Dragonflies

I first heard the song “The Night We Met” about six months after my husband Gary died. It came on the radio as I drove home from an errand. The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful and unbearably sad. They transported me to Gary’s and my early days of courtship and catapulted me into my present life without him.

I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you
Take me back to the night we met
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do
Haunted by the ghost of you
Take me back to the night we met

Tears clouded my vision, forced me to pull over to the side of the road, and weep.

Monday, May 30 was Memorial Day—fourteen and a half months since Gary died. All morning, that song looped through my brain and started to make me more than a little irritated. It had been weeks since I had a crying session. “I’m not in the mood,” I seethed at the hovering Grief Bitch. “Leave me alone!”

It was a beautiful day and the garden needed tending. I state this like I enjoy gardening, which I do not, but I occasionally feel compelled to tackle things my paid gardening crew ignores. I try to do this with a positive attitude, but that usually fades within an hour. There were stalks of grass among the lavender that needed to be pulled. This sounds like I have a fancy garden. “Let me don my straw hat, prance about the flowers and devote an hour to weed eradication.” My garden is quite basic with plenty of blights that I choose to deny.

My dog Lucy was thrilled we were having “outside time” and commenced to graze on grass stalks in between snapping at bees. The grazing later makes her barf on the carpet. I don’t want her killing precious bees and a sting could have serious consequences. I spent most of what was supposed to be our happy time scolding her to knock it off.

When I finally gave up and decided we would both be better off indoors, I noticed Lucy had not been chasing bees at all, but dragonflies. Dozens of them flitted about the garden. I rarely see a dragonfly, let alone so many in one place. I was spellbound, watching them dance through sunlight that transformed their luminescent color from red to auburn to nearly purple and back again.

After several minutes, Lucy and I went inside—me still haunted by that song and she frustrated with her failure to catch a flying insect. I reluctantly invited Grief Bitch to join us, sat in my crying chair at the kitchen table with a wad of tissues and told Alexa to play “The Night We Met.”

Later, I looked out the front window. The dragonflies were gone.

I did an internet search and discovered that red dragonflies are quite rare. If you see one, you are justified in feeling honored. Their symbolic significance can mean a number of things:

Self-realization
Transformation
Rebirth
A deeper understanding of the meaning of life

Their presence in my garden was an unexpected gift that caused me to realize I’m beginning to feel these very things. This brought me joy. It brought me peace. Two feelings that have eluded me for a long time.

I’m so grateful for the appearance of those dragonflies. So grateful to be made aware of how this dreadful grief journey has led me to the place I am today. I’m not “cured” by any means, but am no longer ruled by anguish and am experiencing growing contentment.

If you are in the early stages of the intense pain that grief visits upon your very core, you can ignore this. I do not want to fast forward you through the process. A few months after Gary died, I frantically did internet searches in an attempt to find “solutions” to alleviate my pain. Each article I read sent me into a full-blown tantrum. How could anyone possibly claim that it took time to get better, that my anguish would eventually lessen and mostly go away?

Early on, someone offered the unsolicited platitude that I would be fine, that I would grow and change as a result of my grief, I would blossom, I would….

I wanted to punch them in the face!

I do not intend to take away your pain. It belongs to you. You can hold it for however long it takes to trudge through it. And the trudging is hard, so goddamned hard. There’s no specialty brand of shoes, no magic formula, no magic pill to make it easier.

For those of you in the early stages of this trek, know that I walk beside you and hold you in my heart through this dark, scary time.

As Good as it Gets . . . for now

There’s a great scene in the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good as it Gets” where he barges into his psychiatrist’s office without an appointment. When the psychiatrist sends him away, he walks through a packed waiting room, pauses, turns to the patients and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?” Off camera, someone gasps. Everyone else just stares at him.

One year and one month after my husband of 46 years died and left me to redefine myself with a new label—Widow—I had an appointment with my therapist. I’d been off and on weepy for a couple of days, suspecting we were nearing the end of the journey she had guided me through. I was reluctant for our relationship to end. She’s someone I can sit across from and uncage all my emotions. To me, they’re terrifying gargoyles, yet she never once flinched when I sent the demons flying in her direction. However, over the past couple of months, they’ve calmed down and are increasingly content to snuggle, purring, at my feet.

We talked about how I was doing and reflected on the past 13 months.

Gary died on March 15th—the Ides of March, which was ironic given that his favorite Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar. If you’re unfamiliar with ancient history, Julius Caesar had named himself dictator in perpetuity of the Roman Republic. Soon after, members of the Roman Senate were, like, “Yeah, well we don’t like Caesar all that much, especially not enough to put up with him forever.” But according to law, they couldn’t vote him out.

A few conniving senators gathered and got all hopped up on whatever the Roman’s hopped-up beverage of choice was and decided to call a special senate session with two agenda items: (1) Bring a knife hidden under your fancy toga; and (2) Be prepared to use it.

At the appointed signal, they surrounded Caesar and stabbed him to death—on the Ides of March.

A few days before Gary’s death, he mentioned this play. As if foretold, he died from complications of diabetes exactly 2,065 years after Julius Caesar. Remarkably, Gary survived a nearly recording-breaking 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes. Despite the care he had taken to survive for so long, the devastating effects of his disease conspired to attack all at once— pneumonia, kidney failure, heart failure. Like Caesar, his death was an ambush.

Life is strange. Death, it seems, can be even stranger.

