CoVid 19 (Pt 11) — Learning Curve, Pandemic-Style

Learning is the greatest pleasure. Ask any kid. Little kids want to learn how to do everything. A passing toddler who sees you slopping mortar onto a brick step in front of your house instantly wants to push his finger into the ooze, to see what you’re doing, and learn how, and why…. Kids instinctively want to learn. They know that’s where the fun is.

The best vacations are the ones where you learned to…. Ski. Paddle-board. Dig for anthropological ruins. Rock climb. Dance a hula. Speak a new language. Navigate on your own in a foreign country. From the learning experiences come the most visceral memories.

It’s not all roses; learning can be positive or negative. You can learn what to do, or what not to do. How to do it, or how not to do it.

What have we learned from Covid? 

Everyone’s journey through this pandemic has been different. Being forced apart, we learned how much we long for the human touch. To hug our kids! To smooth a beloved brow as they take their last breath. 

Many of us have learned that we’re stronger than we thought. That we can teach our class from a computer. Buy our food without setting foot in a store. Work from our kitchen instead of our cubicle or office. That we can do all that while keeping our families safe and sane and trying not to think about what might come next.

Some of us have learned how much we can tolerate without breaking. Without giving up. Or without letting on that we’re close to giving up. My friend, a nurse, cried tears of relief when she learned she’d no longer be working in the Covid ward of the hospital. We embrace relief, kindness, help wherever we can, in a pandemic.

For over 500,000 of us, the learning curve has come to a cruelly sudden halt. For their families and friends it goes on, but different. For those who survive, learning never really stops; the content changes, but the process goes on. If we’re lucky. 

And if we remain among the lucky ones, someday soon we’ll get to learn what the aftermath of a pandemic is like. 

Can’t be soon enough. 

Happy Valentines Day!

Happy Valentines Day…Run!

I’ve made a discovery this pandemic year: I love virtual runs!

I’ve been a runner since about 2005. Marathons, half-marathons and every other distance below that. But once I started rock climbing, in 2010, the running took second place. I can’t always make it to the runs because I’m out at a crag somewhere, or on a mountainside, or recovering from the previous day’s climb.

But this Covid year, everything is different. No climbing outdoors, no getting together with friends, no organized runs. But you can’t keep runners from running, any more than you can keep climbers from climbing….

So with trepidation, I signed up for my first ‘virtual run.’ I wasn’t sure what that meant. Did one just ‘run’ online? Did it involve fingers rather than feet? 

Surprise! You sign up, run the distance anywhere, any time, and send them your results. Simple! Easy to cheat, if that’s your thing. Virtual runs depend on honesty. The only one you would cheat is yourself. 

My ‘thing’, I’ve discovered, is goals. I’m a goal-setter, and goals keep me focused and accomplishing things. The goals here are the same, virtual or real. But for virtual runs, I don’t have to get up early. I don’t have to drive to the run or stand in line for the Porta-Potties. If it’s raining one day, I can run the next instead. I can run from my front door. All I have to do is send them a screen shot of my results. 

One downside makes it a bit harder to reach those goals: energy. Enthusiasm. Camaraderie. In a real road race, the energy you feel from all those other runners pounding the pavement or dirt all around you can help your performance immensely. It insinuates itself into your headspace and makes you better. Makes you run faster, or longer, or helps you do whatever it is that your body is saying you can’t do. There’s no substitute for that kind of shared energy.

Virtual runs, though, are the next best thing. And I love them!

Now if only there were such a thing as virtual rock climbing….

Sweet Harvest

One beet (sweet, delicious!) and 5 carrots (so sweet & crunchy!). 

At the beginning of the pandemic, 10 months ago, I planted my little victory garden. I used any pots that sat empty on my patio. I even sacrificed a few green potted plants. They were just for looks; these new ones were going to nourish me. I was going to survive this weird time, intact, at home. I was going to feed myself, be independent. Be resilient, like Nature.

Turns out, Nature is resilient, but she needs our help now and then. Like people.

At first, I tended my tidy little garden carefully, picked off the snails, hornworms and other nasty critters (who were also just out there to survive). I watered regularly. My garden and I, we bonded, and hoped.

