Our National Holiday

Groundhog

Finally, the day you’ve been living over and over again for almost a year is officially here! I’m referring, of course, to Groundhog Day, hitherto an obscure and underrated holiday whose elevation I’ve proposed as an apt celebration of the American character.

But I didn’t quite intend this level of elevation, this much capturing of our experience! Seriously, I could do without Groundhog Day as a national meme baked into our collective unconscious because of COVID Times. Like Bill Murray in the famous film, the alarm goes off and we are eternally trapped in the same day. Also with the same people, same four walls, same conversations, same Zoom screens, same Netflix stupor, same quiet unraveling. And that’s if we’re lucky!

The tedium is broken up by panic attacks about paying the bills, homeschooling the kids, elderly parents dying alone, sniffles spelling death–you name it. Not to mention anxiety about armed anti-maskers storming state capitols and militant anti-reality mobs staging an insurrection at our nation’s Capitol under the direction of Donald Trump. So much for subscribing to the “What’s the downside to humoring him?” theory.

This got me thinking about whether groundhogs are harmless hibernators who sometimes bite people who haul them out of their slumber, or if there’s a darker side to these reluctant rodent celebrities. As one gardening website asks, “Can that cute groundhog really cause damage?”

Yes, as it turns out. Much like insurrectionists and their leaders, “If not properly controlled, groundhogs can cause serious structural damage when burrowing. Their tunnels break apart building foundations . . . ” An easy Google ramble further reveals the answers to some of the most vexing questions, including my favorite: “Are groundhogs good for anything?” This is artfully evaded with a sort of “All God’s Creatures” vibe, plus a passing note that they’re vegetarians.

More pragmatically, we learn how to get rid of a groundhog:

Sprinkle blood meal, ground black pepper, dried blood, or talcum powder around the perimeter of your garden.

Puree and strain hot peppers and garlic, mix them with water and enough liquid soap to make it stick, and spray it liberally around the garden.

Would that these methods worked with insurrectionists and conspiracy theorists!

Anyway, today’s news is that the groundhog foretells 6 more weeks of winter. Had it been cloudy, it would have been slightly shorter. Since the daffodils are currently blooming where I live, and since the calendar notes that Spring will be here no matter what in about six weeks, I smell a hoax. Or some kind of rodent.

At any rate, we did wake to a slightly new day on January 20. President Biden has a plan to bring us out of our long, dark winter. No groundhog can tell how long it will take to emerge from Covid Times based on the presence or absence of its shadow. Assuming vaccination rates continue to improve, here’s a better predictor of how many more deaths will occur depending on how we (and Congress) all act in the meantime.

As Bill Murray learned in Groundhog Day, he had choices within his trap, choices that led to remaining stuck or breaking free. So do we.

Hallelujah

On the same day our country marked the milestone of more than 400,000 people dead from COVID, we were finally able to collectively acknowledge and grieve our loss. President-Elect Biden reminded us, “To heal we must remember. . . . It is important we do that as a nation. That’s why we are here today.”

In the brief space between sundown and dusk, the simple and somber pre-inauguration memorial was electrifying. Lori Marie Key, a Detroit nurse, sang “Amazing Grace”—the same as she did on her shifts tending COVID patients to lift spirits amid all the heartbreak. Gospel singer Yolanda Adams then sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Along the entire length of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, 400 light pillars—each representing 1,000 lives lost—began to glow as darkness descended. The camera slowly zoomed out to reveal the illuminated waterway, Abraham Lincoln frozen in marble and time, the Potomac beyond.

“In Hebrew, the word hallelujah means to rejoice in praising God,” I soon learned from Kyson Parks’s The Origin and History of the Song “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen. Parks continues:

It is a bitter lament about love and loss . . . “Hallelujah,” the song teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, of mourning, of regret, of catharsis, and reconciliation. Cohen’s song tells a story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness.

How fitting for what we have been through. In our nation’s capital, the last line of the song—“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” soared over the Reflecting Pool as the lights came up.