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I’ve dealt with dozens of widows through my work as a financial advisor. I have a few close friends who were widowed years ago. I’d learned that the first year is awful, the second year nearly as bad, and the third year begins to offer some relief from the pit of dreadful emotions. Despite my enlightenment, my adult children worried about me. Even though I tried to shield them from the gruesome details of my sorrow, they saw through my guise, feared for my sanity and urged me to seek professional help.

I confessed I was a broken-down mess, but argued that this was normal. Eventually, in an effort to placate them, I asked a therapist friend for a referral and based upon her recommendation, contacted Carol.

She was full up until the end of June. Fine by me. I didn’t want to see her anyway.

When I went to my first appointment in early July, I wore snappy business clothes so Carol would recognize me as a woman of corporate steel, someone fully capable of dealing with whatever monkey dung life flung at me. Moments after I sat on her couch, she asked about my situation.

Tears and snot burst from me like an erupting volcano. I tossed the F-word around like beads at Mardi Gras. I spewed my anger at myself for feeling weak and overwhelmed, feeling tired all the time, being confused and forgetful, and hating people who said things to try to make me “better,” but only made me feel worse.

After a bit, I paused and said, “I’m sorry, but I say fuck a lot.”

She said, “I don’t fucking care.”

I knew she was the therapist for me.

Over the months after Gary died, my anger towards people consumed me and caused me to be filled with guilt. I’d been raised to allow others to express anger, but not me, oh no, not me. I’d grown up with the notion that I should react to people with love, not anger. In Carol’s office, I covered my weeping face with my hands and rocked back and forth. I was a horrible person for hating people when they said inane bullshit. I should look beyond their words and honor their attempts to soothe me.

And you know what Carol said? My wonderful, savior Carol? “During times like this, people say things to make themselves feel better. You were raised in an era when women had to bury their feelings in order to be socially acceptable and take care of others. You don’t have to do that anymore. Anger and hatred can sometimes be useful emotions to propel us forward, to help us take action.”

I’m forever grateful to her for this.

I never—well, let’s say very rarely—unleashed my anger onto others. Not because I’m a saint, but because I’ve learned enough in this life to know I’d have to later apologize. Quite frankly, I’m too lazy to expend that type of energy.

Over the following months, Carol guided me through exercises where I wrote scathing letters to those who had ignited my ire. After I read them to her, I was not to send them, but to shred them. This went a long way towards allowing me to maybe not actually like these people, but to not hate them as much.

In my last session with Carol, she praised my hard work. As much as I am tempted to avoid it, I sit with my grief—not all day, every day, but begrudgingly make a place for it whenever the bitch barges in uninvited. I allow myself to experience true anguish even when I fear it will kill me. I have a group of supportive friends who I interact with on a regular basis. I accept myself for being a mess because, fact is, I was a mess and sometimes still am.

When Carol asked if I wanted to continue seeing her, I pointed to a cupboard in her bookshelf and asked, “Do you have any ecstasy tablets in there?” She laughed and said no. “In that case, can I keep you on speed dial if I need you in the future?” She said yes.

For now, this is as good as it gets—long stretches before sadness sneaks up from behind and shoves me to the ground, feeling joy in moments that call for it, gratitude for family and friends and even towards those who said lousy things that once pissed me off—at least they cared enough to say something. I’m having fewer anxiety attacks, my mental capacity is improving, and I don’t fight as much against this process—a onetime formidable foe.  

Without my guide Carol, I would not be here. I’d be lagging far behind on the grief path, lugging a heavy pack filled with sorrow, anger, hatred, self-judgement, shame and vulnerability. Over the months of our hiking together, she gave me permission to toss bits of these aside and lighten my load.

Don’t get me wrong, this hike is far from over. My load still feels heavy at times. Whenever I’m distracted, those pesky demons tend to slither back into my pack. But I’m stronger than I was a year ago and the burden is not as hard to carry.           

Press P for Panic

It was two days after my granddaughter Lilla’s first birthday. I returned home from the Bay Area yesterday afternoon after spending time with her and her family to celebrate this momentous occasion. I went to bed feeling grateful for all my healthy, happy kids and grandkids.

About three in the morning, I woke with my heart racing and stomach upset. I feared I was having a heart attack. Couldn’t be, I decided—for no other reason than I didn’t want to be having a heart attack. Probably just gas from the burrito I ate for dinner. I tried shifting into different positions, hoping that would alleviate the discomfort. After an hour with no relief, it occurred to me that this was a severe panic attack.

I’ve had mild anxiety attacks over the course of my life, but only one other severe one—on my birthday in March 2021, nine days after my husband Gary died. My son and daughter were with me and friends were bringing lunch to celebrate my achievement of surviving another year.

About an hour before they arrived, my heart started racing. I was nauseated and lightheaded. I tried to banish the feelings with deep breathing. I felt I was going to faint. I’d once read that if you feel faint, you should sit and put your head between your knees. I gave it a try. Staring at the floor, I noticed it could use a good vacuuming. I refocused on my dire circumstances and diagnosed myself with a panic attack. I staggered to a kitchen cabinet, took out my prescription of lorazepam and ate one.

The sickening feeling persisted for another fifteen minutes. I reclined on the sofa, seriously concerned I might die. I was afraid of the effect this would have on the kids. This had the potential to become one of those salacious stories told to future generations who would shake their heads in astonishment—what a horrible legacy to leave where one parent dies and a week and a half later, the other drops dead.

