We have never known what comes next. The last year has taught us that.
The parking lot at the Southside Church of Christ transformed last Friday into a “pop-up vaccine clinic,” stood up in minutes like a MASH unit by dozens of volunteers recruited through an innovative non-profit. What could epitomize the American moment more than this — can-do entrepreneurialism and compassion, in service of patching the cracks of a fractured, leaking healthcare system. This clinic was the creation of the Shared Harvest Fund’s MyCovidMD initiative, founded by Dr. NanaEfua Afoh-Manin to “help under-resourced communities get free testing and access to telehealth services during the Coronavirus Public Health crisis.” And now to get them vaccinated.
I met Dr. Nana, as she was introduced at the event, when she arrived and began unloading boxes of PPE and Girl Scout Cookies at the hospitality station. After every essential station for the event had been set up, she gathered the volunteers and set our intention for the day. She explained that as an ER doctor witnessing countless families needlessly destroyed by this disease, she decided she had to do more to help prevent people from getting it in the first place.
She stated her three goals for the day: Save lives (obviously). Be safe (volunteers received N-95 masks, face shields and gloves). And have fun.
Which explains the DJ station.
Upbeat music could be heard throughout the day at every station. It carried to the registration table, where volunteers navigated iPads and laptops to confirm appointments and make sure all information was integrated with the state’s record-keeping. The medical pros at each of four vaccination stations could sing along as they asked “right arm or left?” The newly vaccinated could watch the whole party unfold as they waited fifteen minutes in an observation area, watched and timed by volunteers in case of any post-vaccine reactions. Once the timer beeped, they could walk, drive, or dance their way out past the last station, named Seventh Heaven (aka the hospitality booth). There they would receive a goody bag that included one of those boxes of Girl Scout cookies Dr. Nana had provided, as well as hand sanitizer, leaflets about the vaccines, and a long-stemmed red rose. Seventh Heaven is MyCovidMD’s “signature element” and may seem like just a sweet touch, but it serves a crucial clinical role: folks leaving with a smile may just tell their friends and family, “Go get that vaccine. It was a blast.”
And, oddly, it was a blast. We cheered for each person as we brought them their gift bag, joyful that they were safer from the disease, visibly relieved of some anxiety. Indeed, I felt my own anxiety ratchet down knowing that with every vaccination we were all that much safer. We were gong to beat this. We were on our way, collectively. The DJ chose great songs, and we were in the mood to dance and sing. “This is by far my best day of the pandemic,” Christopher said. My niece agreed, summing it up, “This is the closest to Coachella I’m going to get this year.”
And yet, as uplifting as the day was, at times what struck me was a certain absurdity. This is what we have come to — a global pandemic met by a volunteer-led drive-through medical clinic with a DJ and balloons. I could not help but flash to a television news report from the UK, with its seemingly orderly appointment system, every citizen trusting that they would be cared for in due course. This pop-up clinic’s existence may be a triumph, but the need for it is an indictment.
We ran out of Girl Scout Cookies after 200 vaccinations, and had to make due with lesser goody bags. Thankfully, a local restaurant had donated 250 packaged salads, so my friend Monica grabbed a salad, dressing, and plastic wrapped fork, and bopped over to a waiting car. Projecting to be heard over the music and through her N-95 mask and face shield, she presented her gifts with sincere enthusiasm and joy: “Nothing says celebration like a salad!”
Her mouth was hidden from their view, but you could damn well hear her smile.
More about Shared Harvest Fund from its website:
“In helping to found Shared Harvest Fund, Dr. Nana has created a committed organization that works to combat socioeconomic disparities in healthcare through initiatives that advance holistic health outcomes for under-resourced communities globally.
“When COVID-19 struck, disparities in equal access to healthcare across the United States became even more apparent. Dr. Nana worked tirelessly to found the Shared Harvest myCovidMD™ initiative, in an endeavor to provide equal access to coronavirus testing and much-needed social services for the communities that would face the highest rates of mortality due to COVID-19. “myCovidMD is our tactical response to a systemically unequal public health and education system,” Dr. Nana has stated. Since its inception, the initiative has provided free pop-up community-based testing by building trust, administering tests, and tethering community members to a network of Community Health Partners (CHPs). What’s more, it has also self-funded a Student Loan Relief Fund for frontline volunteers and essential workers. The myCovidMD™ initiative has received accolades for its effectiveness in drawing the largest percentage of underrepresented minorities and refugees to testing sites seen across the country.”
