Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

One year ago today, after several days of driving from dark and snowy Vermont, we were just hours away from our sixth annual, two-week Christmas at the beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This was a big splurge. I saved all year to pay the beach house rental fee. The island we like to visit has been getting more and more expensive, but it the high quality family time we enjoyed together made it all worthwhile.

The sea turtle my granddaughter drew for me during our Christmas beach vacation last year.

This year, thanks to our intergenerational living situation, we will still be together, but nowhere near the beach. It was 9 degrees below zero when I got up this morning. I hope to go for a walk after it warms up a bit, but it will be a far cry from bare toes in warm sand.

There’s also a lot to be said for spending the holidays in Vermont — normally. It is still lovely outside, with shiny diamonds gleaming in the snow. But the caroling party, the Hannukah party, the Yankee Gift Exchange, the annual service at the Old West Church, various open houses … all canceled. Happily, some of these celebrations will still be offered online, but, of course, that’s hardly the same.

I am not complaining. I know we are fortunate. Our barn-turned-house provides plenty of inside space, room for two Christmas trees this year. Outside, we have some small but serviceable sledding hills. We have heat, we have food, we have each other. And Christmas cookies, board games, colored lights, and presents under the tree. I know life is a real struggle for millions of Americans right now, and I am deeply appreciative of my family’s gifts and comforts. No complaining, for sure.

What I am doing is pondering the nature of celebrating in a pandemic. Recently I have started watching Nicole Wallace’s broadcast on MSNBC. Each night at the close of her program, she airs “Lives Well Lived,” a brief segment lifting up some of those who have died from Covid-19. Last night’s segment told the story of eight nuns in the same religious order in Milwaukee. All eight of these women, who had retired after lifetimes of service, died in one week. One night, Nicole told us about a baker in Brooklyn who used to put out free bread to feed the hungry during the pandemic, until he, too, was claimed by Covid. Another night it was a five year girl. Then there was a pregnant woman in her early 30s; the baby made it, but she didn’t.

These individual stories bring the pain and grief alive in a way the experts warning us to stay home, and the astonishingly high daily death toll, don’t. The stories make me cry. These brief segments feel like a daily gift: they allow me to honor some of the lives lost, and to feel some of the overwhelming national grief. But, as the pandemic goes on and on and on, so too do our everyday lives. It seems intuitively obvious to me that celebrating the good in our lives is just as important as grieving the sorrows. And the older I get the more the phrase “life is short” resonates with me. We need to seize our celebrations when we can, in part because we really don’t know how many opportunities to celebrate we’ll have.

Plus, not surprisingly, Americans as a whole are not doing well, emotionally. We need to grab onto what can help us feel better and get through. New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo calls our mental state, “The Hidden ‘Fourth Wave’ of the Pandemic.” He writes, “Nine long, deadly months into the pandemic, Americans report severe psychic distress. It’s dark, we’re stuck inside, and we’re isolated from friends and family. Politics is fevered, the economy continues to struggle, and the coronavirus rages on. Many of us may be at a breaking point.”

So here’s something that feels helpful to me: holding on to both the grief and the joy simultaneously. That’s life. Both are going on. So, yes, cry. And also, celebrate — safely, of course. And perhaps with some consideration of the massive personal challenges all around us.

That’s my belief. But I also wanted to know what science has to say on the topic. On the Psychology Today website I found a column by Polly Campbell entitled, “Why You Should Celebrate Everything” She says that “moments of celebration make us pause and be mindful, and that boosts our well-being. … when we stop to savor the good stuff, we buffer ourselves against the bad and build resilience—and even mini-celebrations can plump up the positive emotions which make it easier to manage the daily challenges that cause major stress.

Ross Wilson of the Growing Organizations website goes so far as the say that celebrating helps keep us sane. In his “Straight Talk” column in June 2020 he wrote, “While we cannot ignore the challenges of the current climate, it’s dangerous to dwell on these and let them overwhelm us. … Psychologists agree that 3 things are crucial to keep us sane during difficult times: 1) practicing gratitude and celebrating even small successes, 2) focusing only on what we have control over, and 3) maintaining a positive environment.

