Creeping Normalcy…in a retirement community

I have not posted to the series “Diary From a Social Distance” in many months. The novelty, even of a pandemic, and the insights it might offer each of us, have gradually faded into the background of daily life, no matter how restricted. I offer this poem, written over the course of the summer and early fall, as a final post in this series. An historic US election will take place in less than a month and, regardless of the result, will, perhaps, give birth to a new series of posts under the umbrella of “respect.”

Creeping Normalcy

Normalcy is creeping back into our lives.

It is hard to resist.

All my resolutions to live

By the lessons learned during

These past months of pandemic,

Are donning fresh feathers and

Getting ready to fly out the window.

Sick of “social distancing” guidelines,

An impromptu cocktail hour

Has sprung up on the patio.

Technically, chairs should be

Six feet apart and masks should be donned,

But even without a tape measure, I can

See that the chairs are nudging closer.

And masks are dangling from one ear

Or bundled beneath the chin.

A nose peeps out, to catch a breath

Or lips to speak a word unmuffled by a covering.

Others have dispensed with masks all together.

After all, how can you consume a cocktail

With your lips held prisoner by a mask?

The staff, hoping I suppose to set good examples,

Wear their masks avidly and sit at great distances

For their lunch breaks on the patio.

At the beginning of this long ordeal,

When I would step outside my door in early morn,

To begin my daily round,

I would be shocked by the quiet – the absence

Of traffic humming in the distance.

Now, not only do I hear it at

Rush hour, but when I drive to some “essential” errand

I notice a “normal” number of cars on the road. 

In pandemic’s early months, the streets were quite deserted.

Though I have not dined in a restaurant,

But only ordered take out,

Or shopped in any store,

Except a pharmacy or a supermarket,

I felt emboldened by the warm weather

To meet friends outdoors and walk

Among the budding trees,

Six feet apart, of course,

En-masked for sure.

Now that nearly seven months have passed,

And we are reminded frequently that not one single

COVID case has plagued our retiree sheltered lives,

We feel a sense of invulnerability.

We think, why not eat inside at the “Dolphin”

Shop with crowds at Walmart,

Go to church, a wedding, or a funeral.

Let those who live in congregate housing

And those who live in cottages co-mingle, we implore,

To do jumping jacks and yoga,

Play bridge and ping pong,

Meditate and talk!

But no, the risk is still too great

Until we vaccinate.

The prime concern as winter comes,

And holidays are round the bend

Is contact with our families.

We’ve seen them “en plein air,”

So to speak, in summer months.

Cold gradually prevents that luxury now.

The staff is searching for a way

For us to see those we love in cold and snow.

A special room, a special shield,

Hygienic cleansing, no touching please!

Enormous effort, expensive too.

Reminding some of TV scenes

Of prisoners on either side of

Touch-proof glass

With hands outstretched, and eyes engaged.

What seems acceptable and normal now

A year ago

Would have been unthinkable.

This normalcy has crept upon us

Each day, each week, each month.

So now, the temptation is oh-so-keen

To abandon caution,

Let down our guard.

But no! En garde! My friends.

A little more patience and sacrifice

Is required of us still.

Our strength and ingenuity will help us

In this battle against virus and the flu.

Get your shot, wash your hands,

Wear your mask, stay six feet apart.

We will prevail!

And though the virus spreads and kills,

We’ll do our part on our small front

To end this Plague, and stem this Tide

Of loss and grief,

Inhumanity, and vicious Pride.

Moriah Freeman

October 10, 2020

Cleansing or Transforming?

I’ve been mulling over the ideas behind this post for several weeks.  I don’t want to be considered crazy, and I do not write with the authority of a scientist, historian, or prophet.  But the notions I am about to share will not stop pestering me.  They come to me several times a day, every day. They insert themselves into my conversations, my reading, my walks in the woods, and my early morning reflections. They have driven me to the internet to see if anyone else is having similar ideas, and to conversations with friends to try them out on others.

I find the notion that Mother Earth is “taking vengeance” upon us humans through the Coronavirus, somehow appealing.  Since we have been too obtuse, lazy, arrogant, and greedy to read the signs of the Earth’s suffering, perhaps we need to be knocked over the head with a plague of biblical proportions. Enter COVID 19.  I am not the only one that finds the idea that the Earth is cleansing herself attractive.  However, nowhere on the internet could I find any science to back it up while several articles debunk it. So, I bow to the scientists.

