Living Popcorn Style in Zoomland

Popcorn Style in ZoomlandWe are all navigating untenable times — most of us connecting in isolation and many of us struggling in silence. This COVIDian chaos is our new global zeitgeist. What is normal, anyway? We had been living in our own private Twilight Zone since the 2016 election. But now, we’re conquering a brand-new frontier called Zoomland, where the women don’t wear makeup, the men don’t wear pants — and all the cocktails are above average.

I have at least one online Zoom meeting per day for various reasons — spiritual, professional, and ad hoc/friend (aka  Zoomtails). I guess it makes sense since the phone call became an anachronism in the last decade — especially for the under-30 crowd. My brave new technical world is defined by intermittent internet buffering, waning laptop battery life, and unflattering lighting. First-world problems, but I still find this new communication imperative to be strangely draining. Maybe it’s that I lack the energy to be “on” 24/7, or maybe it reminds me of just how isolated I am.

Adding to the awkward vibe is the practice of “sharing popcorn style” in Zoom groups. I suspect the idea is to allow participants to engage as they are so moved, but I find the expectation uncomfortable in a land of only two dimensions. It triggers my performance anxiety. I always thought I was an extrovert, but living in the depths of profound grief since my son Elliot’s tragic death almost two years ago, I have morphed into an introvert with occasional extrovertish episodes. In Zoomland, I have discovered that introverts simply need more time, and extroverts should probably take more time.

I sit alone in the cozy 10 ft. X 12 ft. room I call my office, staring at a Brady-Bunch array of faces stacked in perfect chessboard symmetry on the screen—  disembodied heads blankly gazing into vague, abstract space. The connection is an illusion, devoid of nonverbal cues and physical energetic exchanges —  except for that cute couple cuddling up in one box. I guess it’s better than nothing.

Should I go? Uh . . . Hello . . .  Argh, my screen froze, or was that someone else’s? Oh, I’m muted! Hello! Can you hear me now? Now? Now! Oh well, someone else started, anyway. I’ll wait. Betty always jumps into the dead air.

There we are, trying to take the edge off our baseline angst, but we are plastered across an electronic wall like a batch of newly apprehended hooligans lined up for our mug shots. This is Zoom lockdown. There also seems to be a heightened sense of self-consciousness on Zoom — ironic since no one has put on “outside” clothes since 2019, and almost everyone has given up all attempts at hair maintenance. Still, every time you speak, you are in that glaring spotlight of exposure without any immediate feedback. Everyone is looking at you  — or at least, the image of you. Or, they are checking out your room décor.

I have decided this “popcorn style” online group dynamic is an apt metaphor for broader pandemic experience. The dizzying randomness of messaging — so rapid-fire and scattershot. All news is breaking, a constant barrage of urgent nonsequiturs — as befuddling as they are horrifying. The extroverts dominate. It’s too much to process, so we don’t. We can’t possibly. Sometimes, I turn it all off to feel better but end up feeling more isolated. So-called leaders and self-proclaimed pontificators are popping their respective corn — on every channel. No plan, no strategy, no conscience. No method to their external madness — exacerbating my clandestine grief.

It’s Only a Test

Wear a mask. No, don’t wear a mask.
A mask does no good — but it might.
We have more than enough PPE. We are giving it away.
We don’t have enough PPE for the front line.
We’re “opening up” for business now. The case numbers are climbing daily.
Inject disinfectant in your lungs. It’s interesting. No, not really.
Just kidding. Are you laughing? I was being sarcastic. Can’t you tell?
No, I wasn’t.
The virus lives for three hours on most surfaces. No, ten. No, five.
We really don’t know.

Test, Test, Test.
Just disinfect everything. But you really can’t.
You may have had COVID already, or you could be asymptomatic.
Or, you probably had it in January or maybe December.
You’ll be fine — unless you are not.
You probably have immunity. If we could test you for antibodies.
But you will probably get it again. In the fall.  We all will.
The antibodies may not be enough.
When it mutates. And it will. Or, maybe it won’t. Or, it already did.

Test. Test. Test.
But we can’t test you right now. We don’t have enough.
Anyone can get a test. If they need it.
But not if they want it. Just ask. But not me.
I’m positive I’m negative.

