Ten Lessons I Learned in 2020

I don’t have resolutions for the New Year, except to savor the tender moments and the beauties of the earth. Let me bathe in the snow and the rain, with the sun, the children, the grandkids, and woman in the moon. I want to take the people for whom I care and hold them close.

I’d put the sunny days and the loved ones in the fridge to preserve them as they are, but their warmth is what I seek.

Our loved ones are precious because they are temporary, as are we all.

Lessons:

1. To succeed in the job of appreciation, I must forget the thought of appreciation and embrace feelings alone.

The past year reminded us of the role of fate, fortune’s game of daily roulette.

2. “Normality” before the pandemic turned out to have been a piece of extraordinary luck. We showed our faces without thought. Kisses and hugs were commonplace. Custom required handshakes, congratulations, a pat on the back. Shoulders to cry on came without risk.

Now the delivery trucks throw heartbreak on our doorstep along with Amazon merchandise. The latter needs to be ordered; the former comes free of charge. The unwanted product cannot be refused, nor the unhappiness returned.

We will survive as our brave forebears did. Each of us is the beneficiary of their courage, wisdom, and ingenuity. No wonder the Chinese venerate ancestors, those survivors of war, famine, poverty, and discrimination.

3. Applaud them. Add the grocery personnel and the ballot counters, the grape pickers, and every person who works in a medical office or hospital, laboring past the time their eyes water and PTSD steals their joy.

4. Attend to the lonely. Do not mistake their quiet for well-being. As a bereaved woman says in Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older, “The dead are dead, and comfort can only come from the living. We may wish it otherwise, but so it is. It is the living who have need of us.”

And we of them.

We’ve made mistakes. So long as we live, we can reach out, be kinder, and recognize our shared destiny as part of humanity’s brotherhood. And while showing forgiveness, don’t forget to forgive yourself.

The Bible, among other sacred books, speaks to our times:

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 and 12.

Yet, nets are like the rest of the world: imperfect. Escapes occur. Our parents and those before them found a way. The ingenuity and effort of medical science worked its miracle this year. Hope still has a place.

What else did I learn from 2020?

5. Irrationality is both inevitable and evident in the mirror if I do not turn away. No matter, too many maintain the righteousness of their scrambled power to reason.

6. Recognizing a past decision as “the big mistake of my life” is an easy game to play, an impossible one to win. Yes, there are missed opportunities, words unspoken or misspoken, and lost friendships. But…

7. Remember this: when we look back, we do so from a changed perspective, toward a bygone moment and place in our lives. Wisdom teaches us no one is gifted with visionary prophecy. Forgiveness also extends to the self.

8. The decisions you made before today were those of a younger soul, fitting well or ill for the time and all the conditions preceding them. Learn from the past but don’t obsess over it.

9. I can reflect upon those errors that still, at a considerable distance, appear as errors. If mending is possible I will try.

10. For now, here is what I can do: make the best decisions befitting the time, my loved ones, and the circumstances of the present.

The day is short. I must seize the day before the day ceases. Fate waits for no one. Good or bad, he must be embraced, either to display my appreciation or to wrestle. This much is within my power.

————-

The record cover needs no introduction. I chose it for the title. The photos following it are of uncertain origin. As suggested by the calendar in the first of these, they appear to date from the middle of the twentieth century. The final piece of art comes with this explanation on Wikimedia Commons: “This image represents self-love in diversity. Its purpose is not just to help oneself but others. In order to accept and appreciate others, first we must love and accept ourselves.” The creator is Elawaltmarie.

If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone, Anywhere, Who …

Have you changed your mind in, say, the last nine years? How about the most recent six-months?

I hope so.

In 2011 I wrote a post about an invitation to a feast. Any reader might choose anybody to be his companion in my hypothetical scenario.

The possibilities were unrestricted. Any person alive or dead would qualify: If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone in the World …

What I didn’t consider in offering the challenge and posting responses was a thing called time. Time appeared a near-infinite concept. No one who responded to my query lived in the presence of Azreal, the Grim Reaper, so far as they or I knew. Infection did not stalk the earth.

People made bucket lists assuming the planet would be as open to them in, say, nine years, as it stood on the day my essay popped up on WordPress. The normal human concerns about money, romance, and work remained ... normal. My respondents weren’t locked down, mask-wearing, social distancing creatures.

If you wanted to hug someone you’d hugged 100 times before, you might reach for embrace #101 without a thought. No dread needed to fill your head.

The value of skin against skin hadn’t skyrocketed. Closeness wasn’t an existential issue. Your loved one didn’t carry Death’s scythe with which to harvest you.

