Love in a pandemic
March 20, 2020
Love is a virus.
We spread it with the slightest caress or infectious smile. Too, with words, we strengthen others, shoring up immune systems, helping survivors survive what they must. Yet, just as easily, language decimates what was once healthy, including our bonds.
A troubling pattern of symptoms presented itself several years ago. Nearly the moment I reached middle age, my Southern-Lady epigenomes switched on, my mouth frothing, pouring out words I’d once found nauseating.
Over time, the symptoms grew acute. Words squirted out before I could seal my lips, others oozing, despite my attempt to clamp my hand over my mouth. Then, came bodily symptoms. I would come to, finding myself touching a nearby shoulder, a tender conveyance for another soul that caught me off guard. As if seizing uncontrollably, I would envelop others, wrapping my arms about them, drawing them close.
I felt embarrassed at these human displays, as if my aging had weakened me, rendering me emotionally feeble, transforming my impermeability, my exterior defenses melting away, leaving me open, pourous.
See, I’d come of age in South Central Appalachia, growing up a white female in a world that celebrated impervious (white) masculinity. The images around me had always been of males: firebrand preachers, steely mountaineers, and ironlike athletes.
Sometime in my youth, I’d made a deal with myself: embody loud, raucous, profanity-spewing femaleness who proudly exclaimed to her friends, “I don’t cry” (a lie!) Outwardly and inwardly, I rejected what I saw as delicate, frail femininity, for me, the type depicted in myths, movies, and pews come Sunday morning.
As I matured, the virus my system had been suppressing became active, and I could feel my softening. In turn, I found myself infecting others with gentle endearments, murmuring, “Oh honey” as I collected them in my arms, snuggling body to body, a mingling of essences. And I loathed myself for all of it. After a time, though, I learned to live with what the virus was doing to me. Then, I came to relish it.
Today, I’m taking an oath. It’s my personal Hippocratic Oath: to spread the virus, infecting others with....
Love in a pandemic.
Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.
March 22, 2020
Love is a continuously mutating strain, and yet, strangely, it remains the same at its core.
Great crises of humanity are encoded into us, written into our DNA. At the genetic level, we have a deep knowing what has come before us, what our ancestors faced.
Ostracism, scapegoating, and murder: these happened throughout The Black Death of the 14th Century, the San Francisco Plague of the 20th Century, and the Ebola Epidemic of the 21st Century. As tensions spread so do paranoia, terror, and dehumanization, transmitting a contagion of cruelty across peoples and borders.
Yet, love is also communicable during our darkest times.
Love has many strains, and not all of them benign.
Our innate need to love and be loved has a dangerous side. Unknowingly, some of us transmit microscopic infections to the most vulnerable. Mary Mallon prepared delicious delights, exposing families to typhoid fever. A beloved healer in Sierra Leone died in the EBOV outbreak, her body infecting hundreds of mourners who honored her at her burial ceremony. There have been others too, devoted healthcare practitioners whose care killed rather than healed.
Love can’t always cure ailments or rid the body of invading infections. Maybe love puts us at greater risk in some ways.
We hold people, wiping away their tears. We clasp their hands when we have no words of comfort. We give them sips of water when their lips crack and bleed. We wash their emaciated bodies as their fluids spill out, a reverse baptism.
Undaunted, we spread love.
One of the great honors of my life has been sitting with women who are living with cancer and listening to their stories. Even when I pressed them for their own survival tales, many of them wanted to talk, instead, about caring for others, sharing stories with me of their children’s deteriorating health and spouses’ death and dying. Even in a state of weakened immunity, those beautiful souls provided care.
Humbled by their stories, I've learned so much from the women with whom I share space, especially how love and illness fuse, embedding themselves into our DNA.
Love in a pandemic is always present, even if microscopic, perhaps mutating and becoming more potent in the waning of mortality.
Our protections deteriorate, leaving us exposed. Our shoulders slump, our legs fail. And we collapse under the weight of our own need. Finally, we submit to what’s always been there, coursing through us, asymptomatic until our defenses lapse. Microscopic love finds a way in, passing through the barriers we can no longer erect in our weakened state.
That’s how we spread love in a pandemic.
Make Love Go Viral
March 25, 2020
Love in a pandemic requires super-spreaders.
As the most recent pandemic peaks and abates throughout the world, I recognize that I’m not alone, even in a time of solitude.
Here’s how I know I’m not alone: I hear it in the language we share:
Once, I’d only heard these words spoken by illness specialists, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, health-communication researchers, for example.
But now, our language is mutating.
We’re all super-spreaders. We’re all carriers.
I recognized that the first time I stepped into a communication class. Sixteen-years-old, I was one of those privileged high schoolers who got to take courses for credit at our local university.
Now, let me be clear. I was a mediocre student—funny, when you consider that I’m a professor. But there was something about communication that I instinctively understood, even before I stood behind the podium to give my speech to a room full of college students.
With each word and gesture, we infect others...with ideas, opinions, and emotions, and in doing so, we mutate language. And when we mutate language, we mutate the world.
Love in a pandemic becomes communicable in so many ways. Here’s what I’m hearing from and seeing in you:
1) Exhaling LOVE.
You wake, the morning light lilac, and your mind reaches for the previous day’s treacheries. Yet, when you open your lips, you know your very breath carries contagions, so you whisper on your exhalation, “I love you,” even though those words have been released by you billions of times before.