I am running a few minutes late. Never mind that I live two blocks from the dance studio, or that others come from all over the city and are already parked and warming up. We (mostly) know one another only from this space, where we gather every Sunday to move and sweat and leave our weekday identities. Here we are not moms or hair stylists or writers or social workers. Here, for two hours, we are dancers.
Ken ties the laces on his immaculate high-top kicks, turns up the volume, and takes his place in the front of class, facing the mirror. He gives a wicked smile, and we know what we have signed up for: good-natured abuse. Legs wide, we follow as his arms sweep from hips to sky. He models the quality of energy he wants us to give and we count on him to pull it out of us. Our ecstatic priest of boogie.
We reach the last movement. “Genuflect,” he says, just like he said the week before, and the weeks and years before that. “Thank your classmates for a good class. For showing up.” En masse, we step to our right, sweep our left leg behind us, stand tall with our arms extended, one toward the lobby and the other to the scuffed ceiling. We melt our bodies forward, crowns of heads bowing to wood floor, imagining ourselves princess swans. We lift our bodies, face our reflections in the mirror, and complete the movement on our left side. We stretch out the final moment; we make it last.
Walking home under the mellowing influence of my own body’s dopamine, not late for anything, I have no idea that this will be the last class. It is March 8, 2020. The e-mail comes the following week. Class cancelled.
We have all had so many “lasts” this year — last days of school and last ball games. Last words and last breaths.
For me on Sunday mornings now, I open my laptop to stream a dance class. “Shit, what’s wrong with the WiFi?” “Why didn’t I do this earlier?” Then I snap at my would-be helper, “I’m fine! Sorry. Thank you. It’s working.” Unfamiliar music plays in the background, and three dancers warm up on a black stage lit by white lights. They are barefoot, playful, and younger than me by half. In the top left corner of the screen, a number ticks up…750…800…1100…others streaming this right now. I push the square coffee table against the couch to make room. I push down my longing for the wood floor and mirror and camaraderie of real life dancers. I look at the screen, and at the tangerine trees outside my window. I reach left, then right, then close my eyes so I don’t see where I am, but only feel my movement. I imagine other people dancing alone in their living rooms, sobbing for what is missing.
Not the physical. My breath gives out sooner than it used to. Muscles that did not used to cramp do not forgive me for at least a week.
What lasts? The memories, until they don’t. The photos, until they fade.
What lasts is the love for what — and who — we are missing. What lasts is the hope that they will return, even in some other form. What lasts is our miraculous human ability to adapt to what is, and keep going.
In my mind’s eye I see the photograph that used to hang in my grandmother’s kitchen. The seven children of my generation (the California delegation), the cousins I grew up with, sit on the ivy-covered hillside of my aunt and uncle’s backyard, posed in a group before resuming our climbing. The sun has all but set, leaving enough light to see us by.
The four girls cluster together. On this occasion for some reason (maybe my aunt forewarned us there would be photographs?) my sister Marni and I wear matching dresses, a quilted design that reaches our ankles, and navy blue turtlenecks beneath. My cousin Liz sits next to me, legs crossed and hands clasped, in a red dress that reveals her knees. Sheryl, the youngest of us girls, wears her pigtails curled and tied with ribbons to match her dress. The two older boys, Marc and Michael, always a pair in those days, sit by each other’s side in corduroys, the uniform of the mid-1970’s. At the front, the youngest of our gang, four-year-old Greg peeks through straight blond hair, his mischievous smile revealing space where his front baby teeth should be, knocked out when he jumped out of a treehouse to prove his mettle.
I am seven or eight years old, and I am aware that it is the collective that matters. That I belong to something bigger. This photo with cousins — and the ritual of being asked to pose for it — imprints a message in my soul: these are your people.
These playmates are your story-bearers, your history-sharers. You will play and make up songs together, go to summer camp and sleepovers, attend each other’s birthdays and weddings. You will lose love and jobs and your hearts will break. The years will separate you by geography or politics or temperament. And yet through it all these will be your people.
The hillside on which we climb will bear witness to our family’s evolution. Our children’s footsteps will overlay the invisible imprints where ours once landed. And like our grandparents asked of our parents before us, we will ask our own kids to stop and pose, freeze just for a second. We will take their photo and tell them without words, you belong to each other.
What no one says enough is that you have to work for it. You have to claim it. That time will wear away the connections if you let it.