Well, if not cleansing, how about transforming? I believe that everything is interconnected.  I wouldn’t exactly say that there are no accidents. Instead, I’d say that at any given moment, the conditions are right or wrong for something to happen.  Understanding the conditions that make an event possible is a powerful predictor and can be an effective deterrent. It wasn’t a deterrent in the case of this viral pandemic, but here’s hoping we may have learned a little something.

For instance, take the recipe, a prescription used by thousands of novice bakers during the pandemic to make delicious meals and desserts that may temporarily soothe our anxiety about the present and the future.  The baker who follows a tested bread recipe exactly will have a relatively good chance of creating conditions resulting in a delicious loaf of whole wheat bread.  If she is slipshod in following directions, the result is less likely to be satisfactory. 

Of course, there are always conditions over which she has no control.  She will not be baking the bread in the same oven that the recipe’s author used.  Nor will she be doing her baking in the same area of the world with the same atmospheric conditions.  But, as they say, “Thems the breaks!” You work with what you’ve got and learn from the results if adjustments are needed.

For a long time, we humans, highly-evolved thinking beings, have been creating the conditions leading us to this critical moment in our history – The Coronavirus Pandemic. Sometimes we have done so unwittingly, sometimes with complete knowledge of the inevitable effects of our drive for dominance and our greed. We have asserted our authority over the Earth, conquered the sea, ascended into the air.  We have used our planets’ resources, and one another, for our enrichment and to bolster our personal and national power.  The ingredients of our recipe have been combined and baked, and the COVID-19 loaf has finally emerged from the oven.

A monk at the Buddhist monastery of Plum Village in France offers a YouTube talk on the Coronavirus pandemic and calls the spread of COVID-19 across the globe a “Noble Moment” in our history.   He’s nuts, right?

He says that a “noble” moment is an opportunity to wake up, a teaching moment, a moment of suffering that leads to healing.  It is both painful and liberating.  It reveals our fragility and vulnerability, and it awakens us from our arrogance and self-absorption.

The global nature of the pandemic both proves and strengthens our interdependence. It is no respecter of persons, social class, race, nationality, or religion. However, its effects will be disproportionally severe for the poor, the underprivileged and the elderly – those who are the most vulnerable among us and whom we discount so easily in our drive for more power and wealth.

Some philosophical outliers like me have dared to posit that Mother Earth is cleansing herself through the pandemic – bringing us to our knees for our sins.   If the Coronavirus is not Mother Earth, punishing us for our crimes against her, or cleansing herself from the effects of those crimes, is it possible that the current necessary conditions for our survival against this virus (social distancing and staying at home) have at least given us an opportunity for a “global retreat.” 

Rather than rushing to get back to our routine, busy, transient lives, can we see this as an opportunity for a global stepping-back – stopping, standing still, looking, and listening deeply?  We who do not have to worry about losing our jobs or our businesses, about feeding our families, caring for the dying, or mourning our losses from COVID, are being offered an unprecedented opportunity for insight and clarity of vision.  Can we embrace this chance to reflect on ourselves, our desires and needs, our relationship to others, and the natural world? 

Can we ask ourselves the hard questions such as: What do we need for a life of safety, health, happiness, and well-being?   How much is enough food, clothing, shelter, education, freedom, self-fulfillment for me?  Is it possible for everyone to have enough?  Do I want everyone to have enough? Are those of us who have more than enough willing to make some sacrifices in the name of equality?  And if not for equality, for interdependence and collective well-being?  Can we admit that our hubris has brought us to this point and that the pandemic has the potential to be a global wake-up call?  Perhaps not a wake-up call sent from on high or from the earthy wisdom of our planet but inevitably shouted to us by the conditions that we have created.

Will I ever take travel for granted again?  Will I stop eating meat and move to a plant-based or at least a humane vegetarian diet?  Will I put the brakes on my at-whim consumption? Will I consider what is necessary for my happiness and well-being and shy away from excess? Will I work toward systemic as well as personal transformation?

I believe the Earth is badly in need of cleansing, but we, not she, are the potential cleansing agents.

Simple Comfort

In Maine, where Governor Janet Mills has extended our “Stay At Home” order until the end of May (with the exception, it seems, of getting a haircut, whether you are man, woman, or dog,) it is still early spring.  Yesterday the temperature was above 60 degrees F for the first time this year.   Tiny leaf buds adorn some of the trees, and we have not yet moved from daffodil to tulip season.  The air cools down considerably in the late afternoon and remains cool until mid-morning. 

The new youth minister at our local Episcopal Church asked families this morning (via Zoom, of course) what is helping them to get through this time of social distancing? Having no children, I did not attend that virtual church service, but I would love to have heard the children’s responses. 

