This is the time of year that many people are dealing with holiday leftovers.
Turkey gets made into potpie. Ham sliced into biscuits. Sandwiches, soups, stews and especially hashes, become regular menu items.
I’m trying to deal with a different kind of leftover.
I like to hug people. Maybe it’s an Italian thing because my mom’s family kisses and hugs the way most Americans shake hands. Or maybe it’s a Southern thing, because “hug my neck” was one of the first things anyone in my dad’s family said to someone they loved and hadn’t seen in a while.
And, I like to tell people I love them ever since my friend Nathalie taught me the value of saying “I love you” freely rather than doling it out only to the few I would lay my life down for. Because love makes the recipient and the giver feel better.
But, then came Covid. And quarantine. And social distancing.
Hugs morphed into distant waves or, if we felt daring, elbow bumps. Hanging out and telling people I loved them morphed into zoom calls, not nearly as satisfying because I kept wanting to read the book titles in the fake backgrounds, or getting distracted by a wandering pet behind the oblivious speaker on my screen.
As a result, I have a lot of love left over. It builds up like the steam in a pressure cooker, another thing some people are doing with extra food items. Sometimes the love just spews out to let off some pressure. When that happens, I send random love texts to friends and family. Sentimental, almost weepy texts about how much they mean to me.
“Are you drunk?” my daughter will text back.
No, not drunk. Just letting out some of the leftover love.
Just like people resign themselves to lots and lots of turkey meals in early December, I think my friends and family are going to have to resign themselves to a surfeit of love from me next year, or whenever it’s safe to venture out again.
An overload of hugs and kisses and sentiment.
Because, even if I make a hash of things with my exuberant affection, hash is just one of the things you have to do when you have so much left over.
It breaks my heart to learn this lesson because I want to believe in the magic of love to heal. Especially now, during these turbulent and horrible times, I need the magic of healing love.
It is why, when our old girl, Meggie, died at 13.5 years I was on the hunt a few weeks later for a new dog. For our remaining girl, Luna, who was acting understandably depressed, and, yes, for me. Because our house needed joy.
For weeks, I applied for different dogs, each with a sad tale. Each time, we were next-in-line as others wanted to fill their empty Covid hours with pups. And then, the perfect dog became available. A border collie rescue, my favorite breed, and a small one at that. Only 35 pounds at two years old and already well-trained because, well, border collie. I applied immediately.
Meanwhile, another two-year-old, a shepherd mix pup with a compelling gaze into the camera, was available, but heartworm positive. Was she still heartworm positive, I inquired on the form. A form, I discovered, that put me in the queue for adopting the compelling dog.
And then, without answering the heartworm question, we got a congratulations email. We’d been approved to foster the dog for two weeks, with an option to adopt. We just had to drive to Columbia, a two-hour drive, to meet her at her foster mom’s. We were very excited.
And, hours later, more good news. The border collie was ours if we wanted her.
We never wanted three dogs. But, after long discussions, we decided the younger two could age out together so they wouldn’t be alone when our older one died, hopefully five or six years down the road. And the infusion of youth would be good for all of us. Joy, just what we needed in these pandemic times.
The meeting with the shepherd mix in Columbia went well and we brought her home, although she proved her foster mom’s warning about car sickness by throwing up five times in her crate on the way home. Other than bucking like a bronco to get to whatever squirrels crossed her path, she was sweet, loving, and slept on top of us so we couldn’t abandon her like her previous owners had.
The next day, the border collie was delivered. Full of energy, she raced to hide beneath the patio table, and growled at the other two curious dogs. She was desperately attached to her foster mom. We weren’t sure this would be a fit – we were looking for joy, not sad pups. But the foster mom waived the usual two-week foster and said to give it a try. She would drive back from Savannah the same night if we needed her to. Or the next day. Whatever it took, but please give the dog a chance.
So, we did.
Playful, sassy, a bit cautious around us at first, but then lying on top of our feet wherever we sat. More joy.
The two new dogs bonded, even sleeping with feet entangled at the foot of our bed.
The second night, the two new pups were running in the back yard. The border collie was darting in and out of the bushes at the back of the yard. Before we knew it, the border collie was in the shepherd mix’s mouth and having to stand on her hind legs because the larger dog was trying to shake her. And the border collie was screaming. We were there but not on the same side of the yard and it took a LOT to get them apart. The border collie later had to go on antibiotics when the puncture wound in the back of her neck became infected.