I pick up the phone, call your number. Your voice is there, carrying our history.
With the week’s focus on “cousins”, I offer you The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. One of the most fascinating, unexplored (by me) elements of this novel relates to the cousins of the story, the next generation, and the ramifications of their mothers’ choices not only on their individual lives, but on what is missed when deprived of each other. Their relationship is not the headline of this provocative novel, but is richly present throughout. My book club had a lot to say about this novel!
We are in Pennsylvania for a yartzheit, a year since my father-in-law died. How can it be a year already since the world stopped, a harbinger of the whole world stopping as if in sympathy? Come Wednesday, we will go to the cemetery and face head-on the abject missing of someone so loved, so central. Come Wednesday, there will be the output of tears, reckoning with what was lost.
But before that there is snow (a thrilling gift to California boys who have been watching the weather reports and praying for this for weeks). There are borrowed sleds and a hill. There are snowballs and dogs romping. There is the ridiculous cake Aunt Jessica created — sweet with some bitter chocolate — to celebrate two January birthdays weeks gone by, because life is for celebrating even belatedly.
We are here, we are together, and we are missing. An exquisite yearning.
Death always takes us by surprise. We are never ready. We bury our heads in living. But would you want it any other way? To be asking each morning, will this be the day? We live and play and we mourn and grieve.
To be clear, it matters that a year has gone by. We have passed through every season, every birthday, every holiday without him. Each painful. “Just wait,” Jessica warned Christopher on her birthday, the first without their father. In the first days and weeks and months, the bitter won out often.
Now, out in the snow, Christopher wears his dad’s jacket and pelts the boys with fists of powder, and runs away from their response. His sister and mom see the familiar jacket and think his father is here.
In the living, in his grandsons, in the dogs galloping over to join them, he is.
P.S. Full disclosure. I threw some snowballs, too.
Faces gathered in my computer screen from writing rooms across the world. An “accountability check-in” — poets, memoirists, academics, novelists, and essayists, all sharing their day’s writing goals (along with the local weather report during this latest polar vortex) before getting to work.
One writer, after describing her distant view of snow gathering on the Cascade Mountains, explained how her previous day’s work had pleased her; she had “found her way into the magic,” a road not so well marked, and her goal for that day was to find it again.
All heads bobbed up and down in our squares. I have known the absence of that magic. Last summer I felt stymied in my draft memoir. My paragraphs sounded like blah blah blah bullet points. I had forgotten how to sound like myself. Would I find my way again?
Enter our cross-country RV odyssey, a chance to get some distance from the writing project by focusing on getting my family virus-free across the Rockies in a 27-foot house. I did not look at my manuscript once. Instead, I took photos and wrote blog posts, unearthing the seemingly miss-able moments that together add up to life. The new settings after months of sameness, the lack of pressure, and my self-imposed daily deadlines, unexpectedly led me back to the voice I had been missing. Hello there, me! Long time, no see. It was such a relief to find that road again.
There’s a connection between finding that authentic voice in one’s writing and in one’s being. Both can get hidden under obligations and distractions, lost behind the wreckage of mistakes and missed turns.
“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity,” said Coco Chanel. Maybe that explains why the word “authenticity” sizzled in my ears during that writing group check-in. The past year has held some of the hardest times of my life. I have needed to know more than ever who I am, and where I stand. For people like me, accustomed to pleasing, compromising, and getting along, authenticity means finding the terra firma from which you do not waver. Owning your truth. Recognizing and resisting the swirling external forces that try to sway or dissuade you. Holding fast to your authenticity — i.e. reality, honesty, faithfulness, trustworthiness, truth — no matter how it threatens those who hold fast to a misguided mirage.
It takes practice, and thankfully practice comes in many forms. Meditation, which starts with putting your feet on the ground to feel a connection to the earth. Or yoga. My teacher, Nicole, watches us through zoom and cues us to take the position of Warrior I and gently reminds us, “your back foot will want to pull away. Press down, and feel the mat press against your whole foot, grounding so you can reach your arms strong and high.”
Authenticity breeds authenticity. Finding it in myself will not guarantee its appearance in my writing, but it helps me recognize when it appears, and when something lesser is trying to butt in. And I know where to look for help: in breaks from the ordinary, in nature, in reading the voices of my favorite writers who sound only like themselves — Anne Lamott, say, or Aimee Bender. Like these authors do for my writing, we can do for each other in living: “When you show up authentic, you create the space for others to do the same.” (Anonymous)
May you honor your authenticity, and surround yourself with others — at a safe distance, virtually, or on the page — who bring it out in you.
