The Human Condition (BLOG)

Everything Takes as Long as It Takes

“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.”

Albert Einstein

[THIS post first ran in May 2018. I’m dropping it in here because I’m off to The Big Apple for a little vacay! And because it has relevance to the continued distress many of us experience: That we’ve “lost” some chunk of our lives during COVID that we can never “get back.” This post is here to remind me, and you, that it’s OK. If we’re still here, we’ve still got time.]

Note jotted to self on the edge of a cryptic crossword: One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.

Time. The thing that waits for no man. The tyrant that keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future. A specter that haunts, often causing us to feel when we’re doing X, we really should be doing Y.

Case in point: Being a writer, I have a zillion connections to other writers out there. Mostly what I hear falls into one of three camps.

1. I’m not writing right now.

2. I’m not writing enough right now.

3. I’m writing 2,000 words a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet.

These may read like mere declarative sentences. Trust me, they are not. Each one is packed with enough angst to blow the pin right out of a grenade. What’s missing from these words, but explosively present is: Time.

Let’s take another look at these statements and give voice to the elephant in the room.

1. I’m not writing right now. It worries me that so much time is going by without my writing. How much more of my life will I waste not writing?

2.  I’m not writing enough right now. I write too slowly. Stephen King writes like 200 pages a day. I’ll be 90 when this book is done.

3. I’m writing ten pages a day right now, but the rest of my life is going right down the toilet. I don’t have time to write and have a family. What am I going to do with the kids? The dog? We can’t live on take-out forever. Oh god, I missed the car payment again. And I don’t have friends anymore. No time.

Well, other than the fact that Stephen King writes six pages a day, not 200, the stress about time expressed here is very real. I hear it often from others. I feel it every day myself.  

Tick, tick, tick. Time is fleeting. Tempus Fugit—there it goes!

In the Age Before Time

When I was a kid, in that golden era after the invention of the wheel and before the advent of Facebook, my friends and I used to spend whole afternoons in the garage looking for the little key that tightened our roller skates. If we found it before dinner and got time to actually skate, that was a bonus. We were together, hanging out. What more mattered?

Sometimes we rode our bikes around all day, just seeing what was up at our regular haunts: the school playground, the little park six blocks over, the drugstore, the ravine. We weren’t disappointed by what we found—usually nothing. We were just cycling through our world, enjoying the freedom of independence.

Like most kids, I had a few chores. Setting the dinner table. Cleaning my room. I didn’t enjoy them, but I didn’t dread them. My mom would call, “Time to set the table,” and I’d have to put down the book I was engrossed in, or pack up the game I’d been playing with a friend, and go slap down those knives, forks, and spoons. But I never watched the clock. I never thought, “Oh crap, I’ve just blown ten minutes setting the table.” And I certainly never thought about those tasks when I wasn’t doing them. I just did them and resumed what I’d been doing or started something new.

Just taking things as they come—when does that change?

The Responsibilities

Does time start to feel like the enemy when our responsibilities expand beyond laying out the flatware?

I carried a full load of courses throughout college and worked 30 hours a week, but I don’t recall ever feeling harried by the clock. I didn’t even own a watch. When I was at work at the Student Union Grill, I was at work, chatting with customers as I flipped their burgers and fried their fries. When I was in class, I was in class, talking literature and history, psychology and feminist philosophy, enjoying making connections among the zillions of new ideas bombarding my brain. If I had a paper due, I started in around midnight and worked through the wee hours until I handed it in at class the next day. No biggie. Occasionally, I slept. I didn’t count the hours.       

There’s a cartoon from those days. A friend clipped it for me. “This is exactly you,” she said.

But really, it was all of us. I never heard anyone angst about time. There was a healthy sense of We’re here to explore life. We worked. We played. Wherever we were, we were there.

Out in the “Real World”

Entering the REAL WORLD: Is that when time lays a stranglehold on us?

I remember going for my first big-girl job interview. You know, the one where you suit up and park your personality in neutral. The interviewer began with this zinger: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Five years? I didn’t “see” myself at the end of next week. I knew I was a writer. I knew I wanted to always be writing. But I had no timeline for my dreams.

I also knew the interviewer expected me to detail how I planned to climb some ladder I hadn’t constructed and didn’t care about. So, I gave him some garbled gab about ambitions, probably cobbled together from TV shows and articles I’d read about bright young things “going places.” Then I left. Quickly.

After that, I went out west for a while, where I discovered I need deciduous trees and seasons. Then, I came back east for grad school, which I left two years later after some serious #MeToo harassment from a prof, in a time when women were still being advised to “suck it up.” I wrote my first novel. None of this felt like wasting time.   

 At my second “real world” interview, for an editor’s job, the company focused on my skill set and portfolio—in short, my ability to do the work—and didn’t ask ridiculous questions. (Wherever you see yourself in five years, I can almost guarantee that’s not where you’ll be.) I got that job, and the job came with strict deadlines. I was responsible for planning, sourcing, and writing a monthly publication.  

Surely, I must have felt the pressure then—time as an anvil waiting to drop on my head, like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon.

Not really. When I was watching Late Night with David Letterman in, say, March, I never worried that I wouldn’t make deadline on the April issue. When the company started sending me on the road to give seminars for our client subscribers, I didn’t panic about finding the extra hours to prepare a presentation. I was psyched about the travel, meeting new people and staying at legendary hotels like The Palmer House in Chicago. Bring it on. Everything was an adventure.

Of course I didn’t have kids yet. Is it family responsibilities that send us into a tailspin, time spiraling out of control like a plane losing fuel fast?

Parenthood: Who Has Time to Think About Time?

I don’t think there are many parents out there who would argue that having kids is the busiest thing you’ll ever do. There’s something going every minute, and that’s on a slow day. Often, it’s a three-ring circus. You’re making dinner and baking cupcakes for the school fundraiser while helping with homework and maybe adding the finishing touches to a Halloween costume. I recall the blissful peace of doing my work (I was a copyeditor for El Sevier at the time) at the kitchen table after the kids had gone to bed.

