Saturday, March 28, 2020

We Are All Essential

At 9am yesterday I was already done working. I sat outside the grocery store and texted Big E, "Need anything from Byerly's?"

I didn't hear back by the time I'd procured the elusive roll of paper towels I'd been hoping to find so I headed to the next stop on my list of errands. Minnesotans had been told to "stay at home" after 11:59pm. Only "essential" business were to stay open, and like many people, I wasn't sure what would be considered essential, other than the obvious, like this grocery store.

When I heard back, I was sitting outside the library, waiting for my turn for a librarian to come out and place the items I'd reserved on a table. He sent me his list, to which I responded, "I left but I have to go by there to get home so I'll go back. Not like I have a lot of other stuff to do today."

Not like I have a lot of other stuff to do today.

Normally I would never say that on a Friday. I'm usually turning appointments down on Friday. I joke that if I could just have three Fridays in the week, I wouldn't need to work any other day. But this Friday, I was done working before 9am. Like many small business owners, I was now left wondering whether or not I was "essential."

The day before, I'd watched a man move out of my office building. He'd already laid off 30 employees. With the stay at home order looming, he could no longer afford rent, even for a small office for himself.  I wondered what he did that was so non-essential. I didn't have the heart to ask.

When I headed back to my office to drop off some supplies after my library stop, more people were moving out. More people who could no longer pay the rent. More people who did something non-essential.

By the time I made it home, I was exhausted. I'd spent most of the night awake, worrying whether my business would make it, worrying what my landlord meant when he said the office building was now on "lockdown",  worrying about whether I was essential.

I took a nap, but mostly I just laid on the bed and worried some more so I finally got up and made myself go for a run. It started as a hike, because I was still so tired I felt strangely similar to how I felt in the middle of the night at the Marji Gesick 100. Basically a zombie stumbling through the woods.

Moving woke me up a bit though, cleared my head. It's hard to worry when you're focused on literally putting one foot in front of the other. I thought about this essential thing and wondered if perhaps what so many of us were feeling right now was similar to how many people feel when they retire (albeit with a lot more stress about money). I've heard stories of people not knowing what to do with themselves when they retired. They feel a bit lost, wondering what to do now. So I wondered, did they feel this too- this emptiness because they weren't sure if they were "essential" anymore?

I thought about my parents and when they retired. Were they less essential then? I smiled, because to me, they certainly weren't. If anything, they were probably more essential, even if it was in a different way than when I was a child. Once they were both retired, I had finally reached that stage of being able to appreciate them, of wanting to share bits of my life with them, of enjoying time connecting with them.

 Not long after Pop retired, they came with me to Europe. I'd qualified for the age group duathlon (run, bike, run) world championships in Hungary and we decided to make a trip of it. Unfortunately, I tore my plantar fascia five weeks before the race. Since we'd already planned the trip, we went anyway. I searched out a podiatrist who literally made me a custom orthotic out of foam while I sat in his office because there wasn't enough time to order one. It certainly wouldn't make me fast, but it would protect my foot enough so I could finish the race.

I met Mom and Pop in Vienna. After a few days of sightseeing and incredible food, we headed to Prague and then to Gyor, the small town where the race was held. We shared small hotel rooms, lingered while talking after dinners and made an adventure out of getting my bike case onto and off of trains before the doors closed, always pleasantly surprised when someone helped us without asking. The night we left Prague, a complete stranger realized we didn't understand the messages coming over the loudspeaker and were going to miss our train.  He pointed me to the correct platform and then, when he realized I would never make it in time with the bike case, he threw it up on his shoulder and started running. I chased him down one flight of stairs and up another, with Mom and Pop close behind. We made it to our platform with just enough time for him to throw the case on the train and hold the door for us. Mom called him our guardian angel for the rest of the trip.
With Mom and Pop in Prague
By the time we arrived in Gyor the next morning, my entire leg was a mess from limping around on my foot with my luggage. The team chiropractor covered most of my leg in the only color KT tape she had left- hot pink.

My parents laughed and said, "Well- at least we'll know which one you are."

