Happy New Year, and Everything It Brings!

Happy New Year, and Everything It Brings!

I could sit here trying to come up with something profound and quote-worthy to say about 2020, but it would be a lie. It has not been, “the best of years” nor has it been, universally, “the worst of years.” Maybe it has been one of the most off-kilter of years. For some, the saddest and the scariest. For others, the most unjust and disappointing. For some, it has meant opportunities seized; for others, opportunities glimpsed, from under a warm blanket, as they went flying by. We have all been touched by the pandemic in some way, but the truth of it is, we’ve had different experiences of it — good, bad, and everything in between. “Where were you when the first lockdowns were announced?” will join “Where were you when the Challenger blew up?”

We’re all “in it together, separately.” And that’s okay. But I think enough’s been said about this year to leave it feeling like warm horseshit wrapped in chocolate with a glittering crust of way too much sugar. A nauseating and unnourishing lump of something  that’s been rolled downhill more times than a sturdy haggis, slammed into a sand trap by a carrot-topped golfer in dingy gray whites, and spit into the sea by an annoyed alligator stung on the ass by a murder hornet for good measure. And yet…and yet. It’s not been all bad, has it? Not if I’m here to write this and you’re here to read it.

Let’s move on, shall we?

To my friends on the other side of the planet, where it is already 2021, I say “Happy New Year! Treat 2021 kindly, or at least don’t piss it off before we get there to wish it well!” To my Australian friends, in particular: “Please, please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t let the funnel web spiders get drunk and mate with the murder hornets, eh?”

To my friends on the east coast of the USA – look on the bright side: No need to brave slush, snow, and drizzle to join a crowd of a million people in Times Square, this year! Watch the festivities online, where it’s warm and safe. Zoom with friends, and share a toast. Frankly, I’m a little thankful for rain where I live. Not to be a wet blanket on the fireworks thing, but neighbors have been setting them off since Christmas and we could all use a break. Especially those folks on NextDoor who have pets, and the ones who aren’t quite sure whether it’s gunshots, fireworks, really loud champagne corks, domestic violence, or the start of World War III. Let’s let everyone have one good night’s sleep to “ring in the year.”

Please don’t drink and drive. Most hospitals are short-staffed, short on beds, and are doing triage, these days. Triage is where someone runs around a mass casualty and plays, “Duck, duck, go!” only it’s more like, “Right now, next week, dead!” You get your drunk self into an accident, you’ll be lucky if they patch you up in a Whataburger parking lot and post your idiot face on social media. Come to think of it, just don’t get drunk. It’s not going to be fun when the EMTs have to drag you out, feet first, from between the shower and the toilet to patch you up in a Whataburger parking lot before posting your idiot face on social media. Give your local hospitals and healthcare professionals a break, and celebrate responsibly.

No New Year’s Eve ever feels complete without ABBA singing, “Happy New Year.”

New Year’s Eve Aha! Moments

Responding to a comment by a friend, this morning – a friend who was complimenting my writing and calling it “occasionally edgy” – I wrote,

…when my mind’s in a really dark place, my writing isn’t really ‘edgy.’ It’s more like a pathetic little bathtub filled with quicksand, where you can almost imagine me wallowing around, trying to pretend my feet don’t touch the bottom. I get about two paragraphs in, start muttering, ‘Oh, FFS…’ and stop. Take a walk, take a nap, take two aspirin and call my Muse in the morning.

 

I can’t write drunk, either. I suspect those writers who are notorious for drugs and drink were battling other demons — and trying to silence them long enough to write, not the other way around as so many young writers imagine. I don’t like it when my Muse drinks and falls asleep on me. It’s just boring.

 

Now that I’ve retired, I’m starting to think that my best writing time is in the morning after a good night’s sleep — which is, frankly, a surprise to me, since mornings have so long been filled with cursing the alarm clock, fixing or eating breakfast, getting the kids ready for school, getting me ready for work, and then commuting to the office. Me, write in the morning? This does not compute! But there we have it — perhaps the only real epiphany of 2020, and it comes on the last day.

And if there is no such thing as “mere coincidence,” then there have been a few noticeable themes that keep popping up lately. To the same friend, who also complimented my artwork and claimed that she “didn’t have that same outlet,” I wrote:

I’m thinking that I am being called to mentor several of my women friends on letting go of other people’s unrealistic expectations and negative opinions of us (or, really, our perceptions of what their expectations and opinions are, since they’re much more likely to be caught on their own mental hamster wheels, worrying what we think of them than they are having any expectations or opinions at all, of us).

