I am not going to belabor my pandemic anxiety with words. It is enough that my body endures it, my mind recognizes it for what it is, and, most days I can saddle that horse and ride it into the barn. There it will stay for a few days before it escapes and tries to ride roughshod over me again.
It seems that in times of high stress, like war, famine, and Covid-19, so much appears to be beyond our control. There are, however, still instances when we can pull a puppet’s strings to effect the outcome we’d like. It begins with an ordinary expectation, like today I will clean off the clutter on my writing desk. (Not likely, but you get my point!) It is doable and I am in control. I don’t need the governor’s permission. I don’t need the stars, sun and moon to align. These snatches of control evoke a sense of satisfaction in me. I take comfort in them. I can count on the Las Vegas odds being in my favor. Or so I used to think.
Here are two stories where seemingly ordinary expectations go awry. I’ll start with Julie. She and I have known each other for 30 years. Her husband had a bout with cancer last year. That was scary. He is doing well now. Because of his medically fragile condition, they have chosen to stay at home, while Covid-19 searches out new victims. Groceries are delivered to their front door. Facetime with the grandkids has become the new normal.
Julie has always loved her garden and trees. She believes in fairies. She thrives in that garden space under normal circumstances. Even more so now, during this pandemic. She called me to relate her story.
She had had enough of the isolation. She needed to take control of some part of her life that brings her joy-the garden. She masked up. She gloved up. Off she went to a local, uncrowded garden center. Her expectation? To find something in the peony family. Once there, her eyes landed on a gorgeous yellow peony tree. The blooms were exquisite. She smiled from ear to ear. This one was calling her name, “Jul…Jul…eee”. The siren’s call snagged her. She chose that most expensive, most beautiful peony tree. She justified the purchase by saying it would be a gift for someone. She’d figure out for who later!
Satisfied with herself, at home, she unloaded the new plant and placed it in the garage, behind her husband’s car, where there was more room. She expected to either plant it or give it away the following day. She went to sleep that night satisfied with her outing.
Fast forward to the next morning. Her husband, without announcing to his wife, decided to take a ride. After all, it was a beautiful day and he was sick of being home too. Being “of this age” where we sometimes forget important stuff…Yes, you guessed it! Whack. He backed out of the garage, decimating the new, yellow blossomed peony tree. Her expectations were crushed under the wheels of a 2015 Subaru. It was not a tragedy. No-one died. It was the expectation that died. Being able to walk out into the garden and smell the fragrance of the bloom. To see the yellow blossoms open and catch the sunlight just so. To see delight in the face of a friend she might have given it to.
Since the peony hit and run, Julie has adjusted her expectations. She has forgiven Jay, and herself, and plans to buy another peony tree soon. Lesson learned. She will leave it outside until she can plant it.
My story didn’t involve leaving my home. I found that I could quiet my anxiety about this pandemic by going outside, in my back yard. As part of my spiritual practice, I did a daily guided meditation. I looked forward to this time of complete calm. My expectation: no phone calls, no distractions, just peace, immersed in nature. I listened to a meditation downloaded on my iphone. Each nice day, I took a folding chair, my phone and my rattled nerves out to the yard. I sat by my Medicine Wheel. It looks like a circular garden, outlined by stones laid out in a pattern. A spirea bush bloomed beside me. My back was to our pond, so I looked across the wheel toward the bird feeder, about twenty feet away.
I had mounted the feeder, (quite cleverly if I do say so), atop a kitchen stool and sat it in the yard. I love to watch the birds coming and going from the feeder as I meditate. I usually close my eyes to center myself. Once the internal chatter has been squelched, I open my eyes, turn on the phone and listen. It is very soothing. My eyes drink in the greenery; delight at the newly budding forsythia; my ears pick up the sounds of nature all around me. It is a time for letting go of the worries and cares surrounding the upheaval caused by Covid-19.
That day, with eyes closed, I settled easily. I opened my eyes and looked at my phone to find the meditation. A movement caught my eye. What I saw shook me to the core. Not one. Not two. Not three. There were four bears twenty feet from me. FOUR. Twenty feet from me! They had turned over the stool and were feasting on the birdseed. I never heard them approach across the grassy lawn. I never heard the stool as it was overturned.
My heart leapt into my throat. My hands shook. Ever so slowly I eased myself to a standing position. My movement caused them to look up at me. I whispered, “Please don’t follow me.” I didn’t know if I should attempt to call my wife, upstairs in the house working on school reports. Just in case, you know…if they followed me. I knew not to run. I walked slowly angling toward steps leading up to the deck. They continued consuming the seeds and didn’t seem interested in me at all. I got to the deck, which is above and overlooks the yard. My hands, still shaking and brimming over with nervous energy, dialed our house number. My shaking voice said, “Come outside. Hurry.” Then I hung up. No explanation. She thought I had fallen in the yard and raced out to the deck. I caught her eyes as she came through the door. I signaled, “Shhhh” and pointed to the yard below. Her mouth dropped open at the sight of the four bears. It was a mother black bear with three grown cubs.
The cubs looked to be in their second year, as they were almost as large as mom. From all I’ve read, some time in the second summer, a mother bear chases the cubs up a tree and then exits, stage right. No goodbyes. They are on their own after that. These cubs looked to be about ready to get the heave ho. Barb and I have experience with bears. We often see them in our travels to western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. In fact, we love seeing bears from the safety of our vehicle, or with binoculars scanning a mountain hillside. But, this was up close and personal. Too close. Too personal.
We watched them from the deck for about fifteen minutes. These bears were curious. They walked by the chair I had been sitting on. One bent the metal bear that marks the West of the Medicine Wheel. One stood on its hind legs and sniffed the spirea blossoms. After checking out the yard completely, they left as silently as they had arrived. My heart rate didn’t slow down until they were long out of sight. It felt like my entire body was vibrating, the way I imagine an electric shock feels.
My expectation of a peaceful, calming experience meditating in my yard was shattered by the presence of alpha predators. Anxiety, my bane, instead of being abated was now full blown. The naive expectation of seeking solace and calm in my yard, with eyes closed, was wiped out by this visitation. Working in the garden’s flower areas is no longer a relaxing activity. It now requires antennae out, looking over my shoulder every few minutes to make sure no wild animal is silently approaching. Isn’t that what Covid-19 does? It arrives unawares. A silent, invisible threat.
Since the bears’ visit, I have adjusted my expectations too. I do my meditations sitting on the deck. Peace and calm regained. As for the yard work, well, let’s just say I keep one eye on the plants and one scanning my surroundings. Just in case. With Covid-19 I wash my hands. I wear a mask if I go to a public place. For the same reasons. Just in case.
Expectations unmet, carry their own weight of sadness. Julie lost her peony tree. I lost the security I felt in my rural backyard. With this pandemic, we have all lost the security of public gatherings. I have learned that when something is lost, often something else is gained. A new understanding. A behavior that doesn’t quite work gets modified. We live and we learn. I’m hoping it works for the Covid-19 virus. I know it works for peonies and for bears.