Thursday, December 17, 2020

Pre-pandemic Panic

Final grades are in, Semester released me at last, the Christmas tree and lights are up, and 9 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, a vaccine is finally here. We can’t get it yet, but PRAISE BE to the developers, shippers, pilots, drivers, and shot-givers getting it into frontline workers and nursing home residents so far.

Interestingly, once my grades were submitted and I DIDN’T breathe a huge sigh of relief, I realized just how tightly wound this past year has left me. I’m guessing it’s partly fear of the virus—you know, the dying alone on a ventilator part—and partly isolation/separation from my pre-2020 life. However, I also realized recently that my up-tightness may be a “pre-existing condition,” which I blame, in part, on my HHN-i gene (for more on this anomaly read

The insight that I’m a wee bit panic-prone and pathologically hyper-responsible came into full and glorious focus recently as I was cleaning out closets and cupboards, something I’m guessing 98.2% of educators do over holiday breaks.

You just never know...

Among other things, I came across a Rubbermaid tub of mostly-outdated medicines and leftover or unused prescriptions—for pain, skin rashes, eye/ear infections, respiratory ails, coughs, fungi, various forms of itching, dizziness, diarrhea, anxiety, constipation, and more, including bulb syringes, regular syringes, splints, a single ear piercer, plantar fasciitis boots, Ace bandages, and Castor oil. I also found in various locations deer jerky, a flint fire starter, collapsible cups and dog bowls, an ex-boyfriend’s 45-year-old mountain sleeping bag, 16 extra CPAP hoses, a camping French Press, home-canned QUARTS of jalapenos from 1999, and two LifeStraw water filters. It also seems I have makeup, some dating back to my early teens, stashed in several locations around the house (for quick access, I guess, in spite of the fact that I don’t wear makeup).

What ARE these, I wonder?!?

It’s clear to me now—I have been preparing all my life for the Apocalypse.

This kind of self-realization might startle some people. But after coming across these essential supplies squirreled away in forgotten caches all over our house, over-analyzing their potential usefulness, and dusting jars and bottles (then re-stashing all but the fungus cream), I have come to believe that my preparations are just wise and careful planning. Because if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that once this pandemic is finally over and we can unmask, I may still have to pull out the 50-year-old Yardley lip gloss (disguise) or the jalapenos (weapons) and go out to face the Horsemen.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Brace Yourselves

Mom, Ray, and I are spending Thanksgiving apart from our kids and their families, extended family, and friends who traditionally join us for dinner. We’re doing this because we love them all so, and we want everyone to be Covid-safe, so that next year, we can gather to celebrate our passage through this unbelievable year. We’ll Zoom today, so we can chat and/or watch each other cook, and so the little kids can tell us—for an unnatural length of time without taking a breath—more than we ever hoped to know about Mario Bros or Seven Deadly Sins or EllieV's bizarre YouTube Lego life.

Here’s a little Thanksgiving poem from our family to yours. It was published this year in an anthology, South Dakota in Poems, edited by South Dakota Poet Laureate Christine Stewart, which you can buy here (supporting and giving thanks for the South Dakota State Poetry Society): South Dakota in Poems

       a South Dakota Thanksgiving 

The turkey will be spatchcocked, splayed 
like a fallen Pilgrim. Potatoes will be rough-mashed,
with polkadots of peel and enough garlic & rosemary
to ward off vampires. Grandma will find a way to work
candy red hots into every dessert: green jello salad,
sweet potato pie, Eagle brand caramel pudding.
There will be no stuffing. There will be serious talk
of lutefisk and lefse, hot dishes, bars, Mrs. Larson’s
prizewinning crabapple jelly. There will be a few
passing remarks about religion and politics, and no one
will disagree. Uncle Boots will flip out his dentures
for the kids and tell Ole and Lena jokes. The register
of our combined knee-slapping guffawing will wake
the night-shift neighbors. The Trolls movie will play
in the living room, and we will all stop to sing along,
dramatically and with hand gestures, to “True Colors.”
Grandkids will sweetly play until, fully-amped
on pudding and jello, they will turn Mr. or Ms. Hyde,
baring teeth & claws, upturning furniture, snapping
heads off Barbies, trampolining on perfectly relaxed,
napping bellies. Something will be broken beyond repair.
Someone will get hurt. Someone will sneak off to hide
in the quiet basement. And as we’re putting on our coats
to leave, we will all give true & serious thanks—
that we have each other, 
that we made it out alive,
that it’s over until next year.

In Quarantinesgiving, you can have corndogs for dinner if you want.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Let Us Give Thanks

Covid surges on here in South Dakota. According to Johns Hopkins, we’re the #2 WORST state in the nation in terms of our Covid cases, ranking behind #1 North Dakota. Our governor Kristi Nope, Nightmare Noem, Plague Princess (I have more names for her I can’t put in here) said in a press conference yesterday that it was never the intention of the State Department of Health to make mitigation decisions for the state based on the rate of infections, deaths, stress on frontline workers, and those other nasty metrics HUMANS think about. No, Sir. Her priority has always been hospital capacity. In other words, as long as hospitals have beds (at least on paper, even if that means NICU bed space, children’s hospitals, etc.), we’ll have our glorious FREEDUMB from those unattractive masks, and we can just keep fillin’ up those beds! Yeehaw!

