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.
- What felt good this month? Honestly, writing felt good. Specifically fiction. I was able to sink even more deeply into the new routine and spend many hours each week day working on the 16th century novel. It felt easy, purposeful, and like I was entering my own personal escape pod. I can tell it is a balm for my spirit, so much so, that it’s really all I want to do, with little breaks for sitting in the sunshine watching wildlife in the backyard. It felt good, also, to ask my family to do a bit more cooking. And it felt good to refrigerate the sourdough starter during the heat wave and take a break from baking bread every. single. day.
- What did you struggle with? The news. The grim evidence of neglect, inequality, injustice, always present but gruesomely exposed by the pandemic. I know it’s unhealthy to crawl into bed and scroll through that newsfeed of horror, finger-pointing, invective and cruelty in search of the occasional lively bit of joy (like Sarah Cooper!); but I still haven’t removed Twitter from my phone. On a small scale, I struggled with the growing sense that I’m becoming more socially awkward and introverted, to the point that small talk feels almost painful. I haven’t been to a store, or any public and enclosed space, really, since mid-March, and I’ve only driven once since March 13. Once! I’m not struggling with that, rather I’m struggling to imagine returning to a time when I wanted to go out and do things. My social skills are on the decline. I’m becoming attached to my bubble!
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? This is hard to assess. It’s ever more clear that the re-opening process will be slow, at times painful, and that no one really knows what they’re doing or where exactly we’re going. I’m less hopeful than I was a month ago, maybe because the unrest convulsing our neighbours to the south would suggest that they are on a desperate, chaotic, increasingly violent trajectory. And we live next-door. How can there be healing in the absence of justice? This may be a fire that burns out quickly, or it may be a hinge for transformation; or it may end in tragedy. But there is a void in leadership, the emperor most certainly has no clothes, and what frightens me is that tragedies seem to happen in slow motion, but also with a sense of doomed inevitability. I hope I’m wrong. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, I’m feeling ever more centred in and committed to my discipline as a writer. There are questions that can only be answered through art, which opens us to deeper questions, to pause, to empathy, to challenge, to greater attention.
- How did you take care of yourself? I talked out loud about things that were bothering me, including confessing my own shortcomings. I tried to do so in a way that was honest but also compassionate. I helped organize some fun family events, to give us things to look forward to this past month: fake prom, birthday celebrations, special meals. I asked for help when I needed it. Also: exercise, sweat, braids, incense, turmeric tea, weekly sibs night, Dead to Me, podcasts, sitting outside in the sun, and joining my church’s congregational prayer on Sunday mornings, online via Zoom.
- What would you most like to remember? The quiet of our bubble. The calmness of our house. All four kids in the kitchen, talking and laughing. Running club. The fuzz of green turning to blossoms, to full-fledged leaves. Discovering that our back yard is a nature preserve of bird song and busy creatures. I will remember us sitting around the table in the evenings, lingering over supper. I will be so happy that we had this extra time together.
- What do you need to let go of? Wow. I’ve sat here a long time trying to sort this out in my mind. My gut response is: “I need to let go of worrying that I /we will be changed for the worse by this.” That confuses me. But it also makes a lot of sense. (related: see my answer to #3) I see the pandemic / lockdown as a stripping away of many things, as a great silence and pause. But what roars up when the silence ends? I don’t know. I worry. I think I need to let go of certainty. I need to accept the discomfort that attends this fragile human state of being. I need to let go of “before.” On a personal level, this pause is a chance to notice where the current is pulling me. I’d like to let myself be pulled. And let myself go there, even if it challenges my value system and notions of worth. But — I don’t want to let go of my responsibility to others, nor be lulled into inaction, safe in my bubble. (Damn, this is a convoluted answer to what should be a simple question….)
PS What do you need to let go of?
A friend said she’s noticed she’s not feeling so anxious anymore. I think this is true. We’ve travelled into the boring part of this experience. The part where we still don’t know what exactly will happen, or when; but the novelty, such as it was, is gone. And a dullness, a bleh feeling prevails.
I’m continue to enjoy at-home yoga, riding the spin bike, baking bread (it’s so easy), and gathering to eat supper together every night. The things I look forward to in a day are pretty basic: food, food, food; sometimes I even look forward to cooking the food.
I’m writing (fiction) quite a lot. That’s lovely.
