The Human Condition (BLOG)

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 usnews.com, 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.

Toward the Light

“The town was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile…” (Charles Dickens)

A couple of weeks ago, I stepped outside in the late afternoon—a break from a long sit at my desk—and was startled. It was still light. I checked the kitchen clock—4:23 p.m.—and smiled. Yes, the days were finally, noticeably getting longer. Not by much yet, it’s true, but in the darkness, we search frantically for that one candle. That pinpoint of light to give us the courage and strength to press on.

And, baby, has it been dark. Months of unease followed the 2020 election, capped by a sore-loser’s seditious call to sack the Capitol, a treasonous rally that ended in five deaths and a crowd chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” All this on the heels of four criminally lawless years and one pandemic that has left thousands and thousands of corpses stacked like cordwood in refrigerated trucks. Nearly half a million Americans—gone. Another 25 million out of work. Hunger and threats of eviction from sea to plastic-choked sea. But then, what could one expect from a man who, upon hearing of the far-right plot to kidnap and execute Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, said: “Maybe it was a problem. Maybe it wasn’t.”

Throughout, we-the-people huddled around the nightly news, afraid to listen, more afraid not to. Forewarned is forearmed. Suffering all the while from an exhaustion that left us oddly hyper—simultaneously alert and unable to move.

May you live in interesting times. An expression purported to be a Chinese curse disguised as a blessing. While that turns out to be an apocryphal attribution, a kindred phrase does exist in Chinese literature. A short story, “The Oil-Peddler Wins the Queen of Flowers,” published in a Suzhou collection in 1627, is peopled by characters driven off their homes by war:

Thirsty, hungry, they bore all manner of hardships;
Where would they have a home to call their own again?
They prayed to heaven, earth, and their ancestors,
Not to let them run into the Jurchens.
Truly, better be a dog in days of peace
Than a human in times of war!

Interesting times are marked by upheaval, threat, loss, while “uninteresting times” are those of tranquility: Children are born, families thrive, communities flourish. We measure our happiness, our “rightness” as a society, by how closely we mirror that state of peace. Or not.

The darkness and the light.

Democracy: A Fragile Thing

Countless talking heads have opined over the past four years, especially in the weeks leading up to and following the 2020 election, that our democracy turns out to be much more fragile than we realized:

1. The electoral college threatens to thwart the will of the people—twice in just the past 20 years, the presidential candidate with the majority popular vote has lost (Al Gore and Hillary Clinton). 

2. The GOP gerrymandering of voting districts is employed to silence people of color and the young, two groups who tend to lean left. In 2012, Pennsylvania’s Democratic candidates for Congress won 51% of the vote, but thanks to gerrymandering, they only received a quarter of the seats—an outcome echoed in Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina.

3. A new slew of stringent voter ID laws have negatively impacted young, elderly, non-white, and disabled voters because obtaining the mandated ID is expensive and/or involves extensive travel. In Texas, your permit to carry a concealed weapon gets you into the voting booth; your student ID card does not.

Nor have our much-touted co-equal branches of government—hereto believed to be a bulwark against tyranny—proven unbreachable when, in fact, a tyrant helms the government. With the “right” Attorney General, we learned, the wrong president can break any law and thumb their nose at Congress. With the “right” Secretary of State, slate of electors, or “friendly” judge, a president could insist on overturning election results to achieve a false outcome. These last failed to happen in 2020, not because they weren’t attempted, but because those whose arms were twisted declined to comply. The pundits warn: We were lucky. We might not be so lucky another time. 

And yet, stand we do. Battered—yes. Bleeding—yes. But not broken. In the darkest days our country has endured, with the exception of the Civil War, we remain a democratic republic. By luck? In every successful endeavor, there is always a little luck. But more, much more, was involved here.    

The War on Voting

Over 159 million Americans turned out to vote in 2020, the largest number in our history by almost 20 million. It was astounding, but it wasn’t easy. In the months running up to the election, Louis DeJoy, Trump mega-donor and GOP fundraiser, was appointed Postmaster General, and promptly went about destroying the agency in his charge, trashing perfectly good mail-sorting machines, eliminating overtime, and installing something the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General called “an experimental program that changed how letter carriers sorted and delivered mail in hundreds of ZIP Codes.” The upshot? Postal delivery slowed appreciably just as voters across the nation were applying for mail-in ballots to avoid the threat of COVID in crowded polling places. And, of course, polling places would be crowded because the number of locations had been sharply curtailed, especially in urban areas where the GOP knew large numbers of Democrats would be casting their ballots.