Which brings me to my big celebration a couple of weeks ago: Bob’s and my 50th wedding anniversary.

The first wedding I ever attended was my own, on a dreary November day in 1970. I don’t think many of the guests were in a particularly celebratory mood. The reception in my mother’s living room was subdued, with lemonade and cake — but no alcohol. After all, neither the bride nor the groom was of legal drinking age. And the bride, a senior in high school, was also three months pregnant.

I was wildly in love with Bobby Sassaman, but I didn’t have any confidence our marriage would last. Both my mother and grandmother had gotten divorced. I suspected I would, too. It didn’t help that Bobby’s job was being a paper boy — the only job he had ever held. Nor did it bode well that he was a freshman at the local community college, despite his awesome brain power (he got a perfect score on the math section of the SATs). I also knew the odds did not favor teenage newlyweds with a baby on the way. I didn’t have a job at all; I’d recently been fired from my job in the kitchen of a family-oriented restaurant, because, the manager told me a few years later, I was pregnant.

Bob, though, always believed our marriage was of the “till death do you part” variety and, amazingly, he was right. For 50 years, so far. There are many reasons we have thrived, not least of which is the financial and emotional support we continued to receive from both sides of the family. Analyzing our successful marriage deserves its own essay, but, especially given our starting point, I thought our 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating. Not just still married, but actually thriving. Happy to still be with each other..

Bob & me on our 5oth anniversary, photo by Susan Bull Riley

Our anniversary was November 28th — 50 years after the wedding, 51 years after our first kiss, and two weeks after the Governor of Vermont issued tighter Covid restrictions, banning any size social gathering, indoors or out. Hmm, so how to celebrate?

I know that question has arisen over and over for so many celebrants of all ages this year, whether for weddings, graduations, birthdays, even celebrating the end of life. In our case, we don’t even normally celebrate our anniversary. It’s just another year gone by. Plus the timing is never good, since it usually falls just days after Thanksgiving. The past seven years we’ve been in the middle of a two-day car drive coming home from our daughter’s house. But early in 2020, I decided this year would be different. Fifty seemed like a noteworthy number, for sure. Neither Bob nor I are fancy, so there was no thought of anything grand. Also inclusivity is very important to me. I hate the idea of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings by shutting them out of the party. So inviting everyone far and wide to an open house seemed the way to go.

Obviously, the pandemic forced me to change our plans. Instead, we got a firepit for the front yard and put up a tarp with colored lights. The idea was to have friends stop by, just one or two at a time, masked, and enjoy each other’s company outside for a few minutes. The Governor’s order against even outside gatherings nixed that plan, too. So we dropped back to a Zoom gathering, along with an invitation for friends to drive by and honk-and-wave as we sat alone by the firepit. Since we both believed going inside a restaurant for dinner was a very bad idea, covid-wise, and neither of us wanted to cook, we had microwaved TV dinners by the dwindling fire on a chilly November night.

Our cold and lonely firepit.

And it was all wonderful!! The Zoom format allowed us to welcome and share with friends and loved ones from all over the place, both geographically and in terms of their roles in our lives. From the neighbor across the street to a classmate from fifth grade, we got to feel the love of a lifespan — so much so, I almost missed the honk-and-wave because the Zoom was too wonderful to bring to a close. But that part, too, was so much fun. And TV dinners, in the right frame of mind and with a little red wine, are just fine.

This probably sounds like a line from a Hallmark Christmas special, but my experience was that the celebration that mattered was in our hearts. Honoring this day as meaningful allowed Bob and me to pause, and consider our lives and love together in a way we rarely do, and that made us both happy. Sharing the occasion with family and friends far and wide was a way of giving and receiving love and joy in a time when we all need it. I was positively blissful by the end of the day.

So here we all are, in a time of celebrations that on the outside may not live up to anyone’s hopes or expectations. But on the inside … ah, my friends, may you celebrate till your hearts are full.

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