It’s Monday. Yesterday was beautifully sunny and warm, at last, and I did handstands in the back yard and lounged in the sun. It’s also May. And April seemed to pass in a blur, a smear of similar days. My attempts to keep a diary have been sporadic, much like the occasional scribbles I made in a spiral-bound notebook when my children were little; but I love reading those entries now, clues from a similarly blurred time.
A lot of things about now remind me of then.
Then, I did almost all the cooking, baked homemade bread, made yogurt. My social life was constrained and revolved around the children’s social lives. My professional life was even more constrained, almost non-existent. Now, I do almost all the cooking, bake bread and make yogurt. My social life is temporarily constrained and while I am spending a lot of time with my kids, it’s tonally and texturally different. They’re older, of course. And my professional life is more firmly established. During the day, I go to my office and close the door, and they do their thing and I do mine. When we meet up again, it’s quite civilized and the conversation is enjoyable.
What’s similar is the blur. The sameness of the days.
Which is why I was inspired when I saw this reflective exercise, with six guiding questions, on meli-mello’s blog. So I’m going to reproduce it here, even though we are already four days into May.
- What felt good this month? The quietness felt good. I appreciated the quietness in my mind that freed my thoughts to roam through fictional worlds. The pace of life was quieter, calm. Family supper every evening. Preparing and eating good food from scratch, and not on deadline. Yoga to wind down in the evening. I did not drive once in April. Nowhere to race to, nothing to be late for.
- What did you struggle with? Routine. Getting out of bed early. Creating a purpose and shape to my days. At times, in April, I found myself overwhelmed with free-floating anxiety that seemed to settle into my body for a day or so, and then vanish. But that was earlier in the month. Later in the month, things just felt dull. I was irritable, but couldn’t put my finger on why. The weather was cold, grey. I was hard on myself. I tried to notice when I was being irrationally down on myself, and to counteract my negative inner-talk by journaling through it.
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? Better. Less anxious. Hopeful. I’m feeling comfortable living day by day. I think I’m noticing little fluctuations in my emotional state more easily, and I’m being kinder to myself. I’ve been focusing on the word “mercy”: trying to view myself and my flaws honestly but also with mercy, and extending the same mercy to those around me. I’m not too worried about what happens next. This pause has reminded me to focus on what I can control, and let the rest of it go.
- How did you take care of yourself? Beyond the obvious (exercise, talking to people, journaling, eating well, getting enough sleep), I turned off my access to the news for large chunks of the day. During writing hours, I didn’t answer emails or texts. I tried to make sure I was choosing my distractions, rather than being sucked in to something I didn’t want to participate in. In terms of the news, I’m staying informed, and accepting that there’s a lot that isn’t known yet; maybe I’m extending mercy to the experts and scientists and politicians, too. (Even while I’m seeing ever more clearly the gaps in our system, and feeling pain and sadness for everyone who is falling through.)
- What would you most like to remember? The details aren’t important. I think I’ll remember this sense of being cocooned with my family: warm, comforting, interior images. I’ll also remember this office smelling of incense, lit by candles, as I practice yoga or meditate.
- What do you need to let go of? Even more control. Something I’ve noticed is that even petty criticism and eye-rolling from my children gnaws at my self-esteem. The temporary feelings of defeat and failure I experience are not proportionate to the criticism. Can I see myself more clearly, and be grounded and whole, no matter the external noise? I’d like to let go of the need to be seen in a certain way by others. I’d like to be good-humoured about criticism.
I hope to check back in with these questions at the end of May, and see what’s changed. Something surely will have, even if this month passes much like the last one, all in a blur.
A friend said she’s noticed she’s not feeling so anxious anymore. I think this is true. We’ve travelled into the boring part of this experience. The part where we still don’t know what exactly will happen, or when; but the novelty, such as it was, is gone. And a dullness, a bleh feeling prevails.
I’m continue to enjoy at-home yoga, riding the spin bike, baking bread (it’s so easy), and gathering to eat supper together every night. The things I look forward to in a day are pretty basic: food, food, food; sometimes I even look forward to cooking the food.
I’m writing (fiction) quite a lot. That’s lovely.
I try to get outside for a walk every day. It’s validating (as a parent) to see the kids develop their own routines and healthy survival strategies. Jogging. Homework. Baking. Quiet time. Naps. I try to lie on the couch with a book a few times a week.
There is very little to report.
Nevertheless, at supper, I like to go around the table and find out what everyone did that day. I spend large chunks of my day in my office, so even though we’re all together under the same roof, I’ve missed things. I like how leisurely it feels, chatting around the table at suppertime. We’ve nowhere special to get to. After supper, the kids do the dishes and Kevin and I walk the dog around the block. And it isn’t hard to find ourselves saying: well, this part is pretty nice.
The kids don’t like when I report what would have been happening on any given day. So I’ve stopped. What’s the point of being sad about something that isn’t going to happen? Anyway, we’ve given ourselves a few things to look forward to in May. 1. My mom’s birthday: we’ve got plans to bake a cake. 2. Prom. We are doing prom, just us; everyone has a role, and mine is DJ!! The theme is “Starry Night.” The chaperone (Kevin) is going to have to keep a sharp eye on Kevin — if anyone’s going to spike the punch, it’s him. 3. Our eldest’s birthday. It’s a big one (19), so we’ve got plans to turn our living-room into a nightclub.