Our viral load of compassion must increase during great crises, infecting ourselves and others with kindness and grace, not suspicion and rage.
We make love communicable on our very breath.
2) Shedding LOVE.
Some contagions transmit through something called viral shedding, carried to another in our velvety caresses or our intimate secretions.
You reach out to another who’s in pain, and even if your touch doesn’t land on naked skin, your gentle gesture may be enough to release a blissful biochemical cocktail that eases pain. You blow kisses at your dear ones, pawing at the space between you, sending air-hugs, your affections silent but still potent.
Love doesn’t require a lot in a pandemic. It’s opportunistic, waiting for the smallest opening in our defenses.
3) Super-spreading LOVE.
Think you’re unimportant? In a pandemic, you are more important than ever.
Hate for and fear of Others spread rapidly during crises. So can love. Just look at the musicians in Liberia who produced a song about how to stay safe during the EBOV outbreak. Or the photographers who captured parents cradling their dying children during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Or the writers who journalabout the heartbreaking sweep of illness across the human landscape.
We’re all capable of being super-spreaders of hate. With our words, we can target and decimate populations, launching our own biochemical campaign—akin to tossing plague-infected bodies in a community’s water sources.
Or, we can all take our own Hippocratic Oaths. With each word and gesture, we seek to do no harm. More so, we seek to become super-spreaders.
Make love go viral in a pandemic.
Suffering Isn't Equal. No 1 of 2
March 28, 2020
Love in a pandemic requires our mindful recognition.
Suffering in a pandemic is pretty much guaranteed, but not everyone suffers equally.
I live in a land of emerald forests, crystal waterfalls, jade lakes, and blue mountains, some that swell, rounding pleasantly, some that aggressively stab into the sky.
Southern Appalachia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. No wonder I moved back after living in Georgia’s piedmont region for six years. My childhood home lured me with its enthralling siren song, silent to many, but threading into me and pulling me into the mountains again.
But like anyone in a loving, long-term relationship, I recognize the bleak alongside the beauty: this land is also marked by disparities—economic, educational, and health.
We have disproportionate levels of cancer and diabetes, to name a few. Plus, there’s our problem of co-morbidities, simultaneous illnesses in a single person. On top of it, that person may live under the same roof with generations of kin, all of whom are experiencing multiple illness conditions. Then, consider the geographic and economic structures limiting regular access to quality healthcare.
People don’t suffer equally in our day-to-day living. Neither will we in a pandemic.
Some families, communities, and populations are fixing to get hit harder.
Years back, I chatted with a woman at the edge of a misty, morning field. We were among the thousands of people who would gather on that stretch of green, ringed by mountains, for the RAM clinic (Remote Area Medical).
She and I stood only a few feet apart, but we stood different worlds—at least socio-economically. I was at RAM as a cancer communication researcher. She was there as a patient. I was hoping to get respondents for my survey. She was hoping the long lines didn’t stop her from getting the care she needed. Otherwise, she’d have to wait. Maybe till next year. Me? I might have to leave RAM with a low sample size. Poor, poor me.
I’ve shared this story before, so many times that it’s imbedded inside me, like honeysuckle vine burrowing into a crabapple trunk.
At the edge of that field, she told me about the lumps in her breasts, painful, disfiguring. But, like so many others at RAM, she couldn’t afford the drive to the nearest screening facility, let alone any treatment that would follow. So, she’d learned to live with the discomfort of having breasts mutated by tumors (benign or malignant, she couldn’t say).
I find myself thinking of her often.
And that was before the pandemic.
What stories would that woman tell me now?
I’ve carried her with me everywhere. Into my classrooms when I teach health communication. Into my interviews with cancer survivors. More so, I carry her into my medical appointments.
When my OBGYN looks me in the eyes and chats with me for a half-hour before having me hop up on the exam table, I see HER. When I text my primary care physician about some annoying symptom that has cropped up and get a reply, I see HER.
And I see her now too. While I’m outside on my sunny deck, sitting on my new patio furniture, hunched over my laptop, writing a blog.
Love in a pandemic means recognizing that suffering is not equal.
And then, we dedicate some part of our lives to addressing that.
Love Is Aware of Others' Suffering. No 2 of 2
April 1, 2020
Love in a pandemic demands our porous minds, bodies, and souls, allowing us to be infected with awareness.
A couple mornings ago, I read an article about how African Americans might be more vulnerable in this pandemic.
This is how the BLMGN explained it in a recent email, “the coronavirus is especially threatening for Black Americans. Structural and systemic racism have long-upheld disparities within our healthcare systems — resulting in higher rates of chronic diseases and lower access to healthcare among Black people.”
You’ll understand why, then, organizations like BLM and the CDC pay particular attention to higher-risk populations, including Black Americans who have historically faced pronounced health disparities.
As a White woman who came of age in the South, I’ve encountered plenty of people who resist talking about the impact of racism on health. But as Father Tony DeMello wrote,
“Love springs from awareness.” — DeMello
Perhaps the truest form of love in a pandemic is our awareness of how some communities stand to suffer more.
