Covid Coping

Just you and me, baby.

As the Covid-19 reins tighten on social distancing, not only is our calendar devoid of events, but our circle of personal contacts has squeezed down to two.  Rich and I better be nice to one another.  We’re all we’ve got.Molly and Rich selfie

I have no illusions that this will last a couple of weeks or so.  I’ve read enough to know it’s going to take months for us to flatten out the curve of infection.  I’m mentally preparing for the long haul.

We’ve already been practicing the sheltering concept for over a week, so I have a taste of this new normal.  This uber-togetherness thing.  And I realize we have an advantage.  It’s called retirement.

I think back on those early days when we first left our jobs.  When we no longer spent all day at work and inflicted our personalities on our coworkers.  Suddenly we were at home full-time, playing in the same sandbox.  We had to learn to jockey around one another.  How to balance time doing things together and time doing our own thing.  I couldn’t help but feel like Rich was looking over my shoulder at times, judging how I spent my time.  It reminded me of when my dad retired.  Mom said the house was never so clean – she was afraid to sit down and look idle.  I admit to my own sideways glances when Rich lounged on the couch.  If nothing else, we learned to hold our tongues.  To loosen up.

Eventually we worked our way into a routine.  We figured out how to co-exist in the same space, all day long, day in, day out.  Thankfully, we also developed our own distinct retirement hobbies – photography and writing.  Pursuits that keep us out of one another’s hair.  Now that we’re confined to the house, I feel grateful that we have that figured out.  But there’s still a hitch.

Our pattern is to exit the house by day, and reunite over dinner.  Rich roams the woods in search of birds to photograph, and I park myself at Amity Coffee pecking away at my keyboard, inching my book along.  While Rich’s outdoor wanderings are currently still a viable option, my daily perch and latte are now off-limits.  The solitude I seek among the cacophony of the busy espresso bar is no more.

Enter the home coffee shop.  With a card table installed in the Bunk Room, I can make my own coffee, pick up my laptop and “go to the coffee shop.”  I close the door and I’m off-site, in my own world, sequestered until I choose to re-emerge.  I think of it as working remotely in reverse.  And it works.

Molly home coffee shop

The final piece in our retirement puzzle is a commitment to getting outside for fresh air and exercise – each at our own time and pace, of course.  Rich calls me “obsessed.”  I don’t argue the fact.  But we’re both out there doing it.  Staying healthy and in shape.

We’re grateful that the powers that be recognize the importance of this.  We’re still out there running, biking and walking in the woods to lose the threat that looms over us, if only temporarily.  It’s enough to keep us sane.  It’s how we will cope in the weeks and months to come.  Just the two of us.

The Race that Wasn’t

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we jumped at the chance to buy grandstand seats to watch the Cross-Country Ski World Cup Sprint Final races.  All winter long we looked forward to seeing these world class skiers on Minnesota snow.  It was a coup for Minneapolis and the Loppet Foundation, and a treat for those of us occupying the grandstand.

The mild winter and advancing spring posed threats to the snow and trail conditions.  Communications from the Loppet Foundation assured us they were prepared for the warmest spring ever.  Just in case.  They had surplus “whales” of snow – stockpiles that looked like their namesake.  Five PistenBully groomers stood by to move snow onto the trail.  And plan C?  Scrape up all remaining snow on the unneeded trails and move them to the race course.  They were ready.

But it wasn’t enough.  Nothing could compete with the advancing threat of the coronavirus.  First Norway pulled its skiers, a brutal blow.  Then the rapid advancement of travel restrictions and social distancing.  What spring couldn’t kill, disease could.  Among all the cancellation announcements, that was the one that hurt the most.  Not because of what I would miss, but because of the lost opportunity for Minnesota to host the first competition in two decades for the world’s finest skiers on American snow.

World Cup cowbells

In lieu of our trip to the Cities for the race, we went down for the weekend to visit family.  By Sunday, son Erik and his wife Katie – fellow disappointed ticket holders – and I decided to check out the wanna-be race course.  The mild and sunny temperature had lured numerous skiers to the venue, and despite all a sense of festivity lingered.

Erik Katie Finley at World Cup venue

Walking through the starting gate area, I couldn’t help but feel the excitement it generated. Skiers posed and shot out of the gates in private competitions.  They skated up and over the bridge past the chalet, and I wished for my own skis to join them in the warm sunshine.  We took our turns posing on the podium platform.  If we couldn’t be there to see world class skiers, we could pretend to be rubbing shoulders with them.

