Holding On

Now that my local café remains closed because of the pandemic, I hide in my kitchen booth and try to tap out a blog. When all of my workshops and speaking engagements cascaded off my calendar, I felt certain I could sit here and knock out a new book. But the COVID lifestyle has proven unwieldy. Surprising. Time-consuming.

Because I live in the desert, today I arose at 5 am to walk before the temperatures reached 100 degrees.  After my walk, I trimmed dead leaves from the succulents in the pots on the patio and watered my plants. A purple throated hummingbird made a quick stop at the feeder above my head and made her “ta ‘ta” sound so I would know the feeder needed to be replenished.

Then I left a message at Hendel’s about the air conditioner that only whinnies to a halt in June, and I headed out to shop at the nearby Fry’s grocery at 6 am. While there are no longer lines wrapping around the store, and most people are sporting masks and keeping their distance, shopping has become a task that takes two hours and leaves me feeling like I have been to a somber wake. Once home the process is a bizarre ritual of removing shoes and wiping down my groceries in the garage, currently “the decontamination center.”

Afterwards I settle into my writing booth, but after two sentences the doorbell pierces my writing reverie. Still, I am grateful to have the company of Henry, the masked-repairman who keeps his distance, because the temperatures inside the house have reached 82 degrees. I chat with Henry about our desert heat.

For a while it was believed that the heat of our desert would conquer the coronavirus, and there was talk of bringing all the major league baseball teams here with the hope of preserving their playing season. Henry wanted this to happen, but it didn’t. We chuckle together about an idea which now seems ludicrous. Our governor, true to his business roots, opened the state up in May as abruptly as he had closed it in March. He thought we needed to get back to work, and as I have learned from my Zoom writing classes many people no longer have jobs. Many people are fighting to find a new center. A new meaning.

About four miles from my house is a hip strip of fooderies—Joyride, Liberty Market, Postinos and a dozen more charming places. I drove through this strip in late April just to marvel as it sat empty and silent. The stillness of this people-hub was eerie. In May it was resurrected from a ghost town to a rock-and-rolling hub of pent-up, done-with-coronavirus young people. But we weren’t done.

Now the stats are pouring in. Our hospital ICUs in Phoenix are at near capacity. We have increased over 100% in new COVID-19 cases every day for several days. A new study out of California shows people under 35 now make up about 44% of new infections, compared to 29% last month.  Shocked by the lack of federal or state government guidance, all the towns in my area are mandating masks. Henry and I agree the situation is out-of-hand.

As Henry begins to tinker with my ac, I write a few more lines about my beloved desert. It is hot and unforgiving, but each spring it bursts forth in the brightest yellow, red, and orange blooms atop the cacti. If you listen, it speaks to you in soft murmurs, clicks, and hundreds of bird songs and sounds. I am spending more time outside. If you listen, the desert teaches about quiet and calm and offers up its wisdom. Every morning and every evening I pause to listen. Midday I go outside to check my tippo tree that is bursting in yellow blooms and healing from a bad dry spell. Then I refill the hummingbird feeder.

It takes time to scrub down the counters, prepare the fish for dinner, and read with my granddaughter on Zoom. In this time Henry has reconfigured a complicated wiring problem in my air conditioner, and as I pay him, we conclude our earlier conversation by agreeing the desert heat is not killing this novel virus. This myth has died a hard death here amid the sunflowers and an abundance of sunshine. Henry and I both know we now live in an epicenter.

It is late in the day, but I return to my booth and the few paragraphs that have sputtered onto this page. As I sip my iced tea, I wonder how to give this new time-consuming, COVID-living a better framework. How to hold it and feel comfortable with it. I want to move forward, not simply feel like I am holding on. Then my husband calls to inform me that a young man who fixed his computer yesterday tested positive. “I will need to get tested and keep my distance from work—and you.” After the call, I sit stunned for few moments.