10 months later, almost 500,000 deaths later, the pots are still there, almost empty. Hope has been stretched thin. I water them when I think of it. Snails have their way; only the hardiest plants have survived. 

Last week, after the insurrection in D.C., after the killings two blocks from my house, I decided to go make order out of the chaos the garden had become. There was enough chaos all around, in our country, in the world. My little yard would have order, tranquility. I needed it — we all did — even if the plants didn’t.

I yanked out all the random green shoots that had sprung up — weeds of surprising varieties, trees the birds had planted — and removed the thick piles of autumn leaves that now protected the soil. I picked off all the bugs. I recognized a few droopy, dwarfed beet greens, but had little hope for any produce below the soil. I recognized small, frilly carrot tops, but knew that after all this time, there was little hope of anything edible. Lack of water and care would have certainly taken their toll.

I pulled them anyway. 

They were so good! Full of natural sugars, from all the time they’d spent undisturbed. Small, like the pots they’d spent their lives in. 

Sweet and inspiring! 

In every sweet, comforting bite, I tasted hope.

Yesterday I planted 3 pots of spinach and lettuce. Later this week I’ll plant some more carrots and beets. I hope they — and I, and all of us — will fare better than we did last year.

The Last Gasp of Christmas

Every year, it hits me. Putting away all the Christmas decorations always makes me unbearably sad.

For a short, small part of the year — a cold, dark part, not even a month — my home has been a haven of color and light. Candles cut the wintry gloom with their warmth. Colored lights glowed softly instead of normal white glare. The fragile, colored glass ornaments that fascinated and dazzled me as a child still hang on my tree, still sparkle and remind me of so much innocence and tenderness. 

Colors are such an intimate, integral part of the season. The red and green plaid tablecloth transforms the small dining room into a different landscape, where one doesn’t just eat, one gathers and feasts. Celebrates. 

From the CD player, carols in soothing piano versions or Nativity music from Bach, Adolphe Adam and others, soft, melodic, tranquil. Especially, tranquil. Peace is the language of the season.

Mystery is the source of the peace. And there’s plenty of mystery to go around, however you celebrate this season. Whether it’s a baby in a village in Bethlehem, or the shortest day of the year and its darkest season, or just the wonder of a tree brought indoors and adorned with love. Mystery is the currency of Christmas. 

And then it’s over. 

In my house, it goes grudgingly. 

Peace on Earth

Peace on earth. 

Maybe not in our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean we should stop hoping.

Maybe not in our neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Maybe not in our family. But that’s what friends are for.

Maybe not in our own hearts. But we can learn.

That’s the one thing we should hope for during this season of peace. To learn. No matter how bad things are, we can learn. And learning can lead to peace. 

So that’s my wish for you all:

Peace on earth — or at least in your own heart — this new year.

Silent Night…

Although Christians claim this season for Christ’s birthday, the celebration of winter goes back thousands of years, long before the time of the ancient Romans. It’s an amalgam of traditions from all over the European world.

From many of the early northern European tribes, we inherited the tradition of a decorated tree to mark the passing of the shortest day of the year, and the hope that it brings for spring. Some regions used bare branches, to represent the barren season and the hope for the rebirth of a fertile, productive future. In more mountainous areas, we see artwork representing decorated evergreens. 

From early Germanic peoples we inherit the tradition of exchanging presents. Many tribes and regions had their own mysterious night-time gift-bringer, like Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas and others. 

Children had to behave to earn their gifts; these all-knowing mysterious visitors were privy to the whole year’s antics of every child in the region! And no one wanted to find only lumps of coal in their stocking on Christmas morning. 

In Middle Europe, mistletoe grows in abundance even in winter, which gives us our present-day tradition — a kiss, the first step in the all-important human process of fertility. 

Music often conveys the emotion of the season best. Christmas carols speak of stars, of Christmas trees, of ships and travelers, and of course, of the baby whose birth Christmas celebrates. And the most oft-played, oft-sung carol of all is Silent Night.

Franz Xaver Gruber, a choir director at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria, wrote the music in 1818. Joseph Mohr, a priest, wrote the lyrics, and once it was first performed at the church, it was picked up and spread around Europe by traveling singers. Today it’s become one of the most beloved hymns of peace that mark the traditions of this season.

