Confessions of a Long Hauler: Strike Two

Strike Two

My husband Ron and I had been on the road two days and were driving parallel to the White Sands Missile Range outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. Ron scanned the landscape to catch a glimpse of an oryx– a large African antelope introduced to the area in the late 1960s.

Eighteen oryx (gemsbok) were first brought from the Kalahari region of South Africa to the Albuquerque Zoo by archeologist, Dr. Frank Hibben in 1962 for big-game hunting. Their offspring were introduced to the White Sands Missile Range in 1969. Today, between 3,000 and 4,000 animals roam the desert. They are part of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape and are foreign to it. They are also deemed prized trophy animals as well as pests.

How traumatic it must have been for those first oryx and their offspring. Being poked and prodded by two-legged animals who shouted incoherent babble demanding the animals’ surrender. Scanning this new terrain for predators and forging for food caused stress and changes in their behavior. Did they long for Africa? I long for so much of my previous life; mainly public spaces where I can witness the array of human expression. Like those first imported oryx, I am mindful of my life before the pandemic.

Ron slowed and pointed out the window. “I think that’s an oryx!”

“Pull over,” I said.

“We can’t. This is a restricted area.”

“I don’t care. Pull over!”

We came to an abrupt stop. I grabbed Ron’s phone, stepped out of the car, and headed for the fence. The sun was waning and the oryx was 200 yards away, but I could still make out it’s huge form in the desert brush. The animal faced me and didn’t move. Oryx are approximately 46 inches at the shoulder, stretch 6 feet in length, and can weigh up to 500 pounds. Their straight, black horns tilt slightly toward their backs and are thirty to forty inches long. Their tan-colored hide acts as camouflage against the desert brush, but there is no hiding the distinct black and white patches on their faces. They resemble giant goats. It didn’t move as I snapped a dozen photos.

I got back in the car and my phone rang. I host an open mic night at a local coffee house once a month. It was the owner. She called asking what time I planned to arrive. The event was in an hour, and I was three hundred miles away. Earlier in the week, I had reached out to the members of our writing community and canceled the event. I stammered for a moment, embarrassed, and confused. Did I really forget to call her, the owner of the venue? I apologized and agreed to find someone to replace me. I was on the verge of tears as I wrestled with spotty phone service, exhaustion, and brain fog trying to find a replacement. Graciously, an amazing local poet offered to host the event.

My back was sore, and I had developed a persistent hacking cough. I rested my head against the window and scanned the desert scrub hoping to spot another oryx before the sun set.

A week earlier Ron and I had sat at our kitchen table weighing the pros and cons of flying back to Wisconsin for my nephew’s wedding. The country was under a deep freeze and the airlines were canceling thousands of flights a day because of weather and staff shortages due to the omicron variant. We had missed out on so much since the pandemic invaded our lives. I wasn’t going to miss this wedding and an opportunity to spend a weekend with my daughter, her husband, and my extended family.

“If we leave now,” I told Ron, “we can still make the rehearsal dinner.”

We dropped everything and packed the car. An hour later we were headed north.

The wedding was at Hotel Northland, a gorgeous historical landmark in downtown Green Bay. We cried tears of joy, ate well, danced, laughed, and shared stories. No one mentioned the omicron variant sweeping the nation. Instead, we welcomed the rituals of our old lives inside the walls of that magnificent hotel.

We stayed in Green Bay for several days after the wedding with my sister Kelli and her husband Carl. On day three, I woke with a throbbing headache, brain fog, and body aches. I didn’t need a COVID test to tell me what I already knew. The semester had started so I answered student emails and worked on class calendars between naps. I also reminded myself to call the coffee house to cancel open mic and forgot to make the call. Ron and I shared one last lovely dinner with Kelli and Carl before leaving. I dreaded the trip home, knowing I was too exhausted to do my share of the driving.

We had crossed over the Mississippi River into Dubuque, Iowa when Kelli called. Her son, Robert, the groom had tested positive for the virus. He and his bride, Morgan, were on their honeymoon in Florida. I tried to get a rapid or home test in Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. None were available. Kelli called during the day with updates. Several people who had attended the wedding were testing positive. No one was surprised.

