D is for Donate Blood.

Fourth of 26 blogs in Blogging from A to Z

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Winston Churchill, speech in House of Commons, May 1940

This morning I got 2 emails about donating blood – one from my sister in Massachusetts and the other from our local public health department in Seattle. My sister’s message informed me that her daughter Ellen was spending the day volunteering at a Red Cross blood donation center near Boston. The public-health email linked to a guest blog by Curt Bailey, the CEO of Bloodworks Northwest, the major supplier of blood in the Seattle area since before the end of World War II.

Ellen volunteers at a local blood bank.

Wearing a homemade mask, Ellen’s job was to check the temperatures of donors—a new procedure introduced to address concerns about COVID-19.

“Previously they only had donor ambassadors who would direct donors during their check in process. Now everyone who walks in must have their temperature taken upon entry into the blood drive area.”

Ellen

Although only people with appointments were allowed to donate blood, Ellen said about 10 people walked in off the street during her 7-hour shift. A few of them were able to make same-day appointments. The mother of 2 school-age boys, Ellen was happy to see parents coming in with “willing teenagers.”

“So nice to see the teens there!”

Ellen

Back in Seattle, Curt Bailey made a convincing case for donating blood, noting that:

  • Blood is perishable, so it can’t be stockpiled.
  • In our area (home to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance), “one third of all donated blood goes to persons fighting cancer and other blood disorders.”
  • Seattle’s regional trauma center and its children’s hospital need a safe, dependable supply of blood as they serve patients in a large, multi-state region. (The same is true, by the way, for another 90 or so hospitals in western Washington and Oregon.)
  • Several new safety protocols are in place to protect donors and staff.

Bailey’s bottom line: To maintain an adequate blood supply, “it’s critical that 1,000 people donate every day.”

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This should have been an easy call, right? The CEO from a highly respected institution makes a very reasonable request – not for my money, but for my blood. And I read this request knowing that my plenty-on-her-plate niece was spending her Saturday taking the temperatures of everyone who walked into a busy blood bank. In addition, I was not exactly overscheduled since every appointment, class, meeting, and social engagement for the next two months has been canceled, and it seems likely that my summer plans will suffer the same fate.

So why didn’t I pick up the phone immediately?

I was embarrassed. I have a history of passing out when I see blood, especially when that blood is pulsing into a vial of some sort. It’s happened more times than I care to remember –

  • When I took my sister to the hospital after a bike accident and the ER doctor asked me to leave because all the color had left my face and she knew I was about to faint.
  • On my first day as a candy striper in a pediatrics ward, I passed out while “helping” the medical staff hold an infant still while they took blood.
  • After being patched up in the ER after a tumble from a bike on Nantucket, I had to rest in a holding room for almost an hour – not because of my (mild) injuries, but because, once again, I had been traumatized by the sight of blood.
Classic Candy Striper uniform

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The problem is not insurmountable. Over the years, I have learned not to watch as the little vials fill with blood for various lab tests. Similarly, I avert my eyes when a phlebotomist is searching for a vein – mine or anyone else’s.  I’m still interested (I’ve always been interested), but really, who needs the drama?

So this afternoon I got online and made an appointment.  The amazing thing was that, for the location closest to me, the first available appointment wasn’t until May 15th! Despite cancellation of regular blood drives, the message is getting through: We are a community. We need to look out for each other, and an important way we can do that is by donating blood.

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C is for Control

Third of 26 blogs in Blogging from A to Z

“Behavioral responses [to the stress of COVID-19] range from withdrawal to taking more risks, as we seek ways to exert control in a newly uncontrollable reality.”

  Karmel Choi, Harvard Gazette, 3/26/2020

Theo dwarfed by log

We are control freaks.

Control – what a loaded term! Across all cultures, we teach children self control (potty training, table manners, waiting one’s turn). And in many Western cultures, the whole maturation enterprise can be viewed as a quest to increase control over one’s life – choosing where and with whom we live and work, how we spend our time, whether we marry or have children.  Nearing the end of life, we are loath to give up driving and living independently, and mourn the loss of control over the same skills we so joyously acquired in childhood – feeding, dressing, toileting, and navigating our local environments. 