At four this morning, I got up and wobbled down the stairs on shaking legs to the kitchen and ate a lorazepam. I made a nest on the sofa and tried to go back to sleep. If I was indeed having a heart attack, it would be easier for the paramedics to cart me out of the house from the living room and not have to navigate the stairway from my bedroom. It would also be easier for the mortuary removal people in the event the EMT’s weren’t able to get here before death nabbed me.

I don’t know how long before my symptoms lessened and I was able to sleep. When I woke at seven, my heart no longer raced, but I still suffered what Southerners call the vapors—lightheaded and weak. I brewed coffee, hoping caffeine—that miracle drug—would make everything okay. It did not. I started drinking water, thinking maybe I hadn’t hydrated enough while traveling the day before. It took me the entire morning and several glasses of water to start feeling a bit normal.

At noon I ate lunch and cleaned up the kitchen. I must confess, I’m not a big fan of kitchen maintenance. I’m perfectly content to let pots and dishes pile up for a day or so before thinking, yeah, maybe I should do something about the situation. While cleaning, I listened to Frank Sinatra’s, “The Way You Look Tonight.” I love that song and listen to it at least twice a week. It makes me nostalgic for Gary, but not sad. Today, it surprised me by bringing tears that fell into the soapy suds of a pot I was cleaning. I had to stop scrubbing, sit in my crying chair at the kitchen table, put my hands over my face and weep.

What was going on? I hadn’t had a solid weeping session in weeks. I was fully prepared to report to my therapist that I’d turned a corner and was cured from this grief nonsense after a mere 11 months. Wow, look at me, ever the overachiever. From here on out I would waltz through sunny meadows, frolicking with butterflies and chirping birds.

As I wept, I realized that my archenemy grief had been waiting for me since February 10th, the one-year anniversary of Gary entering the hospital to begin his five-week journey towards death. Every moment of his 24 days in the hospital, I worried about him being alone. It was Covid Time with no family allowed. Every moment, I worried I would get a call to say there was nothing more to be done, to come pick him up, bring him home and figure it out by myself. Every moment, I was terrified, absolutely terrified.

A few days after Gary entered the hospital, our beautiful granddaughter Lilla was born. When I got the news, I cried so hard with a combination of happiness and sadness that Gary wasn’t with me to relish the news that I thought I’d have an aneurysm. I wanted us to celebrate this new, precious life together, share our joy in person, smile with sheer delight into a Face Time call. but we could not—and there was nothing I could do to make it so.

The following weeks were a whirligig ride with an evil carnie on an extended cigarette break, unwilling to pull the stop lever. I was blessed to have family take time out of their busy schedules to be with me as we trudged through one frightening day after the other.

Three weeks after Lilla’s birth, she was loaded into a car with her two-year-old brother Parker and my brave son and daughter-in-law made their way from the Bay Area to Fort Bragg. It was Covid Time. I could not touch or hold my newborn granddaughter, but I could at least see her from a distance and marvel at her beauty.

By this time, Gary had been transported by ambulance to come home to die. His sister was also with us as well as daughter Laine, her fiancé Julian, daughter Jenn and granddaughter Nora. Son Garth and granddaughter Lyra spent a few days. It was chaos—a beautiful chaos that Gary thoroughly enjoyed until his last two days when the toxins of kidney failure took his brain hostage and rendered him unconscious.

***

I am grateful to have been with sweet Lilla to celebrate her first year of life. Yet lurking in the shadows was Gary’s absence. Also lurking was grief, that hideous monster I try so hard to avoid, yet revels in reminding me of that terrible time a year ago. I try, I really try to focus on the current good things, but during this one-year anniversary period most are overlayed with heartbreaking memories.

When I shared my panic attack experience with my therapist, she explained that what I’m feeling occurs at a cellular level. My mind can compartmentalize the events of a year ago and put them into perspective. But my body holds the trauma and gives the anniversary of Gary’s hospitalization and death the power to take me down, to transport me back to that time as if it is currently happening.

A year ago, I was in hyper-overdrive. My husband of 46 years, the father of my children, was dying. I didn’t have the luxury to feel the full weight of that trauma. A year later, my body reminds me. My body tells me it’s time. Time to fear I’m having a heart attack. Time to sit down and cover my face for the one-thousandth time and weep. It’s time to acknowledge that this was the worst, most horrendous period of Gary’s life, of my life, of my family’s life.

Six Things to Never Say to a Grieving Person

In March 2021, my husband of 46 years died and a 13-year-old girl took demonic possession of my emotions. I call her Tammy. I try to placate her with soothing tones, carrying scones and mocha lattes to her bedroom door. She opens the door (she’s a sucker for sweets), wearing her You’re Not the Boss of Me t-shirt, her fiery red mass of unruly curls swirling about her head. She snatches the food like the feral child she is, flips me off, and slams the door in my face.

Tammy horrifies me. I was raised to be a good girl and avoid burdening people with my anger or negative feelings. Better to keep such unpleasantness under wraps. Tammy isn’t burdened by such nonsense.

In the months since Gary died, I am astonished by the outpouring of love and support I’ve received. I am grateful, oh so grateful. It shocks me how angry Tammy becomes when people make comments that, while intended to provide comfort, do just the opposite. This consumes her with a rage that embarrasses me, one that I wrestle to control. But she will not be tamed. It’s true that one of the steps in the grief process is anger, but another is acceptance, which makes me feel I need to embrace Tammy. Maybe I can hug her so tightly that I squeeze the very life out of her.

