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?
Five things I am grateful for
1 My kids’ teachers, who have been reaching out to their students with such empathy about the unprecedented collective experience we’re sharing; among their offerings are optional assignments that invite connection with other students, and even breathing techniques for finding calm during anxious moments. Thank you to all the teachers who are doing their best to support their students right now. #education
2 My kids, who have been finding ways to keep themselves soothed and entertained without entirely relying on screens. This includes doing puzzles in their rooms, figuring out how to play Battleship with a friend via FaceTime, practicing piano, baking cookies and sour cherry bread, kitchen clean-up, imaginary games in the backyard, soccer, playing with Rose, drawing with me or painting with Kevin, and above all, accepting the situation rather than fighting it. #parenting
3 Kevin, whose bottomless well of optimism, flexibility and creativity is an especially useful toolbox right now (to mix metaphors!). He’s self-employed, I’m self-employed: generally speaking, we’re both tolerant of risk, practical, disciplined, and comfortable with the necessary short-term pivot in service of deeper, long-term goals. It’s a partnership suited to current circumstances. I’m also thankful that I can tell him what I really think, even if it ain’t pretty. #marriage
4 The pair of cardinals in our front bush, who popped out yesterday as if to say hello, just as I was looking out the front window. The peach-coloured female hopped onto the windowsill and cocked her head, inches from me on the other side of the glass. I held my breath. #nature
5 That everything I’m doing right now feels like it has spiritual purpose: it’s a gift. The focus of my waking hours seems to be to seek the spirit, nourish the spirit, bring forth the spirit, pay attention to all in my life that is spiritual. Practice, pray, reflect, share, write, dream. I’m loving all the online tools available for connecting with others. Sibs night via Zoom. Church service via YouTube and Skype. My friend Kasia’s yoga, live-streamed via Facebook into my tiny peaceful office every evening at 8PM. I have more time to spend meditating every day, accompanied by beautiful poetry podcasts or meditation reflections. It feels like my emotional life is closer to the surface and more visible, plainer, simpler; I feel more vulnerable, but also quieter. Within the restlessness, I’m finding stillness. There isn’t much I can do to help at the moment, except stay home. But that gives me even greater permission (if I need it, and sometimes I do!) to pause, breathe deeply, sense connection, reflect on the ties that bind us together, and pray for the possibility that our global community may unite around principles of mutual protection, dignity and care. #hope
spot the dog
While in this time of strangeness, isolation, social distancing, and hunkering down waiting, waiting, I’m trying to sort out how to get through each day intact, as whole as possible. I’ve been informed by my children that I must must must limit my intake of coronavirus news; and they’re right; and I’m trying.
But I’ve felt distracted, full of questions about what’s right to do, what’s wrong to do, and whether the decisions I’m making are harming or helping our collective cause, and the individual lives in our immediate family. Last week was a whirl of decision-making, including cancelling The X Page’s remaining workshop sessions and the performance, while making plans for publishing the stories. There was a constantly changing flow of information from public health officials and various levels of government. We found out on Thursday that schools would be closed at least till early April; all soccer cancelled too; just last night, it was recommended that all bars and restaurants in Ontario close or move to take-out or delivery only.
And I’m pretty sure the phrase “social distancing” entered my vocabulary less than a week ago, but now we all know it, and we’re trying to practice it, and to understand why, and to explain it to those people in our lives who don’t see what the point is, exactly.
It’s been a bit too much, while also being not nearly enough. Fears: diffuse; particular; unseen.
And now the late-night talk shows have gone off the air, just when I most need their mixture of news, satire, reassurance and comedy!
So here’s what I’m doing to stay afloat, mentally. I’m not saying it’s all working for me, just that these are the lifelines I’m grabbing hold of today, and did yesterday, and in all likelihood will again tomorrow.
Meditation. I have a kneeling bench that my dad made for me a few years ago, which is comfortable to sit on yet prevents me from falling asleep. (An habitual problem.) I recommend The New York Times’s guide to meditation, if you’re just getting started. There are also lots of apps to try out (I like Headspace; it’s not free, but you might be able to access a free trial to see if you like it).
Over on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert posted an easy-to-do meditation you can bring into any moment of your day, taking notice of a descending list of things all around you. This is my scribbled version, below, and it’s helped me at least once today when I was waiting to wash my hands, as there was a line-up for the bathroom, and I was feeling irrationally irritated about the waiting:
Podcasts. Below are a few. If you have a favourite, could you please leave your suggestions in the comments? I need more!
The Daily from The New York Times, a podcast that lasts just about long enough for a quick morning run (and, yes, it has been a lot about the coronavirus lately, but the info is solid and trustworthy, not inflammatory).
On Being, a podcast that I sometimes have patience for and sometimes not (it’s dense with spirituality).
Poetry Unbound, a podcast in which a poem is read, discussed, then read again. Episodes are about 11 minutes, the perfect amount of time to sit in quiet mediation.
Dog walks with Kevin and Rose have also been a balm. However, I cancelled a walk with a friend this morning, perhaps an over-reaction? I just don’t know. Does anyone?
Finally, here’s one last lifeline, which I’m hoping to share with my writing friends: daily drawing/writing in my notebook. I haven’t done this yet today, but it’s on my to-do list. (That’s yesterday’s cartoon, above.)
Follow this recipe for 10 minutes of bliss: Put on a song at random from my Lynda Barry playlist on Spotify (which has 64 followers at present!); draw a self-portrait to that song; then write for 3 minutes, answering the question: What’s on Your Mind? Or Why Did This Song Choose You Today?
Celebration; grief. This is me, right now.
How to hold two extreme emotional states within one mind and body, all at once? I can’t do it. Instead, I seem to have landed somewhere in the middle, in flatness that speaks of protection, flatness that is an antidote to fear, but also to joy.
I can’t reveal more, and recognize that it may seem disingenuous or deceptive to hint at drama without offering details. I apologize. I don’t mean to be locked down, or to seem vague or untruthful; but also, this is too much of me not to speak of it at all. The depth of grief involves a personal situation, close to my heart, and I’m unlikely ever to reveal details outside my very closest circle. The height that deserves celebration involves my professional life; and this, I think, will be revealed more widely in due course, just not yet.
To say that I am distracted would be an understatement.
To say that I am challenged is accurate, but not strong enough.
To say I’m hanging in here, staying focused on what matters, jettisoning temporarily all that can be let go, surviving, feeding myself, breathing, reaching out to ask for help as needed, is true, all true.
I look forward to sharing my good news, in good time.
Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
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