On surgery & sea sprites

In dark December I found myself hobbling into an urgent care clinic for x-rays. A few clicks by the technician, a glance by an orthopedic PA, and I received my diagnosis: severe osteoarthritis. Never mind that last summer I hiked several 4,000-footers and ran a 5k. Now I am rehabbing after a total hip replacement. Apparently I’m not alone. The Boston Globe ran a piece this spring titled “How the hip replacement became the hot Gen-X surgery.”

Now that my bone-on-bone pain is gone and the incision is healing, what has this slightly older than Gen-Xer learned? First, when I was told my hip replacement was “elective,” what I heard was that it was unnecessary, indulgent even. This descendant of New England Protestants does not put excessive mayonnaise on a sandwich or make-up on her face. Only when I could barely walk did I schedule the surgery. It turns out that “elective” just means that it can be scheduled in advance. Make the appointment. Joint replacement is not a sign of moral weakness.

Second, friendships are vital. Nothing comforted me more than the meals, grocery deliveries, visits, cards, calls, texts and rides my friends provided. What surprised me, though, was the camaraderie of new acquaintances made while waiting for the operation. I joined a water exercise class to keep in shape. As New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui has observed, “At my community pool, the locker room is a tableau on aging.” At the YMCA I found a community of folks who had already discovered the ease of slipping one’s aching body into the water, abandoning gravity and decorum. Flailing about in chlorine-faded swimsuits, the gang laughed, sang to the music, and exchanged tips such as where to thrift canes, walkers and commodes. My fellow aquacizers’ good humor got me through the hardest months. They helped me find joy and courage.

Third, although any diversion, from game apps to crochet, might keep one occupied, for me it was reading. I laughed, cried, and worked my way through everything from Bonnie Garmus’ comic novel Lessons in Chemistry to Marcus Zusak’s YA treasure The Book Thief, to Jill LePore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. I hope to get back to the mountains, but meanwhile I’m happy and grateful to be where I am.


Our first three kids went off to college pre-pandemic, so my husband and I were pretty well practiced in that transition. But No. 4’s drop-off in 2020 was like no other. First stop was a huge tent where students had Covid nose swabs. Next we drove to a parking lot behind her dorm. Per emailed instructions, she unloaded her gear at precisely 2:30 p.m. and hauled it up to her third-floor room. By herself. In contrast, I remember fluffing the comforter on my firstborn’s dorm bed. Luckily, the email had warned her to bring only what she could carry, in case the college had to shut down. Still wearing her mask, my sweet youngest waved to me from her window.

That’s it. I drove away.

Whatever my daughter was experiencing, for me one of the biggest contrasts to her brothers’ drop-offs was the lack of ceremony. By that I mean everything from quirky customs introducing students to school culture to formal events with inspiring speeches. These practices eased the 18-year-olds into college and the parents out of micromanagement. At one school, cheering upperclassmen sporting logo garb lined the drive onto campus. At another, we were invited to attend a mass — followed by cocktails. Long ago at my own university, the “Freshman Assembly” included faculty in academic robes and the glee club. (Watch The Chair on Netflix.)

Historically, colleges and universities have been particularly partial to formal celebrations but ceremony is important in many spheres. Ceremony is how society marks transitions and gives meaning to life. Think baptisms, first day of school, bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, funerals. So many of these events had to be put off during the pandemic. Some were rescheduled. Others were reshaped, still marking an occasion but perhaps not serving the original purpose. Our high school seniors instituted a car parade that has become fun for young families and empty-nesters to watch. But a memorial service months after a loved one’s death doesn’t help start the grieving process. Grief doesn’t wait. Nor does business. No matter how long or how much an employee has contributed to an organization, a goodbye party really has to take place when the separation occurs. Those who remain get back to work.

Despite the delta variant, this fall, with all its back-to-school optimism, is a good time to acknowledge some of the transitions that went unmarked last year. Did a colleague, teacher or coach retire without fanfare? Did a new generation become the oldest in their family? What about our 20-somethings, forging their way as adults in this confusing, divided time? I think they deserve recognition. We need a Forward-in-Life ceremony.