Unsplash: Tiffany Tertipes

What to do? Don’t post your ballot, advised fair-election orgs across the country. Use one of your local ballot drop-boxes. Drop boxes whose locations and number then dwindled or were removed outright in red states across the country. Missouri’s GOP Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft promptly refused to distribute the 80 drop boxes he’d purchased, noting “state law requires those ballots be returned by mail.” Ohio’s GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose said he would allow one drop box per each of the state’s 88 counties. The Trump campaign sued to prevent the use of drop boxes, period, in Pennsylvania. And Florida instituted a valid ID requirement for anyone using a ballot drop box, but only in Miami-Dade County, the seventh most populous county in the country, where more than a quarter of voters are non-white.

Undaunted, people ordered their ballots. They drove or walked the distance to whatever drop box was available. If they couldn’t do that, they stood in blocks-long lines for early voting. All the stops were pulled out to make voting difficult to impossible, yet vote we did, in numbers never before achieved. And Joe Biden won. With 81,283,098 votes and an electoral college tally of 306. Cries of jubilant relief rang throughout the land when he was declared the winner on Saturday, November 7, after possibly the longest four days in my lifetime.

And then the kaka hit the fan.

Saving Democracy One Postcard and $5 at a Time

In the wake of Biden’s victory, Rudy Giuliani raced from courthouse to courthouse across the country, hair dye streaming down his face, filing frivolous lawsuits filled with lies for his sore-loser boss. In Michigan, where Biden won by 150,000 votes, certification was held up for several days while two Republican election officials followed the Trump campaign’s order not to certify the vote in Wayne County, home to Detroit, birthplace of Motown and a city boasting a Black population above 75%.

Unsplash: Jon Tyson

Detroit voters literally rose up within minutes of that refusal to certify. Three Black women—all residents of Detroit, all voters in the 2020 election—together with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, filed suit. “Repeating false claims of voter fraud, which have been thoroughly debunked, Defendants are pressuring state and local officials in Michigan not to count votes from Wayne County, Michigan (where Detroit is the county seat), and thereby disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters,” the lawsuit, represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, stated.  

In state after state, voter fraud was alleged and mail-in ballots repeatedly scrutinized. Painstaking counts and recounts followed. No fraud was found. Judges everywhere threw out Trump’s lawsuits. Meritless, they said. A waste of time. Biden’s victory is possibly the best-documented win in our history. And the hardest fought. But the struggle didn’t end there.

Unsplash: cameramandan

The race for Georgia’s two Senate seats, then held by two Republicans—one elected and one appointed to fill a vacancy—resulted in no candidate having the required 50%. A January 5th run-off was scheduled. To make matters edgier, both seats were a must-win for the Democrats if they were to dethrone McConnell and have a prayer at passing any of Biden’s agenda, including his Cabinet appointments. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. GOP groups dropped almost a quarter billion dollars on the two seats, but Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff had a formidable, not-so-secret weapon of their own: former gubernatorial candidate and organizer par excellence, Stacey Abrams, and her voting rights org Fair Fight. Together with dozens of similar-minded groups across the country, they corralled hundreds of thousands of Americans to write letters, make phone calls, text, and send postcards to Georgia voters. While dark money poured into GOP coffers, these orgs raised funds the grassroots way—$5 here, $10 there—registered new voters, and helped people obtain absentee ballots. Their unrelenting efforts paid off. In the early hours of January 6, it was announced that both Warnock and Ossoff had won.

And then Trump made his call to sedition and the Capitol was besieged.

Speaking Truth to Tyranny

That was what everyone saw, the attempt to steal the election by force, but more—much more—was going on behind the scenes. Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, appointed on December 24, 2020 by Trump when Billy Barr stepped down, was already facing possibly the shortest tenure ever. But, it turns out, his time as AG might have been much shorter. During his final weeks in office, Trump wanted Rosen to press his BS claims of election fraud, to push the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s win. When Rosen refused, Trump turned to another Jeffrey in the Justice Department—Jeffrey Clark, a lawyer—who was only too happy to help.