In slightly less bitter news, I tested negative—YAY!! After waiting a week for results from test #1, I got an email saying my test was “incomplete” and I would need to re-test. No explanation. So I’m guessing it was a bad test kit, or it’s under a pile of mail in an Idaho post office, or a completely exhausted lab tech dropped it and it rolled into a floor drain. Fortunately, my Little Town U stepped up and offered testing, so I re-tested and got results in 3 days. It wasn’t an antibody test, so by then, I could have had asymptomatic (except for the 7-day headache) Covid and recovered. So much for the testing/tracing efficiency of the U.S. pandemic [non]response.

It's the end of our weird semester here in Little Town, so that means the Great Grading Abyss. It’s like Dante’s nine circles of hell, except not as comfy, and it’s where I’m living now. Ray bought me a giant computer monitor, and I replaced my reading glasses with blue-light-blocking computer readers. Still, I squint like a mole, and my eyeballs feel like Saharan stones. My daily wardrobe starts with an Icy Hot patch on the back of my neck. I piled another cushion on my home office chair, and I added two full-spectrum lights to my workspace. Still, I’m pale as buttermilk (which sounds good right now, since I’ve been living on my office stash of biltong and pumpkin seeds). My weekly Zoom “office hours” with students require me—someone who’s never worn makeup—to slather enough concealer on my eyebags to pave a driveway. Even lipstick can only make me look approaching human. No matter what top I’m wearing, it’s always paired with black sweatpants. If you’re teaching remotely and/or on Zoom much, you know what I mean.

You can't even see the Icy Hot patch & sweatpants.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and I can’t wait for the grading to let up long enough to roast a turkey. Mom, Ray, and I will dress in our finest (tops, at least), give thanks for a decent Wifi signal, and walk the iPad around the dining room table, so our kids and grandkids can see the spread—just like the Pilgrims did. Then we’ll put the iPad on a tripod, and we’ll all dig in on camera, from our respective quarantines.

In not-bitter-at-all seriousness, we have SO MUCH to be thankful for this holiday season: each other, the health and kindness of family and friends, the dedication and sacrifice of frontline caretakers (healthcare folks, grocery store staff, gas station staff, child care folks, school staff, and so many others), Dr. Fauci, people who wear masks and respect a 6’ social distance, our Covid canaries Otto and Sylvia and their beautiful, magical singing, the election results, toilet paper, tomatoes from our garden still ripening in the basement in November, music, art, and poetry. And coffee. LOTS of coffee. Back to the 5th circle…

Friday, November 13, 2020

Don't worry; I've got all the answers.

It’s been six days since I was tested for the Big Bug. I still don’t have my results. I've not had a fever, but I've had a fairly constant headache for about 5 days now, possibly caused by Covid/grading non-stop at a computer screen between Advil doses/stress/lack of strong enough coffee/-45's unwillingness to LEAVE ALREADY. While I wait impatiently, I thought I’d tell you everything I know about this pandemic: 

It's called Covid-19. Corona Virus. Unique Corona Virus 19. The ‘Vid. The ‘Rona. The Plague. 

You get it from breathing near an infected person. Plus, you get it from groceries. And countertops. And mail. No, you get it from singing. No, you can GIVE it to someone by coughing on them, but you can’t get it by being coughed upon. You get it from sex. You can’t get it from sex. You get it from petting someone’s infected dog. You can’t get it from touching things. You get it from unprotected punnery. You get it from breathing. You don’t get it from the air. 

Masks make all the difference. Masks don’t work. Masks protect you. Masks only protect other people FROM you. People with asthma can/can’t breathe through masks. Masks protect you from people breathing on you. Masks do/don’t protect you from people singing/laughing/talking/sneezing/coughing/reciting poetry near you. Masks don’t make any difference. Kids and teens won’t/will wear masks. Wear a mask at home. Wear a mask only when you leave home. Wear a mask only when doing dishes or using spackle. Fabric masks are the best. Fabric masks don’t work unless they have 17 layers. T-shirt-knit masks don’t work. We’re providing all employees with free T-shirt-knit masks. You don’t deserve/need an N95 mask. N95 masks are the only kind that work. 

We need to protect everyone. We need to cull the weak anyway. We need to protect the most vulnerable. Babies are immune. Children are immune. No one is immune. Everyone who gets Covid will die. Only old people die from Covid. It’s only lethal if you’re overweight. Fat people should have taken better care of themselves. Old people should have taken better care of themselves. Teenagers are superspreaders. Republicans are superspreaders. People with an “X” in their names are superspreaders. People with the red hair gene mutation are superspreaders. College kids don’t care about their own health. College kids don’t care about endangering others. Herd immunity is a bad idea. Herd immunity is the only solution. Herd immunity will save/kill people. 

Symptoms may appear 0-14 days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms appear within minutes/days/weeks/decades after exposure. You do/don't/can/can't have the virus without symptoms. After exposure, you should quarantine for 0-365 days. After exposure, you can go back to school/work/choir practice until/unless you develop a fever/chills/diarrhea/cough/boils/an unexplainable ability to play the bassoon. 

You should get tested immediately after exposure. You should get tested 3-5 days after exposure. You should not waste a test just because you might have been exposed. You should get tested every/every other/every seventh day. You should save the tests for people who really need them. You’ll get your results immediately. You’ll get your results once you’ve had plenty of asymptomatic time to infect many, many others. You’ll get your results once they admit you to the hospital. You’ll get your results once you’ve recovered and have gone back to work. You won’t get your test results. You’ll get a call from the CDC/ your state’s Department of Health/America’s Got Talent. 

