Category Archives: Health and wellness

Amid COVID restrictions, and resistance, you have options

Lately I have been thinking about choice, not in the reproductive rights sense — but choice amid the constraints and restrictions of COVID. Choice at a time when so many options and activities seem to have been stripped away. Choice at a time of dangerous division.

“Across the country, anti-vaccine and anti-mask demonstrations are taking scary and violent turns,” reads an Associated Press article from August 22. Anger has become the predominant emotion about COVID, and politics determines how you react or respond.

This photo by John Lamparski accompanies an article in The Atlantic about the Delta variant and the FDA’s recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

I feel increasingly at odds with people who brush off this persistent virus as they would a bout with the flu. How many more deaths do we need as evidence? Why can’t my fellow Americans heed the science and then fall in line?

That assumes we’re all watching / hearing / reading / scrolling the same news sources, as we did when I was a kid. Walter Cronkite broke the news of a president’s assassination in 1963. WCCO-AM, the “Good Neighbor” station, was where the Twin Cities turned for weather reports and winter school closings.

Nowadays, “people will choose what’s best for them as they define it,” said a recent report about nudge theory on the BBC. But people also “are followers when faced with complex choices. They may need a nudge.”

Paint a white line on a subway platform and riders are more likely to stay away from the tracks, the BBC said. Use a cowboy for a “mask up” sign outside a restaurant in Wyoming, and patrons may be more apt to protect themselves, according to an NPR “Planet Money” report in July about the recently revised edition of Nudge, a behavioral science book that has gained wide appeal in business and government since its first publication in 2008.

How do you nudge me to wear a mask if I’m not a horse-riding cowboy? My employer, a private university, has made it easy. As of August 23, before all the students arrive on campus, everyone — of whatever political persuasion or vaccination status — will wear a mask indoors.

That’s not a nudge, it’s an order. My employer has removed all ambiguity, taken away any choice about how I protect myself and others in the face of a vital public health risk. And I am grateful for that.

Since the only power I have is over my own actions — to “control what I can control,” in the words of a former manager — I am locating where I have choice. Rather than feel victimized in the face of what I consider the absurdity and short-sightedness of refusing to get vaccinated and wear a mask, instead I am choosing to protect myself every way I can.

I am making choices that, at age 64, I deem safest for my own health and that of my 70-year-old husband — and our grown sons, one of whom recently endured a nasty case of breakthrough COVID four months after getting the Pfizer vaccine.

Consider these scenarios and how you might have confronted or ignored them:

  • A man on a city bus was wearing his mask along his chin line. He was Black. I am white. I didn’t want to come off as too . . . instructive or know-it-all or condescending or proprietary. After a moment of contemplation, health won out. I leaned forward and asked him — politely — please to cover his nose and mouth.
  • One of the four students who reports to me at work is a political conservative from an anti-vaxxer family. HIPPA laws forbid me from asking students to disclose health information. So, I wrote my four student workers earlier in August, described my own vaccination history and said this: You have the choice not to disclose your vaccination status. I have the choice to protect my health. If you choose not to disclose, or if you seek a university exemption for the vaccine, we will hold our meetings over Zoom.”
  • Two electricians entered my kitchen the other morning and introduced themselves. Neither had on a mask. I asked if they were vaccinated, as our general contractor for this remodeling project had promised all subcontractors would be. The electricians, two young white men, said they were not. Trying not to display my disdain too overtly (their job entails entering people’s homes!), I told them they would have to mask up inside our house. Then I strapped on a mask, too, in solidarity.
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

I saved the best for last. Because this example involved not confrontation or silent condemnation or self-righteous judgment, or any of those aggressive traits I have tried to moderate with age. This exchange centered on curiosity.

I met a sometime friend, a woman I had not seen since before COVID, for a cup of coffee and a walk this past Sunday. She got out of the car unmasked and seemed to hesitate about wearing one. Keeping my voice neutral, I asked if she was vaccinated. And then instead of recoiling or sneering when she said no, I simply asked a question.

So, Becky, how do you feel about vaccines? The specifics of her answer are less important than the conversation that ensued, the give-and-take, the attempt at, if not agreement, then mutual understanding.

I thought of my talk with Becky later that afternoon as I was listening to a podcast by New York Times reporter Ezra Klein.

He was interviewing journalist Anna Sale, whose book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, is drawn from her podcast “Death, Sex & Money.” (You know, the hardest things.) She talks with people about touchy topics by listening with intention, asking open-ended questions, demonstrating how curiosity can lead us away from the divisiveness that currently derails any attempt at discourse in our society.

“When you commit to having that [hard] conversation with a spirit of: ‘I want to learn more. Help me understand. Tell me what that was like for you. That’s interesting, I wouldn’t respond that way,’ then you come away seeing that other person in a deeper way,” said Sale, “and also feeling seen.”

