Almost daily, I am reminded that we are each experiencing this time of pandemic and protest somewhat differently, which means that even a simple question like “How are you?” is fraught with complications — but also rich with honesty. Because in the before-times, we probably answered, “Fine,” or “Good,” or “Okay,” or, maybe, with a close friend, “Do you really want to know?” But right now, if we ask, “How are you?” we’ll very often get the truth. For someone who appreciates messy, this is novel and pretty cool; because the truth is usually messy. Do you mean, how am I at this very exact moment in time? Or how I was when I woke up this morning? Or how I’m aspiring to be? Or shall I just spiral through my multitudes here and now?
So. How are you?
I feel like I’m (temporarily) finding my feet amidst the confusion of “re-opening.” I’m figuring out my own boundaries, which means I’m figuring out my family’s boundaries too. And I’m finding the capacity to put into words the limitations and constraints with which I feel comfortable.
My friend Katie designed this amazingly succinct graphic that helps keep some “rules” straight in my head.
In truth, I think I’m finding that daily life is easier so long as I accept that we’re living during a pandemic, and there’s no returning to “before.” I’d like to grieve and move on. But I know not everyone is there.
Rather than pining for “before,” we need new things to look forward to, and we need new rituals to sustain our days.
A new ritual I’ve been enjoying is tea, three times a day.
I’ve spent the past two weeks doing a “tea cleanse” led by my sister-in-law, who owns a local tea company: SquirrelDuck, look her up! Her teas and tisanes are fresh and delicious, with something for any occasion, and the “cleanse” was a chance to reset some small habits, and to mark the passage of each day. We officially finished yesterday … but I found myself in the kitchen this morning preparing two cups of turmeric tea with lemon, one for me and one for Kevin. A sunny friendly welcome to the day. For the cleanse, afternoon tea was a dandelion spearmint mixture (I’m drinking some right now!). After-dinner tea was hibiscus with apple and beetroot.
I plan to continue this ritual as long as it feels soothing and special, perhaps substituting different teas along the way (so many to choose from!). My personal favourites from Beth’s collection are Ginger and After Dinner; she also sells coffee. (And no, we did not quit caffeine for our cleanse.)
Side note, related: Have you noticed how magnified and lovely the small pleasures in life have become?
If you’ve spent time with small children, you’ll know this is what they do: notice the small things, express their emotions freely, and, more often than not, adapt to change with what seems like miraculous aptitude. We all have the chance to be like children again, noticing the small things that please and soothe us, observing the world around us, listening to learn new stories and perspectives: tentative, maybe, unsure, sometimes, not having all the words to say what we feel; scared — that too; but also attuned to what’s possible, alert to what’s waiting to be discovered, asking many questions, wondering, exploring what’s new, speaking the truth.
Our days have found their routines. I start with exercise: a good sweat puts me in a good mood. If I’m on the spin bike, I also get to watch a favourite show on Netflix. Right now, that’s Murdoch Mysteries, another Canadian television gem that I’ve taken too long to discover (like Schitt’s Creek). I like my entertainment understated.
Next, I might mix up a sourdough loaf, or pop one in the oven (if I mixed it up last night; very occasionally, what I pop in the oven is scones … mmm). Shower. Breakfast: eggs on toast, or porridge with seeds and yogurt. Newspaper, coffee. I take my time. Then I head to my office.
Meanwhile, the kids appear, and three of them, plus Kevin, lace up their running shoes and head out the door, no matter the weather, for the 10:30 Running Club. The same daughter who organized Fake Prom 2020 has somehow gotten her brothers and dad running daily. This is nothing short of a miracle. The kid is a motivational genius. Best of all, the 10:30 Running Club has a fan! Apparently, someone on the route noticed their regularly daily efforts, and began appearing on his porch to cheer them on as they passed. Last week, he made them a motivational poster. I mean, how awesome is that?!
I think this is a good time for good stories.
That said, the novel I’m working on is pretty dark. I hope it’s pretty and dark, or maybe romantic and dark, or magical and dark.
It’s where I spend most of the hours between 10AM and 5PM, week days. And it does feel like it’s a place, this novel, because I time travel to get there. It’s set in the 16th century and it’s pure escape for me to drop down into that imaginary place and write about whatever I find there.
Around 5PM, I exit the office and begin to cast about for supper ideas. I listen to a podcast or the radio, wash up the dishes that have accumulated throughout the day, and bake the loaf of sourdough (if I haven’t already). And cook a meal. It’s usually ready around 6:30/7PM. I haven’t mentioned the laundry and lunch breaks I’ll take at some point during my writing day (laundry time is when I watch Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert to catch up on my satirical news fix; I’ll often pop upstairs to check in on the youngest’s online schooling, but mostly I don’t do much parenting during these writing hours).
Supper is family time. We catch up. After supper, the kids do the cleanup. Kevin and I walk the dog. Around 8PM, I do yoga. And then watch something on Netflix with Kevin, or not. Depends on the day. Wednesdays is sibs night, when we meet via Zoom and consume a few beers.
Before bed, I feed my sourdough starter (“Doughy”), maybe mix up a loaf.
And that’s a day.
This morning, I received another good story in my inbox: one of The X Page writers, Swati, emailed to share her experience of publishing “Crayons,” her story about a favourite teacher that always makes me LOL when I read it. (Link here; enjoy!) A friend who read Swati’s story suggested that she look up the teacher and share it with her. And the teacher replied! Here are a few of the teacher’s words: “You have no idea how much you have lifted my spirits. I have been struggling lately, especially with this virtual teaching, not seeing my students and not knowing if I’m even making a difference. You have reminded me why I still teach and why I love it so much! Thank you!”
Actually, you have no idea how much this message lifted my spirits, too.
Thank you to Swati and her teacher and my 10:30 Running Club’s number one fan. Thank you for seeing, for cheering, for noticing, for your attention to someone else’s efforts. You’ve reminded me that the gift of appreciation is always in us to give, and immeasurably wonderful to receive.
We all need things to look forward to. Things to plan for. Events that lift us out of our ordinary lives and routines.
Our house, on Friday evening, was transformed into an event venue for our family’s Fake Prom 2020: Starry Night.
The party was magnificently planned by our younger daughter, who is a natural boss, with an eye for detail. Everyone was given a job. I was the DJ, Kevin was the bartender, our eldest did the menu planning and food prep, and the other two assisted with cleaning and decorating.
We were to appear at the venue, at 7PM, dressed to the nines. Furniture had been moved. Photos were taken.
Eating, drinking, dancing and lounging followed, supplemented by several rounds of back yard volleyball. The first round, I wore my jean jacket due to pure vanity (45-year-olds can still be vain), but for the second midnight round, I was in my actual winter coat! Kevin burned some stuff in our old fire pit. We attempted to see where the ball was going. Hilarity ensued.
DJ Carrots and Beats had everyone jumping with some dance classics, and relaxing at the after-party with a more mellow vibe. Canadian Trivia was featured at the after-party. I tossed in a late-night load of laundry. Ate a big bowl of late-night pasta salad.
The only melancholy note was the recognition that this would have been a really kick-ass party to host for friends. We miss you friends!
The next day, we all slept in and lazed around. There were snow squalls, so it was kind of the perfect day for that. (Side note: Are we in Narnia? Is it still March?)
Tell me, friends, what are you planning and looking forward to right now? Ideas to share?
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”
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