If you want to know anything else about the pandemic, just let me know. I’m pretty sure I can answer all your questions.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Covid Comes Home

Hello, Covid-19!

It’s been almost eight months now, and the Covid finally found us. 

We’ve been uber careful, since my mother, who lives with us, is 84 and has cancer. We don’t go anywhere except the grocery store—masked and careful to social distance as much as possible, amid freedumb loving, virus-denying idjits who invade our 6’ bubbles. South Dakota is a hotbed of the ‘Rona right now. We might even lead the country in positive cases per day per capita. That’s partly because our governor—cozying up to Dump with her eye on a Republican power position—refused to shut down our state, issue a mask mandate, or otherwise protect South Dakotans. 

AND, Ray still had to go to work. Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful and acknowledge our incredible luck and privilege that we both kept our jobs through this. HOWEVER, it IS most likely the reason Covid got in our house. Ray was exposed at work to a co-worker who, along with the co-worker’s wife, tested positive. They all worked together in an enclosed space, and most didn't bother with those pesky masks.

In spite of the positive test, and for a variety of ridiculous reasons that include (1) a governor who’s on the “herd immunity,” you-can’t-take-our-freedumb train, and (2) corporate desire to keep profit margins up after the initial Covid money ran out that would have covered employee home quarantines, Ray’s employer—a major HEALTHCARE SYSTEM (dear gawd the irony)—told everyone who’d been exposed to keep coming to work until/unless they developed symptoms. And, they couldn’t get tested by the HEALTHCARE SYSTEM until/unless symptoms. 

He finally went to Walgreen’s, of all places, to get tested. It was negative. Then 3 days later, he was sick. Tested again (local hospital this time since he DID have symptoms), and FIVE DAYS LATER he got the results. It was pos, of course, and by then, he’d been sick a week if you don’t count the 3-4 days before that when he felt “off.” Last I heard, at least ten people at his job had tested pos. Speaking of testing, testing in the U.S. is a sham and an embarrassment. We don't work to prevent the spread in this country, we test after-the-fact and hope for enough hospital capacity. 

Mom and I got tested today (at HyVee drive-thru, since no clinic or hospital would test us without symptoms), and I’d say our chances of having it are good. We’ll know in 3-5 days. I’ve stocked the freezer with turkey pot pies in case I don’t feel good enough to cook and someone still has an appetite. 

Doing a little house cleaning while we're stuck at home.

In the meantime, I’ll do what I always do—write about it. So far, Ray’s symptoms have included days when he runs a fever of 100+ off and on, days with no fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, loss of appetite/taste/smell (these didn’t come on until this past Wednesday), and congestion. It’s like if the cold and the flu had a BIG UGLY BABY. 

He’s quarantined at home now—no contact from the CDC or SD Dept. of Health, no contact tracing, no word on when he can go back to work. Someone told me 72 hours after he no longer has any fever. Someone else told me 10 days from the start of symptoms. Someone else told me 24 hours after he can spin 12 plates on a yardstick without dropping any. Who knows. 

I just got word Biden won. I feel like on top of the 'Rona, we've been traumatized by the past four years, the whole election cycle, and 2020 in general. I feel like crying with joy and relief. Like sleeping for a week. Like lining up shots of tequila. At least now this country (and South Dakota) might finally get our Covidducks in a row and get that giant quack out of the White House.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

When you WALK through a storm...

Love what now?

We just passed the 7-month mark in Pandem-onium. We’re still quarantining. We’ve limited our “Q-circle” to our household—Ray, Mom and me—and our nearby kids. We go for groceries and occasional drives, and that’s about it. We mask outside our house, we social distance when we’re out (which involves dodging people who think Covid is either over or a joke), we use our porch as a drop zone for exchanges, deliveries, and very occasionally, socially distanced and masked visits with a very few, very careful friends, and we practice Hygiene Xtreme. Still, we’re at risk, and we know it. One granddaughter is in elementary school. A daughter-in-love is a frontline healthcare worker. A son-in-love teaches face-to-face (masked and socially distanced) college classes, where at least two of his students have tested positive. Ray is still working and goes through a decontamination ritual in the basement every day when he gets home. We live in South Dakota, where the governor spends millions in CARES Covid money on tourism campaigns with slogans like, “Less Covid. More Hunting.” I’m not even kidding.

Ray had a close call recently when a coworker (and the coworker’s wife) tested positive. To illustrate how bizarre things are right now, here’s how the close call went: Ray’s department reported the positive test. His employer (a major regional healthcare system!!) said everyone who doesn’t have symptoms should keep coming to work until/unless they develop symptoms. Nothing about 14-day quarantine. Nothing about asymptomatic spreaders. Nothing about exposed employees getting tested. In fact, Ray was NOT able to get a test from his employer OR from our regular local healthcare provider because he didn’t have symptoms (this in spite of our governor’s recent Trumpian claim that South Dakota is seeing higher positive tests due to more testing). Finally, he went on Walgreen’s website, filled out a questionnaire, and immediately qualified for drive-thru test, since he has “comorbidities.” He was negative, but we didn’t know that until a WEEK after he’d been exposed, during which time he could have infected many other people had he not been so careful. No wonder the U.S. is so behind (and by that I mean losing to and the cause of) the curve.