Years ago, I worked on a CDC-funded study in Georgia. I was a research assistant, there to learn, and boy oh boy, did I. We were exploring, in part, how we think of genetic information and technologies. I joined a team of researchers—of varying genders, races—who went into communities and gathered surveys.
At one point, two of us hung out in a salon, spent the whole day there watching gorgeous women get elaborate braids and weaves. I was the only White person there, not that being an obvious outsider bothered me. After all, I’d lived briefly in Prince George County, MD, and Northern India, so I value those times that I get reminded what it’s like to be a visible minority.
A warm energy rippled throughout the salon. Music played. People laughed, throaty and unguarded. And, my favorite, women ate—and without that self-conscious nonsense I see with a lot of White females.
Most women welcomed me, some graciously completing the survey, getting a small compensation for their time.
One woman ended up being my teacher, though.
“Would you like to fill out a survey about genetics?” I asked. “We’re not looking for experts. We just want to learn what people think, feel. You’ll get $25.00 for completing it.”
Her reply came swiftly.
“Why? You’re just going to try killing us again.”
“Uhm, well, no we aren’t. But I understand.”
And I did...somewhat.
When I’ve told that story before to audiences of White people, I often get met with surprise, shock, even indignation. I think certain folks question wonder why I wasn’t angry back in that salon. And I wasn’t, and here’s why.
There’s a long legacy of racism within the medical community itself. No, I'm not piling on the awesome healthcare providers on the frontlines of this pandemic. But, yes, I’m pointing to Tuskegee, that infamous syphilis study. I’m also talking about much more. Then, let’s not forget Henrietta Lacks, a young African American woman who had her cervical cancer cells gathered without her consent, having a revolutionary impact on medicine...without benefit to the Lacks family until decades after Henrietta’s death.
There are numerous historical cases and current events, underscoring the persistent lack of trust that some Black people still have toward medical institutions and personnel.
So back to that article I mentioned earlier. I got to thinking about the layers of mistrust between Black communities and medical communities, and I felt like I was back in that salon, standing in front of one of my great teachers, holding a thick, paper survey and (re)learning an important lesson.
And to paraphrase Tony DeMello....
Love in a pandemic: it springs from being aware that not all people will suffer equally.
Let’s recognize that, at least. Then, maybe donate to one of the worthy organizations fighting in the thick of it.
April 5, 2020
Love in a pandemic can be exhausting, and that’s okay.
Like many educators, I’ve stumbled into a new world, a virtual one.
And this Pandemic Professor is struggling.
After nearly 30 years of teaching on college campuses, I thought online classes would save me time. I wouldn’t have to drive to the university before dawn to get a parking space and meet for early-morning office hours. I wouldn’t have to trudge in heels from building to building, dodging runoff on rainy days and picking my way across buckling sidewalks. Plus, there’s the bonus of not having to show up 10 minutes before class to boot up sleepy computers and sluggish projectors.
So, yes, I thought I’d save time by teaching online.
I’m still laughing at my naivety!!
Huddled in my loft, I lean toward my laptop, the video camera highlighting the lines in my face and my dull eyes. I’m a writer, so I’m used to pouring myself into my monitor, not seeing it reflect me back to me, revealing my spikey worry and oozing exhaustion.
Since I teach communication students, I know they’ll see through my thin, professorial guise. They’re trained presenters, interviewers, and observers. They study people for a living, examining messages, spoken, or not. But they’re also compassionate, forgiving exposed vulnerabilities, mine included.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve lost that spark, that ZIP, Mom calls it. I’m preoccupied all the time.
I’ve moved my classes online, undergraduate and graduate. I won’t list the boring details, but the move required weeks of plodding and plotting, morning to night. Then, there’s the emotional work of teaching during a crisis. Educators are supposed to remain steady and strong. At least those are the messages I keep getting:
Help students cope.
Survey their access to resources.
Help them access those resources—financial, academic, technological, psychological.
You get it!
In your own way, you’re also receiving these messages.
Educators are facing the pandemic too, worrying about the lives of our loved ones—plus, our own lives. The layers of worrying pile up like fallen leaves, becoming a heavy blanket over time. How the hell am I supposed to help students cope when I’m trying to figure that out for myself?
Then, I remind myself:
Love in a pandemic means being okay with not being okay ... and drawing on those exposed vulnerabilities to form deeper connections.
April 10, 2020
Love in a pandemic means making healthy connections, including virtual ones.
Holding communication classes over Zoom has been a mess, but it’s kind of been a glorious mess. Several times a week, I have good conversations with good people, and I watch their eyes light up, curiosity replacing worry and exhaustion, if only for a moment.
Over the last few class periods, we’ve talked about maintaining healthy boundaries in a time of blurred boundaries. Even before the pandemic, students and professors alike were accosted by messages.
Communication overload. That’s what we call it in my discipline.
We’ve been inundated by emails, texts, and posts. Now, in pandemia, we’re also supposed to be available via discussion forums, online groups, and, of course, videoconferencing.
“I’ve never been more isolated or more connected,” one of my students admitted recently, summing up the pandemonium of pandemic communication.
We’re alone amidst so much togetherness. What a fitting moment to rethink and reestablish healthy boundaries.
I’m a pandemic professor, a member of the pandemia.
I’m a Zoomer, not a Boomer.
