I have some extra time after getting my car serviced, so stop in at the mall across the freeway. I’ll just stroll around for a few minutes, maybe get some gift ideas, extra exercise.
It’s crowded, surprising for a week day. I crawl through the honking, swerving cars into the parking structure. Dodge clumps of people in Macy’s, my thoroughfare out to the mall. (San Diego malls are outdoor malls.)
Swoop into the tsunami of humanity. No poking along for me. As I set my sights on a far end, I realize I am charging at full speed, head bent. I am a blur in passing windows. So is everyone else, the running of the bulls, not wanting to be gored in the butt.
Then I realize we are trotting along to Christmas music! “We WISH you a Merry Christmas, we WISH you a Merry Christmas, and … ” Puff, puff, huff, huff, faster, faster, be jolly dammit …
My god, we have not even stuffed and been stuffed with our Thanksgiving turkey! Yes, Christmas decorations went up soon after the pumpkins came down, but isn’t our official first shopping day the day AFTER Thanksgiving, Black Friday? Why pipe in, force feed us, the holiday music so early?
I break away and descend the long escalator. There at the bottom luring us into his candy cane house is Santa. BIG Santa, we’re talking six foot four or more. Handsome. I swear he twinkles his eyes at me. He is probably bored, since only one cranky child lurks on the other side with a father trying so hard to be patient.
I smile at Santa and jump back into the river of merriness. The rapids circle me round and dump me off back where I started. It’s time to go home, to check where I’ve stored my holiday spirit.
Memories from 30 years ago pop up. My year as a shopping center promotion assistant. Sandwiched in between my careers as an advertising writer and a journalist. My job was to help the marketing director, Irene, write stories about the 60-plus stores for the local paper and plan and set up promotions for the upscale center located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. An older woman who had returned to college late in life, Irene encouraged me to finish my degree in journalism and let me work a flexible schedule. Her job as head of the merchants association was like working with 60 shrieking children, but she handled it with aplomb and humor. Allowed me to bring my sons to promotions such as Casino Night – play that roulette wheel! – and 4H Club Spring/Easter Farm Days featuring kids’ chickens, goats, pigs. One day a pig got loose from its pen. Irene and I chased it through the shopping center as it rooted its way through the flower beds. We caught him, muck up to our knees.
At Christmas, we set up the Santa house, scheduled the professional freelance Santas and hired local high school students to be the helpful elves, corral kids, take photos. More than one Santa showed up drunk. Up went the sign, “Santa will be right back,” until we could scramble up a replacement. And more often than not, the elves did not show up at all. Irene and I pulled on the elf costumes and stood inside the little house with Santa.
One busy weekend day, we looked out at a long line of parents, grandparents, children.
“Oh my god,” said Irene, under her little elf hat. “There’s my neighbor. I was just bragging to her about my great new job.”
When I left that job to work down the street for the local paper, Irene gave me a going-away present, a little ceramic pig. “This is to remember.”
The pig has come with me to every job since. Now it sits on my desk. At this time of year, the elves look on.
First morning, I wake up so sad. My mind is not moving well, under a dark cloud.
I cannot focus on my writing, do not have the heart for it.
I drive to the library neighborhood a mile away, dropping a memoir I just finished on living with heart disease into the return bin. I read it because I know the author and because I figure heart disease will get me eventually. Dad dead of heart attack, 52, uncle 54, his daughter, my only cousin, at 54. I’m interested in knowing more about the vegan diet the author adopted. The book offers some helpful information, books to read, and also confirms my suspicion I don’t want to write long memoirs about my emotional journeys.
I consider walking around the bay. It shines bright at the end of the street. Too bright, too harsh! So I stick to the still shady side of neighborhood streets, walking past old bungalows, new condos, apartment buildings.
I pass a young father wheeling a stroller. He smiles at me, a sad smile.
I pass a construction site where workers are talking, some in Spanish, some in English. I wonder how they all voted, if they did. If any are fearful, any emboldened.
Since I know I won’t work today, I drive north to a small shopping center with a post office and a bookstore. Buy 40 Forever stamps, Gifts of Friendship, cherry trees (celebrating the bond between our country and Japan) and classic Pickup Trucks. In the bookstore, I look for recommended books on heart health and find instead hundreds of books on every other disease and diet on earth.
The clerk and the woman ahead of me are discussing the election, both young women. They are not happy. So, when it’s my turn, I say something and am met with silence. Was it me, older, silver hair popping out now, or was she preoccupied? Her eyes were on the bedroll and backpack someone had left on the floor in the main area. I ask where the coloring books are and she takes me to a far corner.
“Sir,” she says to a scruffy, older man, leafing through magazines, “I have to ask you to move your belongings.” He ignores her, picks up another magazine, and I examine the coloring books, my calming hobby. Flowers, animals, mandalas? I choose “Johanna’s Christmas: A Festive Coloring Book,” by Johanna Basford, my favorite coloring book creator. Why not some red and green cheer between now and the end of the year?
While I’m looking, a young Asian guy in a chair near me starts talking. At first I think he is talking to someone, then I see he’s alone, and I think maybe he’s reading aloud with ear plugs. He’s holding a book. There are many Asian students now at nearby UCSD. But then I realize he is just talking to the air.
