Normal.

May 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Normal is a collective state, one that self-perpetuates largely because we believe in it.

We rarely question normal, even when it includes horrific behaviors because, heck, it is what it is.

It’s normal.

Our normal, pre-Corona Virus.

Normal morphs over time, usually gradually, and we adjust, riding that change the way we did as kids jumping the wave at the beach.

But there are switch-throwing moments when “normal” is upended, and the pattern that settles out is wholly new, like a community after a category five hurricane when all the landmarks: the houses, churches, schools, the shoreline have been blown away, scrubbed clean.

Sometimes the abrupt shift is a response to a technological breakthrough: the wheel, the internal combustion engine, the internet. Technology can jolt us into a new normal.

We are at one of those jolt-points now. This time our collective-normal is being reset by a new, efficient, deadly virus.

Holed up in our houses, we are living a game of keep-away that has no obvious end point. We keep away from each other, from our jobs, our plans, and our dreams.

It may well go on long enough that the systems that sustained our agreed-upon normal will wither, rust, break down, atrophy, or blow away with the wind, and the hardships that result will be enormous.

The normal that comes out the other side will be smaller, poorer, leaner, more local, and more pragmatic.

If, after the plague and its mismanagement, our institutions are as badly shattered as it appears they will be, we will be largely on our own. We will fight like street dogs over the scraps, or we will cooperate and help each other; the new normal will be a ruthless demonstration of survival of the fittest, or it will be the dawn of a powerful and active culture of kindness.

I am an optimist. I am counting on kindness to prevail, and I see it already as our current “normal” hurtles toward the edge of the cliff. All around me I see people doing for one another. Sharing.

Either way though, our old normal will never come back and, like it or not, we will shape ourselves to the new normal we are just beginning to see. The normal of two months ago will be a story we tell the young, like tales of long-ago wars, the Great Depression, party lines, the Beatles, and bell bottom pants.

Our old normal will strike young listeners as strange, fantastic. Perhaps those stories of plenty will shine fairy-tale bright. Perhaps they will be jealous of all we had, all we were able to take for granted.

Perhaps the new normal will make listeners turn away in disbelief—surely no one consumed that much, treated the planet that badly, was ever that selfish–no wonder people were called “consumers” back then.

Perhaps our new normal will look more like this.

I am not looking forward to the next wave of the virus, and the next, the deaths, the job losses, the hunger, but I am hoping that the agony we are living will produce a new normal, one that is better.

One in which our species is right-sized for its spot in the web of life.

One in which kindness has replaced greed, and we all listen more appreciatively to the hum of the other lives all around us.

Note: Our daughter, Josie Faass, runs a foundation that advocates for change and, like me, she sees this as a moment of peril, but also one of opportunity. Click here to learn more.

OLD needs a new PR guy.

May 3, 2020 § 2 Comments

OLD? Yes. But talk about style!

This is how PR works. First, make the customer feel bad about what they are which, in this case, is OLD. Then offer a solution to the problem just created: buy our product and you will be YOUNG again!

Which you won’t, but all they have to do is get you to buy the danged thing they are selling and they’ve done their job.

Their pitch begins with dissing OLD: “Misplacing your glasses, keys, and the name of the guy you talk to every day at the park?” Then they dangle a product. “Take this once-daily pill to turn back the clock and make your brain YOUNG again!”

They work OLD-shaming from many angles.

They go after the easy stuff, like appearance. “Does your skin droop? Hate those crow’s feet, those wrinkles? Don’t worry. We have a cream, a face-lift in a jar! Results guaranteed in just five days.” Six days later OLD buys another miracle wrinkle cure.

If OLD hasn’t noticed it is a little less steady, the PR guys will happily point it out. “Afraid of falling now that you’re OLD? We have a clunky piece of not-jewelry to hang around your neck, just press the button and say these magic words, ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!’”

When it comes to the fragility, embarrassment, and the diminishment of physical abilities brought about by age, these guys are relentless. “Can’t get out of a chair? Cook a meal? Tie your shoes? We’ll rent you a helpful, caring, smooth and attractive YOUNG person to do those things for you!”

But these ads, which purport to sum up what it means to be OLD are like characterizing picnics by featuring the flies, the ants, the poison ivy, the mayonnaise that’s gone off, and the 80% chance of rain. 

OLD needs a new PR guy, one who has experienced its advantages.

If I were that guy, OLD’s advertisements wouldn’t sell a thing. They would be more like public service announcements highlighting the benefits of OLD.

Congratulations! Because you’re OLD you’ve lost all that unwanted weight!