We made it home late after a fifteen-hour day on the road. The next day Ron and I tested negative on a rapid test. Later in the week the results of a PCR test confirmed what I already knew. I had the virus. Strike two, I thought when I read the results.

Nearly a year ago I tested positive for COVID-19. I’ve struggled with a host of health problems over the years brought on by malaria and Lyme disease. Testing positive seemed a death sentence. My husband and I had lost loved ones while the media bombarded all of us with reports and photos of hospitals pushed to the brink and the sick vying for ventilators. A month after getting sick, I was faced with new concerns. It was clear I had long covid. I suffered from chronic fatigue, brain fog, loss of taste and smell, muscle pain, and weight loss. The list goes on. Finally, in September 2021, I went to see a cardiologist. I had tachycardia and a dangerously low heart rate. I was scheduled for a pacemaker. The fatigue disappeared after surgery. Suddenly, I was able to clean the house, grocery shop, fix meals, venture out with friends, and plan trips. It was a miracle. I had spent seven months doing what I could around the house before 11 am at which point I would hit a wall and go to bed. Ron joked he wanted a dial installed on the pacemaker so he could turn it down.

My energy was back, but I noticed I still had trouble concentrating. I would read a passage in a book or a student paper and have no idea what it meant. The simple act of sitting in my office put me on edge. I needed to keep moving. At some point I recognized my intellect had been compromised. I could cook a seven-course dinner even though I have yet to regain my sense of taste and smell, but I hadn’t started a new book in months. I stopped writing altogether, which left me untethered, drifting into dark places inside my head. I didn’t share my despair with anyone. The BIG thoughts and questions in which I always prided myself in exploring had disappeared. Vanished. I was getting so much done, but the part of me that made me was gone. Then, two months ago glimmers of my old self slowly began to rise from the ashes. My mom gave me a book titled 1493 Uncovering The New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann. The prologue begins, “Like other books, this one began in a garden.” I was hooked. BIG thoughts start in gardens, and in the shower, or while driving to the grocery store. I read on. Mann discusses the transcontinental history of tomatoes, which led him to a book called Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby, a geographer and historian. Mann quotes the first sentence in the book: “European emigrants and their descendants are all over the place, which requires explanation.” Why are Europeans all over the place? Mann wondered. This was the BIG question he set out to answer, and intellectually I was up to the task to follow him wherever his discoveries led.

My sense of self intact, I started reading and writing again. I had questions about the social, medical, political, and educational implications brought on by the pandemic. I had science questions about the virus. I also had questions about human history and biology. I couldn’t read or research quick enough to satiate my curiosity. It was as though my brain had awakened from hibernation and was starving for information.

Then it was gone. Just like that. I got sick again with omicron and the neurons in my brain stopped firing, or so it seemed. This time though, I noticed the swift and remarkable change. My covid brain was the reason I had forgotten to call the coffee house and cancel open mic. It was the reason Ron had to drive home from Green Bay. I didn’t trust myself. Fatigue took over and for six days I managed to shower and walk the dogs before I lay on the couch watching countless hours of Netflix. My energy and my brain were on hiatus and no pleading would change that. I could handle the exhaustion, coughing, runny nose, and muscle aches. What I couldn’t reconcile was the loss of self. Briefly, I had experienced the full range of my intellect and in an instant, I was robbed of it again.

An oryx visited me in a dream while I napped on the couch. It stood in a grassy field very different from the desert. I stepped out from a stand of trees. When the animal saw me, it paused for a moment before kicking up dirt and disappearing over a hill. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to chase it. The oryx has not only adapted to its new home in the Chihuahuan Desert but has flourished. Lions, cheetahs, and hyenas are the oryx natural predators in Africa. Aside from hunters, they have no natural predators in New Mexico. Without management, they would overpopulate, becoming susceptible to disease. We’ve learned our lessons about introducing imported plants and animals mainly for food or to eradicate pests, or, in the case of the unfortunate oryx, big-game hunting. The unintended consequences are often devastating. I wonder about our handling of the pandemic. What mistakes have we made and what lessons will we take from this after the dust settles? Those of us suffering from long covid are the pandemic’s canaries in the mine. Our day to day lives have been greatly impacted and our futures uncertain. Many of us have quit our jobs, have struggled at home, and have disappeared into the shadows of our former lives. We are seeking help, and yet so little is known about our symptoms. Pioneers of sorts, we did not sign up for the journey ahead of us. 