For some of us, Leonard Cohen’s song marked the beginning as well as the end of Trump’s  presidency. On the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election, Kate McKinnon–who had played Hillary Clinton throughout SNL’s 2016 campaign skits–performed it for SNL’s Cold Open.

When McKinnon finished, she turned to the audience as Hillary and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

Tomorrow Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as our new President and Vice President.

Hallelujah.

This, Too, Happened

Far, far down the very long list of Donald Trump’s transgressions, which range from petty insults to treason, is something trivial that nonetheless bugs me no end: His ability to suck all the oxygen out of everything, grab the narrative, and destroy anything good.

After Biden’s clear victory in the days after the election, my brief period of joy and relief quickly was subsumed as Trump’s and his enablers’ lies about election fraud sparked widespread denial and defiance among his supporters.

“I thought at least we’d get a bit of a mental health break,” my husband said, “but things just get worse and worse.”

Reality played out on a split screen: election officials counting ballots while white mobs screamed at them; many, though not all, GOP state legislators accepting the results while most Republicans in the U.S. Congress acquiesced to the President’s lies; the courts—including the Trump-packed Supreme Court–holding firm against ridiculous claims; Georgia Republicans Brad Raffensberger, Gabriel Sterling, and even the detestable Brian Kemp–all of whom voted for Trump—becoming unlikely Resistance heroes. Biden’s 7 million plus margin in the popular vote coexisted with the depressing possibility that once again the Electoral College would have rendered those votes irrelevant if a slice of votes in a few swing states had gone the other way. But in the end, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, then Georgia all flipped from red to blue.

Georgia!! Thanks to demographic changes and more than a decade of on-the-ground organizing, mostly by Black women, this deep red state turned a lovely pale shade of blue. Georgia in Biden’s column was thrilling though not decisive. But a tantalizing opportunity emerged: the fate of the U.S Senate rested entirely on the outcome of Georgia’s January 5th run-off elections. Could it happen again?

I didn’t think so. I thought it was unlikely that the Democrats could win one race, let alone the two that would be necessary to pry the Senate Majority Leader’s gavel out of Mitch McConnell’s hands.

Stacey Abrams, founder of the New Georgia Project and Fair Fight, likes to say, ““I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic—I’m determined.” I tried to channel her attitude. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, sending postcards through Reclaim Our Vote and phone banking once or twice a week. My husband and I sent a little money to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, more money to grassroots organizations on the ground .We were among millions who did the same. Whether or not it would do the trick, at least it would be good for my mental health.

Phone banking is not glamorous. Mostly it’s a tedious exercise in marking “Not Home,” occasional hostility, depressing levels of disinterest. Every now and then, though, a conversation makes it all worthwhile. Calling Georgia for the run-offs had very little of the former, lots of the latter. Caller after caller picked up the phone, especially in the early weeks before every organization under the sun was calling multiple times a day.

Almost everyone was fired up and ready to go. People expressed appreciation for our efforts all the time. They eagerly agreed to get their friends and family to vote. “Don’t worry, we’ve got this,” one man told me right before Election Day. “We’ll be there with our whole block.”

They were, and then some—voters who mailed in their absentee ballots, put them in a drop box, or stood in long lines for early voting; newly minted 18-year-olds casting their first ballot ever; a robust Election Day showing. Turnout was high among Republicans, too, but it was higher among Democrats—with impressive gains not only among Black and suburban voters, but also among young people, Latinx, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders.

By the time I went to bed Tuesday night on the West Coast, Warnock had been declared the winner, and it was clear that Ossoff, too, was well on his way to victory. The first Black and Jewish senators from Georgia, running on an unapologetically liberal platform.

All our hard work paid off. Particularly impressive were the tireless and creative efforts of on-the-ground organizers and volunteers who have rolled up their sleeves forever for Georgia and the country. Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot, LaTosha Brown, and Cliff Albright, of nationally known Fair Fight, New Georgia Project, and Black Voters Matter, are the stars of this movement, this moment. But so are those lesser known who got it done. Abrams noted, “We beat voter suppression.” As Rembert Browne, host of the wonderful “Gaining Ground” podcast summed up, “People stepping up from every corner of Georgia is what turned Georgia blue.”