Had I been there, I would have waved my hand enthusiastically to tell everyone that I have invented the very best homemade (from scratch) hot chocolate. The hot chocolate season is certainly not over in Maine, and I, being a chocolate fanatic, drink it all year long.

I’ve thought many times since our first retirement community Coronavirus Bulletin came out on March 10, that I would like to share my recipe with my readers in hopes that they might find this delicious drink comforting and something to look forward to daily.  (Being disciplined, I limit my intake to one a day.)

So, here goes:

1 tsp Hershey’s Cocoa (Special Dark)

10 turns on a salt grinder (Coarse Sea Salt)

½ tsp Stonewall Kitchen Sea Salt Caramel (or any caramel sauce you can find)

Hot Water

Half and Half, Cream, or Whole Milk (Nut milk also works)

Put the cocoa in a large mug, grind in the salt and pour in hot water.  Stir vigorously.  Add the caramel sauce and stir again.  Add any kind of cream or milk to taste. If you like very dark chocolate, you can drink it without any dairy.  I have tried adding a teaspoon of peanut butter as well, and it gives a mild “peanutty” taste to the chocolate. The peanut butter doesn’t melt entirely though, leaving a residue at the bottom of the cup when empty.

I started making my own hot chocolate when I realized two things:  1) how much sugar is in the hot chocolate mixture you buy in the store; 2) a diet low in sugar can reduce inflammation in muscles and joints and thus reduce pain. A lot of experimentation led to the recipe above.

What brings you comfort during the long days, weeks, and months of “social distancing?”  It can come in small and unusual ways.  I have spent hours standing at my computer with a mug of hot chocolate on the desk near my right hand during the last eight weeks.  It has accompanied me as I have read and written emails, made cards for friends, drafted poems and blog articles, colored mandalas, and participated in Zoom meetings. (To be honest, the Zoom cocktail hours involve something a little stronger.) 

How are you caring for yourself during the pandemic?  What little treats are you allowing yourself?  What calms nerves, lifts spirits, brings insight, and makes you feel at ease.  What awakens you to the present and prepares you for the unknown future? What is your “simple comfort?”

Walking Meditation

About six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to practice social distancing, a small group of residents at my retirement community began a weekly meditation session. The activity fell under the umbrella of “Health and Wellness,” and the meditation we practiced was purely “secular.” Each week the same core group of meditators gathered for half an hour of sitting (or lying down) in silence and stillness, focusing on our breathing and relaxing our bodies.

Proof that we found it helpful lay in the fact that we kept coming back. Some of us were new to meditation, and others had practiced for years, but meditation is an “equalizer.” We are all beginning again, each time we sit in silence.

In early March, the decree came down from on high (the management) that we must not gather indoors in groups of any size, we must stay six feet apart at all times and, eventually, wear face masks. The cottagers were told not to come to the main building where the apartment dwellers live. So, reluctantly our little band of meditators “disbanded.”

Before “social distancing” became the rule of thumb, I invited the group to try walking meditation. But while we could gather indoors, there was not much interest in it. Then, as hints of spring began to appear in the world around us, as we became tired of long days inside, I asked again if anyone would like to join me outside for a meditative walk. This time it appealed.

We gather on the open patio behind the main building. Fortunately, two paved paths lead off in opposite directions from this central point, bordering the large triangle of lawn on which we play croquet in the summer. The paved walkways are safer for those of us who are unsteady on our feet, and those who use canes or walkers.

We begin at 1:15 p.m. each fine day (but not during rainy weather.) The small masked gathering of five or six seniors stands quietly in a large circle with the appropriate distance between each. A singing bowl chimes three times, and we start off at a snail’s pace, down the left walkway and back to the patio, down the right walkway and back to the patio. We again gather in a circle, hear three more chimes, and end by bowing to each other and offering the greeting “Namaste,” “the light in me honors the light in you.”

Such a simple practice, but one that we find meaningful and helpful during this stressful and tumultuous time. Focusing on the breath as we walk gently on the earth awakens us to the present – to what we see, smell, and hear, to the warmth of the sun and the touch of the breeze on our faces. We thank each other at the end of the walk. At first, the “thank-you’s” were accompanied by smiling lips, but now, we see only smiling eyes above our face masks.

I don’t know what my fellow meditators experience during our daily ritual.  For me, it is a welcome break in the middle of each day.  My days are not exactly “busy” anymore, but they’re still full and purposeful. Our walking feels like an anchor that holds me secure amid all the uncertainty around me. I take deep breaths and allow my “self” to sink into my body. As my mind quiets and my body awakens, my senses are heightened. I see more clearly and hear more acutely. My brain stops whirling like a dervish, and my time-conditioned mind drops into the timelessness of “now.”

