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Friday, April 3, 2020

“Last Times,” Free-Floating Anger, and Short Attention Span (a temporary condition, I hope)

Little sunshines on the ground....
Read the small print
As consequences of the pandemic spread along with the virus, and as days at home lengthen for everyone, all over the world, we’re all feeling the pinch and looking for ways to adapt to this new, albeit temporary, “normal.” For those of us with homes and plenty to eat, self-indulgence and gratitude exist side by side. 

Our dear, aging puppy!
Phone conversations with my son, texting with my sisters, and this morning’s messaging back and forth with a grandson — all of them back in the Midwest — are all bright spots in my days. I am sheltering in place with my husband and our dog. We have plenty of books. We have a working radio and a television with a roof antenna that brings in more stations than the two we regularly watch. Still, we ration our pleasures. We don’t eat all the cookies or muffins the same day they come out of the oven, and while we have movies on DVD we don’t binge-watch the flat screen all day.

Muffin "flower," sisters!
It is not a time to take anything for granted. A day of sunshine — thank you! Distance visit from a neighbor (we sat out in the driveway, chairs a safe distance apart, enduring wind that was really too strong for pleasure) — thank you! Letters and cards in the mail from distant friends — thank you! Our precious, precious, aging puppy — thank you! Cardinal at the feeder, bagels that turned out delicious, a forgotten box of facial tissue that turned up in the cupboard — thank you, thank you, thank you! Surprise phone call from the friend with whom I share a birthday, day, month, and year -- thank you, darling Helen!!! 

We really are very fortunate, and when I think of other parts of the world where life was hard before this, my imagination recoils in horror. 

Birthday flowers! Thank you, Cheryl!
Still, we fortunate ones feel sadness, too. These days are days of grief -- even "anticipatory grief" -- alongside gratitude.

When we made our last trip over to Tucson, we had no idea it would be the last. We were then planning to visit friends there a week later. Another Tucson friend and I were looking forward, maybe in Benson and at the monastery south of St. David, where we enjoyed spending time the past two years. And now, only as recently as Monday — hours before the governor of Arizona issued a stringent stay-at-home order — the Artist and I had driven over the monastery by way of one of our favorite back roads, only to find the gates closed upon our arrival. 

"Closed" -- sign of the times

On that recent trip, I was happy to jump out of the car over and over again, photographing the magnificent scenery, but it might be the last time I’ll see it this year. 

The last time we had visited the monastery, we didn’t know it would be the last time. More recently, driving a favorite beautiful road, we could not keep the thought at bay. And now the stale peanuts we would have fed to the peacocks are going to wildlife here in Dos Cabezas: I’m in hopes the little rock squirrel will show itself soon; meanwhile, we watch birds at our suet feeder, and I try to lure hummingbirds by hanging orange sections in a red net bag.

I have plenty of time to conduct experiments

Beautiful blue
But my Pollyanna attitude is learned, not genetic. I came to it late in life and still have to work at it. And I admit that there are gaps in my positive thinking, especially in these days of uncertainty, because uncertainty is really the worst of it for me. It is impossible for me now to plan more than one day ahead, and that’s pretty hard for someone far from home, someone whose small business has survived for over a quarter-century in a small village with a seasonal economy and who had counted on her “seasonal retirement” lasting only five months, December through April, before she put herself back in harness, like a farmer, to earn another year’s harvest. Others in our home village in Michigan have already decided their season is lost to them this year — I am hardly alone. Still I wake in the middle of the night, eyes wide open or squeezed shut in the surrounding dark, and what I feel is fear and anger, and I feel it not for myself only (though quite a bit for myself, of course!) but for all of us. 

Is it wrong to escape into baking?

You’ve heard of free-floating anxiety. I’m thinking that what I experience in the middle of the night is free-floating fear -- stronger than anxiety, though I wouldn't say I am not anxious; who isn't? -- and anger. Because the future is so uncertain, what I fear has no definite shape, and because the threat comes from a virus, something completely impersonal, the anger has no clear target, either. Oh, there are times when a certain face and voice on TV elicits from me a string of profanity. I’ve also noticed friends’ Facebook posts veering into anger and profanity, even when what they’re posting has to do with basically simple suggestions about staying home right now, for everyone’s safety. And when we’re fearful and angry — fear fueling the anger — it’s all too easy to look for targets. 

To escape into pruning mesquite?

One friend whose blog I have followed for years took her dog to the park the other day before she realized there were too many people there -- and that none of them should have been there! They had all now made themselves targets of other people angry at those not staying home. So Dawn felt guilty. And she realized it was her last expedition to the park for the duration. Guilt — another feeling that can accompany our “last times.”

Go home!

Kathy, another long-time blogging friend whom I “met” on her first blog, “Opening the Door, Walking Outside,”  back in 2007, posted something today that all of us probably need as we deal with all the emotions churning within us, alternately emerging and being suppressed. Kathy’s advice is that we need to let ourselves feel all our feelings rather than trying so hard to escape them. I’ll work on that, Kathy. Thanks. The journal I’ve been keeping, the one that didn’t start out to be a plague journal, is my primary safe space to explore all those feelings without inflicting them on anyone else.

