Get Ready, Here Comes 2021

2020 worst year ever

It’s okay, don’t let that title scare you. You’re reading this, so you’ve already made it through one of the toughest years the human species has had to face for decades. Take a moment to acknowledge that, if you can. Breathe in, breathe out. I’ve learned how immensely important it is to get serious about mindful gratitude these days, because life can be turned on its head in an instant.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day details of life that we forget to appreciate the good parts. And it’s far too easy to find things to complain about this year, so let’s not do that today. I want to mention some things that I’ve been especially grateful for recently, in the hope that this will encourage you to do the same.

Friendships

My gosh, where to start? For a couple decades of my life I lived a relatively unsocial lifestyle with few meaningful friendships. After making the scary decision to leave my former life six years ago and start over, I have felt like a new person. The change wasn’t instantaneous and it wasn’t easy, but I pushed myself to adopt new habits and new ways of interacting with the world. I dug deep and kept trying after each setback. And before I knew it, I’d built a life full of wonderful friends and meaningful relationships with colleagues in my nonprofit volunteer work. I sometimes couldn’t believe I’d been able to do it after having been trapped in the old patterns for so long. I finally felt needed and respected, and had as much social life as I could handle. Life was great.

Then the pandemic hit. After all the work I’d put in to build my new life, and when I’d realized that I really did need people, all of that important social interaction was taken from me virtually overnight. I wanted to pound my fists and scream, “No fair!” But, alas, life is what happens when you’re making other plans, right?

Wingspan game day at my house…in 2019…sigh.

Of course the friendships remain, but we can’t spend time together now.  No more game nights at my house with a kitchen full of laughter. No more meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. No more community theatre dates with my theatre buddy. I do meet a couple friends for walks occasionally, but it’s getting too cold for that to be fun anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible to feel this lonely. I’m normally so grateful that I can live alone, but some days I would give anything to have someone in my household “pandemic pod” so I could get a hug. I know things will eventually return to some kind of new normal in which we can be together again, but this forced separation has made me realize how important these people are to my life.  Some friends teach me new things, others make me laugh, and yet others share those deep conversations about life that I love to engage in. I cannot wait for the day that it’s safe to grab every one of my friends in a huge bear hug — I may never want to let go again!

Time

I’m very lucky that I don’t have to deal with a job and kids during the pandemic.  So lucky that I feel guilty about it. I try to make up for that by donating to causes that help the people who are suffering more than me with more immediate physical or financial needs. Most days I have to myself now, with very few appointments or even reasons to leave the house except for groceries or a walk in the park. Despite the loneliness, I’m incredibly grateful for the mental space I’ve been able to reclaim with all this solitude. I see the benefits I’m reaping from being able to use my time to read and write.

A few of my favorite inspirational books

The other day I finally took some time to remove all the books from my messy shelves and re-organize them. That process gave me the chance to rediscover some of them, and I’ve developed the new habit of just pulling a book from the shelf and reading a chapter at random. I’m focusing on my large collection of books about writing, mostly. I’ve long had a fascination with the processes of other writers: how they get ideas, how they organize their notes, and how they tell stories. I feel some momentum building toward my dream of writing my own book. I’m getting more confident that I have something to say that other people will be interested in reading. It’s scary, but I’ve always believed that doing the scary things is important in order to move yourself forward.

My Pets

After my cat Mickey’s traumatic death during my divorce, I was determined not to have pets again because it hurt too much to lose them. And I managed not to look at any cute kittens for more than a year…until a colleague wore me down with her constant urgings for me to get a cat. I begged her to stop telling me about stray cats she’d found or people giving them up for adoption, but she persisted relentlessly. Eventually she wore me down, and I adopted two five-year-old cats from someone who was getting married to a guy with severe cat allergies. 

That was five years ago. I’ve sometimes regretted that I allowed myself to be pushed into adopting them, especially when I had to deal with expensive pet sitting rates and when I found out that one of the cats is very demanding of my attention. But…and this is a major but…since the pandemic and the ensuing isolation, these cats have saved my sanity. I love them both and adore their little quirks. Sophie is my little brown and black tabby girl with the softest fur and loudest purr you’ve ever heard. Her legs are so short she has to try several times to get up on the bed. And the big orange one, Sam, sleeps curled up against my chest with his paw across my neck. It’s hard…really hard…to be alone in this time of such uncertainty about the future. And if I didn’t have these cats to keep me company, well, I just don’t want to imagine how much harder it would be.

And before I finish with this subject, I’ll mention the pets of my friends too. Two of my friends have graciously shared their dogs with me — isn’t it strange that dog walking is something new for me? I realized that I had never walked a dog in my life before the pandemic. And I discovered that I love it! When you can’t hug a friend, the next best thing is to hang out with their dogs. I’ve helped one friend train his rescued dogs to get socialized in the park, and the other friend has allowed her dogs to smother me with kisses and an occasional tackle.

So those are some of the things I’m especially grateful for these days. What are yours?