On Wednesday morning, even though it was cold, I put on my flimsy peach-colored T-shirt to mark the occasion. I had not felt so jubilant, so emotional, since Obama’s 2008 victory. What a glorious day!

Or at least it was before it all turned to shit, joy and hope once again snatched away. Shockingly but not surprisingly, the Mob Boss incited his mob to violently storm the Capitol to stop Congress from formalizing the Electoral College votes. Of course this insurrection is the most important story

But it is not the only one. Remember what happened in Georgia, not just once but twice. This, too, is real. We have the power to help it grow and endure.

Dark Into Light

I have always loved this time of year, when fall turns into winter. The light lessens and nature’s surface goes dormant, yet life and promise teem below and out of sight. It seems that nothing’s happening, but all the while there’s productive churn from the necessary stillness.

At least that’s what I tell my procrastinating self, especially when I’m tortured with writing. It’s what I convey to clients who feel hopelessly stuck and spend so much energy chastising themselves. Dormancy is vital to growth. Out of darkness comes the light.

The meaning and metaphor of solstice are even more profound this year. The pandemic has been unfathomably brutal for so many, and will likely get worse before it gets better. The mind-boggling cruelty and corruption of Trump and his enablers has pummeled us into exhaustion. And that’s on top of the usual suspects—the failure to reckon with our original sin of slavery, dire and growing inequality, a warming planet. The demons of our nature too often appear to have the upper hand over the better angels.

Yet even in these broken times there are fragments of hope. The New York Times has been running answers to “What Was Good About 2020?”: A pared-down wedding. Perspective. Realizing we are all connected. Absolutely nothing. Saving money on gas, dry cleaning, and haircuts. And my favorite: seeing into one’s colleagues’ apartments during Zoom meetings.

Many people I know have noted how the forced disruption has also eliminated much of the frenzy and artifice life demanded before. Acts of kindness and compassion abound. One of my friends speculated that perhaps the murder of George Floyd sparked a sustained uprising unlike other murders of Black men and boys before him because more White people, experiencing their own hitherto unknown hardship and loss, could at last empathize. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch spinning darkness into light, but there’s something to it.

And now there is a vaccine, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in January 20. There are dark times ahead, but Spring is coming.

Breakdown Break

My favorite Voting Plan comes from my friend Tina, who posted on Facebook: “I plan to fill out my absentee ballot as soon as I get it, put it in the nearest drop box right away, and watch cat videos until after the election.”

I, on the other hand, even though contemplating how to follow Tina’s example and calm my nerves as we approach E-Day, couldn’t help myself. On my therapeutic walk this morning, I made the mistake of listening to The Daily‘s latest podcast, “The Spector of Political Violence.” It featured Americans of every political (and apolitical) stripe buying guns because they are nervous about everyone else having guns. I suppose it’s a comfort that the story’s angle was deliberately non-partisan. But hammering home the point that people who are scared arm themselves to feel safe–despite all the evidence that the presence of a gun increases the risk of violence–made me even more anxious. I’m a member of a very large club.

I recommend following Tina’s lead. So in that spirit, here’s some reminders of goodness and beauty from my daily walks of the last few months that are helping me get through:

Remember to vote, and remember to set your clocks back Sunday. You’ve got your choice about how to spend your extra hour: sleeping, insomnia, doom-scrolling, watching cat videos. Choose wisely, and see you on the other side!

With a Little Help from Our Friends

You know what motivates me more than almost anything? When someone I know and trust asks me to do something! I joined Weight Watchers with a friend. I took a job I wasn’t looking for because my friend recruited me. I served on our school district’s foundation—and even became its co-chair—because so many people I admired were involved and urged me to get involved, too. I make countless donations, go to events, and buy unwanted wrapping paper and grapefruit from friends’ children. I like to joke that my political activism consists of doing whatever my friend Ruth asks of me.

It’s not that I’m a pushover or a mindless follower. My parents never had to say, “Would you jump off a cliff just because your friends were?” It’s just that people I know and trust inform and inspire me. They provide good company, hold me accountable, and make me a better person.