Actually, kids keep you very much in the present. Their needs are of the immediate kind, rising in one moment, taken care of in the next. I never had time to worry about time. I took care of them, played with them, ferried them to friends and activities. Once they were in school, I went back to school, too, and became a teacher. By the time I had a classroom, the kids were able to do their own laundry and clean their shared bath. We did takeout one night a week. Everything still felt manageable. When I was doing one thing, I wasn’t tortured by the feeling I should be doing something else. That would come later.     

What the Hell is Time Anyway?

It seems like a good moment to pause here and consider the nature of this beast we call Time. A brief Google search informs me that:

“Time is a very curious thing. Ask anyone on the street if they know what time is. They are sure to answer yes. But then, ask them to explain it to you and they will almost certainly be at a loss for words.”   (David Lewis Anderson)

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” (Albert Einstein)

“Time is the measurable unit of movement concerning a before and an after.” (Physica IV, 11, 219, b1)

Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, I’d like to offer a little perspective here.    

The Earth came into being a tad over 4.5 billion years ago. Geologically violent in its infancy, and constantly bombarded by meteorites, it took 2 billion years for things to settle down and the continents we know to materialize. Latecomers to the party, it would take another 2,499,800,000 years for us to show up, and then we took our sweet time—another 145,000 years of it—to invent the wheel.

Things take time. Some things take massive amounts of time. Even on our puny human scale, it takes a long time to become a virtuoso at the violin, write a book, lose 20 pounds. We need to find a way to not only accept that, but to embrace it, enjoy the journey, and stop looking over our shoulder at all the things we haven’t done, aren’t doing, still have to do.

The hour we fuss and worry that we should be doing X while we’re doing Y is an hour we won’t get back again.  

For my birthday last month, my husband gave me a writing retreat. I booked four days at a hotel in the Berkshires, packed my laptop plus my current read, and left home. I set no goals—word count, number of pages. I just wrote. Not only was the time highly productive, it was tremendously relaxing. The real gift, I discovered, was not feeling like there was anything else I should be doing. I was where I was.

An Hour is an Hour

The hour we had as a child is the same hour we have now. It has neither expanded nor shrunk. So the difference in our perception—this perpetual sense of being squeezed—must lie in our expectations.

Maybe it’s not our life stage or chronological age that makes us feel we should be moving through everything at lightning speed, but the age we live in.  

Less than a hundred years ago, the journals kept by farmers recount a day’s events as what happened in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. They had much to do and few “labor-saving” tools to help with the load. But they just plowed or planted or harvested as the seasons dictated and understood that when night came, the workday was over. They had to accept their limitations.  

And there’s no evidence in their accounts that they fretted about what they weren’t getting done. No Oh god, I’m out here hoeing and I should be churning butter. But how am I ever going to get the peaches canned if I churn the butter? They went with the rhythm of the year—a much larger, more forgiving time unit.

I grew up in a more exacting age. We moved through life by the hours. The school day started at 8:30. We went home for lunch at 12:15 and had to be back at our desks by 1:00. Bonanza was on Sunday nights at 9:00, and the library closed promptly at 5:00.  

My children grew up with the nanosecond. Their sense of timecrunch is manifest in the way they watch a movie—while texting, Facebooking, chugging down dinner, and prepping for a work conference call.  

But we are still just people, and an hour is still an hour. If we try to cram three hours of to-do stuff into every hour, then we’ll always fail. If we insist on doing it all perfectly, we’ll go flaming nuts.

Very likely, there isn’t time to do everything. But doing everything is a mad goal anyway. So, forget about covering all those bases. Ignore the benchmarks “everyone else” is measuring themselves against. Stop watching the clock. Everything takes as long as it takes. Perhaps, fretting about time is the only true waste of it.

A passage from a childhood book about life in the 1860s sticks with me. The 11-year-old heroine goes to talk something over with her father. He’s repairing a clock. Scattered over his work table are springs and cogs and levers. “He was absorbed in the task at hand.”

The word on the street is that when you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.

Time is not the enemy. Time is life. It’s all we’ve got.

Joy Can’t Wait

Last month, I mentioned that I walked my hood daily during COVID as a healthy alternative to going completely bonkers (for which there is no vaccine), and that I continue to do so even though my local gym has re-opened. Yes, the gym has a range of equipment that exercises all of me, large flatscreen TVs with a zillion channels, regulated comfy year-round temps, and fluffy towels, but after nine years, it’s… boring. Not so the varied streets of my town, where every day brings something new and interesting to my view: 

A jumble of tiny painted clay gnomes set beneath a maple tree.

An interweave of hedge branches so intricately constructed, so heartstoppingly beautiful, I paused in mid-stride, certain British nature sculptor Laura Bacon had snuck in and arranged it all moments before.

An eye-popping purple gate leading to a hidden garden.

The May morning everyone’s tulips bloomed, cued by some perfect mystery mix of rain, sun, and good karma.        

An eye for the little things, an appreciation for the details. Certainly as a writer, it’s a necessity. But does it contribute something larger, more profound—an essential ingredient to our well-being?    

The Measure of Happiness

As a species, we tend to measure our happiness in terms of the BIG splashy moments. The summer we rented a villa in Italy and traipsed through the vineyards, the day we bought the house of our dreams, the year we made CEO, were nominated for Teacher of the Year, won a Pulitzer.

All grand, memorable stuff. The trouble is, such events come rarely in a lifetime, and for many of us, may never come at all. So, do we entrust something as precious as joy to such precarious possibilities?   

Joy is much bigger, more significant than this prize or that acquisition. Joy can carry us through the toughest of times, the most difficult struggles. It sustains strength and offers solace, but the secret is you need a steady feed to maintain your energy, your love, your hope. That’s where the “little stuff” comes in—joy is in the details. It’s in the seemingly “ordinary” things we encounter every day, if we can just slow down enough in our pursuit of the big stuff, the grand goals, to notice it, breathe it in.

The burst of color in the garden.

A house someone painted to celebrate the words and scenes of Romeo and Juliet.

A hummingbird fluttering over a cluster of pink asters.