What that means for me is that I peer even more into my students’ lives. From the comfort of my home, I watch them, noting their weary eyes and hearing their slightly quivering voices. I marvel at them as they fight to hold onto their dreams of bettering their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
By connecting to them virtually, I’m also accessing parts of my students’ lives that I’ve never accessed before. In live classes, they share stories, opinions, and experiences—but in contained, measured ways. These days, I see into their bedrooms and the dens of their childhood homes. Their parents wander through the background, dogs climb on their laps, and young siblings push through closed doors and press small faces into video cameras.
These virtual connections have taught me a ton....
I’ve learned the names of their pets, siblings, and romantic partners. I’ve learned the colors of their bedding and seen the clutter of their workspaces. Too, I’ve learned a bit more about their political standings, having caught sight of posters on their walls.
All these glimpses into their lived spaces are lovely, but I sense the fading of boundaries between professor and student, and that unsettles me.
When I end our Zoom meetings, I fumble for words that will inspire them to return next week for an online class they didn’t sign up for. In my ears, every utterance is flat, clearly insufficient for a time such as this.
My screen goes black. Even after our virtual connections have been severed, I find it hard to disconnect from them. I worry about them, their unemployment, their dwindling bank accounts, and their complicated lives that have gotten more complicated.
Prior to the pandemic, most educators I knew were already stretched, exhausted. In the pandemic, we’re supposed to figure out how to maintain healthy boundaries in what feels like a world that’s lost its boundaries.
Love in a pandemic means sitting in front of dark monitors, our confusion and exhaustion reflected back to us, and in the quiet, we catch glimpse of this: maybe it’s okay to be unsettled in unsettling times.
April 13, 2020
Love in a pandemic means seeing people where they are, not where you are.
Southern Appalachia’s where I teach. Here, my students lead complicated lives. That includes the “privileged” ones.
Stay a spell and let me tell you a bit about these students.
Many are first-generation. Some are furiously prying themselves from poverty’s grip. Others peel themselves away from significant family and job obligations in pursuit of education. In the olden days (about a month back), they’d drift across campus from residence halls, faces buried in smart phones, seemingly oblivious to the beauty around them.
Most drove, though, heading to campus over mountainous routes, rutted backroads, or blue highways. Unless you’ve been to Appalachia, you may have missed it: we’re a land of cities, towns, and rural communities, but our roads lead to shared spaces, and we bring our stories, passions, dreams, and experiences with us.
In the shared space of our classrooms, we participate in sacred acts, a narrative communion that bonds and transforms.
That’s some of what’s magnificent about the students I’ve known.
Let me tell you about some others. Like Joel and Sandra (not their real names), young folks who care for ailing kin. They write papers and take tests, their grades never spectacular—but their lives are.
It’s been a great honor teaching the so-called floundering students, the ones toiling to earn their college degrees while, literally, keeping parents, siblings, and grandparents alive.
Welcome to the Pandemia, where students have it rougher.
Most have lost their jobs. A few loiter in parking lots of libraries and fast food restaurants, searching for a Wi-Fi signal strong enough for them to join online class discussions. Others have moved home, reconfiguring their lives, giving up their hard-fought independence to live with parents once more.
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they declare:
“I’m one of the privileged ones.”
“I am blessed.”
My current students have homes to shelter in. Even those unemployed—and I teach students who must work—have family to help them with rent, tuition, and unexpected costs. At least, that’s what they tell me. They’re probably not telling me everything, as if they’re worried about causing me more worry.
Too late! I’m thinking about my current students, and the ones who’ve come before this batch, like....
Brenda whose father sexually abused her through much of her childhood.
Maggie whose mother died of cancer some years back.
Joel whose younger sibling has multiple serious health conditions, requiring special at-home care, feeding tubes, respirators.
Sandra whose mother has been in and out of the hospital for years, requiring Sandra to become the family-health advocate while pursuing her education.
Don who’s faced years of racism and has been working to uproot his family from poverty.
Where do these students shelter in place? What does shelter even mean to them?
This pandemic has inconvenienced me as an educator, forcing me to stay at home and connect with my students remotely, expanding my workload with all the grading, messaging, lecturing, uploading, and downloading.
So what? And I ask myself that with loads of self-compassion, but also with awareness.
A Pandemic Professor, I’m inconvenienced in a lovely home with electricity and technology. My yard is lush, blossoming in festive springtime hues, festooned with apple and pear blooms, sprinkled with violets and buttercups. I’ve worn paths through the wild thicket and the ragged field out back. As I stroll around my yard, I look in awe at the rolling, blue mountain that’s a backdrop for my life. And if anything goes wrong, I have a five-minute drive to the hospital.
Meanwhile, some students huddle in cars, holding onto their cell phones as tightly as they’re holding onto their aspirations. Some navigate racism in their daily lives in addition to navigating the educational system. Some have been disowned by families because of homophobia and transphobia, and they’ve been following the path of education out of a painful past.
Now, students must navigate all that ... plus this pandemic.
Of course, there are students are facing this pandemic from a place of privilege, like me. They snuggle in their beds as they write their papers. They tuck themselves away in private rooms, barricading themselves from a noisy household. They are annoyed at having to watch online lectures and video-recording their presentation assignments, and I recognize that remote work adds many more steps to our already complicated tasks, but, like them, I see the privilege too.
