Glimpses of Gratitude, Covid-19 Style

The other day, I rolled out of bed pretty late, because I just couldn’t stop listening to Sugar Calling, the new Cheryl Strayed podcast. I heard a common thread running through Cheryl’s conversations with Alice Walker, “Whatever We Have, We Have to Work With It,” Judy Blume, “A Terrible Thing Is Happening, but the World Goes On,” and Pico Iyer, “Joyful Participation in a World of Sorrows.” When I finally meandered downstairs to make my ugly happy smoothie (cooked beet, coconut milk, ginger, five spice, spinach, and a few drops of rosewater) my husband presented me with a hand-addressed envelope out of our pile of stalemail—mail that had been untouched for 24 hours since our postal worker dropped it in the slot.
I opened a gorgeous card with a Japanese aesthetic; a collage created with scraps of handmade paper by our friend, the artist Tricia Bath. She’d incorporated a 13th Century quote from Rumi, one that resonated with the thoughts of the contemporary writers I’d heard on the podcast that morning, “Be grateful for all you receive, good and bad alike, for it may be a gift.”
Gentle Reader, I don’t blame you if you roll your eyes over another Rumi quote. Stay with me. All of us have lost something while living through this pandemic. You may assume that if I’m still blithely quoting Rumi, I haven’t yet lost enough. So far, Covid-19 has been less of a challenge for me than it has for those people who have lost their jobs, their loved ones, or their health—or for those people who have kept their jobs, and have had to take on the additional jobs previously performed by their nannies, their children’s teachers, their parent’s caregivers.
Unlike many, I am not overburdened. I am not lonely. I am not grieving. I am not bored. I am not deprived of touch or deprived of keeping in touch—I still have telephone service and wi-fi. All of this is to say, Covid-19 is a catastrophe on a grand scale, and it would be irresponsible for me, the most peripheral of its victims, to dismiss it with a platitude of gratitude.
Except.
Gratitude is not a platitude. Whenever we feel lost, gratitude is our road home.

My father’s roadside signs in Wallingford, CT

When my mom texted our far-flung family with pictures of homemade sign my father had created and posted by the side of their road, the challenge was on. The front of my house is premium real estate for thank you signs. Workers drive by on their way to the VA, Children’s Hospital, and university hospital.

I’d wanted to make signs that look uplifting, but I have crappy eye hand coordination and no visual aptitude; the best I could do was make signs that look kind of Gothic and creepy and desperate. I’m sorry about that.

Without exception, every day I encounter a gift someone has made in response to this Covid-19 catastrophe. If nothing else, I receive the gift of my husband’s delicious cooking, all made within the confines of my many allergies and sensitivities (no dairy, wheat, gluten, nightshades, egg, peanut, walnut, strawberry, mango…etc.)

On my worst Covid-19 day so far, the day of my comeuppance, I came back home laden with guilt and shame, only to be presented with a stalemail package that was unusually light; a gift from my friend, the singer, actress, and writer Barb Timmons. When I opened the package, I discovered this lovely note and origami figure.

Is it a coincidence that both of the stalemail gifts I am mentioning owe a debt to Japanese design? I think not. Mainstream white America has defined itself more by avarice than by adversity, making us less aware of the beauty, power and dignity we all do in fact possess in times of oppression and catastrophe.

I know very little of Japanese culture, but one day, when I had a few hours to spare between appointments at the NIH, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibit at the Smithsonian titled, “The Art of Gaman.” Gaman means “to bear the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” The exhibit featured arts and crafts created by the internees in the Japanese American concentration camps during World War II. These objects were made by average citizens without any trained artistic skills. They were dazzling. They gave me the strength to persevere through whatever challenges awaited me back at the NIH that day.

We are not weakened by catastrophe. We are strengthened. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Gentle Reader, today is Mother’s Day. If you have not received a gift today, indulge yourself by giving one.

I am grateful for your time. Be well.

