Writing from the Heart: Finding a sliver of joy

Enjoy the here and now, even when everything seems so bleak.

Nancy Aronie — Eli Dagostino

It’s in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19. I’m trying to get my heart reopened. I turn on NPR, and there are two guys talking. The interviewer says, Are you cooking up a storm? Oh, yeah, the guy says: “We’re spending a lot of time deciding what to eat next, chopping, dicing, marinating, making sauces.”

I’m thinking the guy must be a chef or something, and I’m about to change the station because I don’t have patience for someone who’s deciding between red wine–braised short ribs with parsnip purée and steelhead trout roe with white asparagus while most Americans are counting cans of whatever they still have on their shelves to fill their bellies until they can get back to work … if, in fact, they’ll even still have jobs.

But then he tells a cute story about baking his signature white chocolate cheesecake. He says “My 7-year-old took one bite and said, ‘Dad, this is too rich. Maybe a little less chocolate?’” The two men cracked up. Then the interviewer started to tell a story about his 4-year-old, but I tuned out.

I had two reactions.

One, thank God these are fathers involved with their children, but at the same time, I thought, do these (expletive, expletive) have any idea what is going on right this minute in the real world? Can they really be so insensitive that they’re talking about too-rich cheesecake and marinating trout?

Then I thought about how five short months ago, I was telling a story about my own 7-year-old grandson when I fell in the garden. I was with him that night explaining what had happened to me earlier that day, how the phone was ringing as I was running in to answer it, but instead of saying hello, I said to the caller, “I’m sorry, I just fell and I’m bleeding. I have to get some arnica. I’ll get right back to you.” The woman on the phone said, “I called to register for one of your classes but I happen to be a doctor. I can call you back. Attend to your wounds.” To which my grandson said, “Gramma, arnica is for bruising, not abrasions.” He was 7. How in the world did he know the word abrasions, much less that that’s what arnica was for? Four months ago, that story was adorable. Now adorable isn’t in my lexicon.

That’s why I was trying to reopen my heart in the first place.

I remember when my son was very sick. My husband and I had not gone anywhere for months. We had been socially isolated, and sad all the time. One night we decided to accept an invitation to a party in a town where we didn’t know anybody. No one was going to come up to us with that “I’m so sorry” look in their eyes and say, “How’s Dan, how are you guys holding up? It must be so hard.” All well-meaning, but always reinforcing our misery. No one there would know our story, our life, our grief. We went and had a ball. We danced and laughed for the first time in so long, and met lovely people. Coming home, we crossed our town line and, without consciously realizing it, we slumped in our seats and grew quiet. When we talked about it later, we realized that we both felt guilty that we could have had such a great time in the middle of our precious child’s ordeal.

Like many in the nation and the world right now, we are trying to figure out a way into some kind of balance, where we feel everyone’s pain but can find a sliver of joy in our own lives, where we don’t feel helpless, where we can find a way to affect change and be part of the solution, not part of the problem. How do I take pleasure in the small things when the big things are so heartbreaking?

Those two men who were celebrating fatherhood and fun aren’t bad people. Why shouldn’t they take delight in their free time and their cooking, in their babies? And how do I know how they feel when the interview is over? Maybe they are marching in the streets, maybe they are writing checks, or maybe they’re feeling the same despair I am.

All I know for now is I’m having trouble listening to people laughing, and I can’t bear to watch them crying.

Hopefully I’ll get back to adorable after I — and the nation — attend to our wounds.