So I was at the monastery when the pandemic began.  I had arrived the day before, settled into my room in the tower, with two high windows showing small homes in Atchison, and the other showing the red brick and greened copper points and trim of the chapel.  I read and read and wrote, skipped prayer and ate a dinner of leftovers, rather than expose the sisters to my germs in the chapel and cafeteria.

I made my usual pilgrimage to the library.  They do have a computerized card catalogue now, which is kind of tough to take. In addition to their collections of spiritual and religious texts, they also have an interesting collection of self-help, psychology, and history books, with plenty of old titles.

I chose a book on Carl Jung and Teresa of Avila (our subject for the next day), some books on healing, and a book about The Plague.

It included prints of large horrifying woodcuts.

I’m kind of into woodcuts now.

The plague was way, way worse than what’s happening now.  That also made me feel good.

As an American, I have often felt the loss of a long, boring history of ancestors dealing with every possible kind of shit.  Immigration often cuts us off from this.  Knowing people dealt with awful shit and just went on about their days helps me.

Sir Isaac Newton had some of his greatest discoveries while outside London avoiding the disease.  Samuel Pepys wrote a diary that is our greatest source of information about England at that time.  If you think your daily life isn’t interesting, you’re wrong.  What time Pepys got up, what he ate, and how his cat woke him up (among other things) made him famous.

Sadly enough, Italy was the center of disease at that time, too.  Italians got around, and it was warm.  They built the first quarantine structures on the edges of cities.  They raised taxes to get money to buy food for those who were ill.  Otherwise, the ill might come into town.  Rich people left early and often, leaving the tax base somewhat shaky.

Public health became a thing that governments did.

I was not sure I should have looked at that book, but I peacefully went to sleep.  There isn’t anywhere in the world that feels safer to me than the monastery.

In 1348, Bernard Tolomei led his group of Benedictine monks in caring for the sick in Siena.  They left their country monastery to go into the city to help.

In 1260, Around this same time, Europeans started whipping each other, and themselves, in the hopes of punishing themselves so God wouldn’t have to punish them with the Black Death.  One group of traveling flagellants was 2,500 people.

Let’s not do this.

Unless you’re, like, into it.

There was also an increase in anti-Semitic attacks.

Let’s not do that, either.

The need to know where the plague was, and how bad it was, led cities to require deaths to be registered.  These are invaluable records when studying those time periods.

All of Thursday was a workshop using art to open us to God.  We painted, did movement exercises that were nearly impossible for white people, played instruments, and wrote.  Obviously I loved it.  There were six of us, all women over 40, and someone was playing soothing music and giving us time to make art.

When the workshop was over, I cleaned out my room and headed out.  I had a gorgeous painting, the Jung/Teresa book to keep reading at home, and a sense of peace that they manufacture up there and export.

So when I got home and gave myself time to read the NYT and WaPo and CNN, I was less freaked out than I might be.

I did start to get panicky at the end of the workshop.  One woman shared that someone close to her had recently committed suicide.  I felt the information shake me, and I realized I had missed my dose of anti-anxiety med.

Though it interrupted, I ran out to my car to get the pills.

They worked.  They don’t make me sleepy or carefree, they just make me like a normal person who is anxious.

Some people think the plague caused the Renaissance.  That after getting so kicked in the head by God, Italians were ready to focus on the here and now, and set God aside for a bit.  Maybe.

Leo Tolstoy, one of the best writers on our planet, wrote, “Many people worry and suffer because they have been involved in so many bad things in their lives.  In truth, though, good things often happen in spite of our wisdom, and sometimes even in opposition to our wishes, and after our excitement and suffering over unworthy things.”

Will this be, is this, an unworthy thing?  I don’t know.

I know I love how Tolstoy tells me, “You don’t even know, man.”

I know it is an opportunity to observe gravity, write a book, spring clean the shit out of things you’d never otherwise get clean.

I have been hoping that the 2020 election will be a renaissance.  A time to step forward and shake off some of the hate and anger that has led our national government these last years.  I didn’t need to go any deeper into darkness, but here we are.

We often are recreated in darkness.  Let us strive to be recreated in a beautiful image.

Image: the picture I made.  Yay!