Biomedical and technological advances have further expanded our control horizon to include altering (or working around) a host of physical and mental disabilities, as well as previously “fixed” characteristics such as gender identity and genetically caused illnesses.

Public health history depicts us as a species of superheroes, so effectively cleaning up water supplies, curing diseases, and designing vaccines that “since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled.” 

Pandemic changes everything.

In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, however, people all over the world are finding that their sense of control is ephemeral, although these perceptions are almost certainly colored by cultural and political differences. For example, residents of the Philippines, where police are instructed to deal with lockdown violators by “shooting them dead” probably feel less in control than U.S. residents, who can more easily tell themselves that they are choosing whether they will stay home, stay 6 feet away from other people, cough into a tissue, wear a mask, or wash their hands frequently.

Still, almost everyone’s life has changed dramatically, and almost no one would have chosen to live this way. Which makes me wonder if we were truly ever in control.

The Illusion of Control

In 1975, psychologist Ellen Langer reported on people’s unrealistic tendency to overestimate their ability to control events—even chance events over which they had no control, such as throwing dice and picking winning lottery tickets. She called this unfounded confidence the “illusion of control,” and noted its compatibility with the belief that the world is fair:

“The belief that everyone gets what he deserves denies the operation of chance. It eliminates the necessity for concern and worry over the possibility that aversive events may occur by chance at any time. Events become predictable and thus, by being anticipated, are often controllable.”  

Ellen J. Langer, “The Illusion of Control,” 1975

The downside of control

Overestimating one’s ability to control events is no doubt a useful deception for people pursuing difficult-to-attain goals (finding an affordable apartment, curing cancer, eliminating poverty, blogging from A to Z). But this hyperbolic self-confidence has limitations, especially when things fall apart. Perhaps for this reason, Buddhist teachers caution against inflating one’s sense of control.

“We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time.”

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

“The true purpose [of Zen] is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.”

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A middle way

I was initially skeptical of the Buddhist perspective, which seemed passive and fatalistic, and undermined my efforts to find meaning in my choices and activities. I been brought up to work hard, cultivate and apply new skills, and yes, try to become a better person. Was I now to abandon those pursuits to sit back and watch the world pass me by? An overstatement perhaps, but I was overwrought.

The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles… their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world’s irremediable currents of events.”

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902

William James came to my rescue. The father of American psychology had also been overwrought as he sought resolution to the conflict between determinism (a depressing view strongly suggested by his scientific training) and free will (which invested his actions and his life with meaning).  Finally, acknowledging the absence of definitive evidence for either side, James decided to act as though he had free will.

Langer, Buddhist teachers, and James would likely agree that control (free will) is always constrained by context and governed by prevailing rules. To be attuned to shifting circumstances, we need to be awake and aware. Perhaps the greatest challenge, as stated in American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, is discerning what can and cannot be controlled.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1940

Due to our global pandemic, my locus of control is considerably narrower than it was a month ago. I can’t visit friends or family or go to local libraries, schools, shops, or community centers. But I have freedom to structure my day and invest my energy in new directions – planning and planting an herb garden; baking bread for the first time in decades; and, tomorrow, transforming tea towels into face masks.

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B is for Breathing

Second of 26 blogs in Blogging from A to Z

“What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.”

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Theo tries not to breathe through his mouth.

Breathing may help us calm fears associated with COVID-19 – a disease that, at its most severe, can compromise our ability to breathe.

Proven anti-anxiety breathing techniques

Over the past couple of decades, evidence has steadily accrued in support of breathing as the first line of defense against anxiety. According to a recent Scientific American report, “… every relaxation, calming or meditation technique relies on breathing, which may be the lowest common denominator in all the approaches to calming the body and mind.”

The most basic techniques, often used in mindfulness meditation, involve paying attention to the breath, and when attention wanders, returning again and again to observe inhalations and exhalations, the rising and falling of the chest or belly, the faint movement of air on the upper lip. Following this simple practice can move one’s focus away from anxiety-causing thoughts at the same time that it slows and deepens breathing – changes that can initiate a cascade of calming effects, including heart-rate deceleration, muscle relaxation, and lowered blood-pressure.  

The Scientific American article describes several stress-relieving breathing exercises that have been validated by research. Two of the most popular are the “365 method” and alternate-nostril breathing.