Test, Test, Test.
But, not yet.
The tests are flawed.
They are broken. We can’t trust them.
We should not have released them. But we need more of them.
Trace all contacts. When? Now? How?
The virus lives in the vents. But it’s not airborne.
Sure, go inside. Have a seat but try not to breathe much.
Have dinner but wear that mask.
Shutdown your salon, but you have the right to open up.
Freedom has a price.

Test, Test, Test.
Sacrifice your life of the economy, silly.
Wipe down your groceries. No need to wipe down your groceries.
Wear gloves. Don’t wear gloves. Gloves don’t help. Wash your hands.
Only 25% of you can go out – go to a restaurant . . . but not to a bar.
But social distance. Just not at the same table.
You need to figure out what 25% capacity looks like. That’s up to you.
Washington doesn’t care –  much. About anything but the election.

Test, Test, Test.
But, don’t go out unless you must. To buy things. OK.
We need you to buy things, more things.
Work to feed our kids. The virus is deadly to kids.
Go to the store. Stay at home.
Don’t buy meat, but the packing plants will stay open.
Don’t buy toilet paper. The supply chains are fine.
Go to the movies. The theaters are closed.
Go outside. Don’t go to the parks.

Because—
There’s no vaccine. We are working on it though.

Popcorn style, it is — like living in a Twitter feed, asynchronous messaging and desynchronous realities. About 50% of us long for compassionate, competent leadership — demoralized by complete empathic failure, peppered with pernicious pouts. Unpredictability is the only constant.

At home, I am grateful for my shelter, but the walls are closing in. I have millions of things to do, but I do not accomplish much. Spinning my wheels. Then, suiting up to go out, decontaminating upon return, and again and again. All those Zoom meetings in between. I am busy but empty and scared —  about our world, mostly.

Every day unfolds differently than I expect — but wrapped in soul-numbing sameness. My days progress popcorn style. What day is it, anyway? Perhaps, the pandemic is internal. There is no plan. Is that the lesson? Be grateful for the ambiguity, Elaine.  Breathe. Soak in nature. Be gentle with myself. Peace is an inside job. But, hey, that’s another story . . .  for which I will need plenty of popcorn.

Everything Happens for a Reason?

Elliot Everett Wright

People say it all the time. Everything happens for a reason.

It’s supposed to be comforting and deep. It implies there is some sort of grand scheme – a kind of cosmic chessboard where all the moves, winners and losers have been predetermined in some grand design. We just don’t understand or see the big picture. Whether you believe in God, Source, or a big, black hole of nothingness, this concept is difficult to digest.

And, these days, I have little patience for vague platitudes.

A year and a half ago, my precious first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, died in a tragic, single-vehicle motorcycle accident. He was ejected off his shiny new Honda bike over the side of an elevated highway ramp, soaring 40 feet into the azure Texas sky. Elliot died on the operating table at the same Dallas hospital where he took his first breath at 5:17 p.m. on May 17, 1992. He told me he took every precaution – the fanciest Japanese helmet, safety-paneled jacket and thick, heavy boots. Except, there was always that inherent risk of riding the damn bike – a paradox that’s so difficult to rationalize.

My anguish deepens with each passing day.

What complicates my journey is the weight of accumulated losses and traumas over the past few years – my father’s death in 2014, after years of a rare form of epilepsy he kept secret, dissension regarding his care and eventual dementia; the death of my mother in 2012, after a debilitating two-year post-stroke struggle; the death of my cherished mentor and friend of 30 years last year; the intentional absence of my sister and only sibling after Elliot’s death, and the pain of a prolonged toxic relationship that I finally ended. I am a divorced mother of two brilliantly complicated boys, Elliot and Ian, and this worst-of-all-losses has throttled me.

So, when I recently saw Bill Maher opining about the cloying cliche – “everything happens for a reason” on his often-irreverent HBO show, something clicked. Granted, Bill Maher and a spiritual a-ha hardly seem compatible, but that’s why it caught my attention. He was interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, a crisp, witty scientific raconteur and author I enjoy watching ponder the mysteries of the universe.

Fresh from an uncharacteristic social media firestorm, he acknowledged contritely that he commented impulsively in response to one of our latest horrifying mass shooting incidents. He tweeted something glib about people dying in other ways every day. Perhaps, that faux pas did happen for a reason – to wake us up from our desensitized trance and complacent stupor around the senseless loss of human life in the name of gun ownership.