Whenever Tammy encounters someone who says an absurd thing, she snarls, “Don’t pity her.” When people stop pitying me, she whines, “Why aren’t you pitying her?” When they try again, she snaps, “Don’t pity her.”

Pity her. Don’t pity her. Pity her. Don’t pity her. On and on it goes. It’s debilitating.

Recently, Tammy duct taped me to a chair and forced me to compile the following list of things to never say to a grieving person. I balked, not wanting to offend or hurt anyone. She got into my face and screamed “You’re a widow! You can do whatever the hell you want for at least the first year!”

#1 At least he’s no longer suffering

“Oh really?” Tammy spits. “At least?” She wonders why people try to throw this measly life preserver when I’m drowning in my darkest moments. This comment does nothing to ease my pain and causes Tammy to shriek as she stomps up the stairs to her bedroom and slams the door. She opens it to shout, “Screw you!” before slamming it again and again. It’s exhausting and humiliating. I want tie her up, throw her into the back of a white-paneled van and ship her off to a school for troubled teens in Utah.

#2 He had a long, good life

Tammy wonders if people honestly think this offers comfort. She’s drawn her switchblade. (Before joining me, she belonged to a gang.)

Gary did have a long life, mostly good, but deeply affected by the devastating effects of 65 years of living with juvenile diabetes, effects most people know nothing about. His last 10 years were spent dealing with diminished eyesight, mobility and kidneys. He valiantly struggled through each day and remained grateful for what he did have. He was still grateful when he made the difficult decision to come home from the hospital to die. If he’d had a choice, he wouldn’t have chosen death.

Tammy wants people to stop assuming any life was either long or good. It was a life. And it’s over. Grieving people don’t care how long a life was, they want more.

#3 There’s hope for a brighter future

Tammy hates this more than anything. Even more than kale.

If anyone has experienced the intense grief of losing a loved one, one of the last things Tammy wants them to say is that their journey was like a flower that slowly blossomed and left them feeling more radiant than before. This perspective comes years after their loss. Tammy doesn’t want them trying to fast forward me through this process by giving me an end result. They think they’re helping, but they’re not. I cannot fathom such a future and right now these comments only make me sadder because my flower is wilted and rotting. And Tammy wants to kick them in the stomach.

Instead, tell me that at first you were buried up to your neck in raw, stinking sewage. As the pipes unclogged and the sewage began to recede, you could at least move, but it was nearly impossible to trudge forward with it up to your chest, then waist, then knees. Finally, after many months—perhaps years—the muck was at ankle level. By then the struggle had gotten you into Navy Seal training shape and you were able to strut out, hose yourself down, hold your fists high and claim victory. But only partial victory because the mild odor of grief will cling to you forever.

#4 Focus on the good things in your life

Tammy narrows her black eyes and seethes, “If you happen to see any sustainable good things in her life, I’ll let YOU focus on them. Right now I want to punch you in the face.”

Just when I’m able to rise a bit out of the muck and periscope my head from side to side to spy one tiny good thing here and another there, a tragedy strikes. My brother-in-law died suddenly at the end of August. In mid-September, on the morning of my daughter’s wedding, my 91-year-old mother had a major stroke and lingers in a state of limbo. A dear friend died in late September, and another at the end of October. Another close family member died in mid-December. On New Year’s Day, the infant daughter of a young, dear friend was found dead in her crib.

Each of these events belly flopped me back into the cesspool of gloom and made Tammy go wild! She burst out of the house and ran cursing and screaming down the street.

#5 I feel so bad for you living in that big old house all by yourself

I swear, if another person says this to me, I’ll let Tammy have at them with her brass knuckles. Tammy wonders if they understand when they say this that they put me in the position of defending my choice to stay in our family home. A home where we raised our children. A home that comforts and nurtures me daily.

Tammy’s interpretation is that they want me to make them feel better by closing off rooms, confining myself to the living room with a hot plate, chamber pot, a garden hose run through an open window, and a cot. Tammy wonders if it would it make them feel better if I left this big, old house and moved to a smaller place, possibly an alley house where nobody has to worry about me rattling around. Or am I being selfish by staying here and hogging more than my fair share of square footage on this earth? Should I relinquish it to others—perhaps a nice, young couple with two kids, a dog, a couple of cats, and a ferret?

Tammy wants people to know that wherever I live, I’ll be by myself. It’s not like I’m a hermit. I have an active social life. Right now, figuring out how to live alone is an integral part of my grief process. I’m much better off navigating this from a home I love, a place I shared with my family for 30 years.

Tammy wants these people to shut the hell up. Remember, she has duct tape and is not afraid to use it.

#6 Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you

I’m grateful for these generous offers, but they make Tammy clench her fists. She says, “She doesn’t know what she wants from moment to moment. Even though you’ve left the door open to respond to whatever she needs, she’s not capable of reaching out to ask for anything.”

My therapist suggests being specific when offering to help someone. “I’m going to the store today and wonder if there’s anything I can pick up for you.” If the answer is nothing, say, “I’ll bring you a meal from the deli. Does a salad or something you can warm up sound better to you?” Or, “Let’s take a walk this weekend. Would you prefer Saturday or Sunday? What time would you like, one or two o’clock?”