A bowl of water some kind soul left on their lawn for passing dogs in the heat of summer.

Hearing a song that takes us back to some long-ago cherished moment—the people, the place, the emotions.

What is Possible Begins With Joy

If joy feels like a stretch in a moment when greed-fueled climate change is cranking temperatures sky-high around the globe and burning large swaths of the western U.S., while the pandemic continues to rage in Africa, the Middle East, Florida, Texas, and Missouri, maybe we need to view joy through a wider lens.

Yes, the joy we derive from the “little things” feeds our hungry soul, but its reach, like a stone cast in a pond, ripples far beyond ourselves. The joy each of us brings to the table becomes a powerhouse when multiplied by many. A powerhouse of unity that could change the world. This is the message of Contra-Tiempo, a self-described “bold, multilingual Los Angeles-based activist dance theater company creating physically intense and politically astute performance work that moves audiences to imagine what is possible.”

In early July, Ed and I went to see Contra-Tiempo at Jacob’s Pillow. Not a summer’s sojourn in Italy or a penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but it was our first visit since the pandemic wiped out live performances last year, and we were itching to go. The show was staged on a large platform outdoors, the trees around hung with colorful tapestries celebrating the rich diversity of cultures across the globe, the green forested slopes of the Berkshires serving as backdrop. And it was one of the few days in the whole of that month when it did not rain in the Northeast. All these “little things” added up to a very joyful afternoon.

As Contra-Tiempo salsa-ed and hip-hopped to Afro-Cuban music in a work titled joyUS justUS, they encouraged us to see our possibilities as agents of social change, to realize that “our power comes from the relationships that we have with each other as human beings.” Sadness, fear, depression, hate—they zap our energy and isolate us. But joy nourishes our compassion and confidence. Joy, Contra-Tiempo reminded us throughout the afternoon, is at the heart of building a better world for all of us.

Community is Everywhere WE Are

One of the delights of life, for me, is discovering the links between people, ideas, events—something strikes you and, suddenly, like a motif, it’s popping up everywhere. Just days after our trip to the Pillow, I was reminded of Contre-Tiempo’s powerful message about the convergence of joy, art, and community in creating a more loving and just world.

Unsplash: Dedu Adrian

July, as I noted, was rain, rain, and then—surprise!—more rain in my neck of the woods. Not a day passed that I didn’t reflect on the insanity of the western half of the U.S. suffering killer heat waves and drought, while we in the Northeast were awash in a gazillion inches of rain. Scrap those deadly oil pipelines wreaking destruction on the planet and build a clean conduit to California—we have enough water to float the Ark! But luck occasionally literally shines down on us, and we managed a lawn concert at Tanglewood on the evening of July 10, the late afternoon sun sparkling on the river that runs beside the backroad to Lenox.

The Tanglewood “parking lot”, being a vast grassy field, was a tad mucky, but the worst mudholes had been roped off. So, shouldering our chairs, the portable table and cooler, the sweatshirts-for-later, Ed and I trekked up the road, across another parking swamp, and waited in line for tix. When, at last, we passed through the gate, the scene was amazing. The vast lawn was filled with people, gathered to celebrate the return of the Boston Symphony Orchestra after the long COVID hiatus.

Unsplash: Jojo Yuen

People of all ages, all cultures, and every walk of life were chatting, picnicking, relaxing—united in the common love that draws them to this spot: Music. Tanglewood is joy. Always. But this evening was especially magic. From the moment the featured soloist, pianist Emmanuel Ax, stepped onto the stage to greet us until Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, took up his baton at the podium, we cheered and clapped and whistled. Wave after wave of applause. For the musicians of the BSO, for the return of live music, for the incredible beauty that is this spot in the Berkshires. But more than that, bigger, deeper, we were cheering the reunion of a community that survived to unite in this space once again.

Community, I think, may be the link between the little moments of joy and the profound power it bestows to move the universe.

The buzz of the BIG stuff—the awards, the promotions, the luxury this and that—wears off more quickly than we imagine beforehand, and the reward for a job well done is … another job. But joy, you can find it everywhere. Even on the crappiest day, the one with a zillion troubles to bulldozer through. Even in the most godforsaken, arid landscape, life rises—exuberant, unstoppable—and with it, joy.

Until I win the Pulitzer for literature, I’ll settle for that.

 

The Noise Within

During my son’s recent visit, we drove up to Vermont. The centerpiece of this daytrip was lunch at my favorite summer eatery—the Marina, in Brattleboro. The restaurant boasts a sizable deck overlooking the Connecticut River. In the soft hazy heat of a June afternoon, you can enjoy a lazy meal to the sound of water lapping and birdsong. The word somnolent comes to mind.

I first dined at the Marina eons ago, scant weeks after moving from the heart of Boston. The restaurant’s deck was smaller then, but the tranquility factor was just as high. Sitting there, I was startled to realize the only noise was me. All around was serene—the agitation, the angst, the tumult was all within me. I love cities. Love the diversity, the wide array of culture, the energy, but in the chaos and rush of the urban, you may never hear your own heartbeat.   

A Discordant Jangle of Uncertainty 

The noise within: You’ve got a zillion things to do—a zillion things you want to do—but you can’t settle on what to tackle first. Whatever you turn your hand to, you find yourself spinning your wheels, repeating the same steps without making any discernible advances. Busy doing nothing, as a friend once put it, leaves you exhausted but unfulfilled. In this state of paralysis, hours and days melt away as you frantically row but get no closer to land.

The noise within distracts us from what matters most in the moment, leaves us confused and uncertain about our true feelings—Am I doing what I want? What do I want? It blurs our focus and renders us immobile. Should I go this route? But what if I went the other way? What if I miss something vital? The possibilities overwhelm. The problems feel insurmountable. Fear spirals wildly, an endless loop of anxiety. What if I fail? What if I fail because I fear failing? We are swamped in a deluge of despair.

What is Making All That Racket?