Dump Him

Mother’s Day, 2012

“If you want to know how a guy is going to treat you down the road, take a look at how he treats his mother. If he’s respectful of his mother, he’ll be respectful toward you. If he’s a jerk to his mother…you’d better dump him. Fast.”

My mother’s guidelines were intended to direct me to a suitable marriage partner. I applied them accordingly, and married a guy who adored his mother. That was twenty years ago. My mother’s advice proved so effective, I thought I’d never have the need for it again.

This summer, I was given a rare opportunity to apply Mom’s precepts to a relationship in an entirely different sphere. The man in question had done some business with my lady-parts, but that did not make him a potential romantic partner. The man in question was my urologist.

When I’d met the urologist in his clinic, I’d been dressed in a johnny coat. He’d been dressed in a suit and tie. His old-world formality, his swarthy complexion and his slicked-back, jet-black hair reminded me of my dear departed Grandpa Blanco. But despite the family resemblance, deep in my heart I didn’t trust the guy. I thought he was a show-off. He seemed more interested in impressing me with the latest gee-whiz treatment than in treating me appropriately.

A relationship with a doctor ought to be strictly professional, not personal, so I put whatever personal reservations I might have about him to the side. Yet a nagging voice inside me wondered if perhaps this man’s showmanship might lead to a less than desireable outcome. I was on the fence about seeing him again, or pursuing his “cutting edge” treatment, in part because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of shopping for a new urologist, and in part because mere intuition didn’t seem like a reliable measurement of a doctor’s professional aptitude.

As fate would have it, my intuition would be proven correct, luckily without the messy consequence of an undesired clinical outcome.

In what would be my last encounter this urologist, I was dressed in street clothes, and he was dressed, as always, in his suit and tie. I was carrying a parcel, a bright silk dress I’d purchased off the $50 rack in the back of the shop, which was nestled in the heart of the self-proclaimed “largest bridal district in North America.”
We both did a bit of a double-take, as sometimes happens when you run across a familiar person in an unfamiliar context. My husband and son arrived at the shop, having finshed their task of getting measured for tuxedos across the street. I introduced them to my “doctor” without spelling out his specialty for all the assembled would-be brides and bridesmaids to hear. And then the explanation for the urologist’s presence in a bridal shop became clear. A little old lady hobbled over to us on the arm of a lovely young college girl. The urologist introduced us to his daughter and his mother, who had just flown in that morning from Iran for a family wedding.
I couldn’t help it—I shared my delight at the bargains on the fifty dollar rack. “You couldn’t buy this much silk for fifty bucks! It’s Dupioni.”
As it turned out, the urologist knew all about the $50 rack. They were only there for the bargains. As nothing on the rack “carryies her size,” the urologist was planning on driving his mom to Goodwill to peruse the dresses there.
Goodwill? I wondered if his shopping plans weren’t a bit labor intensive. Why not pay full price at one of the 250 bridal shops within these scant two blocks? Hadn’t the urologist’s mother already had quite a day, flying all the way out to our fair midwestern city from Iran?
“She’s made of iron. Look at her.”
At this point, our party of two families had moved onto the street. My husband was halfway down the block, in a hurry to get to the car so he could deliver me from this unpleasant awkward encounter here in bridal shop purgatory. My son was halfway between his dad and his mom, tarrying in case I needed an arm. The urologist was keeping up with me, while the urologist’s mother, that stalwart traveler, was shuffling slowly but determinedly past the fifties-era storefronts, unaided by her granddaughter or her son.
At that moment, I made my decision. Dump him. The urologist wouldn’t wait up for his ancient mother, no matter how I tried to slow our pace. The man was too cheap to buy his mother a new dress for a wedding she’d traveled a long way to attend. If he could afford a plane ticket from Iran, he could afford a full priced dress.
My husband pulled up alongside us. My son opened the car door for his mother.
That is how it’s done.
When I waved goodbye to the urologist, I knew it was forever. The next specialist to weigh on the situation was a urogynecologist recommended by my local MS doc. She told me that if I were to continue to follow the advice of that urologist, I would end up in bad shape. Not that I needed a professional opinion to confirm …Mother knows best.

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