I am grateful for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You showed us the way. We hoped you would carry the torch a little longer, but we will rise and continue your life’s work.
The portions in italics adopt the playful, run-on sentence style of Judith Viorst’s wonderful children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
It was March 16, 2020 and I got a message on the school superintendent’s email thread saying that the largest districts in the county were going to close due to the rising covid-19 pandemic. I called my team and we made some hard choices and then I told the parents that our school was also going to close.
I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
Later that week, the California governor issued the nation’s first stay-at-home orders. I had to cancel our date night that evening and my weekly Friday game night with friends and a summer trip to see my parents and sister and baby niece, all the while working 12-14 hours a day trying to keep the teachers sane and parents calm and students learning. I started to measure my days by the endless Zoom meetings and longed for the pre-pandemic days of hugs and birthday parties and end of school year traditions. I was afraid and worried.
I think I’ll move to New Zealand.
That’s around when I read this wonderful article by Scott Berinato interviewing David Kessler, a world expert on grief, naming all of these awful feelings as grief. He writes:
“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air... We’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain... There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”
Naming the emotion helped. Okay, I told myself. I am resilient. I know how to use stress and anxiety reduction strategies. I can let go of what I can’t control. I can bring my empathy and compassion to bear and help others. I can seek ways to recreate the rejuvenation of summer break here at home in a safe way. I can do this.
But then there was Christian Cooper, George Floyd, Sean Reed, David McAtee, and far too many others. I march. I read. I struggle with my own tangled racial identity as a Chinese American while so-called patriots ram peaceful protesters with vehicles and enter public buildings with guns.
Heat waves and wildfires ravage the West Coast. Friends near Santa Cruz and Ashland evacuate as fire burns to their doorstep. The town where my husband and I have spent every Thanksgiving for 20 years is left a blackened cinder. The sun is red from all the smoke in the air and ash covers the unused camping gear in my garage. I cancel a paddle camping trip, and a rafting trip, and school visit to a National Park, and my daughter’s birthday trip to the Coast.
My hometown is torn asunder by politics with people shaming my mother-in-law in a store for wearing a mask and spreading unfounded conspiracy theories about everything from climate change to race relations to virology that strike the core of my scientist heart like a hammer.
My husband suggests we seriously consider moving to New Zealand and I browse the Internet for “how to get a New Zealand passport”.
Yes, it is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
Around one week ago, just after cancelling that rafting trip and my daughter’s birthday trip, I texted a friend saying, “I’m done with 2020. I’m tired of having to use all of my resilience skills all the time.” Then I see on my news feed that Europe's largest refugee camp was destroyed by fire. Immediately, I feel guilty about my feelings -- who am I to be complaining at a time like this. Still, I'm just so tired. Defeated. Exhausted.
Then I come across this amazing article by Tara Haelle about Surge Capacity. She writes:
“In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using ‘surge capacity’ to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.”
A different kind of coping is necessary since this is a marathon, not a sprint. Our surge capacity is depleted and we’re running on empty. That’s why this is so hard.
And it’s even harder for perfectionists, over-achievers, and controllers like me, those of us that can normally problem solve our way out of anything.
Fine. I’ll continue creating my own rainbows from the storm on those things I can control. I’ll let go of my perfectionism and allow good enough to be good enough. I’ll double down on breaking my bad habits around constantly checking my phone and work hard to stay present to fully absorb those beautiful moments of normalcy and joy inside my home -- the taste of the tomatoes from our garden, the smell of my daughter’s hair, the routine of reading together at bedtime.
And then this week I get an urgent phone call saying that a parent at our school died suddenly and unexpectedly. A vibrant, dynamic, devoted single mother of two kids started off Monday morning feeling sick from too much smoke in the air, or perhaps the flu, or maybe COVID. She finds out it’s actually an aggressive, undetected leukemia combined with pneumonia and passes away two days later. I spend the evening comforting teachers and writing the hardest parent communication notice I’ve ever had to write.
I cuddle my own two kids to sleep and cry. This is terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, heartbreaking, devastating, awful, unfair, and so so sad.
Friday, I almost lose my composure at the school assembly when I tell all the students, including her two orphaned sons, that we will honor her with a collective Zoom dance party to the 7th element by Vitas which made her happy when she was feeling down. Dancing with the kids and families helped but there were tears in my eyes as I danced.
That night, I hear the news that one of my heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, passed away. I am undone.
You were a trailblazer. You paved the way, not only for women in law, but people from all oppressed and discriminated corners of society.
You were the ultimate working mom. When your husband was recovering from testicular cancer, you would take both your law school classes and his during the day, tuck your three year old to bed, nurse your husband until past midnight, then break out the books to study.
You were passionate and stubborn. You never let anyone put you down and never gave up on your mission: to make the playing field fair for all to play. You spoke your mind and people listened.
You were resilient. You brought your husband home from the hospital to die, and the day after he passed, you showed up in your robes to deliver an opinion, because “Marty would have wanted it.”
You were tough as nails. You kept your body strong and beat back illness again and again and again, even delivering Supreme Court arguments from your hospital bed.
You saw the humanity in others. You were the closest of friends with Antonin Scalia, your ideological opposite but a fellow human that you could still connect with, laugh with, joke with, and care for.
You were notorious. You kept your sense of humor and your shy, unassuming manner despite growing in fame as a pop culture icon and role model to young people everywhere.
So what would Ruth do when her surge capacity is depleted in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year? Ruth would say, “Get up and keep fighting Irene. Keep on making the world a better place -- the world needs you. Keep on creating rainbows through the storm. Build bridges across the partisan divide to connect to the humanity in others. Show up even if you are undone inside because that’s what I did, every day of my life.”
Thus, I spent the rest of the night enjoying my daughter’s birthday party, despite the desperate despair inside. I jumped in the bounce house which felt good. I let the kids tackle me and shoot water pistols in the house. I laughed. I drank a lovely glass of wine and indulged in a night with my phone off.
Today, I wrote. I joined a communion with other trailblazing, passionate, stubborn, hard working women to light a candle.
Tomorrow, I continue her legacy. I see Ruth’s passing like the death of Princess Leia in the “Rise of Skywalker”. She is gone but her spirit lives on in the millions of people that she inspired and empowered. Together we will follow her path and shine light into the darkness. Instead of asking “why is this happening to me?” I will ask “what is this teaching me?”
Ruth, you are teaching me to rise.
It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
Ruth would say some years are like that.
Even in New Zealand.
Watch a film about Ruth.
Read “Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted” which contains fantastic tips to find and grow the resilience skills we will need collectively to persist and follow the path Ruth blazed for us.
Vote. Write to your legislators. I use Resistbot which lets me text my representatives from my phone.
If you need help rebuilding your surge capacity and finding direction in the storm, I’d love to support you. Use this direct link to my calendar to sign up for an “Initial Chat”. Where else can you get a free hour of much needed self-care that has the potential to turn Ruth’s passing or any other big challenge in your life into an aha moment, rekindled passion, and new resilience tools to use right away? At the end of that call, I will simply ask you, “Would you like me to continue serving you?” and you can say “Yes” or “No”, no hurt feelings either way. My offer of support is to serve, not to sell.
Image from the collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Photographer: Steve Petteway / Public domain