all of the selves we Have ever been
For me, the COVID years were a fall from grace. There was the forced social isolation and the unplanned early retirement. Those seemed like momentous changes at the time, but I adjusted. Turns out, the long-term damage was to my wardrobe. While I never caught the virus or lost my sense of smell, I did suffer a complete loss of taste. Now, I am trying to come to my fashion senses.
With minimal social contact during the pandemic, I cared little about my style or about the frequency with which I did the wash. Laundry happened whenever the fabric freshener ran out and my clothes marched themselves to the washing machine and pounded on the lid. My COVID wardrobe consisted of six pairs of sweat pants, an equal number of oversized t-shirts, and a pair of walking shoes. My back-up system for improvising consisted of an emergency body bag in basic black and a stash of single-ply toilet paper stockpiled when the good stuff disappeared from the shelves.
Now, nearly four years out, the body bag and the single-ply toilet paper are in pristine condition, but I notice that some of my clothes are becoming see-through in should-not-be-seen places. “It’s time,” I tell myself, “time to put COVID behind me and get a real life and put on some real grown-up clothes. I officially declare the pandemic over and myself in recovery.” I dig deep into the closet in the spare bedroom to see what survived my bouts of clean-it-out-and-give-it-away during the heat of the pandemic. I try on some of my pre-COVID wardrobe, some of my old office styles. The look staring back at me in the mirror says “stuffed sausage.” Not a good look on a vegan.
Because I haven’t shopped in more than four years, I have no idea what is in style. My COVID fashion statement read “survivor.” Now, in the fall of 2023, Vogue tells me that it’s all about “monochromatic tailoring,” and “the sultry return of lingerie-inspired looks.” What? Tailoring?! I haven’t worn a fitted waistband in 15 years, and I am guessing they haven’t seen my lingerie. It pre-dates COVID and is sturdier than a suit of armor. I am hoping that’s what the editors mean when they report that metallics are in style this season. Reading further down the list, somewhere between cinched blazers and kitten heels, I see that “90s nostalgia” is in as well, and I think, “Good Lord! I was pregnant for most of the 90s.” When I get to “denim-on-denim” I look over my shoulder and check my privacy settings.
Appalled and thinking it’s not too late to become a cloistered nun, I see some terms I can reckon with: “oversized clothing” and “relaxed effortless style.” Well, well, well, it’s true: everything old is new again! I repeat the magic words: oversized, relaxed, effortless, and presto chango, I’m back in the game. It appears the key to fashion is patience.
I am reinforcing my well-worn sweatpants with all that toilet paper, and just in case I am invited to a more elegant event requiring a runway look, I am holding onto the black body bag with the metallic zipper. I’ll dress it up by wearing a pineapple on my head. As they say at Vogue, “there are so many way to sprinkle a bit of magic into our seasonal wardrobes…and turn heads.”
Oh, yes, there is…oh, yes, I will!
After a year of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment,
I now think of my right breast like one of those tiny dogs that can be carried in a purse. Of course, my breast goes everywhere with me. I am not sure if this part of me has legs or if it is just a cute bobbing head with a cold nose, but like any privileged, spoiled pet, my breast eats up a lot of my time, and I’m always whipping it out to show someone. Together, my breast and I have had more views than Lassie, and we’re not even on TikTok.
I’ve named my pet Lymphedema. I am certain that must be the name of a Roman Goddess, one that comes alphabetically after Febris, the Goddess of Fever, and before Minerva, the goddess of pretty much everything else including wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicrafts, poetry, the arts and war, a woman for all seasons and all reasons. Lymphedema is in good company.
I am afraid my Lymphedema became full of herself not because of her namesake but due to the frequent picture taking. There was the mammogram, the ultrasound the ultrasound-guided biopsy, the ultrasound to insert the clips prior to surgery, the MRI, another MRI, a CAT scan, imaging during radiation treatments, another mammogram, another ultrasound, and then still photos when she developed redness, thickening skin and a spreading rash. And during various photo ops, attentive techs always asked what music I would like them to play. While I would have preferred a relaxing James Taylor song list, for Lymphedema’s sake, I always requested How Much is that Doggy in the Window.
