The Ineffability of a Hug

The Ineffability of a Hug

BEHIND THE SCENES:

 

SETTING: This morning, 6:30. Jan is sitting at her computer. Steve walks in with a cup of coffee.

STEVE: Are you going to walk this morning?

JAN: No, I’m going to work on a blog.

STEVE (Happy to know she’s writing): What are you going to write about?

JAN: “The Ineffability of a Hug.”

STEVE: Ohhh…what are you going to say?

JAN (after a slight pause): I don’t want to talk about it, because I’ll cry. That’s why I just want to get it all written in words.

STEVE (walks out of the room, sipping his coffee): Okay. 

I wrote that little scene to “show” the emotions behind my thoughts on hugs. Because to put it into words will be difficult–ineffable.

This past weekend, Tommy and Allie stayed with Steve and me while Adam and Emily went to Cleveland to look for a house. As you might imagine, the weekend was filled with joy, sadness, a few meltdowns (admittedly by each and every one of us at one point or another), and lots of memories.

But, I managed to hold back the tears through most of it, torn between whether it’s a good thing to let Tommy and Allie know how much I’ll miss them, or whether it would scare them to see Grandma cry.

The only time my eyes burned so hot, my lump in my throat got so big, and my eyes went from watering to brimming and overflowing were those times that Allie crawled into my lap, often saying, “I love you, Grandma.”

Just typing the words brings tears back to my eyes.

As I felt her head pressed against my chest, as I buried my nose in the scent of her hair, as I felt the weight of her little body pressed against mine, a flood of thoughts and memories filled me up and carried me away to the past and future.

When my children were small, and especially if I was experiencing some sort of challenge, like a day full of tantrums, or a night full of wakings, I remember holding them and rocking them, their heads pressed against my chest. I wondered if they could hear my heartbeat, and if it might comfort them.

But most of all, I remember telling myself it would all be over too quickly, and that even though I was tired and even though their crying might have interrupted sleep and I had to be up for work early in the morning, someday I would miss those hugs.

I imagined myself into the future, at a time when I truly did miss their childhood and their hugs. From that future, I imagined transporting myself back in time so that I could be with them as children again, feeling their little bodies, their unconditional love, smelling the scent of them, and listening to the sound of their breaths become rhythmic as they fell asleep.

So, as I hug any of my four grandchildren now, I’m back to the far, far future. Farther than I’d ever imagined as I used to hug my little kids.

Now, the brevity of childhood is no longer in my imagination. I know it all too well, which makes the hugs even more precious and dear.

Last night, I had a dream. It started out with a large group of people sitting on either side of long tables. We were to choose to sit across from a person whose story we wanted to know.

I suspect the dream had to do with the loss I’ve felt about the isolation of this pandemic–that it’s been so long since I’ve been able to sit across the table from someone and just talk.

As I sat, I began to talk to someone about sailing to Tortola. I was excited about the conversation, because I’ve been to Tortola twice, and I knew we’d have adventures to share.

But then, Allie came up to me and asked to sit in my lap. She crawled up and I wrapped my arms around her. As I felt her body drift to sleep, the conversations around me softened and the people began to blur, until all that was left to the dream was the hug.

Ineffable.

COVID Has Made Me Old Before My Time

COVID Has Made Me Old Before My Time

I blame the masks, in part.

At the deli case at Central Market, for example, I’m separated from the guys who slice and package my order not only by the refrigerated case of meats and cheeses, but also by the masks we all wear. I can scarcely see the servers, because the mask fogs up my glasses. And, I struggle to hear them, given that I can neither see their lips move nor fully read their expressions. So, I shout out my request and hope for no follow-up questions.

What makes that sad is that I like to banter with Mark in deli…and with Andre in security and Marcelo wherever I encounter him. Having been a regular at Central Market since it opened, I’ve long enjoyed seeing their familiar faces and knowing they recognize me as a result of some exchange we’ve had. Andre, for example, may not know my name, but over a decade ago, he rescued me when my car died in the parking lot. I was his first Prius. We bonded while poring over my owner’s manual to locate the battery, both of us astounded to find it in the trunk.

“…but my one-hour weekly trip to the grocery store had become my social life.”