As they chatted about politics, truth and the universe, Bill declared, “One thing I hear all the time is that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Now, that’s an absurd statement.” He went on to say it’s perpetuated by the entitled elite who revel in giving supernatural meaning to the happy accidents in their privileged lives. He observed that for those who struggle in abject poverty and pain, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen, and they are mostly about struggle. It’s easier to recognize mystical signs of abundance when you have already reached the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Neil echoed his chagrin adding, “’Everything happens for a reason’ – is so not true. Everything is random in the universe. We create the reasons.”

Yes, I found this refreshing. A cosmic scientist was confirming what I now know down to the marrow. Horrible, unfathomable, devastating things happen. They just do. The unthinkable can occur, and it does – with swashbuckling arrogance. It’s a grim, raw reality that has drastically changed the way I view the world, life – and death. Jaded, maybe, but real.

Mindfulness practice teaches us that healing starts with the radical acceptance of what is. Thus, accepting randomness is part of that, right? And, it offers me a whisper of peace. Nothing makes sense, really. We all mourn losses, including the raging wildfires in Australia, an airplane shot down by Iran, and the random destruction wrought by ten violent tornadoes just blocks from my home in Dallas.

There is no reason.

That might be the most spiritual notion of all. These things simply are. They are part of being human. Yet, something about the death of a truly remarkable child and all his promise seismically shifts your psychic interface with life itself. When I hear “everything happens for a reason” now, it’s excruciating and hurts with the intensity of a frigid, subzero slap in the face. In fact, I feel like an alien in my own life when I encounter a well-meaning co-worker or neighbor reprise this “for-a-reason” banality or the ever-popular, “Heaven got another angel.” That does not help.

Though we strive to accept the tragedy and randomness of things, it’s still painful. There is no instant emotional anesthetic in the accepting. I guess that’s what Neil recognized on some level when he openly acknowledged that his insensitive comment made a negative emotional impact. He said:

Yes, it was true, but emotions do matter . . . People are bereaved. Facts are facts, but emotions are real, too. I should have taken some time before I typed that tweet. I should have taken a breath . . .

And, there it is – a perfect example of retrospective mindfulness. Self-aware and empathetic reflection. Here’s the lesson – let’s be more present with each other, more intentionally compassionate. And, more present in our grief. Yes, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s where the treasure is. In the end, that might be the only possible reason – for anything. The grace of vulnerability.

Maybe, things don’t happen for a reason, but, maybe, grace does.

Amid grief’s messy miasma, those tiny fragments of presence are what save us. Grace is in them – in the startling moment of compassion or the gentle word from another broken heart who carries the weight of a similar loss. Grace is in the unexpected care package that arrives from a sorority sister I have not seen in 30 years. It’s in the chance introduction to an angel boss whose compassion and wisdom make it possible for me to function at all. And, grace is in the generous soul of a dear friend I have known since first grade who makes a special trip across the country to sit with me on the first anniversary of Elliot’s death.

Grace. It’s those poignant, profound gestures and occasional synchronicities – often obscured by the heavy darkness that’s my new normal. I think this is all that matters in the end. I have to believe in the benevolence of universe – and God at work somehow. That’s the only way I can put one foot in from of the other . . . one day, one moment at a time – perchance to experience that next fleeting glimpse of grace.

Until tomorrow – and then, again.

“And Know the Place for the First Time.”

Memories of those we have lost are often complicated – a morphing mosaic of longing, loneliness, anger, pain, guilt, sadness, gratitude, forgiveness, love and, eventually, peace.

This Memorial Day, I feel I have come full circle in many ways. When my oldest son, Elliot, watched the “The Lion King” as a toddler, he called it “the circle guh-life.” Turns out that “guh” is profound, because the circle is rarely a smooth curve. There are bumps and turns – which reminds of another Eliot – T.S., whose words convey a similar theme:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive  where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I arrived there this week.

I began a new assignment – doing one of the things I love most but in a new context. I hope to shift out of the chaotic freelance writing world to work with an integrated marcom firm in Dallas for a while. Every change is an adjustment, every new adventure a realignment. Every experience, your teacher. I miss the energy of a creative cadre – a tribe of brilliant minds collaborating and concepting in real time. I guess I enjoy the process as much as the product. Believe you me, getting to know oneself after a half-century on the planet is both enlightening and confounding.