However, we aren’t making any such plans for June. According to one teenager, it’s too depressing to think of still being stuck with one’s family in June. Basically, we get through this one day at a time.
Like we always have, except now we know it for sure.
In summation: less anxiety; more boredom; even more bread. The days, they blur. Drifting awake this morning, I thought it was Sunday. Definitely not Saturday, I told myself, Sunday.
Friends, it’s Tuesday.
This photo is unrelated to the post, but features, once again, our dog Rose wearing glasses. You can thank me in the comments.
I’m trying to live in the here and now. Today, this moment; not tomorrow, not next week, definitely not next month. It isn’t too difficult, most of the time, to release the planning part of my brain from its obligations. It clears a lot of space, frankly.
But there are moments when I flash to fantasizing about tangible things I will do, when … well, when we can do these things again. I’m not talking about making plans to go to particular places or to do big things.
I’m talking about hugs.
I’ve been thinking about how much I want to hug people again. My mom. My dad. My siblings. My friends.
I close my eyes and I imagine pulling someone close, just for a moment, and not being afraid that I will harm them or they will harm me. How easy it is to say I love you, or thank you, or it’s going to be okay when you’re holding someone close, for that brief moment in time.
There are other things I miss too. All in the same category. I imagine myself doing these things. Clinking drinks in a bar, unafraid. Relaxing in someone else’s home, unafraid. Throwing a party, unafraid. Watching a movie in the theatre, unafraid. High-fiving my soccer team, unafraid.
No one can predict how this will change us, individually, collectively. But we are already changed in countless small ways, at least temporarily. We adapt so quickly; this is our strength, our resilience, yes, but what is lost along the way? For a deeper dive into this subject, I found this article in The New York Times thought-provoking (quoted below, but I recommend you read the whole thing):
“Research on the effects of epidemics and sieges, along with the emerging body of knowledge about the coronavirus, hint at what the coming months may look like.
“Our ability to focus, to feel comfortable around others, even to think more than a few days into the future, may diminish — with lasting consequences. But we may also feel the tug of a survival instinct that can activate during periods of widespread peril: a desire to cope by looking out for one’s neighbors.”
I try not to dwell on what cannot be, right now.
I welcome and appreciate connection with neighbours, family, friends by other means.
But sometimes I am flooded with longing for this most simple connection. A hug.
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
This post is for my dad, who says he likes reading these blog posts (though we also communicate one-on-one). He noticed that I’d had a regular flourishing of posts when the pandemic was first announced and we were suddenly thrown into this strange time of global uncertainty and disruption; and then, I kind of stopped.
It’s been pretty up and down over here. And sharing the downs is harder than sharing the ups. This is not a great time to be a hypochondriac, for example. Is everyone else in a panic when they wake with a runny nose? The anxiety alone causes tightening in my chest. In truth, it’s not that hard for me to stay home with my family. I can easily list five things to be grateful for today! But to be stuck home, sick, would be a totally different story, one I find overwhelming to imagine; just as I find it overwhelming to imagine being a health care worker right now. So, I vacillate between many different emotions, including guilt for enjoying any part of this time.
My mood shifts throughout the day, and from one day to the next. I had a night of shimmering, comforting dreams. The next night, I woke every hour certain something was catastrophically wrong (like, a global pandemic, maybe?). Last night, I slept from the moment my eyes closed till the moment my alarm went off.
I know my mood affects my family’s mood. When I am frightened, anxious, spiralling from too-much-Twitter feed (note to self: remove that app from your phone!), I’m helping no one. I’m seeding worry in our tiny family plot. And, yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. What I’m trying to do, when it does happen, is to recognize that it’s happening, name it, and ask my family for forbearance and forgiveness. Apologize. Accept feedback. Forgive myself. Try again. And do my level best to change the channel by seeking out activities that improve my mindset.
Here are my current top five comfort-giving, mood-boosting, survival-tactic activities:
My first sourdough loaf, six days in the making, an experiment necessitated by the national yeast shortage. Can you believe this loaf is made of flour, water, salt, and time? And that’s all???
One. Baking, cooking, cleaning
I must confess, if I were to get sick and need to self-isolate within our house for 14 days, as the guidelines suggest, my biggest challenge (assuming I was still functioning well enough to stand and breathe), would be to stop baking, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. Performing these tasks assures me that I’m nurturing my family, and also that I’m in control of something: keeping the house functioning, relatively smoothly.
On the flip side, maybe I should practice ceding control over some of these tasks, while everyone is home together now?
Two. Meditation and yoga
I have a new best friend. Her name is Adriene, and she posts free yoga on her YouTube channel, and our relationship is entirely one-sided, but feels strangely real at the moment, especially when I sneak away from the family, close the door, and join her for a 20 minute heart-and-hip opening practice, or some such, which inevitably scrolls into another video of whatever yummy-sounding Adriene-offering is popping up next. Combined with my real friend Kasia’s nightly live-streamed yoga classes on Facebook, I’ve been doing excessive amounts of yoga. I’ve also been meditating. A lot. My office, which is tiny, has become a yoga and meditation studio, primarily.