365 Method: “At least 3 times a day, breathe at a rhythm of 6 cycles per minute (5 seconds inhaling, 5 seconds exhaling) for 5 minutes. And do it every day, 365 days a year.” 

Alternate Nostrils: “Breathe in and out slowly through one nostril, holding the other one closed using your finger; then reverse and continue by alternating regularly. There are many variations of this exercise—for example, inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other.”

Professionals offer creative options

What if you have COVID-19 (or pneumonia or a bad flu) and are having trouble breathing?

This morning my brother forwarded some corona virus “common sense wisdom” that a retired respiration therapist posted on the Daily Kos. While I can’t vouch for most of the tips, the following one could have been written by my mother – or my grandmothers, or their mothers:

“You must keep your lungs moist. Best done by taking long steamy showers on a regular basis, if [you’re] wheezing or congested use a real minty toothpaste and brush your teeth while taking the steamy shower and deep breath[e] through your mouth. This will provide some bronchial [dilation] and help loosen the phlegm. Force yourself to cough into a wet washcloth pressed firmly over your mouth and nose, which will cause greater pressure in your lungs forcing them to expand more and break loose more of the congestion.”

“Useful information if you do get sick,” Daily Kos

Finally, after singer-songwriter John Prine had part of one lung removed in 2013, a trainer friend devised a unique post-surgical regimen to help him breathe deeply enough to sing and go on the road again. As he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2018, “He had me running up and down our staircase three times. Then he’d put a guitar around my neck, and I’d sing three songs without taking a breath. You know, and this was all after losing half a lung.” Six months later Prine was thrilling live crowds with “Hello in There” and other audience favorites.  

John Prine’s Tiny Desk Concert, 2018

Three months before the interview with Terry Gross, Prine recorded a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. The second song, “Summer’s End,” with its refrain to “come on home” feels especially poignant as Prine starts his second week in the ICU with COVID-19, his breath sustained by a ventilator. I hope he gets another chance to run up and down those stairs.

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A is for April, Anxiety, Action and … Acceptance?

First of 26 blogs in Blogging from A to Z.
 April is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain. 
      T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land

If you thought March was challenging, hold tight, because we may be in for an even bumpier ride in April.

As I move through the alphabet in search of a path from anxiety to acceptance, I will be accompanied by Theo, the nonjudgmental stuffed skeleton that usually observes the world from a shelf above my desk. For this month’s assignment, he leapt from his perch to my pocket and will stay close on this journey from A to Z.

Theo at home

Anxiety:  Who me—anxious?

In the absence of good data about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), we get ever-shifting guidance about crucial issues such as whether the virus that causes the disease is airborne, if “ordinary people” should wear masks, and if it’s wise to disinfect and/or “quarantine” groceries and other purchases. One trusted local source assures me that there’s “no reason to try to disinfect your groceries” while an equally credible medical journal counters that coronavirus can remain infectious on glass for up to 4 or 5 days.  What do we do? Wipe down the olive oil bottle with bleach and water or unpack and use it as is?

Although my husband and I are in a high-risk group, several friends and family members are at considerably greater risk than we are—due to asthma, organ transplants, immune-suppressing drugs, and jobs providing frontline services. So we worry… And are saddened to learn the virus has already infected someone near and dear to our hearts—legendary singer-songwriter John Prine, whose music makes us cry even when he’s healthy. Already missing part of one lung, Prine has been on a ventilator for the past week.

Economic anxieties loom large for almost everyone, as we all have bills to pay. Like most families, ours runs the spectrum, with some laid off without benefits (restaurant line chef, ceramics studio assistant); some with hours slashed (physical therapist, graphic artist, video editor); some working from home (teachers, IT specialist, Amazon recruiter); some on a fixed income (Social Security is there, but the value of investments that were supposed to make up the difference has plunged); and some (nurse, worker at grocery store) are still on the payroll because they are urgently needed to show up, every day, sometimes for long shifts, on the frontlines of the fight against an invisible enemy.

Action

With some exceptions, the people around us have been following what has been pretty stable advice: Stay home; keep your distance when you have to be around others; wash your hands. Beyond that, and in the face of so much uncertainty, it’s easy to feel paralyzed. Or to get caught up in binge-watching, binge eating, and other kinds of obsessive behaviors that help us escape our fears, if only for a while.