The still calm of that long ago afternoon on the Connecticut River revealed the noise within me, but Boston didn’t create that noise. You don’t have to be standing in Times Square to be rendered deaf to your inner voice. We live on Planet Earth, home of Social Media A to Z, the Worldwide Web, and the 24-hour news cycle. An unceasing parade of pundits forecast doom and gloom. Experts—true and false—spout their wisdom(?) freely everywhere. “You should do this.” “You mustn’t think that.” “Everyone knows…” The subtext: Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. Like the increasingly contaminated air we breathe that pollutes our lungs, the constant, often contradictory, mumbo jumbo from these talking heads offers lots of anxiety but little affirmation.

The din of the outside world—a cacophony of voices, often strident and discordant—may drown out the most essential voice, our own. Getting away from that din long enough to tune in to our true inner state is the first step toward reducing the noise within. The good news is, we can choose to decrease the time we spend on, take breaks from, or entirely turn off this media circus. We can limit the authority we grant to others, especially strangers.

You don’t have to hide away in a yurt in the Himalayas to hear your own voice. You just need to create space and trust yourself. While it’s wise to take in and weigh new or differing viewpoints, it’s healthy to remember—and value—your own experience, your needs, your hopes. If anyone tells you they know you better than you know yourself, don’t believe them. And if someone says, this is the one right way to do/approach/achieve this, ignore them. In every field, for any endeavor, history proves there are many paths to any goal.

Mute the Noise: Mind Cleansers

During the pandemic, shut out from my usual visits to the gym, I took long walks. The gym has re-opened but I’ve put off signing up, preferring these daily rambles that both empty and “clean” my head, leaving space for new ideas, insights, calm. Some people, I know, swear by meditation, but I get fidgety sitting still. For me, the mind/body catharsis of a good walk works best.

Other mind cleansers I’ve discovered or borrowed and tweaked include:

1. Get ready… Jigsaw puzzles! Yes, those BIG 1000- to 2000-piece babies. Absorbed, focused solely on finding and fitting pieces, it’s my “dessert” at the end of a workday. Unlike the inner push many of us feel to have a finished product—a new chapter on the book, the entire garage cleaned—to show for a day’s effort, jigsaw is all about process. No one expects to complete a jigsaw in an afternoon. There’s no “right” number of pieces to fill in. There’s no success/failure pressure. It just feels great to make whatever progress you can. If we could adopt this attitude about all our endeavors, the sanity quotient would skyrocket around the globe.

Okay, I hear you saying, but what about real deadlines? The kind the boss imposes. Believe me, writers get deadlines, too. All the time. I think it’s possible, though, that more gets done—and better—when we focus more on the work itself and less on watching the clock. Anxiety is not conducive to either creativity or productivity.

Unsplash: Hello I’m Nick

2. The stuff that nags. The seemingly endless—and changing—list of troubles and woes we can’t fix at the moment—or maybe ever—but must wait for the answer or leave to fate. This is an old trick—one the experts got right—but it has worked for me (when I’ve taken the time to do it). Make a list of the stuff your mind keeps churning over to no avail. Just brainstorm it without pause or judgment. Then tuck that list in a folder or a drawer—I tape mine to the far side of my file cabinet where I can’t see it—and let those suckers go. Get on with life. You might get a shock from revisiting this list in a month. How many items have resolved themselves or simply don’t matter anymore? And how much energy have you freed up in the meantime? Repeat as often as necessary.

3. Of course, there are BIG valid worries aplenty in our world. Our climate is in chaos—June saw 115 degrees in Las Vegas. Geo-politics are trending toward the fascist. Here in the States, we’ve watched the rise of violent militaristic groups and white supremacy. Voting rights are on the chopping block. Whole lotta noise out there.

Unsplash: Mika Baumeister

I confess to struggling with these fears—I like to get out in front of troubles and act to prevent them. But when we’re talking about problems of this scale, it’s just not possible for any one person to eradicate or correct them. They are systemic and well-funded by Big Money. Allowing them to endlessly rattle around in our brain drains us of hope and energy. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength, writer and Dutch watchmaker Corrie Ten Boom cautioned. And she walked the talk on that one. Cornelia “Corrie” ten Boom and her family hid many Jews in their home during World War II, aiding them in escaping the Nazis.

Like Corrie, what each of us can do is act from where we are. We can make phone calls, write letters, register voters, join local environmental groups, protest, and donate. Every dollar helps. Every voice raised swells the whole. As Corrie Ten Boom’s life shows, action gives strength. Empowers rather than depletes us.

Unsplash: Jonathan Kemper

4. Once you’ve freed up some mental real estate, you can direct your energy. Choose your focus. What are the basic areas where you want to expend your time and effort? My list includes: Writing (novels/short fiction/blogging), playing guitar, gardening, house projects, reading, walking and, of course, family/friends. These are things I strive to do with great frequency because they matter to me—in the case of writing, almost daily.

What my list does is provide a road map, a general direction, when I start to feel lost or overwhelmed. Say, if I have six hours today, I might spend two on my current work-in-progress, and one hour each on blogging, walking/guitar, and gardening. The sixth hour? Maybe I’ll throw those boxes of clothing for the Salvation Army into the car. Ed and I will drop them off, then enjoy a summer lunch at a favorite café.   

I don’t do these things with a stopwatch. It’s just a loose guideline. If I should get bitten by the neighbor’s dog—which happened two weeks ago—and have to spend my morning in the ER, c’est la vie. No self-recrimination. As John Lennon wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

5. Mental health days. Take them regularly. Play is as essential to our well-being as the loftiest purpose. Got a full-time job? Kids to care for? Ask a spouse/partner/relative/friend to step in for an afternoon. Even a daily mental health hour—like the walks I took during COVID and continue to enjoy—can reset your head.  

Your True Voice: Let it Rip

Unsplash: Clay Banks

“The sky is falling in!” Henny-Penny cries in the classic children’s fable, after an acorn falls from the tree above and bonks her on the head. While it’s never pleasant to get hit on the head, I think if you look up, you’ll find the sky is still there. It’s always been there. It will always be there—at least in terms of any timeline that concerns us.