The race had been set up to run and bike on small loops to make it more fun for the spectators. Mom and Pop sat in the bleachers the organizers had set up and cheered while I limped around the course with my pink tape. I found them there after my race. Of course I was disappointed that I didn't race to my potential. On my own, I would've just gone back to the room to sulk. They were having none of that. They informed me they'd being staying to cheer for Margaret, a woman in her 70's who was competing for the U.S. Not only was she the oldest woman in the race, she'd been hit by a car while training and battled through the injuries to get here.

As we sat in the bleachers waiting for Margaret, many of the older athletes started to finish. I was still sulking a bit when my mom leaned over and said, "You know, this is a lot harder for them than it is for you because they have to be out there much longer."  I smiled. She had a point. After we cheered them all in, we went out to celebrate. Suddenly my race didn't matter so much.

That trip with my parents, it was essential to who I am. That moment in the bleachers, it was essential to who I am. They were essential. Without my parents there, it would've been a trip about a race, my race. Instead, it became a trip about connection, about the goodness of other people, about being there to cheer on every last person. My outlook on racing changed a lot after that. So did my appreciation for my parents.

As I thought about all this on that run, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with my only client that morning. She had said, "I know what we do here is not essential, but seeing you is important to my mental health."  I realized that while the services many of us provide are not essential, we all need to be careful not to think that means WE are not essential. It's easy to confuse the two.

Our place in this world is not based on what we do for work, what we do in races, what kind of house we own. Our place in this world is based on who we are for others, on how we show up for people, everyday, even if we don't have to, even if those people might not know we're there, cheering for every last one of them. 

Times are hard but we are all essential. All of us.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Hope and Happiness

Lake Huron, sometime in the 70s or 80s
After not writing on my blog for over a year, I figured my first post back would be about my greatest distraction over the past year- buying a 120 year old building in the UP. My first property purchase in my 48 years surely could warrant that attention. Unfortunately, with the state of the world as it is, I'm guessing sharing that story now would likely get me shamed in the social media world for being "out of touch" or some other phrase people use to describe anyone right now who chooses to find a glimmer of hope or happiness in the world. Instead, I'll share a story I told a friend yesterday that perhaps explains why I am one of those people who chose that hope and happiness.

It was 1981. I was 9 years old. My sister and I decided to launch our little bodies off the family sailboat and into the still frigid Port Huron water sometime in May. We squealed as we hit the water, barely allowing our bodies to be fully immersed before we raced for the boat ladder. We scrambled out and wrapped our shivering bodies in towels. Nothing unusual for kids who grew up on this lake.

Shortly after, Big Sis got pneumonia. Of course she missed some school, but antibiotics had her back to normal soon enough. Then it was my turn. Pneumonia settled in just as school was ending for the year. I took the antibiotics too, but I didn't get better. Eventually Pop's recliner chair become my bed, because lying down caused so much coughing no one in the house could sleep.

One night, propped up there in the middle of the night coughing and trying to breathe, I became terrified I would die. I started to cry so loud Pop could hear me so he came out to check. When I explained that I was scared I would die, he did what any parent of a nine year old would. He assured me this wasn't going to kill me and told me to go back to sleep. Then he left to try to get some shut eye of his own, probably assuming I'd fall asleep too. I didn't, because I hadn't told him everything. It wasn't just that I was afraid I would die, what was really bothering me was I'd realized that if I did die, the world was going to go own without me. I was afraid to tell him because I was worried he would think I was selfish. Of course, it didn't occur to me until many years later that he'd probably already had this existential crisis himself at some point in his adult life and would've been able to help me process the terror it was instilling in my 9 year old mind.

A couple days later, after some desperation measures (including one incident with peppermint schnapps that Pop and I still laugh about), the situation came to a head when I woke up with a full body rash. Back to the doctor we went. I grew up in a small town so I knew the clinic well, mostly because I was prone to stupid stunts like shoving beads up my nose. Like many small clinics, you saw whichever doctor was available that day so I knew them both. This day I also saw them both. They took turns examining me and then met outside the room, clearly not aware that I could hear them. All I remember is, "I don't know what's wrong with her, do you?" This was not assuaging my fear of dying.