All right, that was a little deceptive; the weight you’ve lost is not measured in pounds and inches. What you have lost is the weight of self. The YOUNG self is so engorged, so massive, its shadow obscures everything else. YOUNG judges the world in reference to itself. Is this thing good or bad for ME? Other people are just mirrors in which YOUNG assesses the impression it is making. The YOUNG self is a heavy lift.

OLD sees the world much more lucidly and accurately—no big ego obscures the view. OLD travels light and trains its gaze outward.

OLD? Now you have it all!

From the outside, OLD is not all that pretty. But that’s just the outside. OLD is like those Russian nesting dolls. All the selves OLD has ever been are nested inside. The stories run deep and long—they are all in there. OLD is time in a bottle.

You’ve made it! You’re OLD and you’re cool!

OLD has endured every kind of humiliation along the way, OLD has staggered, but kept on walking, and so OLD exhibits the cool of the unflappable. Life has played a series of cruel tricks, inflicted sudden losses. It has proven itself to be unfair, illogical, and quixotic, but OLD has caught on. OLD knows that it can endure almost anything because the hard times pass.

When Life short-sheets OLD, pulls the rug out from under, or leaves a tack on OLD’S chair, OLD stays COOL.

OLD appreciates the good that comes.

When life delivers joy OLD does not take it for granted or feel deserving. OLD is appreciative because OLD knows it could have so easily gone the other way.

OLD knows how to say thanks.

OLD feels gratitude, , and that may be OLD’S deepest wisdom.

Note: I was scrolling through earlier posts and I found one guaranteed to take your mind off the pandemic: John Dillinger’s Dick

This moment.

April 26, 2020 § 8 Comments

I take nothing for granted these days. I make no easy assumptions. I have no expectations beyond this moment.

This makes disappointment less likely and, strangely, it makes the small things: modest tasks accomplished, the beauty of the non-human life around me, the throaty voice of my guitar, the unexpected message from a friend, feel like gifts—if I don’t expect, anticipate, or feel deserving-of, when the good happens, gratitude washes over me.

This flood of gratitude, far rarer when I believed I controlled my destiny, is a reaction I hope I don’t lose when the panic passes.

The downside is that I don’t dare to hope or let myself look ahead and plan—what if the current darkness catches me nurturing that glimmer and snuffs it out?

Without hope or plan, I hold on tight to right-now, the future a bridge too rickety to walk across.

I clutch this moment hard, doing one thing, then the next. I call a friend, stir the spaghetti sauce on the stove, sit on my front stoop and gaze into the yard, I cross a small and finite task off my small and finite list, and I keep going.

Yes, I keep going.

I haven’t given up. I hold a pen and write my daily pages, realizing that if nothing else, I am a witness, one of many court stenographers recording the unfolding and overwhelming case being made by the pandemic.

Although what I am recording has changed since “normal” took a hike, I have always been a writer, a journal-keeper. By doing the things I have always done I prove to myself that I am still me.

And so I write.

I make music.

 I weed the garden.

I reach out to others, although I can no longer hug them, or get close enough to breathe the same air.

I study the buzz and hum of the natural world.

And I think.

I am still here, acknowledging—and experiencing perhaps for the first time—this moment.

I would love to regain the luxury of planning, the comfort of believing in a long, long future, but this moment is all I have, and I now realize, it is all I’ve ever had. And it is enough.

Local.

April 19, 2020 § 6 Comments

I remember neighbors in our suburban New Jersey development bringing their kids over to see my dad’s garden. “This is where vegetables come from,” they’d say, meaning, vegetables grow out of the dirt, and this is what they look like before they are put in cellophane-wrapped boxes, but the kids would blink up at their parents. “Vegetables come from Mr. Fogelin’s garden?”

As adults we are almost as clueless. Our vegetables still come out of cellophane-wrapped boxes, grocery store freezers, plastic bags, those snap-shut lettuce coffins, and the bounty is endless.

We can have any fruit or vegetable at any time of year. “Seasonal” is a nice little flourish added to items on the supermarket promo that gets tossed in the driveway once a week. “Seasonal” means local, or fairly local, and probably recently picked, but our supply chain centipedes across continents, and we don’t even think about where those vegetables come from.

As long as grocery store shelves are well-stocked, why would we think about it? Our food comes from everywhere! Sure, once in a while we are inconvenienced by the absence of a particular item at the grocery store, but that’s all it is; an inconvenience. Until now, we’ve had no reason to contemplate the magic of supply.