The noise within, maybe it’s just a whole lot of acorns pelting us from one direction and another. If we let them take seed and sprout, we’ve got a forest so dense, it muffles our true voice. But we can choose to cast those babies aside one by one and keep focused on what really matters to us. Whether that’s work or play, if it doesn’t hold some kind of real satisfaction, I don’t want to waste myself on it.

I hope you’ve found something in these observations and ideas that will help vanquish the noise within. I also hope you’ll take a moment to comment and share any “tricks” you use to turn down that din. Our possibilities are too wondrous and our hours too precious to let our true voice be muffled in the roar of the crowd.

I Always Wanted An Orange Kitten

What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open. (Jose Manuel Barroso)

[Note: Changes. We’ve had a decade’s worth in a year it seems. Maybe a century’s. Much of it troubling, even scary. But as we move into this familiar-yet-different, post (sort of)-COVID landscape, it’s worth remembering: Change is also possibility. Ch-ch-ch-changes, turn and face the strange, David Bowie advised. So, I’m re-posting this 2018 column to remind myself, you, all of us, that happiness, opportunity, love—they often arrive in different containers than what we first imagined. Enjoy.]

Since college days, my life has been filled with cats. There’s Phoebe, a tortoiseshell kitty who napped atop my turntable; Starbaby, a calico who cleaned out the bottom of my yogurt cups, then lined up the empties in the bathroom; Maggie, a stray I “adopted” from the Boston pizzeria that fed her; Tia Maria an opinionated, affectionate gray with a “hint of beige”—also mother of Brutus and Jasmine, both brown tigers. And Francesca, a tiny, gray long-haired kitten who was terrified of most everything, but loved Brutus and followed him everywhere.

Most of these cats had been rescued from one kind of immediate-need situation or other. I didn’t set out to choose them. More like our paths crossed serendipitously and I’m a big sucker. But when Brutus died at age 17 and Frankie followed four months later, I found myself catless for the first time in 27 years. After the worst of the grief subsided, I knew what I wanted. I wanted an orange kitten. I had always loved that color (too many “Morris the Cat” ads, perhaps), and now I could take myself down to the local animal rescue shelter and pick one out.

Most of the cats at the shelter were, like me, no longer kids. One heartbreaking duo, ages 12 and 14, had belonged to a woman who had died at the age of 93 (may we all get there!). I considered them because, obviously, like all aging orphans, they were not going to be most people’s first picks. But then I thought maybe they weren’t really up to life in a house with two teenagers (mine).

“If you’re interested in a kitten, we have four brothers here, eight weeks old,” the shelter attendant said.

And there they were, four little kitties romping about a boxy cage, tumbling over one other, each more heartbreakingly cute than the other. And none of them orange. Not even close. Not even a speck.

You know how this story goes. I chose a little gray guy, white-tipped tail, both spunky and sweet. I named him Mercutio on the spot.

Recognizing a pushover when she saw one, the attendant added, “It’s two-for-one month.”

Well, I had my daughter, Lauren, in tow, and between the two of them there was no way I was leaving that shelter with only one cat. I picked out a frisky black-and-white dude and christened him Tybalt.

So, no orange kitty. And yet, here I am 14 years later with gray Mercutio (Coosh) and black-and-white Tybalt (Tibby), and I know when they leave this world, as all things must, I will feel the kind of pain that just about does you in. Tibby is playful and good-hearted and would let you rub his belly forever. Coosh cuddles up on the bed beside me as I read each night to the strains of Mozart (he’s a big fan).

Two things here strike me: 1) It is in our nature to want particular things, to have definite plans, to map out pathways, goals, and 2) It is in the nature of life to divert most of these desires and plans. 

The question is: How do we handle these detours and diversions?

When the Bottom Drops Out

Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes. (Hugh Prather)

Okay, it’s pretty easy to punt one’s desire for an orange kitten. But how do we deal with it when we love what we’re doing, and then the bottom drops out. The company closes. The funding evaporates. Our plans go up in smoke.

When my kids moved into the later elementary years, I enrolled in a competitive M.Ed. program at a local university. They only took ten candidates, so I spent the year prior to application substitute teaching and taking undergraduate courses like math for teachers. I was one of 50 applicant finalists interviewed, and I got in. But that was just the beginning. The program was a one-year intensive, and I do mean intensive. I did my practicum in the second semester while carrying a full load of classes and cooking/cleaning/ferrying my two kids to appointments, lessons, and friends. I did my coursework in the wee hours of the morning. I dreamed of sleep. 

But then I got hired and taught six-year-olds for several years. First grade—teachers either love it or loathe it. I loved it. Those little guys are my chosen people. Whether we were immersing ourselves to the elbows in papier maché to make tectonic plates that became mountains when shoved together, or compiling lists of words where oa makes the long o sound: coat, goat, boat, float—we were into it. We grooved on observing and recording the life cycle of frogs. Bring a tank of tadpoles into first grade and you’ve got instant joy. Yes, we were happy campers.     

And then the Iraq war happened and with it, deep budget cuts in federal aid to public schools. With only two years in the classroom, I was a prime target for staff reduction. This was a serious bummer. I loved teaching. After two years, I felt I was really hitting my stride.  

So, what to do? Schools across the state were cutting staff. Getting another teaching job looked about as likely as a lottery win. The director of my M.Ed. program hired me to supervise student teachers in their practicum. I liked the work, but it was part-time for spring semesters only.

In the meantime, my daughter had graduated to studying with a new violin teacher, a faculty member of the music department at yet another local college (we’ve got tons of them) and an international recording artist. As we chatted at the first lesson, it somehow came up that he had come to England from Germany in 1939. Alone. Carrying nothing but his violin and several of his father’s paintings. An 11-year-old kid fleeing the Nazis. My heart turned over. I had to write his story.    

I had done a cover feature for the local paper’s weekend magazine several years before, so I called the editor and she was enthusiastic. Over the fall of that year, I interviewed Philipp about his Jewish family’s life under the Nazis, his year as a refugee “orphan” attending a boarding school in the Midlands, and his family’s subsequent reunification in America. The feature ran just days before my M.Ed. director called to ask if I would be supervising the new interns for the upcoming semester.

