Shutdown Week 4: Shame

House sparrows have been chirping at my window. They’re abundant on my city street and in the spring they emerge from their winter hiding places looking for food. Last year for the first time, European starlings appeared. Sometimes I think I hear robins and cardinals but starlings mimic the sounds of other birds. They’re trying to trick me into putting bird seed out for the more colorful birds, not knowing I love them equally. 

Gutsy red-winged blackbirds abruptly premiered on the railing of my balcony, sucking the breath out of me. Their distinctive one-second long, loud musical trill called me from the breakfast table. Jet black bodies shouldered with red and yellow feathers held on fearlessly as I moved closer to the window. For years I’ve had black furniture with red and yellow highlights, imitating red-winged blackbirds. 

A friend called from Florida to say Happy Easter as I was tethering Henry for his morning walk.

“It’s Easter?” 

“Yes! It’s Easter,” and we laughed in that old familiar way, like we just discovered each of our days slips from one to another like egg after egg slipping into boiling water. We starting talking about the Shutdown. I extended Henry’s walk farther along Lake Shore Drive sensing a longer iPhone conversation.

“I can’t watch the news. Can’t talk about him,” she said.

I understand, of course. It’s what we all say and like all of us, she ended up talking about it anyway—said the Democrats need to present an answer to the question “why” to win in November. 

“The Democrats have moved their convention to August about the same time as my book release,” I said. “Let’s go to Milwaukee and sell books out of the trunk of the car, a trunk show!” We’ve had such adventures in the past, but plans cannot be made until the Shutdown is resolved. 

The outside world has been a physical threat since St. Patrick’s Day. At first I was in danger of someone sneezing on me. I’m in the vulnerable group. Now others are in danger of me sneezing on them. I may be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier. 

Henry and I ended up sitting in the bus stop sheltered by an unexpected spring warmth. IMG_0871Walkers have taken to the street lately because the sidewalks aren’t wide enough to keep the reqiured social distancing. A woman in an ominous medical mask, six feet into the street, walked by and gave me a long evil eye. I’ve been wearing a cowgirl bandana for my mask and I neglected to re-cover my face after it slipped down when I was on the phone. Shaming eyes have replaced smiles and waves on the street. Watch out if you forget your mask. You’ll need to mend your wounds with a Brene Brown Ted Talk on shame from the daggers shooting out of your neighbors’ gaze.

The Stay Home battle cry presents no threat though. Settling into social isolation, I watch masked neighbors from the window.

And I pray for a visitation from the woodpecker I heard the other day.

Shut Down Week 3. Tagging

Shut Down Week 3. Tagging

One of the boarded up stores I walk Henry past everyday is Hermes, a Parisian couture import. You can buy a Hermes over-the-shoulder mini bag just big enough for your cell phone, keys and plastic poop bags (if you’re walking Henry) for $1,875.00. On the very first board-up day, a tagger spray-painted one of Hermes’ dark grey boards with a

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Shut Down Hermes Chicago

tasteful lavender scribble. The contrasting colors were delightful really, very French. And the next day, the street art was gone, painted over in Hermes signature dark grey.

Like the Buddhist arhat, Irish banshee and today’s death doula, the mythical greek Hermes is a psychopomp, or soul guide. Powered by his winged sandals and helmet, he guides the soul into death, to the other side. Crows are also psychopomps often depicted waiting in murders outside the home of the dying to herald the soul’s journey or perched inside the chamber as in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”.

Crows are sparse these days on downtown Chicago streets. There’s no discarded food to forage in the alleys behind the restaurants. Oh, sure, the restaurants are providing take-out, but all that trash goes home to another neighborhood’s compost. The heralding crow has taken her business elsewhere. No one is bothering to die a natural death here. We are all in a state of shutdown limbo. Indeed I never hear the usually frequent ambulance sirens headed to the hospital a quarter of a mile away. The covid-infected dying are taking cabs to the Emergency Room, hoping they won’t be turned away or sent to the field hospital at the McCormick Place convention center.

Hermes is known as Mercury in Roman mythology, from a Latin derivative meaning merchandise. I love the window displays but I have no reason to step across the Hermes threshold and finger the merchandise. These days I think of its namesake as a hallmark to protect the life of commerce in the city. I hope Hermes/Mercury doesn’t let the city die.