Every morning my husband asks how I am feeling and throughout the day, my sister, and my mom check in. Some days are great, some are good, and some are exhausting. I am grateful for the people in my life who reach out. If you are suffering from long covid or know of someone who is, here are a few resources I have found that keep me connected and give me hope. In the meantime, take a shower or walk the dog or have a margarita. Do something that keeps you afloat.

Long Covid Help:

Long Covid Support Group

Facebook Support Group

Survivor Corps

More On The Oryx:

High Country News

White Sands National Park New Mexico

Carlsbad Current Argus

Confessions of a Long Hauler: Three Months in

My husband and I waited in the parking lot at the Chiricahua Community Health Infectious Disease Center in Bisbee, Arizona for our COVID-19 test results. It was a gorgeous day, yet we remained in the car lost in our own thoughts until the nurse approached and handed me a piece of paper. “I’m sorry. You’ve tested positive for the virus. Please contact your doctor immediately.”

This was March 1st, a year after we learned the truth and the lives we had been living were altered forever. I had made breakfast for my brother and sister-in-law earlier that morning and couldn’t taste the plum jam on my toast or the fruit in my yogurt. I knew the results of the test before the nurse crossed the parking lot. Ron and I sat in the car staring out the window. My imagination swan-dived into a dark abyss punctuated by the cries of an annoyed mockingbird perched on a juniper branch in the empty lot next to the clinic. Oh. My. God.

The virus had found a new host. I was contaminated, infected by something I couldn’t see and had feared for over a year. I slid deeper into the dark hole taking with me guilt for possibly infecting friends and family, shame for not protecting myself better, and fear that I may die. Grasping for a lifeline, I turned to my husband. “We need to make a list of people I’ve been in contact with.”

Ron drove east toward our ranch as I cataloged names on the back of a discarded envelope before calling folks. Friends and family offered words of encouragement. Others said they would pray for us. None of it made me feel better. How could people be so kind knowing that I may have infected them?  

Our doctor was sympathetic but had few answers to my many questions. In the end, I was to stay quarantined for ten days, drink plenty of fluids and get myself to a hospital if things took a turn for the worse. Also, and this was important, if I had any symptoms after ten days, I should remain in isolation at home.

It’s been three months, and I still have symptoms. I experience fatigue, brain fog, chills, muscle pain, and continued loss of taste and smell. There are also symptoms that take me by surprise; the outlanders of the disease hellbent on holding me hostage: leg pain, dry mouth, mouth sores, rash, and headaches. But what worries me most are the changes in the things that make me me. I exist in a kind of itchy melancholy when exhaustion takes hold each day around noon. Long bike rides and hikes are on hold for now. The loss of taste and smell has me questioning the quality of the food I make. Thoughts are jumbled, and ideas are lost when I simply look up from my laptop screen to catch a glimpse of a quail on the fence or a rabbit in the yard. I am on the edge of my old self holding on wondering when things will get better, easier.

Years ago, I was living in a small farming community up in the mountains in central Honduras when cholera struck after the military turned off the water source. This kind of sabotage is called low-impact warfare and is taught at the Western Hemisphere of Security, formally the School of the Americas. It is a tactic in which a government creates a problem, like shutting off water to a pueblito where farmers were organizing for land rights, leaving people no choice but to use a contaminated local river for bathing, laundry, and cooking. Many got sick and some died before the military returned to the village and restored water access. Psychologically, this kind of warfare has a powerful effect. People were so grateful to have water, collective amnesia set in, and villagers forgot who created the problem in the first place. Message received, a twisted dependency was created, and farmers went back to business as usual, abandoning discussions of land ownership.