With infection and death tolls rising and emergency hospitals popping up in public parks, sports arenas, and naval ships, it’s no wonder we feel afraid. But we may be better served by turning toward our feelings, however scary that may be.

Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön urges her readers to stay with the present moment:

“It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

At an abstract level, I’m all in. Sure, being fully present and awake to every moment sounds much saner than tumbling into a downward spiral of addiction and delusion. I consider this seriously, balancing a bowl of pistachios as I search for the remote.

It helps to see what others are doing.  When they learned of John Prine’s illness, Joan Baez and Stephen Colbert posted tributes and good wishes to their friend. While John Prine would be unlikely to appreciate my singing, I’ve offered to shop for others, but so far my offers have been gently turned down, probably due to my age. Ever hopeful, I’m thinking of starting a garden to provide fresh herbs to the neighborhood food bank. I learned today that businesses delivering topsoil have been deemed “essential” under our Governor’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order. So that’s a possibility.

In the meantime, Theo and I try to get out every day, keeping our distance from other walkers and stair-climbers. Perhaps that – just being outside and aware and awake – is a first step in staying present.

Theo keeps his distance from other stairwalkers.

Acceptance

This is the toughest one for me, in part because I (incorrectly, it seems) associate acceptance with passivity. Over the years, I’ve read a great deal about acceptance, about turning toward pain and suffering instead of battling it. But acceptance involves a high level of discernment and may differ among individuals and across individuals and groups. For example, although an individual may be able to accept dying from this novel coronavirus, most governments and public health agencies—and quite possibly most individuals—are doing everything they can to keep the virus from killing millions of people. These public responses are far from passive and they require cooperative action from individuals. Hopefully I’ll have a better understanding of acceptance by the end of April.

Theo ‘s not so sure about acceptance.

I have nothing to say about this—yet.

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Surfing uncertainty: Accepting our new global reality

Blogging from A to Z Theme Reveal

Inspired by Pema Chödrön’s lovely book Comfortable with Uncertainty, I will let the alphabet guide my exploration of the idea that control is an illusion. While I don’t pretend to understand the nature of reality, I look forward to thinking about it for the month of April.  From Chödrön’s title essay: 

We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It’s also what makes us afraid.

Comfortable with Uncertainty, p. 5

Are we truly experiencing a “new global reality”?  No, but minute-by-minute updates about the novel coronavirus challenge us to shift our perspectives on the limits of control and to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of each unpredictable moment.

Surveillance by neighborhood giraffe.

For example, while a giraffe has watched over my middle-class neighborhood for some time, recent walks have been accompanied by violin music, played not by the ghost of Paganini, but by a young boy–out of school–who sits at the end of his driveway to practice “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  The same screechy sounds that made me wince as a child (both of my sisters took violin lessons) now cheer me.  Smiling as I head home, I wonder: Is life “but a dream” or is this an opportunity to appreciate our lives with greater clarity?

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Lines of Inheritance

Looking at a photo of Dad with Chloe, his youngest great-granddaughter, I have to wonder how long he will remember this beautiful little girl — who she  is and how he came to be holding her, laughing, in his way-too-comfortable chair.  I want to see the ancestors lined up behind them — the farmers, the builders, the upstairs maid, the sea captain who was captured by pirates.  They don’t remember either, but that’s ok.  That’s our job now.

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Another Water Line

Things Your Plumber Never Told You

Last week a friend commented that our “house event” seemed to be going on for a long time and was “pretty life-occupying.”  Well, yes.  That’s undeniably true.  But it’s so much more fun now than it was last summer. In August we couldn’t bring the natural gas line to the house until a mitigation crew dealt with the consequences of our leaking oil tank and filled in a 9-foot-deep pit in the front garden.  In the course of “doing the right thing” (much more time-consuming, complex, and expensive than we had imagined) we were declared a toxic waste site and everything ground to a halt.  We’re still working with the invisible infrastructure of the house, but now we’re laughing a lot more.  The tape around the drain pipes was a temporary fix that allowed us to shower while spending a couple of days repairing decades-old structural damage.  We’ve discovered reserves of patience we never knew we had.  And we’re making full use of our buckets.

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