(Yes, I need a haircut!)

So now we move ahead into a new year. Sure, it’s just a number on a calendar, but we give it a great deal of symbolic significance. There are hopeful signs that life may get better soon: Vaccines are beginning to be administered, and the leadership of our government will be much more sane in just a few short weeks. I’m generally a cynic about New Year’s resolutions, but not this year. I resolve to hold on just a while longer. I’m so tired of wearing masks, but I’ll keep doing it a while longer. I miss my friends and family so much, but I can endure this separation just a while longer.

Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.

The Power of One Little Flower

Black-capped Chickadee in my yard
Black-capped Chickadee

Well, I did it! I’ve been in my new house for 9 days now. I’m still trying to find places for some of my stuff in this smaller space, but overall the place feels like home now. I’ve got my artwork on the walls and most of the boxes are unpacked. I’ve cooked meals here. Each day I have fewer instances of having to open multiple cabinets to find what I’m looking for. Even half asleep in the predawn hours, I can successfully navigate the now-familiar path from the bedroom to the kitchen to feed the insistent cats.

I’ve started a new Yard List to record the birds that visit my yard. I’m up to 17 species so far, and am excited about what spring migration might bring.

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800Back in October I told you about my efforts to keep my life interesting by always having something planned that I could look forward to.  Using that as a sort of motto has kept me from becoming complacent and taking anything for granted. I’ve worked hard to keep in touch with friends and nurture the relationships that bring joy to my life. And during the past two months, my life has been consumed with the myriad details of the move, so I haven’t had to try hard to have things to look forward to.

But as I get my new house in order and life starts to settle back into a more normal routine,  I’m sensing that I need to redouble my focus on that motto. I’m in a new city where I don’t yet have any friends, and I’m feeling lonely. I know this will pass, but I have to acknowledge the little bits of anxiety about my new life. For months I’ve been telling myself, “When I get moved I’m going to get involved in lots of activities and meet people and all will be fine.” And that was a great confidence-builder as I looked forward to the move. But now I’m here and it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, so to speak. It’s time to take the difficult steps of finding things to get involved with, and reaching out to people who might become friends. I’m making progress, but it’s all a bit scary, if I’m being honest. In my darker moments, I succumb to the fear of rejection, failure, and continued loneliness. But I’m not letting those thoughts stop me from getting out there.

Squirrel in my tree (759x800)
Fox Squirrel eyeing the new human

European Starling in my yard (800x590) (2)
European Starling eyeing the Fox Squirrel

Today I had a moment that I think was cathartic. I’d been feeling a tightness in my throat all day, as if I needed to cry. I thought it was because I’d read a news report that upset me. So I kept myself busy, hoping the need-to-cry feeling would go away.

After eating dinner, I sat down in the living room to write and happened to glance out the front window. And I saw this tiny yellow flower that had just opened, and I started crying. It’s cliché, I know, but I was struck by the symbolism of a flower rising from the ground in the spring after being dormant all winter. I see my own life as a parallel to the life of that beautiful little flower, and it gives me confidence that I too am going to stand up and tilt my face to the sun. And I will make new friends and have a happy and fulfilling life here.

Miniature daffodil in my yard (697x800)
I think this must be a miniature daffodil — I’ve never seen them this small before.

Isn’t it funny how someone can get such hope from a tiny yellow flower?

I’m remembering now that this is partly why I’ve always loved growing perennials–seeing them wilt in the fall and then come back in the spring after resting in the earth through the winter. To an observer who doesn’t know what’s happening inside the plants, they appear to be dying. But they just need that period of dormancy to regenerate and prepare for the next phase of life, when they’ll show their beauty again.  So maybe I’m like a daffodil or crocus, just trying to push through the mulch so I can reach the sun again.

Yeah, I like that.

Saying Goodbye

I said goodbye to a friend today and am feeling a deep sense of loss.

I spent the afternoon helping him load his moving truck, along with another close friend. For the most part, the three of us tried to focus on the task at hand so we wouldn’t dwell on the emotions we were all feeling. Of course there was optimism about his new life and hope that everything would work out, but there was also lots of sadness and uncertainty. As upset as I was though, I was determined to keep my chin up and not make this day any harder for him than it had to be.

Even though I wasn’t happy about why we were together, I was grateful that the three of us had this special time alone today. Our friendship is partly based on bonding over some experiences that we can’t really talk to anyone else about. If you’ve ever read about the psychology of bonding over shared pain you’ll understand how strong that bond can be. We have been each other’s support system through some very difficult times.

my-two-friends-on-the-lake-erie-beach-800x594
My friends on the beach at Lake Erie a couple weeks ago, as we began saying our goodbyes

As the afternoon wore on and we made a few re-checks of the house, gathering up the remaining last-minute items, I started to feel my emotions welling up.