It turns out I’m not alone, and that this has big ramifications for voter turnout. Research shows that the best way to get somebody to vote is when someone they know reminds them. Call it a helpful nudge, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or benevolent peer pressure–it works! That’s why one of my very favorite acts of political work this season has been Friend-to-Friend Voter Outreach.

It’s a simple and fun organic way of growing a network of voters not from campaign lists but from within our personal circles. All it takes is asking three people you know in battleground states and districts who share your views to vote, and to ask them to ask three more people. Follow-up with a couple of pre-election reminders, and that’s it!

Of course, if you’re an overachiever, you can ask more than three people—I’ve cast a wide net, and have also asked people not in battleground states but with roots there to participate.  But three is a perfect number—not too much to ask of anyone (including yourself!), and enough to make a real difference. It’s also a nice way to catch up with friends and relatives where contact might not extend much beyond birthday and holiday cards.

I’ve had some lovely exchanges with far-flung cousins, Facebook friends, and my daughter’s college roommate. My husband’s best friend, not normally political, agreed to contact his mother and all his high school friends in Cleveland. I’ve never in my life participated in a single chain letter, but this is a chain I love to build, link by link.

Please join me. Use the resources below, have fun, and let me know how it goes.  Let’s win big.

*

A good step-by-step guide (you don’t have to attend the ongoing workshops offered by the organizer, though you’re welcome to contact him for next date if you like).

If anyone needs voting information, iwillvote.com is a great state-by-state resource.

-Here’s a handy chart for voter registration deadlines. Note that several have passed, but many states offer ways to register and vote after the deadline:

-A good read.

-Stress-buster:

Midnight Reading

As a pre-teen, my favorite book was Gone with the Wind. I would devour it cover to cover far into the night, a flashlight illuminating the pages. As soon as I finished the book, I’d start over, hoping to beat my previous time. I saw the film many times, too, the screen’s imagery and Margaret Mitchell’s words melting together into memory. Still, it’s the thrill of my late-night, under-the-covers immersion at Tara with Scarlett O’Hara that stays with me.

I think it was Scarlett’s 17-inch-waist that first reeled me in. And, of course, the tempestuous romance between her and Rhett Butler. These sad, misguided fixations alone make me cringe. The backdrop of the Civil War and slavery barely registered. Referring to it now as a backdrop makes me cringe anew, proof positive of how easy it is for me still to retreat from reality.

From an early age, I knew the broad outlines of the Civil War—Confederacy bad, Union good. Slavery was a horror, and Abraham Lincoln was right up there with FDR and JFK in the presidential pantheon. After all, my parents were active in the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps that’s why I read furtively by flashlight. But I didn’t sneak out of the house to see the movie version of Gone with the Wind. I’m sure we watched it together, and I don’t remember any in-depth discussions. My parents pointed out that Mammy, Prissy, and Sam were stereotypes undergirding the fantasy of loyal black people happily serving benevolent masters. But mostly we focused on those incredible hoop skirts and what Scarlett saw in that drip Ashley.

My first misgivings about GWTW came not from a deeper understanding of structural racism but from feminist critiques. That scene where a half-drunk Rhett shows Scarlett how he could crush her skull between his hands, then carries her upstairs to the bedroom, where she wakes up all smiles the next morning? Not long after my dawning horror that the scene depicted rape, I had another rude awakening: Rhett was a charter member of the KKK.

So I relegated Gone with the Wind to all the other things I’d once enjoyed and could no longer stomach: Coming-of-age stories that romanticized child sexual abuse; Last Tango in Paris; Bill Cosby. I moved on without giving GWTW much thought beyond feeling ashamed by my clueless self.

I’ve evolved some from my oblivion over the decades, though I have barely scratched the surface. I still read in bed after midnight. Now the illumination is provided by my iPhone rather than a flashlight—and also by the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her brilliant New York Times Magazine essay, “What is Owed?”:

“If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes black Americans.”

I will strive to repay my debt.

*

Worth reading:

John Ridley, “Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now”  (Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2020)

Jacqueline Stewart, “Why we can’t turn away from ‘Gone with the Wind’” (CNN, June 12, 2020).

