tips, round 3

Sticking to the two weeks this time! Enjoy, friends.

May 11, 2020

Look where it’s tender. Last Thursday I wrote about the importance of backing off when we feel pain. That’s important because it gives us a rest. But we also need to look at the causes for tenderness. Sometimes there’s an obvious reason or no reason. Sometimes that spot right there just hurts a bit. It will be better later or it won’t. We’ll look at it again then. But sometimes we need to look really closely at what’s tugging and tightening and tweaking. Last week video leaked of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, being killed while jogging. I haven’t read much about it at all. In part because, well, haven’t we read this story before? And aren’t we exhausted with this story? Not because I think Ahmaud’s particular story doesn’t deserve to be told. It does. It deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. It deserves so much lament. But, God, I’m exhausted with how awful white people can be. I’m so damn tired of conversations about protecting unborn babies while we can’t see the inherent dignity of black and brown bodies right here, doing things white bodies do all the time without fear of death or prejudice or sneering or danger. I’m sickened by the ugliness of people with my skin color. And I’m afraid of the ways in which I am blind to my own prejudice. What am I doing to further, how am I participating in these injustices, these tortures, these killings? Yes, that’s tender. I don’t want to look there. I don’t want to read this story because I don’t want to find myself in any part of it. And because I’m white, I can go about my days without reading this story. More, I can go about my days without living this story. I don’t know how to fix systemic racism. I don’t know how to apologize for the sins of my race. Aside from voting out white supremacists and supporting policies, politics, and theologies that honor all bodies, not just white (male) ones, I don’t know what to do to make this better. Except this: I can be kind; I can work to harbor no hatred in my heart; I can fight any inclination toward prejudice I might have when and if it shows up. And for today, I can find the news story of this man, this tragedy, this death, and I can read it. I can look there and let it be tender.

May 12, 2020

Soften. Can you tell I’ve started doing yoga again? My mornings had gotten a bit unwieldy over the past few months, and this month I have a lot of work to do. I needed a way to wake up and get the day started intentionally and with focus. Sometimes I can do that just by getting out of bed, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Pandemic Era. So I broke out the yoga mat and decided to start using that subscription to Clara Roberts-Oss‘s yoga that I’ve got. The first couple of days I noticed that my shoulders were actually tighter after my practices. Yes, I’m using muscles that have been a little rusty, but sore neck and shoulders are no fun. So I started paying attention to how I was holding the muscles in these areas when practicing. I realized that I’m tensing them a lot. Even when Clara says to soften, I don’t. Even when I think I’m letting my head hang in forward fold, I’m not. Even when I’m enjoying a pose, my jaw can be tight, which means my neck is tight, which means my shoulders are tight. So I’m learning to soften these things, to be attentive to really letting them gentle. It’s not easy, especially now, when even subconsciously we’re in protective modes. But in today’s practice, I noticed it was easier to soften. And throughout my days, I’ve felt myself attend to the tenseness in my body differently. Hardening through life can be a default position. We harden to protect ourselves from tragedy, to steel ourselves against grief, to preserve joys, to endure anxiety. Softening ourselves into these things is counter-intuitive—unless we practice it again and again. I do not want to be a hardened person. There has been plenty that could make me that way, but each thing is an opportunity to be a softer person, a gentler person. If only I release into it.

May 13, 2020

Consider the obvious. Anxiety creates stellar imaginations. Unfortunately, it’s imagination that tends toward the disastrous. Still, it’s pretty amazing the different reasons your brain can come up with for any number of situations. Last night my sides were super sore. Almost crampy sore. Of course, that meant I have covid and probably cancer. Together. Developed instantaneously. I didn’t spiral with these thoughts, but they did cross my mind. And then I remembered that it was 6:00 and I hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch. So maybe I was hungry. And the yoga class I did focused a lot on the side waist. So maybe my muscles were reacting to, you know, being used. And for the past couple of nights, I’d woken up for about an hour at 4:00. So maybe I was just a bit tired. We ate, and my tummy felt better. I shifted my perspective to gratitude for muscles that work, and they were still sore but less threatening. And I went to bed early and left my phone off and on the nightstand. (Often when I wake up in the night, if my mind gets going, I start playing a game to help me still it again. That’s what I’d been doing the past few nights.) When tempted to go to the worst, consider what’s right in front of you. Consider what’s most logical. It’s very likely that your overactive imagination is playing tricks on you. Maybe it isn’t, but probably it is. You can’t always logic your way out of anxiety, but sometimes you can. So if you’ve given yourself time to consider the fantastical, take a few moments to consider the obvious and see if that helps.