A small one-room, white-washed adobe home with concrete floors at the edge of town was donated by an elderly couple for the duration of the cholera outbreak. A doctor was summoned to the village where he trained community healthcare workers and volunteers like me to care for patients. Cholera is a messy, contagious disease that causes severe diarrhea and vomiting. Sick people flooded our makeshift clinic where we administered fluids and electrolytes intravenously to stave off deadly dehydration. The village was miles from any power plant. To sterilize equipment, cholera beds and bedding, we boiled water over fires. We tended to patients in the shadows of oil-filled lanterns at night and opened doors and windows during the day, praying for a breeze in the sticky heat. Those too sick to travel suffered at home while family members took shifts to keep their loved ones clean and comfortable.

Several weeks passed as we worked around the clock to save lives. Hollow, scared eyes of villagers lined the porch. Some fell to their knees. Curled up on the concrete, their moaning filled the house with desperation. Our desperation to work harder. Faster.

When it was over, people stepped from their homes into the sunshine stunned. It was easy to spot those who had succumbed to cholera. Gray skin hung from their bones like weathered leather. Their weary, sunken eyes carried in them remnants of fear and disbelief. Even infected children looked as though they had traveled deep into the netherworld, emerging wise beyond their years.

Cholera transformed the village. Many of those who lost family members remained cloistered in their homes, grief acting as a barrier. We watched men, women, and children who survived with open curiosity. Even though clean water now ran from our pipes, we had witnessed the destruction dirty river water had brought to the community. The survivors were reminders, talismans of suffering. They were simultaneously victims and messengers. Don’t kill the messenger we had to remind ourselves. In our fear of getting sick, we lost compassion for those recovering.

I wonder how long COVID patients will fare. People are waking like bears from a long, dark winter. Hibernation over, we are in search of sunshine, food, and connection. Mask mandates are being lifted as restaurants discard plexiglass to make room for customers. A record number of travelers since the pandemic began took to the friendly skies Memorial Day weekend while millions traveled by car to sporting events, beaches, and backyard BBQs. Yet many of us are still tethered to symptoms; one foot in the past as we struggle to move forward.

I have witnessed this intersection where medicine and science scramble for answers and doctors are left perplexed and frustrated. Where, in the end, patients become a burden in a system that is not equipped to help—a kind of medical purgatory. For years I have wrestled with a myriad of symptoms brought on by malaria and later Lyme disease. When tests are inconclusive and a physician is baffled, I am sent to a specialist. I have often downplayed my symptoms so not to be singled out as someone with a problem or worse, someone to be pitied. Over the years, I have adapted to the rhythms of my body and the demands of each disease. I am aware that illness and exhaustion has changed me. Dreams and ambitions are no match for chronic fatigue.  

We are in the infancy of COVID-19 and have yet to begin understanding long-term symptoms. Employers and the economy will be shaped by a workforce dealing with health issues. Doctors and mental health professionals will face new challenges. Our compassion will be tested as medicine and science desperately search for cures.

I recently dreamed I was paging through The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for lessons revealed in a scene where the protagonist, Holden, a rebellious sixteen-year-old boy, is counseled by his old teacher, Mr. Antolini:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

I’m doing okay morally and spiritually. But when I’m too tired to make a meal or walk the dogs, I reach out to people who understand. Salinger was right. As I grapple to make sense of COVID-19 and lingering symptoms, sharing my experiences with others who are struggling is a “beautiful, reciprocal arrangement”. 

Eight Letter Word for Global Virus

A Loggerhead Shrike flew in and flittered about the quail, sparrows, and finches that picked through seeds on the feeders in our orchard. It was the first time I had seen one here at the ranch. It is a small, striking blue-grey bird with a black band across its face like the Lone Ranger’s mask. What makes the shrike interesting and often a topic of conversation in the birding world is that it impales its prey, mainly lizards and small rodents, on cactus and mesquite thorns. It’s not uncommon to see a lizard that has met its demise hanging from barbed wire, a shrike perched in a tree nearby, scolding intruders.

I wanted to know more about the bird and found an online entry on the National Audubon Society site titled, “Shrikes Have an Absolutely Brutal Way of Killing Large Prey”. It struck me that someone writing for an organization that protects birds would use such vilifying language to describe what is the hunting pattern of a bird. I was curious of what other salacious words and phrases the author used to describe this predator of the songbird world and found these: gruesomely impaled, macabre behavior and weaponry. The last paragraph reads, “A headbanging, prey-impaling, death bird”. I thought of an Oscar Wilde quote, “To define is to limit”. The instincts of the Loggerhead Shrike had suffered at the hands of a writer.  

