Oh, my. I can relate to many of the things that Susan Fekety says have affected her these past several weeks. Being rather obsessed sometimes when it comes to reading and reading and reading about the pandemic. Missing something a lot — dancing for her and for me, working out at the gym with my strength coach Andy. Grappling with some dark emotions. Worrying about what-ifs. Worrying about the people we love and the ones we don’t even know. Discovering just how good moving every day can make you feel and how important it is to stay connected.

Susan has experienced a wide range of emotions. She still does, but she uses three simple words — a mantra, of sorts — to help keep her motivated and inspired. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.

This is Susan’s story:

I grew up in a medical family. My dad was an infectious disease doctor and my mom was a nurse. I practiced happily as a certified nurse-midwife for 30ish years and retired in 2014. I’ve lived in Portland since 1995.

Clinical work proved to me that the variety of miraculous things that happen in our bodies is astonishing. Babies come out of some of them! They get injured – and they heal! You can be sick as a dog because you ate something unfortunate and spend the night in a cold sweat on the cold bathroom floor because you dare not go far from the toilet – and the next day you’re feeling pretty chipper and trying to decide what might be good for lunch! These are superpowers, hardwired elements of an elegant, functional life force we carry with us every day.  

When the pandemic blossomed, I have to say I spent the first few weeks fairly well glued to my devices, trying to learn everything I could about the coronavirus and all things related. I’ll cop to being rather obsessed. I’ve got tendonitis in my thumb from texting and scrolling, answering so many questions from so many friends!

Then, the places I’d volunteered at closed and other volunteer opportunities were blighted for various reasons. I felt sad to admit that I’ve been so long out of practice I’d be a hindrance to my colleagues on the front lines. Dance classes and events, unparalleled in my experience for joyous movement and forgetting everything but the music, canceled left and right. For me, they translate poorly into the virtual world and I was sad to hang up the sparkly dance shoes I used to wear several times a week. Sad Sad Sad. New griefs seemed to connect back to old ones and I thought often of my parents and grandparents, lost pets, distant friends, my squandered youth. Compared to what others were experiencing, though, I know that my losses are trivial.

Susan Fekety's dancing shoes
Susan’s dancing shoes

As the days passed, I puttered around my house, cleaning and tidying while new thoughts arose: What would I do if I got sick or if my sister did? What if I landed in the hospital? What if I needed intubation? Dialysis? What if I DIED? Happy in solitude, I’m pretty capable of taking care of myself even when ill and have many friends who’d happily leave provisions on the porch but … now there came an urgency to finalize my will and advanced directive. I started to clarify my wishes, but it was all still pretty much in my own head.

And then two dear friends became ill with presumed coronavirus. Each one checked off pretty much all the symptom boxes we’d read about. Suddenly, I got scared and sad in a way I’d not done before. Suddenly, it was personal. The armor of my intellect, a treasured ally that helped me be able to strategically compartmentalize my emotions in moments of crisis, failed me. I fell helplessly into the dark side of my imagination. I grieved lost days of fun and freedom and ruminated about death. I strained to imagine a world without these people. Some days I did not want to do much of anything but wander about, stare off into space, weep erratically, read trashy magazines. Always an introvert, I doubled down on isolation. I bowed out of Zoom meetings with people I cared for because I did not want to talk to anyone. My sleep became disrupted. I bought and ate foods I would not ordinarily select, but they reminded me of my dad or my grandmother and that felt comforting even though I felt crummy afterward.

Like many people, I found myself spending more time than usual bootstrapping my mood, needing to focus-refocus-refocus to the truth that “right now” I am safe and there is good in the world and I can handle whatever comes up. As a midwife, it was part of my job to remind a laboring woman that even while she was dreading her next contraction, if she stayed in the right now, she was actually ok. There is no other moment. In the dips and swells of uncertainty, the “right now” mindset was the most valuable tool in my toolbox.

Somewhere I stumbled across the words “Now. Here. This.” as an anchor in the thrashing seas of rumination or imagination. It’s NOW. You’re HERE. Be in THIS. Somehow this short easy-to-remember phrase gets my attention, slows my breath, and drops my shoulders no matter what. Even — especially — when I dip beneath the surface.

I know I feel best when I move somehow every day, and one of my life rules has been: when in doubt, go for a walk. Unable to fly free in the dance studio, I committed to a daily half-hour constitutional (unless the weather is so completely grizzly that I can’t bear to be outside.) I typically just walk around my neighborhood, which, although it’s an ordinary one for Portland, holds quite a bit. These activity bites offer structure and “exercise” and shift my mood when I am in doubt or rage or despair or fear. I might not be dancing, but I am here, feeling this, hearing birds. Look at that cherry tree in full bloom, covered with bees. Yikes, those kids at the skate park are fearless.

Blooming cherry tree/Susan Fekety

One day, I emerged to meet friends to hike in one of our many local Land Trusts. One person, I knew well; the other was a dance friend who I’d wanted to know better (and now I do.) We wore masks and stayed the proper distance apart, but we could still talk and laugh. Afterward, we agreed that our hearts were lighter and that it had felt SO GOOD to move. I expect we’ll be doing this all summer. Together, we watch the calendar for good weather days and make our plans.

Happily, both of my sick friends have recovered. Sadly, another friend died unexpectedly, from causes unrelated to the virus, and since I began this essay another loved one has developed significant viral disease. Uncertainty, grief, and fear are stressors that will always call upon the healing superpowers of the spirit, just as a cut or food poisoning calls upon the superpowers of the body. These moments when I feel my feet letting sunshine, trees, marsh, creeks, critters, and birds say “Now. Here.This.” are simple, strong, and perfect moments.

Susan Fekety

Thank you, Susan. May you soon be strapping on your dancing shoes again.