Clark immediately began setting a trap for Rosen. He asked that letters be sent to Georgia officials to inform them the department was investigating the state for voter fraud, so it would be wise to overturn Biden’s win now. Rosen refused. There was no evidence of fraud. Clark then met with Trump and informed Rosen that he, Clark, would replace him before the January 6 certification of the votes in Congress. Rosen refused to step down. The president would have to fire him if he wanted him gone, which is likely what would have happened—Trump had certainly fired many others when much less was at stake. Only it didn’t happen. Because the entire leadership at the Justice Department threatened to resign if Rosen were dumped over these egregious lies. Trump, afraid the story amplified in the press would tank his unfounded claims of election fraud, quickly backed down.

At every turn in this long national nightmare, a seemingly endless darkness threatened to eclipse and defeat our democracy, but we-the-people organized, spoke out, volunteered our time and donated our money. Most important, we did whatever it took to exercise our right to stand up and be counted—we voted. And even in the long lines of the shrinking number of polling stations, we were never alone because others of us organized water and pizza to sustain us, civil rights lawyers were on the ground to advise and protect us. And we-the-people prevailed. 

A New Dawn Breaks

As I’ve been writing this post the past several weeks, the struggle toward the light continues. The tiny gains made daily are often obscured by gray winter clouds. Yet, sunset-and-sunrise.com assures me we’ve gained 23 minutes of daylight in that time.

Unsplash: Gayatri Malhotra

And despite the insurrection at the Capitol, the gun-toting QAnon members of Congress who defended it, and McConnell’s fight to stymie the Democrats’ thin majority in the Senate—despite all that, Joe Biden was sworn in as our 46th president, and delivered his inaugural address before that very Capitol building. His opening lines are worth repeating here:

This is America’s day.

This is democracy’s day.

A day of history and hope.

Of renewal and resolve.

Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge.

Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy.

The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.

We have learned again that democracy is precious.

Democracy is fragile.

And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.

The light has not been shuttered or snuffed out. It continues to grow hourly, shining new hope into yesterday’s dark places. Biden has lifted the xenophobic Muslim ban, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization. He has revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and ordered a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Transgender people no longer face a ban on joining the military. The President’s “Build Back Better” plan promises a clean-energy revolution, the building of which will create good-paying union jobs in America, funded by reversing the excesses of the Trump tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. It’s a staggeringly beautiful document, full of vision and hope. You can read it here.

And at last, finally, we are formulating a real plan to tackle COVID, with federal guidance and assistance for the production and distribution of vaccines to all Americans who want them. States are no longer left on their own to figure things out, then find the financing.

The earth will continue to turn through periods of darkness, seasons of light. Even the longest, happiest day of summer has a night. A Texas judge has temporarily blocked Biden’s deportation freeze after Texas AG Ken Paxton argued that it violated an agreement Texas brokered with Trump days before Biden took office—an agreement that’s sure to be challenged. Reeling from their 2020 loss, Republican-controlled legislatures in a slew of states are threatening new voting restrictions. These, too, will be answered, so brazenly totalitarian is the authority they seek.

We are still a deeply divided nation, part of a deeply divided world, but as long as enough of us continue to stand up for what is just, what is right, what is humane, we will never find ourselves in total darkness.

You see, we are the light.

Great Expectations—Not!

As frequent readers of this blog know, one of my mantras is that we only control two things: how we act and how we react. Last March, in the early days of the COVID explosion, I wondered aloud here whether or not Ed and I would be able to take a scheduled mini-vacation to Portsmouth in May. Would my son be able to safely fly here for a week in July (tickets already purchased)? Closer to need, would we even be able to find laundry detergent, toilet paper, hand soap? No one knows, I wrote.  

Pithily, I added “The bottom line is: We have to stay in the here and now. The here and now is all we have. It’s actually all we ever have, but pre-pandemic life gave us the illusion we could make plans and have reasonable assurance things would unfold accordingly. Well, now we can’t. There is simply nothing ahead any of us can know with certainty.”   