Words are powerful. They lead, inspire, and move us. They disgust, repel, and haunt us. Words can create a vacuum or fill a void; make us laugh or make us cry; build us up with love or tear us down with hate. Words tell the truth and spout lies. Filling libraries, churches, and schools, words record our history and predict the future. They work as agents among us building relationships, cultures, and ideologies. Words are the building blocks of stories, legends, and sagas. The language in songs and poetry cut us deep, connecting us to each other and to the world we live in.

COVID-19 has created a new vernacular. We have repurposed language to fit the unfamiliar circumstances we find ourselves in. Epidemic, pandemic and plague seemed antiquated a year ago. Like looking at tintypes of relatives long dead, these words were a thing of curiosity. What was it like back then? They marked periods in history that still send chills up and down our spines: smallpox, bubonic plague, yellow fever, Spanish flu, and polio. Now these words are part of our daily conversations.

The oxymoron, social-distancing is at the forefront of COVID-19 vocabulary. We yearn to be close to the people we love while standing six feet away in fear our hugs and kisses will spread the virus through droplets, a word formerly used to describe the first sign of rain. Other words once signaling a cold or the flu now mark the ominous list of COVID-19 symptoms: muscle aches, fatigue, fever, chills, cough, headache, nausea, etc. There are medical and scientific terms few of us had encountered before the pandemic: respirator, ventilator, mRNA vaccine, personal protective equipment (PPE), asymptomatic, herd immunity, super spreader.

Words are malleable, their definitions changing over time. They shapeshift and morph to fit our circumstances. The language once used in the mental health profession to diagnose someone are now blanket terms describing large swaths of society: Stress, depression, anxiety, anger, loss, grief, hopelessness, and melancholy sum up a collective malaise that’s hard to shake while joy, happiness, security, contentment, comfort, and pleasure are pushed to the fringe of our consciousness as we try to navigate our daily lives. The words we attach to our feelings define our moods. How much more can we take when the media reminds us, “There will be dark days ahead.” Things will get worse before they get better.” We should applaud ourselves for just getting out of bed in the morning. 

And what about the host of confusing vocabulary our elected officials have introduced to save us from ourselves? There are shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and lockdown orders. We are told to isolate and quarantine. What do they mean and how do they differ? With the economy in shambles, we wait as Congress fights over words before dispersing stimulus checks. Years of hate speech culminated in a deadly riot at the United States Capitol leading us to consider the implications of words like insurrection, impeachment and evoking the 25th Amendment. Gone are the days of simple wordplay. Many of us have lost the inclination to sit down and tackle the New York Times crossword puzzle or laugh whole heartedly at a joke. We are under attack by forces both seen and unseen; a mutating virus at the foreground of our battles, distorting our language while upending our lives.

My husband and I watched the movie, Rebecca starring Lily James and Armie Hammer (It’s streaming on Netflix.) I had read the book many years ago while taking a class called Traditions of the Novel for my MA at Northern Arizona University (NAU). The book was written in 1938 by Daphne Du Maurier. The story is about a young woman who falls in love with Englishman, Maxim de Winter, a widower ten years her senior. He is wealthy; she is a lady’s maid whose parents died of pneumonia. The couple marry and move to Maderley, Maxim’s family estate. The new, young wife, Mrs. de Winter, struggles to find her place among the memories of Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca. The book was all the rage when it was first published and was made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It was adapted for film fourteen more times over the years including the version we watched.

The movie’s ending was different than I remembered. I was curious and found the book Rebecca in my studio. Flipping through the pages, I was transported to a world of words and ideas that were written after World War I when English estates were still tended to by servants, when sex was suggested rather than graphically depicted on the page, and when, unknown to Du Maurier or to her readership, World War II would soon ignite, setting the world’s political stage ablaze. Du Maurier’s words reached across time and rescued me, if only temporarily, from the worry and uncertainty I’ve come accustomed to since the pandemic swept into our lives a year ago.