Just settling in, we thought. We have introduced new dogs before and the second night always seems to be the time the novelty wears off and the pack order gets established. It’s never pretty, but it seems to be a necessary process. And, immediately afterward, the two dogs were buddies again, acting like nothing had happened.
The shepherd liked to play rough and, each time, we would correct and redirect.
She was unbelievably sweet, accepting the correction, craving the love and putting a gentle giant paw on us to ask for more affection.
Weeks went by and we finalized the adoption on both. Invested in untold numbers of leashes as we tried to find the right combination for walking two energetic dogs and one chill older dog. We settled on the border collie and older girl in one hand and the shepherd mix in the other since she had zero leash manners and still lunged at every squirrel.
And then, about 3 weeks in, we had just come back from a walk and released the dogs off leash to the back yard. We were right there.
And, some movement by the border collie just triggered the shepherd.
Before we could react, the larger dog chased down and attacked the border collie. Jaws on neck.
Fortunately, we were right there and managed to get them apart, but it was not because there was a release, it was because I literally pried her jaws open (sustaining a little injury myself, but not because she tried, just because her teeth were there). It happened so fast, and so without provocation.
After separating the dogs so they could cool off, we sat on the front porch, shaken.
We had been home nearly constantly, not only because of Covid but because the dogs needed time to adjust. But this was sobering. If we were not always home, how soon would it be before the rough play turned fatal?
Crating was one solution, but if we ever travel again, crating is not an option.
Dog trainers have told us that aggressive prey drive is something that must be managed but can never be trained away. The shepherd had been found abandoned in a house after who knows how long. She may have had to hunt smaller animals to survive. She has never once been aggressive to us, but she just sees the smaller dog as prey sometimes.
We are working with the rescue organization to rehome her, maybe with larger dogs or as an only dog. But we couldn’t keep her, despite her sweet face, despite her cuddles at night and her large head on our leg when she wanted some love. I have learned that love is just not enough. Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to give up.
But what if we do changes how we look, could that be a tool for figuring out our fellow humans? Or, maybe our fellow monsters?
It would save a lot of time if we could tell everything we needed to know about someone at a glance.
But, whether we are humans or monsters, we are flawed and our instant inspection is likely to be muddied by our own inherent biases. Turns out, we trust monsters who are like us, whether they deserve it or not.
Did you know that one study claims that 73% of Americans believe in soulmates. More men than women – 74% compared to 71% believe they are destined to find their soulmates. I find the fact that men are the more romantic and optimistic kind of sweet. And 79% of people younger than 45 believe in soulmates, while only 69% of older folks do, maybe because they’ve been looking longer and there’s no soulmate on the horizon.
I do believe in soulmates.
Not that you can relax and not work at it once you’ve found your soulmate. There’s still a lot of showing up you have to do.
And I’m not sure I believe we only get one soulmate in life, or that your soulmate has to be a romantic companion.
I like to think of myself as fairly intuitive. But when it comes to my own issues, I am as blind as everyone else.
When I forget to drink enough water or get enough rest, it takes my body rebelling with a flat-on-your-back illness or a migraine to get me to stop. Apparently, I don’t notice the trend of not taking care of myself unless my body steps in.
And vague murmurs of discontent about work that I’m doing? I think I need a hearing aid.
Recently, I had been writing two monthly columns for a local publication. It’s a fairly small publication, but that’s ok. It was fun, it helped pay the bills. But it was not what I dreamed about doing. My dream has always been to write a novel. I have a manuscript I’m revising, but I still haven’t found an agent. They say that finding an agent can be a numbers game. You sent out at least 100 queries and then maybe one agent bites. Have I sent out 100 queries?
I have not. Because I have been busy.
Busy writing the columns and whatever other random assignments came my way.
And then the publication went belly up.
I was sad – I really liked that publication and the work was comfortable.
But that same week, I got a call from an editor at a larger publication asking if I wanted to work on a story. And an editor who has spoken at a writers’ conference remembered my manuscript and called to see what had ever happened to it, and wondered if I needed help.
You may say this was an example of one door closing and another opening.
I think it was the universe, slapping me upside the head and saying, “Hey, dummy, pay attention!”
Do we want to go back to what we had before the quarantine? Maybe we can preserve some of what we have now.
I am not in any way minimizing the tragedies the virus has brought.
But there are some things that are actually good about this whole shelter-in-place thing. And, no, I’m not trying to be Polyanna.
