From the time I was a little girl, I have always been a voracious reader. One of my favorite authors when I was in grade school (as it was called when I grew up in Tennessee) was the famed storyteller, O. Henry. A pseudonym for William Sydney Porter, O. Henry was born in North Carolina in 1862. He later moved to Texas, then detoured to the Ohio Federal Penitentiary to serve three years on a potentially spurious embezzlement charge, before moving on to New York City.
While incarcerated, Porter cultivated a talent for writing. To get manuscripts to NYC publishers without being identified as a penitentiary inmate, he co-opted the name of his guard Orrin Henry. From his dank cell, O. Henry became an author to be reckoned with due to his unique writing technique. The first to create the surprise or “twist” ending, O. Henry’s approach is reflected in the work of current day authors like Tom Clancy, Sandra Brown, and John Grisham who create nail biting, page-turner best sellers.
Sitting by my bedside today is a beloved copy of The Best Short Stories of O. Henry. I have re-read the tales countless times, always trying to guess at the endings. As much as I am intrigued with the twists and turns of the plot lines, I am also taken with the idea that O. Henry could always find the way out.
Many of O. Henry’s stories are set in New York, the city he loved. It is said that his last words before he died of tuberculosis at age 48 were:
“Pull up the shades so I can see New York. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”
The coronavirus is like O. Henry’s writing – full of mystery, detours, unrevealed nuances, and with no clear ending in sight. Yet we all know that there must be a way out. In the case of the virus, we are relying on the talent, creativity, and determination of the worldwide scientific community to develop the story and reveal the proper ending.
And what is our responsibility as a “reader” of the virus? Stay with it, don’t give up, do what you are asked to do to protect yourself and others. Our part in the plot is small, but essential. Each of us is required to participate so we can get to the end.
As for me, I am wearing a mask (okay, maybe not this one!) And, rest assured, I am always smiling underneath it.
OUR EMOTIONAL PIE AND HOW WE EAT IT
Four months ago, we were all in this together. There was a shared understanding of what we must do. And as much hardship as the world felt, people were pulling in the same direction. But that was before the virus trajectory became less certain and brought on even more financial insecurity, quarantine exhaustion, and fear for the future.
Now we are not all going in the same direction, and the disappointment, fatigue and anxiety are growing. Conflicting emotions pile on…disappointment, frustration, disbelief, and denial are juxtaposed against acceptance, gratitude, forbearance and patience. We are in a very real grief cycle.
A University of Chicago poll taken in late May found that just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, down from 31% in 2018. Two years ago, 23% of people said they often or sometimes felt isolated. This year, 50% report feelings of loneliness and isolation.
In addition to social isolation, we have also experienced the heartbreak of George Floyd’s death. In the aftermath of horrific revelations, protests, and calls to action that have reshaped our thinking, we are trying to catch our collective breath. I filmed history in the making from the 20th floor of my building during the protests in the City last month. Thousands of peaceful marchers walked north on my street towards the Mayor’s residence. It was peaceful and encouraging. And then the looting started, and the City felt under siege. We are reeling from the pain.
Thousands in black marched peacefully, respectfully escorted by police on foot.
And as we are taking all of this in, we are asking ourselves just how resilient we are. In an article in the New York Times on June 21 titled “Build Your Resilience Toolbox”, resilience is described as:
“The ability to recover from difficult experiences and setbacks, to adapt, move forward and sometimes even experience growth.”
The article goes on to say that the most significant determinant of resilience – noted in every study on resilience in the last 50 years – is the quality of our close personal relationships. “Very few resilient people go it alone.” During these last almost 120 days, I am constantly buoyed by the conversations I have with family, friends and new acquaintances. If given the choice, I always talk on the phone. That’s because I confess to despising Zoom. (Am I alone here?) Where do I start with my list of Zoom grievances? Hilariously bad camera angles. Creepy lighting. Below the belt wardrobe reveals. Lack of readable body language cues. Awkward silences and talking over others. And the effort it takes to always be ON. Heck, Zoom meeting exhaustion just makes me want to go outside and find an ice cream truck!