The enormous pine tree in front of me waves in the breeze with a “whishing” sound. The birds chirp, and so does a brave little chipmunk who is determined to warn us away from his territory. We notice first the crocuses, then the daffodils, and eventually tulips leaves and tiny red buds on trees that will soon flower in glory. I totter along, wondering at how unbalanced I feel when I walk slowly. I hear the gentle scuff of feet behind me. I disengage from planning. I stop analyzing and dissecting the circumstances of my life. Someone told me that other community members look down at us from their apartment windows. I wonder what makes them stay inside. We are an open invitation to a simple and mindful pause in the middle of the day.

No matter how slowly we walk, the meditation ends too soon for me. I ask myself, again, to carry this slow “nowness” into the rest of my day.

What sustaining rituals have you created during the Coronavirus pandemic? What new practices are your anchors at this time of worry, fear, political confusion, isolation, loss, unemployment, poverty, sickness, and death? If you have found some inner peace and reassurance during this time, can you carry it forward into the future? Can you join it to the various awakenings experienced by many others in this unprecedented situation? Might it be a “change-agent” for your life after COVID-19 is vanquished?

So might it be.

Adding Insult to Injury

Last night it snowed in Mid Coast, Maine.  This morning we awoke to about 6 inches of the heavy wet stuff, the kind that bends and breaks very soft birch tree trunks and lowers laden pine branches to the ground.  Yesterday it was an early spring day in southern Maine, and today it is again full-on winter.  Those of us who were finding consolation amid the Coronavirus pandemic by the promise of spring – crocuses and hyacinths blooming, daffodils almost ready to burst forth in their glory, forsythias on the brink of yellow buds – have had our hopes dashed in a matter of hours.

Daffodil in the snow

But that’s not our only loss.  Many Maine residents awoke this morning to find they had lost power during the night, a regular occurrence when the snow is heavy and wet, and most of the power lines are above ground.  When I checked at 7:00 a.m. today, over 200,000 customers of Central Maine Power (CMP) were experiencing outages.  The most extensive CMP customer base is in Cumberland County, where I live.  There are 166K CMP customers here, and as of 2:45 p.m., 7,819 remain without electricity.  In my town, 1,357 homes are still without power.  Ours is not one of them, thankfully.

Here ’til May!

Power outages are inconvenient and annoying at any time, but now they compound the already high anxiety we are suffering due to the COVID-19 epidemic.  Many households, like us, have stocked up on groceries and have refrigerated or frozen large quantities of food to tide them over during the “stay at home” phase of the disease curve.  When I told my spouse this morning about the extent of outages in our county, she exclaimed, “Thank you, Jesus!” Not one of her usual utterances. She is enormously relieved that we have electricity.  She has stuffed our tiny freezer with carefully planned and rationed meals to last us for a month or more.  Imagine the distress and angst for those who awoke this morning to find their store of frozen food on the way to defrosting. 

Furnaces and heaters are not working. Hot water is lukewarm, on its way to cold.  And, of course, no one can take shelter with friends or family at this time.  We must stay away from one another, at home in our cold houses, losing hundreds of dollars worth of food.  Since many people have lost jobs and the federal stimulus package has not yet delivered its meager assistance to the average family, replacing that food when the power comes back on may be, at best, a stretch economically, and at worst impossible. 

Around us, a day ago, we saw lawns beginning to green and woodland paths dry enough for walking, one of the few safe activities at present. Now we see huge piles of dirty snow that we can expect to marr the landscape until, perhaps, May 1 or longer.  In 2020 Maine will have two mud seasons! Who would blame a Mid Coast Mainer for feeling his or her spirit crushed?  It’s just too much! 

But don’t feel too sorry for us.  We are incredibly resourceful.  We have to be to love living in Maine.  The snow will melt, the hardy daffodils will survive, and eventually, the power will come back on.  As of today, there are 586 cases of COVID-19 in Maine.  Seventeen people have died.  Our stats are low compared to other states because Maine reacted early to put measures in place to protect our population. Our public officials learned from other areas of the US further ahead on the disease curve.  Also, we are a mostly rural state with a low population density.    

Though it may seem that the April 9, 2020 snowstorm has added insult to injury (or perhaps injury to injury), it was an incredibly beautiful wonderland outside my window when the day dawned this morning.  Courage Mainers! Onward!

Let’s all improvise!