These brief encounters grew more significant after the shutdown. I missed them when, for months, I ordered online and waited in my car while a temporary hire filled my trunk with food. When I went back into the store about six weeks ago, I recognized myself as one of those old ladies who teases out a little conversation from customers and employees alike. I do not show photos of grandchildren to the checker, but my one-hour weekly trip to the grocery store had become my social life.

After my dad turned 70, he joked that going to the doctor was his social life. I get it now. I look forward to having any appointment, even a medical one. There’s a little thrill in making a note on my calendar that I must go somewhere on a certain day at a certain time. I recently had my annual physical and a dental checkup. As it happens, scheduling my appointments was the only fun part. Getting my teeth cleaned was particularly stressful. The hygienist resembled an astronaut as she hovered above my prone self: I was a specimen on a slab. I took mild pleasure, however, in feeling purposeful.

“…I was a specimen on a slab. I took mild pleasure, however, in feeling purposeful.”

And, I had the rare opportunity of inviting the wallflowers hanging in my closet to accompany me on these occasions. For a couple of hours, I wore something other than my usual, slightly elevated version of pajamas. My actual pajamas are looking very tired. I’ve long had a rule about pajamas. In winter, no matter what time it is, when I come home for the day, with no plans to go back out or have anyone over, I’m allowed to take a hot shower and put on PJs and a warm robe. Since COVID, I have put no such seasonal restrictions on myself. Eating an early dinner in PJ’s is not something I’m proud to admit here, but it happens more and more.

The most fun I ever have is riding my bicycle. I’m outdoors, I’m among people, I’m doing something good for my health. The latter is, of course, another way I’ve grown old before my time. When the pandemic reached the U.S., my age became the number-one risk factor: I was over 65. Consequently, I began to fret about my health, something that, up until then, I had pretty much taken for granted. I upped my Vitamin D intake, started tracking my blood pressure, scrubbed down my canned goods and milk cartons, and wondered whether all that deep breathing in yoga had strengthened my lungs enough to keep me off a ventilator. Early on, I pulled into Kroger’s drive-thru pharmacy and unthinkingly spoke into the handset without wiping it down with a Clorox-saturated wipe. I thought I was a goner.

I survived. Since my close call, I’ve been living it up. I’ve cleaned out closets and cupboards. I’ve taken an inordinate amount of interest in collecting the mail and getting my bins to the street early. I’ve completed countless crossword and Sudoku puzzles. I’ve watched multiple episodes of Forensic Files. I’ve started going to bed at 9:30, even if I’ve enjoyed an afternoon nap. Of course, I’m always up by 5:30, before the newspaper hits the driveway.

I used to do more. I miss movies at the Angelika, lunch at Kalachandji’s, strolling idly through Target. I miss my cleaning lady and going to church. Even more, I miss seeing my family and taking a trip out of town. I missed an important wedding in May. These are losses, great and small. Getting old, of course, is all about loss. That’s something I learned watching my parents and in-laws grow old and die: They stopped driving, their friends died, their health failed. The losses mounted.

Yes, COVID has made me old before my time. It’s been instructive that way. I learned Zoom to keep up my yoga practice and to teach English to my adult students. To compensate for the loss of lunch dates, I re-discovered talking on the phone. I published a book of my family stories, then switched to others’ loved ones, in Oakland Cemetery. In the midst of loss and boredom and anxiety, I had to accept and to adapt. I’m hoping, when the pandemic eases, I can resume some of the life I’ve lost. But I’m not without gratitude for this suspension: It’s been an unexpected opportunity to practice what’s to come.
Perspectives from Across the Atlantic

Perspectives from Across the Atlantic

On March 11, the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced that Denmark would soon be going into lockdown. In just a few days, I would be celebrating my eleventh year as an American ex-patriot living in Denmark. It felt odd that schools, restaurants, movie theatres and shops would be closing down. It was surreal to see keep-your-distance markings painted on the floors by the grocery check-out lines and to chat with the cashier through a Plexiglas barrier. We watched the horrific footage of Corona virus as it gripped Italy and Spain. Things felt strange in an Orwellian sense and I experienced uncertainty, but not fear.