Now we esteem lives in a different way. Some of us do, at least. Indeed, there is a partisan difference even in Americans’ sex lives: Sex in the Era of Coronavirus.

But overall, perhaps we understand, in a less abstract way than we did in the pre-pandemic era, nothing is guaranteed. OK, taxes and death, the old standbys. Nothing else. The topic today is the same one in the earlier article, but with a guarantee of safety unneeded then.

If you could have a meal with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be? In this imaginary opportunity, the food will be safe; the virus will be vanquished, no caution to keep six feet apart, or wash hands again and again.

Is the question too easy? Are the answers predictable? I’m guessing the list of people is more limited. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Surprise me. Or not.

—–

The first image above is Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/ The one below it is Grim Reaper obtained from FreeSvg.

Thinking About the Erotic Leap in a World Without Touch

The human world is aching. Hands and shoulders and skin are beyond reach. We have awakened to a sensual world in flight, moving at least six feet away.

What would you give for a handshake or a hug, a kiss independent of memory, arousal satisfied by a hand not yours. Perhaps you recall your head resting over another’s heart, hearing the life pulse, moved by the rise and fall of breath.

There are fleshly palms I’d like to surround, soft cheeks to brush past, downcast heads to lift in my hands. I’d spread high-fives all around, eyes close up, too.

Our on-guard stance against illness doesn’t permit either the comfort or intensity we seek in embracing. Our passions are chilled, bottled-up, beaten down. The perspiration of the skin almost asks permission to release itself.

We are amid a famine, even we lucky ones who remain nourished by food and don’t live alone. We want the bodies, the faces, the nearby smiles we lack. Artificial substitutes are earth-bound and distant, no matter that man was not meant to be alone.

We make do. The voices speak on phones across the world. Masks hide faces speeding through stores. Proximity is shunned. The Zoom-altered space-time continuum offers lips that move … followed by broken, inhuman sounds. If space aliens appeared, immune from our looming affliction, we would surrender and rush into their strange arms … all five of them.

I once treated a woman so starved for affection, she coupled with a canine. I believed her at the time but now understand her more.

We want sex, no mistake. But I heard many female patients talk about their need to be held – just held, including those with a regular bed partner. It is worth remembering what one hears on the battlefield among the wounded. They call not to lovers but to mothers.

Humans survived because love and care and emotional intimacy signified more than lovemaking. The buttons to such responses overlap the erotic zone, but one can also be mistaken for the other.

The sex of things is not solely dependent upon what catches the eye. It can be kindness or words or a voice or a gentle touch as much as security or a reminder of someone else. No wonder we experience the presence of erotic transference in the therapist’s office.

We are befuddled creatures, we humans: confusing and confused, less rational than we’d like to believe, unable to predict our feelings far ahead of the present. Kirkegaard acknowledged this truth:Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward.Backward, indeed, but not always grasped even then.

In 1900 the average life expectancy for men in the USA was 46.3 years. People laughed at home and made love at home. They gave birth, got sick, and died at home.

The cycle of life had many witnesses. Death made his place in the next room, overheard in an unfair wrestling match, an unbeatable competitor you recognized. Those people knew what we have been reminded of.

Perhaps hellos and goodbyes meant more in those days. No planes eased the route to reunion. Travel required time and patience. Letters were sent by snail mail while the writer lived, many arriving when he or the reader or both were dead.

Now we recognize (or should admit) “next time” is a wish without guarantee, a blessing when fulfilled. We’ve sobered up from a mass delusion of early death as an oddity, a fantasy never bothering to say goodbye. It left too many the parting gift of the grim reaper’s embrace.

The lessons of our ancestors need relearning. Catastrophe has a way of forcing its muscular arms around us. Remember that when all the unhugged-hugs – the ones pressing out from the prison of your skin – finally emerge from captivity.

Like Times Square at the end of WWII, when strangers swept each other into their arms, the reborn world will discover our reconstituted virginal state.

Our mundane existence will be reenchanted.

There are simple things worth waiting for.

—–

The three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. First comes The Embrace by Auguste Rodin, then William Adolph Bouguereau’s Admiration (Cupid). The final artwork is Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress.

What the Coronavirus Taught Me About Love

When I practiced therapy, I reminded myself to bring intensity to my work. Every day, every hour.

Each patient was a kind of wayfarer. His journey had reached a sticking point. He was faltering with sadness, loss, or anxiety, guilt or helplessness.

A bit like a pilgrim, the searcher hoped to find a balm for the soul.

Life brings routine. We create routines to make it easier, more efficient, to avert the wasteful reinvention of our daily tasks.

But routine deadens, too. A therapist must make the work fresh.