Two roads diverged … in the nanoseconds before I replied, I thought I could make my life writing. I had earned a living from writing before as editor and main content contributor for a women’s retail monthly. I had completed two novels and was writing a third.

“I’ve decided to try my hand at freelance writing,” I said. And that was what I did, pitching pieces and writing for magazines. It was the best career “move” I ever made.

When New Facts Contradict Old Beliefs

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. (Stephen Hawking)

In the early ‘70s, when Nixon’s Watergate scandal was ramping up to tsunami level, the deeply conservative rep from my Michigan district made national headlines with these words: Don’t confuse me with the facts.

Sometimes, when we’ve invested a lot—years, dollars, hope, energy—we’re tempted to don blinders and ear plugs against anything that threatens our status quo and calls for a rethink. 

Charles Darwin was a creationist when he first visited the Galapagos Islands as part of the HMS Beagle expedition to chart the coastline of South America. In fact, his father had sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge to earn a B.A., as the first step to becoming an Anglican parson.

As a creationist, Darwin believed the particular adaptations of many species were simply proofs of divine design—that each species had been created for its special place in nature. Fixed. Immutable. What he observed in the Galapagos challenged everything he thought he knew.

Faced with a conundrum—either sweep under the proverbial rug all questions raised by the variations among tortoises and mockingbirds he’d witnessed in the Galapagos OR investigate—Darwin investigated. His Journal of Researches suggests it was a slow investigation, and likely painful entertaining the loss of old notions, but he could not turn away from the search for what is—for truth. Twenty years of conversations with zoologists and ornithologists followed that visit to the Galapagos. Two decades of exhaustive research. When at last he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, Darwin was a true believer in evolution.  

In his article for smithsonianmag.com, Frank J. Sulloway wonders aloud why Darwin was the only person to embrace evolution out of all those exposed to the evidence in the Galapagos. “In the end,” Sulloway writes, “it is perhaps a question of courageous willingness to consider new and unconventional ways of thinking.”

When you Least Expect it: Recognizing the Gift in the Moment Before You

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance. (Harrison Ford)

 In the summer after my junior year of college, I did a semester in London, studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre and poetry. I saw 27 plays in six weeks. I lived in a dorm on the edge of Regent’s Park. I reveled in the British Museum, the Tate and National Galleries, the Victoria and Albert, and Kew Gardens. I browsed the wealth of Charing Cross bookshops and enjoyed the camaraderie of the pubs, the remarkable kindness and generosity of the British people. In short, I fell in love with the city. London became and has remained the home of my heart. At the end of that summer, I hated to leave but I had two terms left to finish my degree. I vowed I would someday return for good.

Fast forward to 2007. Knowing that my marriage would bite the dust when my youngest finished high school, I was combing real estate ads for flats in the greater London area. I was going to make the move. Realize my long-cherished dream. Nothing would stop me.

And then, on a Friday afternoon in July, Ed happened. To riff on Casablanca: Of all the coffee shops, in all the towns, in all the world, he walked into mine. That day, as he was leaving, he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a good weekend. I vaguely recognized him—one of the regulars who was often there when I arrived mid-morning to work on one freelance assignment or another.

Over the next two months, Ed and I started talking. I began arriving earlier. He stayed later. We ran the conversational gamut from silly to serious with total ease. Even our silences were comfortable. And we shared many passions. Travel, books, baseball, progressive politics, cooking, dancing, a fascination with language generally and word-play specifically. A love of laughter. We were both freelance writers and editors. He was reading a book on Bletchley Park in World War II. I was writing a book centered on Bletchley Park in World War II. We began going out to lunch and taking long walks together. In between, we e-mailed constantly.

The time for filing my divorce was rapidly approaching. With it, the need to start putting things in place to make London happen. From the viewpoint of my plans, it was a most inconvenient time to fall in love, But fall I did. Over my head. Out of my mind. Passionately, joyfully, crazy in love.

London aside, the relationship was not without risks (is there ever a seismic move in life without risks?). Ed was on a transplant list at the time, waiting for a new liver to replace his rapidly failing one. Would a donor liver be available in time to save him? Was I giving up my London dream for a situation that might quickly devolve into a nightmare of hospitals and end in tragedy?

I remember standing in my driveway on a warm September night, summoning all the reasons that following my heart might be foolish. But I kept coming back to the simple truth: I loved him. And then I thought the only true foolishness would be to give up a man who was perfect for me in every way. Who made my heart sing. The liver situation was a gamble, yes, but everything in life is a roll of the dice. A seemingly perfectly healthy person can suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm. There are no guarantees. But I knew what I had in that moment. I had Ed and he was the love of my life. Eleven years on, and one successful liver transplant later, he still is. 

And now, we visit London annually. He has become quite a fan.

Carpe Diem

At one point or another in my life, I’ve wanted to be one of the popular kids, have string-straight hair like Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton, and move to the desert. None of these things happened, thank god, because as it turns out there’s far more freedom outside the clique, I’ve come to love my wild curls, and I need lots of green in my environment.

We don’t always wind up at the place we started out for. The road curves. Circumstances change. New facts emerge. Unexpected opportunities erupt.

Yes, we don’t always get what we want, but that’s not the end of the world. Sometimes it’s just the beginning.

Do Androids Dream of a Virtual Life?

Let me say up top I’m not a big fan of TV commercials. I usually hit “mute” and bask in the several minutes silence before the news/baseball/whatever resumes. BUT the Progressive Insurance holiday ad featuring the agency’s icon “Flo” and her PI family in a 16-way Zoom confab—that one I watched every time. Too funny.

And too true.

We had our own multi-multi Zoomfest over Christmas: Ed, me, our four adult kids and their partners for a total of nine people on six screens.  