A lot of poking and petting went along with the many photo opportunities. There were the doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, mammogram techs, ultrasound techs, radiation techs, oncologists, students, and even a visiting scholar! The scholar pretty much stared into his cell phone the entire visit. I am not sure if in his role as scholar he was taking notes, photographing my breast, or watching TikTok videos. Lymphedema is convinced he was texting his Albanian colleagues about the rare and beautiful Lymphedema. Whatever he was doing, his presence seemed to unsettle the usually confident and friendly young, male radiologist. Rather than touch Lymphedema during the exam, he asked, “Can you just hold it up?” I think the awkwardness of the situation may have offended Lymphedema.
But in prouder moments, Lymphedema and I mastered important poses including the classic shoulders-back, elbows-bent, arms at side and hold it while the judges look for bumps, puckers, rashes, and burns. While that was easily mastered, I recently learned that I now have to exercise Lymphedema. Turns out that just carrying her around and popping her out for show-and-tell was not enough. She now demands a daily walk! And then I have to grab her in a football hold and spin her in circles both clockwise and counterclockwise.
Through this long year, Lymphedema has become socialized and obedient learning the commands for each important event. Her appearance is improving along with her attitude. We are getting up to date on our vaccines for the coming year, and I am becoming a better handler so that I can highlight Lymphedema’s best structure—this is known as the stack, and we are stacked! Although I am not sure if Lymphedema will ever enjoy the hands-on examination or being looked over by the judges, this year of obedience training has deepened our bond and improved our communication. Lymphedema is now much better behaved and has not barked at me or anyone else all year.
I think we may be off to Westminster for the annual Dog Show. As a team, Lymphedema and I may not be much in class but we are best in show. Together, we have come through like champions.
Now, beam me up, Scotty. I need a new sport.
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Arthur Fletcher, United Negro College Fund
“In my head I was thinking.”
The speaker loses me right there. His brain may be a luxury liner, and he may be about to tell me the secrets to world peace, climate change reversal, and how to grow thicker, more luxurious hair, but my thoughts dive overboard.
I replay his words while awaiting underwater rescue: “In my HEAD I was thinking.” “In my head I was THINKING.”
I want to interrupt the speaker and ask, “Where else would you be thinking?” But my son’s insistent voice tugs on my mind in the same urgent way that he pulls on my arm in a department store when I am about to confront a shoplifter: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way anymore.”
Oh! And uh-oh! Another reminder that I am either touched or out of touch, drowning in a sea of changes. The most fundamental truths no longer hold water: now we must qualify where our thoughts come from.
No expert, but ever curious about why people do what they do and say what they say, I take a deeper dive. What better arena to find people talking than in politics? I listen. I try to grasp the thoughts behind the words. I try different news sources, and then I ask myself: Did that really come out of the head of a person educated at Penn? Yale? Harvard? Stanford? Pretty pricey educations. And in my head I think I have found the reason to forgive student loans.
Just to be sure it’s not just me struggling with the question of where thought comes from I turn to a friend about one of her recent experiences. Needing assistance in a store, my friend approached the customer service desk where another woman was already waiting for help. No one came to staff the desk. After waiting a bit, the women approached an employee stationed in the self-checkout area to assist customers who, shockingly, were having problems with self-checkout. On the surface, it seemed like the customer service representative and the two women shared the same language, but this customer request for a manager or someone to assist them just did not seem to compute in the young employee’s head. Finally, he pulled a response from the same pocket where he keeps his much smarter phone: “There’s no one here that can help you.” End of discussion. Problem unsolved.
My friend, a very bright woman who carries a big engine in her own head, persisted, “Well, who would you call if the store caught on fire?”
That seemed to get the lights flickering in the young man’s eyes: “Oh! That would be Tom?”
“Well, could you call Tom?”
Tom never appeared but the two women with the thinking heads solved their own problems.
Back at home, I watch a neighbor walk down our shared hallway, dripping and dropping food onto the carpet as he goes. Not unnoticeable, and yet he keeps walking. Keeps dropping. Keeps spilling. And steps in it! Days pass. No attempt is made to clean up the mess. His smart phone is on and updated, but his beautiful head is on lockdown.