Today I watched Joe Biden’s inauguration speech where he spoke of unity and healing. Powerful words of reconciliation given the effect language has had on our country in recent years. Americans like the Loggerhead Shrike possess a resourceful and resilient nature that transcends defamatory language. I felt a flutter of hope as President Biden’s words reached across the aisle and into our homes and communities.

Poet, Robert Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

A Christmas Miracle (The Tale of Fluffy and Bluffy)

A Christmas package arrived from my sister Kelli. Ron made me a cup of tea while Kelli and I face-timed, and I opened my gift. Inside were three copies of Fluffy and Bluffy, the children’s book I was holding when I first learned to read.

I had mentioned the book to Kelli months ago while Ron and I were in Green Bay. I told her that I often looked for it when visiting used bookstores and antique shops. There were two puppies with hearts for noses on the dust jacket, but I couldn’t remember the title. There was no way to search for it online. I asked Kelli how she ever found the books. She said as soon as I described the cover, she remembered the title. Our brains are hardwired differently. She thinks in black and white while information swims around my head in a gray fog moored to things more theoretical than fact. She’s eighteen months younger than I am. Her brain had taken a photo of the book, including the title, and had stored it among childhood memories.

Fluffy and Bluffy was written by Alene Dalton and published in 1951. It had been part of my grandma Betz’s children’s book collection. She taught kindergarten for decades in De Pere, Wisconsin. By my mom’s account, I was either three or four when I received the book and learned to read. I remember sitting with someone on my grandparents’ sofa. My mom thinks it was her dad, my grandpa Frankie. The book was already my favorite, and I was excited to listen to the adventure of Fluffy and Bluffy Pooch, twin puppies who meet Peter Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, and a little elf named Fibber-dibberus on their walk through the woods. Up until then, letters in books had appeared on pages as sticks, and circles, and humps. That day something magical happened. The words split up and floated on the page, rearranging themselves as tiny soldiers—each letter with its own unique place in a word. In that moment, I became a reader.

I flipped through one of the books Kelli gave me with delight. Peter Rabbit, the pigs, the elf, they were all there in the order I remembered. I lifted it to my face and breathed in deeply. The copy of Fluffy and Bluffy I received from my grandma had smelled musty, like old books do. An aroma that resides deep in me as comfort and a link to knowledge. It is the smell of George Washington crossing the Delaware from my fifth-grade social studies book and the scent of medieval knights raiding a village in a book I checked out from the Fairview South Elementary School library to complete my sixth grade Middle Ages project. It is the smell that burrowed into my clothes after hours of research in the Haggerty Library at Mount Mary University while working on a degree in education. It is what I remember most of that day on the sofa surrounded by people I loved and who loved me enough to sit quietly time and time again until I could read and share the story of Fluffy and Bluffy on my own.

My journey with reading and my love of books was nearly destroyed during my elementary school years. At 65th Street School in Milwaukee where I attended kindergarten, my parents were told by my teacher, a well-meaning, grandmother who wore her curly hair in a bun, that I suffered from petit mal seizures. In her opinion, my frequent episodes of staring into space (something I still do today) was cause for alarm. The news shocked my parents, and unintentionally their concern left me feeling that there was something wrong with me. I don’t remember going to the doctor or being tested at school, but I do remember there were no books in the classroom and that my days consisted of copying the letters of the alphabet from large cards that hung on colored yarn above the chalkboard.

It was in first grade across the street from 65th Street School at Our Lady of Sorrows that I learned being left-handed was the sign of the devil. The nuns had a duty to guard my soul. So, while my classmates learned phonics and read books, I spent reading hour in a classroom with a few kids I didn’t know sitting on my left hand while holding a pencil in my right hand trying to form perfect letters on flimsy, lined paper.