All those “memorable” Zoom moments when one or several screens freeze and you’re not sure if the frozen ones can hear or see you? We had those on steroids. Also, rounds and rounds of the joyous confusion where everyone talks at once, followed by total silence. Major awkward pause. Apologetic clearing of throats. Everyone glances around their little boxes. Then everyone resumes chattering—all at the same time. It’s nice to see the faces…  

And then there are the Zoom conferences and forums put on by various orgs. What Zoom meetings lack in confusion, they make up for in tedium. To be fair, I’ve only attended one, a get-out-the-vote postcard writing “party” hosted by National Nurses United for then-Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—but one was enough. I stayed for the first 18 minutes, left the link open, and went off to do something more exciting—as I recall, it was a load of laundry.

It was a great cause, and the organizers were trying to create a festive atmosphere. Heads popped in—Hi everyone!—and out on three different screens. There was a sifting of papers. A fiddling with computers. Christmas decorations floated near the top of one screen. Disconnected chatter ensued, relieved by much hemming and hawing, as the organizers attempted to “get the party started.” The real action seemed to be the participant comments scrolling down the right side of the screen. So good to be here. I got my postcard packet yesterday. Is it too late to get extras?

Well, how much can you really say about crafting a handwritten message that must fit in a 3” x 3” space? Write very small? Okay, party over.

The New Eating Out: Eating In

Rod Long

Ed and I enjoy eating out. From the rooftop bistro of the local brewery to the “eclectic locavore” cuisine of our favorite “dress-up” restaurant. And we are not above sharing a footlong and fries at the ice-cream stand on a hot summer night. We also both cook, and if it’s not too bragga-dacious to say, we cook rather well. Eat out. Cook in. I’m good with either. What I like less, and what has been the only dining-out option the past year, is “take away.” The COVID option.

Case in point: On my birthday last month, Ed and I decided to play hooky all day and skip the kitchen duties. Solution: Take-away from a favorite Indian restaurant. Mangalorean Shrimp Curry and Chicken Vindaloo. Dreams of coconut gravy with ginger and tomato. Fantasies of tangy hot-and-sour chili vinegar.  

Reality? Lukewarm mush in aluminum plates that needed: 1) re-plating, and 2) reheating. A jumble of condiments in teensy plastic containers. All devoured in the usual dinner “spot” (on the sofa, watching MSNBC, The Crown, Endeavour, or a movie), while dressed in jeans and house slippers.

What do restaurants and cafes have that even the best take-away can never duplicate? The theatre of it all: The sizzle of fajitas. The buzz of conversation from the bar. A world filled with other people that somehow creates an intimate space for lively, funny, thought-provoking chatter with your dinner companion. At the end of such an evening, you feel you’ve had an experience. Bonus: Someone brings the dishes, clears the dishes, cleans the dishes.

At home, you just rebox any leftovers and rinse the aluminum plates for the recycle.   

Surf ‘til You Drop?

I’m not a shopaholic. In fact, I rarely go shopping as an activity in itself. Of course, “shopping” during COVID has largely meant surfing Amazon or other online purveyors for everything from socks to fancy espresso makers. In the first six months of the pandemic, the fleets of Amazon, UPS, and FedEx trucks were virtually the only traffic on the local roads. Piles of boxes tumbled across the front porch of nearly every house I passed in my daily walk. What were all those people ordering? And more to the point, where were they stashing it all? As the comic Steven Wright used to quip: You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? In the digital shopping mania of COVID, it seems many of us were endeavoring to answer that question.

I must confess, I have done virtually nothing to enrich Jeff Bezos in the past 14 months. My pandemic purchases have fallen far short of a “spree”: two pairs of jeans from the Gap, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg facemask, and some holiday gifts for family. Amazon may be the world’s largest bookseller, but it is not my local bookstore with its overflowing shelves and jumbled stacks of titles, all waiting for me to turn pages, sample passages, digest jacket copy. For the same reason I gravitate toward print books and eschew Kindle reads, I prefer the tactile delights of real-life commerce, Main Street or the mall.     

Surfing through endless digital pages of consumer goods is no substitute for clothing or shoe stores, jewelry shops, gift bazaars, or kitchenware emporiums. The sensory pleasures of browsing shelves and display cases, feeling fabrics, hefting pots—it cannot be duplicated by an online image in a 1” x 2” box.  

With Real Life shopping, you can pause for a latte or a glass of wine at the local café. Enjoy the passing scene. Chill with a good read. Shopping online, you’re lucky to have this morning’s reheated coffee (rapidly cooling) within reach.         

My only Real Life shopping the past 14 months has been the weekly trek to the grocery store, something of an endurance feat as the narrow aisles are packed with employees filling bags for the store’s home delivery service. I understand the convenience—and I’m sure, in some cases, necessity—but I want to browse the selection of red peppers and cucumbers, see the freshness (or otherwise) of the seafood, read labels, compare brands.     

Is it Live or is it … (sigh) Virtual?

As big fans of dance, Ed and I have been regular attendees at Jacob’s Pillow Summer Dance Festival in the Berkshires. The Pillow hosts some of the best dance troupes from around the globe. Everything from audacious tap-master Michelle Dorrance (Dorrance Dance) to the Ballet Hispánico. From Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to the Royal Danish Ballet.

Obviously, none of this happened last summer. Instead, the Pillow has been hosting “virtual” dance performances. A sample invite from my email:

Alexander

The Pillow Lab is a continuing series of online short films begun last year, which capture works in process by artists during their on-site residencies at Jacob’s Pillow. Join us for the screening of our newest film… and live-chat with flamenco dancer Nélida Tirado and her collaborators as well as audiences from around the world…

So, instead of an evening or matinee live dance performance with all its grace, athleticism, and dazzling brilliance—an event which even in a building that could use more fans on an August day, leaves you energized, inspired, transformed—we have only videos of six-inch-high dancers on our tablets and laptops. True, you can hook up your computer to the TV and double the size of these flamenco virtuosos and ballet legends, but you can’t capture the electric, pulsating buzz of the real thing, the synergy between performer and audience.   