I came across this quote recently from Mu Sen Peng: “We’re ALL walking around with broken hearts. The trick is to keep walking.” The quote sums up my state of mind right now. The bad news is SO unrelenting, so pervasive thanks to social media and the 24/7 news cycle (is it really a cycle if it never stops? isn’t it more a news barrage?). SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE DIED, and we forget that each of those peoples’ passing creates ripples of sorrow and despair that just. keep. going. 

I find myself now actively hunting for things to lift my own and others’ spirits—reasons to keep walking. The carrots I dangle in front of myself lately are kids and grandkids (my biggest stake in working for a livable, promising future), birdwatching (I recently bought a pair of German crested canaries), and poetry. October was a good, busy month of readings and listenings, and I have a new book, The Book of Crooked Prayer (appropriate title for the year, right?), out this year from Finishing Line Press. Ray hasn’t been able to play music (he’s a drummer) since Pandem-onium started, but we can play at home and listen to friends who offer real-time “concerts” online every week. Beauty can keep you walking.


And I’m homing like crazy: I’ve been outfitting my home office to make it a more useable, suitable, comfortable mixed-use space—part Zoom control center (I teach college English online), part Zen meditation space. I’ve been mad Marie-Kondo-ing every nook and cranny in the house in order to de-clutter this Museum of Me. I’ve been cooking huge quantities of (clean & keto) food to freeze in carefully portioned packages. It’s a little scary how Armageddon-y my kitchen skills are becoming.

We’re now in the predicted fall “second wave,” although here in the U.S., we never brought the first wave under control. Prairie folk have a usual pre-winter trepidation and anxiety about this time of year, when the leaves rain down and the chilling air smells like snow. Add life in a state where pheasant hunting seems more important than, oh, peoples’ lives. Toss in a global virus that’s adapting and thriving even as we humans refuse to adapt because “freedumb.” Then throw in desperate, hungry people who are out of work and/or whose businesses are shuttered or on the brink, and we get a perfect fall storm. Remember the old song? “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high”? Well, it’s okay if your head hangs low every now and then, but Just. Keep. Walking.

Beauty will keep you walking.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

BACK to the Future

2020 seems in some ways to be the year of BACK. In our 6th month of the ‘Vid, we’re looking back at the Plague with a new sense of understanding (I predict plague-doctor masks will be popular this Halloween if Halloween isn’t canceled); we’re looking back with melancholy at life before the ‘Vid, when you could hug your BFF without plastic sheeting and a decontamination suit; we’re looking back longingly at the days before -45, to a president who spoke in complete sentences and tackled problems in the open instead of squirming in the dark to find some other rat to toss under the bus; we’re circling back to the systemic racism we’d been trying to ignore, ignited by a litany of recent deaths of Black victims at the hands of police; and we’re thinking back to an Earth in balance, before our meddling and disregard gave us one perpetual fire/hurricane/drought/flood/blizzard season.

Here at the Re-Row (reinventing Uncannery Row in peafowlless Little Town), we’ve taken BACK quite literally. In a move that can only be described as “clown ballet,” I rode my bike into Ray’s back tire. With post-stroke balance-challenged finesse, I flew off the bike and landed in a heap on the pavement, Ray in a tizzy standing over me. Okay, so brush it off, bandage the hand and knee, be grateful I didn’t hit my helmetless head (lesson learned), and move on.

SO worth it!

That was Saturday. On Sunday, we spent a little over an hour stooping, diving, and contorting in the garden, picking tomatoes. Near the end, as I reached for a beautiful Roma, my back spasmed. I stood slowly, walked a bit, and seemed to feel okay. So naturally, we went kayaking. When we got back home, after a bumpy hour-long drive in our little pickup Snowflake, I couldn’t straighten up. Thus began the saga.

Cruising on the Susan B.

Fast forward through the next week and four days of urgent chiropractic care. My right side was like the seeds of injuries from my clumsy crash, coming to glorious fruition—right shoulder I’d landed on, right hand and wrist I’d used to try and break my fall, right knee scraped clean to new pink skin, right hip torked into an exciting new angle. By Wednesday, my back was feeling better, though I’d developed what seemed to be sciatica—every step of my right foot sent a sudden, electric shockwave down my right leg, ending at my ankle.

But wait—there’s more. Wednesday afternoon, I hobbled out to the back yard with the dogs. Yogi, our 14-year-old Schnoodle, ran for the fence to bark at a passing dog, sat down, and wouldn’t get up. When I finally coaxed him to come to me, he pulled himself along slowly, DRAGGING his lifeless BACK legs. I carried him in the house, panic making me ignore my own back pain. I called Ray, who agreed to leave work and make the hour-drive home so we could get Yogi to the vet.

Yogi (L) and Pedro

In the meantime, I did what I always do in a crisis—research. I got online and looked for answers (I could sit at my computer, an ice pack wedged between my lower back and the chair, without crying).

In a panic, one gravitates toward the worst-case scenario, which, in my case, meant convincing myself that Yogi had DM (Degenerative Myelopathy). It’s progressive and fatal. The prognosis is 1-3 years of incontinence, pain, and possibly doggie wheelchairs. So now I was home in my kitchen, pre-grieving, in pain, and sobbing. I got Yogi settled, cold-packed my puffy face, then went to my next chiro appointment.

Finally, off to the vet. The eventual diagnosis was that Yogi had IVDD (Intervertebral Disc Disease), and probably had either a bulging or ruptured disc. By this time Yogi could stand and walk (with lots of wobbling), and he had enough response in his back feet to make the doc feel some optimism. Steroids + muscle relaxers + no activity.