But I am heartened that the planet is proving more resilient than we are. We’re seeing reports of coyotes, bobcats and bears in swelling numbers returning to Yosemite. Of people actually being able to see the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles because smog is down. More than 82,000 people have died from the Coronavirus in China. That’s probably under-reported, considering the Chinese government’s lack of transparency. But one Stanford University scientist says that almost 50,000 to 75,000 people would have died just from pollution. And the World Health Organization says 7 million people die every year from causes attributed to air pollution.
And, I get that dead is dead, so whether you die from Coronavirus or air pollution probably doesn’t matter if you’re the one dying. But…is there no way we can retain the good from the quarantine, so that 7 million people DON’T die?
The return of the environment isn’t the only thing we can find that’s good in the shutdown.
We have found out who is really important. It’s the people along every link of the food supply chain, from the farmers to the pickers to the grocers and delivery people. It’s the people who keep us healthy, from the doctors and nurses to the pharmacists to the people cleaning up after sick people in hospitals. And it’s the people we love.
And, I include ourselves in that list of who’s important. Before this whole thing began, when was the last time you spent time with yourself without the benefit of distraction? No book, no television or streaming, no music? Just you, your thoughts, your monkey mind and your insecure emotions? What a shock to find that maybe you’ve gotten a little boring, so boring that you bore yourself!
All of this self-discovery makes it hard to be happy, doesn’t it? You’re not alone. A Kaiser Foundation survey finds that 45 percent of Americans say the Coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health. The whole country seems to be in a low-grade depression.
So, how to be happy these days?
I did some research. The first source said you could be happy, even during a quarantine. They break it down to three equations.
But some of them aren’t all that helpful in these times.
So, I went to another source.
A New York Times journalist goes all the way back to the Holocaust for inspiration, citing what Viktor Frankl calls “tragic optimism.” Frankl, a holocaust survivor himself, describes tragic optimism as “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.”
That tragic optimism wound up affecting how quickly people recovered from the shock of 9/11, whether or not they had lost someone, and it shows up in the difference between people who recover from a trauma and those who develop PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
And, we have been traumatized, make no mistake about it. One licensed professional counselor, Jennifer Yaeger, has a widely-shared post on Facebook that talks about how this trauma affects us. We may become numb and shut down or we may become hyper-vigilant (scrubbing down groceries, for example). It’s hard to focus.
It’s time to be gentle on ourselves.
But it’s also time to look for meaning, while we have the time and space for this kind of reflection.
And, finding meaning, finding the good in this Coronavirus, is what is going to make us resilient. It’s what is going to make us bounce back when we do open back up.
I turned 60 on the 29th of March. I had planned to make it a big celebration with my husband, daughter and son-in-law and a few hundred others all attending this big Great Gatsby party at a gorgeous mansion in Asheville. I had my flapper dress and fake pearls and bright red lipstick. I had also planned a bit of self-reflection. After all, it’s a big decade-changer.
Well, then the Coronavirus happened and that big, fancy celebration is postponed until fall when everyone hopes life is somewhat back to normal. My daughter is an Emergency Room nurse, so she is not going to even visit me that weekend, in fears that she’ll infect me now that I am at the advanced age of 60.
When she first mentioned this, I protested that I wasn’t in the high-risk population (this was still when they thought only old people were getting the virus).
“You will be in two weeks,” she told me flatly.
Apparently, by the way, I am not alone in all of this. An article in the New Yorker says, “ A lot of us have spent the past week pleading with our baby-boomer parents to cook at home, rip up the cruise tickets, and step away from the grandchildren.”
I think it’s because we have spent a lifetime trumpeting loudly to society that THIS age, whatever age our generation is at the moment, is relevant and cool. Too cool to be one of those feeble old folks getting the virus, for sure.
So, I’m back to the reflection I planned on upon turning 60. It’s what’s left, and I have way too much time to do it in.
It wasn’t really the birthday gift I wanted. Because the reflection isn’t the most comfortable thing. So I do a bunch of fairly useless things.
But, once all my frantic activity stops, I do what is important. What has been important no matter my decade. I love.
Because that is all that matters. I’m not shy anymore about saying I love you. To everyone I can.
I thought 2020 would be magical. The two 20s together seemed like a good omen, the reference to perfect vision undeniable.
But maybe, the vision part of the year is seeing who we really are. Not just me, but all of us.
And, what do you know? The reflection part wound up being a pretty good gift after all.
A few days ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of touch and how I had just come from a festival in the South and we all hugged each other.
It was kind of tone-deaf, wasn’t it?
And, if I didn’t think so, my readers certainly pointed it out.
I respect those who want to keep a distance and I would never force a hug on someone looking to take protective action. And if you are immune-compromised, or live with someone who is, I would hope you would not be out at festivals anyway.