DOES THIS PANDEMIC MAKE ME LOOK FAT?
Yes, the “Covid-15” is a real thing. Numerous reports of an average weight gain of fifteen pounds are believable because of the “stay at home, look in the fridge when bored” never ending days. In the almost 120 days of quarantine, I have experimented with recipes for every kind of taco, pasta dish, and new and different salad ingredient. (Hint: Pine nuts are always a winner!) I have made banana bread twice, ordered in just five times (Chinese food good, pizza burned), and picked up a hamburger to go once. My favorite dish to make now is porcupine meatballs discovered in an old Betty Crocker cookbook that traveled with me to my small Manhattan kitchen. Who knew rice, condensed tomato sauce, and ground beef could be so delicious? Throw in giant egg noodles, a cabernet, good china, lighted candles, and I can be transported to the small Italian restaurant (now closed of course), in my neighborhood around the corner.
Consuming all of these comfort calories, I count myself lucky to have avoided the extra pounds. Keeping me in check with my plan to make homemade ice cream on the 4th, the motor on my very old Waring ice cream maker ground to a screeching halt when I pulled it out of the top cabinet. Not to be outdone, I have defiantly ordered a new one from Amazon.
AND HOW'S NEW YORK CITY THESE DAYS?
Much as I want to tell you that New York City will rebound, I will also tell you that it will take a long time. More than 100,000 small businesses have closed. One million jobs have been lost. Recovery for the country -- but in particular for the one city in the U.S impacted more than any other – will come. But it will come in fits and spurts.
I see the moving trucks outside my building every day. The occupancy of my building remains in flux as residents leave for other locations. And to think one of those trucks just moved me in two years ago.
Yet in Phase Three of reopening, the City shows some encouraging signs of life. Indoor dining isn’t allowed. But restaurants have gotten creative with their outdoor space. From a two-top on the sidewalk to an expansive display of canopies on a city street, owners are investing in returning customers.
This Independence Day, Macy’s retooled its magical Fourth of July fireworks. Instead of one giant celebration, they staged five-minute firework displays around the City for six nights leading up to the holiday. The locations had to be kept secret to prevent crowds from gathering.
Six years ago, one of my own special memories on July 4th in the Big Apple was a river cruise with my daughter in the harbor. I resurfaced the photo I had taken of Lady Liberty on that evening. Seeing this image again reminds me how our symbols of national strength and optimism give us hope.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Everyone is coping differently. One of the ways I find reflection is in listening to podcasts. The human voice instantly connects us with its energy, inflection, personality and uniqueness.
For that reason and to hear an Australian accent, I recently tuned into blogger Tim Ferriss’s interview of actor Hugh Jackman. The topic was a wide-ranging discussion on self-care. In addition to delighting in listening to Hugh (I can call him that since, lucky me, I have actually met him!), I learned that he starts every day by thirty minutes of reading a book aloud to his wife Deb, that he prefers cold showers, and that he has his own “I am not good enough/I don’t deserve to be here” moments. (Can you imagine?). In particular, I was most captivated by this advice from him on self-care:
“Be inquisitive and curious. Find inspiration in other things, and from surprising places. It feeds you.”
Watching him perform last year at Madison Square Garden was a thrill. When Broadway eventually turns on the lights again next spring, I am pledging to be in the audience for Hugh Jackman in the revival of “The Music Man”.
Both the words of O. Henry from the late 1800’s, as well as the advice of Hugh Jackman today, point us in a direction. We must find our own new endings. We must find our own surprises. Even if the explorer in you has had to go digital, there is so much out there to learn. And discovering will keep you sane.
As you move forward through the next weeks, you will experience moments of optimism and hope, as well as moments of being overwhelmed. That’s natural and keeps life in perspective.
My recommendations, gleaned from so many others, are to:
Stay confident in your own abilities
Find and seek encouragement from others
Keep your expectations reasonable
Be proactive in all things
Find reasons to laugh
And always buy green bananas. They do change color. We will get through this,