 

I hid my little drawings for the longest time. When I finally worked on some during Inktober, and did them in the living room while watching TV, then got the nerve to post them on Instagram, I was surprised at how many people liked them. I see amateurish efforts that fail to fully express what I “see” in my head. But my husband liked them, and my sister in law said she’d buy them before buying some $750 paintings we saw at an art exhibit, and people whose artwork I really admire followed me on Instagram! I still don’t think of myself as “an artist” in the way I do as a writer. But neither have I – nor likely will I – dedicate the time and effort in practicing art as seriously as I have writing – over decades! So why should I compare myself to those who have? I have no expectations of my artistic skills, nor does anyone else. I still struggle a little with disappointment when the thing on my paper is so far off the thing in my head, but then I remind myself that I have more than 1000 words with which to describe that thing to you, and even if my sketches are worth only a few words, they’re not my only means of self-expression. Just something different to play with.

New Year’s Resolutions

If they don’t work for you, and you don’t believe in making them, that’s fine. I’m hedging all the bets. New Year’s Day dinner will include pork shoulder, black-eyed peas, sauerkraut, fresh salad, and cornbread. The details of my resolutions are unimportant; what matters is that they are written down in my journal and are already in progress. If you make them, put some thought in them and don’t feel a need to share – but do write them down and commit to them. Make them specific and time-bound, and break them into steps. Make each milestone measurable – not “read more” but “read one book each week for 52 weeks.” Put them just slightly out of reach – make them challenging enough not to bore you into abandoning them, but not so challenging that they defeat you at the first setback. Hold yourself accountable, or ask a friend to do that with you. I have asked a couple of friends to hold me accountable for writing something to enter into a writing contest with the deadline of February 1. Last year, I “got busy” and let that slip past unnoticed.

Don’t let 2021 slide by unnoticed. All the things you were unhappy about in 2020? Make a list. Then break that down into “What can I do to FIX this?” or “How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again?” The answer may be “Not a whole hell of a lot,” or it may just feel that way at first. But sleep on it. Think about it. Get proactively involved – in your own life, your community, politics, volunteering, letter-writing, job-seeking, friend-making. Or let those things go that you can’t control – because they will just suck up all your time and steal your joy. Focus on what you already have the power to do, or figure out what you need to learn or do to have the power you need.

So Tolls the Bell on 2020

So Tolls the Bell on 2020

“Have you made your New Year’s Resolutions?”

“No, should I have?” I don’t know why I feel slightly defensive at the question. “Have you?”

“I’m still thinking about it.” He approaches each resolution as a SMART goal to be tackled and owned, well before the end of the year.

I don’t want mine to be perfunctory. There ought to be some deep thought, some spiritual inner work, some reflection and profound meaning attached to the crafting of resolutions. Perhaps they are not meant to be shared lightly over a sip of champagne at midnight, or dismissed, later in the day, over black-eyed peas and sauerkraut, as we hedge our bets for luck astride the Mason-Dixon line.

For some, it is merely pro forma. They’ll abandon their hastily-scribbled, half-heartedly made resolutions in the blink of an eye, then question why anyone bothers making them, as if all are doomed to fail. There ought to be more gravitas to this “Making of the New Year’s Resolutions.” Some solemn ceremony. Real commitment.

Be a better person, I write, then cross it out. What does “better” look like? Be kinder, I write. I cross that out, too. That should be a continuous improvement effort, not a resolution.

“You’re overthinking this, aren’t you?” He shakes his head and laughs.

“Mm.” I still have four days. Four days to keep last year’s resolution.

I haven’t killed anyone. Yet.

 

We Are All Essential

We Are All Essential

Asking, “Who is essential?” is the wrong question.

Declaring, “I’m not essential,” is the wrong answer.

We are all “essential” to someone, even if our work is not essential – today – to the continued functioning of our civilization. The question of who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first, and in what order thereafter, is a question for virologists, epidemiologists, and medical ethicists. The correct term is “essential worker” – not “essential person.” Essential workers are the people who take care of the rest of us – who allow us to not go out there and risk close exposure to a deadly pathogen. But if we are not “essential,” then what are they risking their health for?

Adjectives should no be carelessly applied, or turned into nouns – just as people and immigrants are not “illegals,” we do not have some class of humans called, “essentials.”

The media does no one any favors by asking, “Who is essential?” Given they seem determined to fill the airwaves with their blather, 24/7, they could spend an extra second on, “Who is classified as an ‘essential worker’?” or “Which jobs are considered ‘essential’ when determining how the vaccine will be distributed?”

The CDC does a decent job of outlining the plan: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations.html

Eager as I am to get vaccinated, I wouldn’t put me at the head of the line. Not because I’m “not essential” but because I’m not out there working in the medical field. I’m not a first responder who is likely to encounter people stricken with COVID-19. I’m not trucking food and toilet paper and PPE cross-country, every day. I’m retired, and I have no school-aged children living at home, but I’m not old enough to be in the high risk age groups. I’m overweight, but not “morbidly obese.” I’ve had cancer, but that’s in the past. My immune system is fine. I’m glad I’m still too young and too healthy, overall, to be in the first group slated to receive the vaccine. Patience has never been one of my virtues, but .impatience is hardly a risk factor for COVID-19.