World Cup starting gates World Cup ski trail bridge Molly Erik Katie World Cup Podium

Gazing at the empty grandstands, I tried to imagine the event as it was meant to be.  Sandwiched into the bleacher seats, peering into the distance, watching for each skier who rounded the curve to cross the finish line.  I could feel the excitement.  Hear the roar of the crowds. Feel the home town pride of a place that could host this elite event.  Almost.

World Cup Grandstand

It felt selfish to wish for what couldn’t be.  To allow myself to feel the sense of loss.  To think about what might have been.

Instead, I soaked up the sun.  Took in the magnificence of the preparations.  Envied the skiers of all ages and abilities gliding across the warming snow.  And relished being among family.

Erik and Katie at World Cup

In a world full of uncertainty, fraught with fears, and the impossible task of navigating between hysteria and safe decisions, it felt good to just enjoy the outdoors.  Walk in the sunshine.  Smile at strangers.  Throw the ball for the dog.  Enjoy life as it is.  Even if for the moment.

Music that Moves

It was pure happenstance that I was there.  But there was no mistake about the impact that the evening had on me.

As an usher at the Norshor Theater, I was trolling the open spots when I noticed a desperate last minute plea for ushers needed for a choral program.  The date was open on my calendar, so I signed up.  It was only then that I did a little research on just what it was I was going to hear.

My first clue was discovering that the Twin Ports Choral Project, the performing choir, is entirely made up of highly trained professional musicians.  Every one of the 30 or so singers has lengthy vocal credentials.  I knew I was in for a fine choral performance.

Then I looked into the piece being performed, “Considering Matthew Shepard.”  In my ignorance, I did not know the story of Matthew Shepard, the young gay college student who was lured into the Wyoming countryside in 1998 by two men posing as gays, brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die.  For eighteen endless hours he remained there, alive but just barely.  He was discovered by a passing cyclist and died five days later, surrounded by his family.

A woman from Matthew’s town could not let go of the tragedy, and memorialized it in poetry.  That was later put to music, creating the oratorio that would be performed at the Norshor.  Despite now knowing the background, I was totally unprepared for the power of that evening’s performance.

Considering Matthew ShepardChoir members were simply dressed in black, there was only a wooden fence on the stage for a prop.  Three dancers in loose white clothing moved rhythmically to a few of the numbers.  A plaid flannel shirt represented Matthew, later held by the woman who sang his mother’s part.  There was no need for elaborate costumes or props.  The music and the words stood on their own.

The musicians’ perfection carried the music, at times dissonant and atonal, at others slow and hushed.  I followed the libretto printed in the program, the story unfolding.  Included were words from Matthew’s own journal.  His father’s statement at his funeral.

We were told that there would be no intermission, no applause during the concert.  We were not told that we’d be holding our breath.  That silence would reign among our seats.  That we’d be touched to the core by the raw emotion, our hearts profoundly moved.

I heartily wished I’d been there with a friend.  I wanted to relive the experience with someone else, talk about it, share the feelings it evoked.  I tried hard to convey its impact, but without being in that audience no one could truly relate to it.

That evening stayed with me.  Showed me that I need to step into uncomfortable territory.  That music is important to me.  So when another opportunity arose soon afterwards, I grasped it.

This time it was the lead-off event for the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial – commemorating 100 years since three black circus performers were lynched in Duluth.  Strangers in town, wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie were jailed.  An angry mob 10,000 strong stormed the jail, beat and tortured the men and hung them from a lampost.  In 2003, a memorial was erected on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue E, to keep the story alive.

Duluth Lynching memorial postcardAnother musical performance ensued.  It started with “Song of a New Race,” a lyrical orchestral piece that conjured up hope for the future.  That was followed by an oratorio called “…And They Lunched Him on a Tree.”  It chronicles a different lynching, but conveys the same sense of horror, of a mother’s grief, of the ordinariness of the victim, and the injustice. It finishes with a haunting truth, “And clear the shadow, the long dark shadow, That falls across your land.”

The final piece by Jean Perrault was commissioned for this event, performed by a trio of piano, cello and violin.  I heard him speak about “We Three Kings” on the radio beforehand.  He described the depths he had to reach to be able to compose the piece.  To sink into the same darkness that spawned those evil deeds.  It is not music to be enjoyed, he explained.  The music is meant to elicit emotion, to bring listeners to the place of death and back out again.  By the time the strings had stilled, I knew what he meant.

Music has power over me.  Moves me.  Changes me.  I’m so glad I was there to hear it.

Laughter, the best medicine

I’ve been here before.  I know how silly this is going to make me feel, and it’s already outside my comfort zone.  So what is this TV camera doing here?