I pulled up in front of my local Post Office at 7:45 a.m.  I wanted to be at or near the front of the waiting line when it opened at 8:00 on this Saturday morning. I had debated in my mind about whether I should risk going out in public after the “Stay at Home” order issued by our governor, Janet Mills, on April 1st.  Could I consider this errand something urgent and essential, or was I putting myself at risk unnecessarily to mail this small package to my friend in Cambridge, MA?

My friend is very ill.  She was taken to the hospital by ambulance the week before COVID-19 exploded in Boston, so near to death that the emergency room staff placed her on life support.  When extubated a week later, it was a miracle she began breathing on her own and, within a few days, was discharged home.  During her hospitalization, someone stole the watch I had given her for her birthday. She was heartsick at its loss. Over the phone, I promised her I would give her another one just like it, and this morning I was venturing out to put the new watch in the mail.  Why, my significant other asked, was I risking going out in public now, instead of waiting until the pandemic winds down? I fear my friend is near death, and I want her to know how much I care for her.  The watch is a symbol of that care.

When I arrived at the PO, a postal worker was struggling to raise the US and MIA flags on the pole in front of the building.  She was wearing a mask and a latex glove on her right hand.  She complained that wearing a mask is difficult if you also wear glasses because they fog up.  She had a hard time seeing to hoist the flags.  I commiserated.  I was not wearing a mask, but I do wear glasses, so I am well aware of the phenomenon.

Another senior citizen stood in front of me at the door.  We were careful to say six feet apart, but we chatted pleasantly for a few seconds and then began exclaiming at the horror of the Coronavirus pandemic.  As we waited in the lobby for the inner doors to open, the flag hoister emerged from some inner sanctum with a roll of paper towel and a spray bottle of cleaner (sanitizer, I presume.)  She commented that the PO was not able to provide any disinfectants, so she was bringing her supplies from home to clean the door handles and counters as best she could. I thanked her warmly for her service and said I appreciated her efforts to keep us safe.

A few others entered the lobby.  Two men wore face masks.  The one six feet behind me had a neat diamond-shaped mask that covered his nose and chin with the upper and lower points of the diamond and fit snuggly to his cheeks.  I thought this looked particularly effective and asked him where he had found it.  “China,” he said. “We know people in China, and they sent us a supply. I am here to mail some to friends and family.  I’d better not broadcast that, though.  Someone might steal the package. Imagine, we are getting this stuff from China!”

At exactly 8:00 a.m., a male postal worker opened the inner door and invited us to approach the counter.  He wore a brightly colored and patterned face mask that was hand made.  I noticed there were bright yellow stripes on the floor to indicate where to stand on line keeping the prescribed distance from other customers.

While the woman at the front of the line mailed her parcel, I looked around at the sales counter.  A plastic barrier, held in place by blue painter’s tape, rose from the counter to the ceiling.  Small openings were cut in the plastic wall to allow for the passing of boxes and envelopes.  It certainly looked jerry-rigged to me, as if postal clerks had assembled it in a hurry with scraps of materials at hand.  I supposed it would be minimally effective in protecting the workers behind it. 

When it was my turn to approach the counter, the clerk apologized for the wait.  I assured him there was no problem. He asked the usual questions about my parcel: “Anything liquid, fragile, perishable…any lithium batteries?” I owned up to the watch and the possibility of a lithium battery in it, but that was not problematic, he assured me. Then he asked new questions: “Any hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes?” I said, “No,” but wondered what would have happened if I had said yes.  He was all business, trying to keep the line moving, so I dared not ask.  Are there penalties for attempting to mail our new “contraband” across state lines?  My parcel was not big enough to contain toilet paper, so he did not inquire about that.

The dreaded moment came when I was required to insert my credit card into the machine.  How I wished I had worn latex gloves! I had a small package of 10 at home that I had purchased a while ago for use while housecleaning.  They, too, are contraband now, along with masks and anything that sanitizes. 

Transaction complete, I thanked the clerk profusely and exited quickly.  I did not return my credit card to my wallet.  When I reached the car, I pulled a small bottle of hand sanitizer from my pocket and rubbed it on my hands before touching the door handle or the steering wheel.  When I arrived home, I carefully wiped off my wallet, my credit card, the car keys, and the doorknobs.

I told my spouse about the experience. I wondered at the Federal Government’s decree that Post Offices provide an essential service and must, therefore, stay open, while leaving the postal workers to fend for themselves and improvise as best they can to protect themselves and their customers. 

“It’s a crazy world out there!” we seniors say to each other as we pass on our campus streets, breathing fresh air through improvised masks, and feeling relatively safe.  Next time I venture into that crazy world (not any time soon, I hope), I will wear a face mask (we have those blue industrial ones used for woodworking) and two of my precious stash of latex gloves.