Whether your winter season celebrates a birth that occurred 2,000 years ago — and changed the world — or simply the hope of the renewal to come after these short, dark days of winter, you’re no doubt familiar with the melody, and maybe the words, of Silent Night. We can all use a little peace, this season and all to come. 

Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy solstice. However you welcome it, I hope this silent night of Christmas brings you the joy of peace, and most of all this year, health to enjoy it.

CoVid 19 Re-Makes our Lives (Part 10) — ’Tis the Season to be Jolly…

What a strange, challenging holiday season this one will be! We can’t be with our families, can’t hug our parents, grandparents, friends, even as they lie alone and ill… What’s to be jolly about?

But is’t that exactly what Christmas is for? 

This year we should embrace this holiday more than ever before! This bleakest time of year, when days are shortest and growing things appear dead, when so many thousands of us will never see another Christmas season — when could we need a glimmer of hope more?

Christmas is hope, the gift of expectation. Of waiting. We wait for the re-birth of what happened so long ago. We hope we’ll get presents, and that our loved one will come home from the hospital. We hope the days will get longer, and that the relentless virus will weaken and disappear. We hope people will realize how much we need to love each other instead of coveting and destroying. We hope love will prevail.

So much hope! Enough to make anyone jolly. 

CoVid 19 Re-Makes our Lives (Part 9) — The Cure

We’re all suffering through this pandemic. Everyone is affected by it, directly or indirectly. Where can we go to rescue our health — mental and physical — and our sanity?

Spoiler alert: it’s not in your house or on your screen!

Take a moment and think back to the years before Covid. When was the last time you couldn’t wait for something, because you were excited like a little kid? You couldn’t focus or sleep because your mind was racing in anticipation? Your feelings bounced between elation, fear and curiosity as you waited for the big day to come? 

Last week, I ascended the six fixed ropes that go 1,000 vertical feet up El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. At the top of these lines is Heart Ledge, named for the huge heart-shaped formation above it. This ledge is about 1/3 of the way up, and I work my way up there every year to celebrate the day I climbed El Cap with my son — all 3,000+ feet of it — in 2017.

All year it taunts me: Will I be able to reach The Heart this year? Do I still have sufficient arm/shoulder strength? (I’m almost 70.) Can I still jam my toes against the rock all the way up, or has the surgery made them too stiff, too tender? Will fear take root in my mind, or will I be able to block that out just long enough?

While anticipation makes my mind race and my stomach butterflies flutter, it also offers an important reminder: I’m alive and doing things that excite me and take me outside my comfort zone. My outdoor challenges may keep me up at night, but they also keep my body strong, my mind clear and my spirit light.

Society loves to tell us what we can and can’t do. And when it comes to outdoor recreation, the qualifying list feels endless. We’re either too big, too small, too uninformed, too uncoordinated…the list goes on. And for those of us above the age of 60, the doubt in our ability to explore nature feels even more profound. Instead, we’re pushed toward drugs as a means to feel better and sleep better, and screens as a way to distract and entertain ourselves.

Growing old is the only process that’s inevitable for all of us — if we’re lucky. And the only say we have in that process (again, if we’re lucky) is how we’ll age.

When I was 5, I followed the big boys up the trees and onto garage rooves in a quest for adventure. A lifetime later, despite piles of articles that tell me I can’t develop muscle at my age, I remind myself of what I’ve always known to be true: age doesn’t matter. I started rock climbing when I was almost 60. Now, 70 is around the corner. 

Nature is the best healer. She doesn’t demand anything extreme; just a walk in a green park can have immense beneficial effects on our health, both physical and emotional.

If we turn off the screen, we’re more likely to hear nature beckon. If we leave the drugs in the bottle and go outside to enjoy nature’s peace, colors and calm, we might just forget why we were reaching for that bottle in the first place. 

Obviously, genetics plays a role and pharmaceuticals have their place; if a debilitating disease requires drugs, clearly that’s needed. But if all the drug advertisements on TV have convinced you that you need something to feel okay, I encourage you to consider that what you need might instead just be waiting for you outside. 

