The Gift of Being in the Moment

I have a reading chair in my family room by the fireplace. It has been empty since March. Pre-pandemic I used to read with my preschool grandchildren in that comfy chair. Often they would go to my book stash, choose a storybook, and toddle back to our chair. I love nothing more than reading with a child in my arms. I miss nothing more.

But these days I don’t see the little ones often. When I do, it is outdoors, and they hide behind bear or dog masks. Baby Evy and four-year old Harper blow me air kisses, and sometimes Harper forgets and hugs my legs.

Macy used to be a regular here for sleepovers, but since the first surge of COVID, she has been in online school, and I see her mostly on Zoom. During this time, she has grown taller, more serious, and sounds far too mature for her nine years. The change feels too sudden. When I Facetimed her a few weeks ago to discuss what she wanted for Christmas, she warned, “Gigi, this is not a normal Christmas. I don’t want normal presents.” She placed her finger on her mouth and looked skyward. “I want to see my best friend, Ellie. I mean really see her. We are in the same class, like the same things, but we have never been allowed to play together. Also, I want a vaccine to save lives!” I could feel the pain of being nine and not having time with friends. Macy missed her buddies as much as I missed her.

The pandemic is changing us, and each one of us has faced the strain of adapting and rewriting our personal story. While I struggle with the distance from friends and grandkids, not all is lost. I am finding new ways to connect. One tradition popped up unexpectedly.

Now that I write at home—which is an internal battle of its own—I have begun rewarding myself by baking cookies some afternoons. Word trickled out to the grandkids and within weeks I was dubbed the new Picasso of Pastry. This is a lie. But I perpetuate this myth with the hope of rare and socially distanced visits with the littles in my backyard wrapped in the warmth of the desert winter. Lately, my favorite moments have happened on that patio where we remove our masks only long enough to munch a cookie, and we share what is happening. Our pandemic stories. Some sad. Some happy.

While I have not resorted to hoarding toilet paper, I am guilty of stock-piling a near-truckload of Betty Crocker Cookie Mix which comes in a surprising array of flavors from dark double chocolate to snickerdoodle. I am learning how to improvise with extra milk, teaspoons of Madagascar vanilla, and when needed–extra chocolate chips. I am learning to release my inner cookie monster and fill an entire role of wax paper with baked treats in short order.

Before Christmas I stamped out countless sugar cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees, Santa, stars, and even airplanes for Steven, my young grandson. Martha Stewart does not live here, but I have managed to do a reputable imitation given these strange times.

Of course, COVID left its imprint on our Christmas. Three of our friends are sick —one seriously. One-hundred-year-old Grandma Edna became so anxious about visiting our home that she called ten times on Christmas Eve to discuss it, and finally cancelled at the last minute. Steven ate so many gingerbread cookies he spent most of Christmas day in bed.

But it was Christmas, and we did our best to carry on. My sons and their families, eight of us, gathered on our back patio for a Christmas picnic. Afterwards four of us played our favorite new COVID game, double beachball soccer. The children made it up and the rules change often, but it centers on keeping two beach balls on the grass and kicking or hitting the balls that come to you to someone else before it rolls out of bounds. It seems no one ever wins this game, but no one ever loses either. With two active beach balls zigzagging in all directions, you can get your daily exercise in short-order! The air shimmers with children’s laughter.

Later when we munched iced sugar cookies and chatted by the fireplace. I asked the children how this Christmas was different, and there was no shortage of answers.

“It’s a stay-away, stinky-cheese-man Christmas!”  four-year-old Harper said with glee. We all laughed, and Harper explained. “At school we didn’t like to call it social distancing, so Mrs. Vargas let us choose a better name. We read this book, The Stinky Cheese Man.” Harper pinched her masked nose. “Whew. Everyone stays away from the stinky cheese man—and when someone forgets the six-feet rule, we say to them “stay-away, stinky-cheese-man!”  One-year-old-Evy squealed with delight, “Chee-eese!”

“That’s cool, Harper,” Macy said. “Gigi, I got some Roblox toys, but this year the best part of Christmas was seeing Ellie at the park two days ago. She is my best school friend, and we had never really seen each other.” She paused for emphasis. “Seeing a friend–that was the best gift! Also, we got the vaccine, and I think that is a good gift for everyone!  Maybe in a few months we can have sleepovers at Gigi’s, and we can all read together again in the reading chair!”

Her words rippled through my heart. Harper clapped. “Yeah. One of my favorite gifts is Gigi’s cookies!” she bellowed as she flew an iced airplane up-up through the air with hope.