P.S. Book recommendation: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley
I learn more about human nature from a good novel than almost any self-help tome, and in searching for a book on authenticity, I came across a New York Times bestselling novel I can’t wait to read: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. What happens when six strangers decide to tell their truths in anonymous journal entries written in a single green notebook? Something that looks like happiness. It is a “feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits” (Washington Post), and a “warm, charming tale about the rewards of revealing oneself, warts and all” (People). Warmth, charm, and lifted spirits sounds right to me.
Close your eyes and let the sound float around your mind. Comfort.
The word itself feels like something. Like the softest sweatpants you have been living in for months, and the fuzzy socks that keep the hard floor and the cool morning air at a cushioned distance. The couch you sink into after dinner with your belly full, blanket pulled over your knees, the sleepy dog coming to nestle against your hip, its head on your lap, your fingers combing fur. Comfort, as a thing, is tactile.
But the action, to comfort, is harder. How to give comfort? How to heal a dear one’s wounds?
When my father-in-law died almost one year ago, we were inexperienced in loss. I tried to drip words like a salve over my husband’s grief, but grief is a place too deep for words to reach. “Tell your wife you need a lot of hugs,” the grief counselor said. The act of comforting is tactile, too.
Yesterday my friend held a funeral for her father, and we gathered online to comfort her, to offer the solace of our virtual presence. We could not comfort with our touch, only our faces and the awareness that we were present. But we are adaptive, we humans, and I think over the past year of virtual connection we have learned to imagine that last comforting mile, to bridge the gap between screen and actual togetherness. To feel the effect of connection.
During the virtual funeral, the rabbi read a poem, “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy. Maybe you’ve heard it too, this year? The moment came when the rabbi recited these lines,
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
and I leaned against my husband and took his hand, knowing how deeply he wished he could hug his father.
Hugs may be hard to come by in these days of isolation, but there is some comfort to be found in other places: in the sound of a friend’s voice on the phone, much richer than a text. In sorting through old photographs that spur buried memories of your babies’ smiles, a trip with friends, a dance floor moment resurrected. There is some comfort to be be found in playing the song that reminds you of your first kiss, or in cooking the meal your loved one loved best.
There is some comfort to be found in sitting quietly, intentionally, and recalling the of sensation of loving and being loved. In knowing that, although we cannot touch their love, we can feel it.
May we find the comfort we need, and be the comfort for others.
The complete poem is lovely, so I’ll share it here.
Epitaph, by Merrit Malloy
When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands,
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away.
Reading about author Kristin Hannah’s newest novel, The Four Winds, in this New York Times article (“Kristin Hannah Reinvented Herself. She Thinks America Can Do the Same.”) got me thinking about the word reinvention.
Reinvention is the essence of who we are. It can be as frippy as a changing a hairstyle, or as significant as starting over, as with the Depression-era single mother in Hannah’s new work. Reinvention can be born of pain — when “what is” isn’t working and something new must take its place, or born of circumstance and adaptability — think Zoom college reunions and restaurants-turned-grocery stores.
Reinvention can stretch over decades, from childhood to adulthood. One moment playing Barbies with my best friend and tape recording ourselves singing, “There’s a land that I see, where the children are free.” Then, seemingly the next moment, graduating from college, focused on answering The Question: “what should I be?”
Twenty years and one day ago the answer to that question changed for me, when I became a mother. The most fundamental reinvention of my life, a transformation from individualistic, self-reflective, vocationally-defined, to protector, nourisher, and gobsmacked baby-obsessor. Everything changed — down to the extra deliberate care I took crossing the street. I was now someone’s mother; my life was important beyond the borders of my own skin.
Not long after becoming a mom, I reinvented myself from lawyer to a mom who sometimes writes. Other times, like now, I am a writer who sometimes lawyers. I still struggle with the push and pull of my writing and lawyering vocations, with how to honor both in a culture that wants you to choose, which loves the question “what do you do?” and also loves a pithy answer.
I have wrestled with this professional tug-of-war for years, but over the past pandemic year have come to a greater sense of peace with my duality. We are all more than one thing. Carving a path where we can be all of who we are starts with giving ourselves permission to be all of who we are. And recognizing that we are works in progress, always reinventing.