The Pillow notes “a private virtual reception” will follow the performance: These gatherings provide a unique platform to share your reactions, feedback, and questions with the creative team. Oh joy, more viewer comments scrolling down the side of the screen…

One is the Loneliest Number

In no way do I fault The Pillow or other arts orgs for doing all they can to survive the COVID shutdown. The arts are already underfunded in the States, their primal role in feeding our souls and nurturing our humanity underappreciated. A virtual performance is certainly better than no performance at all to those of us starving for live art—dance, music, theatre. But listening to a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will never be like sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood on a star-lit summer night, the genius of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms drifting across a moment in time you’re sharing with hundreds of others. And a taped production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will never be like watching actors perform that miracle of a play from a gallery seat in The Globe in London.

It has been posited that communal storytelling began almost as soon as humans could speak. Fables to warn of dangers, myths to explain the mysterious, tales to mark an occasion, celebrate a victory. Wherever a people gathered, storytellers were sure to emerge, and audiences devoured it all. Without an audience, the storyteller, the playwright, the troubadour did not exist. Without an audience—to listen and remember—Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart would likely have died with their age.

Maybe the most significant aspect of live performance is the community it forges through a shared experience. Now we have video streaming, but the virtual is experienced by the individual. The lonely I instead of the we. Ephemeral, it tends to get lost in the “next thing.”    

Hold Onto Your Seat, We’re Traveling by Armchair?!

Collins Dictionary defines an armchair traveler as “someone who finds out what a place or location is like by watching travel programs on television, looking at internet websites about travel, or reading books about travel.” I can only add “and viewing virtual tours.”

Perhaps nothing has been so altered by the pandemic as travel. With each nation compiling its own specific no-fly zones, both for its citizens and those of other countries, the result is a jigsaw even Einstein would be hard-pressed to untangle. Thus (drum roll) … virtual travel! But we don’t need the brains behind the Theory of Relativity to drop the penny on this one: If you don’t leave your armchair, you ain’t really going anywhere.   

Nevertheless, when has truth stopped anyone from making a buck? Amazon.com offers something called Amazon Explore. For $69, you can “hear the legends and tales of the Spanish Inquisition in Madrid” (60 minute session). Aside from flirting with redundancy—legends and tales (Is that like gravy and sauce, Pepsi and Coke?)—you get to “see” a couple of palaces and the Plaza Mayor, once the site of torture and execution.

Also running 60 minutes, but far cheaper at ten bucks, is a virtual tour through the “Tango-infused La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.” On this tour, or “experience” as it’s called in the Web ad, “we will insert ourselves [ouch!] in the heart of La Boca… walk through Caminito street and … show you inside what was formerly a tenement for immigrants, today turned into a shopping destination.” Okay…

For no dollars at all, thetravelintern.com offers a 3-minute virtual tour (don’t blink!) through “some of Japan’s most popular sights—Kyoto’s bamboo forest, Nara Deer Park, and even a sumo exhibition!”

Yes, you can find out about the climate of a country or the architecture of its towns from a TV program. You can peruse the list of a city’s museums, art galleries, and eateries online. You can read about the history and peoples of a region. And you can also do all of these “virtually”—but you can never discover what a place is like unless you go there and walk its streets, talk to its people, eat the local food, and take in what it has thought worth preserving. No video, book, or website can ever give you the feel of sitting in a café on the cascading hillside of Santorini, overlooking the Aegean Sea with its underwater caldera, a crater from a volcano that erupted 3,700 years ago and left today’s beaches black with lava pebbles. No virtual tour can duplicate the awe of the Alhambra, the 13th century royal residence and court of the Nasrid Kingdom in what is today Granada, Andalusia, Spain—an architectural gem the Moorish poets called “a pearl set in emeralds.” And an English pub is a British cultural institution you must experience firsthand, as unlike a Parisian café as ale is to wine.  

A Tweet Ain’t No Feet in the Street

One of the most flummoxing notions to emerge during COVID—ranking just below TheRUMP’s touting of bleach as a cure—has been the idea that virtual protest is anything like… well, protest. I mean, the whole history of protest has been putting our bodies where our values are. Literally walking the talk. In the streets.

The year-long Montgomery bus boycott (1955/56), inspired by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, required that Black citizens—a sizeable share of the city’s bus riders—actively not ride the public buses. Instead, some 40,000 Black men and women walked to work and back every day, in all kinds of weather, for a year. It was a highly visible, striking image that television news cameras broadcast and the bus company could not ignore. All the likes in the world on Facebook pale in comparison. Feet in the street.    

It took hundreds of protests and hundreds of thousands of protesters—some nine years of feet in street—to stop the Vietnam War. A generation of Americans came of age in that unflagging effort and was forever shaped by it. Their numbers continue to be well-represented in Real Life actions today.

Could four Black students protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina (1960) have built a national movement with tweets alone? It took derrieres on lunch-counter stools at the local Woolworth’s—where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone who wasn’t white—to achieve that. It was the first of the legendary sit-ins, but not the last. Within four days, 300+ students had joined in, bringing business to a halt at Woolworth’s and other local racist venues. Eight weeks later, the fight for de-segregation had spread to 55 cities in 13 states.

The 1963 March on Washington—a quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial. The 1965 March to Montgomery with its iconic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Can you imagine these milestones in history as virtual online events? Without hundreds of thousands of feet in the street this past year, it’s highly doubtful that Derek Chauvin would ever have been convicted of George Floyd’s murder. Real people on the streets in real time make real change.  

I began this post with Zoom, that substitute for hugging-your-kids-for-which-there-is-no-substitute. The highlight of my COVID Zoom experiences was a family wedding. Despite a number of pauses early in the proceedings to restore the sound, it was a sunny day, in a lovely setting. The teary toasts to the radiant bride and groom, the reading of a powerful poem, the performance of a song—all were beautiful, brilliant, moving—but I couldn’t hug the bride and groom, couldn’t taste the cake. Ed and I were just two heads in a tiny square amid a sea of other tiny heads in tiny squares, lifting the beverage of our choice to toast the newlyweds.

If this post’s title “Do Androids Dream of a Virtual Life?” tripped a familiar switch in your brain, it’s a riff on Philip K. Dick’s immortal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the blockbuster 1982 film Blade Runner.

I feel pretty sure Philip K. Dick understood and would agree: There ain’t nothing like the real thing.