It’s a tradition, on my friend’s birthday, to sit around her kitchen table, eat appetizers, and talk. Well, eat appetizers, talk, and get a little drunk, if possible. It helps that her birthday comes in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a time ripe with post-holiday stories, complaints, and venting. It also helps the seats around that table are filled primarily with women.
There’s something terribly potent about a table full of women. It’s the high-proof hooch of the discussion world.
One of the great casualties of the pandemic is that this kind of gathering just isn’t happening as often, at least not in person. That is to society’s detriment – and certainly to my own. I mean, how the hell are we supposed to figure out what to do with our lives if it is not discussed over twelve cups of coffee and Creamy Dreamy grits with a platonic female soul mate? These days, I am resigned to half hour phone calls or maybe an occasional stolen moment in a driveway. It’s like freeze-dried ice cream: same ingredients, but not nearly as satisfying.
How are we expected to process hurts (perceived and actual) without the support of a trusted and beloved inner circle after a slow-paced dinner? I’ve tried to do it by Zoom, in a humid or freezing backyard, through masks on a playground bench, and even, one time, at a pandemic-safe Indigo Girls concert, but it is a pale version of what I’d like to have. Hugs and bites off each other’s plates and sips of one another’s cocktails are part of the alchemy. The closest I’ve come is getting weepy over a can of sparkling water in an appropriately social-distanced living room hang. My chair and the company were great, but honey, it just ain’t the same.
These exchanges, these communities, these face-to-face conversations between women are not some cutesy romcom thing. They are essential. Not only to me, but to the fabric of humanity. Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If you don’t think she means a group of women talking and sharing a cheese plate, then you aren’t paying attention.
Maybe it is this, as much as anything else, that is adding to mental health crisis and general malaise that is the pandemic. The universe and the natural order of things knows many human females need to hang out and talk. Preferably at a table. Preferably with appetizers, and while maybe getting a little drunk. It is how deals get done, communities get formed, and the village survives the long winter. It is certainly how we change the world.
So, my hope for 2021, more than anything else, is the return of a communal table of women. Preferably comfortable, well-fed women with time to talk. Society needs it. And I sure as hell do, too.
One of my delights in the world right now is the amazing, obsessive food group I belong to on social media. It is filled with recipes, recommendations, and rants about everything from coffeemakers to taco fillings to rice cookers. When my husband threw away nearly an entire lemon cake I had made, mistakenly thinking it was old because it was in the back of the refrigerator, this was the place where I posted to garner the exact kind of sympathy I needed. (Note: the members of this group were so enraged at this cake murder, they were practically gathering pitchforks.)
I shared the following post in the group late last night, because I thought it would particularly resonate with foodies. However, I am wondering if it would resonate with you, too. Here’s what I said:
“Occasionally, if I get a little despondent and restless, and I have doubtful moments about the energy it takes to move through life in the pandemic (or otherwise), I am motivated by the fact that there’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t eaten yet ... or that I want to eat again.
Like, I can’t muster the energy to do another Monday, but damn, I would absolutely get in the car right now and drive to the coast because I can still eat fried shrimp at the beach. Or man, I was just going to lie on this couch and stare, but there’s the killer almond cookie recipe I haven’t tried, so I am going to get some almond flour and get baking.
Sure life is weird, but there’s still mu shu pork and fresh baked banana bread with butter on it and s’mores and Thanksgiving turkey with the crispy skin and cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning and chocolate fondue and barbeque ribs from that rib place and good chicken noodle soup and a chicken teriyaki bento box and birthday cake and fried garlic sushi rolls and a medium New York Strip with a wedge salad and a baked potato. Am I the only one the feels that way? That — if I may badly paraphrase — the way through this proverbial heart of darkness is through our stomach? It comforts me somehow that even in the face of the mighty trials of the pandemic, there is sushi.”
Sub in your own thing for sushi if sushi ain’t your jam, but you see where I am going here. Someday, even when everything is tangibly the worst, you have a thing … and variations on a thing … that might keep you going. The dog. The plant. Mountain biking. Pad Thai. Whatever. Don’t forget the thing. It’s there for you. Even now. Even in the weirdness. It’s there.
And it might even have chocolate frosting.
I was talking to a friend of mine who called me after spending yet another morning sitting by her daughter’s side during virtual online learning for school. “Zoom went down,” she explained. Not just at her kid’s school – in AMERICA. The whole freaking program crashed, presumably because there were millions of households logging on multiple kids (and, in many households, one or two adults as well) to video conferences supported by slide shows supported by digital document exchange platforms. Because that’s what we’re all doing these days.