You never know who you might meet…

I climbed El Capitan at 66. I take no drugs at all, at almost 70. While that’s unusual these days, I believe it doesn’t have to be. Nature knows how to heal you, she knows what you need. A walk or an easy jog can lift your spirits like no drug can. Sunshine can warm and soothe like no drink or supplement can. It’s all there. And it’s all free. 

Now, while our whole planet is being tested by a pandemic, is the best time for us to return to our mother, Nature. She knows what we need — and she offers it freely. 

It’s time to take her up on it.

Stubbornness — Tenacity? — Knows No Age: CoVid 19 Re-Makes our Lives (Part 8)

How many pull-ups can you do? Chin-ups?

A few days ago I mentioned to a friend, a man a decade younger than me, that in all my 6 decades of life I’ve never been able to do a single pull-up or chin-up. All my life, my body and mind have not been able to even imagine lifting the whole weight of my body just by my arms.

His raised eyebrows and guarded response let me know very clearly how odd he found that. I guess the ability to lift your body weight from a dead hang on your arms is normal for most people.

For me, it’s always been completely inconceivable.

 

So in March, when the country shut down for Covid, I went online and ordered a pull-up bar, the kind that just hangs from a doorjamb, held there by its own weight and the weight you add to it. If I was going to be stuck in my house for who-knows-how-long anyway, I might as well get something productive done.

I’ve been a language teacher for 44 years. I raised two kids. I know about baby steps. You can learn anything if you break it down into baby steps. So I used a little white plastic step, the kind kids stand on when they’re too small to reach the sink — “baby step” indeed — and started just lowering myself, to the floor. ‘Negative pull-ups’, as it were. Down only.

I ‘knew’ at the outset that what I was attempting was impossible. After all, I’d tried, off and on, all my life. And everything I’ve read on the subject tells me you can’t develop muscle at my age. As a senior.

Stubbornness, however, has no age.

On March 20, I lowered myself off that little white step. I was amazed how much it hurt, each time! My elbow! My shoulder! The skin on my fingers! My abdomen! I forced myself to do it 3 times.

The next day I again lowered myself 3 times. So much pain! Such unsteadiness & wobbling!

Each day, a repeat. After a few days I added one more to each session. After a few more days, two more. On March 27, I lowered myself — slowly, resting after each try — 12 times! I knew I’d reached my peak.

I’d gone from nothing, never, to being able to lower my whole body weight 12 TIMES! (With pauses in between.) My gut feeling was that I’d never get beyond that. But stubbornness knows no bounds.

On May 4, as I stepped up onto the little white step, it occurred to me that I should at least try, once, in the other direction… I didn’t exactly pull myself up, it was a combination of a tiny jump propelled by my foot on the step, and catching my weight to then lower it. Wobbling. Straining. Gasping.

I call them “jumping pull-ups”…and I did 3 of them.

All of Sacramento probably heard the joyful shouts!

On July 3, I didn’t jump. I just raised myself, wobbling and straining, from the white step up to the bar, chin level, and back down. I stopped after the first one, to rub my painful elbow, but mostly to convince myself I’d really done it.

I call those “half-raises,” since I was still starting from the little white step, almost halfway up. Arms almost right-angled. But the direction — up — is the incredible part.

Today, in August, I did 12 full raises.

Everything I’ve ever read says that you can’t develop muscle at my age. So what’s going on?

The media doesn’t know you. Or me. They sell. They try their darnedest to convince you that you need what they sell. But they don’t know you. Somewhere, there must be researchers who know that you can, indeed, develop muscle as you age. But they don’t get the big bucks for advertising.

Whatever you want to do — push-ups, pull-ups, marathons, rock climbing — no one can tell you it’s impossible…except your own head. If you believe the hype that says you can’t, then you can’t. If you believe you can, then you can. Simple. Your choice.

All my life I heard that women are weaker than men in upper-body strength. Fewer, smaller muscles, weaker joints. Girls can’t do pull-ups. A few half-hearted attempts during my life convinced me of that lie.

Ha! The truth is out! Every day now, I go down the hallway and do the impossible — a set of pull-ups and chin-ups. Yesterday’s session consisted of 12, and I did 2 sessions. 24! A year ago, I never would have believed it.

Age is relative. Gullibility is relative. Tenacity is not.