A friend once told me that she contacts people who are suffering and asks, “What do you need right now? What do you need today?” Sometimes they say nothing, but most of the time the responses are magic: “I need a latte.” “I need someone to bring me dinner.” “I need a walk.” She continues to reach out, not often, but maybe every month or so in an effort to not overwhelm them.

Tammy pulls her wild hair back, ties it with a scrunchy and nods approval. She knows that every smartphone has a calendar where this type of outreach can be scheduled on a recurring basis. If you truly want to help someone, do these things.

***

I pretty much hate Tammy. She’s a deep source of my shame. But I also love the way she steps up to fiercely defend me during this fragile emotional time. Someday I may be able to send her to finishing school where she’ll cut her hair, become more polished and learn to control herself. In the meantime, she’s a fitting vessel for my anger.

***

I just locked Tammy in a closet while I confess that I understand that people extend their hearts to provide comfort and help ease my suffering. People don’t intend their words to cause Tammy to burst into flames. Before I experienced Gary’s death, I’m certain I said many things that sent grieving people to the internet to shop for voodoo dolls.

Tammy is yelling at me through the closet door. “You need to tell them! Tell them now!”

Throughout this journey, I once got her calmed down enough to help me compile a list of what we consider the only things that need to be said:

  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I’m holding you in my heart.
  • This sucks so bad.
  • Give a warm hug and say, “I love you.”
  • Say nothing, bow your head in reverence, and listen . . .simply listen.

Zen & Grief Goulash with a side of Onion Rings

It’s four days before Thanksgiving. I sit in my car in the parking lot of the Boatyard Shopping Center, chowing down onion rings and contemplating going home to dig into the snickerdoodle dairy-free ice cream I purchased earlier. I think about what I told my therapist a mere two days ago.

I said I’d been feeling pleasantly “normal” for the past couple of weeks. When she brought up my decision to be by myself on Thanksgiving, I said I was at peace with it. I anticipated that it was going to be okay. It might be bad, but that doesn’t matter. I have experienced so many awful, debilitating days since my husband Gary died—particularly in the first five or so months—that at eight months in I’m not afraid of having more.

How very enlightened. Yay for me!

Then earlier this morning I went to Harvest Market.

I ran into a long-time acquaintance. I hadn’t seen her in a few years. She’s a good, kind person and I like her a lot. We hugged and she asked if my kids were coming home for Thanksgiving.

“No,” I said. I don’t believe I said it with gloom in my voice—just stated it as a simple fact.

Her expression turned from sadness to anguish when she asked if I had plans to have dinner with other people and I said, “No, I’m okay.” Tears formed in her eyes.

Aw…crap, I made her cry. I swatted my hand in her direction and said, “It’s okay. It’s my choice. It’s what I want to do this year.” I could feel my defenses start to bristle. Was I supposed to make her feel better by explaining my daughter and her husband were on their honeymoon; that my son and his family were spending the holidays with his in-laws?

“Do you want to come to our house for dinner?”

 I held my palm up, waving it from side to side as if to erase her. “Thank you so much, but no. I promise, I’m okay. I’m fine.”

I wanted to say, “You don’t need to pity me. I’m going to have coffee and pie with friends the morning of Thanksgiving. On the day before, I’m having brunch with a friend. On the Saturday after, I’m having a group over for a Friendsgiving. Oh, and I’m going on a walk later today with a friend and with another on Tuesday. Look at me—wow! So popular!” Instead, I said it was good to see her, paid the checker and hustled out of the store.

As I drove home, I started to cry. Even though I had made the decision to be mostly by myself on Thanksgiving, I felt pathetic. I’d had plenty of dinner invitations, but I didn’t want to accept any of them. When I made this choice, I envisioned curling up on the sofa in my pajamas and staying there all day. As the holiday grows closer, that sounds dreadful. But the fact is I don’t want to do anything—and I also don’t want to do nothing. I feel like a toddler having to choose between two options—she doesn’t want either and starts to wail and thrash about.

Goddamnit!

I miss Gary and his crazy passion for the holiday season, beginning with Halloween and rolling into the New Year. He especially loved Thanksgiving. He was raised “old school,” and a stickler for the traditional meal—turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, canned cranberry sauce—but was gracious when he passed on what he considered an “exotic” dish like cheesy potatoes or homemade cranberry-orange sauce. None of that fancy stuff for him! He delighted in the leftover turkey sandwiches he made for days afterward.

Over the past two weeks, I avoided the emotional logistics of being alone in my house for the first time in my life on this holiday—no kids, no grandkids, no dear friends. My action plan? I’d decorate for Christmas! I love Christmas and by then I’ll be surrounded by family. I can warm the hearts of random inquisitors by stating that yes, my children will be coming home. I’ll focus on that. Oh yes, I will. I’ll ignore Thanksgiving all together. Look at me, so sassy and clever. Yay for me! I successfully eluded grief by zigging here, zagging there, confusing it so it couldn’t find me and take me down.

Despite my mad dashing, grief kept creeping up behind, lightly tapping me on the shoulder, annoyingly trying to get my attention. “Go away,” I’d whisper. “Don’t ruin everything by making me cry and draining my energy.”

I returned home from the store, brought the grocery bags inside, sat down on a kitchen chair, and bawled for a solid 15 minutes. Gary loved Christmas. He was no longer here to enjoy it. He’d never again be here to enjoy it.