Hand Offs


Fulfilling my Lenten vow only sort of, inconsistently, is actually a great measure of growth for me.

Yesterday in church a little girl in the pew behind me was having trouble using her voice at a volume that the adults were comfortable with.  I handed her the case for my headphones.  It’s round and has a zipper that goes all the way around.  The little girl was probably two and a half, and it looked to me like just her level of fine motor.

It was close.  She could not figure out that you had to hold it close in order to zip it.

“Can you put stuff inside it?” she asked me, in a very quiet voice.

“You can put stuff inside it,” I said, modeling standard sentence structure and reaffirming her standard use of a question.

I tore a corner off of my bulletin, took back the case, put it inside, and handed it back to her.

One of the regular games babies and toddlers like is put in/take out, closely related to hand it to me/hand it to you.

The little girl’s mom was trying to quiet her other child, a baby who was pretty “fresh out,” as my sister says.  Little girl took a visitor card from the pew and began tearing it into tiny pieces.  I wondered if I had taught her to do this, or if she was already into tearing before I modeled it.  Too late now.

Then I turned around, as the choir was done singing, and the stuff was happening up front again.

When I turned around again, the mom and kids were gone.  The headphone case had been set in my bag.

The other notable event at church was the talk about the corona virus.  I had a dream last week and one prominent shape was a corona virus shape.

We are to not shake hands (we had already shaken hands, repeatedly), we were to drink from the cup, which was safer than dipping.  The servers would wash up more thoroughly than usual.  You did not have to take communion.  God could get to you any way.  You could just get bread.  Or get a blessing.

Now, if there is one thing I’m not going to skip at church, it’s the wine.

The priest told us not to shake hands after we had already shared the peace, that is, after we had already shook hands with everyone.

Okay, I was late, so maybe this talk had happened at the beginning.

It’s okay not to shake hands, the priest said.  I mean, of course it is.

In the real world, though, in the moment, I can think of no greater insult than a refused hand at a handshake moment.  It’s really, really bad.

The tension between spit-mud Jesus and careful measures to prevent the spread of a bad virus… strange.  Jesus never met anyone he didn’t greet or affectionately and clap on the shoulder.  In my understanding.

Who tells the story best?  I’ll say Luke, 5:12-16ish.

Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 

Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. 

After the service, a man introduced himself to me, as the extrovert churchgoers will.  I am always grateful, as an introvert.  He put out his hand, and then motioned to do the terrorist fist bump instead, and then unfurled his hand, and both of us were fumbling then.  He had white hair, like white hair he had earned, so I thought, maybe I shouldn’t shake his hand because… but I gave up and gave him my hand.

Closeness is a risk, and distance is a risk, too.  Too much closeness can wear blisters, and too much distance can let the callouses we need to interact wear off, and we become too delicate to live.

I shook, then I washed my hands.  I drank from common cup.  Lady holding it gave me a big gulp, maybe because she was concerned she wouldn’t get rid of all of it, with some people just taking bread.

Life isn’t risk avoidance.  It’s risk management.  Handshakes happen.  You can get “it” many ways:  the “it” of the virus, the “it” of the wine, the “it” of whatever you’re missing.  Reach out.  Then wash up.

Okay Patrick

I coughed and sniffled and had a bit of achiness and a wee fever, so I kept myself home for three days.  Was I thrilled to be stuck at home when the weather was great?  No.  Was I happy to miss class again?  No, that was another anxiety surge.  Is it nice to read about The Global Pandemic while one is coughing?  Yeah, no.

I was pretty brave, though, and truth be told, I enjoyed day one and some of day two, since I’ve been very social recently, and needed the recharge.

I had one day to return to classes.  Both classes were unusually stressful.

In one, I had to report on an article about an issue I had a lot of personal experience with, and although everyone in my class is perfectly nice, sometimes I get my ego wrapped up in these things, my ego and  my wounds.  I can talk myself down, but my passion for justice runneth over in a way that can be both painful and useless, just encouraging a narrative of my life I don’t want to reinforce: suffering is out there, you’ve seen it, you know what to do, but no one cares, they don’t believe you, and they’d rather muse about what might, could and should happen, while people suffer and suffer, the perfect the enemy of the good.