The healer must be present, concentrate, note the body language, and not offer words far from the point, missing the point. I tried to give each meeting “life.I didn’t always succeed. No one can, but the next time my patient visited offered another chance to join him in searching out an oasis: a green, peaceful, and certain place, where refreshment might bring renewal.

The aging of my parents brought home the recognition it always does. One never knows when the last time will be. The twilight handshake, the final moment of laughter, the embrace of someone we love.

I made sure to part from my folks with an “I love you.Now my children and grandchildren do this with their parents and grandparents.

These parting words are never enough by themselves. The pandemic tells me so. Its voice calls out, “There is more to do.

Why do I hear this now? Because I can’t do more, I am separated from so many, as you are. What, then, does “more” mean when the opportunity comes?

The voice did not say.

Here’s my answer.

The heartbreak of a goodbye must be balanced by delight in a hello. We must treat each new contact as a gift, greet the friend or lover, the father or a brother as though it were the first time: the moment we discovered something unique in him. Graceful, beautiful, kind — it does not matter. Strong, faithful, wise — whatever are the qualities embedded within him.

We need to try to sum up the other’s every sacrifice for us, all the touching words they said to us, their thoughts and prayers for us and approach him anew. With gratitude.

In another dreadful historical moment, Abraham Lincoln said, “we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.

The virus teaches us the day is short, no matter how long the sunshine lasts. The message is the same, regardless of the time or place. Since we do not have eternity, the moment and the people must be grasped, held close.

If we safeguard ourselves and others, and if we are lucky, a reunion yet will come.

When you see loved ones again, remember: speed to them as if it were the first time and the last time, every time.

—–

The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are The Look and Splashes. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

 

 

Coping with “Skin Hunger” in the Coronavirus Age: Entry from an Unwritten Journal

I’ve never written in a journal, despite offering the idea to many patients. Today I write because writing permits expression in the absence of nearness. At this moment, we mustn’t be close to others no matter what we want.

Yet we are the same creatures evolved to be social, to touch and more than touch: to shake hands, hug, embrace, caress, kiss, fondle, and lose ourselves in love and friendship.

We suffer from a pandemic side-effect called Skin Hunger by some, a too familiar, but unspoken condition among us, soon to be known by almost everyone. We have become experimental subjects in an unplanned scientific inquiry.

Still, today offered some small compensation. Here is a morning snapshot without mourning.

I wanted fresh orange juice. I’m lucky in many ways, including a meer 10-minute drive to a store that almost gives it away and a car to get there.

To minimize risk, I arrived early. Really early for those of you who aren’t seniors: at the high-risk age of our world’s coronavirus stage.

I entered at nine-minutes before dawn, a trip on night’s black edge: 6:20 AM.

Few people beat me in. The magic of automatic doors saved me from contact. Then a young woman employee walked by.

“Excuse me. Where are hamburger buns?

If we have them, they’re in aisle four.

I guess “if we have them” has turned into a reflexive response. Shortages because of the terror. I went to get the juice, whose location I knew, then to aisle four. Tons of buns.

One of the automated checkouts was in use, three empty. I completed the errand while maintaining social distance. Mission accomplished! We take our triumphs where we can find them within the constraints of our present moment.

Breakfast. I had a drink of water, then prepared my typical fiber-filled repast: shredded wheat manufactured without sugar, salt, and taste. With bananas today, though I often add blueberries if the price is reasonable.

Then coffee to feel alive. Most seniors require gallons, plus medications. I don’t take many of the latter, but the standard is relative. Friends report back problems and hernias from lifting all the pharmaceuticals they use!

Now for the major event of the day. Ta-da! Walking outside. Almost three miles.

People are friendlier but maintain distance. Almost everyone now waves or says hello, even from across the street.

An outlier on a bike, a woman, widened the footage between us from 15 to 25 feet.

Some folks walked dogs. Physical contact with a loving mammal. Think about it.

I passed modest homes and a few places an old friend compared to the Palace of Versailles. He was exaggerating, of course.

I got to thinking about how COVID-19 might alter our values. We take much for granted: life, health, work, restaurants, etc.

Perhaps, for a while, the condition of our being will be differently admired, differently evaluated, differently appreciated.

The status of simple things is getting a boost, decency among them.

The birds were out and a concert in progress. A legendary symphony conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, told me he thought this the most beautiful music of all. No disagreement from me. Even the woodpecker with his built-in jackhammer joined the sing-along.

Some folks I know are stunned at the avalanche of bad news. The ones in feathered flight don’t care. Birds chirp, chatter, and sing in their first show of the day. We hear mostly males at that time, hoping to win a female heart and trying to mark their territory.

The scale of their satisfaction is smaller than ours.

Perhaps they offer something worth learning.