The Prime Minister had a plan—2.6 billion Danish kroner had been set aside to cover 75% of the salaries of employees from private Danish companies who would otherwise have been fired. The companies would need to pay the remaining 25%. Hourly wage earners who were out of work would receive 90% of their salaries, up to about 4100 in USD, from the Danish government. Small companies could also apply for assistance in the months to come if they showed at least a 30% decrease in income as a result of the pandemic.

My husband and I run two small businesses. The main one is a tutoring practice, where kids come after school for extra help with Danish, Math or English. We also have an editing and translations company. With the kids being out of school and families being told not to visit friends or relatives, we suddenly lost our students and no new students would be signing up for a while. We wanted to avoid asking the government for help, so we tried to focus more on translations and editing while knowing that if we had substantial income loss, we would be helped. This put us at ease.

We took walks around the neighborhood, making sure to observe social distancing protocol. We saw whole families walking together, and we were lucky that the endless rain of the last two months had passed. People seemed to be enjoying the nice weather and using the time to get more fresh air and exercise. Folks seemed mostly concerned about not spreading the virus to others, especially older people. Adults felt badly for the young people, who quickly grew restless. Teens, in particular, were extremely stressed out and disappointed about not being able to see their friends. Parties were cancelled, confirmations were cancelled, weddings were cancelled and so were concerts, festivals and sporting events, but despite these setbacks I sensed a strong feeling of solidarity among the population. It seemed that most people viewed it as their civic duty to keep others safe.

“Folks seemed mostly concerned about not spreading the virus to others…”

In 2007 I got engaged to Hans-Henrik, a Dane who had been working and living in the US for 26 years. We were living in New Rochelle, New York, which we loved, but after many years of working for others, we wanted to become self-employed, preferably from home. Hans-Henrik wanted to become a freelance translator and I wanted to break into language editing and proofreading after years of teaching ESL. I wanted something flexible, something that would allow me to pursue other passions that had always been put on the back burner—writing and singing. I was 45 at the time and HansHenrik, 56. To become entrepreneurs so late in life was damned risky.  

I would know. I had previously spent 11 months in LA helping a friend launch a company that got people out of foreclosure. My job was to interview applicants to determine their eligibility. Being eligible meant that the homeowner had 1) a legitimate hardship that prevented them from being able to pay their mortgage, and 2) a solution to the hardship and/or had a way to get caught up with their payments. Our job was to negotiate a realistic payment plan with the bank on behalf of our client.  

During that time, I heard hundreds of stories from people who were losing their homes and the circumstances that had led to it. And while I occasionally spoke to a person who had been irresponsible with their finances, most of the folks I interviewed had simply run into difficult situations that could have happened to anyone. They’d lost a job or a household wage-earner, or maybe they or a family member had become ill and racked up huge hospital bills and therefore insurmountable debt. I saw how easy it was to become destitute and yes, even homeless almost overnight. (This would later become the subject of a screenplay I wrote, but that is another story.) It was against this backdrop that we ventured to start our own business. 

Meanwhile, having never been to Scandinavia or Europe, I suggested holding our wedding in Demark, which we did in May of 2008. On our wedding night while gazing at the stars in a perfectly clear sky, it was my turn to pop a question. I asked Hans-Henrik how he would feel about moving back to Denmark. I think it caught him by surprise, but he seemed happy. His mother had recently turned 90 and though she was in good health, returning to Denmark meant he’d be able to spend time with her.  

When we told members of Hans-Henrik’s family about our idea, they were skeptical. They warned us that this wonderful weather we’d been having was record-breaking. (In Denmark the official weather service counts sunshine hours throughout the year because there are so few of them.) They reminded us that we were on our honeymoon and that perhaps we were viewing Denmark through fairytale eyes. Fairytale eyes or not, I fell in love with Denmark.

After returning to New York, we contacted the Danish Embassy and started an application for me to become a resident. We had to come up with about 10,000 dollars that would stay frozen in a bank account as security that I wouldn’t become a burden on the state should something happen. A year later we relocated to a suburb of Copenhagen, living with HansHenrik’s brother while we got established. 

Enjoy life

As soon as we arrived, I registered with the local municipal office. A couple of weeks later I received an insurance card and could enroll in free Danish language lessons. I obtained temporary residence for three years. Permanent residence depended on several things, including passing a Danish language exam and being economically self-sufficient. It was not enough that I was married to a DaneI needed to demonstrate that I was a contributing member of society and would not become a financial burden to the state. I had to prove that I had fulltime work.