May 14, 2020

Anxiety changes. After Shaun died, my anxiety was about my body and illness. About five years ago, my anxiety was about being unable to get out of crowds or traffic. A lot of mass shootings were occurring, which was a big part of my fear; I felt trapped and paralyzed. This year, my anxiety has been about illness again but also about the shifting of the world. It’s a nasty little trick that anxiety plays, not being the same way all the time. It takes me a while to realize the theme of a given anxiety spell. Every single time, I wonder where this is coming from, why it’s happening, where it’s going. Every single time, I have to remind myself that this is how my brain works, that I am capable of managing it, that I have many tools at my disposal. While it’s really frustrating to have happen, anxiety is a way for your mind and body to let you know that things are out of balance. Maybe I’m not eating or sleeping as well as I should be; maybe I’m not writing and getting it out of my body by exercising; maybe work is more stressful than I am willing to admit; or maybe I’m thinking about all my dead people. Acknowledging the anxiety and recognizing the imbalance is an invitation to return to what centers and grounds me. I use those tools of good food, meditation, yoga or walking, sleep, saying words about anxiety, writing daily, breathing exercises, drinking more water, finding rest for my brain. These are my safety net. This makes it sounds like a swift, easy process. It isn’t. I wrestle with my anxiety a lot; I am surprised by it almost every single time it shows up. But sometimes I’m able to see her and think, “Oh, you. Hi. Well, let’s see what you have to tell me today.” And then I curse at her a bit and get down to the business of being well.

May 15, 2020

This tip was a blog post on keeping death daily before your eyes.

May 18, 2020

Take it slow. Today we move from Stay Home MN to Stay Safe MN. So, as our governor says, we’re turning the dials up on social interaction and economic possibilities. (I refuse to say that we’re “reopening,” because we haven’t been closed. “Reopening” language ignores the fact that plenty of places have been open and that essential workers have had to keep going to work despite this raging pandemic. Certain segments of our economy have been closed, yes, but on the whole, our economy is open and has been all along.) I don’t know about you, but I’m not rushing anywhere. I get the reasons for loosening the restrictions, but personally, I’m not quite there yet. We entered this time of quarantine so quickly. We adapted and changed and revamped our days and took on new responsibilities and let the superfluous things go. We entered a weird time, but it was also sacred time. I’m not ready to leave that yet. The Irish talk of “thin space.” It’s where this world meets the heavens. It’s sacred space: a church or a spot in nature. It’s those places where the veil between worlds is, well, thin. I think there are thin times too, and grief is one of those times. In grieving, we are jolted into a different way of being. We adapt, change, revamp, let go. We aren’t who we were, but we’re also not who we will be. It is strange time. It is very holy time, even if we resist or fight or hate it. Eventually, we start to emerge from the deep grieving. We laugh again or do something our “old self” would have done. We recognize the person we were in the very new light of being a person-without-the-one-we-grieve. It brings us up short. As we emerge, we see just how different we’ve become. And this emergence isn’t a matter of simply jumping back in where we left off. It’s a slow process, one of remembering how to be in a world that hasn’t grieved the way we have. But it’s also a process of deciding what we want to bring with us from that thin time. That deciding takes some time. We’re not through this yet. Plenty of people still need protecting, and even if we’re staying safe instead of staying home, it’s still a weird, sacred time. We’re still figuring out how to be in this strange, new world. So take it slow, remember what you want to carry forward, and keep being attentive to the ways you can help and protect others.

May 19, 2020

Make a list. I slept poorly last night. Woke up feeling anxious and hot and a little panicked. So I put in my headphones and had a somewhat restless night of sleep. This morning I got up to do my writing and acknowledged this anxiety. And then I listed what’s causing it. As I looked at the list, I realized that all of the things on it are logical anxiety-makers. And all of them just have to be got through. And they will be got through. This listing and realizing took the wind out of anxiety’s sails a little bit. Sometimes when I make this list, I see that there’s an equal number of things in my control and out of it. Then I can start focusing on what I can control and try to let go of what I can’t. Other times, I make the list and realize I’m spending a lot of time thinking about ridiculous things that are way beyond my control. It’s a way to reel in the anxiety. By naming the anxiety, it returns to normal size (rather than overwhelming size), and then I can choose where to put my energy. Anxiety likes to spiral. It bounces from one idea to the next, making you think that you’re going crazy. By making a list, you can see that (a) you’re not crazy, (b) some of your anxious thoughts are legitimate, (c) some thoughts aren’t legitimate, and (d) you have power to address some of the things. Even if you can control only one thing on your list, and the rest are wild thoughts having their way with you, focus on that one thing. This gives you some direction and allows the wildness to settle a bit.