Masked and Gloved!

Joy Guilt

You know “survivor guilt?” defines it as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died.”  We often think of survivor’s guilt in relation to the Holocaust, or perhaps, 9/11.  It’s likely, I think, that some may experience survivor guilt when the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course. Those who have lost relatives, close friends, or colleagues may be left wondering why they were spared, especially if they were also exposed to the coronavirus.

What is “joy guilt?” My definition: “feeling guilty about being joyful when so many others are experiencing fear, deprivation, stress, loss, suffering or danger.”

I am feeling “joy guilt” at the moment.  Or should I say, I am wondering if I should be feeling guilty about experiencing so much joy during this pandemic?  I am joyful, while many others are stressed, sick, or even dying.  Should I not be somber, sad, afraid?  Should I not at least feel isolated and lonely as I keep my physical distance from those I love and the community in which I dwell?

And yet, I am experiencing irrepressible happiness, joy, and thankfulness. (Except in those few moments each day when I hear the news on Maine Public while driving or TV in the early evening.)  Why am I so joyful?  The pandemic has completely changed my daily life.  Instead of rushing from one appointment or commitment to another, always thinking about what is coming up next and whether I will be ready for it, I now have a nearly empty calendar. Huge blocks of time have opened up during my days, and I have the freedom to choose how to use them.   

Of course, I still have a “to-do” list.  But now, instead of watching it get longer and longer, I see it grow shorter. Now, I am open to spontaneous suggestions or requests, as the invitation from a friend to walk our dogs together on the trails that surround our retirement community.  (Keeping a six-foot distance from each other, of course.)

I realize that I am blessed beyond many. I have the resources to live in a wonderful independent living community where the very competent staff have put into place appropriate measures to protect us from coronavirus infection. I am not at risk of losing my business, my income, or my home.  I am tech-savvy enough to be able to order online and have groceries, pet food, and pretty much anything else I might need or want, delivered.  So, I am starting from a baseline of security that many others do not share.  I am also well and healthy, with no medical conditions that put me at risk of death from the COVID-19. I am very, very fortunate.

I also realize that I am not invulnerable.  My good fortune could come crashing down around my ears suddenly if a family member contracts and dies from COVID-19 or loses his or her job; or if I become sick with the virus and don’t bounce back to health quickly, or at all. My joy may evaporate at a moment’s notice. So, during the quiet early hours each day, I hold those suffering in the pandemic in my thoughts, trying to fathom their pain and fear, their insecurity and loss. I feel awe and gratefulness for the healthcare workers who are risking their lives to fight this disease.  I am thankful for the US Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. Though, I don’t understand whether it will provide the necessary relief that Americans or their economy will require.

Despite ubiquitous vulnerability, I feel joy. On top of my current baseline of relative financial security and health, I now have free time! Time to write, read, to pursue my mandala coloring and photographic hobbies, to meditate, to connect with others by phone or email, to enjoy the outdoors on sunny days, and work slowly in the garden preparing it for spring. Because I am not anticipating some future commitment, I can be more present in the moment, more aware of myself, others, and the world around me. I can go more slowly through the day; stare into space if I wish, chew and savor my meals, let the dog sniff one bush for as long as he chooses, without saying, “Let’s go, boy.”

I feel light-hearted and relaxed.  I am less frustrated by interruptions because my most prized possession – time – suddenly seems, at least at present, unlimited.  What I can’t finish today, I can happily leave for tomorrow, because tomorrow’s calendar is empty. I have empty days to fill with whatever my heart desires.   Joy, delight, happiness are the by-products of my new-found freedom.  Dare I say that I don’t want things to go back to “normal” – to the way they were before COVID-19 entered our world. 

Perhaps the experts can predict what the world will be like socially, psychologically, economically, medically, and environmentally after this disease has run its horrific course.  I can’t imagine that future.  I sense things will never be quite the same, but I can’t yet envision the changes to my small hometown world in southern Maine.

I hope that I will not be the same. I pray I will not let too many commitments creep back onto my calendar.  I hope the balance of my life will still tilt toward more free time – more time to indulge my dreams and to experience my connectedness to the earth and my fellow earthlings. May I still have time to contemplate the beauty around me, to listen deeply when someone speaks, to be still and silent, to respond to the promptings of my intuition and the desires and compassion of my heart.