For the rest of us…
I had two things in mind when I wrote that last blog.
The first was a conversation I had with a friend who worked for the World Health Organization. This was about the time that dish soap, hand soap, everything was antibacterial. Our homes were as sterile as we could make them.
“We’re screwing ourselves,” he said to me. “Germs always win, they just adapt. The trick is to expose yourself safely, not to bubble-wrap yourself.”
The second thing on my mind was what it felt like after 9/11 when I lived in D.C. There were those frozen into a kind of life paralysis by fear of the next attack. The dangers of terrorism were real, not imaginary, and there were those who refused to fly, refused to go to public places. But, there was a band of people who said, “If we don’t live our lives, the terrorists win.” I was in that last bunch.
My blog argued for hugging. I still argue for hugging. Social distancing is another kind of death for me, but I am not arguing for being reckless. In fact, I am likely to miss a dear aunt’s funeral because I am reluctant to fly and attend – not for myself so much (although that may play into it as the virus worsens) but for the elderly attending the funeral. I don’t particularly want to be a carrier any more than a victim.
There is a calculus when something like this happens to us. It’s a risk-benefit judgment. Is the risk of social contact with healthy people death-defying? Is the virus lurking like the potential terrorists after 9/11?
Where you fall on that risk-benefit analysis is completely personal. What my blog was trying to say – not well enough that it didn’t piss off a whole bunch of people, apparently – is that you need to factor the need for human touch and social interaction into that calculation of risks and benefits. Whatever you decide, after weighing all the risks and benefits, good for you. Stay well.
You business types will shake hands. And then you’ll use your hands to touch god knows what and then your face. Because as we are all finding out during this Coronavirus outbreak, there is an irresistible and maybe biological need to touch our faces. Especially as the weather warms and allergies make your nose or eyes prickle and itch.
But I live in the South. We hug, y’all. We “hug your neck” we “give us some sugar.” When we have not seen someone for a while, we give them a hug.
I was just at a big food festival in my city, Charleston. Thousands and thousands came through. Friends I hadn’t seen since this time last year, chefs and food writers and photographers and podcasters. And we all greeted each other the same way: a slight hesitation with a quirk of the eyebrow, a shrug and a big ol’ hug.
People who knew they had a compromised immune system – whether from history or medication, would wave us off and no one took offense if an elbow was proffered for a quick elbow-to-elbow greeting. And, if someone was coughing and sneezing, we’d give them a wide berth, but otherwise? Hey, great to see you, it’s been too long, c’mere!
I’m not saying hugging makes us immune to the Coronavirus, but it does toughen up our immune systems in general, and the benefits of human touch are not to be underestimated. We’re not swapping spit or rubbing noses, we’re just briefly embracing one body with another.
In fact, the same article that cited the respiratory infection study also cited a series of Dutch studies that showed hugging could relieve a person’s feelings of existential fear. And, in this season of a pandemic, a tumbling stock market and vicious politics, existential fear abounds.
As one fellow festival attendee said after we hugged, “We’ve all got to go some way. I’m going to lead with love. If that’s what kills me, so be it.”
Maybe it’s because Valentine’s Day was last month, but I’ve been thinking about love. Have you ever noticed that some people just naturally seem better able to love?
I’m not talking about sociopaths here, just the people who don’t have a knack for love.
Is it just the way some people are wired?
There has been some interesting science about what love does to the brain.When you love, you get a rush of endorphins and the whole rush can act like an opioid and get you a little hooked. A little love makes you want a lot of love. So maybe taking that first leap is the first leap to a lifetime of love.
It certainly makes you happier.
The National Science Foundation archives, citing a 2018 article in Current Psychology,says that compassion for others and maintaining friendships means happiness. In typical science-speak, they call compassion for others “CFO.” Friendship Maintenance is “FM” and both CFO and FM are “positively associated with happiness.”
One interesting note? Women tended to have higher scores on CFO and FM. Are you surprised, though? In many couples, it’s the women who are in charge of the social calendar and the social connections.
Empathy too plays a part.
The Journal of Patient Experiencetalks about how empathy declines after medical training. We’ve all had doctors with terrible bedside manners, right? But the journal goes on to say that a lack of empathy leads to patient dissatisfaction and dissatisfied patients don’t follow the recommended treatments, and that leads to worse health outcomes.
So, what’s this all mean?
Sure, love is important, but what if you’re not good at it?
Then, love badly. Love awkwardly. Love with an embarrassing lack of talent. But, really? Just love. If you won’t do it for someone else, do it for your own health.