May 20, 2020

Think bigger. I am really struggling with churches opening to allow small numbers of people to join liturgies. However they’re choosing to limit attendance (lottery or on a first-come basis), it’s contrary to what church is. This is a fractioning of the community that makes no sense and is unnecessary. Is it unfortunate that liturgies can’t happen in our churches? Yes. Do we miss being in community in person? Absolutely. Does this mean the Body of Christ has been dismembered? Not at all. We are still church. We are always church. But we need to be rediscovering what church means right now. This is opportunity, not oppression. This is a chance to really explore what having a domestic church means. When we talk about sacraments and sacramentals in a church building, we know exactly what that means. But what do they look like at home? Bath time or washing dishes becomes a reminder of baptism. Cooking and baking become Eucharist. Now that we have experienced shortages of food, perhaps we are more attentive to what we’re putting on our tables and in our bodies. We bless it differently; we give thanks for it differently. Bumping into our partners as we figure out how to work from home together is a reminder that we said yes to this relationship in good times and bad, in sickness and health. We say yes again day after day. And are we not ending up learning new ways to say, “I’m sorry,” and, “I forgive you”? Is our reconciliation a little quicker, a little softer, now that we’ve read stories of people being taken to hospitals alone to die alone? And how do we anoint these days: confirming our commitment to stay home, stay safe, stay attentive? We do not pour oil over the sick, perhaps, but we acknowledge that some of us are weaker, more susceptible to complications—we anoint them with consideration instead. We may not be priests or pastors, but we are presiding at the quotidian liturgies that fill our days. Someday we will be able to break bread at church again. All of us. Not just those who “win” the lottery. It will be a time of lamenting and rejoicing, grieving and giving thanks. But until then, we look around us and see that we are church right where we are. We always have been.

May 21, 2020

Mind how you go. We here at Thornphy Manor enjoy all the English mysteries. Midsomer, Morse, Lewis, Endeavour, Unforgotten. Love them. In Endeavour, I was struck by the way DCI Thursday takes his leave of people: “Mind how you go.” It’s such an odd departure, but it has stayed with me. We often go without intention. We interact with people on auto-pilot. We rush to comment on a story or post about how stupid we think people are. We speak rashly or simply ignore others. We do not hear or see. One of the things I hope to carry with me in this new covid world is attentiveness to the other. A slower interaction with the other. We have been awakened to vulnerability in a new way in these months. We have realized our own vulnerability and have been called to act or not on behalf of others who are vulnerable. Some people seem to think this is a time of natural selection: let’s get back to normal and let the weakest fend for themselves. But all of us are weak, all of us are vulnerable on some level. We are emerging from hibernation as stores and restaurants allow (more) people in. Everyone is trying to figure out how to be. Some people are rushing it; others are more timid. We want “normal,” but we’re trying to figure out what kind of normal we mean since we cannot go back to what existed before covid. This is a time of minding how we go. In so doing, perhaps we can create space to recognize vulnerability as a thing to be cherished and protected rather than done away with and erased. Indeed, let us mind how we go.

May 22, 2020

Be both. This morning the Indigo Girls released a new album, Look Long. The last song is called “Sorrow and Joy.” The refrain has this line: “Sorrow and joy are not oil and water. . . . In the end we must hold them together.” Oof. How true that is. And how challenging. Grievings are all different. And they change. My dad’s has become worn and soft; I wear it more comfortably after these many years. Shaun’s tends to be heavy still at various times. One of the things my mom learned in a grief group she attended was that suicide deaths affect survivors like a physical assault. They can be that traumatizing, that surprising, that violating. Shaun’s death hits me sometimes, almost physically. In 2013, a family friend, Barb, died of cancer. Her grieving is odd. It’s actually very similar to my Ryan grieving: it’s a revelation. Their deaths have to dawn on me. Thinking of the world without these two is so strange, so illogical in many ways. Thinking of them takes my breath away. But I learned something with Ryan’s grieving. Because his suicide was so contrary to who he was as a person, I chose to focus on his life. Though I grieve him, I also remember his infectious laugh, his gentle spirit, his wicked sense of humor, his big heart. I think it’s tempting with sudden deaths to get stuck in the final moments. I know that happened to me with Shaun. But with Ryan, I couldn’t focus on the end; I had to look backward. In so doing, I balanced the sorrow of now with the joy of then. It has been an odd tension. I often think that I’ll be in denial about Ryan’s death until my own, but maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve learned to be both: sorrow and joy have coexisted here. Sometimes one is more dominant; sometimes they sit together peacefully; sometimes there’s tension. I think this quarantine time has been one of being both: we’ve been afraid and brave, quiet and restless, small and expansive, alone and in solidarity. We have been balancing a lot. That doesn’t end just because restrictions are lifting. At some point, we need to process these months. There is much to lament, but there is also much goodness that we can carry forward. Now’s the time to jostle these things around and see how we can hold them all together.