Now, as supply and demand lurch like a pair of mismatched dance partners, maybe it is time to consider the true cost of this way of feeding ourselves.

Is a box of tomatoes trucked across the country to a supermarket the same as a colander-full of tomatoes grown in Mr. Fogelin’s garden?

Getting commercial tomatoes to Publix contributes to global warming as the climate-controlled truck steams along the interstate. Growing those tomatoes likely polluted a local water source as mono-cultures require lots of pest control (Mr. Fogelin’s tomatoes were not always perfect, but in my book, delicious and sun-warmed beat perfect). Since days-to-market equal money, a lot of growth-boosting inputs were poured on those commercial plants.

Having picked up produce at a local market for our neighborhood food bank, I know, firsthand, the amount of waste in the system. The USDA estimates that food waste in America runs between 30 and 40 percent.

What if…what if we moved production closer to consumption? Wouldn’t we be more resilient and less vulnerable in times like these?

What if we reckoned the true cost of getting what we want any time we want it, and what if we were required to pay the true cost?

If we ran on that calculus, there would be more gardens like my dad’s, and less plastic, fewer pesticides, less CO2 in the atmosphere, no mono-cultures, and kids would know vegetables come from sunlight, water, and dirt (some of which is under the gardener’s fingernails). All it takes is a patch of earth, a packet of seeds, and rolled up sleeves.

I recognize that what I am saying has been said many times before, but we have been given one big gift by this catastrophe; the gift of time, and with that gift, the opportunity to rethink the way we do things.

Note: In many parts of the country it is time to turn the soil and plant some seeds. How about it?

The Never-Ending Adventures of God Part 6: The Plague of 2020

April 12, 2020 § 3 Comments

God sat slumped, his hands on his knees.

When he had unbottled the primal soup that got the whole universe-time-life thing going he had unleashed a festival of possible outcomes, but perhaps he had added too much of that one ingredient, change.

Or perhaps the element, striving, which was shared by all things lit with the spark of life, was too strong.

Or it could be that he had stirred in too little of that moderating element, balance…

But for whatever reason, once in a while one of the competitors in the panoply of living species went rogue. It out-competed and overwhelmed the others.

There was that time with the locusts, a rustling conflagration that blackened the sky…

Prior to the current Corona virus plague, the species now under attack, the one self-named Homo sapiens, had mounted a plague of its own, one that made locusts look like pikers.

Homo sapiens were indiscriminate when it came to who they plagued: elephants, trees, fish, water, air, and earth.

But now, they were the ones in trouble. The ones snuck up on, and they were scared.

God sighed. He had a soft-spot for Homo sapiens, although their gathered praise embarrassed him (even if he did enjoy the singing). He poured succor down when they suffered, but did not give them what they asked for, which was a fix, a miracle. As much as they begged and flattered, he didn’t change the what-is he had created. It didn’t work that way.

If only they could see existence as so much more vast than what they were experiencing on the pinpoint of time. If only they put their faith in the eternal what-is. Then they would know that everything was, is, and always will be, okay.

But in this moment they are panicked. He’d seen this behavior before, this retreat into superstition; hadn’t he given them minds, curiosity, and reason?

Yes, he had. He’d equipped them with a tool kit to fix just about anything.

Now, all he could do was sit and watch, rooting for the ones with test tubes, charts, determination, and focus, pouring encouragement down on those who were throwing their own lives in the path of the deadly virus, and mourn those who behaved as mindlessly as the virus that was plaguing them.

“Come on, Homo sapiens,” he whispered. “Open the tool kit I gave you. Come on, Homo sapiens. Live up to the name you’ve given yourselves!”

Note: Click “The Never-Ending Adventures of God” page to read more accounts of the Almighty in action.

The Archive of Days Past: 1

April 8, 2020 § 5 Comments

One of the ways I have coped with this scary, uncertain time is to randomly read a day from one of my old journals. Whether bad or good, that day is safely in the past—I know the thread of my life continued to unspool after it passed—and some of the entries cheer me up, like this one.

October 9, 1997

I’ve been wearing a pair of black tights Josie calls my “elephant tights.” They bag around my knees and bunch at my ankles. They don’t snap tight against my legs in the way the word “tights” leads you to believe they should.

I am, in fact, suffering a general elastic failure. My underpants too slosh around my hips as loopy as a sombrero. I have not shrunk. My clothes have grown. Every band of elastic has let out its breath, given up.