At work people appear to be busy on their computers. They receive a constant stream of music and podcasts from their earbuds. As their minds process all of that sensory stimulation, I wonder: where do they think? And when? I would ask them, but they can’t hear me.
Wonderful people I’ve known for a lifetime are suddenly up in arms about a variety of conspiracy theories. Salacious, crazy ideas picked ripe from the internet and social media are turning their good minds into debris fields. No thought or fact checking required. All of their mental input is handpicked and arranged by AI the new thought generator.
I contemplate the notion of “artificial” intelligence. Is that an oxymoron? Or a bad substitute like ill-fitting dentures? Whatever AI is, it bears a shocking resemblance to the artificial additives that enhance the color, flavor, shelf-life, and addictive qualities of processed food. All of the flavor but none of the calories. And none of the nutrition. Seems to me the food giants do their thinking in their wallets. Never mind that artificial ingredients have led to an obesity epidemic that is the leading cause of death in America. Perhaps they learned this approach from the tobacco industry whose product is known to kill one out of every two of its best customers. And so, in my head, I ponder: What does this new artificial substitute for thought mean for our minds?
After tobacco, it was food. Now it is technology. We are already experiencing AI poisoning. Maybe we will eventually kill each other. And like the tobacco and food companies before them, big tech owners will stand back and claim it was all “freedom” regardless of their industry’s psychological manipulation. But, by then, the big tech guys will own all the real estate on Mars and the only rockets to get there. Don’t you love freedom?
The life of the mind is under siege. The future of thought is not looking good. What is to become of that vault of jewels that makes us human, the many faceted gems of thought, wonder, creativity, and empathy polished by time, experience, education, flexibility, maturity, and relationships? What happens when our heads are as junk-clogged as our arteries?
A poor swimmer in these uncharted waters I doggy paddle to stay afloat. I conclude that psychologically manipulated information--no matter the volume--is not thought any more than Cheetos are nutrition.
To the in-my-head-I-was-thinking-guy—I owe you an apology.
And some credit for trying.
My son calls to tell me that he heard from his boss who is traveling in Libya. Through sobs, Sam’s boss reported that he had awakened in Libya one morning this week to the inconceivable reality that entire units of his extended family had been washed out to sea. Gone. Presumed dead. This unimaginable horror is on my mind as I run an errand in my own safe and manicured community.
Reaching for the door to a shop, I glance across the street to a schoolyard. From a brilliant blue sky, the morning sun reflects off the shiny, red, plastic tube-slide creating a spotlight for a gaggle of little boys in their colorful t-shirts as they race onto the playground. Other doors burst open and grade schoolers come from all directions flooding the field with bodies that are running, jumping, swinging, and climbing. Suddenly, the world is alive and the air is full of a joyful noise. For a moment, there are no children buried beneath rubble in Morocco or washed out to sea in Libya, no sobbing, inconsolable parents. And in this moment I feel like Noah after the rain. The entire playground performance seems orchestrated by God, a colorful rainbow to remind me that while I might be disheartened, He is not yet discouraged of man.
There is so much that we take for granted: that the planet is inexhaustible, that the ground beneath our feet is stable, that we can hold back the rain with our human minds and engineering. Thankfully, these sweet playground nymphs are not yet burdened by the thoughts and fears of all that can go wrong. I marvel at their continued faith in grown-ups.
I make a wish on this playground rainbow that all adults can be worthy of this faith, that no child anywhere will be deprived of hope, and that their lives will be such that any loss of health, energy, or joy can be restored simply by taking a nap. And I pray that these children will inspire us to do a better job of caring for this world, this life, this beauty, all this wonder. None of us can do it alone. The world was saved by going in pairs. Let us begin anew.
Send out the dove.
“…the great gift of memory is that we can choose to live in the resplendent moments.” – Mary Pipher
I have taken up bask fishing.