The chiropractor finally told me that I may have a bulging disc, and that I should see a medical doc. In the meantime, ice + ibuprofen. I could hobble around the kitchen, using the counter as a crutch, thus avoiding the lightning bolts by not stepping down on my right foot.

I got in to see the doc, and 14 X-Rays later (I should start glowing in the dark soon), learned that I have great bones with almost no arthritis (the X-Ray tech said, “You take really pretty pictures!”). I was just really banged up good, which is a medical diagnosis, I guess. The upshot was prescription-strength Aleve + ice + PT for the hip/sciatica.

As I sit here this morning, addicted I’m sure to 500 mg Aleve, with PT scheduled and Yogi happily napping at my feet, I wonder about the synchronicity of two creatures with sudden BACK disruptions—was Yogi’s back injury sympathetic? Was mine? some weird prescient warning of Yogi’s to come? Did we crack the space/time continuum? Or, was it all just a painful manifestation of the disaster that is 2020? I’ll never know, but I can laugh about it now. And I’m being VERY careful, because 2021 can’t come soon enough, and I never, ever want to go BACK.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Away, Away...

Abbey of the Hills

I’ve been thinking about solitude lately. And not the forced solitude of Covid-19 quarantine, although it has helped many people to discover or re-discover the benefits of choosing solitude—a slowing down, introspection and self-realization, blooming creativity, and some research suggests more compassion, as we’re forced to distance even from our own small circle of friends and contemplate humanity as a whole.


Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is a choice, and as long as you can still engage with other humans when you want to, solitude is very healthy. Some researchers even suggest that solitude—away from the buzz and noise of everyday life—is essential for internal exploration and identity development.


It’s true we don’t always like what we find when we turn our gaze inward, and this is probably why so many people are afraid of solitude. But I can’t change it unless I face it. And really, is growth as a human being possible without the self-reflection possible in solitude?


I just turned 64, and for the past several years I’vebeen giving myself a gift each year around my summer birthday—solitude. For many of those years, I’ve gone to various monasteries. I either go with a friend, where we each spend quite a bit of time alone but share meals, occasional walks, and sometimes services with that monastery’s Sisters, or I stay in a hermitage, where I spend several days without seeing another human. Last summer I traveled Ireland alone doing research for a book—more pilgrimage than hermitage.


I did a hermitage again this year, at Abbey of the Hills in northeast South Dakota. It’s a former Benedictine monastery, Blue Cloud Abbey, set in rolling prairie with two tiny hermitage cabins. I’ve been going there since back when the Brothers were still there (they dispersed when vocations dwindled and they couldn’t keep up the Abbey anymore). I’m a writer trying to finish a poetry manuscript I’ve been working on in one way or another for 5-6 years, so the “room of one’s own” was a blessing, and I mostly finished. But also, I’m a Type A hyper-responsible overachiever who just needs an occasional reboot.

The first day of my annual “away” is always a frazzle of travel, hauling, unpacking, and getting oriented. After that, solitude makes a few miraculous things happen:


(1) There’s a sense of release. Muscles let go. My shoulders drop. I sigh a lot.

(2) I give myself permission to do nothing. I let go of my usual daily duties and take full responsibility only for me. The day I arrived at the Abbey this year, I dropped my baggage inside the cabin door, then I spent at least an HOUR watching storm clouds build over a pond.


(3) Or, I give myself permission to work without interruption.


(4) I re-center, re-align, re-examine, and remember my priorities.


(5) I connect again with Earth. I watch, listen, walk and really feel every step. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “With every step, the earth blooms,” and yep, I do that. This year I saw a marmot, deer, a beaver, and a kingfisher (my totem bird). I heard cows, a dog, scrub jays, something scratching under the cabin, and something, uh, softly “bugling” (that’s the best I can do for this sound I’ve never heard before) outside my open window at night.

(5) I take care of myself and pay attention to my body. I eat when I’m hungry. I go to bed when I’m tired. I wake up when I wake up.


(5) I heal. If I feel like crying for two hours about all the people who’ve died from Covid and their unrealized potential, or John Lewis’ passing and why in the name of all that is holy we still need a Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, I do. If I need to acknowledge and vent my deep deep deep really really very deep dislike of Trump, I do. If I need to eat carbs, I do. If I need to play my ukulele and sing up a storm, even though my stroke-y left vocal cord is barely moving right now, I do. If I need to pray to the Universe or Mother Earth or Saint Mary Magdalene or All That Is Sacred, I do.


I’m so incredibly grateful—and aware of my privilege—to be able to do this. I have a family who understands and supports my need for solitude, and they help me make it happen. I can afford to rent a monastery room or hermitage for a few days. I teach, so I can find time to go, either by choosing not to teach during the summer, or by teaching summer classes online. I would do whatever I could to help someone else “away” too, if they wanted. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to start. I wonder how my parenting, my younger career path, and even my place in community would have been different if I had started this in my 30’s? I’ll contemplate that next “away”…

Monday, June 22, 2020

Surrogate Gardens

We’ve been quarantining now since mid-March. We’re tired of being more or less shut in, we’re sad and upset about the ongoing racism that’s led us to this moment of social upheaval, and -45 is STILL president, dammit. (SERIOUSLY, what would he have to DO that he hasn't already DONE?!?). 