My second class, I was teaching and being observed.  I have had some doozy observations in my time.

It reminds me of Brene Brown’s idea that you should never take feedback from anyone who’s not in the ring.  Teachers are often observed by administrators, or other people who don’t do classroom teaching day after day after day after day.  And listening to them has wounded me repeatedly.

Some of my favorite feedback was from people who said, “This is a clusterfuck.  I have no idea what to tell you, except to hang in there, and that you’re doing a good job.”  A couple of counselors I asked for help told me this.  I’m still thankful.  One of them was Leah.  I wish I could remember other names.

I have a deep-down need to have someone in authority in an educational institution confirm me.  As “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” would put it, “Tell me I’m okay, Patrick.”

So I drove to campus (an indulgence), and walking from the car, I thought, maybe I wasn’t okay, took my sedative, walked toward class, seeing the Jayhawks on either side of the hall, behind glass.  Focus on your senses.  Breathe.

No I definitely felt worse.  I turned around and went back to the car.  I would drive to get coffee, then return for class.

Coffee place was closed.  I drove home.  I would go in, chill out, and then go to class.  There was still time.

I put on a panic-management guided meditation, my cat lay on my tummy, and I petted her.

It was time to go to class, and I still didn’t feel safe leaving the house.  I barely felt safe in the living room, rather than the bedroom.

I had already missed class twice.  I was supposed to present.  I had already canceled presenting once.    I emailed my teacher that I had had a panic attack.

I watched “30 Rock,” and (more symptoms) I didn’t like that there was a doctor in one episode, and seeing Manhattan made me nervous, too.

It’s always good to write down the symptoms.  They always seem so silly, though at the time, I was truly frightened.

I called a friend.  I texted my family.  I posed on Facebook.  I called my doctor to make an appointment to rethink my meds.  I can hardly believe I did this.  That is some A plus functionality for me.  When my mental health is shaky, calling someone on the phone is very, very hard.  I can hardly make myself call people on a good day.

With effort, I drove to teach my class and be observed.  I had to go pick up my students’ graded papers from the English department.  I didn’t want to explain that I was or wasn’t okay again.  Instead, I dropped in and said hi to the mentor who helped me through a previous health mess, and said, “Why is it that no matter how hard I try to take care of myself, I freak out at this point in the semester?’

She said she didn’t know, but this was common.  That felt good.

I went to teach.  My students were nutty, the last day before spring break.  But I thrive with a challenging audience.  I taught the crap out of them, every minute they were reading, writing, or talking.

Someone said, “What is this paper over again?” and I did not freak out, though that is a trigger question.  I still do have that high school teacher toughness, see?  When you teach high school, like five kids would ask this.  And then the next group would come in.

I got myself home.  Got some calories in my belly.

Then my cat started walking around the living room and squatting suspiciously.  “No!” I yelled, and took her to the litter box.  She tried to go, nothing.  Left the box.  Back in the box.  Left the box.  She ate a little more.  Threw up.  She sat on the couch with me and some terrible noise came out of her mouth, like she was making a shiv out of a plastic knife in there.

Again I have to say I was able to take some very healthy action: I moved cat stuff into bathroom, shut her in there.  Her angry meows made me feel better about her state.  I made some oatmeal and a smoothie.  I went to bed.

Today, digging out day, saw my doctor and we adjusted my meds.  Took cat to vet, and she’s getting checked out.

Why did my brain go zooming again?  Stress about class?  My brain interpreting the slight shakiness left from my illness as anxiety?

I told my doctor I’ve been doing yoga and meditating daily, and he was like, “That’s really good.  I’m sure that’s helping.”  He told me I was okay, Patrick.

I’m repeatedly bummed out that I can’t control my mood, my health, my world.  But if Patrick says I’m okay, maybe I am.

Image: St. Patrick saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”, aka “St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland,” Jacques Callot, 1636.

Sick Day

It’s okay to miss a day.

Yesterday I got a sniffle, then a cough, then fell deeply tired.  Then I missed everything today.  I didn’t freak out too badly about the corona virus, or Super Tuesday.  Grace, I guess.