I can change how I respond to people who see the COVID threat differently than I do. I can stay away from them. I can mask up and limit my exposure. I can try to learn more about their fears and their beliefs.

The day I pulled out of a three-hour shift at my employer’s booth inside the Education Building at the Minnesota State Fair, where no masks or proof of vaccination were being required, I told a friend, “I’m feeling like a COVID crab.”

Then I recognized a more empowering, self-affirming reality: No, I am exercising choice in the face of the most challenging public health crisis of my lifetime.

Gratitude: No action is too little, or too late

I wake up early every morning, before 6 a.m. This time of year, in Minnesota, the place where I was born and raised and choose to stay, that means doing battle with the reality that it is dark and cold outside, that I am trapped indoors until the surprisingly late sunrise because it may be dangerous to run or dog walk when I can’t see the ice.

Call it 90 minutes of forced reflection, made more poignant as the holidays wind down.

To wake up the day after the final Christmas celebration and know that the warm glow has extinguished, that the heartfelt expressions of love and affection with siblings and friends and the thoughtful texts from coworkers will not converge again for another year, to feel the deadweight of all the sugar that has come into the house from well-meaning neighbors’ homemade treats (“old people cookies,” my sons call them) and then to see only blackness outside and feel the sting of cold air — and to recognize that this is life now, for another three months — well, the only way out of that sinking morass is gratitude.

In order to face the cold and darkness, I must examine my life. Count my blessings, as I was taught as a girl. Practice gratitude, in today’s parlance. Surrender to the season and the stillness and the solitude.

Speak it, name it, write it down

Gratitude gives life a richness that has nothing to do with wealth. That has everything to do with relationships and paying attention to the world around you and finding purpose beyond yourself. I first learned about the practice of keeping a gratitude journal when I was treated at Hazelden in 2010 for a drinking problem, that most obsessive and self-centered of addictions.

It was on a Zoom call this past Thanksgiving with other women in recovery that I became reacquainted with the power and simple pleasure of hearing people speak aloud what is good about their lives:

  • “I am grateful to have the quiet life I have.”
  • “I am grateful for my dog and cat.”
  • “I’m grateful that I’m no longer reliant on other people’s opinions of me to validate my self-worth.”
  • “I am grateful that I have hope now, even though it comes and goes.”
  • And mine, eight months into COVID lockdown: “I am grateful for the mistakes and the growth and the uncertainty.”

November was National Gratitude Month. That dovetails nicely with Thanksgiving, just as Dry January naturally follows from New Year’s Eve (complete with a #soberissexy hashtag on Instagram). But gratitude, like yoga, sobriety and other disciplines, is a practice, not a once-a-year social media or Hallmark card event. To offer thanks or count your blessings only on Thanksgiving would be the equivalent of declaring love to your special someone only on Valentine’s Day. It becomes an external obligation, rather than a habit that you integrate into your daily life.

Unsure how to seek gratitude when you are struggling with one of the most difficult years in modern history or when, like me, you are waking up to your unearned privilege? Start with the internet. There, you can:

Here’s a real-world example: After my boss died unexpectedly in July 2018, at an age younger than I am today, I endured months of uncertainty at work. The champion for my unconventional job was gone. My future in the organization felt precarious. I was afraid, and my instincts told me to bolt.

Instead, I made the wiser, more difficult choice of staying until the situation sorted out, which it did eventually. Meanwhile, I forged those roiling waters by building a bridge of gratitude.

Every morning as I walked to work, I counted off on the digits of one hand five things about the job for which I was grateful. From the large (I have purpose and opportunities to learn) and the lucky (I like the people I work with) to the seemingly insignificant (I no longer have to commute by car), I reminded myself daily why the job was worth fighting for.

After proposing an enhanced role some months after my boss’s death, I got a new manager, a better title and a generous raise. A more conventionally religious person might give the credit over to God. I say it was the habitual practice of gratitude that reshaped my attitude, helping me gain perspective and a patience I often lack.

“Gratitude is a magnet,” says spiritual director JoAnn Campbell-Rice on the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation website. “By focusing on what I do have rather than on what I don’t have, gratitude draws the best of any given moment, person or situation.”

‘Gratitude turns what we have into enough’

What is good about my life today, in this moment, right now? That question is at the essence of a gratitude practice.

After nine months of knitting and Netflix, “Zooming” as a verb, too much home cooking and too little sleep, I am keenly aware of what my daily life lacks. The usual wintertime distractions of going to a museum or the movies, reading at a coffeehouse, lunching with friends, hosting neighbors for brunch — those outlets are closed amid COVID’s still rising deaths and case counts.