My sister, Susie, is a certified Laughter Yoga instructor.  Sure, I attend yoga sessions fairly regularly, but what’s this about laughing?  And how could it possibly have anything to do with yoga?  When she invited me to one of her classes last year, I just had to go.  To find out what it’s all about.

Standing in a circle of adults in the basement of her church, I prepared myself to feel foolish.  Susie and her co-teacher, Jessica, had already prepared us for that.  “The body doesn’t know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter,” they said.  “It has the same beneficial effects on the body.”  Apparently I was going to fake it through this class.

To start, they laid down the guidelines.  Among them, no talking.  (Except for the instructors, of course.)  So in order to introduce ourselves to our fellow participants, we were to turn to each one, stretch out a hand, shake theirs and, well, laugh.  Okay, this seemed pretty weird.  But there was no point in being there if I wasn’t going to buy into it, so I did as I was told.  And laughed.  Then laughed again.  As long as everyone was doing it, it really wasn’t so bad.  It almost began to feel real.

The class progressed, full of good sports willing to play along, follow instructions, and laugh.  We worked our way through warm-ups, laughing, breathing, laughing, chants, laughing, singing, laughing, cheers and laughing.  And it felt good.

So when she invited me back again, I took the bait.  Only I wasn’t counting on that TV camera.  I begin to get the picture when he interviews Susie and Jessica before class starts.  I can hear them touting the health benefits of laughing.  The mental boost it provides.  The origin of Laughter Yoga in India in the 1990s, and its founder Dr. Madan Kataria.

Once we gather in our circle, I try to screen out that cameraman.  I do my best to ignore him moving around behind us, capturing our silliness from all angles.  Blot out thoughts of who might see this on tonight’s evening news.

“Children laugh an average of 400 times a day,” Jessica tells us.  “For adults, it’s 4-7 times daily.”  I believe it.  I know my day often lacks levity.  The wrinkles around my mouth turn down, not up.  I think I need this laughter injection.  Soon I’m shaking hands with my fellow students once again, and laughing.

As we work our way through the progression this time, I finally get the yoga bit.  It’s all in the breathing, the foundation of yoga.  It’s not about poses, it’s about filling our lungs with good air, expelling the old.  Feeding the body with oxygen.  Finding positive energy.

As before, I draw my cues from my fellow participants.  We’re all in this together.  If they’re willing to do this, so am I.  Studiously ignoring that camera, I focus on them instead.  Look into their eyes and find joy in their laughter.  As their laughs escalate, so do mine.  We feed off one another.

Our final exercise brings us onto the floor.  Atop a colorful Indian-looking tapestry with concentric circles, we form our own circle.  Heads in the middle, legs spreading out like spokes, we rest on our backs.  Then laugh.  Tentatively at first, then gaining momentum.  I hear others laughing, and they spur me on.  I hear Susie across the circle from me, her infectious laugh triggering mine.  Memories of her childhood laughter, our innocent youth, her happy giggles.  Me, the serious one, she the jokester.  I let go and a belly laugh ripples through my body.  Later I overhear Susie telling someone, “I was laughing, and then I could hear Molly, my sister, laughing across from me!”

This goes on for many long minutes.  Just as I think I’ve laughed my last, someone else starts up again and the cycle repeats.  By this time it all feels like the real thing.  I’m literally quite worn out by the time Jessica moves us on to the final relaxation phase.

I don’t know these people who have shared this Laughter Yoga hour with me, but we all embrace before parting. And yes, laugh.  At ourselves, at our newfound positive outlook, at life in general.

And sure enough, we’re all on the Fox21 evening news.  I’m proud of Susie, as I watch her speak eloquently in front of the camera, and lead our troupe through the paces.  I cringe only a little when I see myself.  But more importantly, I just may have reached my childhood 400 laughs that afternoon.  And indeed, it was good medicine.

Ski Medicine

It might not have been what the doctor ordered, but it was the best medicine I could take.  I was still coughing and dragging from a bout with the flu when Erik called.  “Would it be all right if I came up tomorrow night to ski the North Shore on Monday?  You’d be welcome to join me.”  Of course it was more than all right!

I tossed and turned all night long.  Was I crazy to spend a whole day skiing when I could barely get off the couch just days before?  I’ve never been one to hold back, nor necessarily listen to reason, so in the dark wee hours of the morning I rose and piled on layers of ski clothes.