Here at home, it’s a miracle we haven’t set the place ablaze or tripped each other down the stairs. There is such a thing as too much togetherness, and I swear our kitchen is shrinking a little bit every day. We're each spending waaaay more time (but not at the SAME time) on the porch or in the back yard...

"Feed me, Seymour." --Bleeding Heart Bushes

Ray...are you in there?

I think one reason we’re still able to occupy the same space is that we’re taking it out on the gardens—all this pent up frustration about social distancing, the lack of life-giving and brain-stimulating human physical contact (HPC) except for one’s quarantine “family,” and our thwarted genetically-nomadic desire to travel—it’s all being channeled into gardens. This is how it’s manifesting here at Uncannery Re-Row:

1.     PPC. We have crammed into a relatively tiny garden space tomatoes (enough to supply a canning factory), a variety of peppers, a wall of cucumbers, greens, watermelon, and six kinds of herbs. That’s on ONE end. On the other end are salvia, iris, columbine, bergenia, and a hydrangea bush that knows no boundaries. On the side of the garden are daylilies and two bleeding heart shrubs so huge they will demand human blood soon. Our garden plants are surrogates. Plant physical contact. PPC.
2.     Travel. We can’t go anywhere, but our gardens can represent. This year we planted a peach tree (Colorado); our back fence is lined with hollyhocks (the past, my grandma); we planted honeysuckle vines (the south); I potted up and set out several cactus gardens (southwest); and we planted some heirloom vegetable varieties (exotic destinations). We also dug and planted a new garden this year, a prairie butterfly/hummingbird garden (staycation).
3.     Social Distancing. In the garden at least, we rebel, we defy this. Plants that started two feet apart are now elbow to elbow and, in some cases, overlapping. They do not wear masks. They breathe right on each other. They sing if they feel like it.

Our weather has been strange and strangely beneficial for our “venting gardens;” we had a round of baking summer, with temps in the upper 90’s, during which we had to water every day. And now we’re having a lovely spring, with several days of rain showers and a thunderstorm here & there. In the past 3 days of rain, the cucumber vines have grown 6 feet. I think they strangled the neighbor’s cat. Soon we’ll have a rainforest, so if you don’t hear from us for a while, we’re probably just whizzing along on our ecotourist [tomato] canopy zip line…

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Skinny on FATNESS

We’re coming up on 3 months of “stay at home” and social distancing. We’re in our 9th day of protests across the country over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and three other officers who either helped kill him or did nothing to stop it, and over America’s historic and current systemic racism. In two weeks or so we are likely to see spikes in Covid infections among the hundreds of thousands of protestors, some masked, some not, most not practicing social distancing. Hurricane season just started and it’s predicted to be a rough one. -45 is still president. I. CAN’T. EVEN.

I ate this teenager.

So let’s talk about fat. I’m a fat girl. I was a petite thing once; in junior high, I remember weighing in at 73 lbs, and I thought—even then—I was enormous. Somewhere, somehow, in that age of Twiggy (Google her, kids), the distortion and fat shame was already gurgling in my pubescent brain.

The men in my family are mostly tall and thinnish. The (1) women in my family are all roundish and overweight. But I managed to stay pretty trim until (2) childbearing began and the true tyrants of human life--HORMONES--kicked it into high gear. With each of three pregnancies, I packed on more weight I couldn’t lose. Then came perimenopause, which I call The Dark Years. I experienced, like many women, irregular periods that were often extremely heavy. I was prescribed (3) bioidentical HORMONES to control the excessive bleeding. I packed on more weight, and they made the flooding so much worse that one weekend I turned even whiter than I already am, and I was too faint to get up. I called the doc, who said to double the dosage and call her on Monday. I said I’d be dead by Monday and hung up on her. I stopped the HORMONES immediately. Shortly after, I was diagnosed with (4) depression
(12) How I got fat?
For the next few years, the weight steadily increased. Then true menopause. The depression got worse. (5) My activity level bottomed out. More weight gain.

Then I had (6) a right Pons stroke at age 56. Docs never really know the cause, no matter what they tell you, but it was probably a combo of stress (both at work, and home trying to deal with the depression), high cholesterol, and smoking—a trifecta. The stroke recovery took about two years and left me with a draggy left foot, no balance, and chronic daily fatigue. So I didn’t get much regular exercise while I was re-learning stair climbing and shirt buttoning. I was also put on (7) antidepressants after the stroke, which were a miracle for me but which often cause…you guessed it…weight gain. Also, the less you move, the slower your (8) metabolism, and the more weight you gain.

Two miles of blissful torture.
I’m 63 now (everyone knows (9) it’s harder to lose weight the older you get), and 5’4” with red hair, so I look like a little fat milkmaid. I’ve been on EVERY DIET KNOWN TO HUMANKIND. For days, for weeks, for years: fasting (starvation), macrobiotic, keto, Whole 30, Noom, Medifast, Profile, Weight Watchers, vegetarian. I’ve eaten cabbage soup till my pee turned green. I once lived for a couple months on rice and soybean sprouts.

I don’t work out, but I move pretty constantly—walking across campus, climbing two flights of stairs in our house several times a day, shopping, etc. I try to break a sweat every day. I track, and log, and journal, and own seven kinds of fitness trackers.