The Universe works in mysterious ways – most of them unconscious. Life coach Mary Morrissey teaches, “First, notice what you are noticing. It’s the first step to self-awareness.” So, here’s what I have noticed – though I am starting over, I find myself in stunningly familiar territory. I am working in Preston Center, just a few miles from where I grew up. It is like returning to the place “where I started” – probably holding more hidden nostalgia than any other place of my childhood.

And, I’m seeing it for the first time.

I have been flooded with memories of shopping at Sanger Harris and the Woolworth’s dime store with my mom and sister when I was just 10 or 12. This was our preferred recreational activity – a precious pocket of together time. An artist, somewhat reluctant teacher and sometime socialite, my mother’s presence filled every room she entered. On Saturdays, she adored shopping and visiting her flamboyant fashionista friend Mercedes, who ran the Elizabeth Arden counter at Sanger’s. They would chat and banter as Melissa and I played in the makeup, but her mission was to purchase her signature lipstick shade – Fuchsia Shock. It suited my mom’s mega-watt style, and it was the same shade she sported on her thick, one-inch nails.

Over the past few days, I have wandered the sidewalks of Sherry Lane and Westchester during my lunch breaks. A hip, trendy free-range hamburger boutique has replaced the greasy soda fountain at the Woolworth’s. And Wyatt’s cafeteria, with its wickedly sumptuous chocolate-icebox pie, is long gone —  as it the dusty, cramped little store where I purchased my very first record. It was the debut album by The Partridge Family. Though I have lived in Dallas for most of my life, I have never experienced the emotional impact of this place before – not like this. Until now, these glimpses of my past have felt like they belonged to someone else – distant and disconnected.

Perhaps, this is the beginning of my exploring.

On Wednesday, I left my 18th-floor office at noon, pausing for a startlingly raw moment. I noticed the high-rise across the street and recalled that faithful day 29 years ago when I hopped into the back of shiny, white limo after my wedding reception on the top floor. However, I struggled to step into the skin of that ostensibly happy married girl. She was like a character in a movie – unrelated and detached. I saw her in a crisp, purple size-10 linen suit she could wear only after losing 30 pounds on Weight Watchers. She was waving to the smiling people on sidewalk who were tossing fuchsia tissue-paper petals into the air.

I chose not to linger there.

Yet, I could not avoid more of the strangely familiar. Not sure why, but I turned right at the corner – away from the shopping center and toward St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. This destination held its own mixed, messy bag of memories, but it lured me with a gravitas I could not explain. The last time I was there was 2014, for my father’s funeral and before that, 2012, for my mother’s memorial following her protracted illness. I also was married there in the sanctuary and attended elementary school at St. Michael’s School, where I always dreaded that excruciating President’s Physical Fitness Test. Though my parents did not ever attend services there regularly or address spiritual matters much at all, it was our “church of record.”

How I remembered trying to find a way to belong there. I offered to help Mrs. Dienes, our neighbor when I was about 16, teach kindergarten Sunday School. I borrowed my parents’ powder-blue Mercury Monarch with the white interior to get there by 9:00 a.m. I sang in the choir for Paul Thomas, who always scared me a little, and I attended the youth group led by Kyle Rote, Jr., the super-cute soccer star on the Dallas Tornado. Alas, despite all my valiant attempts, I never felt like I fit in there – as if I were missing that essential piece that made me worthy of the Episcopal whole.

Still, this is where my parents’ ashes are residing for all eternity. My stomach tumbled as I realized I was about to see them again. Serendipity – but no coincidence. I had not been back since my father’s interment. At once, I felt the weight of generations of secrets and shame enveloped in a warm wave of comfort. I stepped closer to the austere, yet elegant, monument. There they were, together for always and forever. I stared at the inscriptions and was suddenly overwhelmed. I grieved not for what we lost but what we never had. And in that moment, I made peace. It was all divine order. Then, I paused in pure awe as I considered the convoluted series of events that had brought me to this place. There I was – steeped in memories and standing with my parents once again as I prepared for a new future. Almost too much to process.

I closed my eyes and thanked Source and the Universe for this miraculous journey and others to come. These are the moments that amplify our being beyond all comprehension.

Then, I thought of sipping a cool, creamy root beer float at Woolworth’s . . . and I smiled.