January 1, 2022: Just One Word: Connect

Long ago, I ditched the practice of making New Year’s resolutions, though the advent of a new year always seemed an opportune time to embark on new habits (you know the ones:  lose weight, exercise more, and other loftier ambitions).  Yet my well intended resolutions rarely lasted beyond January.  Then several years ago, a friend introduced me to a new practice to mark the new year:  the choice of a single word which acts as a “guide” for the year ahead. 

It’s just one word; one that symbolizes something I hope to explore and expand upon in a given year.  Words like gratitude, clarity, heart, and rewrite have been past choices, and each new year, I set my sights on a new one.  Once chosen, I print my word, mount it in a small 1.5-inch frame and place it on the corner of my desk as a daily reminder.   This year, however, as our daily lives have again been constricted by another, more virulent wave of Covid, selecting a word for 2022 proved to be more challenging than in years past.   For several days, I was woefully stuck.  My notebook pages became a forest of unrelated words, reflecting the struggle of finding and choosing my single word.  I knew why. The reality of yet another period of reduced social contact and  isolation dampened my spirits and rendered my thought processes to the lacklustre and mundane. 

Two days ago, my mental fog abruptly cleared.  My choice for a 2022 word was triggered by a short article in the current issue of Intima, (A Journal of Narrative Medicine),“Facelessness and the Glass Between Us:  Finding Connection in the Era of Covid,” written by Hannah Dischinger, MD.  In it, she posed the question: “How can we share the human experience of sickness without use of our faces?”  In other words, how do we connect with one another, when our medical masks rob of all but our eyes in our interactions?  “Connect” became my 2022 word of choice. 

CON-NECT (verb):  to bring together or into contact so that a real link is established.

(Definitions from Oxford Languages)

I scribbled the word “connect” on a new notebook page.  I quickly realized it had connotations well beyond the limits of masks and Zoom interactions.   I acknowledged my heightened anxiety and cautious behavior, retreating to the safety of our home like a  turtle pulling into its shell, and a spiritual malaise setting up permanent residence in my daily life.   Connections with family and friends had become, once again,  inhibited by necessary caution and the sagging spirts that we’ve all been susceptible to in a  protracted time of pandemic. 

“It’s a hard time to be human.  We know too much.  – Ellen Bass, “The World Has Need of You” (in:  Like a Beggar, 2014)

It’s been a tough time for everyone.  Loneliness is on the rise.  Declining social connectedness is likely the major explanation for the increase reports of loneliness and isolation.  That’s concerning, because physical and mental health risks are also associated with loneliness, making  us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression , illness  or even death. 

Our connection with others is fundamental to being human.   The necessary social isolation due to COVID challenges our needs for social connection.  And the longer this pandemic drags one, the more effort it takes to make those connections so critical for our mental and physical well being.

Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home…

I came up with one thing

And I don’t believe I’m wrong

That nobody

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

(By Maya Angelou, “Alone,” (in: Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna’ Fit Me Well, 1975) 

“That Nobody/But nobody/Can make it out here alone…”  In the early days of the pandemic, we found some novelty and respite from isolation and loneliness by having online Zoom chats with friends and family.  But the occasional virtual interactions grew to become a dominant part of our daily lives.  Weekdays for many workers have evolved into constant Zoom group meetings. Even regular doctors’ appointments were relegated to the online format.  Now, after months of leading workshops and having meetings on Zoom,  when friends suggest Zoom to “catch up” with one another, it feels more like work than I would like.  I have a case of Zoom fatigue. 

On the positive side, Zoom and other virtual formats make it possible to connect with each other in real time in this pandemic time, but the virtual experience is not at all the same as face-to-face, and it is tiring.   As one Stanford researcher explained, staring at one another in “Brady Bunch” galleries or as talking heads, is a kind of “disembodied” experience that can result in “non-verbal overload.” Zoom fatigue, which many of us have experienced, comes from the lengthier periods of close-up eye contact and constantly seeing ourselves on the screen, which is a bit like staring into a mirror for extended periods.  Our usual mobility is also reduced:  we’re stuck in our chairs.  And we end up feeling like talking heads without our usual non-verbal cues or gestures which are such an important  part of human communication.

At the same time, the virtual format has been beneficial in many other ways.  For me,  it’s enabled my workshops to continue and be available to many more people across Canada, even though the quality of the group interaction is necessarily limited.   I am grateful, thus, that the workshop series for heart and cancer patients continue—the shared stories of those who attend  are a large part of what motivates  and inspires me.   Nevertheless, as 2021 came to a close,  I realized I was genuinely Zoom weary, just as many others were.

So “connect” feels right for my guiding word for this new year.  Covid isn’t done with us yet, and amid the rising numbers of cases in this current wave of the Omicron variant, it requires more diligence to make certain I act on how necessary and important connection is in my life—and discover additional ways to  maintain the sense of connectedness with others in this ongoing period of enhanced caution and necessary isolation.  “Connect” also reminds me that it’s not just about staying in touch with friends but energizing my daily life by  connecting to new ideas, endeavors, creative pursuits, to nature and times of quiet reflection …the possibilities are endless.

So this January 1st, I’ve printed my 2022 word, put it in a frame and now it sits on my desk, a visible reminder to me to explore new possibilities for connection while also deepening those already present in my life.  It feels right.

I wish you a safe and healthy year ahead, the warmth of friends and family, and a happy and productive 2022!

Writing Suggestions:

.  Do you have a guiding word for 2022?  Write about your choice and what meaning it has for you.

Or, greet the New Year by:

               .  Writing a gratitude list for 2021

               .  Reflecting on what the past year has held for you?  What stands out?  Why?

