When I think about the word balance, a word I’ve considered maybe somewhat irrelevant or inapplicable to my life, what I’m beginning to sense or feel, as much as understand, is that I am always in transition. I almost never arrive anywhere, and certainly don’t stay. I exist in flux even while viewing myself as being a creature reaching toward, aiming toward, permanence.
Yet I am human, mortal, entirely impermanent.
Rituals exist to pin down significant moments; because the moments in my life run together like water. But what I’m glimpsing in the word balance is a peace in accepting this state. I’m seeing the fluidity in my being in all of existence, in the way time moves, and that I move in time. I’m seeing that I am of my time, immovable from the history that surrounds me even if this history will not remember or know me, especially.
During the lockdown, my work was not deemed essential. Because it isn’t. I am not planting vegetables or stocking shelves or administering tests or researching cures or triaging patients or caring for those who need special care. My work has been on the page, and in the home.
I’ve had time. And I’ve noticed that, given the time, I can write and imagine in a bigger way than I had before. I’ve noticed, too, that I continue to feel anxious, to experience existential dread, to float in the brine of my own small shames, to wish often to be better than I am. That has always been with me, will always be with me. Feelings come and go and come again. I’ll always have feelings, mixed up and catching me off-guard and demanding my attention. It’s my response to the feelings that is changing.
Can I live with discomfort? The answer is yes.
Disappoint myself or disappoint others? Sometimes the choice is pretty stark. Sometimes you can’t square the circle. Sometimes — often, really — you cannot please everyone, and by trying to do so, you please no one, least of all yourself. What is your inner voice whispering? Does it hurt to hear it?
I’m trying out an experiment. I’ve come to believe that I don’t have time to do most things, let alone all things. Just write. Cook. Read, research a bit. Yoga, run. That’s it. A little bit of housework. Parent, pay attention to my kids. Be a good friend. That’s it.
Whether it brings me anything, doesn’t matter. It’s the ego wants things brought to it. This is my river. Is it service enough to just write? I don’t know. But I’d like to find out. Or try.
Time to unfold, unfurl, spread out. What’s the rush?
What am I hurrying to discover? It all comes to light in time.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
While leading a recent yoga class, my friend Kasia said, These are beautiful times and we’re lucky to be alive right now.
I appreciate that perspective.
It’s easy to get bogged down in how hard everything is. How the things that used to be simple to do now require pre-planning and masks and protocols. How our bodies can feel like disease vectors. How familiar I’m becoming with my own physical manifestations of anxiety (tight chest, buzzing brain, inability to alight).
But I don’t deny that what Kasia says may also be true: that these are beautiful times and we are lucky to be alive right now.
Because change feels possible. Because it feels like we’re seeing with new eyes. Because we are freed from what it was like before to maybe figure out how we can make what comes after better. Because our own strengths and weaknesses are more visible. Because we need to know what’s broken in order to fix it. Because we can’t keep building on the same broken foundations. Because we’re being forced to identify our core values, our reasons for being, and what we really care deeply about.
I’m not pretending this is an ideal time to live through, or a fun time. I’m not pretending everyone’s equally affected, either. It’s a scary time, a discordant time, a time when we’re required to hold dissonant information, and altogether too much of it, in our heads all at once.
The interiority of this time has freed me to write a lot. One day, during a meditation, I heard the words create and destroy used together, and my brain suddenly couldn’t peel them apart. It was the strangest thing. It was like the two words, apparent opposites, had fused in my mind. Create/destroy. I saw how interconnected those states of being are, so tightly bound that, in truth, one cannot exist without the other. We tend to posit that one is good and the other is bad. But if both belong to each other, that duality of judgement is rendered inconsequential.
In every end, a new beginning. But also, in every beginning, an end. To make something is to unmake something else.
When I write, I create/destroy.
We are in create/destroy right now. Is it a beautiful time? It’s not a time of symmetry and balance, if that’s what beauty means to you; it’s a time of extremes. Our house is very quiet. The world is roiling. But if beauty means potential (no matter how far from realization), if beauty means truth (no matter how painful), if beauty means invention (create/destroy), then now, right now, is beautiful.
These are beautiful times and I am lucky to be alive right now.
There are a few items on my must-do list every day.
Make my bed. Get dressed.
Eat a good breakfast.
There are items that are on my almost-always-do list, like exercise, stretch, and eat supper together as a family (much easier to accomplish right now, that’s for sure).
But go outside. That’s a must-do. It’s on the list even though some days I have to remind myself to do it. Most of my tasks, at present, revolve around the kitchen and my office, with stops at the dining-room table and various locations around the house to pick up laundry. Go outside! I remind myself.
Or the day will not be complete.
Yesterday, I went outside and sat on the back steps. Are there more birds this spring? Or do we just notice them more?
While sitting, quietly, and doing exactly nothing else, I noticed a chipmunk darting around the patio. Soon, I realized it had a hideaway in a tree stump nearby. And then I discovered it had a friend, perhaps a baby chipmunk. I decided this was the mother chipmunk, as I watched her interact with the baby, who kept poking its head out of the hole in the stump, only to be pushed back inside by mama chipmunk.
I don’t actually know anything about chipmunks. So I could be interpreting this all wrong. But watching their interactions was delightful. And everyone enjoyed my report on my chipmunk friend at the supper table (more interesting than a report on the laundry or the sourdough, that’s for sure!).
So this morning, I went back outside and sat on the steps, in hopes of seeing my chipmunk friend again. There she was! This time, she stayed partially hidden, camouflaged by the myrtle that grows around the stump. I could see her eye and snout as she sniffed the world. Delightful!
This afternoon, my youngest joined me on the back steps. He wanted to meet my chipmunk friend. At first, it seemed she would not appear, but suddenly, there she was, darting around the patio. She froze, seeing us, and did not move a muscle. “Pretend you’re not looking,” my son said. We averted our eyes, and sure enough, freed from our attention, she darted into her hole.
We didn’t see her again. Instead, we watched the birds: two robins hopping around the yard, a cardinal dropping by, a sparrow. And other birds we could hear, but not see. After awhile, we decided to tour the yard to see all the flowers. Delightful!
If you say to the world, Please fill me with delight!
The world will reply, Go outside!
Don’t do anything, just sit there.
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?
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