I’d put my grown children and my grandchild ahead of me, too. Every parent knows that elementary and secondary school is a breeding ground for germs, and those germs get shared more liberally than unwanted carrot sticks from a sack lunch. They’re brought home more reliably than a math worksheet. University students can, for the most part, follow directions and protect themselves, but what kind of a life is it to hole up alone in your dorm room like a mole rat and experience college life via Zoom? I used to joke that having kids in public school was how we develop immunity to “nuisance” diseases, like the common cold. But I remember lining up at school for a slew of required vaccinations. It wasn’t a choice and our parents remembered the devastating effects of smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, tetanus, and polio too acutely not to consent to our receiving those shots. Fortunately, most people my age don’t have first-hand knowledge of any of those things, thanks to vaccines.

There are a lot of negative and untrue stories out there, concerning vaccines. I’m not going to argue with the anti-vaccination crowd, but participating in large-scale vaccination is one of the prices to be paid for living in civilization with other humans. There are many more lives saved because people took a chance and put their faith in science, rather than risk death by microorganism when there was an effective way to prevent it. I’m one of those people. I’ll get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they’ll let me – to reduce your risks, as well as my own.

But even if I have to wait until March, it doesn’t mean I’m “not essential.” And neither are you. Don’t let the news media convince you otherwise.

My #OneWord365 for 2021

My #OneWord365 for 2021

Do I dare?

I mean, it just feels like tempting fate, at this point. Resolutions – SMART goals – used to work well enough. Specific. Measurable. Aspirational. Reasonable. Time-bound. This #OneWord365 business, though? For several years, for all the good it’s done me to choose a word to serve as a guiding beacon to my intentions, I might as well choose Death, War, or Destruction. It would practically guarantee immortality, peace, and growth.

I’m not good at this. This year’s word? Oh, such a wonderful word, when I chose it in 2019. I even gave a Toastmasters speech about it.  Can’t remember, now, what I blathered on about. The word was #Observant. I suppose if we count #NavelGazing as observant, I have mastered it. I am ready to move on. In all seriousness, I suppose that I have been observant within the four walls of my home. I have observed my husband and the myriad ways he cares for me, for our family, and for our home. I could stand to be more active than observant.

Somewhere in my psyche, there is a disappointed child, pouting. That child got what it deserved, for rudely kicking 2019 as it headed out the door, I suppose. But for that child, 2020 was like Ralphie expecting the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle and unwrapping the box to find soap and underwear and a little lump of coal. Unlike some people, the pandemic has not inspired me to learn six new languages, create and care for a sourdough starter, paint the walls (or anything else, for that matter). Like others, it has thrown me for a loop. I am not depressed; I’m just…on hold. Like a plane, circling O’Hare or JFK at Christmas.

I am at least as functional as a snarky coffee mug, and compassionate enough to admit it to my fellow dishware and say that maybe we should just rejoice that we’re still able to hold onto our coffee.
Click to Share

I am at least as functional as a snarky coffee mug, and compassionate enough to admit it to my fellow dishware and say that maybe we should just rejoice that we’re still able to hold onto our coffee. A sturdy mug needs do no more. It is enough to stand, stalwart among the others, confident that it will be plucked from the shelf, filled to the brim, and warmed to its core – if only it weathers the settling dust, the occasional waterboarding in the dishwasher, the mockery from newer crockery. We don’t need to be glazed over; we need to tell the stories hinted at by our crazing, tiny lines, and cracks.

If #Observant is a way of seeing, I’ve written more poetry this year than I have in a decade, and a few readers seemed to enjoy it – even egged me on to write more of it. I have written or recycled 170+ stories on Medium. That’s paid only slightly better than child labor wages in a third-world country, but this “gamification” of writing has kept me writing. At about a dollar a day, it has paid for the web hosting of this blog that I have, ironically, neglected in favor of it.

As I was cleaning up for the holidays, I ran across the dusty optimism of Writers’ Market 2020, purchased in 2019 – its price now a penance, like an unused gym membership. But it is still there. Are the publishers who are listed in it? Are they still there? I wonder. 2020 has been hard on everyone. We’re not “all in it together,” but there is a common thread that that connects us all, in some way, isn’t there? I run a very small writers group on Slack, for writer-friends, where we can escape the din of rancorous politics and the staticky noise of social media to focus on writing, helping one another out, and keeping each other accountable – if that’s requested – for our stated goals.