What I didn’t realize then—couldn’t yet know—was how hard it would be to live with the blunt force trauma of that reality day after day. Month after month. As birthdays and holidays passed without parties or family celebrations. As the canceled trip to Portsmouth became the canceled trip to London and Paris (September), and the two weeks in Barbados (this January). Ed and I used to go out to dinner every Thursday night, where all things domestic were set aside, and we talked about what we were reading, thinking, dreaming. Nights of laughter and ideas and great food. I haven’t seen the inside of a restaurant since February 2020. I don’t know what will be left of my town to “come back” to. Whenever.  

I Celebrate Therefore I Am

The one thing I had LOTS of time to do during the past year was think. What I thought about most can be loosely summarized as “What is living?” On my daily hikes through the streets of my town, one of the things I noticed was the quantity of Halloween decorations people put up this year, starting in September. (This may seem like a non-sequitur, but stay with me.) There was the usual festival of enormous blow-up ghosts, Frankensteins, and pumpkins at the house with the huge front porch, three blocks over, but there were easily another 50 houses whose tableaus of giant tarantulas, gravestones, and witches covered every square foot of porch/garden/yard. Almost everyone had some ghoulish display. And the day after Halloween, the Christmas decorations emerged!

Watching a woman unpack some 30 boxes, newly-delivered by Amazon, and set up display after display across the vast lawn of her three-storied home—Santa’s sleigh with all the reindeer, a mini-hood of gingerbread houses, Santa’s workshop teeming with elves—I calculated the cost. A good $2,000 and change. I thought about the miles-long line-ups for food handouts. The millions facing loss of employment and unemployment compensation, electricity and heat shut-offs, evictions. A part of me was angry at this ridiculous waste of money/resources. But another part of me understood: If this woman was inclined to donate, she was probably doing so in addition to this lawn show. The “lawn show” was a lifeline for her. A link to a happier time when family and friends could gather, could celebrate without masks, without fear. A return to a pre-pandemic world many of us took for granted.

The Way It Used To Be

I’ve always thought of the “holiday season” as beginning with pumpkins ripening in the fields. A season that embraces not only Halloween, but Thanksgiving, the Solstice, Chanukah, Christmas, and the Festival of Lights, wrapping up on midnight December 31 with a toast to the New Year. In that stretch, Ed and I normally purchase pumpkins from a nearby family farm and carve them. Pies are made. Our children and their various partners/friends arrive to share a Thanksgiving that features both turkey and vegan fare. Later that weekend, we journey to another local farm to pick out a Christmas tree. Back home, we wrangle it into its stand, string the lights, hang the ornaments, and toast this work of art with eggnog fortified by a dash of brandy, while watching some seasonal film like Miracle on 34th Street. In the following weeks, gift wishlists are exchanged. Ed and I shop the local merchants on our town’s “Bag Day.” Wrap and ribbon everything. Send cards. And I bake tins of cookies for far-flung friends. Evenings, we kick back to enjoy The Holiday, Love Actually, and the one that always makes me cry—It’s a Wonderful Life: “No man is a failure who has friends.” I’m not much of a traditionalist, but I cherish the traditions of this season, carved out and personalized over decades.

This September, though, my emotions ranged from indifference to dread as the first Halloween candy hit the grocery shelves. I debated endlessly with myself about whether to drive out to the farm where we usually pick our pumpkins—and wound up getting two from the supermarket a week before the day. We carved them, and they came out well (Ed’s “Trump-kin” was especially amazing), but I did not feel the holiday buzz. The eight trick-or-treaters I doled out Reese’s Cups and Hershey bars to—all of us masked and muffled—seemed to share my dispirited state. They thanked me politely as I wished them a Happy Halloween. Absent were the high-pitched laughter and squeals of candy-joy from years past. It felt like we were all just going through the motions.

The Way It Is

How does one celebrate, get into the festive spirit of the season, when friends and family are absent? When the kids scattered in cities across the country shouldn’t come home, and the annual Solstice Party that gathers the people you’ve built a life with in your community—some of those ties stretching back 30 years—isn’t happening?   

I pushed through Thanksgiving. Ed baked a marvelous mini-ham and I roasted a downsized pan of my customary autumn veggies. I made blueberry pancakes for breakfast, but skipped the mimosas my daughter and I would enjoy if she were home. A bottle of champagne is perfect for several people to tip in their orange juice at Turkey Day breakfast—recorked to finish during the boisterous hours of dinner prep, when the kitchen is crowded with cooks. But just for me (Ed doesn’t drink)? It seemed ludicrous and begging for a hangover to empty that bottle (the local liquor mart stopped selling splits five years ago), so like much else, I nixed it this year.