We moved to the suburbs after that terrible year, and any thought of reading books in second grade was dashed when once again I was ushered to a classroom across the hall to learn how to write properly. Over the summer my right hand had forgotten how to form letters. Saint Dominic’s was a new school run by a different order of nuns who also believed my left-handedness was something in need of exorcism. The hit to my budding self-esteem and confidence ran so deep that by third grade and yet another new school (my parents having had enough of the nuns had opted for public education), I could barely speak when called on and dreaded round robin reading where I stuttered so bad, I was often passed over. I had missed three years of phonics and practice in reading. I had also missed three years of learning how to follow instructions. To add to the gaping holes in my education, I have two forms of dyslexia that were identified in college. One is phonological dyslexia. I lack phonetic awareness and cannot sound out new words. The other is called surface dyslexia. It is still difficult for me to take a word or phrase from one text and copy it onto another. For example, copying information from an insurance card onto a doctor’s office intake form may take several minutes, and I usually get it wrong the first time.

My third-grade teacher, a young woman who wore floral-scented perfume, recommended that my parents find me a tutor. Kids smell fear and shame and before Christmas break that year, the bullies had cut me from the herd for their entertainment. The remainder of my elementary school days left a peach pit-sized sickness in my belly as I tried my best to avoid the mean kids while carving out a niche as the funny girl who joined forces with other misfits outside of school where, thank God, I developed life-long friendships.

During those early school years, I gobbled up books at home, escaping to new worlds void of bullies and teasing. Even though books have remained a constant companion in my life, some part of me had always believed if I could just find a copy of Fluffy and Bluffy, the final piece of the healing puzzle would be complete. The book was the key to redemption.

Like Fluffy and Bluffy, books and stories are meant to be shared. In 1989 I gave my daughter up for adoption. That Christmas a dear friend surprised me with a copy of Polar Express accompanied with a beautiful card. Inside she had written, Someday, you will have a chance to read this to her at Christmas.

In the story, a little boy meets Santa after being whisked away with other children on a train, The Polar Express, to the North Pole on Christmas Eve where Santa asks each child to choose a gift. The little boy requests a bell from one of Santa’s reindeers. Santa obliges and cuts a bell from a harness and hands it to the boy. Later, back on the train and headed for home, the boy reaches in his pocket to show the other children the bell but finds a hole instead. On Christmas morning the boy discovers a small box left by Santa. Inside is a new bell with a note, Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket. Mr. C.  The boy shakes the bell, and it has the most beautiful sound. Unfortunately, his parents can’t hear it. As time passes and his friends grow up, he is the only one left who can hear the bell. The book ends with his parting thoughts. “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”

I still believe. Maybe not in Santa, but I do believe in the power of stories and books. I’m blessed to have my daughter in my life now and sent her the copy of Polar Express I received so many year ago. I was hoping to spend Christmas with her and imagined reading the book to her children. Regrettably, I’m not with them because of COVID-19. I hope the book carries a bit of Christmas magic across the miles with this message for my daughter. I love you.

I have read more books this year than I have in the last five years combined. They have acted as friends and as a therapist during these troubled times. Kelli and I cried as I read Fluffy and Bluffy. She had given me the perfect Christmas gift. One copy is for my daughter as a bridge to my past. One copy is to keep here in the present to heal the little girl who believed there was something wrong with her, and one copy is to put in the future house we plan to buy in Wisconsin so that I may begin a new chapter with family and old friends.

Favorite Books I Read in 2020


Chera Hammons-Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom (my personal favorite)

Tara French books- In the Woods; The Searcher

Louise Penny- Still Life; A Fatal Grace (reading now)

Scott Graham- Arches Enemy

Jeanine Cummins– American Dirt

Laurinda Wallace- The Disappearance of Sara Colter

Richard Russo– Straight Man


Amy Irvine- Desert Cabal

Aaron Bobrow Strain- The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez

Isabel Wilkerson- Caste The Origins of our Discontents (reading now)

Barack Obama- A Promised Land

Maria Hinojosa– Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America


Tobi Alfier- Slices of Alice and Other Character Studies; Symmetry: earth and sky

Miriam Sagan- Star Gazing

All things Ken Waldman

‘Tis (Not?) The Season

In big, black letters the year 2020 is written across the cover of this week’s Time magazine with a crimson red X crossing it out. Underneath reads “The Worst Year Ever”. Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch may get a chuckle out of our suffering, but I find it sad and upsetting. After all, it is the holidays, or is it?