Still, I remain grateful. I am grateful for a home that allows me to shelter comfortably. I am grateful that no one in my family has caught Coronavirus. I am grateful for the strength and agility to get outside, to walk and run, even to shovel my own sidewalks. I am grateful, at 63, to have a job.

“Gratitude, just as philosophers and psychologists predict, points us toward moral behaviors, reciprocity, and pay-it-forward motivations.”

Christina Karns, Greater Good magazine

But gratitude — at a time of high unemployment, record numbers of homeless encampments in my city and more COVID-related deaths than any of us thought possible back in March — feels like the embodiment of white, middle-class privilege. What did I do to deserve any of this?

A friend and Unitarian minister recently flipped the question back at me: What’s the alternative to gratitude, some unspoken belief that you deserve your good fortune? “Gratitude is related to humility,” she explained. It’s less an exercise in entitlement than an awakening to the imbalance of opportunities — the systemic inequalities — in a country that feeds on excess. For a few.

Gratitude leads to action. It moves me toward simplicity, inspiring me to recognize when my own needs have been met, to stop when satisfaction morphs into greed, to know when enough is enough. And then to step outside myself, and be of service. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself,” said C.S. Lewis. “It’s thinking of yourself less.”

And that practice, if sustained and multiplied by millions, could literally change the world.

End note: The “End in Mind” Project featured this blog post on February 4, 2021.

Why 'older' can be a strength during the Coronavirus crisis

The first inkling that society sees me as vulnerable during the Coronavirus pandemic — as older or weaker, as potentially infirm — came with a reminder from Union Park District Council that any board or committee member over age 60 could skip in-person meetings without penalty. (For the record, all meetings now are digital, and yes, my younger colleagues taught me Zoom.)

The next hint was the notice from grocery stores such as Lunds & Byerlys and Whole Foods that I am eligible to shop with others past 60 during the first hour of business, after the stores have been freshly cleaned and before hard-to-stock items have run out.

Because I recently — and sanctimoniously — urged one of my sisters to start writing a daily gratitude list as an antidote to anxiety about the falling stock market and the drip-drip erosion of freedoms in our daily lives, I have reflected on how being 62 helps me weather the uncertainty of a COVID-19 world, where every day the headlines scream a new disaster.COVID-19_blog

We Baby Boomers were trained to use the telephone.

Talking on the telephone is a learned skill, one that my generation was taught to value (unlike the Millennial who told me he would consider it an “intrusion” if someone called him to check in). It’s convenient, of course, that my iPhone allows me to check two email accounts, post to social media, pay my bills, watch silly videos and listen to podcasts. But it is my phone’s use as just that — a phone — that is tethering me to friends and family as I shelter in place.

This past Saturday, I had an impromptu call with my sister in Denver, who lives alone since her husband died a year ago. My friend Sara and I turned a coffee-shop date into an hour-long telephone call. My childhood friend Janey and I each will fix breakfast this week and then “eat together” while we talk on the phone. Not ideal or what we originally planned, but good enough.

I’m OK with time at home; in fact, I crave it.

Even before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a “peacetime emergency” and limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people, I was spending the majority of my nonworking evenings at home during the frigid months of January and February: reading, trying new recipes, watching Netflix, following the Democratic debates. My see-and-be-seen partying days (and nights) are long behind me, so staying home more — though a drag during my current staycation, when I wanted to see films and art exhibits, take day trips and explore the city — is not that big a sacrifice or change.

I am practiced at daily exercise.

My yoga studio has shuttered. The athletics and recreation facility at the university where I work is locked up tight. That leaves yoga on my living room floor, with my younger dog, Gabby, licking my face during Savasana, or lifting weights in my basement while half-listening to the bleak news on CNN. Morning dog walks and 2-mile jogs keep me moving around outdoors.

Contrary to stereotypes about people my age, I never have to convince myself to move. Decades of experience have shown me that exercise always strengthens and sustains me. Lately, it also helps keep fear at bay.

Home officing may moderate my Boomer workaholism.

However productive I may be at home, I am simply not going to work as many hours now that nighttime meetings are via Zoom, hallway conversations with colleagues have been eliminated and the events I was to be co-leading for our students this spring — including Day at the Capitol and “Get Counted” Census 2020 workshops — have been cancelled.

A generational differences chart from 2008, though dated, shows how working less may enlarge my life. Described as “competitive” and “ambitious,” Boomers have “traditionally found their worth in their work ethic.” That is me, the mother who willingly ceded at-home parenting to her husband, the “tireless” employee whom one manager called her “gold standard,” the breadwinner who took her responsibilities so seriously that work always came first.

These days I am connecting more with friends, urging my sons to stop by for homecooked food, reviving my sagging spiritual life and learning that a less calendared existence yields a calmer, less chaotic perspective. Motion does not equal meaning. Community and collaboration more than personal achievement will get me — get us, together — through this crisis.