That, and my fever, never high, abated. I don’t have hypochondriacal tendencies, but is a little unnerving to read about deadly pandemics while one sits at home ill.

Am thankful for one very long nonfiction series on babies, and another very long fiction series on harlots.  Interest in both has kept my mind engaged, so my body would stay relatively still and sedate and rest.

Babies can crawl very very early, if put on a skateboard like contraption.

Although I am nervous about what I missed today, in the scheme of eternity, the effect will probably be zero.

Also I did the dishes.  Extremely proud of that.

I spent a relatively small amount of time fretting about what I missed today, and how I would work double or triple time to make it up.

Eh.  People get sick.  People stop writing, and start.


3: Miranda to the Future

Yesterday Miranda was uninterested in her wet food.  She ate a little, then she went back to her chair and her stuffed manta ray friend, Mr. Ray.

I was shaken.  She was dying.

She is dying.  She’s lived with me for about twenty years, and she wasn’t a kitten then.  She’s not take me to the vet dying.  She eats and drinks and uses the litter box.  She’s I’m-a-mortal-animal dying.

I’ve been pretty convinced that if she died, I would die, that is, we are ET and Elliot, so I would turn white and pale and start having trouble breathing.  Well, on the other hand, ET was always extremely nice to Elliot.  When I cry, Miranda bites me.

I did our usual snuggling.  This morning I got her from the living room and put her on my bed.  I brushed her until she bit me.  Now that she’s elderly, it takes a lot longer.  I watched her breathing, to see if it was “labored.”

As I got ready for the day, she followed me to where I would give her wet food, were we not out of wet food.  And back into the bedroom, where she leapt back up on the bed on her own.  Her back legs are unsteady, yes, and she only attempts small jumps.  But she jumps.  Today.

I rewatched the entirety of “ER” last year, and every time they had a family member who was reluctant to let a suffering patient go, I would think, let them go.  As the audience, we do.

Since my parents divorced, my goal has been to create a life for myself that involves the least amount of betrayal and surprise, while still enjoying adventures.  I’m sure I’ve kept away some trouble, but I also have been anxious. A lot.  Either in self protective mode, or imagining new and different scenarios I could avoid or protect myself against.

When I was particularly anxious about Miranda dying, like any modern woman, I googled, “how to deal with cat dying.”  And there actually was some good advice in a piece I found: animals live in now.  They’re not afraid of death (as far as we can tell).  The article also reminded me of a core tenet: the best thing you can give someone is your attention, just being really with them.  And that definitely goes for animals, too.

So I’ll pick up some wet food today, and I’ll think again, what should be my plan, when I do touch her and she’s cold?  I don’t know.  Will it be like finding any of the 20-some dead mice she killed for me?  How will I handle the death of our relationship, my entire adult life in three different cities?  She’s so much like me: hard to get to know, secretly moody, tough as shit, and friendlier and friendlier as she ages.

I don’t know how I’ll handle it, but I am considering the fact that planning for death (I’ll call my mom, I’ll wrap her in a soft Ikea blankie, and I’ll either bury her or let her be cremated and just let her go, I’ll definitely have some kind of gathering with people who love me, I’ll finally bring my ex-cat back to live with me) is not the same as pre-suffering.  I’m not sure pre-suffering helps anything.

2: Swan

I started at some point thinking more seriously about animals and symbolism.

When I was in New York City, I met this amazing group of older women who met weekly to meditate and write and chat about religious and spiritual stuff.  Also we had wine, and I brought a chickpea salad from the deli across the street.  That stuff was delicious.

We would meditate, then write.  Then you could talk about what you had “seen.”  I had never deliberately opened up my mind and then written and then analyzed like this.  It made me take my spiritual growth and milestones and symbols more seriously.  The women would volunteer ideas, connections.  It was like when people share their dreams and analyze them, except we were awake.

I often thought of, or saw, or imagined, animals.

I’m not going to say “spirit animal,” that’s not my religious background or understanding or anything.

I started weekly letting the idea of an animal come into my mind.  Then the animal might have some meaning to me that week.

Maybe this is sounding really weird, or like hippie nonsense.  Our meditation and writing was through an Episcopal church.  So it wasn’t exactly a downtown underground thing.