My latest attempt to lose weight (and get back some strength and balance) is the “Eat Like a Bear” (ELAB) 23/1 plan: I fast for 23 hours a day, and eat very low carb for 1 hour, mostly something called the “Ridiculously Big Salad” or RBS, a gigantic bowl of vegetables with 6 oz. of protein. You laugh, but this is the kind of self-flagellating fat people do. In addition, I’ve been walking at least two miles a day. After two weeks of sweat-walking and a week of ELAB, I’VE LOST 5 LBS. Only five fecking pounds, and any serial dieter will tell you that’s probably all water.

I know that not every fat person has a spiraling, compounding vortex of predicaments like this, but ALL WEIGHT GAIN IS COMPLICATED. There are LOTS of reasons people get fat. I have a friend who attributes her weight to the (10) sexual abuse she suffered throughout childhood, and to a desire to be undesirable. How do you tackle THAT with Nutrisystem or Noom?!?

Here’s my bottom line: If you are one of those skinny, perfect-weight, easy-losers or never-gainers who keep saying “you have to try harder,” “you should run,” “simple—burn more calories than you eat,” “have you tried the celery and iced tea diet?” or any of the other “helpful” advice I’ve been hearing all my adult life, or you’re one of the people who tells me, “I keep losing and I’m not even trying,” or “I just forget to eat,” my answer is, in my sweetest little milkmaid voice, ALL OF YOU CAN SHUT THE F*%K UP BEFORE I EAT YOU.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Passing the Time in Pandem[onium]

We’re a little over two months into quarantine/social distancing now, and it’s starting to feel a little like our new normal, which is kind of scary-comforting—I was a tad hermity before this all started, and it’s a pretty short hop across the line to recluse. But we’re keeping busy, and I’m still showering for now…

Semester, usually determined to kick me off a cliff by the end, sort of fizzled out this spring. In the Pandem[onium], a few students just disappeared without turning in final work. This made me aware that in face-to-face classrooms, these are the students whose hands I would hold, for whom I would make every class an opportunity to be accountable, and who I would try to drag over the finish line. But that wasn’t possible this semester. The most I could do was email and text numerous pesky reminders, which today’s tech-savvy  students are accustomed to screening and ignoring. Alas, my grades are turned in, and I hope the disappeared students are okay.

My summer class.
I’m teaching a summer class (online) that started this week, and it was restorative to meet a new crop of nervous, excited, and/or confident students, even if they were all in 2” windows and our class looked like an episode of Hollywood Squares.

Another thing I’ve been doing to make quarantine more bearable is something I call “a good old Irish walk.” When I was in Ireland last summer, sans car, Irish folks would tell me that whatever I was looking for was “just a short walk” away, which could mean anywhere from 1 to 25 miles. I did a LOT of walking. So lately I’ve been taking long walks whenever I can, exploring Little Town’s nooks & crannies.

Luck o' the good old Irish walk.

Above the Missouri River
One of the side effects of quarantine is projectitis, a sudden need to start, or get back to, completely random projects. For the past two weekends, Ray has been hauling cartloads of the 7 cubic yards (that’s about 6 TONS) of black dirt we ordered into the garden. I bought 8 brackets on clearance about 5 years ago, and each holds the ends of 2x12’s to make raised garden beds.

I’ll also be painting the 4 unfinished wren houses I ordered from the Audubon Society, because I LOVE those bossy little wrens, and they raise babies each year in a broken frog head hanging from a shepherd’s hook in my back yard. They deserve better. A robin built a gorgeous nest on top of a wreath hanging just outside our front door, where she sits on 6 blue eggs. When we drive her off occasionally because WE HAVE TO USE OUR FRONT DOOR, she and Mr. Robin flit around the yard chirping robin obscenities until it’s safe for her to return.

Shhhh! Babies sleeping!
Speaking of babies, I’m also knitting babies. It’s part of an Ireland project to commemorate the approximately 6000 babies who died in Ireland’s “mother and baby” homes: I’m making simple little babies while watching Curiosity Stream documentaries, usually on stuff like native forests of Mongolia, mapping the human brain, or tool use in scrub jays.

Babies for babies.
Like probably half of the world right now, I’m also teaching myself to make sourdough bread. Maintaining the starter is a cross between The Blob and a horrid junior high chemistry class, and our house always smells like yeast. So far, I’ve made one beautiful loaf and several discuses, doorstops, and patio umbrella stands for the Christmas gift stockpile.

The one we could actually eat.
Isolated at home, I’m also confronted by the tapestry wall hanging I started when I was 21…shouldn’t I get back to that? And wasn’t I going to make something out of that Rubbermaid tub full of old band t-shirts? What about the pasta maker I bought, loaned out for a few years, got back, and have stored in the basement ever since? Shouldn’t I be making homemade ravioli? Now would be a great time to teach Yogi (dog) to use those speech buttons I bought a decade ago. 2020: The Year to Get Shite Done. (Double entendre intended.)

People are finding other ways to pass the pandemic. Our local businesses are re-opening, but they’ve been mostly doing curbside/pickup, and Little Town folk are turning out to support them. A local balloon business is keeping spirits up with scavenger hunts. The owner makes ingenious balloon sculptures each week and places them around town, then posts when the hunt is on. We have occasional short, socially-distanced, masked porch visits. We have a weekly family Zoom that gets bigger and wilder every week.

I see your true colors, Poppy.
Sadly, the CDC just predicted that over 100,000 people in the U.S. alone could die by June 1, and that we should start serious planning for a worse “2nd wave” in the fall. Worse? Really? Whenever someone suggests Covid is a hoax, or it’s no worse than the flu, or blahblahblah, I ask them to tell it to the 90,000 dead Americans. Many re-open and/or die people are out and about, without masks, oblivious to social distancing. Going for supplies is an obstacle course, dodging and weaving around unconcerned “not me” Covid targets who ignore my 6’ bubble. And like many universities, Little Town U is planning to be back on campus in the fall.

