“When I got a review back for a paper in Science, one of the reviewers wrote “it’s at the 6th grade level.” I sent that review on to Alan [Alda] and he wrote back that it was the nicest compliment I’ve ever received. For my presentations, I give the same talk and show the same slides whether it’s a lay public audience or a science/medicine group of attendees.” ~ Eric Topol, Ground Truths, March 13, 2023
When I read this, I experienced a flash into an alternate universe, where instead of spending my nest egg on 35 acres of relatively wild forest, I used it to attend the science writing grad program at UCSC where I had been accepted. That was 31 years ago.
In this flash vision, I had graduated from that program with the credentials to follow one of my passions, understanding and communicating developments in science to the general public. In that universe, I had an exciting career that took me from the panda nurseries in China to the Australian outback and Great Barrier Reef, from the shrinking glaciers of Greenland to the drying Great Salt Lake in Utah. I had interviewed some of my idols including Anthony Fauci, and when the pandemic struck I had become a meaningful voice in translating its rapid public health implications for lay consumption, just like Eric Topol.
Oh well. The flash was over in an instant, washed away by a wave of reassuring recognition that I’ve lived a good life, and come to a place of contentment with internal balance, loving friendships, and meaningful work. Things could have been different, but they weren’t. My choices, along with conditions I had nothing to do with, led me to this place, and I’m grateful for the journey of discovery, continuing to pursue the question I’ve been asking since I settled on this beautiful wild land: Who am I, and how did I come to be here?
I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in a citizen science project with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, by signing up for the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative. There are enough categories that anyone can do it. I registered in ‘a certain age’ group with no symptoms or diagnosis; my brother who’s been recently diagnosed registered in the ‘anyone 18+’ group. He’s doing great with medication. There’s also a category for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s but not yet taking medication. There appears to be a link between loss of smell and certain degenerative brain diseases.
This study involves a ‘smell identification test’ which they mail to you, along with a pencil. You get four booklets with ten scratch n’ sniff patches in each book, use the pencil to scratch the patch, and then identify the smell to the best of your ability. Some of these were easy and a lot of them were hard. Kind of smelled like one thing, kind of like another, sometimes not like any of the options. But you have to fill them all in, so you take your best guess.
It was really fun, but awareness of chemical scent residue lingered in my nose for hours, even after a brisk walk up the driveway in driving wind. I was glad it was trash day, and pitched the booklets in the garbage can once I had entered the data online. It was very thorough, leaving no room for error, going through each page of each booklet one at a time, and then checking your answers at the end of each booklet. It felt good to contribute to this research to try “to learn more about how brain disease starts and changes and how to stop it.”
I won’t ever see the results of my test, so I won’t know whether that one patch was supposed to smell like watermelon or motor oil, cloves or apple. But I do think that my sniffer is in pretty good shape, as almost all of the patches smelled like something that was on the multiple choice list. I encourage you to check it out, have some fun, and contribute to this admirable effort sponsored by an admirable foundation started by an admirable and courageous man.
I’m grateful today for sunshine, the proximity of cat and dog, flowers in winter, potted herbs, bonsai, and the resilience to just hang on sometimes. I’m grateful for the opportunity to give away bread to some friends who needed its comfort and cheer more than I did today. I’m grateful for living inside the kaleidoscope with the coming of spring. Gratitude is a conscious choice that is sometimes more difficult than others, but is always available and always takes the edge off. I’m grateful for gratitude practice.
This evening I got my first ever social media hate, on one of my instagram posts in support of a drag queen. It heightened my compassion. I’m grateful for the practice that allowed me to receive it with some equanimity, even though it felt like a slap in the face. And grateful that I didn’t feel compelled to respond to it. I imagined a potential spiral of consequences, if only as simple as another hateful reply back. I contemplated responding with something like, “I feel compassion for your suffering,” but concluded the wise choice was to forget about it. I just noticed it a few minutes ago–it wasn’t remotely how I intended to start this post. So I’m gonna forget about it now!