I got hooked on the sport at the Heart Walk a little more than a week ago. I signed up to support a friend and former co-worker who had suffered sudden cardiac arrest. Miraculously, skilled health care professionals were in the restaurant where it happened. Seeing her collapse, they came to her aid. While my friend never got to eat her favorite peanut butter pie, dessert was served: her life was saved. A year later, we, the grateful, gathered at a large city park for a photo and then to walk to celebrate the life of our friend and the work of those who save lives.
As the crowd thickened, other former co-workers arrived, and we embraced and caught up. Many of them I had not seen in ten years or more. Though some of us now sported gray hair and white stubble, wrinkles and rounded bellies, we remained immediately recognizable to one another. Moving through the throngs on our way to the starting line, I spotted other former colleagues and reached out for quick hugs while on the move.
“Work is love made visible.” – Kahlil Gibran
After the walk many of us gathered at a pizza joint to eat and celebrate. The gathering was hosted by our survivor-friend and her husband. Others who did not make it to the walk arrived as well. There were more embraces and more joy as we remembered a time when, together, we did work that was hard but holy, work that was made easy because we loved each other.
I watched my friend’s husband move between the three large tables that seated our crowd. He greeted each of us with kind words and embraces. He paused now and then to clink a glass with his wife or to lean in for a kiss, and I thought back to the time when they had just met, and our circle grew because of him. I was moved by the memory and by the way this thoughtful, kind man loves this spunky, bright woman. I trust his sincerity whenever he says, “We’ll get together soon,” because I know he means it.
A young lady I did not know sat down in the seat across from mine. Unable to walk earlier, she joined us for lunch. She sported a walking boot and a treasure chest of funny stories. This young lady brought me up to speed on the difficulties of young adulthood in the current state of world affairs--the impossibility of finding affordable rent, and the dearth of good jobs and meaningful work. I wished I could take her back with me to that other time in my own work life. Instead, I basked in her youth and her charm, and this widening circle.
On Monday morning, still high from the Saturday Heart Walk, I arrived at the radiology clinic for a follow-up appointment. In came the doctor. In came the nurse. In came the nurse practitioner. I was encircled by their youth and extraordinary kindness and care. Their brilliance twinkled all around me like lights on a Christmas tree. For a moment, I felt sad realizing that my time had passed, that I will never again work in a place like this surrounded by all of this youthful energy and confidence, this type of devotion to the work. Then the doctor told me that he is training for Pelatonia, the bicycle race with “a mission to change the world by accelerating innovative cancer research.” Sadness gave way to gratitude as I basked in the knowledge that this busy and beautiful man who harnesses the power of the sun to cure cancer will also use his bicycle to save lives, mine included. There are things left to wish for, races to run.
I arrived home to find a few long-time neighbors out on the stoop. I reeled them in.
Memories are everywhere. They hold the past and shape the future. Care to join me as I fish?
“The air between us is not empty space.”
I am an early bird. I love seeing the day in its infancy and experiencing the way the world feels in the first morning hours as the sun takes its place in the sky. The air is cool and fresh and filled with hope. World peace seems possible and brotherly love comes easily in this time of leisure and enthusiasm before rush hour traffic begins.
I leave my apartment for the shared-use path outside my door. As my feet hit the pavement, I feel a jolt of anticipation. Soon, I begin to pass other early birds jogging, biking, and walking. They are a friendly flock. Even speeding by on their bicycles, they nod their heads or shout “good morning!” With the children grown and out of the house, these cheery good mornings fill a void in me that is tender. I look for the familiar faces that I share this path with each morning. There is reassurance here, a sense of belonging. Each day there are new faces, and I wonder, will I see them tomorrow?
When I reach the corner, I step off the path to walk a few laps around the parking lot of a giant office complex. Scattered around this artfully landscaped property are small pavilions containing octagon-shaped picnic tables with attached benches. On the busiest corner I sometimes pass a small group of people huddled together for a smoke before the workday begins. In a less busy area, I pass a young woman who seems occupied by her phone or a notebook. We say hello each day. One morning I spot her sitting in a more remote pavilion. After we exchange greetings, I add, “You have moved.” She explains that she likes to read and think and meditate a little before going into the office. As the young woman says this, she stands and begins to gather her things. In the early sunlight, I can see the beauty of her face and the long hair that is pulled back in a low, loose pony tail. Dark waves ripple down her back. “You are strikingly beautiful,” I say as I walk by.