I try to get outside for a walk every day. It’s validating (as a parent) to see the kids develop their own routines and healthy survival strategies. Jogging. Homework. Baking. Quiet time. Naps. I try to lie on the couch with a book a few times a week.
There is very little to report.
Nevertheless, at supper, I like to go around the table and find out what everyone did that day. I spend large chunks of my day in my office, so even though we’re all together under the same roof, I’ve missed things. I like how leisurely it feels, chatting around the table at suppertime. We’ve nowhere special to get to. After supper, the kids do the dishes and Kevin and I walk the dog around the block. And it isn’t hard to find ourselves saying: well, this part is pretty nice.
The kids don’t like when I report what would have been happening on any given day. So I’ve stopped. What’s the point of being sad about something that isn’t going to happen? Anyway, we’ve given ourselves a few things to look forward to in May. 1. My mom’s birthday: we’ve got plans to bake a cake. 2. Prom. We are doing prom, just us; everyone has a role, and mine is DJ!! The theme is “Starry Night.” The chaperone (Kevin) is going to have to keep a sharp eye on Kevin — if anyone’s going to spike the punch, it’s him. 3. Our eldest’s birthday. It’s a big one (19), so we’ve got plans to turn our living-room into a nightclub.
However, we aren’t making any such plans for June. According to one teenager, it’s too depressing to think of still being stuck with one’s family in June. Basically, we get through this one day at a time.
Like we always have, except now we know it for sure.
In summation: less anxiety; more boredom; even more bread. The days, they blur. Drifting awake this morning, I thought it was Sunday. Definitely not Saturday, I told myself, Sunday.
Friends, it’s Tuesday.
This photo is 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.
My word-of-the-year group met last week for the last time in 2019. My word this year, SPACE, was resonant and practical, and has met me where I’m at in terms of my goals and aspirations. Essentially, a year ago, I determined that I wanted / needed / craved more space, specifically more space to write. Space and time are inextricably linked. They can’t be separated.
But so are space and discomfort. (As far as I know, Einstein didn’t weigh in on this theory.) Let me explain.
What I’ve come to believe is that I am the source of my own space. If I feel crowded out of my life, it is because I have chosen to be a person crowded out of her own life. I am the biggest obstacle in the path to my own contentment, and enlightenment; conversely, I am also the person capable of removing said obstacle. The expectations of others are not holding me back — my own expectations are the source of my unhappiness. What I’m sparing myself, by building a life that is crowded and that crowds me out, is discomfort.
Anything I give space to will cause me some discomfort, and the opposite of feeling discomfort is so often, instead, feeling resentment. It’s something we don’t think about much. But the fact is, we are much more comfortable feeling resentment (and anger, annoyance, irritation) because it is an outward emotion — we can send it toward the object of our resentment. Discomfort is an interior emotion that asks us to be responsible, to accept the cause of our discomfort as our own choosing.
Any choices I’ve made that I value have caused me to feel discomfort. Giving space to listen to opposing positions — discomfort. Saying no to people and opportunities — discomfort. Waiting with a writing project as it forms and develops — discomfort. Allowing a child to wrestle with their own problems — discomfort. Taking a leadership role and being responsible for decisions that affect others — discomfort.
What I’ve learned this year is that when I allow myself to focus more fully on what I’ve named as my desire — time and space to devote to my writing — I also have to confront my insecurities, which come crowding into all this open space. It’s uncomfortable. I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Teaching was easy to talk about, pretty much universally understood and accepted as a positive and recognizable undertaking. The ambition of developing an ongoing career as a literary fiction writer in a market that is facing serious existential challenges: not so easy to talk about. Even that sounds like an excuse, as I read it over. And so I’ll revise: It’s not so easy to talk about my ambition to continue developing my craft as a literary fiction writer in the absence of new publications. But it’s true to what I’m doing.
And I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to name that desire, and pursue it, at least for the time being. I do feel discomfort being here. But I know discomfort is here because I’ve given it space to be here. In a sense, I’ve actively invited discomfort to be my companion. I also know that I wouldn’t feel better in the throes of resentment, overwhelmed by commitments, wishing and longing to pursue my deeper ambition; I would feel different, yes, running on fumes, exhausted, stretched thin, maybe full of certainty and outward purpose, maybe not; but definitely not better.
In conclusion, my year of making space has somehow turned into an examination of discomfort. And I’ve realized that I’m unexpectedly comfortable with discomfort. I have a pretty high tolerance for feeling it. I think, if deployed under the right set of circumstances, this might even be a super-power.