Love in a pandemic means witnessing how the pursuit of education is complicated in the Pandemia.
April 17, 2020
Self-Distancing is a loving act, and, perhaps, we will learn to love it back ... maybe even a bit too much.
Humans are beautiful messes. We sabotage good times. We flourish in bad times. As a communication professor and researcher, I’ve studied people living through all sorts of conditions, collecting their stories and listening to their tales of loss and self-resurrection.
Then, the pandemic hit. Like many of your workplaces, my university closed, and my work went online. The result? I’ve pretty much stayed at home for a month now, isolated from people.
And, I’m discovering that I am safer at home, in many ways.
The other day, I left the house to run errands, picking up meds, dropping off recycling. At one point, I ended up chatting (in-person) with someone I’ve known for years, a restaurant owner. It was a good chat. I learned about the ways he’s adapting, streamlining his business. Unfortunately, that means that he’s laid off most of his employees, but he’s committed to bringing them back—eventually.
Standing six feet apart from him, I listened, soaking up his stories of survival and “thrival.”
A sucker for the resilience of the human spirit, I find that people’s difficulties make them more luminescent to my eye.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t have stood there listening to him. Perhaps, I should’ve been maintaining my social distance. Because by the time I got home, I was wiped. Bone weary, in fact. And that got me thinking:
Panagoraphobia. Agoraphobia in a pandemic.
No, that condition isn’t in the current DSM. But my guess is that in a few more months, there will be numerous panagoraphobics.
Okay, it’s important to admit here that I’m not a mental health practitioner. I’m not a clinician. Plainly speaking, I am unqualified to diagnose disorders.
What I am is a social scientist, an observer of people, including myself. So, when I’m struggling to leave the house and operate in the larger world, I’m sure others are too. Or they will be.
Outside seems too big now. Cars fly by, roaring dragons riding the backs of long, black serpents. In parking lots, people flock, milling like migrating birds, their squawking loud, their bodies flapping and fluffing up, displays that mesmerize and overwhelm me.
By the time I return home, I’m tapped, drawn even more to wild spaces, needing to be away from the flurry of humanity. Since the pandemic, my home’s become the kangaroo pouch I long to snuggle in.
A month into safer-at-home, and I’m wondering when I’ll be forced to leave Here for Out There.
Writing this, I review the criteria of agoraphobia. E.g., the anxiety that comes from being in crowds, or from leaving home. And I’m curious.
Is what’s happening to me is happening to others?
I’m an experienced presenter. I’ve spoken to audiences of hundreds. I’ve moderated seminars with fifty-plus attendees. I grew up on stage, acting and singing. I am not shy, but the older I get, the more I feel the world’s tentacles latching onto me, sinking into me. And I’ve come to yearn for my own company more and more.
During this pandemic, we have experts advising us to prepare for a “new normal,” the time after our confinement is lifted. I suspect my new normal will be characterized by panagoraphobia: heart thudding, throat tightening at the mere thought of life without social distancing. And, I'm figuring out how to manage my new condition.
Love in a pandemic means accepting the isolation that’s been thrust upon us, then becoming fond of it, perhaps already grieving its eventual loss.
April 24, 2020
Love in the pandemic means staying curious about strangers, strange spaces, and strange times.
I’m about eight or so, tucked in my childhood bedroom, a tiny girl surrounded by pink walls blossoming with fat blooms in shades of azalea and rose. Cross-legged, I sit with my back against the foot of my bed, hunched over a notebook, pencil in my hand.
When I close my eyes, I still see my drawing, one of an alien, a visitor from beyond. Below that picture is my story, only a few lines about an outsider coming to Earth and finding a friend among humans.
That story is long gone. I doubt I even finished it. Nonetheless....
writing has stayed with me, one of my truest friends, especially when I feel like a stranger in a strange time.
I’m a sucker for storytellers who expose ordinary living in extraordinary times. Years ago, I read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe wrote about the common in the calamity, detailing the spaces of his community inflicted by illness.
“One day,” Defoe writes, “curiosity led me to observe things more than usually, and indeed I walked a great way where I had no business. I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people, but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other....they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.”
Though written in the late 1660s, Defoe’s work inspired my blog, his witnessing of social distancing in another century unleashed in me a yearning to witness the social distancing in our time.
That’s what I love most about writers and writing. No matter the time or place, we seek to make the strange recognizable and the stranger understood, maybe even welcomed.
There have been other sources of inspiration for this blog, too.
Back in March, UVA Professor Herbert “Tico” Braun asked his students to “keep a record of their daily lives during this unprecedented time.”
His call helped convince me to write my own blog, to keep my own record, my own journal. As soon as I started, however, I saw that people don’t have to be writers to be recorders of history.
Everyday folks are witnessing everyday events in these strange times.
Oncology nurse who writes about masking up to see her patients. Financial advisor who writes to ease people’s concerns about market volatility. Father who writes about his afternoon walk with his young children. Educator who writes about emailing her students to check in and reassure. Server who writes about the realities, good and bad, of being unemployed.
And, it’s the:
Secretary who writes about the savory dinner she cooked. Gardener who writes about the plot he’s prepared. Councilwoman who writes about learning how to dress waist-up for a videoconference. Mother who writes about the drive-by parade she arranged for her daughter’s birthday. Artist who writes about grooming her bunny to cheer herself up. Teacher aide who writes about her insomnia—OK, there are lots of writings about insomnia, stress, depression.