As we drove the shoreline the sun rose in a cloudless sky, lifting over Lake Superior and bisecting the radiant band of orange hovering over the cold blue water.  By the time we reached the Sugarbush Trailhead above Tofte, it hung low in the sky sending long sinewy shadows across the trail but doing little to raise the zero degree temperature.  Pristine corduroy lay before my skate skis, crisp deep tracks for Erik’s classic version.  We entered the deep silence of the trail.Molly Sugarbush trails Erik Sugarbush trails

Erik had some serious skiing to do.  His goal was to complete the Picnic Loop and any other bits of trail he could find to ski 40 kilometers.  As a serious contender in the upcoming Birkie Classic race, he relished this extensive training opportunity.  So I waved him off, content to plod along at my own pace.

The cold snow squealed under my skis, glide eluding my fresh wax job, but the extra effort warmed my stiff chilled body.  I didn’t meet another sole for at least an hour and a half, skimming the snow, lost in thought.  Imperceptibly the sun gained strength, my fingers and toes rejoiced, and my skis slipped ever so slightly farther.  Weaving through the woods, uphill and down I lost track of time and distance.  Forgot my recent malady.

Through sheer luck, we finished at nearly the same time.  Flush with excitement over the fantastic conditions, Erik confirmed his 41k distance – to my 20k in the same amount of time!  Over lunch at the Coho Café we traded superlatives about our morning – the deep glistening snow in the woods, the distant lake views, the challenging but fun hills, the joy of skiing.

Erik Molly Coho Cafe

The Northwoods Ski Trail in Silver Bay gave us a leisurely afternoon ski.  Narrow single classic tracks wound through the woods, with snow laden pines slipping past our shoulders and towering overhead.  We skied together over the soft snow, sharing the views and even spotting a marten that scampered up a tree to peer down at us.  A steep uphill got our hearts pumping, and rewarded us with a long smooth downhill.  This wasn’t a workout, it was an experience.

Northwoods Ski Trails Erik Molly Northwoods Trails Molly Northwoods Trails

A full day, sharing a mutual love of skiing, chatting in the car, just being together.  One-on-one time with one of my adult children is a precious gift.  This one also delivered a hearty dose of healing.  Goodbye flu, I think I skied it out of my system.  And Erik?  He opted for another 15k on the Lester Trails when we returned, topping off his mileage above 60k.  We both got the medicine we needed.

Life Rearranged

I’m off kilter. I’ve been thrown off balance. My norm is rapidly unwinding, and I don’t understand the new norm much less the future.

My strong, independent husband, Rich, has suddenly been robbed of his outdoor vision, and his world is dissolving with it.  He who lives for birding, photography and just tramping through the wilderness can no longer do any of this.  Driving is out of the question.  “I feel like a prisoner in my own house.”  The couch is his “happy place.”  There he can see, and feels safe.

Rich’s bird photography often takes him deep into the woods

I try to think back on the progression of this condition. It is astounding to realize that it manifested itself well over a year ago, in rapid blinking, more than normal. I didn’t see it. Rich didn’t feel it. But others noticed, and now comment on it.

Rich managed to cope with his degrading eyesight long enough for it to grow dire. Without knowing what it was or feeling (or perhaps acknowledging to himself) the progression of this condition, it continued, steadily curtailing his sight. His coping masked the advancement. Hid the impending decline. The suddenness came when nature tipped the balance. He could no longer compensate. He could no longer deny it.

Even so, it is hard to conceive of the gap in his capabilities between bicycle touring in Norway in August – which he managed, if with great difficulty – and today. The difference between being able to gut it out, and being paralyzed with fear. Shut down by sheer anxiety. Not being able to see at all.

The lightning speed of this life change is bewildering. If I am feeling ungrounded, what must Rich be experiencing? I can name many words. Depression. Frustration. Stress. Fear. Dread. Anxiety. A deep sense of loss. It is only slowly that I realize the depth of these feelings, and just how debilitating they are.

It’s just before Christmas and we walk down the block with Carl and Chelsea and their two children. A bagel walk, normally a fun outing. Rich walks ahead but seems to be faltering. I move up and grab his hand. His strong grip expresses his fear. He chokes back tears, confesses he is fighting off a panic attack. My fiercely self-reliant husband has been reduced to a dependent, sightless invalid I no longer recognize. Even though he did almost this same walk solo yesterday, today I wonder if he will make it. “It’s so much harder with people,” he says. “It shows me that I can’t interact with everyone. I have to concentrate 100% on staying on the sidewalk.” He manages the walk there and back. Says that holding my hand helped. That it enabled him to stave off the panic. On the way home, I can tell he’s reaching his limit. A simple walk does him in.