I’m grateful for waking up alive on this snowy, drizzly Sunday, for a few hours of sunlight, for the first spring bulb tips poking out of the mud, and for the leisure to enjoy listening to some dharma talks while finishing this exquisite Liberty puzzle, Monet’s Studio at Giverny. I’m grateful to our little puzzle club scattered coast to coast for increasing our puzzle options each season. This one only took two days of joyful puzzling between cleaning, baking, reading, and sharing meaningful conversations with friends and family.
It was kind of a rough week inside my monkey mind. I’m so grateful for all the beauty and love in my life, for the support of friends, and for the growing capacity I’m gaining to turn my attention to these gifts, instead of letting meager thoughts depress me for long.
And finally, I’m forever grateful to neighbor Mary for sharing this extraordinary recipe for Big Soft Ginger Cookies. This is the basic recipe, though I make them with Mary’s tweaks, including half brown sugar-half white, and of course butter instead of margarine. I also toss in a few chocolate chips. So simple, so delicious. It’s the kind of treat that fills up your senses so full you can’t be anything but ecstatic while it’s in your mouth.
I’ve been feeling a little melancholy the past few days, despite so much to be grateful for. Been practicing turning my attention to what I want it to be on rather than the grumpy thoughts that are trying to claim it, and it’s working. Sometimes it’s an uphill slog, though. Mindfulness isn’t easy, but at least it helps make the mental afflictions less frequent, less intense, and less duration. Each challenge is an opportunity to practice, and practice eventually makes perfect, or close enough.
One thing I’m really thankful for is to have become reacquainted with an old college friend. For some years, I had been under the mistaken impression that he’d died, and was thrilled to stumble on his name when I was searching for another old friend. We’ve been emailing questions, answers, reminiscences… and he sent me this picture of us in his dorm room. I do remember this, but I do not remember how he or we exploded his beanbag chair. It was a great lesson for me in making the best of a bad situation, which I think became his mantra for life. I’m grateful for having this joyful image, and I’m more grateful for finding him alive and well.
I’m grateful today for sunshine! The past two days have been gloriously springlike. Now that I’ve stopped the ice melting into the mudroom, it was time for me to get stuck in the driveway. We didn’t even have much snow, just ferocious wind for a whole day, and forty acres of snow blew over the banks and across my driveway.
I should have backed up the second I saw drifts, but it didn’t look too bad so I tried to punch through. A short way up I realized I’d never make it to the top, so I backed carefully down. But not carefully enough. Once the drifts gave out I was moving too fast and slid into a plowed bank. I left it and walked home for lunch. I’m grateful that it only took a text to a neighbor to get the drifts plowed–I figured once the drive was passable I could dig myself out and forge ahead.
He wasn’t able to plow til evening, and I was happy to wait til this morning to dig out. I was grateful to have the right tools for the job again. But sometimes even the right tools aren’t enough. An hour’s work with shovels, cardboard, and kitty litter, and I was a few inches deeper into the snowbank. I’m grateful for neighbors with tractors, trucks, and chains, and know someone will pull the car out eventually. Maybe tomorrow! I’m grateful for patience and good cheer.
I’m grateful for YouTube where I found a great hack for scanning old slides, which I took some time to do today. I simply held each slide up to the bright white screen of my laptop and took a picture with my phone. Not perfect, but not bad, considering they’re sixty years old or so. I’m grateful for the memories conjured by these old slides, and feelings of tenderness for my family.
Above, the little children are in Italy, I’m pretty sure, and below I think we’re in Holland, because that was my mother’s note on the envelope: slides – Holland, etc.
Full circle back to snow, here I am with mommy and likely my first snow. Who’d ever have imagined this little tyke would grow up to rely on snow so directly, deal with it so intimately, and be so sanguine about leaving her car stuck in it for days. I’m grateful for the practice that allows me to hold with equanimity and love all the feelings I’m having today.