“Do you work here,” she asks me.
“I don’t work here. I just walk here.”
“Well, I wish you worked here.” She embraces me with her smile, a gesture that makes me wish I did work here with this lovely, meditating pavilion princess.
I pass others coming from or trying to find the only bus stop within miles of my home. Sometimes they walk with purpose, but other times, they are lost or confused and in need of assistance. Many of them are trying to find the nearby methadone clinic, their lifeline to the future. A missed bus or an encounter with the wrong stranger could end their recovery and maybe their lives. I look out for them as I approach the bus stop.
With the start of school just weeks away, teens begin conditioning for football and soccer. Teenage girls jog past me in their leggings and sports bras. Their pony tails swing in time to the music they hear from their earbuds. Small packs of teenage boys race past me. They are skin and bones in giant tennis shoes. Youth glistens on their moist, bare backs. I try to imagine these slender, dewy reeds potted in canvas and rubber as intimidating linemen wrapped in cleats and pads and helmets.
I am not alone in my wonder and curiosity. Nature gets in on the act. I share my observations with a bright yellow bird that watches while camouflaged inside a row of trees bursting with yellow-green leaves. A sprinkling of sassy dandelions applauds us all from the edges of the well-manicured lawn where, somehow, they have managed to avoid the mower’s blade.
An hour or more later, I return to my apartment. I feel at peace, connected to my neighbors and to nature, and I wonder: night owls, what do you see?
When is old?
Crossing the dry creek bed we take long strides from rock to rock. Some of the stones are large and flat and easily accommodate the thick soles
of our hiking shoes. Other stones are narrow or pointed leaving our legs to wobble briefly as we balance before reaching out for the next stone.
Here we are, three adventurous 60-something gals in good health and good shape sharing an exquisitely beautiful nature preserve, and who pops into my head? Nurse Ratched. And what is she saying? “Have you had any recent falls?”
Her persistent voice buzzes around my head like a swarm of blood-sucking mosquitoes. I swat at these thoughts. Inside I am yelling: “Get away from me!”
With all of the routine inquiries about falling that occur after we cross the 60 line, it would appear that aging is a downhill journey, and one steep and slippery slope at that.
When I go for a medical appointment, I know the question is coming. Even so, I don’t like being asked if I have had any falls. Intellectually, I understand why the nurse has to ask, but the question annoys me nonetheless. I bristle at the suggestion that I am anything but sure-footed and sturdy. The inquiry seems to imply that I am too old to move with vigor and vitality, that frailty is to be expected, and I am just one tiptoe away from becoming bedridden.
“We don’t forget how to feel young.” – Barbara Pagano
But as I cross the dry creek bed I nearly fall from laughing. My mind goes to that silly place where I spend a lot of my time, that place where I am eternally young, the place where I am most myself and most at home. I summon up my FU-attitude and begin to make a plan for my next medical exam, a plan to stand up to the question of falling down: “Falls? Oh, yes, I have fallen! Many times. I have fallen in love, fallen in line with adventurous peers, fallen about in uncontrolled laughter, fallen back on good friends, and fallen into good fortune.”
And should I have to admit to being unsteady on my feet, I plan to deliver a truly great Walter Mitty explanation that defies the dreary stereotype of growing older. With luck and effort, maybe it will also be true. With each stepping stone, I come up with a new explanation for my imaginary future fall:
Things were going well when we left base camp, but you know how it is
on Mt. Everest—the weather can change without warning.
My parachute failed.
I was roller skating across country when a tornado touched down in my path. I thought I could outrun it.
The view from the tree top was spectacular, but I thought the Rainforest guide was saying, “Grab the wine!” What he really said was “Grab the vine.”
The headline said, “Sex after 60.” I thought they were describing the speed limit.
I will supply the details and polish my story in rehab--if it comes to that.
If you are forced to justify a swift, unexpected transition to an unwanted horizontal position, feel free to use one of the above explanations. All I ask is this: tell the nurse that you were with me.
If we’re going down, let’s be fabulous.
Break a leg!