There in the warmth of both the sun and the children’s words, I realized how fully I love sitting in this moment with their joyful energy. In the time of COVID that was undoubtedly my best gift.

Tis the Season

“Nothing can dim the light that shines from within.” Maya Angelou

“Should we pull the holiday boxes from the attic?” my husband calls from the garage. It is the season, and I love the lights, my fake Christmas tree, and all of the Santa ornaments that I hang on it. Most of all I love hiding the special Santas throughout the house for my grandchildren to find. Harper and Macy count on this tradition. Usually that is reason enough to haul down the boxes.

“COVID is not stealing Christmas,” I call back to my husband. But I choke from the dust as the boxes begin to clutter the kitchen. As I wipe them down, I think of other traditions I love most. Baking coffee cake from mom’s recipe. Buying each child a special ornament. But the lights, and hanging way too many of them, is my favorite tradition. Last year I discovered crystal, twinkling star lights—energy efficient. I hung them everywhere. Inside and outside. At this darkest time of year, we need light. Especially now.

I recall the Lady with the Lamp. In third grade as I waited for the school bus, I hid in the back of the classroom reading the little orange biography books. Here I discovered Florence Nightingale. During her life she was revered not only for her nursing work that saved soldiers from death during the Crimean War, but also for her medical insights. She wrote, “It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light.”  What I remember most about her: she was kind–taking patients flowers and making sure they were rolled out into the sunshine whenever possible.

After Nightingale and before antibiotics, many physicians and sanatoriums practiced light therapy for healing. Thinking back, the early Egyptians worshiped Ra, the Sun God, and the father of medicine, Hippocrates, advocated an idea that we seem to be embracing yet again—the healing power of sunlight.  Even the winter blues has a name, SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, that can be treated with light boxes or even better–sunshine. Current medical data shows light energy has profound healing properties for us.

As I hang the lights on the tree, I think of Susan. While I am alone during COVID, I have new and wonderful friends in my Zoom classes. Susan Lugo who has stage three ovarian cancer has been an integral part of our Healing Journeys book club. While her cancer outlook is not good, her personal outlook shines through like the northern star. I feel she will make it. As we discussed our stories last week, she gifted our class a poem. It says,

I am not cancer.

I am life and light and energy and beauty and love

And giving and joy and delight and gratitude.

The memory of these words catches in my throat. The beauty of them. The truth of how we can align ourselves with light and energy and beauty and love–even when we face a life-threatening illness. Even when the holidays look bleak. Even when it will be only small gatherings until we loosen the grip of this pandemic.

Like Susan, I will choose light and energy and beauty and love in this season. I will wish this for all the people. Especially those I care about. For you.

To celebrate this thought, I stop decorating and place an online order for additional strands of crystal, twinkling star lights—energy efficient. There will be light.

Note: Here is a link to Susan Lugo’s beautiful poem.

Don’t Act the End by Jen Campisano

Before my mastectomy, I had to get an EKG to test my heart, to make sure it would be strong enough for surgery. As I waited in the hospital lobby, I flipped through a Good Housekeeping magazine from last summer, with Michael J. Fox [who suffers from Parkinson’s disease] on the cover; the feature article was about the actor turning 50. In his interview he said  that there’s a motto in acting that he applies to his life: “Don’t act the end.

I find myself thinking of that motto a lot lately, as I try to find my new normal. The pain of surgery is gone now, and at six weeks post-op, I’ve resumed most daily activities. What I’m struggling with now is getting beyond mere survival, getting to a point where I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder for the boogeyman, getting back to life.

There’s the fear that still rears its ugly head — less often now, but still ugly. A friend recently asked me how I live with fear without letting it get in the way of all the good moments. I admitted some nights I find myself crying just giving Quinn a bath, watching him splash and giggle and play with his plastic bath toys. Our lives are so fragile. And then I try to push that fear aside. I let it allow me to appreciate each moment with him even more than I might have before the cancer.

In the Good Housekeeping article, Michael J. Fox explained his motto this way: “If you know a bus is closing in on you as you stand in the middle of the road, there’s still a lot of space to fill between where you are and the moment that bus hits you. In other words, don’t act like you’ve been hit by the bus until it happens.”

My hair is returning slowly. Life goes on, and yet, the axle around which my life spins has been knocked off-kilter.  I’m trying to find my new center of gravity, and it’s a strange, unbalanced space to occupy. I no longer feel like that bus is closing in on me. And although there are no guarantees in this life, between now and when that bus does someday hit, I have a lot of enjoying my days to get to.

Update: Jen has survived cancer and her new story centers on helping cancer patients as a patient advocate and caring for her two little ones! I love how she has reframed her story.