In the late afternoon we finally finished loading the back of the truck, then the two guys began hooking the car up to the tow dolly. As I waited for them to do that, I walked out behind the house and stood beside the wildflower meadow, watching butterflies and bees flitting and buzzing from flower to flower. Turkey Vultures soared over the house and Blue Jays squawked loudly from the trees. I almost cried then, standing in the sunlight watching the vultures and listening to my friends discussing how to secure the car on the towing rig.

zentangle-chicken-for-lp
A gift I made for my departing friend

After they got that done, the cat was put into her carrier and loaded into the front of the truck. The snuffling little pug dog would go in at the last minute, after our final goodbyes.

When it came time to close the garage door for the last time, my friend stood in his garage and said softly, “Thanks house, you’ve been good to me.” And that’s when my tears started to flow.

I’m not sure why that particular thing touched me so much. I think maybe because I realized the importance of what he had just done: He stopped to acknowledge the happy times he’d had in this place before leaving it.

Because of what the three of us shared today, I’m thinking a lot tonight about gratitude and mindfulness. About how, even in the midst of sadness, we can choose to be thankful for the good in our lives. And about how important it is to stop and appreciate the best moments as they’re happening. And to look forward rather than backward. I’m thankful for the time I had with my friend and for all I learned from him. He opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world and dealing with challenging times. He made me laugh–hard. And he gave the world’s best hugs. I’m so glad that we took a group selfie today to serve as a memory of our last time together as a trio of friends.

When I was dealing with another painful loss recently, I was reminded of this line from a Tennyson poem: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  I suppose that’s the way to look at this too–being grateful that I had the experience of knowing this person who was so special that it hurts to say goodbye.

As I write this he’s driving south toward his new home and new job. I have high hopes that he’ll find what he’s searching for, and that his life will be overflowing with love and friendship.

 

Turning Inward

As I feared would happen, my latest “Extrovert Episode” ended abruptly and I found myself needing to step back from the world a bit. Well, that’s actually an understatement. Last Friday I had a meltdown.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such deep sadness and been so irritable at the world that I couldn’t make it through a single day without some tears. I could feel it building up over the preceding week or so, as one thing after another upset me: possible U.S. involvement in Iraq (sigh…again?), a beloved pet with a health complication, never-ending noise in my neighborhood (construction as well as loud music at night), upsetting photos on social media of turtles killed by balloons and birds killed after window collisions, and about a half dozen other similar matters.  I didn’t have time to recover from one of these things before the next one was piled on top.

Juvenile bluebird
Juvenile Eastern Bluebird on swingset

And because many of my friends hang out on Facebook (FB), I’d go there and dejectedly scroll through my newsfeed to see what everyone was up to. They all seemed to be having a great time chatting and sharing photos of their lives. And that made me mad too. “How can they all be so happy when I’m so miserable?” That’s when you know you’re in trouble — when you resent your friends for being happy. And one more mini-trauma finally broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and I was Done. I posted a brief message on FB:

Feeling so sad and overwhelmed lately, and FB certainly isn’t helping.This messed up world is just kicking my highly-sensitive self to the curb. I’m going to try to take a FB break for a week or so. I’ll be back when I can go at least a full day without having a meltdown about something.

And then I really started feeling pathetic. Over the next few days I did occasionally look at FB, but I didn’t engage with anyone there. Didn’t even click “like” when someone posted good news. I refused to participate in the world. I was just determined to hunker down and wallow in my despair.

My first time to find and recognize Goatsbeard, a very interesting wildflower
My first time to find and recognize Goatsbeard, a very interesting wildflower

After a couple days I got an email. My dear sweet friend Donna, to the rescue. We met last year in Ohio and bonded further on FB, due to our shared love of nature and our introvert personalities. We were blessed to see each other again (briefly) this May in Ohio, but then she went back to New Mexico and I came back to Michigan. In her email, Donna reached out to me with love and compassion, telling me she understood what I was going through and assuring me that things would be okay, eventually. I cried. But this time my tears were from happiness at being understood. And knowing that I wasn’t alone in my feelings about this overwhelming world.

And then, just today, I received a package from yet another very special friend. Getting a package is usually a predictable event resulting from an online order. But getting an unexpected package with the return address of a beloved friend, not knowing what’s inside? Now that’s what mail should be about! (Remember the good old days of handwritten letters? I miss those so much.) And inside this package was such goodness I cannot tell you. There were some gifts to cheer me up. And then there was the most heart-warming, soul-uplifting (and hand-written) letter I have ever received. I couldn’t even finish reading it without wiping away tears. It was loving. It was understanding. It was encouraging and hopeful. It was exactly what I needed to push me further along in my re-entry to the world.

Wandering Glider dragonfly

 

So to sum up, I’ve seen the darkness but I’ve also seen some glimmers of light ahead. Just the fact that I’m able to write this is a good sign. Several days ago I didn’t trust myself to write anything because I was in such a negative place.  I’m so very glad that I’ve been able to bond with such caring people too, because they are the secret ingredient that I was missing for the first 50 years of my life. Having strong connections with people who understand me has been life-changing…and my life needed some changing, that’s for sure!

Grasshopper