What these daily jottings illustrate is that, while we struggle, we also report the ordinary joys that are smackdab in the middle of a pandemic.
At the beginning of safer-at-home, I was tempted to put my writing projects on the backburner. After all, I had to learn how to operate Zoom, schedule meetings, send my students invitations to those meetings... so much was new in this strange virtual world. Surely, my writing had to be ignored for a spell.
Then, it occurred to me:
If I were an alien visiting a strange land, wouldn’t I journal about my observations? Wouldn’t I record what I saw, experienced? After my first weekend immersed in Zoomland, I reminded myself that writers write.
Too, we witness, listen, testify, and share!
And, above all, writers report on the everyday acts of love in a pandemic.
Screw the "Don't Be So Sensitive" Advice
April 29, 2020
Spreading love in the pandemic involves spreading love within.
As I read my friends’ posts and tweets, seeing their faces drawn by anxiety and eyes painted with worry, I’ve been thinking about how these remarkable times may be impacting High Sensitive Persons (HSP), and that’s why I’m writing a two-part blog on this topic.
Okay, let’s start with some terms and definitions. Don’t go! I’ll be quick. Besides, you could be highly sensitive. Or, maybe, you’re sheltering in place with one or two HSPs, and you’re all driving one another mad with your diverging needs.
When I’m talking about HSPs, I’m talking about sensitivity to stimuli. A.k.a. Sensory-Processing Sensitivity.That’s what Elaine Aron and others call it (more on her work later).
For some HSPs, the sensitivity could be about sounds or smells. For others, it could revolve around people. You know, like being tuned into everyone, noticing every little subtlety. Think facial expressions, body language, vocal variations, and so on.
Before we continue, I’ll admit something here. There’s debate about whether HSP and Empath are interchangeable terms, but I’m not going to get into that. If you’re interested in this topic, keep reading. I’ll point you to some resources.
I first stumbled across the concept of high sensitivity in Susan Cain’s Quiet. Later came Christiane Northrup’s Dodging Energy Vampires, and Judith Orloff’s Empath’s Survival Guide. And here’s what I started learning:
High sensitives can read the energy of the room, for example, sensing—even absorbing— others’ emotions. That makes HSPs capable of connecting to their environment and/or the people in it, including strangers.
Have you ever been told, “You don’t know a stranger”? I have, and I’ve taught a bazillion students who have been told that too. When I meet someone new, I am rarely at a loss for words—More accurately, I’m rarely at a loss for questions. I want to know them, their stories, their fears, and their survivals (This does not mean that I can't be shy or reserved, by the way).
As a communication professor, I’m used to training students how to connect with other people. But with me, I’ve had to train myself to not connect, because...
Connection feels natural, almost compulsory, like breathing. But it also drains me, like I'm gulping pollen-filled air, leaving me logy.
All this got me thinking about how sensitive souls are muddling through the pandemic.
Let’s tackle social isolation.
For an empath, being isolated has its advantages. We can steer clear of “bad” energy. We can avoid those who suck us dry, intentionally or unintentionally—what Northrup calls energy vampires. When the buzzing world slows to a hum, the constant bombardment of stimuli lessens.
During the pandemic:Traffic noises have decreased. Social events have been cancelled. Crowds have dispersed. In essence, mandated socializing has been replaced by social distancing.
Isolation, though, doesn’t necessarily mean disconnection, and that may present unique challenges for HSPs.
As Orloff says, empaths “are prone to absorbing the suffering of the world.” And, oh, is the world suffering.
Does shelter-in-place mean suffer-in-place for some?
To answer that, let’s consider the work of Elaine Aron, for me, the Mother of HSP research. Aron’s blogging about challenges high sensitives may face while sheltering in place.
For example, HSPs may face more difficulties when it comes to tuning out the stress of our partners, and the restlessness of our children may seep into us more. Then, let’s not forget about the near-constant suffering; it can be especially hard for highly sensitive folks to disconnect from the suffering in their families, communities, and the larger world.
If you’re like me, you wake in the middle of the night, worrying about the unemployed server who waited on you a handful of times, the dauntless healthcare provider without sufficient protective gear, the single parent who must both work and homeschool their kids, the communities with poor access to hospitals, the teachers taxing themselves while trying to help students [insert the continued litany of worries].
The other day, for example, I finally got some time to relax. I’d caught up on grading stacks of papers. I’d finished my Zoom classes and meetings. Then, during my “down time,” my brain started buzzing, churning out reminders about all the people I hadn’t checked on. Like my hairdresser. Immediately, I picked up my phone to ask how she’s doing and see if I could pay for my appointments in advance, concerned that she and her family don’t have enough money to eat, pay bills...live.
When there’s suffering everywhere, it’s hard to shut off the connection to others, maybe even more so to HSPs. Even when alone, we absorb (real or imagined) the emotions of others, as Orloff contends. No wonder I’m seeing so many posts about insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
So, with love, I offer you this quote, one that I’ve adopted as a kind of mantra:
"Hey, you’re doing great by just doing as well as you can at this time. Don’t judge." –Elaine Aron
Now that's sound advice.
The Reality of Virtual Connections
May 9, 2020
Spreading love in the pandemic may feel natural for some...and oh so depleting.