Or perhaps the word I need is not so much “reinvention” as it is “becoming,” in the sense Michelle Obama wrote about in her memoir of that name. If “reinventing” imagines a shedding of one skin for a new one, then “becoming” envisions a layering of our next choices over our existing selves, adding their sheen to our lives. “Becoming” recognizes the magnitude of what we have done, where we have been, and who we can be.
As a country, maybe the question is not can we reinvent ourselves, but can we become who we want to be, and what the world needs us to be?
I like to think we can, as the words of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman urge:
“When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”“The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
May you recognize your power to reinvent, if need be, and to become whatever it is you dream of becoming.
My husband sits down at the piano, nothing grand, his phone propped on the stand in front of him open to the app with chords to any song. Dinner has been cooked, consumed, cleaned. There are three of us left at home after a crowded winter break, hovering in a Sunday night feeling, the top of the rollercoaster before the newest week, and our hands in the air, or gripping the rails, ready to scream.
“This song is all about your mama,” he says to the kiddo, and plays a song I once sang at a karaoke place in Catalina, years ago when the whole family had fun together.
“Is it okay if I play now?” He asks me, not wanting to disturb my writing effort.
“Yes.” It is essential that you play it now, I think.
I rise from my seat, go to the piano bench, and straining for notes, we sing.
Sing, to float away from the hurts of the day.
Sing, to revive the chambers of heart and lungs.
Sing, to remember the last time you laughed with your home crowd in a packed restaurant.
Sing, to channel your grandmother’s favorite love song, and your grandfather’s favorite lullaby.
Sing to make yourself cry, and sing to make your body get up and dance.
Sing to expand your lungs, and to release the pain on your breath.
Sing I don’t want to miss a single thing you do tonight.
Sing Hallelujah. Exult.
I do not know what a prayer is, though I have recited my fair share. I know it is more than a wish, or hope, or thanks. It is outward — a conversation with the universe. And inward — uncovering an intimate truth.
P-R-A-Y. Pop of lips, rip of air, long sigh of an open mouth. Pray. Move the air with your breath in the direction of another being. Will they even know you’ve done it? Can a prayer shrink a tumor? Bring success? Repair a country?
Pray because words exhaled together may shift something too cosmic for our animal brains to know or understand.
Pray because sometimes it is all you can do — when you are not the one who wields the scalpel or sews the sutures or bathes the infirm; when you are not the one placing a hand on a Bible swearing to lead a country out of chaos; when you are on the periphery of your friend’s pain, and it means something to her that you promised to do it.
“Pray not because it changes the world, but because it changes you,” my rabbi’s answer. Pray because it focuses your intention. Propels your next steps. Rebuilds your strength. Restores your equipoise.
Pray because it is a love offering. Because nothing is wasted. Because it couldn’t hurt. Pray because it is your impulse and that is reason enough.
This week, pray to fulfill the words the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 65 years ago:
To do this job we have got to have more dedicated, consecrated, intelligent and sincere leadership. This is a tense period through which we are passing, this period of transition and there is a need all over the nation for leaders to carry on. Leaders who can somehow sympathize with and calm us and at the same time have a positive quality. We have got to have leaders of this sort who will stand by courageously and yet not run off with emotion. We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom. God give us leaders. A time like this demands great leaders.Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Aug 11, 1956, “The Birth of a New Age” Address on the Montgomery Bus Boycott
I do not know how to pray. I cannot proclaim that I believe in its power. I pray anyway. For so much.
A week ago, the word “resilience” might have conjured in my imagination a bowlegged toddler running down the sidewalk, colliding with gravity, and pushing herself back up, scraped knees and all.
Suddenly I am thinking of resilience more expansively. It is every one of us who made it through last year — and, yes, last week — renewing daily our commitment to carry on. Resilience now conjures something as deep and wide as American democracy, maimed but still breathing, still marching.
Resilience is individual and communal. It is the collective decision that what we have inherited — “a republic if we can keep it” — is worth preserving. Resilience is not knowing how to proceed in the face of an unthinkable situation, but committing to figuring it out. It is stepping forward without knowing if you can save what must be saved, or if you have the strength to. Resilience is my friend spending the weekend writing letter after letter to the nation’s elected representatives demanding simply that they tell the truth, because she needed to say that.
Resilience is opening the shutters in the morning and being comforted at the sight of the trees and sky still there.
I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.“
Resilience is foundational. Resilience is a struggle. Resilience is an act of faith.
May we remember that resilience is in us.