The teachers did their best to cope, of course, as did the kids, as did my friend, who put down work on her masters degree so she could figure out how to enable editing on a document so her kid could do math. We’re all doing our best here. It’s nobody’s fault that we are just cobbling it together. But everything still kind of feels like it is failing. Like it’s unsustainable. Like we’ve really stopped smiling, and now we are just clenching our teeth.
Many of the wonderful women I know and love with school-aged children have expressed a similar sentiment. Sure, we will do our best to make it work. We and our partners (if we have them) will work excruciatingly hard at home or at paying jobs (or both) and multitask to the best of our abilities (this goes double for the teachers, essential workers, people in health care, etc., who have children themselves), so that we can find ways to help a nation full of kids during the school day, because … well, what the hell else are we supposed to do? We HAVE to do it. We have no choice. We know this is bad, but we will just do our best until something cracks, until it actually becomes unsustainable. We’re gonna break, we just haven’t broken yet. So, I guess we should just keep going? *looks around* Is that what you’re doing, too?
It occurred to me that this teeth-gritting moment isn’t just the normal part of coping with this pandemic. It is something above and beyond what this nice article describes as “surge overload.” I realized that it is not the feeling of failure that’s messing with our heads: it is the cold hard recognition of the actual inability to succeed. At least in the before times, we had some limited illusion of control over what might fail. Now, it feels impossible to get it right, or even to balance the fricking plate, because we all have no idea what will be slapped on next with this era’s goo-laden cafeteria ice cream scoop.
I know I am living a charmed life, even during the end of the world. I have a job, a house, plenty of food, a safe place to be, and a strong internet connection. I am even equipped with Gen X/Oregon Trail, Jan Brady-style coping mechanisms (which I have written about before here) that usually get me through just about anything hopeless. However, I still know failure is pending. The cavalry ain’t coming. Mars is in retrograde, and I know it will assuredly get worse. So, what’s the answer? What’s the cure? How can we survive this? What do we do?
Here’s my answer so far, and I have to remind myself of it often: It ain’t normal out there. So stop acting like it is. It’s still the earthquake, so stop fretting over where the outlets go in the house plans for when it’s time to rebuild. Quit thinking about how good that stolen idol is going to look in the museum, Indiana Jones. Put your strength into the fingers that are hanging on to the cliff. And for god’s sake, if your kid doesn’t learn about Mesopotamia or their multiplication tables or whatever, WHO CARES. We missed a Zoom meeting … during the APOCALYPSE. ALONG WITH LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE IN AMERICA.
IT. IS. NOT. NORMAL. OUT. THERE.
You aren’t crazy. The world is.
So just stop for a sec. Rest.
This attitude gives me permission to sit down for a minute and see the Matrix for what it is – an artificial construct. I now understand that I can prioritize my energy, because I know I cannot possibly succeed. My real job isn’t to teach my kid math. It’s to successfully tolerate failure.
Is this attitude healthy? Sustainable? Reasonable? No, silly, and that’s the point. Nothing is. So stop pretending it might be. Sitting through the fail is our actual “have-to,” so do it in a way that might work semi-well for you. By all means, find the energy to do good things you care about: vote, help your neighbor, change the world, give more hugs. But just remember, today is not the day when we have to learn the multiplication tables. We are all home sick, babe, and sometimes you gotta be still, watch the Price Is Right, and wait for the Tylenol to kick in.
How long will we have to be this way and tolerate this failure? Oh, who the hell knows, but take comfort in the fact that’s not the question you should be asking. The real question is, and this is very important: if you do get to bid, how much are you putting on that second showcase in the Showcase Showdown?
We escaped the apocalypse for a minute by heading to the beach. Specifically, to a squat yellow cinderblock cottage that our friends rent every year overlooking the ocean. There are sea oats out the window. Dunes. Dolphins. The last few nights, there’s even been a mooooooon river, wiiiiiider than a mile, thanks to a fat, full, Leo-season Sturgeon moon so bright it casts shadows. I know about this last part because I’ve been up a lot at night. A lot.
The day we left to come down here, my left ear was itchy and beginning to feel full. By the time I made it to the pharmacy a few days later (and then, again, a few days after that for more potent meds), I had two rigorous ear infections that were so painful, I couldn’t sleep. For half a week, I was up every three hours, squirming on the sofa in the dark front room, trying to get comfortable while waiting for my double dose of Tylenol to kick in. Occasionally, I’d try to distract myself by walking outside to the beachside bench swing in the dead of night to look at the moon. I would stand and stretch my arms out, full of poetic visions of myself communing with the ocean and the sea creatures and the moon goddess – until the slightest breeze would blow and touch my angry ear drum, causing me to crumple and cup my swollen ear.