At work, I stepped out of my half-slip carrying cardboard to the recycle bin. Perfect timing. Had I been anywhere near Howard (desk to my left) it would have ended up on my tombstone. But perhaps that old slip was showing loyalty. I’ve had it since high school. That’s 28 years of keeping my skirt from walking up my legs.  Such service! A slip worthy of being bronzed.

When you keep clothes as long as I do they seem more like companions than fashion statements. The staunchest among them have a greater life expectancy than most large mammals, and all birds with the exception of parrots.

Lately I buy nothing but secondhand clothes. The original owner washes the stiff out, then gets bored, and bags the garment for Goodwill. But when I buy it for cheap the dress or shirt is still up for long years of useful life. Some fabrics, like denim, improve as they mature. They stay strong but grow supple. They get familiar with the physical shape of the wearer. Me.

Shoes have a shorter life span. Especially shoes taken for regular walks and worn daily, like mine. They still last, but over time you have to cut those shoes some slack. The rubber pad on the bottom of the heel wears away first, giving you a peek at the honeycomb construction inside. The honeycombs pick up pebbles and sand when you take those shoes for a walk, and deposit little heaps when you walk back inside.

If your every-day shoes are black, and if you have polished them semi-faithfully, they will have developed handsome, intelligent wrinkles across the insteps. They will have the wizened sheen of salted Italian olives.

Following heel failure, the sole will begin to separate from its uppers. At about this time you will start feeling sorry for your shoes. You will refrain from putting your feet up, concealing their decrepitude, but they’ll be awfully comfortable. And they will be old friends. And you will think, they’re not so bad. Not completely tragic. Think I’ll go for a walk.    

Note: The shoes in the photo are current. My daughter is still embarrassed.

Doing what’s in front of me.

April 5, 2020 § 8 Comments

In different times, the activities I am about to describe might be called Zen. In these times these tasks are my way of dealing with being stunned, dazed, and in free fall. What do I do?

The thing that is right in front of me.

It is usually a physical thing, something done primarily with my hands. I knead bread, sew on a button, play guitar, hang the laundry, wash the dish that is in the sink.

As I do each thing I concentrate, doing the job meticulously and well, as if it is the only thing needed from me.

Maybe one thing is all I can handle given the enormity of what we are going through.

Maybe I need the sense that I still control something.

And maybe, as most of the tasks create order, I do them because I need to believe that I can impose order on the whirlwind.

With this process I fool, prop up, and encourage myself.

Each morning I create a list; not an overwhelming list, but not one that is too easy to be taken seriously, or one that is too scary. In this time of the pandemic the list could be: breathe in, breathe out, stay in the house, breathe in, breathe out…   Instead I concentrate on things I can accomplish, none too easy or too hard (this sounds like the story of the Three Bears, right?).

The goals are concrete and limited so I can achieve and cross them off in a day.

Perhaps my creative right brain is placating my logical left. My right brain instinctively knows my logical left would freak out if it realized it is totally adrift and lacking control, so my right brain is cheering it on, “Look at you, getting the laundry folded so neat and orderly, you go!”

Maybe my logical left is reassuring my scattery right, “Don’t worry, I got this. You know I always do.”

Or maybe they are two wounded soldiers leaning against each other as they limp through a mine field toward safety as far away as the horizon.

Whatever is going on, each time I cross something off my list I feel a disproportionate sense of joy—way to go, me!

Then I shift my gaze to the next task on my list.

Comfort

March 29, 2020 § 9 Comments

As humans, we turn to other humans for comfort. They are us; we are them. Most of the time we take turns needing and giving comfort. Hard times and heart aches are usually targeted, person-specific. The one who is okay eases the pain of the one who is not, and in time, the comfort will flow the other direction.

birds

But what happens when all of humanity needs comfort as it does, for instance, in a time of war—or pandemic, which is where we suddenly, unexpectedly, find ourselves now and the very human expression of comfort, holding or being held by someone, may open the door for the virus to slip in and steal a life?

And how much comfort do we have to spare when we are all at risk, all jangled, all scared?

But Covid-19, while a threat to all humanity around the globe, does nothing to other forms of life. They go on about their business all around us, oblivious. The virus cannot hinder the joyous unfolding of spring just outside every self-isolated home. You don’t have to go further than your own front step to hear the rest of life singing, or to see it strutting as it displays the plumage of courtship, or bursting into bloom or leafing-out with that green that happens only in the Spring. This is the time when life invests in itself without reservation.

On a normal, busy, day we hold ourselves apart—there is us, and there is nature, which we visit on our vacations or foray into briefly as we power-walk. We forget that we are a part of the web of life, part of the exuberant awakening that is spring.