.  Did you learn something new from 2021?  What lessons will you carry into 2022?

.  List what  you want to explore, change or improve upon in the coming year? Why? 

December 18, 2021: Winter Solstice: A Time of Hope and Renewal

For the past several days, I’ve been struggling to write.  It’s not just about cobbling together a blog post appropriate for the season; it’s a malaise that has also rendered my precious morning writing time a struggle of inspiration and motivation.  I am following my own advice:  keeping my routine of writing each morning, but more often than not, my pages are filled with thoughts that go nowhere and brief, unrelated paragraphs.

Now, at a time when this blog post might be oriented to a more “seasonal” theme related to the holiday season, I don’t feel anything close to the holiday spirit as I usually do.  There seems to be less in the world to celebrate with the very present impact of climate change, a worldwide fourth wave triggered by the relentless spread of the Omicron variant, and daily, news of political unrest, poverty, hardship, and suffering, overshadowing themes of “comfort and joy” in this usual holiday season.  I have, as many have, been infected by a kind of spiritual malaise:  call it “pandemic fatigue,” whether a constant low level anxiety or a persistent sense of languishing.  Whatever we call it, it’s nigh impossible to summon up a sense of genuine holiday cheer.  Rather, I can’t shake the undercurrent of more primitive fear lurking somewhere in the shadows, one that whispers that things will never be as they once were.

“Winter Solstice,” a poem by Jody Aliesan, captures those feelings in the first stanza:

when you startle awake in the dark morning
heart pounding breathing fast
sitting bolt upright staring into
dark whirlpool black hole
feeling its suction…
(In: Grief Sweat, 1990)

This morning I remembered that the winter solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere on Tuesday morning, December 21st.   It’s the day when hours of daylight are the shortest and the nighttime longest, marking marks the start of the astronomical winter.  It is after the solstice that our days grow longer and our nights shorter, as we gradually move toward spring.  According to the historians, our traditional December holiday celebrations had their beginnings in the winter solstice, as early as the latter part of the Stone Age, somewhere around 10,200 B.C. 

For our ancient ancestors, the winter solstice was also associated with the concept of death and rebirth.  The weather grew cold, the growing season had ended, and stores of food grew scarce as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky. They feared the sun might disappear completely, leaving them to suffer in bitter cold and permanent darkness.  But the winter solstice marked the gradual return of the sun, and its growing strength as it rose each day in the morning sky.  Winter may have been far from over, but because it signaled the return of warmer seasons and new life, the solstice was a time for celebration.

As this year’s solstice approaches, we are again facing restrictions:  the Omicron variant is spreading everywhere at a pace far outstripping the previous waves of the pandemic, throwing our everyday lives into question again: what life will be like when we have gained the upper hand on this virus? So much has changed because of the pandemic:   our sense of freedom in our daily lives, faces still masked for protection, and interaction with others, relegated the virtual world of email and ZOOM.  The toll on our personal lives has been quietly relentless.  Now, more than ever, we need a re-kindled sense of hope and at the same time, to find gratitude in our here and now. That, for me, is a daily exercise.  

As I was writing this post, I remembered a favorite children’s book, Frederick, by Leo Lionni.  Published in 1967, I originally bought the book when my daughters were toddlers, it became a bedtime story staple for several years.   Yet Frederick has such lasting charm, I’ve given it as a gift to other children, and a few adult friends as well.   Frederick also accompanied me to my writing groups, its collage illustrations, wonderful storyline, and message a gift for anyone.

Frederick is about the story of a group of field mice who are gathering their supplies for the long winter ahead—all but one, that is, Frederick.  He is shown basking in the late autumn sun or sitting and staring at the meadow. When asked why he isn’t working, he replies he is working:  gathering “sun rays for the cold, dark winter days” or colors, “for winter is gray” or other “supplies” of his own.  Winter comes, and the mice take refuge among their hideout in the stones, at first, enjoying plenty of food and conversation, but as the winter months lengthen, they run low on supplies. They remember what Frederick had said and ask, “What about your supplies, Frederick?”    Frederick climbs on a big stone and instructs them to close their eyes.  He begins to share descriptions of the sun, the colors of summer, and finally, his words:  a poem about the four seasons, all to the delight of the mice, who have been transported to sunnier memories, hope, and gratitude for Frederick’s supplies – his poetry, just as I was again transported, my spirits warmed, in re-reading Lionni’s priceless little story.  

We will, in a week’s time, huddle together for a quiet Christmas with our Toronto daughter and her family, all of us vaccinated with our booster shots and exercising similar cautions.  Just knowing we won’t be alone, as we were a year ago during COVID, is comforting.   We’ll have plenty of food for our cold, dark days, and the shared stories of Christmases past will warm our spirits and hearts.  Having at least part of our family nearby, to weather this fourth wave together in our familial cocoon, is a sustaining antibody against falling into despair.   Maybe that’s also something to do with hope for the season to come.

…already light is returning pairs of wings
lift softly off your eyelids one by one
each feathered edge clearer between you
and the pearl veil of day

you have nothing to do but live

(Grief Sweat,
by Jody Aliesan, Broken Moon Press, 1990)

I wish you a peaceful holiday season, gratitude for those in your lives who make a difference and for our beleaguered healthcare workers, and the hope we may find renewal and better times in the months to come.  

Writing Suggestions:  (Set the timer for 5 minutes and write—as fast as you can, without stopping.)

* Where do you find hope in your life? 
* What, despite everything, are you grateful for?
* How has the prolonged pandemic affected your life? 
* What’s kept you going through this protracted and altered time?