I would have continued crying, but there was the snickerdoodle ice cream threatening to melt. I hadn’t bought a frozen treat in a long time and I’d be damned if I was going to let grief destroy it.

I needed onion rings!

I put the groceries away and called David’s Deli to place the order. You cannot cry with your mouth full of onion rings. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you.

I picked up the food and sat in my car in the parking lot next to the Tesla charging stations. (You can’t take onion rings home and have the same flavor experience of eating them fresh out of the deep fryer. If you do, they cool just enough to make you realize how soaked in grease and terrible they are for you. I swear, never do this.)

Was I lying when I acted all Zen in front of my therapist? After eating a few onion rings dipped in tartar sauce, I decided no. I’m not afraid of grief. I just don’t want to invite it. Eight months into this shit show, I’m done with it. “Ha!” says grief. “I’ve been trying for two weeks to get your attention.” Losing patience, it finally crashed the party.

And now I’m home and feel worse than before. Goddamned onion rings didn’t help at all.

This morning probably should have taught me to make room for grief. Instead, it taught me that grief doesn’t care if I make room. Whether I like it or not, it occupies a permanent space in my life from here on out. It’s a filthy squatter that doesn’t pay rent—one I can never evict. Over time, I can try to clean it up, teach it some manners, and together we might one day peacefully coexist.

In the meantime, grief makes me sad. Just plain sad. And I hate it. I truly hate it.

Justine Lemos – at One Yoga

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

JustinecovidWhen I first spoke with Justine about her yoga studio and related businesses, I was impressed by her wealth of education and experience. Since leaving the Mendocino Coast several years ago, she’s lived in a number of places around the world, yet chose to return and settle here with her family. You can read her original interview here: https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/01/03/justine-lemos/

A few days before the March shelter in place orders went into effect, Justine closed her yoga studio. Overnight, she went from offering 25 classes a week to online live streaming nearly every day. She was concerned with how SIP would impact her clients and the staff at the studio. “Before owning the yoga studio I taught college classes online. I have also  taught many online courses as an Ayurvedic practitioner. So I was already set up with much of the technology for live streaming yoga,” she said. “I reached out to my yoga students to offer them an alternative way to continue taking yoga. Unfortunately, some of my clients don’t have access to devices or the internet. For those who aren’t technically savvy, I offered support to get them set up.”

Justine converted her yoga space into a film studio with professional cameras, lighting and microphones. She concurrently livestreams and films each class. The videos are placed on her website where they can be accessed on demand for studio members. “The post-class editing can take three to four hours. “As a result, I now spend more time on technology than teaching. The technology aspect is sometimes frustrating.

“Some people get upset if they can’t take their favorite class at their former time slot. I explain that I have to work around the time constraints of editing and having an 11-year old child who now needs to be homeschooled.”

In late June, Governor Newsom announced the reopening of certain places, including gyms. “I could have opened the yoga studio with social distancing and masks or begun teaching classes outside. I polled my students to ask if they’d be willing to return to the studio and wear masks. The vast majority said no. I felt it best to take an abundance of caution and stay closed. There’s a reason for an ordinance against gatherings. A few weeks later, we would have been forced to close when new orders were issued.”

Justine is grateful to be able to move her business online. “This shift actually gives me growth opportunities. It allows me to expand my reach beyond a limited local population to clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Arizona, Florida and the United Kingdom.” Justine feels incredibly grateful that the Community Foundation and West Company gave at One Yoga a business resiliency grant to help with the transition to online streaming.

She hopes this current crisis will result in our area becoming less dependent upon tourism. “I’m certain we’ll survive as a species, but it will be very hard for small businesses to survive. When this passes, I think the world will look radically different.”

Justine puts her circumstances into perspective by comparing them to the times she spent living in rural India. She and her husband lived in small villages off and on for a few years. “Even with shelter in place, our current existence is way easier. In India, whenever we needed to buy something that had to be refrigerated, we traveled an hour each way in a very crowded bus.”

Justine encourages support for local businesses. “If you can’t give money, reach out and ask, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ Maybe you could run an errand or simply let them know you’re thinking about them. There’s an incredible amount of pressure on working parents with children at home. As a business owner, whenever someone expresses gratitude, it means a great deal.”

Visit Justine’s website for detailed information about her classes: https://www.at1yoga.com/

Myles Anderson – Anderson Logging

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

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For decades Anderson Logging has provided jobs that have helped support many families along the Mendocino Coast. From an early age, Myles developed a passion for working in the woods and learned the value of people taking care of one another in this dangerous occupation. As he moved out of the woods and into running the family business, he’s continued this practice. You can read my initial interview with him here: https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/03/29/myles-anderson-2/

Under the shelter in place orders, Anderson Logging is deemed an essential business. Myles is grateful to keep his crews employed and is working hard to keep them safe. “We are not open to the public and most of the regulations impacting businesses are focused on those that cater to the public,” he says. “However, through a combination of our own ideas and those learned from industry trade associations, we devised prevention measures to keep our employees and their families safe from potential exposure.”

After a lifetime spent in the logging business, Myles says, “Every year I think I’ve seen it all, and every year I’m reminded how wrong I am. We always need to be prepared to adapt and react to change. Long before Covid-19, our business prioritized the safety and well-being of our employees.