Truth be told, I have squandered two other opportunities to create balance in my life:  my retirement four years ago and our move to Maine about a year later.  In each instance, I had the chance to start fresh, to create the simple, present, and compassionate life of my dreams.  But each time, my habit of overextending myself thwarted my hopes.  Each time, I re-packed my calendar with more appointments than I could comfortably manage and got involved in more activities and responsibilities than were good for my health or my spirit.

The third time’s a charm, as they say. 

What wake-up call(s) do you hear amid the suffering of the pandemic?  Do you want to be different on the other side of this disaster?  If so, how? Dare I imagine that if each of us asks these questions of ourselves, discovers their answers, and has the courage and tenacity to implement them, our world, or at least our small corner of it, might be quite different, post COVID-19.

Senior Shopping in a Pandemic

I drive slowly from my home toward the exit of our retirement community, observing the 15 mile an hour speed limit.  For a fleeting moment after pulling out of the garage, I consider keeping my headlights turned off, thinking that I might make a secret escape.  The management has asked us not to leave campus to minimize the likelihood that we will return carrying the coronavirus.  Though I am committed to following their request (no, their plea) in the future, I’m risking one last trip to the grocery store to get a few things that yesterday’s delivery service could not provide.

It’s 5:45 a.m. The supermarket opens from 6-7 a.m. for senior citizens to do their shopping in what everyone hopes will be a less contaminated atmosphere.  The drive takes 10 minutes, so I arrive at the parking lot at 5:55. It’s already almost half full.  I notice as I drive past the entry looking for a parking spot, that there is a line of grey-haired figures in front of the door.  A queue at 5:55 a.m.!

By the time I approach the entry, the line has disappeared into the store, but there is a police car parked nearby. (Are they expecting a senior riot?) Two supermarket managers, with name tags and big smiles, bid me a good morning.  It’s still pitch dark.  Inside I find a cart, place my one reusable shopping bag in it, and grip its handle, with gloved hands. I have a short list which I should have organized by shopping aisle as I usually do because I am immediately flustered. The shelf that should hold the first item on my list is almost bare.  I get down on my knees to pull out the last one from the very back of the bottom shelf. When I stand back up, I notice that the shoppers around me are giving me a very wide berth.

Indeed, no one is looking anyone else in the eye.  The variety of face coverings is impressive.  Shoppers have fashioned makeshift face masks from everything imaginable.  Some are the standard blue cup-like masks, but others are pieces of white cloth with ribbons attached to hold them in place.  Some folks are wearing scarves covering their mouths and noses.  Oddly enough, I notice that I have my mouth clamped shut and am hardly breathing.  We whisk past each other, eyes diverted as if we were embarrassed to be in the store.  I am ashamed when I see another member of my retirement community heading down the aisle toward me.  We both say a quick hello, but don’t linger to talk.

Even though I zigzag back and forth between aisles to pick up my dozen items, it takes me less than 15 minutes to get everything on my list. Of course, some of the things I am seeking (like toilet paper) are completely sold out. The shelves that usually hold a plethora of tissue brands have a few boxes of the store-brand.  A sign says, “Only two per customer per day.” I take one, thinking if I run out of toilet paper, I can use these instead.

I head toward the check-out counters.  Every check-out station is open.  This, like the pandemic itself, is a first in my lifetime.  I have never before found all the check-outs open in any store.  A grocery cashier stands before her aisle with a big smile on her face and bids me enter. It takes less than a minute to ring up my purchases.  When the moment comes for me to place my debit card in the machine, I hesitate.  I must remove my gloves to do so, and I have to touch the keys to enter my PIN.  Fear makes me pause.  Will I be touching a contaminated surface?  I’ve heard that the management has hired extra workers to clean and disinfect the store, so perhaps not, since I am the first to use this keypad.  Taking a deep breath, I punch in the numbers.  The cashier pulls out the receipt, puts it in a small plastic container, and holds it out to me.  I say a warm thank you with a big toothy smile, grab my cart, and run. 

Outside, I head to the car with a sigh of relief, opening my mouth and breathing deeply of the uncontaminated air.  Opening the car door to stow my purchases, I momentarily consider whether to put them on the backseat or the floor.  They might be carrying viral germs, so I choose the floor. 

Dawn is slowly breaking when I pull into my garage. The surrounding cottages are dark, so I imagine that my clandestine expedition has gone unnoticed.  Video cameras capture the comings and goings around the main lodge, but I don’t think there are any in the cottage neighborhoods. Not yet.

I unload the groceries from the car and bring them into the kitchen.  The bag stays on the floor while I place each item on the counter.  Before the fear of infection reached its peak, we were able to procure one small plastic container of Lysol Disinfecting Wipes.  We use them sparingly because it is unlikely that we will find another. I pull one out of the package and carefully wipe the surfaces of each purchase. I drop my grocery bag in the garage to air out for the required three days and add these new items to our food stash, before disinfecting the counter and every doorknob I have touched.  Then, into the bathroom for a long and thorough hand wash.