No matter how old you are: Believe you can — it’s much more fun!

 

4th of July, at the Lake

The Lake. For weeks, the grown-ups around me talked about ‘going to the Lake’ for the 4th of July. I was growing up in New York City, with hundreds of years of history, with amazing fireworks for the 4th, with the whole world at our fingertips. But sometimes, for the 4th, we’d leave it all behind and go to “the cottage at the lake.”

Aunt Pauline’s lakeside house, “the cottage,” was a rambling, two-story white wooden house with an enormous porch that always offered cool shade, even on the hottest of 4ths. She was my mother’s aunt, my great-aunt, but in our Polish-American family, all older relatives or friends were addressed as Aunt or Uncle, a sign of respect and hierarchy.

So I had four Aunt Helens, four Aunt Wandas, and four Uncle Joes (some bona-fides, some greats-, some not related at all). When the big black phone rang at home and someone shouted, “It’s Aunt Helen,” everyone shouted back, “Aunt Helen who?!”

Penn Lake had fish, and a small dock for a little white rowboat. The whole lake and all the cottages around it were surrounded by a thick, dense, sweet-smelling dark green security blanket of trees. What mysteries lay under that impenetrable canopy that stretched as far as we could see? What creatures lived deep in that forest?

Lake Tahoe, where we sometimes go now for the 4th, at 6,200 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, is also surrounded by trees…but only conifers, or mostly. You can see through them. The ground is bare, pale beige, littered here and there with an occasional red-barked manzanita shrub or stubby gray-green sage. Empty, except for the sharp, prickly needles on the ground ready to stab.

In Pennsylvania, at Penn Lake, all the different types of big-leaf deciduous trees earnestly guarded all their secrets of unbridled life. Under the trees, smaller greenery hid everything. You never saw bare earth. When you did see a patch, here or there, or a trail, it was black, fertile, soft. I could hike barefoot. In California, I have to wear boots and long pants. Nature, here, is fierce, harsh. Unforgiving.

The pot they cooked the corn in, at Aunt Pauline’s, was almost as tall as me. The fire was already burning when we’d get there. Shouts of “Don’t get too close!” echoed throughout the day (there were lots of kids running around).

Grown-ups all sat in webbed or wooden lawn chairs scattered around the endless lawn that sloped gently down to the lake. Most of the conversation was in Polish, since most of the older generation had come from Poland. Their ‘children’ — our parents — spoke with their elders in Polish, but with us, the kids, in English. It was the perfect mix for a little girl who loved to learn languages.

I didn’t learn the term ‘wainscoting’ until I was an adult, but all of Aunt Pauline’s house had it. The line of molding across the top of it was level with my nose. The lower part was thin vertical white slats, and the kids would drive the grown-ups crazy as we dragged our nails along the wall as we walked, “click – click – click.”

“Go outside and play!” was the only remedy they knew for that.

The ‘old people’ in our world seemed to have one main antidote for stress: the glider. Every porch we visited in Pennsylvania had a glider swing. Usually it had puffy cushions that smelled of fresh air and old canvas or some other home-sewn fabric (no plastics or polyester yet), and of grandparents, or great-aunts or uncles. At the Lake, the glider was wooden, with two cushioned bench seats facing each other. Two solutions in one: the soporific, restful motion, and a friend to share it with across from you. The glider at Penn Lake was always in use.

Sometimes, someone brought an accordion. My mother always wound up strapping it on, usually as the sun was dipping down behind the lake. All the grown-ups knew all the old Polish songs. Those from my parents’ generation knew all the songs about coming back from the war, or waiting for those who did. Or not coming back. We kids just ran around playing tag or ball, nibbling an ear of fresh corn or another hot dog or a wedge of watermelon, or just eluding capture by some adult.

What a bucolic picture they made…and yet, everyone there had lost someone to World War II. No one talked about it. Barely five years had elapsed since the whole word was gripped in unimaginable frenzy. No one ever talked about it.

As night fell at the lake, there was always a large, fragrant bosom to curl up on, a lap to sit on as we held our flaming marshmallow or last ear of corn dripping with butter. How we were loved, we post-world-war children! How secure they made our new world!

At least for the 4th of July.