Sam Adams, Gone With the Wind Is Back on HBO Max With This New Introduction (Slate.com, June 26, 2020).

Nikita Stewart, “Black Activists Wonder: Is Protest Just Trendy for White People?” (New York Times, June 26, 2020).

Screen Time

I see my client’s face. A bit pixelated, true, but more centrally framed now that the camera angle cutting her off just above the chin last week has been adjusted. I glimpse my own image and “office” in the small rectangle. Oh, no, has the covering slipped from my daughter’s old dresser? How many times will the screen freeze today?

Still, it’s better than nothing. I’m lucky to have a private space, with no children to homeschool or shush—the daughter whose room I’m in is long grown. Cursed, blessed technology exists now, at least for most people with the wherewithal to find their way into somebody’s private practice. I have been on Zoom support sessions for clinicians, and hear horror stories from those who work with people who are impoverished, undocumented, hungry, homeless, imprisoned, sick, overwhelmed by life even in the best of times. Some people they’ve been unable to reach altogether.

The fact that things are so much worse for others is frequently brought up by my clients who can and want to keep seeing me. They feel grateful and guilty. I feel the same way.

Still, we sit and talk. I talked too much at first, trying to compensate for the feeling of disconnection through excess verbiage. Eventually I remembered the value of listening, with an assist from Zoom, which goes haywire when more than one person (or rectangle) is speaking.

Nothing sounds quite right. I read somewhere that the time lag is part of what makes video calls so tiring. Exhaustion turns to panic when suddenly the client’s voice sounds stretched out and underwater, or every other word is dropped. What if they are revealing something crucial, and I miss it? I briefly wonder if bandwidth, too, engages in repression or dissociation, or if it reflects the client’s usual experience of feeling unheard and my own inattentiveness.

Sometimes, I prefer just the phone. I came into the mental health field more than 40 years ago as a crisis line volunteer, and like a duckling, I imprinted on the first thing I was exposed to. I’ve always been struck by how people can often go deeper, be more vulnerable on the phone.

Still, whether via Zoom, doxy, FaceTime, or phone, psychotherapy in the time of Covid has felt a lot like those many check-in calls I fielded on the crisis line. People say the same thing, over and over. It’s the same conversation we’re all having now, as coronavirus infects not only our cells and the economy but every nook and cranny of mental space. My colleague asked two analytically inclined clients if they wished to explore some of what they were delving into before. “Absolutely not!” they both said. I’ve wondered with clients what we might be talking about if we weren’t talking about the pandemic. “That’s a good question!” they say, before returning to coronavirus. Remote video platforms aren’t the only ones with bandwidth issues.

Time feels so strange, endless and fleeting at once. Clients wonder, How long will this last? When can we return? And even if we do, will I ever feel safe? Wondering the same, we do our best to hold people, not knowing how long we can all hold on.

Time Warp

I am almost always way behind in my reading: usual backlogs are six weeks for the New Yorker and six months for the Atlantic. My husband once remarked, “You have many good qualities, but knowing when to stop reading an article you’re not absorbing isn’t one of them.” (Neither is speed reading.)

Taking his words to heart, at least now when I sit down with The New York Review, I flip through the pages, reading only one or two articles between the cover and the Complex, Dynamic Tomboy and New York City Attorney seeking love (or at least lust) in the back-page Personals.

“Damn,” I think to myself as I toss the barely read periodical into the recycling bin. “This is really great and incisive writing. Too bad I don’t do more of it.”

I can’t toss The New Yorker, though. I’ve never been a just-the-cartoons page-flipper. The magazine used to be known for its timeless (and endless), multi-part series on things like corn, or rivers, or geology, so it didn’t really matter when I tackled my piles. But even the hallowed New Yorker succumbed to the reality of shorter attention spans and more topical coverage. So I’m now often in a time warp when I do sit down to read.