When I pay for my book, I ask the clerk about him. “Oh, he’s harmless. He comes in here every day. He’s homeless.” She didn’t look at me as she says, “Have a good day ma’am.”
Outside the store, I see myself reflected in the window. Silver hair flashing. Slightly bent. But moving forward, determined, not defeated.
Back to the library, now open. I find the book I want by Dr. Neal Barnard, “21-day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health.” The title is really a hyped-up hook for adopting a plant-based diet. It is sensible and well-written, not a front for selling vitamins or alternative cures. I sign up to receive information from his organization, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
I dive into the book. This is my next challenge, in addition to keeping my sanity. I’ve made several attempts to give up meat and dairy since reading “Diet for a Small Planet” 40 years ago and hearing Dr. Dean Ornish speak 20 years ago. I fall back into old ways. I’m ready to move forward again. That determination. My heart has been broken many times, but I want it to keep beating for more years, more writing.
Second day, it’s yoga. Everyone is very quiet and leaves without talking.
I want to write. Some of my friends are writing beautiful mini-essays in emails and Facebook posts. I cannot summon the will. I can barely read the analysis. Everyone has an opinion on who did what wrong. And what will be right or wrong in the years to come. And how we should let love overcome, blah, blah.
Writing group, our leader is sad. No politics in here, she says. We will write about our feelings but we don’t have to share. Or about overcoming a challenge, which we can share. One woman’s reads a long, colorful description of her marriage falling apart. I love it, but the leader doesn’t. Let’s write about a memorable Thanksgiving, she suggests. There are many funny stories and the mood lifts remembering kinder days.
After group, shared calming chamomile tea and conversation at a local Irish bakery with a writing friend, like me a former journalist.
Third day, yoga again. I am so tired. The young, 30-something teacher has us do twists for the second day in a row. She is a good teacher but clueless about what 60-something bodies can do. In the spirit of yoga, I do what I can and accept where I am.
We are non-political in the studio, but one woman, also named Linda, lingers after class to spout off. The young teacher joins in and we commiserate. I can barely summon feelings, because I am numb, in shock.
Little flares of anger are spiking up. I “Like” some insights on Facebook but refrain from disliking “the new President deserves respect” or “shut, up whiny Liberals.” I read my heart healthy book, shop for good food, and mull over how to best use my talents to make some kind of difference. I will not change minds, that I know, but perhaps I can inspire courage, reason, tolerance.
Fourth day, I am angry. Another yoga teacher, another class. Supposedly gentler, but more damn twists! Plus instructions to run our thumb down from the big toe to alleviate anger. Chi walking and talking. This just makes me more angry. Not many agree with me, and I try to be tolerant, but this type of irrational thinking, belief systems without evidence, is what leads humanity to make bad decisions. To demonize individuals and groups without facts. To ignore facts and reality.
I go to the local mall to walk around and escape. It’s crazy. Like we’ve all been let out of the nuthouse and are eager to jump into Christmas. The Body Shop has re-opened after remodeling and the gay man clerk with the earring and the spiked hair helps me find my grapefruit scented lotion. A woman in a hijab smiles at me. I feel like crying.
I prune down my Facebook followings. So far, I have not unfriended anyone, but I have blocked those who spew hatred.
Fifth day, I feel better. Perhaps it is the new diet. I feel resolve to stand up for what I think is right and to live as well as I can in my remaining years. I post an article by Gloria Steinem on Facebook. A man I know comments with a long, misogynistic rant, “there was no misogyny in this election.”
The UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff explains the disparate views of the world well. Conservatives see a world that requires hierarchy and authoritarianism. The strong leader, the good father. People are more bad and need to be kept in line. Liberals see a world that benefits from people working together, equals. People are more good than bad and need to help each other. Once people have developed a certain view, or frame as he calls it, it is hard for them to shift. To reach one another, we have to find common values. Areas where the views overlap.
In some areas, such as the future of the planet, we don’t have time to dally here. It won’t matter if a climate change denier is looking backward or forward or sideways if he or she is underwater or cannot breathe or eat. The planet has a plan of its own.
I get the results from my 23andme ancestry search. My sister and I both decided to do this and sent in our samples within days of each other – unknown to each other! We joked that we mailed our sample kits at the same time we mailed our ballots.
We share our results. About 74 percent British and Irish for me, 72 percent for her. (Our father was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and our mother in Montreal, as were we, of English and Scottish background.) Four percent French and German (slightly more for me). That must come from our one great-grandmother who was American, from St. Louis. About 16 percent Northern European for me, 23 percent for her. A small amount of Southern European and North African, more for me.
One difference is that I am two percent Scandinavian and she 0.7 percent. Maybe that’s why I got the liberal gene and she the conservative? A far-reaching attempt at humor. Of course, back when our ancestors were frolicking with our future DNA, kings and chieftains ruled and many Viking settlements perished because they refused to hunt fish like the Inuit and spent money and supplies on churches rather than crops.
My sister and I don’t carry markers for any major diseases. (Heart disease specifically or broken hearts are not included in our reports.) The one gene variant we share is for deafness. So we both could go deaf. Actually, I think I am losing my hearing. And to tell you the truth, I only partly care.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).