“We have approximately 90 employees who enter and leave our facility daily. Every morning, I check their temperatures. They are required to stay in their personal vehicles and not allowed to congregate until the transport vehicle picks them up. We keep crews that work together away from the other crews. Masks are required when riding in transport vehicles and everyone must use hand sanitizer before break and lunch.

“At the end of the day, employees are dropped off at their vehicles and leave our facility. Any contact with employees after work is done over the phone.”

After the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, Myles may ease some of the company’s prevention measures. Ultimately, this decision will depend upon what his employees need to feel safe. “I’m concerned that the restrictions will cause many families to lose their immune systems. Keeping some of these in place will benefit them.”

In contemplation of future restrictions, Myles says, “We try our best to comply with all rules and regulations. I hope any future orders are well thought out and discussed with business leaders prior to implementation. Painting rules with a broad stroke is damaging. Rules that protect employees in one industry may not do anything for employees in another.”

As for the future of our coastal community, Myles is concerned about another pandemic. “There are many things other than a virus that could cause similar issues. People in urban areas are much more susceptible to virus spread because of the density of people and public transportation systems. A potential problem for Fort Bragg is people flocking here to get away from those areas and bringing their hazards to us.”

While Myles agrees with others that it’s important to spend money locally, he also believes that the industries along our coast need support. “This can come in the form of a conversation with friends or writing letters to newspapers and elected officials. We should all agree that we need to work together to sustain what industry we have left.

“Support for logging is a good example. It is hard, dangerous and seasonal work. Through careful management of the industrial timberlands around our community, we can continue to provide jobs and produce the most environmentally-regulated wood products in the world.”

Megan Caron – Lost Coast Found

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

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Megan returned to the Mendocino Coast four years ago for many of the same reasons other young pioneers come back—weary of city living, wanting to raise children where they’d been raised, and hoping to use their energies to revitalize our community. Soon after her arrival, she opened the vintage shop Lost Coast Found in the Larry Spring building on Redwood Avenue. https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/10/02/megan-caron/

Unlike other shop owners, Megan says she wasn’t fazed by the shelter in place order.

“It seems like everyday something shocking takes place. The current administration has forced many of us to become desensitized. When I think about what’s happening to this planet—children in cages, criminals in the White House—a pandemic just kind of seems like icing on the cake.”

Similar to other retailers, Megan considers the ramifications of future shelter in place orders and is considering the addition of an online store. “My brick and mortar will always be a priority because creating space and human interaction is what I enjoy. I have never really shopped online—except for that one time, but I was doing research on Scandinavian linens.” She laughs. “I find online shopping dull and unfulfilling. During these tumultuous times, I have confidence in the secondary market. I believe people are catching onto the idea of conscious consumerism, but as with every change in behavior, it takes time.”

Megan is grateful to Anne Maureen McKeating, the owner of the Larry Spring building. “She isn’t charging rent as long as I am unable to open. I wish more landlords were so kind. I am worried about our downtown community and hope landlords realize there is more value in keeping a current tenant than waiting a year for a new one to come along.”

Lost Coast Found reopened on June 12 and Megan has to limit customers to one or two people at a time. “The shop is too small to fit more than that. I want people to have a relaxing experience. I don’t want them to worry if they’re six feet away from someone.”

Given the number of employers who are allowing employees to telecommute, Megan believes Fort Bragg is more attractive to outsiders than ever before. “I guarantee we’ll make it on ‘The Top 10 Small Towns In Which To Survive A Pandemic’ list.  Over the last three years, a constant stream of tourists have come into my shop and asked, ‘So what’s it like to live here?’ I say it’s a great place if you can afford to buy a house. It can be impossible to find a rental unless you have a local connection. I tell them about our need for working professionals, trades people, entrepreneurs, and community volunteers.

“Like it or not, an influx of people will move here. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Buying up housing for vacation rentals is what has devastated coastal communities. Building new homes will help our economy.

“When people move here, they bring money and this town desperately needs money. Fort Bragg has struggled to financially maintain its downtown and the current crisis will only make that more difficult.”

Megan finds hope for the future of our community in people like her customer Joanne.  “She lives in Fremont and is selling her home. She’s dreamed of having a tea room and Fort Bragg seems the right place. Joanne has the capital to buy one of the downtown dilapidated commercial buildings and will make it beautiful again.”

https://www.facebook.com/lostcoastfound/

Lost Coast Found is open 11:30-5:00 Wednesdays through Saturdays.

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Amberly Reynolds Caccamo – Reynolds Men’s Wear and Wrens

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward. They are truly the new pioneers of the Mendocino Coast.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

Amberlycovid1

Each story shared by the returnees I’ve interviewed has left an impression on me, but Amberly’s touched me deeply. Not only did she keep a beloved and long-running family business going through the Great Recession, she managed to survive cancer while pregnant with her youngest child. You can read her interview here: https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/07/12/amberly-reynolds-caccamo/

Despite rising above previous challenges, Amberly initially found the business ramifications of the shelter in place order overwhelming. She struggled between wanting her family and community to stay safe and keeping her business afloat.

“By the time the SIP order was issued, I had already closed Wren’s and was grappling with closing Reynolds,” she says. “In early March, my 11-year-old son and I went to New York City with his class to participate in the Montessori Model United Nations. We returned on the tenth. When we left, there were more Covid cases in California than New York. Upon our return, we learned how rampant it was in New York City.  I put myself and the kids in quarantine and we hunkered down.”

