The Human Condition (BLOG)

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.

 

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.