Many of my family and friends have canceled Christmas. It seems a reasonable response to the restrictions we are all living with. The entire planet is under siege this holiday season. Every living soul will mark his or her life by this unfathomable moment in history. And we are changed because of it. Holiday movies set in homes where family and friends gather for food and laughter bombard the senses with warnings. Careful! There’s a super spreader among you. While simultaneously, the longing from Christmas Past runs so deep we cry, surprised by our tears.   

I bought into the whole notion of canceling Christmas even as I lugged plastic bins containing ornaments and lights from the basement. Joy was replaced with obligation. Christmas magic sulked in the corner as I sorted through trimmings and resented the mess it would create knowing full well that I would have to pack it all away after the New Year. Because, really, what’s the point of shopping, baking, decorating, and planning if I have no one to share my dwindling Christmas spirit with?

Then a cold, rainy day awoke the little girl inside me who loved Christmas back in Wisconsin. I threw on a coat and went outside to walk the dogs and feed the birds. Back inside the house, I got to work. There were cards to write, gifts to order, and caramels, fudge, and toffee to make. Christmas music and hot cocoa with Bailys Irish Cream brightened my mood as I wrestled with lights and sorted through a lifetime of Christmas decorations. There is no denying this has been a horrific year, and there is no telling how much of 2021 will be gobbled up by uncertainty, sickness, and death. The Time cover did not lie, and yet suddenly, it seemed more important than ever to keep holiday traditions alive.

In 1647 Britain’s Long Parliament, led by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, cancelled Christmas. The festivities were deemed abhorrent and sinful and were banned for more austere religious practices. Risking arrest and public humiliation, people still practiced Christmas rituals in the privacy of their homes. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish people went as far as attending Catholic services to avoid execution but still practiced Hanukkah with their families at home. Rituals are a part of the human condition. We honor the past and carry it forward through customs and stories. Atrocities and disasters have had little effect on our traditions, and in times of great struggle are the things we cling to. They give us solace. 

I was too young to remember the first moon walk, but I do remember sitting in a restaurant with friends eating breakfast and watching a tiny color T.V. when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded in front of our eyes. It was 1986 and later that year, I was in my tiny apartment in Milwaukee, studying for an exam when breaking news announced the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. On September 11, 2001, I turned on the morning news and was horrified as I watched the flames engulf the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. I called my friend, Sue, who lived in New York. I was still in my pajamas; the tea kettle whistled in the background. The phenomenon is called flashbulb memory. It happens when we remember where we were and what we were doing while witnessing or hearing something extraordinary. Like a flashbulb, our minds take a photo that we carry inside us forever.

Many of us will experience personal flashbulb memories from our lives during the pandemic. This is the year we lost Ron’s mom and three beloved fur babies. It is the year my husband had rotator cuff surgery, which led to an infection, a second surgery, and terrifying moments of touch and go. It is also the year many people I love received terrible news from their doctors.

But even during this dreadful time marked by tragedy, I believe I will remember this period in my life with nostalgia. We rescued five ten-day-old kittens from an ancient boom truck Ron has parked out by the hangars. Two went to good homes, and we kept the other three who make us giggle with their antics. Ron had his second surgery in Green Bay where we stayed two months with my sister Kelli and her husband, Carl. We had an amazing time despite the circumstances. My calendar is less crowded now, and so I have the time to connect with and to pray for the people I love.

Maybe it seems silly to put so much stock in making candy and sending Christmas cards, but when I look back at this Christmas, and I will, I want to have fond memories filled with family traditions and those I’ve picked up along the way. Young people one day will ask what the pandemic was like. I will tell them I decorated the house, hung the lights, and baked a ham for Christmas dinner. These will be my flashbulb memories of 2020. Even Ebenezer Scrooge understood the meaning of Christmas. “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Tonight is Winter Solstice. It is also the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists and religious scholars speculate it was this celestial event that created the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Three Wise Men to the site of Jesus’ birth. So, if you didn’t buy the tree or stuff the stockings; if there are no presents to wrap or cards to send; if you just feel too overwhelmed by it all, it’s okay. There is still time to step outside this evening at dusk to witness the Star of Bethlehem in the south west sky. This is our Divine gift, our flashbulb memory for surviving a terrible year. It is also a reminder of what this season is truly about. Merry Christmas!