Before that, I had fretted more about what was my imagination talking, what was my ego, what was my subconscious.  Once I had practiced regularly with them, I realized it didn’t matter.  My thinking brain is so busy and so quick to judge and analyze, it’s really vital that I find ways around it.  That definitely includes closing my eyes and just seeing what show up.

I miss that group, and our practice.  I saw trees with silver leaves.  I saw Martin Luther and he apologized to me.

Last week I thought of Fala, FDR’s dog.

This week, at Ash Wednesday, I got a swan.  I think it was from two things, as dreams are, echoes of other ideas.  I could partly see the pelican that is on the altar, and I had read something about the Ugly Duckling story earlier that day.  The pelican stabs herself to feed her children her blood.  It’s one of our weirder symbols in churches.  And it isn’t true.  Pelicans don’t do this.  The Ugly Duckling, did it matter, becoming more “beautiful”?  I love ducks.  The flight of a swan is much bigger.  And for me, certainly rarer.

Swans: angels, changeable, loyal. Adaptable: water/air/land.

When I say that I “see” these things, I do not physically see them, or think they are real in any way.  Just imagination?  The same way I can close my eyes and walk through my childhood home, and feel the carpeted steps tumble me down them.

Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

It feels right to do the practice of posting every day for a while.  Maybe until Easter.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

As much as I enjoy Mardi Gras, it is also, when the rubber meets the road, stressful.  I get anxious about having all the stuff, about if I will be anxious, about if people are feeling included and happy, if the drinkers have enough to drink, if the non-drinkers don’t feel excluded.

This year, I ducked into a bar to get a shot to sneak into my coffee, and the bartender saw me and stopped me.  I apologized, refused her offer of a refund or another coffee.  But I felt awful. I thought I was so suave, could carefully work around liquor laws, I thought I had bona fides (don’t ask don’t tell, don’t flaunt, don’t pull that crap in the suburbs).

In pretty much every other realm of my life, I figure that the people I am with are the people I want to be with, and the people who seem to be hiding out somewhere doing something cooler are… not.  But I can see the remnants of my fear that someone is “in,” and I am “out.”

My New York years helped.  New York can be good at undoing the idea that everyone there is cooler.  They might be, but there are also a lot more ladders of ego to climb in New York, and a lot of people are climbing them, or trying to.   I realized New York City is basically one big high school all over again, with the celebrities as the popular kids.   Or it’s high school all over again, go find some weirdos and get to know them because many of them are great.  They don’t put in as much time in self-presentation.

When I was ten, and my parents were divorcing, I saw my classmates separating into cliques, and responded by making protest signs on my spiral notebooks, and holding a demonstration on the playground.  The signs said, “We are the Sarah and Heather-its/We worship Sarah and Heather.”

My teacher that year had no fucking idea what to do with my weird ass. At the time I thought she was a bitch, but bless her heart.  She was just a (possibly) nice white suburban lady trying to live her suburban white lady dream and go skiing.  We didn’t have this term at the time, but she was basic.

The good thing about Mardi Gras is there is no structure and everyone involved is pretty weird, and very tolerant.  I definitely seek out leadership positions when I can, and as I’m writing this, I think, there probably is a dark side to that, wanting to structure and control things.  Becoming a teacher helped me so much with this.  I undertook an endeavor I was not good at (no one is, really), and one I couldn’t survive alone.  I stopped thinking that if only I were in charge, I could fix things.  And this happened before 30, which was good.

Every time I get into that hierarchical thinking, I have to stop and remind myself: community is better than control.  Shared power is better than horded power.  I really do believe that, but my ego can sneak up on me, nonetheless.

A controlling mindset helps me avoid being vulnerable.  If I shoot for letting anyone else do whatever they want, I can slip into resentment, to bad boundaries.  To telling people I am fine with them not fulfilling commitments, or saying things that hurt me.  My instinct is to make myself not care, to cut someone off, to run off and self soothe.  “It doesn’t matter what my teacher/classmate/editor thinks of my writing, all that matters is what I think.”  Well, not really.  One writes to be read.  At least some of the time.

Image: Daniel Hoopfer, “Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women,” ca. 1515, public domain.