We were never in control
My reading has suffered lately from a shortened attention span, a condition I hope will prove in future to be acute rather than chronic. Typically these days I read a few pages, and then my mind jumps to something else, and then I jump up, physically, and turn to a different activity, now cooking, now cleaning, now taking the dog out for another walk or checking the birds’ water tray outside once more. Sit out in the sun? I can do it for a while but then need to get up and do something. The Artist joked the other day that the bathroom was so clean after one of my flurries of scrubbing and sanitizing that he wondered if he could have his lunch in there! No, I had cleaned the table, too.

One cure for my lapses in reading attention is reading aloud, and fortunately the Artist is more than willing to listen, so we both benefit. Reading aloud is another way for us to share the world, too. So yesterday, out in the sunshine, dog lying nearby in the shade, birds flitting to and from the feeder, we enjoyed another chapter of Emita Hill’s Northern Harvest: Twenty Michigan Women in Food and Farming. In yesterday’s chapter, we heard the voice of our Leelanau friend Anne Hoyt, talking (these are oral histories Emita has put together) about the cheese she and John have been making now for a quarter of a century. I just love Anne’s mind and her solid values!
In a perfect world it would be local and organic and at a good price. What a dream! At a price we can all afford. Because we are feeding people. And we need to keep that in consideration. We are not only feeding the rich people. … Everybody is telling us to raise our price, but my goal is to actually sell the cheese we make. I’m not going to keep it in my cellar forever and take care of it. I want to make it and sell it. I want people to enjoy it. That’s very important to me. 
I remember Anne showing me their cheese cellar years ago (and I remember the procedures we went through to make sure we were not bringing germs into the cellar, too) and saying to me as we looked at rows of cheeses aging on the shelves, “These are my children!” The Artist refers to his paintings the same way. And it is always the intention that these beloved “children” eventually go out into the world and bring joy to others.

Artist David Grath's Northport, MI, gallery

Last night I was going to read myself to sleep with Wild Horse Country, by David Philipps, an often very depressing book about the fate of mustangs in the American West, a penetrating examination of the story of mustangs from their origin, through a series of American myths … chased down by helicopters, crammed into stock trailers, canned for dog food, “saved” by public protest … then through a bureaucratic maze, starving on overpopulated lands and finally warehoused far from home by the thousands, no longer wild at all, and with no wild future. It is not comforting bedtime reading, by a long shot. But I was close to the end of the book and wanted to finish it. The last chapter I’d read told of people managing wild herds by darting mares with birth control drugs — not a “wild” solution, but more upbeat than previous chapters. 

The Artist wanted me to read aloud for a while, so I read from the chapter I had reached, that of certain geographically isolated wild horse herds whose population is held in check by mountain lions. The lions, unable to run down adult horses on flat land, prey seasonally on spring foals born in the mountains, subsisting the rest of the year on deer and smaller mammals. Mountain lions here in southeast Arizona are as elusive and legendary as they are in northern Michigan, so I had my listener’s full attention, and my mind did not wander from the text, either. 

So there you have it — our lives in the time of coronavirus. We read. We listen to the radio. We watch television and movies. I cook and bake and clean. The Artist spends time in his makeshift studio, and I write letters and random journal entries. We walk and sit in the sun. We are grateful for everything we have, nervous about the future, cautious in the present, and there are times when I give in and shout angrily at the TV news. 

Where does our road lead?
The future has never been “ours to see,” but we used to live as if we could see it. Now we’re all on hold. And sometimes the mental wheels spin, going nowhere. That’s our world today.

But the birds go on singing --


Unknown said...

Pamela, thank you for putting on screen thoughts and experiences so very like my own in many ways. What Buddhists call "monkey mind" makes it hard to be in the present, to read. I work to be grateful for the many things I have at the present, stuck as I am, too, far from home and loved ones (while fortunately close to some others here). And the uncertainty, which extends to "should I eat this now, or save it? How long should I save it? Will I ever get back home?" pokes through, then recedes. Fear makes me literally immobile at times; I have to fight to move. But I come back to thank you; to the gratitudes, small graces, possibilities. And so THANK YOU for all of it; but especially for articulating the anger and vehemence with which people are yelling at other people to stay home. I think sometimes I do it too, and yet I'm sheltering far from home, as you are and as many must be.

P. J. Grath said...

Well, friend, our situations are very similar -- far from home, far from each other, and "alone together," as the phrase of our times goes now. Yes, and like you I have good friends where I am, also. It has become another home to me, so if this had to come while we're here, better now than five years ago, when we really were strangers in a strange land. So you and I are fortunate in this global misfortune! But all experience is personal, singular, subjective, and it's pointless to beat ourselves up for our feelings. I'm sure you are not increasing your own agony. You do get up and move. You do feel gratitude for all you have. And I am grateful for your acknowledgement and appreciation for my expressions, too. We can "hear" each other through these words, acknowledge each other's feelings, and, I hope, help each other through this difficult time. Thank YOU for contributing to my day today!!!