Amberly despairs at the fact that the pandemic has pushed people to make needed purchases online. “Before this, I had plenty of customers who bought clothing from us, even though it was only a click away on their computer.” She’s being forced to make some tough decisions on how to move forward. “It breaks my heart, but I’ll have to combine my two shops into one. I hate to see another empty building on Franklin Street, but I cannot afford two rents and to staff two shops.

“Reynolds Men’s Wear has been in my family 54 years and was a men’s clothing store for 43 years before that. We are nearing our centennial. We have weathered more than a few storms. During the economic period of high inflation in the late seventies and early eighties, my parents spent most days sitting at a window table in the Fort Bragg Bakery across the street from the shop watching for the occasional customer. They managed to survive that difficult time.

“I am steeped in the tradition of this shop. It’s a part of me and makes me who I am. When I help customers find exactly what they need, I feel a giddy satisfaction. This pushes me to carefully select products. I am working on an online presence, but it’s not nearly as much fun as seeing people face-to-face.

“At this point, we are offering limited customer access to the stores and curbside pickup Wednesdays through Saturdays from 12:00-4:00. It’s been nice to see a few faces again—even if they are behind masks.”

Amberly is grateful that her husband’s business, Caccamo Construction, has been able to operate. She enjoys being at home with her three sons. “I see a lot of value in slowing down, and that is a huge part of my decision to merge my two stores. It will give me more freedom to be with my family. We love watching our plants grow, raising goats, and hanging with our chickens. Our dog is so happy to have kids home all day.”

Amberly encourages people to call or visit her shop. “See if we have what you need before you hop online to order. Share our Facebook posts. Interact with our Instagram posts, all of that helps to make us more visible to the public.”

https://www.facebook.com/wrensboutique/

https://www.reynoldswren.com/

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Forging a Path through the Pandemic: Young Pioneers of the Mendocino Coast

Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen people who grew up along the Mendocino Coast and couldn’t wait to move away, believing they’d never return. But return they did, to establish businesses or professional careers. Some also chose this place to raise children, to nurture them in the small town values that shaped their own childhoods.
These are a new wave of pioneers who, like their forebearers, use intelligence and  imagination to forge a vibrant path. In exchange for the privilege of being able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, they work long, hard hours.
The shelter in place orders due to Covid-19 have knocked many down, but they are devising ways to get back up and resume their vision of what it means to live here.
They have open minds and are digging deep to find solutions.
They have entrepreneurial spirits that will spawn innovations to move them forward.
We are so fortunate to have them here—especially during this trying time. 

***

Sarena Breed – Frame Mill Art Works

SarenaCovid1I met Sarena in 2017 when I interviewed her for my blog. She had recently purchased the Frame Mill Art Works. As a first-time business owner, she worried about her ability to succeed. Despite the challenges of learning to run a shop, she’s seen her business grow and is happy she made the decision. https://ithappenedatpurity.com/2017/06/02/sarena-breed/

She was surprised in March 2020 when nonessential businesses in Mendocino County were forced to close under the shelter in place orders. “A week before the shutdown, I had celebrated my third year in business,” she says. “I noticed things had gotten slower, but expected to continue to operate with some mandated adjustments.”

The Sunday before the order took effect, she spent the day cleaning her store and making changes to keep employees and customers safe. “I separated tools and work areas so everyone in the back room could maintain social distancing. I drafted a sign for the front door asking customers to social distance. I didn’t imagine I would have to close the shop.”

With her routine suddenly disrupted, Sarena says, “I felt I was going through the stages of grief. This was the death of something.”

In addition to the temporary closure of her shop, her eighth grade daughter’s middle school was closed. “Sadly, her class had to settle for a virtual promotion ceremony this year.” Despite these losses, she’s grateful that her husband’s job as an utility arborist is considered essential and he has continued to work.

She began attending webinars on how small businesses can adapt during this time.

The core of Sarena’s business is meeting with clients face-to-face to discuss ways in which a project can be framed. “I love picture framing and don’t like spending much time on the computer. With the doors shut, I realized I had no direct way of communicating with clients. I felt cut off from the folks who came into the store. I wanted to reach out and say a simple hello and give updates, but didn’t have that capability.”

During the shutdown period, the feeling of isolation from her clients caused her to innovate. “I put in a point of sale system to collect email addresses. I’m started work on a website and Facebook and Instagram accounts. Going forward, I’ll continue to expand my online presence.”

Sarena was able to open her store on a limited basis the last week of May. “I looked outside that morning and thought we’ve all been like Sleeping Beauty and are starting to wake up. It feels great to see people again. Some come in just to make sure I was okay. Others pop their heads in to let me know they’re glad I’m open. I feel a great deal of support.” Her shop is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00-4:00.

Sarena is determined to move forward. She’s ordered inventory to stock the store for the Christmas season even though there may be shelter in place orders issued in the fall. If she’s forced to shut down again, she’ll be in a better position to communicate with customers and offer framing services by private appointment.

“This experience has given us time to contemplate the things that matter and to reevaluate. People seem to have an understanding that we’re all in this together and are being more patient. I feel a greater commitment to shopping locally and supporting our community.”

***

Since she re-opened, Sarena  is looking for a framer to join her team. Anyone interested can call her shop at 964-6464.

https://www.facebook.com/Frame-Mill-Artworks-106182994399181/

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