I’m grateful for teachers and editors who taught me not to fear the red pen, and for mentor-managers who instilled in me a work ethic and the ability to detach from the product when it came to writing that has spilled over even into blogging and self-publishing. Do your best, be grateful for the editors who keep you from looking stupid in public, and when everyone misses that glaring error and it’s there in print to haunt you forever – let it go. Let it serve as a reminder that perfection is unobtainable. “Better” is a good goal. And “good enough” is truly good enough – for today. The ability to practice observe-and-release, in life, is a gift. It helps break us out of holding patterns, lets us land, so we can take off for new destinations.

To answer the question I posed at the start: Of course I dare.

I am dragging that recalcitrant, pouting child out into the sunshine. “Hello, Brat. Talk to me. Or run across that open field and play. Get out of the corner, stop reading about microbiology and economics – you’re boring yourself to death over there – and stop acting as if the world’s stopped turning, because you know it hasn’t. You’d have flown off its surface, bumped into the gnarly branches of your favorite tree, and had all the oxygen sucked from your lungs while you freeze-dried yourself and shattered into a million sparkling shards, only to melt in your next encounter with a star. So get up and throw yourself down the rabbit holes.”

Rekindling the magic of imagination doesn’t happen with a cutesy spark of inspiration, clearly. My Muse, such as it is, requires reaching in with both hands, rooting around in the brain for it, wherever it’s sulking, then grabbing hold with a determined snarl and giving it a yank.

My #OneWord365? IMAGINE.

Imagine that.

4 Things 2020 Taught Me

4 Things 2020 Taught Me

There’s very little that 2020 truly taught me, though it may have driven a few untested lessons home like a pile-driver, and I’d give myself a “C” at best, for most of them. Among the things that 2020 has taught me is that life’s too short for superficial platitudes, so I’m not going to give you any – even if a few of them ring true.

Solitude is Only Sweet When It’s By Choice

The first revelation, though, is that empathetic introverts suffer anxiety when the extroverts around them are climbing the walls. And then, we begin not to revel in our solitude as much as we otherwise might. It becomes obvious that choice is key to the difference between solitude and house arrest, and I began to see that there has always been a flaw to my logic – that if I were ever to commit a crime, I’d pray for solitary confinement. Instead, I think I’ll recommit to living a good and honest life, because there is no happy in between – and I’m not cut out for gen pop or solitary.

Life Can Be a Journey or a Series of Holding Patterns

Some people learned to bake sourdough bread. Others learned a new language. I learned to make an easy Dutch oven bread and I bought a lifetime subscription to Rosetta Stone I haven’t used, yet. Does that count? Was that my one nod to hope – to assume that I would actually have a lifetime beyond 2020, in order to make that purchase worthwhile?

Maybe it was just too much of a sad reminder of ruined travel plans, but had hope really been more than a half-glowing ember with a patina of gray ash, I might have started learning Portuguese. But it’s still there – I at least kept my options open. I have saved concert tickets rescheduled from last September to next. I have plans for a year from now, and if that’s not “hope,” what is? I always said that a pessimist is just an optimist who can’t take disappointment. So, if ever I seem pessimistic, remember that. It’s not negativity – it’s keeping the fluttering butterflies of hope under the net till it’s time to fly. That’s all.

Tomorrow May Never Come

Reach out and let old friends know you’re thinking of them. A friend died, over the summer. I hadn’t seen her since March or talked to her in nearly a month before she died. She died alone, and was found four days later. She’d be the first to remind me that the phone worked both ways and not to beat myself up over that, and she’d be right. It was a bittersweet chance for me to get to know her cousin better, and to touch base with mutual friends and former colleagues I hadn’t talked to in 10-20 years. We think we have all the time in the world, but none of us do.

Isn’t it funny how, as we grow older, the news that some celebrity has died “aged 97” or so, no longer elicits a casual, “Good for them – that was a good long life!” Yeah, and so would 100 have been. But having said that, I don’t think I’d choose immortality. The world needs young people with new ideas. Not young people reinventing the wheel for no particularly good reason, but fresh ideas and innovations. To the young people out there: That’s not just another app for tracking Instagram followers, you hear me? That’s cybersecurity, peace, affordable healthcare and housing for all, eliminating hunger, mitigating the effects of climate change…

2020 and 2019 Were Friends

Remember when we toasted to the start of 2020, a brand new decade, yelling at 2019 not to let the door hit it on the way out?

I’m convinced that they were friends. Just as those high school nerds might have been friends with your secret crush, 2019 was friends with 2020. And 2020 saw how we treated 2019. Maybe we forgot to stop and appreciate the things that went well. Surely, there were a few? Maybe we were just too eager to get it over with, and rushed through life with blinders on. Well, 2020 sure showed us, didn’t it?

So I suggest that, this New Year’s Eve, we toast to a strange and sometimes tragic year, but make an effort to remember whatever good things it brought, and bless it on its way out, even as we welcome 2021. Just in case they’re still on speaking terms.