We navigate the medical world, seeking answers.  Dry eye repeatedly comes up, but doesn’t explain enough.  Finally, a specialist in the Cities nails the diagnosis: Blepharospasm.  In short, there is a neurological miscommunication between Rich’s eyelids and his brain, causing impulses that tell his eyelids to slam shut.  He cannot will them open.  It is triggered by dry eye, light sensitivity, stress, cold and other factors rampant in our Duluth winter – hence his problems outdoors.  His corrected vision is perfect.  It’s just that he can’t open his eyes.  He’s not blind, but he can’t see.  Having answers is great relief, but due to the holidays and insurance requirements, treatment is weeks away.  The wait is excruciating.

I can’t help but feel survivor’s remorse – guilt as I trot out of the house to go skiing, a passion of his.  Guilt over being able to enjoy the Christmas lights he can’t see.  Extreme guilt over wanting to be able to control my own life, which is inextricably woven into his.

There are so many ways to trip up.  I can’t find something that is in plain sight, and thoughtlessly utter, “I must be blind.”  Complaints about the car only remind him that he can’t drive.  Even mentioning the weather is a trap.  He’s stuck indoors.

Our lives are both transformed.  Our collective future is unknown.  Plans become moot, what was once routine is fuzzy.  But we’ve also grown closer.  We are far more in tune with one another, more thoughtful, more appreciative.  Yesterday’s arguments and irritations melt into frivolous trifles.  We’ve had to throw aside selfish wants for life’s realities.  Compromise becomes easier, as does putting the other person first.  We touch more often, reach out for one another readily, hungry for connection.  A burning need to feel the love.

At long last, Rich has his first treatment – Botox injections along his eyebrows to deaden the nerves and stop the spasms.  It is typically effective in over 90% of such cases.  We are told it will be seven days before it takes effect.  So the waiting resumes, but this time with hope.  That makes a huge difference.  This could rearrange our lives yet again.

Snowbound

We’re still waiting.  Two days ago at this time snow was falling in earnest.  Actually, it didn’t really fall, the wind swirled it in mad circles.  Whisking horizontally past the windows.  Sticking to the sides of the house.  Clinging to the trees.  It’s been a long time since the weather service used the word Blizzard.  This time it was accurate.  Snug inside, I enjoyed watching it rage.

Storming through the night, it finally tapered into delicate flakes as morning dawned.  Rich layered up and began the process of digging out.  Grabbing the yardstick from my sewing supplies, he took it down to the driveway.  Lest he be accused of exaggeration he had proof – 19″.  The accumulation took the life of his snowblower and required rigorous sessions of shovel, rest, repeat.  All day long.

Blizzard our houseThe news was filled with cancellations, including church services.  But no matter, we could travel no farther than the end of our cleared driveway.  Living on a remote road, we’re used to being last on the priority list for plowing.  So I donned my heavy boots and a backpack for a trip to the grocery store, grateful that it was so close.  Preparations for hunkering down.

Having covered the basics, I could hold back no longer.  This kind of snow just shouted Snowshoes!  And I answered the call.  That unplowed road was all that lay between me and forest land, crisscrossed by multi-use trails.  Not a sole trod before me, leaving deep pristine snow to explore.  Trees hung low, burdened with heavy blankets of snow, blocking my path.  Too pretty to disturb, I tried to skirt around them carefully.  The slightest bump released a mini-blizzard and sent branches flinging upwards.Blizzard snowshoeing 1Blizzard snowshoeing 2Silence reigned.  Only the plop of my snowshoes and the swish of trying to extricate them from the snowy abyss penetrated the quiet.  The sun began its gradual reappearance, signaling the real end of the storm.  Solitude worked its magic.Blizzard snowshoeing 3Day two dawned clear and cold.  The sunlight was as welcome as a rainbow after a thunderstorm.  Glistening snow.  Endless blue sky.  Warming rays of the sun.  Still the road remained clogged with snow.  There was only one sensible response.  Ski it!Blizzard XC skiing 1

Blizzard XC skiing 27 Bridges Road was rife with snowmobile tracks, boot prints and the occasional ski track.  It made for a firm if bumpy surface which beckoned me upwards, crossing bridge after bridge.  But the real payoff was at the top.  Branching off onto Hawk Ridge the walkers disappeared.  Snowmobiles had pummeled the surface into a reliable ski surface.  Lake Superior spread out to the horizon, the city of Duluth lay in grids below.  The snowbound confines of the house dropped away as civilization lay at my feet.Blizzard XC skiing 3Returning downhill, I wondered if the snowplow had come.  If I would have to find a new way home.  I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to be able to ski all the way to the driveway.  Still snowbound.  Still waiting.  Time to plan tomorrow’s snowy adventure.Blizzard XC skiing 4