Then a hummingbird parks herself right outside the sliding glass doors where I was trying to write. She flutters seamlessly in midair as if she is looking for me and has a message. I sit up and listen. Maybe the visit is no more than a thank you for filling her feeder, but I marvel as her wings flutter like the propellers of a helicopter holding her steady and strong for a long time. Then my friend darts upward about three feet and holds in the air. Then she darts downward toward me, eye level and only three feet outside the window from me. I marvel at her strength and I sense her intention. She stays her course. I understand. Then she shoots upward and diagonally darts skyward.

For now I will listen to my purple-throated friend. Holding on will be enough.

A Glimmer of Light

Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything—that is how the light gets in.” I think I have seen a glimmer of light, and I want to share that story.

The last few days, after watching my country’s divisions played out on the screen, I have awakened with tears in my eyes. A way of grieving.

After a recent Zoom class of writers, I flipped on the TV and propped myself up on pillows to watch the news. At first I was busy picking at a late dinner and only half watching, but then I caught a glimpse of an unexpected image on my screen. A black man, handcuffed, is held to the ground, knee in his neck. The video seems to go on forever, and I sit up in stunned disbelief. Suddenly I jump to my feet. “Get up!” I shout at the policeman on the TV screen before I realize how futile my words are. “Get up!!” I scream again. But it is too late.

Since that moment, the moment of witnessing George Floyd’s death, I have tried to write my blog 23 times. Today is 24. Today I think I see a glimmer of light and my words are coming. I can only hope to make sense of this jumble.

Even before Floyd’s death and the riots, life amid a pandemic was filled with painful losses. What are you grieving? What are you missing? I grieve for my work with writers and cancer patients. I miss human contact with not only writers, but friends, children, and grandchildren. Like most of us, I am working hard to rework this new chapter in my life. In the past two months I have been teaching on Zoom. I thought I would struggle with how impersonal it seemed. I like to see the eyeballs of writers in my classes, and I love to hear the timbre of a voice vibrating with pain—or lilting with joy. When asked to teach online during the pandemic, I went back to online teaching–but with reluctance.

Within a week, my friend, Jan Adrian of Healing Journeys, made a believer of me. A Zoom class could work. She brought together an incredible group of strong women from across the country who had been friend-sisters for years. Together they had formed a nonprofit to help those facing illness to not only survive-but to thrive. Together we spent seven weeks reading and writing our way through The Story You Need to Tell. A wise sage with bobbed hair, Jan was the first to offer her story.  When we read Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey,” Jan cried. She took us inside the words of that poem. Words that made her see her life in a new way. A path that allowed her some time ago to leave a destructive relationship and move her life forward to new meaning. Courageously.

In weeks to come we wore silly hats, laughed at ourselves, and shared powerful insights from our work. Given the challenges of our times, I was grateful that all of these women, wove meaning around our reading. Every one of them. They asked important questions. How does our brain hold our stories? How can we rewrite our understanding of our broken stories?  Carol asked, “How can one overcome a “stuck story”? We talked.

Then Carol showed us how to overcome a stuck story. She bravely modeled how it was done. In reading her old journals, she realized when she had stopped managing the Healing Journeys conferences of this group, she felt like a failure and assumed she had let these dear friends down. After years this painful perception was still trapped in Carol’s brain. Once she shared it, her friends helped her see this story in a new light. They viewed Carol as the hub of the group, the planner, a beautiful soul of deep wisdom and insight. After class, Carol explained to me, “This is helping my healing. Truly.” The light was breaking through the cracks.

After class I scrolled through the news and found a clip from AZ Central that should have been in the headlines. Last night in downtown Phoenix, minutes before an 8 o’clock curfew was to be imposed, police in riot gear stood in front of 100 protestors. Then a young woman stepped forward and asked,

“I’m asking you in this small group right now what these police can do to concede for you guys to go home. I have a brave young man right here who has suggested that if at least one officer takes a knee with us, I can get all of these children home safe. Do you guys agree?” she asked. The crowd replied, “Yes!”

Then it happened. At least three officers kneeled. It was quite a moment. The crowd began cheering, applauding, and calling, “Thank you.” The young woman announced their demands had been met, and the crowd disbursed peacefully. There is some light slipping though some cracks. May we work hard to find it.