Ed and I played Scrabble. Dug into the pumpkin pie I’d baked. Watched the final episode (13 seasons!) of Poirot because Mind Hunters, though excellent, felt a bit too “dark” for a holiday.

It was a nice day, but it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. And I was having trouble getting excited about going out on the weekend to pick out a Christmas tree. But we did. A slightly smaller one than usual because I had to wrangle it by myself on and off the car, into the house, and into a tree stand—Ed being but two weeks out of hernia surgery. Won’t take all the ornaments, I thought, but I started stringing the lights and decorating it. “Heavy” ornaments first, and the ones from my childhood—the glass dog, missing a leg and its snout, taking pride of place because nothing, nothing, has been with me longer. Then the “fragiles.” And last, the “regulars.” True, it didn’t take all the ornaments, but I managed more than I’d expected. Gazing at the lit tree in the evening dark, it’s ornaments sparkling, I felt a breath of holiday pass over me. Maybe, maybe… I could do Christmas.

What is Possible

Among the wisest words I’ve heard in my life, this quote from Bertrand Russell stands out: “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Up to this year, I’ve always considered Russell’s words to mean: Don’t be afraid to question or re-examine your assumptions, even your beliefs. What is true will remain so, and the rest should be jettisoned. It is only now that I understand those words encompass expectations, as well. And traditions come with a lot of expectations—when things will happen, how things will happen, who will be involved. We tend to measure our happiness of such experiences by how closely they fit our expectations. But what to do when those expectations can’t be met? When, as now, they are impossible? What if, as Russell suggests, we were to rethink them? To tie our happiness not to what we can’t have—and so be hopelessly unhappy—but to locate the joy in what is possible.   

If those words sound blithe, offhand, believe me, I did not/do not find it easy to accept the loss of so much I cherish—I can be a very determined girl about making things happen. But, it has gotten easier, with mindful practice.

The Shape of Christmas Present

I knew that Christmas Day would be quiet this year. The piles of presents for our far-flung kids reduced to a few gifts for each other. The festive noisy table shrunk to a Zoom chat with the absent family members.

And shopping for gifts in my favorite local stores, where I can touch the fabrics, handle the pottery, and sift the selection.? Not happening this year. Online was the only realistic—and safe—choice. The fact that Louis Kill-Joy is still mismanaging the post office has meant everything is taking muuuuch longer than “normal” to arrive. (Of all the things we took for granted pre-pandemic, anything “normal” was the first to be jettisoned.) So, I printed out pics of things I ordered and wrapped those in small boxes, topped them with ribbons, and sent them off across the land. The printer, naturally, didn’t work from my laptop—printer error, printer error—so Ed and I tried various other computers in the house until we found one that the printer was able to relate to—and then it printed three copies of everything. Ed, in problem-solving mode, ordered a new printer. Staples delivered. And then the old printer started working again. I’ve come to expect this. The time is “out of joint” as the Bard would say, and so is just about everything and everyone in it.  

Celebrating What Is

But there have been moments, here and there, when I totally forgot how I wanted things to be and lost myself to the joy of what was at hand. Wrapping a present, listening to Brenda Lee belting out Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on a Christmas compilation CD Ed made years ago. Or Elvis doo-wopping on Blue Christmas. I mean, how can you not smile when the King is singing “It’s gonna be a BLOO-BLOO-BLOO Christmas without you”?

And so it goes.

As I write this, Christmas is just days away. We are watching our traditional holiday films— It’s a Wonderful Life is on tonight’s view-list, a reminder that not everything has been “lost.” For Christmas dinner, Ed will be making “buttery shrimp” and I’m baking a French Apple pie. We’ll have good conversation—we’ve never yet run out of things to say to each other—and appreciate that we have a home, heat, good food, and most of all, each other. It won’t be a “normal” Christmas, but it can still be a good day, a festive day.

I might even crack open a bottle of champagne at breakfast. And if a portion of that bottle goes flat in the end, well, worse things have happened this year. At every moment we can only do what we can do.  