I’m also having some feelings about Covid, which are clarified by this excerpt from Eric Topol’s newsletter today:
“First, we sit at a very high baseline of daily Covid hospitalizations and deaths in the United States, over 25,000 and about 400, respectively. This is far beyond (double) where we were in June 2021, pre-Delta, when we got down to close to 10,000 hospitalizations and ~200 deaths per day. There’s still circulating virus (currently XBB.1.5) getting people infected and some of the folks of advanced age and immunocompromised are the ones chiefly winding up with severe Covid. The virus is finding the vulnerable people more easily since their guard is let down, abandoning high-quality masks and other mitigations, and the low rate of keeping up with boosters in the last 6 months (the age 65+ rate is 40%). There are about 15% of Americans (more than what many people think or have been led to believe), based on all the serologic data available, who never had Covid and are relying on their vaccines/boosters to avoid their first infection. Reinfections among the 85% with prior Covid are not uncommon and not necessarily benign. No less, the pervasive attitude is the pandemic is over, life goes on. That’s helping the virus find new or repeat hosts.”
Thick homemade bread, local happy-hen eggs, whipping cream, cinnamon-sugar, butter, real organic Vermont maple syrup, all the people and effort and resources that went into getting all these ingredients into my kitchen just in time for me to make lunch today: I am grateful.
A rude awakening from a leisurely Saturday morning latté, when Wren looked at the door funny and I decided to bring in some firewood. The mudroom wall was melting all the way down. I tried to absorb the leak with some brown paper which lasted a short minute before it got pushed away. Scrambling around I dressed to climb the ladder again.
After whacking away some more glacial ice, this time wearing insulated leather gloves so I could scoop it out of the gutter without frostbite, I revealed a piece of flashing extending from the main roof to the mudroom roof, designed to prevent this kind of problem, I assume. But with more than a foot of exposed seam between that flashing and the first gutter the design failed in this long, cold, grey winter when deep snow finally came. I’m grateful for junk lying around! The kind of thing rural people keep because you just never know when it might come in handy. This piece of broken drain was quite handy because I left it lying where it broke off, so in case I needed I’d know right where it was. I jammed it up to the flashing and wedged it under the gutter, and have stopped the leak for now.
This would have still been melting the wall if it weren’t dripping off the edge of the roof. Fingers crossed this fix holds until it warms up enough for Wilson to flip the whole pile off. He came by today to shovel the paths, and scolded me. “You shouldn’t be climbing up here and doing this,” he said. And then he scolded another friend for climbing out on her roof to mess with ice dams without her phone. “I always have my phone on me,” I reassured him, and he said “I feel better about that.” I was grateful that he cared enough to scold me.
At last the arduous outdoor work was done, and I settled into the recliner for a short rest, where I took the time to enjoy this lovely little vignette in front of me. Now I see the cobwebs on the chili lights. Oh well! A task for another day. Not everybody wakes up alive every day. I’m grateful I did, and that I made it safely through another one.
It’s been cold and grey and windy for so long. And snowing off and on. I am grateful for the water, yes, and I am really looking forward to some spring color. Right before that first big snow a few weeks ago, the crocus leaves had pushed through the ground just a couple of millimeters. They’re drinking up snowmelt again and again under their late winter blanket. I really am grateful for that.
The does are hungry though. And my soul hungers for the sun. And it’s all fine, because each morning I wake grateful for a roof over my head, running water, coffee beans from foreign lands, fresh bread, cheese in the refrigerator. I cannot complain. And still, my soul hungers for the sun, snowmelt, green growing things outside and not just inside.
In Buddhism, there is the concept of ‘the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.’ A skillful life includes the ability to hold both sorrow and joy, pleasure and suffering, loss and gain, with equanimity. I’m grateful that this winter is giving me so much practice cultivating equanimity.
Also, in an act of shameless self-promotion, my podcast is now available on Apple Podcasts. It even showed up fifth in the search when I typed in ‘Suffer Less,’ which is a wonder for which I am also grateful. Please give it a listen there, or on Spotify or most other podcast platforms, and follow if you like it. You can also subscribe to my newsletter, ‘Fruits of the Practice,’ but I haven’t yet figured out how to link that to this blog, so just comment or email me and I’ll add you to the list if you want to receive that monthly. Yippee! I am making my dreams come true. This may be another gift of the long, grey winter.