I have to grab hope wherever I can. It was Hermes’ sister Pandora who opened the box that unleashed plagues, diseases, and illnesses on the world. Our current Pandora, President Trump, has unleashed the coronavirus on us in opening wide his box of ignorance, inaction and mismanagement. The myth says Pandora closed that box before the healing spirit Hope escaped. President Trump spews false hope to us everyday with lies, inaccuracies and ego-driven platitudes. 

Hope seeps out on its own power though, just like the spray-painting tagger letting us know the street is still alive.

Shut Down Week 2

Nothing’s changed in my one-bedroom condo.

I wake up frozen in fear. My old Ikea down comforter shrouds my body. Before peeking out at the same world I fell asleep in, I breathe in and say, “The troubles of the world don’t own me.” I breathe out and say, “I don’t own the troubles of the world.” After twenty or thirty minutes forcing my mind back to this cushioning mantra, I go to my computer for the latest messages and news about friends impacted by the coronovirus.

At the hospital, a friend is off a ventilator and in for a long recovery, thanking those around him for saving his life. The Panama Canal Authoirty finally approved passage of a cruise ship that had been stranded off the coast of Chile, shunned at every port. Four people died onboard, and my friend, healthy but worried is locked down in a cabin with no windows and scant information. 

IMG_4785Henry jumps around to say he’s ready to go out and read his drizzled mail on the low hanging boxwood branches. There’s a shift on the sidewalk; less people than the day before, fewer parked cars, more birds. And Henry makes less and less whiffer stops. His friends must be on a later schedule, sleeping in. It’s the second week after all.

We pause at a neglected sidewalk garden, elevated in a bas-relief concrete trough. In there a crow pecks at dead twigs and tendrils from last year’s plantings. We’re not more than ten feet from her. She drops a brittle stick on the cement ledge, plunks a claw down on one end, grabs the other end and pulls up, breaking off a piece of nesting material. Gathering a few more right-sized pieces she jumps down and walks across the empty street with a full beak. Henry is nonchalant, as if she were just another member of the family. Dogs have a way of knowing. They read souls.

Around the corner, we stop to watch workmen covering another couture clothing shop with sheets of plywood. Pretty soon the whole street will look like a war zone of boarded up storefronts. Crows caw overhead. It’s our mother and her kin squawking about the lack of garbage pickings in the alleys behind the shut-down restaurants.

Back home you’d never know Chicago is on STAY-AT-HOME orders from the mayor unless you open the freezer and see 25 frozen Mac ’n’ Cheeses from Trader Joe’s. Other than that, nothing’s changed inside. I spend the whole day in hysterics laughing at jokes, memes and cartoons that people send me and post online. At first there were all dog jokes, like two dogs looking at a couch full of papers and a computer. One says to the other, “Do you think we’ll ever get our couch back?” The other says, “I think it’s going to
be a couple of weeks.”

After that, there were husband and wife jokes, like the photo of a woman knitting aIMG_5462 noose for her husband. And one of a woman digging a grave in the garden. Now I’m getting a lot of jokes with swear words:

Today the devil whispered in my ear, “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”

And I whispered back, “Six feet, motherfucker.”

That’s another way of saying the troubles of the world don’t own me. I don’t own the troubles of the world.

Life in the Shut-Down Lane

 

Going? Not going? A single day passed and no matter the destination whether Walgreen’s or Mexico, the decision was made for me. I’m not going. No one’s going. No one’s going anywhere. 

The questions alone open an empty space in my head that fills quickly with a laugh, a giant cosmic laugh that says, “You used to have a choice!” Now there’s no dilemma about where to go, who to see, what to do, what time to do it. 

Today, I am my existence. I maintain my essence built over a lifetime; fretful sleep, overeating, wasteful showers, obsessive reading, TV ’til two a.m. And, I build anew. I make tuna salad sandwiches, stir-fry zucchini with onions and go to meetings on Zoom. Henry the dog and I walk to new places like Michigan Avenue where we give six-foot hellos to neighbors we don’t know, will probably never know. In an unfamiliar park I break the law, unleashing him to run the crunchy March earth. We’re lulled into concluding some rules no longer apply. He trees squirrels. I hear a woodpecker

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Henry Sheltering in Place

(tomorrow binoculars). T.S. Eliot wrote “Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” I have time on my hands. It cannot be washed off, nor sanitized away.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales help children cope with their existential anxieties and dilemmas. I’m grateful for my new-found fairy tales on Acorn and Netflix. They’re satisfying, even intoxicating. “Vera” quenches my thirst for relief from today’s threat of a mad virus loosed on an unprepared society. She always catches the killer, within one episode. And “West Wing”’s President Jed Bartlett reassures me, “There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we are one country and have national needs.” Fairly tales are indeed a good shield.