After the 2016 election, I savored this peculiarity. For weeks, I was still relishing the prospect of our first female commander-in-chief. President Obama was not ever going to have to turn over the keys and the nuclear codes to someone completely his opposite and unfit for office in every way imaginable. I could live in my alternative reality long before the Trump administration’s insistence on doing so wreaked such widespread havoc.

Now I’m in that surreal space again, my reading lagging way behind the current reality of our Covid-upended world. In my time warp, things exist beyond the total takeover not only of our health and our economy, but of seemingly all news, conversation, and every waking and non-waking moment.

My lagging world isn’t quite as enjoyable as before, when President Obama’s magnetic smile stretched from sea to shining sea. I’m catching up on the House impeachment vote, moving through Ian Frazier’s Season’s Greetings, the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Democrats in disarray. Mitt Romney hasn’t yet become an unlikely hero/traitor (take your pick) during the Senate impeachment “trial.” The Iowa caucuses are still a quaint if undemocratic trendsetting tradition, not a debacle. There’s still more than a dozen candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Then, as I make my way through the stacks, Bernie is poised to run all the way to the end zone while his opponents tackle each other, littering the field. Super Tuesday has yet to come, along with all the rest of the brutal primaries before they get postponed. The Democrats are not yet in a state of array behind Joe Biden–Man from a By-gone Era who is, strangely, now the Man of the Moment. There’s nary a hint of the pandemic about to engulf us (although one might take this flu season Valentine as foreshadowing):

I am glad my behind-the-times reading creates corners of my psyche beyond the reach of Covid. I am even perversely grateful to be reminded of how Stephen Miller is one of the most loathsome denizens of Trump’s swamp. The corona virus is not the only devastating force in the world.

My time warp is about to converge with the present moment: I have finished the New Yorker whose cover features Trump with a surgical mask over his eyes as he rages on and on. Just two more issues until the one with the spiky virus balls festooning the cover. I will miss the past times of my so-slow reading, just as I miss our pre-Covid world that seems centuries ago.

But I look forward to a better future, when and if it ever comes.

Titanic

I keep thinking about the film Titanic as we begin to absorb the public health and financial impacts of hitting this coronavirus iceberg.  First there’s the feeling of nothing much happening, or maybe it’s something, but we’ll all be fine. Awareness that the ship is going down creeps in at different paces to different people, and reactions vary. Quick-wittedness, denial, altruism, selfishness, desperation, calm. The entire panoply of human nature unfolds while the orchestra plays on.

What sticks with me the most from the film are the parents in steerage, cuddling with their children in cramped metal cots. Mothers and fathers know they’re all doomed, but they do what they can– speaking in soothing tones to their still-oblivious sons and daughters, telling stories, performing the ritual of nightly prayer, holding them tight. Love creates a cocoon of security: False, but also true.

Psychotherapists call this “felt security.” It reflects not so much the dire dimensions of the actual situation, but the reassuring sustenance drawn from the relationship with a loving, trustworthy, and reliable caregiver. Those parents in steerage send the message, “I am here with you right now, and in this moment together we are okay.”

A lot of us, even those who are not parents, have been doing a lot of that recently as we try to maintain a sense of normalcy and well-being in the midst of a global pandemic and economic meltdown. Posting pictures of sunsets, flowers, the family dog, funny memes; poetry chain letters; neighbors opening their windows to sing, clap, or howl; sewing masks for front-line workers; donating to especially hard-hit groups; buying gift cards from our favorite restaurants and small businesses; moving our normal activities like school, yoga, fitness, book groups, phone banking, work from real life to Zoom—all help knit together a sense of security.

Titanic also depicts a society similar to ours in terms of class and economic inequality. The rich are the most protected while the poor suffer, even though they’re all in the same boat. The unsinkable Molly Brown, a member of the privileged class, decries the entitlement and selfishness of her peers, urging them to make more room on the lifeboats to save far more people. Her plea goes largely unheeded.

We are seeing the same dynamics play out now: just look at the back-and-forth of the recent $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress. Thanks largely to Democrats, more room was created to help the most vulnerable. Far more will be needed.

Just as not everyone perished in the Titanic, we will somehow survive this. But whether or not we view all as deserving a place on the life boats will determine who and how many.