When we talk face-to-face, there are all those subtle cues we draw on consciously and subconsciously to shape our messages. These cues help us adjust to our communication partner(s). Think of that flinch that makes you pause, maybe soften your tone a bit. Well...
Remote work still requires communication work.
Just because we’re behind a screen, or a mask, doesn’t mean we stop that communication work. We go on digesting expressions and microexpressions, those verbal and nonverbal messages (visible and invisible). But what’s lacking in our virtual connections are some of the seasonings, the spices sprinkled throughout our face-to-face interactions. Like the rich laughter that once invigorated us, now tinny and distorted by laptop speakers. Or the faint scents of others that once soothed us, now absent, perhaps when we need them the most.
As the Psychology Today article points out: “we are all sensual beings. When we encounter each other, we take in information from many senses.”
In essence, then, we may be so damn exhausted because we’re working hard at communicating without getting those sensual benefits.
Are you a highly sensitive person? If so, virtual communication may deplete you in additional ways.
Consider mirror neurons, for example. As author and psychiatrist, Judith Orloff explains, these “cells enable everyone to mirror emotions, to share another person’s pain, fear, or joy. Because empaths are thought to have hyperresponsive mirror neurons, we deeply resonate with other people’s feelings.”
Now, I’m not a neuroscientist, so make sure you get reputable sources about this emerging area of science. Also, keep in mind that there are a bunch of smarties calling for us to rethink the function of mirror neurons.
This is one explanation I’ve heard about what mirror neurons do: they help us See-Do.
When I’m in a classroom or in a grocery-checkout line, I see the person in front of me wince (Are they in pain?). I noticed how they press a hand to the small of their back (Do they have back pain?). When I see, then, I decide in that moment what to do, how to respond, how to offer comfort.
When we’re in Zoom classrooms or Webex meetings, we’re seeing-doing for others. But, perhaps, what’s exhausting us is that we’re seeing-doing for ourselves too. We become our own communication partner, visually speaking. We notice our hair, face, and eyes. We notice how our lips purse, our eyelids blink rapidly.
Face it! We’re not used to seeing ourselves when carrying on a conversation. It’s like our brains aren’t designed for the Seeing-Doing when it involves simultaneously watching ourselves and others.
No wonder our virtual interactions deplete us.
I won’t cover here the great advice listed in the Psychology Today article, but check it out! All I want to say is this:
There is nothing wrong with you if you get rattled on those video-conference calls or video chats.
If adjusting expectations about your looks or trying the post-it note trick (see that article) don’t work, then try something. Tell everyone that your internet connection is lagging, that you have to turn off the video. Plenty of my students have used that strategy this semester, especially when struggling with their mental health, and I didn’t think less of them.
In fact, I applaud everyone who takes measures in this virtual world to meet responsibilities.... including to ourselves.
Last week, I finally took a cue from my students. Attending several large town-hall meetings, I muted the video and audio, allowing me to listen without distraction. And, I got far less taxed by the long meetings because I didn’t have to worry about how I looked, what my facial expressions suggested to me or others, where I sat, or what was in my background. I could simply BE.
In the end, I remembered that....
Love in a pandemic means self-love too.
GIFT Yourself! No 1 of 2
May 18, 2020
Love in a pandemic means knowing when you deserve some of your own time.
Especially these days, your fortunes may be frayed at the edges by your challenges. Okay, so you’re bringing home a paycheck, but that’s because you’re an essential worker, overwhelmed, exhausted, and at risk, and you find yourself envying those staying at home. Or maybe you’re staying at home, but that also means you’re homeschooling and squeezing in videoconferences for work between teaching lessons you’re ill-equipped to teach.
My bet is that your life has become more complicated in some ways. But you do have something: certainty. You can be certain that you aren’t in control of how this pandemic unfolds.
With that in mind, it’s time for you to give yourself a gift—that’s a G.I.F.T.
Give It Five Today. GIFT. You can do that.
Clinical psychologist and mindfulness practitioner Dr. Rick Hanson explains, “people feel pushed around by external forces of various kinds...It becomes more and more important to feel that...there are things you can do with your reactions.”
That’s where Give It Five Today comes in. Five minutes for you and only you. It doesn’t matter when or where. It doesn’t require getting on yet another Zoom meeting. It doesn’t require pricey yoga mats or expensive gear.
Five minutes. That’s it! Given by you to you.
My forties were transformative, but transformation means chaos.
I ended a toxic marriage, survived through the suicide of my ex, fought for my son as he decided to not continue our mother-child relationship, and lost my father to one last massive stroke. But I found so much too! New relationships, including one with my current spouse and step-kids. New dedications, including to the next stage of my professional career.
Too, I found the importance of the GIFT.
And all that was before the pandemic.
Giving yourself the gift of five minutes is one of the most loving acts you can do for yourself.
How do I know? I’ve done it for the last two years. Every single day. Without fail.
During the most chaotic times of my life, I discovered the works of Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Their books helped me save my own life! I started facing my good-girl-fix-others approach to life, an approach that kept me hooked in dysfunctional circumstances. But it would take years more before I faced my drive for perfection.