A very Happy New Year to everyone out there. As virtually every holiday card we’ve received notes: 2021 has got to be better. We don’t yet know what the “new normal” will look like, but we can decide to find the happiness in it, too. To gaze at the stars in the infinite night sky and know there is still magic and joy in the universe. And we would be wise to do so, because our time here is not infinite, and our lives too precious to waste mourning what, at any particular moment, cannot be.

Be Kinder Than Is Necessary

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. ” (Winston Churchill)

[Note: After all the “hilarity” of life, detailed in last month’s post, my car was repaired, I got my “pass” sticker, and the yellow jackets gave it up for 2020. But two days after that dust settled, Ed had emergency surgery. He’s home and fine now, but there was a rather harrowing 48 hours in which all this happened, a sleepless two days that coincided with our driveway being paved. Do I know how to live or what? BUT Joe Biden did win, by millions of votes, and if we ever get him inaugurated, democracy has a fighting chance. Maybe by this time next year, we’ll be gathering with family for the holidays, vaccinated, and on the road to the deep physical/emotional recovery this nation so desperately needs. I’ve brought back a post from December 2018 because: 1) I need a break, but more important, 2) it speaks to the moment, perhaps more so now then it did then. Take care. Stay well. Peace to you and yours for the holidays.]

I was driving along in August—98 degrees in the shade, rush-hour traffic inching forward, some Cars tune on the local oldies station—when I noticed a bumper sticker on the Honda to my left: Be kinder than is necessary. Something lifted in my heart. A breeze penetrated the mug. At the next opportunity, I pulled over to the side of the road and jotted down those words on the back of a grocery receipt. Be kinder than is necessary.

To say we live in divisive times is like saying arsenic will kill you. Duh. And there are real issues we must confront attached to these divisions—racism, immigration, misogyny, healthcare, the environment, democracy itself—but that’s in the aggregate. On a molecular level, each of us deals with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—our neighbors and fellow community members. Not cardboard demographic representations. Not a frenzied TheRUMP rally mob screaming “Lock her up!” Or a deluge of polls dividing us 60/40, 40/60, 50/50. But real people with real faces. If we want to build a better world, this is an excellent place to start.

Wax and Wane

Texas Highway Department

Homo sapiens are a quirky little species. We are both caring and cantankerous. Principled and sheeplike. Social and self-absorbed. Among our many tendencies is the kindness we demonstrate in moments of major crisis—natural disasters, wars:

Houston resident Jack Schuhmacher rescued numerous people trapped by the rising flood waters of Hurricane Harvey, ferrying them to safety in his 17-foot fishing boat.

International Auschwitz Komitee

Hermine “Miep” Gies, her husband, and three other Dutch citizens risked their lives for more than two years to hide Anne Frank’s family and four other Jews from the Nazis. It was Miep who grabbed Anne’s diary in the mayhem of the arrests, keeping it safe until Anne’s father returned from Auschwitz in 1945.

Sadly, the sense that we’re all in this together tends to go dormant once a crisis wanes. People return to insular mode, making a living and looking after their own turf. Petty concerns predominate and rancorous rivalries erupt. Twitter wars ensue. But the reality remains: We ARE all in this together every day. If anything ultimately dooms us, it will be our failure to recognize the truth of this.

Beyond Necessity

Be kinder than is necessary. But, what is “necessary kindness”? Is it merely good manners—holding the door for someone carrying a child or packages, thanking someone who does the same for us? Is it mouthing the expected platitudes in certain situations? I was so sorry to hear that your father died/ I hope you’ll find another job soon/ Wishing you a speedy recovery. Perhaps the word necessary here serves as a synonym for the minimum response required to not be thought rude or heartless. We are busy, busy people after all, and it’s just not possible to extend ourselves to all the need out there.

Until it’s us. Our sorrow. Our disaster. Our need.

Fortunately, being kinder than is necessary rarely involves the sort of mortal risk Miep took in hiding the Frank family. Sometimes it’s just—literally—going that extra mile.

In my student days, while doing a semester at the University of London, several of us decided to go to Paris for a long weekend via the Hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais. Taking the train to Ramsgate was easy, but we had no idea where the docks were once we debarked. This was in the days before GPS and Smartphones. You got around mainly by asking the locals “Which way?”

The woman we asked for directions in Ramsgate could have reeled off a list of street names and left/right turns, as most people do. But she didn’t. Instead, she offered to walk us to the ferry landing, despite the fact that she was on her way home after a day of work, despite the fact that the docks were in the opposite direction of where she was heading. “It’s only a mile or so,” she said cheerfully, and off we went. I have never forgotten her.