Was I pissed that I was dealing with a stupid, small-but-painful illness on what was supped to be my escape from the massive stress of navigating the much more serious illness invading the world? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little. But, I decided I would frame it with some level of respect and appreciation. Clearly, the universe was telling me to pay attention to my ears.
To focus on hearing.
On things I take for granted, like medicine and sleep and a generally pain-free existence.
On being thankful for having health care magically through a computer and health insurance to pay for medicine and a car to get my ass to Apalachicola for some amoxicillin and steroids.
You know, the little/big/huge things that you sometimes forget about.
My ears do feel better now, thank you for asking. But I’ve also been making a point to take the note from the universe and listen better over the last few days – to notice, respect, and follow those weird little gut urges that I sometimes get lazy and ignore. Those urges have made me look down, stand up, or wander in unexpected directions. On more than one occasion, they have lead to something chock full of delight: a rainbow, the tracks of baby sea turtles that have just left the nest, an early morning conversation during an ocean swim. They have also lead me to proof that the universe has a sense of humor: Since yesterday, I’ve picked up no less than four sea shells that are uncannily and undeniably in the shape of ears.
I hear you, Universe. Thank you. Thank you for the moonlight and for making me smile and for smacking me in the eardrums with a very important reminder that I would otherwise have missed: Stop for a sec, kid. And listen.
Cooking Hot Dogs at the End of the World
A fine piece of bad art by Amanda Dobbs, 4/2/2020
UPDATE 6/3/21 - I am delighted to announce a revised version of the poem that appeared on this page is being published in the literary magazine Alchemy. I will link to the final version once I have it, but I want to respect the publisher and direct people to their site and this work there, since they bothered to publish me. It's a pretty good poem, and I am so flattered they thought so, too.
Stay tuned for link!
My dad died in November. It happened to be on my kid’s birthday. It happened to be a few days before Thanksgiving. It happened to be at the start of the month or so of chaos that is the holiday season – the season filled with shopping and class parties and band concerts and end of the year reports and then New Years and then omigod it’s January. Then, it happened to be January, and now it happens now to be just a few days before his funeral.
Make no mistake, I am very aware of the fact that my father is gone. But my energy associated with this event so far has been practical by necessity, rather than strictly emotional. You in the unlucky club of having to handle the business end of losing someone will recognize this space. It’s the bubble. Compartmentalizing for the sake of functionality. Moving forward not so much to avoid the grief, but because the grief must coexist with more mundane things like deciding who will get who from the airport and if there will be enough scrambled eggs at the funeral breakfast and if the dogs got fed. Sure, you can and will break down in tears, but you’ll still need to write the obituary, so cry … but cry and type, sister. Cry and call the cemetery. Cry and call the probate court. Cry and fax the death certificate.
Lots of people have discussed the simultaneous doing and feeling that comes after a death, especially on the internet. There’s a lovely article by John Pavlovitz that gets shared a lot about this strange bubble, the space where you’re in grief but also at the grocery store. A woman on Twitter explained my favorite analogy about grief, the “ball in the box,” that shows how your grief button gets hit unexpectedly and potently. I also like this widely-shared Reddit wisdom about grief in relation to 100 foot waves. These are all great reads and filled with the deep experience of humans who have been there. But I think my favorite words come from one of my neighbors. She was getting her eyebrows waxed before her dad’s funeral in a moment of self care, and she heard a song on the radio that brought her to tears. The lady waxing her eyebrows unknowingly apologized. “You’re not usually this sensitive,” she said. Yeah … “not usually this sensitive.” That just about sums it up.
So far this week, I have not cried at delivering my dad’s ashes to the cemetery office, but I cried at picking the right black top to wear. I have not cried at talking to the officiant for the service, but I’ve cried as I folded 200 programs, reminded again and again that this little piece of paper sums up my dad's whole life. I have not cried at the fact that our family and friends are coming from all over because the funeral is this weekend, but I cried at the sight of a cough drop on the floor of my dad's car – a small, tangible artifact that he was here and now he’s not. There will be a million of these, a million little songs on the radio that hurt more than me getting my eyebrows waxed. But check out how neatly those programs are folded. Look at that lovely guest book I picked. Enjoy the scrambled eggs at the funeral breakfast … we’ll order more if you need them. Those are my little offerings of love right now. And of grief.
I woke up to a flooded basement. The toilet ran and dripped down the walls and made a non-ignorable puddle in the basement. We had only gone up to the lakehouse for one night because being at the lakehouse on New Years Eve is a lucky tradition for me. Years when I don’t do it have felt perilously off from the start. One included a broken heater. One resulted in my kid getting accidentally locked outside when a dog chased her. One featured a very reasonable choice to forgo what turned out to be an unforgettable family experience that I will always have missed out on – a true FOMO come true. Come to think of it, all three of those were the same year. So, we went up to the lakehouse for luck this year, and woke up to broken toilet. But I did my good luck duty, so it could have been worse, right? I called my uncle, the plumber, who offered his help. I guess that was, and is, good luck.