When I started meditating around 2008, I sat in a lotus position and practiced the “right ways” of stillness. Of course, I doomed myself. I got inside my head. Instead of championing myself, I hauled expectations, comparing my mindfulness practices to a bullshit image of what meditation should look like. And that image definitely didn’t look like me. I wasn’t skinny enough. My posture was wrong, my clothes too.
See, I told you....bullshit!
It wasn’t until March 2018, that I surrendered, making peace with the craziness in my head. And here’s what I learned to do.
Right after crawling out of bed, I dress in my cheap yoga pants and tee (nothing fancy). I clear notifications on my phone, but I resist the urge to dig into social media. Some mornings, I falter, and when I do, I get back on track. After all, social media (nearly everything else too!) can wait five minutes.
Insight Timer has become my go-to app when it comes to meditation. Try it. It’s free, and you can play meditations on your phone...and of varying lengths. Usually, I start with a short one. Five minutes is great for me. It gets me going, and if my body and mind are heavy from a bunch of anxiety dreams, that five minutes is enough to move the energy through me.
Look, I’ve been talked at for most of my life. I’ve had plenty of people giving me unsolicited advice, telling me, “Do that!” and “Don’t do that!” I don’t want to do the same to you. If you don’t have five minutes, how about one minute? If you don’t like visualization meditations, how about music or nature sounds?
When you gift yourself, it should be a gift that works for you. Personally, sitting meditations make me crazy, especially long ones, so years ago, I fired my inner critic who told me that mindfulness practices must look perfect. Now, I literally run or walk in circles throughout the entire meditation, and it works! For me.
Love in a pandemic means giving yourself the five minutes you would willing give to a loved one.
GIFT Yourself! No 2 of 2
May 24, 2020
Amplify love in a pandemic by writing notes of gratitude, appreciation, and joy.
As a child, I wrote love notes everywhere and in many forms. My stubby fingers pinching a fat permanent marker, I’d shimmy to the bottom of my sleeping bag and scrawl the name of my latest crush. With a butter knife, I carved into the kitchen table my adoration. I penned clunky poems for Mom, decorating the margins with hand-drawn flowers or stickers of animals.
Deep down, I knew language was my way of discovering and honoring the everyday divine.
Then, there were my childhood diaries. I filled pages with youthful longings and mourned my losses. Absent, though, was my gratitude for what I had. In fact, my attempts at keeping gratitude journals failed, each one abandoned on a shelf or in a pile of other discarded notebooks.
That is, until my life fell apart.
There’s something powerful about losing an entire family and forming another one. The cycle of destruction-creation helped me see the beauty that I had rendered invisible by my fixations on what I didn’t have.
In my last blog, I talked about the G.I.F.T. Give It Five Today.
Five minutes to meditate.
Five minutes to appreciate.
After my meditation each morning, I jot quick love notes to myself, to others, to the world—mostly the natural world, occasionally the humanmade one too. For at least five minutes, I reflect on whatever has made me glow.
Somedays that glow is warm and golden. Others, it’s a weak ember under layers of cold, gray ash.
Regardless, I write love into the world.
For years, I had a journal stuffed away, unused, its bright cover proclaiming, “Think Happy.” I rolled my eyes whenever I saw it, dismissing its message as one mandating cheer and making positivity compulsory.
“Screw you,” I thought whenever I laid eyes on that bossy, be-happy journal.
By my fifties, I had stabilized my life, and I had pretty much everything I wanted: a killer job with a flexible schedule; bosses who gave me a lot of freedom; a passion for teaching, writing, research; and a fabulous, loving relationship with a spouse who was an actual partner—instead of a teenager in an adult body. On top of all that, I had earned tenure and promotion and had a decent publication record.
So why were Anxiety and Grumpiness suddenly hanging out with my Inner Critic, the three bbfs nattering on inside me ... no matter what I did or accomplished???
I found answers by writing love into my world.
Surly, and damn tired of being so damn surly, I grudgingly started my daily ritual of writing in my 3-Joys Journal (3-JJ). After years, I’d finally surrendered to that bossy, be-happy journal.
Each morning, I jot down my gratitude, appreciation, and joy. Big or small. Reverberating or faint. And here’s the important part of the gift I give myself: I write something—anything—in my 3-JJ. Without fail.
“Relax,” I coax myself. “You don’t have to be fancy or eloquent. You don’t have to write in complete sentences or be lyrical with an evocative vocabulary.” In my journals, there are spelling and grammatical errors, but I keep writing.
Perfection isn’t the goal. Seeing is the goal.
And just like so many of those blasted happiness and wellness studies promise, I found my mental health improving in just a few short weeks.
Plus, I haven’t given up my sarcasm or my dark humor. I’m my same spicy self, and on occasion, Inner Critic still breaks into my thinking and is way louder than my gratitude. Thanks to G.I.F.T., though, I’ve learned to be a hell of a lot more compassionate with myself and others.
Through meditation (last blog) and writing love notes, I’ve grown more tolerant of my mistakes, more forgiving of others’ “missteps,” and more tender during the tough times. And surviving a pandemic is tough.
So, each morning, I remind myself....
Love in a pandemic means writing gratitude, appreciation, and joy into the world.
Kelly A. Dorgan is a professor, writer, and researcher specializing in illness, gender, culture, and communication. Connect with her on Twitter https://twitter.com/KADorgan and her website https://www.kellydorgan.com/.