A friend yelled at me on the phone, “I just want to go to a restaurant!” 

Who doesn’t? I live in cafe society— exchanging gossip, ideas, medical records and laughs in half-public coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, church halls, run-ins at shops and malls. It’s part of my essence, my existential cover, a baby blanket of being. I need it. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal whose health problems left him no choice but to sit alone in quiet for long periods. He tried to solve some of humanity’s problems. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he’d have given us more than pensées.

To preserve my sanity, I usually sit quietly in a room for thirty minutes every day consciously telling myslef I do not own all of humanity’s problems, nor do they own me. But now that I’ve been sitting in a room alone for days, I’m concocting brilliant and crazy solutions to humanity’s problems. Pascal would be pleased, but I’m afraid I’ll go from here to the psych ward. 

Or run for office.

Writing Family Secrets

When I began memoir writing I had no intention of chronicling my family’s drinking, or mine, for that matter. I wrote because my new doctor led a program in expressive writing. He said writing would cure my chronic pain. He was the last stop on an exhaustive trip that was going nowhere, so I took a chance. He was right.

As a kid, I was singled out to write the all-school letters; thank you notes to the local bakery for Christmas cookies and expressions of sympathy to teachers who had a death in the family. Once I wrote a note in French to the French teacher congratulating her on retirement. Every year I’d write an official letter to the president inviting him to visit our school.

When my sixth-grade class was assigned to write about our Thanksgiving vacation, I wrote that my family’s leftovers were wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in the refrigerator where they’d stay until the smell got so bad someone would finally throw out the rotten food. Until I retired, that was the only time I wrote anything revealing about my family.

But looking back now, I’m starting to understand why so much of my memoir-writing includes stories about alcoholism. Bonnie Carlson, author of the novel Radical Acceptance, says retirement liberated her to be open about her recovery from alcoholism; she didn’t have to worry about the stigma at work.The stigma of alcoholism at work never worried me, but retirement did free me to write fearlessly about consequential decisions resulting from alcoholism and mental illness. Shame broke like a water balloon all over my writing, and dissipated into my own edited words. I’ve dared readers to accept the chaos of my family’s alcoholic life. More than that, I’ve added my own voice to the truth-telling writers of recovery whose stories help explode the stigma.

Frank McCourt’s powerful language forces us to relive his impoverished and loveless childhood in Angela’s Ashes. It’s quite a feat to write about his alcoholic father with forgiving humor. Pete Hamill in A Drinking Life, Mary Carr in The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life all give us stories of violent alcoholic behavior that make me wonder how they ever managed to get out alive, much less write about it.

“Write what you know” is attributed to Mark Twain. But I could quote all my school teachers saying it. I’ve always known it doesn’t mean to write descriptions of my school 9EC7F9F3-1257-4DA2-9AD7-FD17975A7022_4_5005_croom or home or even all the gory details about my parent’s drinking. It means to write that I wished my mother was more like I-Love-Lucy or that on most mornings I put my finger under her nose to test for life.

Writing like that was forbidden when I was a child, as were any vocal or facial expressions of the fear, the self-pity, the distress. Those emotions settled in my soft tissue and came out to physically torment me in my fifties.

James W. Pennebaker, the pioneer of writing therapy, hitches recovery from the health aftershocks of secrets to expressive writing. Expressive writing reveals feelings through events, memories, objects, or people. It’s not so much what happened as how you feel about what happened or is happening. It’s that all-important question we hate to hear from a therapist, “how did that make you feel?”

Eyeballing your feelings in your own writing can be unpredictably gut punching. It’s a fast-acting treatment though, this bibiliotherapy, a painkiller and a healer.

Get A Grip

Over the years, I’ve acquired one untrained dog after another. I dismissed the American Kennel Club admonition, “Scottish Terriers are hard to train” as if it didn’t apply to me, Scottiesbecause I simply love them. The AKC is right, of course. Scotties are hard to train in all
areas particularly in their nasty habit of “marking” any old spot they please including inside, on the carpet. My last Scottie yanked so hard on his end of the leash to protect me from sidewalk dogs that I’d lose my grip as he went on the attack. I’d been to court twice for his biting dogs and their owners. He was finally sentenced to permanent muzzling but before I could carry out his punishment, five-year old Ozzy inexplicably and suddenly died.