Danes are called the happiest people in the world or a bunch of socialists, depending on who is talking.

 Danes are called the happiest people in the world or a bunch of socialists, depending on who is talking. The healthcare, higher education and assistance to those in need are not free. Danes pay a lot of taxes, yet a Gallup poll of 2014 showed that 9 out of 10 Danes were happy to pay taxes, and here I cite why: 

The reason behind the high level of support for the welfare state in Denmark is the awareness of the fact that the welfare model turns our collective wealth into well-being. We are not paying taxes. We are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life.

(Source: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-01-20/why-danes-happily-pay-high-rates-of-taxes ) 

When a government invests in its people, regardless of their race, sex, religion, or anything else, everyone has a chance to attain a decent quality of life. In terms of finances, anyone who wants an education can get it here, whether it be university, trade school or business school. If you come from a poorer family neither you nor they have to worry about whether they’ll be able to afford your education. The investment we make in the form of taxes is used to create an infrastructure that supports human resources.

Many argue that if you give people a handout, you make them lazy. This is not the case. The government doesn’t just give people handouts. If you lose your job and don’t have unemployment insurance, you can get financial aid under the proviso that you actively seek work. This means applying for jobs, going on interviews, and regularly reporting your progress. If too much time goes by, you may be urged to do some “volunteer work” (which you are already getting paid to do) or settle for work that was not your first choice. This works as an incentive for the person to look harder. I have also seen many people get offered further education to make themselves more employable. I have not even gone into minimum wage here, but suffice it to say, people do not have to work two jobs to have a roof over their heads, food and health care.

I love my life in Denmark and feel it is a privilege to be here. What has made me the happiest is that here I have been able to create a space for my art. Most of my adult life, I have allowed my anxiety about financial survival to overpower my desire to create art. I saw this keenly during the end of my Danish language school when I read a fictionalized diary of Hans Christian Andersen. I had never realized that at the age of 14, he left his home town for Copenhagen to be a performing artist and writer with absolutely no guarantee of any kind. He was a tight rope walker without a net—something I have not been willing to do but deeply admire in others.  

“Rather than making me lazy, that net is what makes me braver and more productive.”

What I discovered, though, is that I like having that net beneath me. Rather than making me lazy, that net is what makes me braver and more productive. As I have had the chance to live in different countries outside of the US—Japan and Denmark—and personally experienced how it is to live in different societal structures, I have seen that it is possible to have a civic set-up that cares for the well-being of all without endangering the wealth and stature of the country.  

I am not saying that our system is perfect. No system really is, but from what I can see, it works.

And I admit that it is unfair to compare a country the size of Denmark to the United States. However, when I sit on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and hear criticism of the “radical left,” I realize how insulated some members of the US population have become. These “radical” changes that people are so afraid of are more the norm in the rest of the developed world, and the US is decades behind.

While political affiliation and racial inequality stand out as prominent issues, I believe that the paradigm shift we need in the US goes even deeper and embraces these elements. It has to do more fundamentally with what people consider to be human rights. I believe that making health care and education available to all people falls under human rights. These are in fact stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without these basic needs being met, the playing field will never be level, nor will there be human, let alone equal, rights.  

I didn’t want to get political, but it is hard to avoid. The Trump era and now the Corona pandemic have brought about a great deal of hardship to America. Many of us have never been so confused or upset as in these last few years, but behind the turmoil, the noise and the conflict, is the purpose to have a better and more just future for all Americans.  

I have thought a lot about how this change could come about because it’s hard to imagine it happening to a country the size of the US, where there are such divergent viewpoints.

Perhaps the size of Denmark is the key. It is far easier for us to manage ourselves because we live in a country of about 5.8 million people. Is there a way to create change that does not just depend on who is in the Senate or House or in the Oval office? While we are working on change at a wider level, I believe we need to build communities at a grassroots level. Then people can choose the type of society they wish to live in. In the spirit of free competition, could a state, county, city, or even a town work to make itself “the place to be?” In other words, “Come to Maine, where you can have access to affordable health care, education, and financial assistance should you run into hard times.” If such communities were formed, they might attract like-minded people and grow.  

This is worth fighting for and I believe it is within reach.