For some reason, I’ve been framing all this yoga and meditation as a guilty pleasure, maybe because it feels really good, and I keep wanting to do more and more of it, and that seems … wrong, under the circumstances? But my eldest daughter pointed out last night that as far as guilty pleasures go, this one is downright healthy, and possibly even healing and helpful. So I’m giving myself the permission to do as much yoga as I need to, to get through the day.
Three. Going outside
I feel better when I’m outside early in the morning, when hardly anyone else is out and about; this is when I’ve been running. I’m nervous about adding any non-essential traffic to the sidewalks and parks right now; but it’s amazing how even a short dog-walk around the block after supper can lift the spirits. The birds are awake and busy. In our backyard this afternoon, I kept kneeling to look at tiny green sprouts unfurling their heads from the ground.
How can we live without fresh air, and sun? It seems essential.
Four. Talking to friends and family
My sibs and I have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for a catch-up. Like everyone else, we’re using Zoom. I also text quite regularly to check in with friends and family. I’m pretty sure this interaction, even from afar, is saving my sanity and restoring my humour right now. I never feel lighter of heart than after I’ve spent some time with my sibs. And feeling light of heart — it’s a challenge right now, I confess.
My kids have their video games. Kevin likes Netflix. Sometimes the two of us watch something together (like Schitt’s Creek on CBC’s Gem; and Sex Education and Feel Good on Netflix) while drinking a beer. (I haven’t taken up video games yet). What got me through some extra-anxious hours recently, however, was the combination of listening to a podcast (on a subject completely unrelated to the pandemic) while playing free-cell solitaire online. Who knew? I also like lounging around reading random articles in The New Yorker, and re-reading comfort-fiction like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton’s National Velvet. And I’m watching the late-night hosts on YouTube attempting to broadcast, with varying degrees of success, from locations around their houses. There’s also writing & drawing, which should probably have its own separate category; on the rare day I don’t do it, I notice.
In terms of distractions, I know things are bad when I start compulsively scrolling through Twitter; that’s a sign that my anxiety and focus are spiralling dangerously downhill. (Follow-up note to self: remove that app already!) So I’m trying to minimize that form of entertainment, which is actually more of a form of self-immolation.
So that’s my list. What’s comforting you right now?
I thought I’d wasted the day. I was lying on the couch under a blanket, feeling so tired, waking after a nap, a needless nap in the middle of the day, with sun pouring through the windows. I’d woken when an alarm went off on my phone: the province of Ontario alerting all travellers returning home to go home and stay home. A few minutes later, the alarm sounded again: same info, this time in French.
The dog lay atop the couch, stretched out. I stared at the wall. Is this a panic attack? But it didn’t feel dire, it felt like being flattened by something, unable to rise. My eldest son appeared on the scene. “Oh, are you napping?” “No, just lying here doing absolutely nothing,” I said. He accepted this at face value. He’d been cleaning his room, and wondered where to put some stuff he didn’t need anymore — boxes, binders. I was able to assist him while still prone. “Could you bring me the New Yorker magazine that’s open on the table?” I asked him. It was the latest issue, open to the fiction, a short story about tennis, of all things.
I read the whole story. It was a long story.
Soon after that, I got up off the couch. In the bathroom, I surreptitiously took my temperature. Normal. Then I went to my office, plugged myself into my Lynda Barry Spotify playlist, hit shuffle play, and wrote in my notebook for the next hour: a brand new story for a book I’d been working on diligently before … before … all of this; it seemed so long ago.
After that, I met a friend for a walk. Keeping to a safe distance. Dodging others on the Iron Horse Trail.
Home again, I returned to the story. I wrote more. My pen scratched away at the lines on the page, words flying from some unknown part of myself, turning visible, printed in block letters, the nascent form of something that might become something, someday; no, that already is. Forget someday, Carrie. It already is. This is.
When I finished writing the story, I sat back in my chair and almost cried. It felt like I’d connected with some distant memory of myself, some estranged part of myself in whose renewed acquaintance I was delighting — I remember you! Writing, through confusion, following the through-line of a plot, seeing the world through a character’s eyes instead of my own — I felt purposeful in a way I feel at no other time. Not purposeful in a practical way, like when I’m baking bread, or helping a child; but purposeful in the way of being used wholly. Not used in a bad way. Used entirely. All my parts work in concert to do this bright bruised blessed work that does not feel in any way like work.
It’s a good feeling.
Today was not wasted; I got up off the couch, but also, I let myself lay there. Maybe I needed to do both of those things to figure out how to write that story that now is, whatever it is, whatever it may be. I got it out of my head.
(These photos were taken immediately after I got up off the couch — and before I’d established that my temperature was normal. For some reason, I went to the back door by the garage, opened it and squinted into the sunshine. I just stood there on the stoop for awhile.)
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