someone who lives in a smallish house, I have an astounding number of books. Anyway, the project proceeded slowly. I was always promising myself I’d “reward” myself with cataloging a shelf after I wrote the next chapter of the novel or the next short story. After I’d penned the next blog post or researched a few more lit-mags and agents. After I finished weeding the garden or …

Surprise! The moment I could get to my cataloging project almost never happened. Ditto for playing my guitar or trawling for creative recipes. I was like the kid who dutifully eats her dinner day after day but never gets dessert. Feeling I had to cross off everything on a to-do list the length of War and Peace made me resentful. I felt like one of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, slaving away in the dark underground, the surface world something I glimpsed the light of only rarely.  

So, I switched things up. In the week between Christmas and New Year’s this year, I gave myself a rare treat: I left my days completely open. This doesn’t mean I did nothing. I actually accomplished quite a few things, but I chose each activity in the moment, and only worked at a task until I felt my energy for it fading. The sense of possibility in each day energized me. Not having a to-do list calmed me. Gone was the stress of cramming, cramming, cramming. As my resentment faded, my focus sharpened. I finished the cataloging project (yay!). I also wrote this post, penned several new chapters of my novel and revised others, cleaned out dresser drawers, read one book and started another, watched several movies, cleared the mess on my desk, caught up with all my correspondence. All without forcing or fretting or rush.     

A Different Kind of List

As someone who has earned a living writing and editing for much of my adult life, I’m no stranger to deadlines, and I’ve never missed one. But I don’t use a list to whip me to the finish line on an assignment. Instead, I look at the scope of a project, estimate the total number of half-day units it will take to complete, add 2-4 more units because you never know what surprises lurk, in the project itself or in life, and count backward from the due date. I like the flexibility of this system. It leaves me time to write fiction. It allows me to work all day one day and skip the next if circumstances demand it or I’m just chomping at the bit for some free rein.   

But we’re all individuals, so if you feel naked without a list (or a resolution), resolve to try this one: The Got-Done List. Got-done lists are not about the non-stop push to cross off task after task. They’re not about the relentless spur in the side that keeps you running until you drop, always short of some hoped-for finish line.

In her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte talks about the weight many of us suffer from overloaded to-do lists, how it steals our happiness, slows our productivity, and damages our health. Schulte calls this state “The Overwhelm.” Got-done lists are about throwing off that weight and celebrating what we did achieve rather than ruing what we haven’t (yet) accomplished.

Research supports Schulte’s claims. Studies find that focusing on what we have achieved motivates us, makes us more creative, enhances problem-solving, and just plain adds to our happiness.

“I spend a few minutes at the end of the day writing down what I accomplished successfully,” says Nada Arnot, chief marketing officer of Qubed Education. “It’s rewarding and empowering to focus on what I did, rather than on what I didn’t do, which can be both stressful and demoralizing.”

I hear you, Nada!

So I’m sticking to my plan that isn’t a plan. Following my heart and letting the dust bunnies blow where they may. I’ve got living to do.