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.
Joy. Gratitude. Thanksgiving.
As I’ve written about in previous posts, my moods are not exactly fixed at the moment, nor do they tend toward neutrality. There are wild swings, some into dark regions of the soul. But also, and as wildly, toward delight, pleasure, and even joy. Take Thursday. I got up at 5AM for a sunrise kundalini yoga class, live on Zoom, led by my friend Kasia. I lit candles and sat in the dark, feeling connected to the others who were out there, sitting in the dark, doing this practice together. The movement from darkness to light was gradual, as night turned to dawn and moved toward morning. It was a rainy morning, if I remember correctly, so the light never got very bright, but it came. It came.
I did a lot of writing on Thursday. Journal writing. Reflecting. Working through the unpleasant emotions that had been bubbling up all week. It felt like grief had taken me over and was spilling into bitterness. There were some big and hopeful things I’d been working towards, which were coming to fruition, and which had stopped, suddenly, like almost everything else has stopped, suddenly.
I hadn’t let myself name those losses — others have lost so much more; I have so much to be thankful for.
And that is true, but it is also true that naming what I’ve lost (temporarily or permanently) turned out to be a helpful exercise. I’d been wallowing blindly, and on Thursday I laid it all out — here’s what I don’t have; here’s what I can’t do; here’s what may not happen — and I saw that my fears were interconnected, that I wasn’t angry at anyone, not even myself, or even disappointed, exactly. I was longing for someone to promise me that everything would be okay.
And no one can do that.
No one ever could, really. As a parent, I know what it’s like to be on the other side — the side that is in the position to make promises of safety, security, comfort. I know how impossible it is. I know that instinctively, during these times, I want to hold my child close, and the words that I whisper are “I love you. I’m with you. I’m here. I won’t leave you. It will be okay.” But the “it will be okay” part isn’t a promise that it will be as we wish it to be, rather that sorrow / pain / sickness is part of life, that everyone feels despair, and that this too shall pass.
Victor Frankl wrote about finding meaning and purpose amidst tragedy. Resilience and hope come not from ease but from challenge, from a focus beyond ourselves and our own needs and fears.
On Thursday, I wrote all this down, I baked another loaf of sourdough and cooked a delicious meal for my family, but I was still feeling mostly wretched; irritable, restless, cramped and sour. I knew my friend Kasia was leading a second class that evening, so I decided to do it. It felt excessive, needy and messy, embarrassing to turn up again on Kasia’s screen, hey I’m back for more of your medicine, and it also felt necessary. (Find what your prayer is, and pray — to paraphrase Brother David Steindl-Rast, interviewed on the latest On Being podcast.) Again, I lit candles. This time, the light outside the windows turned by invisible gradations to darkness. I’d seen it come and I’d seen it go.
I emerged from my office cave/yoga studio brimming with energy. I’m tempted to call it hope. It definitely felt joyful. I’d thought some big and comforting thoughts. I’d written them down. (Another form of prayer, for me.)
Love the form, container, body you’re in.
Fear is the self trying to protect the self.
No to anticipatory suffering
Yes to anticipatory joy
Reality will look, feel, be different anyway.
I don’t know, these thoughts seemed big in the moment.
How to live the big thoughts? Isn’t that what we’re all trying to figure out how to do? Make manifest what burns bright within us?
Well, here’s what I did on exiting my cozy office: I went to the living-room to have a beer and some popcorn with Kevin. And I started live-streaming my sister Edna’s concert, which she was performing in her living-room (as part of a line-up of DJs). Edna’s music is for dancing, so instead of sitting down with my glass of beer, I started dancing. My kids, as they wandered in, were all combinations of horrified, intrigued, embarrassed, amused. Kevin plugged in our disco light. We pushed back the couches. Sock feet slid best on the wood floorboards. By the time Edna’s set ended, we were six dancers dancing. And didn’t I feel it all — joy, gratitude, thanksgiving!
The joy builds inside, to paraphrase Brother David Steindl-Rast again, and it has the opportunity to spill out into thanksgiving, which is what you share with everyone around you.
Don’t keep it in. Don’t hide it. Don’t feel guilty for feeling it. Don’t be parsimonious with your joy, it’s a renewable resource. You can’t be happy all the time, and you can’t be grateful for all moments, but all moments are opportunities for gratitude.
from On Being’s newsletter “The Pause”
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
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