With neither doc able to diagnose the rash, we were sent to the hospital. Blood was drawn but it would take a couple of days to get results. In the meantime, it was decided that I should be put in quarantine. This rash of mine looked suspiciously like the measles. I'd been vaccinated for the measles so if I did, in fact, have the measles, it was possible that I could give it to other kids my age that had also had what was possibly and ineffective measles vaccine.

A room was readied for me in the children's ward. I was not allowed to leave. Only my parents and medical staff were allowed to enter. My grandma, who volunteered at the hospital, could only peer at me through the window in the hallway. Of course, so could all the other kids, who tried to entertain me through the glass. Toys from the hospital playroom were off limits so my mom brought books and games from home. She kept me entertained as best she could, but she also had my sister to take care of, and Big Sis wasn't allowed in the room. This meant some time alone there, quarantined with my 9 year old thoughts of dying.

Needless to say, although the family probably finally got some sleep while I was in there, I didn't get much better. On the third day, when the doctor came in to break the news to my mom that the lab had accidentally ruined the blood tests, I finally lost it. The possibility of more time in this room alone drove me to hysterics. Through my tears, I begged the doctor to just let me go home.

I have no idea what made him change his mind. Maybe he already had the sense this could be an allergic reaction to the antibiotics. Maybe he realized the only extra person who would be exposed to my "possible measles" at home would be my sister, who'd probably already been exposed and would've been vaccinated nearly 3 years before me. Maybe he realized that the mental trauma of more time alone might just be worse than whatever else was ailing me.

He let me leave. As preparations were made for me to go home, someone accidentally left the door open to my room. The teenage boys from across the hall, assuming I was better, carted a big stuffed animal from the play room in in their wheelchairs. Our laughter as they propped it up on my bed drew the attention of the nurse. She stormed in, snatched the stuffed animal from my bed, and snapped, "Now we will have to throw this away." The boys wheeled out as the hysterical crying started again.

Home and on a different antibiotic, I slowly got better. There were some long nights for my mom while she stayed up with me trying to cool my burning skin. Gradually though, the rash faded and the cough lessened. The doctors decided this must've all been an allergic reaction to the first antibiotic. I stopped worrying so much about dying.

I will never forget the first day I got to go to the beach. My uncle had purchased my grandparents "cottage" years prior and made it a permanent home for his family. It was on Lake Huron. My mom took my sister and I to visit for the day. I still couldn't swim. I had to wear my aunt's big floppy hat to protect me from the sun because of the antibiotics. None of that mattered. I sat there on that beach, in the warm sand, breathing in the Great Lakes air and I knew I would be okay.

I still joke that I have water from the Great Lakes running through my veins. It's still nearly impossible to keep me inside for an entire day. Warm sand will always soothe my soul. That day in the sunshine will
be a part of me forever because on that day, instead of worrying about taking a breath or being near my parents or dying, being outside with my family brought me hope and happiness.

We're in some trying times, I get that, but I won't lie. We were already in trying times. We were already spending less time outside and more time connected to a screen. We were already texting instead of calling, waving instead of hugging, judging each other online instead of trying to understand each other. If we aren't careful, it will be hard to get any of that back. We'll become comfortable with less human interaction, until we realize that without each other, we are all less human.

Before you get outraged over the suggestion of a hug, no I'm not telling you to go touch a stranger. What am I saying then? It's simple- hold on to hope, to happiness. Remember you have a choice. There are people in hospitals right now who would love to have as much freedom as you have under your self-imposed "quarantine." I get it, changing your routine sucks, but if you are in your own home, you at least have the luxury of making a routine of your own. Get your spring cleaning done. Cook some healthy food. Go outside. Quit using "social distancing" to avoid eye contact or speak kindly. You can do this from a whole heck of a lot of feet away. And, for goodness sake, quit judging others for finding a bit of happiness in the world.