30 by 30

The stores are full of patriotic paraphernalia right now. I can skip past the metallic flag pinwheels; the red, white and blue wreaths; even the super-fuzzy flag blanket. But anything emblazoned with “America the Beautiful”? I start singing.

Katherine Lee Bates wrote the poem that would become the lyrics of our unofficial national anthem in 1893, inspired by the vista from Pikes Peak in Colorado. Samuel Augustus Ward had composed the melody earlier and in 1910 the words and music were wed. To me as a kid, “America the Beautiful” ranked right up there in holiness with “Silent Night.” Fifty years later at a family reunion I shivered with emotion as we cousins from across the country sang it together. Imagine my delight during this year of division when I stumbled on a new rendition by New Hampshire folk musician Steve Schuch. Weaving together Bates’ words and others inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Schuch and collaborators created a version that seeks to unite all ages, colors, religions and voices, a vision of America for everyone. You can listen and download sheet music at americathedream.org.

Another iteration of “America the Beautiful” is in a recent report recommending how to meet President Biden’s ambitious “30 by 30” environmental goal. Biden’s challenge to Americans is to conserve at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. Although the report describes principles rather than plans, one step endorsed is creation of a Civilian Climate Corps. Echoing FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, Biden’s program would put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work in well-paid jobs that restore the environment and build community resilience to climate extremes. Unlike the original CCC, Biden’s would include women and people of color.

I hiked Mt. Pemigewasset last week. It’s a popular mountain in Franconia Notch, not as rigorous as the towering 4,000-footers but high enough to provide a spectacular vista. Stepping out of pine forest onto bare ledges near the summit sent strains of “America the Beautiful” pulsing through me. According to New Hampshire’s 52 with a View: A Hiker’s Guide, Frank O. Carpenter wrote about this “striking view” and the “rugged shoulders of LaFayette” in his own guidebook in 1898, not long after Bates penned her anthemic poem. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s CCC cleared hiking and ski trails in this area, enabling generations to appreciate New Hampshire’s beauty.

I’m grateful to those who inspire me with their words and music and to those who have protected some of our lands and waters. I am hopeful that a new generation of much more environment-concerned Americans can lead the way in meeting the 30 percent by 2030 challenge. That’s the Americana I buy.

Frayed social circles

Walking and talking is the new coffee date. I’m glad; I relish any opportunity to combine fresh air, movement and conversation. By necessity, though, many interactions now take place online, either Zoom meetings where you can’t really talk, even when unmuted, or FaceTime chats. This got me thinking about who I have or have not been keeping up with during the pandemic. 

To our surprise, a professional friend and I recently found ourselves bemoaning the loss of rubber chicken dinners. If you haven’t had the pleasure, these were large-scale annual meetings, fundraisers and award ceremonies hosted by organizations from nonprofits to political groups to media outlets. In spring there were a handful of must-attend events where leaders and lobbyists, mentors and movers, accomplished honorees and ambitious newcomers alike would gather. Frequent flyers might run into each other at functions every week or two in the fall. We used to grumble mildly about lukewarm food or lengthy speakers; nowwe yearn for a chance to mill around in a room full of even tangential acquaintances. In this year of social distancing, we’ve been keeping up pretty well with our family and close friends, but our circle has frayed at the edges. 

Why does this matter? The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull recently explored the issue. While close relationships have long been recognized as essential to well-being, the pandemic has underscored that casual friends are important, too. They make us feel part of a community, part of the world. They make mundane errands enjoyable. They introduce us to new business and recreational opportunities, information, issues and ideas. “Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks.” 

Even before the pandemic, surveys by StayWorkPlay, the organization that helps New Hampshire attract young workers, revealed many found it hard to make friends here. Some cited a lack of gathering places, others the lack of diversity. They felt a sense of “aloneness.” The pandemic has exacerbated this. When asked what she seeks going forward, a college student I know from church said, “If I could change something, [it would be] getting those little intimate connections back, the ones that make us a community, the greetings on the street, catching up with an old friend, the feeling that you are intimately part of a larger group.” 

It’s time to rekindle our acquaintanceship. Want to go for a walk?

Susan Hatem, former Director of Programs and Grant Making at New Hampshire Humanities, is a CASA of NH guardian ad litem and a connector, mentor and writer. Email her at susanh8m@gmail.com.

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