Phew!  I breathe easily and make myself a cup of decaf.  From now on, we will use a food delivery service until it is safe to shop freely again.  I hope the other retirement community member I met in the store won’t rat on me.  I certainly won’t rat on him.

The Waterwheel

Stay together, friends.

Don’t scatter and sleep.

Our friendship is made of being awake.

The waterwheel accepts water

and turns and gives it away weeping…

Stay here, quivering with each moment

like a drop of mercury.

–Rumi (Sufi mystic and poet who died in 1273)

This Rumi poem showed up in my “A Year with Rumi” Reader on March 20, 2020. On that day, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) confirmed more than 15,000 COVID-19 cases in the United States. Today, March 26, six days later, there are 68,440 total cases and 994 deaths in our country alone, and 23,199 deaths world-wide. It is impossible to comprehend the totality, the variety, the beauty of the lives these numbers represent.

Rumi’s images of the waterwheel and the mercury speak simply but powerfully to me. I am fascinated by waterwheels.  I can stand for long periods, as if in a trance, as one gathers up and empties water.  I’m not sure if I have ever seen a bead of mercury quivering, but since the image is so clear in my mind, I suspect I have. Rumi’s description of the circular motion of the water wheel speaks to me of receiving and losing, of taking up and letting go. The bead of mercury conjures the idea of endless energy, energy that never dies.  It’s how I like to think of each life – constantly transforming but never-ending energy – intrinsic to the energy that IS.

The Black-Eyed Peas, a rap band (whose lyrics, in general, are too “rough” for me) introduce their album “The Energy Never Dies,” with these lyrics:

Welcome to the END. Do not panic. There is nothing to fear.

Everything around you is changing. Nothing stays the same.

This version of myself is not permanent. Tomorrow I will be different.

The energy never dies. Energy cannot be destroyed or created.

It always is. And it always will be.

This is The END and the beginning.

Forever. Infinite. Welcome.

Strange as it may seem, I find these rap lyrics profoundly comforting.

In the Coronavirus pandemic, indeed, in all the moments of our lives, be they ones of tragedy or joy, is our challenge to receive, to accept what comes, as does the waterwheel? To hold every experience briefly, before it inevitably changes and flows on? We must necessarily let go, even if the letting go is done with weeping? Can we stay here, in each moment, all of us, quivering with the never-ending energy of life, as does a drop of mercury?  

Indeed, friends, our friendship is made of being awake. And we must, as Rumi counsels, stay together and stay awake. May we not scatter and sleep.  Not in this moment. Or the next, or the next…

Make Every Word Count

People naturally want to stay in touch during an extended emergency.  Friends who haven’t been in touch for months or years are texting, emailing, and calling one another to make sure loved ones are safe, being cautious, and not “stressing out.”

Yesterday I spent five hours on the computer and the phone answering texts and emails, reading links to articles about the COVID-19 outbreak sent to me by friends, and then forwarding a few of them on to others. I love the people who are reaching out to me. I want to know how they are and to reassure them that my household is well – carefully watched over and shepherded through this situation by our capable and caring retirement community managers. 

The Coronavirus disaster is such a novel experience for me. Never before have I experienced life in a physical or psychological war zone. Being told to distance myself from others is so foreign to my way of thinking that I am intent on using all the technological means at my disposal to calm fears and bridge the physical gap between myself and those I love. Communication is paramount when we feel endangered. But equally important are solitude, silence, deep interior listening, and responding from the authentic center of one’s being.

Our current charged and all-consuming circumstances seem at the moment to demand all my physical and psychic energy. But perhaps I might turn my attention to the long haul because all the experts tell me that is what is ahead. I will have to conserve and possibly even ration my emotional resources as well as my food, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.  And perhaps I should consider conserving my words as well.  If I don’t, I might spend all my “socially distant days” adding to a multiplicity of predictions, a cacophony of warnings, and a whirlpool of interpretations.  If I get sucked into the center of this informational tornado, I will miss the essence of what is happening to me, to those I love, and to all living beings. 

I have decided to offer a “Diary from a Social Distance” out of a sense that there are clues in this present critical situation to how to live peacefully, joyfully, and compassionately in every circumstance. If only I can be awake enough to find them!

I resolve to ration my words – to make my reflections concise and to the point. Thank you for generously giving your time to read my thoughts and to offer your perspectives.