Since we have to step away from the company of other people, perhaps we can step toward the company of other living things, quit seeing nature as something separate from ourselves. We can enlarge what we notice, look up, listen to the songs that celebrate teeming life, life on the rise, life in recovery from the lead grey months of winter, the long sleep that precedes the burst of Spring. Perhaps we can find our place in a picture far larger than the view from a desk, or from behind a restaurant counter, or in a classroom.

flowers

If not now, when?

Suddenly, we have time to watch the bumblebee bump the window screen, and study the jewel-like milkweed beetles beating the monarchs to the milkweeds, time to listen to the back and forth conversations of the birds, watch the first Sulphur butterfly fly a wobbly and ecstatic path through the sunlit air—and by doing so find comfort that takes us out of our small, closed, fear-filled human life.

It is hard not to mourn the absence of arms around you, the at-work chatter you’ve always taken for granted, the casual affirmation of a handshake, but there are other sources of hope and solace and they are all around you. Set down your fear, your isolation, your preoccupation with this dire moment in human history and lean on life.

All you have to do is step outside and be still.

bird

The Pollyanna Report:

March 22, 2020 § 15 Comments

The Corona virus is spreading silently, invisibly. Even if, for now, its presence is only in our minds, and in the news that runs nonstop, it has changed our lives in just a handful of days.

It will make us sick.

Or not.

Either way, it instills fear, pulls the safety of paying jobs out from under us, makes us shun human contact. It mocks our plans and promises that some of us—perhaps a substantial number—won’t make it out the other side.

That’s the bad news, and it is about as bad as bad news gets. But there are peripheral consequences, ones we are just beginning to experience, and some of them are good:

The sky is blue over Bejing, the smog machine of industry temporarily stilled. All over the world, the pouring out of CO2 has been turned down by the hand of the virus.

I called my sister in Manhattan, my brother in North Carolina, an aunt in Connecticut I don’t call nearly often enough. Friends too. Sure, we begin with the virus, but it is just the ice breaker. After that we catch up, have the conversations we were too busy to squeeze in when we were high steppin’ to keep up with our so-called real lives.

That same attentiveness applies to the people we are around physically, even those we don’t know. Although we maintain our distance, we greet each other, even strangers, because, hey, we are joined to everyone else by our common fear. And so, strangers feel less like strangers, more like companions on a long and uncertain, but shared, journey.

We appreciate those we love in an active way. Taking-for-granted is for those who consider themselves too busy to feel or express love right now. It is a human trait to appreciate, eyes-open, what we fear we may lose. We love with greater fervor, and admit it more honestly.

We become suddenly capable of differentiating between what is important and what is just noise—in this new normal every ad on TV makes me indignant. We’re worried about our lawns? Wrinkles? Spots on our dishes? Really? When time is no longer endless or a given we are harder to distract with the trivial.

We notice the small moments of grace provided by the natural world as the beauty of Spring busts out all around us. I write this on my front stoop where a caterpillar is wobbling across the concrete, two tiny jumping spiders are doing just that, a bird is warbling out an alluring invitation to a prospective mate. Unafraid, nonhuman life is going on, exuberantly, all around us.

Finally, sequestered, we have time to do the small, quiet things we have pushed aside, and pushed aside. We read a book, organize a shelf, write in a journal, think.

I can’t deny the darkness of this hour, but there are glimmers of light, always, and I bet in our current state of mind we will not only see them, but appreciate them with a gratitude we rarely take the time to feel.

Note: Please add positive things you have observed in the time of crisis. It doesn’t alter the crisis, but it gives us hope, and hope can go a long way.

Consumer.

October 6, 2019 § 1 Comment

I’ve always hated that label, especially when it is used in a context that has nothing to do with consuming. But as the earth signals, in less and less equivocal ways, that we are driving its natural systems to the point of breakdown, I see that, in all contexts, we are consumers, and that we are consuming the very things on which our survival depends.

And we are doing it so casually, so thoughtlessly, because this is how it is. This is what we do. This is our normal, and heck, everyone does it.

As the elasticity of the ecosystems we take for granted disappears we have to look at “normal” with new eyes. Here are four ways to do that.

1.Think like an alien, one who can see the evolving disaster that threatens all life on this beautiful blue planet. Then observe the behavior of the dominant species.

What? These humans use 1.6 gallons of potable water to make a few ounces of urine go away, eat one meal with a plastic fork that will outlast the person using it, bulldoze a stand of trees and build a dollar store?

If you were seeing human activity as an outsider, would you see reason or madness?

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