These things terrify me, here in our household of three high-risk, medically-compromised, but still vital and valuable human beings. So for the foreseeable future, we'll be tucked in here. Time to queue up another episode of Ballykissangel while I make paper mache molds of Ray’s feet…where’s the tempera paint…

Monday, April 27, 2020

Pandem-onium Week 7

We started our social distancing on March 13, so we’re heading into our 7th week. In addition, we’re having our house painted (something we’d contracted for last fall, pre-Covid). All the windows and doors are covered in plastic, taped, and painted over right now, so we are truly cocooning in our isolation. We do curbside pickup for groceries, we mask up to ride our bikes or walk the dogs, and a non-contact pizza delivery is a “festive night.” The U.S. president, who I like to call -45, is telling people to drink the Kool-Aid (ingest disinfectant, open the economy, go to the beach). Somehow, we’ve all been transported to an alternate universe.

Cocooning in the kitchen.

Gifts: Letter from granddaughter, grading-pen holder from Annie.

Here in South Dakota, which is somewhat sparsely populated, we’ve had 2212 cases of Covid-19 infection so far. This number seems low, until you learn that over a thousand of these cases (and 3 of the state’s 11 deaths) are workers and their contacts from one Smithfield meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls. This is made even more tragic by the fact that so many Smithfield workers are immigrants and working poor, and that Smithfield was paying employees a $500 “incentive” bonus to keep working after the first employees were testing positive for the virus. Sadly (and preventably perhaps), we’re seeing this situation play out now in meatpacking plants elsewhere in the state and in adjacent states.

It’s really hard to stay positive in this Pandem-onium. I watch the news in a sort of deer-in-the-headlights trance, knowing all the while that I should run for the trees. I have a hard time concentrating. I worry constantly about our little household, all of us at high risk. We’re all over 60 (my mom, who lives with us, is 84), and between the three of us, we have all the textbook “comorbidity factors” (oooh…I’m getting so pathology savvy): heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and prior strokes.

However, Pollyanna that I am, I’m trying to re-focus my thinking and appreciate the astonishing changes I’ve made in my life as a result of quarantine:

1.     I have a significantly expanded collection of recipes and cooking/baking/grilling/nutrition ideas from the Interwebs—praise be the Al Gore and his Interwebs!
2.     I’ve made several important kitchen upgrades: I got a mixer out I haven’t used since I got it last Christmas, I correctly seasoned all my cast iron, and I found my FoodSaver and pasta machine, both still packed away from the last move five years ago.
3.     I’m cleaning out my pantry and freezers in the service of culinary exploration. I have quite a collection of rare, exotic, and unknown (labels long since lost or faded) items, most of which I bought for that one dish I was determined to make and never got around to. Things like whole Bonita fish. Five lbs. of falafel. 25 lbs. of wild whole plums (my winemaking days). Tobiko (flying fish roe). Puff pastry. Sweet potato noodles. Nori. Cauliflower rice. Peri peri. Guava paste.
4.     Believe me, I am the LAST person who needs to be holed up with FOOD and new recipes. However, my haphazard experimenting (see #3) means that at least some of the dishes I’ve made are inedible by weak-toothed or finicky humans and must be either (a) fed to the dogs, or (b) ground up for the birds, so the calories don’t add up as fast as one might imagine.
5.     I now have an alternative-medicine/personal care storehouse: a fairly comprehensive collection of homeopathics; heating pads; OTC medications for mucus, phlegm, congestion, diarrhea, and assorted other grossities; a steamer, nebulizer, glucose monitor, blood pressure cuff, digital thermometer, and oximeter; herbs and herbal syrups; Epsom salt soaks. I already have a massage table and a footbath. I’ll be opening a wellness spa post-pandem-onium.

Socially-distant bike ride.

6.     I’m not a fan of exercise. Motivation and a self-replicating pile of work are usually the sticking points for me, but given the choice lately of a walk or bike ride vs. ONE MORE MINUTE IN THIS DARK HOUSE, I’m moving a bit more.
7.     I’ve had plenty of time in the house to procrastinate…er…conduct research. I know a LOT now about singers’ throats and paralytic vocal cords, the benefits of tonic water, Magdalene laundries in the Netherlands, fortifying the immune system, sound-triggered anxiety in dogs, and the art & science of sourdough bread.
8.     I’ve revived the personal barter system, thanks to my daughter’s overload of farm-fresh eggs: eggs for elderberry syrup, eggs for TP, eggs for parsley and mint. Eggs are the new currency.

Eggs for sourdough starter.

My first sourdough

So hang in there, everyone. Take good care of each other. Social distance and wear a mask to keep your elders and other vulnerable people safe—you could be carrying the virus and not know. We may have to do this a while, but humans have survived this long because we ADAPT. Remember that no matter what you see on TV, there are sane, smart people working on a vaccine. We’re learning that ventilators may not be the best option. We learned that antibodies may not equal immunity. We’ll figure this out. Until then, I need parsley and cilantro, and I’ve got eggs…

Bucket 'O Chicken (hen finds the food and dives in)

Hazel named this chick Victoria,
because the chick "victoriously stood on my arm without falling."