After Ozzy’s death, bottomless-pit grief drove me to vow to be forever dog free. This made the decision to rip up the stinky carpet an easy one. I replaced the old stained wall-to-wall with Home Depot’s TrafficMASTER Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring. No more dogs with their curious canine mating rituals. No more carpet cleaning. And no more vacuuming, which I hated even more than the dentist’s three-hour procedure to extract my ankylosed tooth. I didn’t need to worry about traumatizing the dog with such a drastic change. Ozzy was dead. I’d never have another. I didn’t know I’d parked the idea of a dog in a sub region where ideas slow cook before the boil.

The first week of the new cherry colored hard floor, one of my favorite CB2 glasses slipped from my grasp and smashed to pieces. The next week another fell out of my hand to the floor.

The Marta glass collection from CB2 has a cult-like following. The glass itself is micro-thin. Your lips close in on the minimalist rim with ease. Liquid doesn’t sneak out of the edges between the glass and your cheeks, dribbling down your neck onto your new pink velvet blouse. The sides are smooth and straight; no prismatic mystery of what’s inside. They are a joy to embrace, these perfect affordable glasses. I loved to open the kitchen cabinet and see my whole Marta collection lined up like gossamer terra cotta warriors. 

The hard floor brought a hard reality. With carpet, when my hold weakened on breakables, and they dropped, they didn’t break. With the hard floor underfoot many treasures have slipped out of my grasp and smashed to the ground before I remembered to get a grip. Glass slivers embedded in my feet led me to question what was wrong with my hands. 

Hand grip strength is a test the doctor performs on the aging. Greater grip strength equals greater mortality. There it is. That old mortality jumpin’ up trying to scare the bejesus out of me, tempting me to obsess over how long I have to live.OIP.G7cFtu7ChS0N98F2VAjjqAHaFj

Only one of my treasured glasses have survived. All is not lost though. I have a new well-trained non-Scottie dog who doesn’t test my impotent grip on his leash. And I’ve softened  my grasp on mortality, leaving the fear of dying for another day.

 

 

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I once read that Michele Obama insisted Medicare require doctors to ask their patients if they are depressed. Whether that’s true or not, my doctor recently asked me the question in three different ways.

“Are you depressed?”

“No.” I wasn’t at that moment.

“Are you sleeping?”

“No.” 

“Are you socializing?”

“No.”

Socializing is not a word I use. I join friends for choir practice, writing classes and lunch, but I rarely go out at night except to public meetings and author talks, not exactly social. And I’d always rather be in bed.

Ok. I socialize. I just don’t want to socialize since I am, well, depressed. There’s a web dangling overhead that periodically ensnares me. I have to shake its silky mess from my psyche before the new normal sticks me with its venom.

I asked the doctor if a lot of people are depressed.

“Everyone I see. Everyone my colleagues see,” she answered. “Careful you don’t look to yourself for a reason for your depression,“ she said. “The reason is trumpism.”

 Oh. That.

Choir director Jonathan Miller never utters a word about politics. But I can tell he’s picked up the scent of this national stink by the songs he picks for our choir. Our song index for the spring concert includes Waitin’ for the Light to Shine, What a Wonderful World, The Storm Is Passing Over, Bridge Over Troubled Water and How Can I Keep from Singing?

Roger Miller of Dang Me fame (and a depressive himself) wrote the score for the Broadway play, Big River, an adaptation of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn walks around in the dark singing Waitin’ for the Light to Shine lamenting his thcircumstances and wishing he could find meaning to his life. When he returns home, his father, a violent drunk, drags him off to the woods and tries to kill him. The poor kid escapes down the Big River, never to return.

This is my fear. I’m afraid a deranged president is attempting to psychologically murder me and there’s no escape. The fear is mutating and causing havoc like the coronavirus. It shape shifts itself into depressed, suspicious, angry, aggressive people. And they’re multiplying. They’re on the bus, at the checkout counter, on the condo board and sitting next to me at the movies. All of America needs to find the escape hatch and flee downriver with Huck Finn.

“How do you feel when you get up in the morning?” The doctor asked.

Hopeless. I need about fifteen minutes of constant prayer to catch the hope I need to get out of bed. It eventually floats through my thoughts in song.Untitled

You may think the song How Can I Keep From Singing doesn’t exactly fit into the buck-up category represented in my choir’s repertoire since the lyrics contain words like lamentation, tumult and strife. But Jonathan Miller added his own lyrics describing a choir as a healing balm. My hope is whenever trumpism churns my stomach, I remember to take the cure. 

How can I not keep singing?

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Sing Along with President Jeb Bartlett: How Can I Keep From Singing