We always eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Years. We do that because I read it’s good luck in Spain, so I shove them in two at a time and chew sloppily while Ryan Seacrest chatters. I make my husband and kiddos do it, too. Every year, my husband complains how much he hates it, and the children nearly choke. I start off the new year with a mad husband and choking children, but if I don’t do it, things’ll be worse, right? Right. Gotta eat the grapes to avert bigger disasters.
I have a rotten head cold. I want to snuggle on the couch and stare into space and not think about the broken toilet. But I am baking cornbread and making the only edible version of black eyed peas my family will eat (LuLu’s L.A. Caviar, a fine recipe indeed to convince my family to eat black-eyed peas with a smile). I will stir some cold, canned collard greens into my reheated Chinese food, too. I must do this, because black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread ensure wealth in the new year in the South. To sit on the couch and nurse my cold instead invites financial disaster. Years when I’ve tried to forgo it, and I felt a pang every time I had to tap my savings account. Doesn’t matter that I likely still had to tap the savings account on the years that I did. I suppose the luck is having a savings account to begin with. I suppose the head cold is also good luck – I am so congested, I will not be fully aware of the odorous intestinal results from my family thanks to the fiber in the black-eyed peas.
The point here? I have had years when I have intentionally bucked the traditions. I have had years when life was weird or hard, and I just didn’t get there. And I noticed. I noticed. Maybe the universe didn’t, but I did. So we went to the lakehouse. We ate the grapes. I just had a hot piece of cornbread. I am getting out the dressed up black-eyed peas. I can reassure myself throughout 2020 that I did the things that brought the luck, and my path is going to be just as awesome as it possibly could be. Of course it will. I bought my insurance, and tomorrow, I'll have the righteous farts to prove it.
I learned an amazing word last night: liminal.
As in “liminal space.”
You can get the full Wikipedia definition of “liminality” here, and you can get a sense of it in this website, or this Instagram post, which is where I stumbled on it, but here it is in a nutshell: a liminal state or liminal space is when you are on a threshold in between two things. You’ve left an old normal, and you are moving toward some future normal... but, you ain’t there yet. You’re hanging out in uncertainty and ambiguity. You are in between.
Turns out they have a name for that shit, because it has happened to human animals throughout history, and it happens to each of us throughout our lives at many different times and in many different ways.
We sometimes experience the liminal en masse, I learned, as we do with our peers or friends during puberty or graduation. Sometimes we get thrown into the liminal by a sudden big change, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. But the reality of liminal space is that you aren’t the thing you were any more, and the playing field hasn’t just shifted: it has disappeared. You can’t go back, but damn if you know what you should do to move forward. You aren’t really ready for motion yet, necessarily. You are in between.
A general example of liminal space is that distinct kind of loneliness and out-of-sorts feeling that comes with being in airport or airplane. You aren’t home, and you aren’t where you’re going. You’re transitioning, wandering around without your people and without your place. You’re a little bit more at the mercy of the universe than usual. You are subject to change without notice, and you will need to deal with whatever comes equipped only with what’s in your suitcase. Your job is to hang out, wait at the gate, and be ready.
Nope. It’s not. I suspect that’s why they have bars and stores in airports -- to help people tolerate that space. I have tolerated it myself many times, from figuring out what Christmas would look like after my mom died, to the unbearable ambiguousness of being nine months pregnant. It ISN’T fun. You literally have no way of knowing when the next phase of your life will hit, or what it will look like. Or if you will survive it, literally and figuratively. You do what you can to get ready, but meanwhile, you just have to tolerate the anxiety and hope it’ll be fine.
While it ain’t fun, the truth of this space is that it is utterly unavoidable -- and that's good news. We are ALL going to be there, and we are all going to be there more than once. It’s such a common thing that societies have created rituals around it, whether it’s transitioning to adulthood through a bar mitzvah or having an extended ceremony around weddings or deaths. As a species, we get that these are weird times, and we see that there’s a sort of magic in them. In fact, this article from Psychology Today says that creativity and liminal space are friends. Sometimes that ambiguity and self-reflection are necessary. Sometimes you can’t get where you’re supposed to be going without going through it.
That’s great news once you’re past it, but if you’re hanging out in the liminal, it takes energy. Energy not to freak out. Energy to look for the path. Energy to be a new thing. So for those in the liminal space, I salute you. I am right there, too. Come sit next to me in the airport bar, and let’s share an overpriced Toblerone. You tell me where you come from, and I’ll help keep an eye on the departure board to see where we both get to go next.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.