A Simple Gesture Can Mean A Lot

Sometimes that extra shot of kindness is as simple as picking up your phone.

The summer I got into my VW Bug and moved to Boston, I had just written my first novel. I had an IBM Selectric III, but nothing in the way of connections to editors or publishers. About a month after my arrival, I went for a haircut. During the usual salon banter, the hairdresser, Donna, asked what I did for a living. I explained I was the editor of a business publication for retailers, but what I really loved was writing fiction. Then I told her about my novel.

Now, she could have said that’s nice or I wish you luck or how exciting. But instead she said, “My cousin is an editor at Addison-Wesley. They don’t publish fiction but she might know someone working at another house. I’ll give her a call if you like.” I liked and she made the call right then. Her cousin invited me to have lunch with her in Reading (then-headquarters of A-W), at the end of which she called her old college friend, an assistant editor at Random House. My manuscript went out in the mail the next day.

I received a lovely, enthusiastic note about the book from this woman. And though a senior editor later decided not to go with the manuscript, I was really grateful to my hairdresser, her cousin, and the RH assistant editor. It was my first experience wading into the often muddy waters of publishing, and their kind support kept me going.  

Kindness is also about compassion—bending the rules when people need help.

After a health emergency put the kibosh on a trip to London and Sicily—just days before we were scheduled to leave—I was faced with cancelling a slew of theatre tickets or losing a lot of $$$. Our Air B&B reservations and flights were refunded because we had trip insurance for those, but theatre tix always come with the disclaimer that all sales are final, no refunds. I wrote the various box offices anyway, briefly explaining our situation and asking if anything could be done. All but one of the twelve theatres refunded our money, and many wrote words of sympathy, expressing hope that Ed would be better soon. I was deeply moved by their kind notes and willingness to respond in a human way to a human situation.

Paying It Forward: The Ripple Effect

And sometimes kindness with a capital K simply comes down to paying it forward.

Jerry took his first trip to America when he was just 23. Sent by his London employer to represent their firm at a meeting in New York City, he was cabbing to what he desperately hoped was the correct address. Upon sharing his anxiety with the cabbie, he was stunned to hear the man say, “Don’t worry. I’ll wait out front for you while you check it out.”   

Jerry couldn’t believe it. After everything he’d heard about the stereotypical New Yorker—self-absorbed, indifferent—he was blown away by this man’s kindness. “I promised myself right then that I would always seek ways to do something nice for Americans visiting the UK.” 

He told me this story as I was dining out with two friends in a cozy restaurant off London’s Baker Street. Jerry was a regular—knew the owner, the kitchen staff, loved to mix American-style cocktails for the diners. Overhearing us chatting, he came to our table to ask what part of the States we were from, a conversation that lasted well into the evening. And then he offered to take us to Pinewood Studios and show us around. He worked for Lloyd’s of London in their film insurance wing, and was scheduled to for a meeting at Pinewood in the morning.   

We were excited—Pinewood Studios is a legend in British filmmaking. Fiddler on the Roof. The Man Who Would Be King. All of the Bond films. Jerry picked us up from our dorm in Regents Park the next morning and drove us to the studio where we enjoyed a tour of all the major sets and lunch with Pinewood’s director.

Show a Little Faith

When I finally managed to make it through the drive-time traffic last August, I googled Be kinder than is necessary. The full quote, variously attributed, is Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

One of the bummer side-effects of our deeply-divided society is the suspicion and uncertainty it breeds among everyone. Rather than nodding and smiling at people we pass, we are now sizing them up at twenty paces—seeking clues from their clothing, hair, make of car, accent, job, vocabulary—and making snap assessments. The anger out there becomes anger everywhere.

Is this making us happier? Is this solving our deepest, most pressing problems?

Categorizing comes easily to our species, but people as individuals are a lot more complicated than that. Yes, we have a swamp of BIG pressing issues and we need to fight for a more humane, just, sustainable world, but if we can’t show a little faith in each other, can’t open our hearts and stand by one another, what hope do we have?

Kindness—it may be a ripple that expands across the globe. That extra effort. That extra step. The opening of our generous hearts. Because we ARE all in this together. Every day.