death daily

“Keep death daily before your eyes.” (RB 4.47)

This quote from the Rule of Benedict has rankled ever since I first heard it when I was in college. It’s one of the tools of good works Benedict provides for living in community, for being a good disciple. The RB80 translation is slightly different: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Regardless, the point is the same: we die.

Try as I might, this is not a concept I’m comfortable with. Even with the deaths of people close to me, I struggle with my own mortality. It will happen; I do know that. But I don’t like it. I’m afraid of it. I do not want to keep it daily before my eyes. I’ve had enough death and dying around; I’d prefer we all just avoid it for a bit.

Enter covid-19. Because of the pandemic, this quote from the Rule has been rolling around in my head a lot. Daily, you might say. As deaths mount, these words whisper. I struggle with comprehending the numbers of dead. We passed eighty thousand dead this week. And that’s just in the United States. And that’s just the ones we know about for sure. My town has sixty-seven thousand people in it; the equivalent of my whole town plus change is gone. We can’t help but keep death daily before our eyes.

Today is my dad’s birthday. His birthday has never been as hard for me as his anniversary, but it does give me pause. It’s the first of three days in May remembering dead people. In five days, we’ll remember my uncle Kevin’s anniversary; five days after that, my uncle Shaun’s. We are different people because of the deaths we know. I am not who I was before any of these people died, even Kevin, who died when I was very young.

After Shaun died, one of the things I really struggled with was how much I defined my life by loss. I wanted a different defining feature, one that was more hopeful, lively, joyous. Other people get those definitions. Why couldn’t I? As the years have passed, I’ve embraced these losses. That doesn’t mean they’ve been easy or that I like that they happened. But rather than ripping out the stitches, which was precisely what I wanted to do when Shaun died, I’ve learned to work with the pattern I have. It’s fair to say I’ve kept the deaths of my loved ones before my eyes daily. But my own? No, I resist that.

I am a sporadic yoga practitioner. For a while I went to a yoga studio in town with some regularity, but then it closed. I’ve had on-again off-again relationships with various yoga apps, but the one I’ve settled on is Practice with Clara, by Clara Roberts-Oss. Last week I realized I needed some structure in my mornings, so I started doing one of her classes every morning during the week. I’m standing differently. I feel more grounded. I’m breathing deeper. 

Yoga classes end with a pose called savasana, corpse pose. You lie on your back, palms up, arms and legs extended, eyes closed. You be still. In savasana, the practice settles into your body and you rest. As I’ve restarted my practice, I’ve been attentive to what corpse pose is preparing me for. I still don’t like it. But I rest into it. I be still with it. And I let mortality settle in me.

I don’t know that I will ever truly be comfortable with this practice of keeping death daily before my eyes. Maybe it does simply take time to settle into our bones and blood, our mind and heart. Benedict didn’t say, “Get okay with dying,” or, “Be totally at peace with your mortality.” He said to remind yourself that you will die, that you are mortal. In other words, ground yourself in this reality of death and go from there.

It’s hard to be grounded in this mortality when the death seems senseless or preventable or otherwise infuriating. But maybe that’s all the more reason to remember death daily. Maybe that’s all the more reason to lie on the ground, still ourselves, and let our own mortality settle into us.

tips, round 2

When I said I’d compile these tips every two weeks, you knew I meant three, right?

April 20, 2020

Have a plan. When I worked in an office, it was pretty easy to have goals and plans and accountability. When you work from home, even if you still are accountable to others, it can be hard to focus and/or streamline. I’m part of a FB group of homeworking folks (check out The Homeworker), and each Monday the founder/editor of The Homeworker posts a goals thread. I find that writing out my plan for the week, even if it’s general and to a group of people I don’t know super well, is helpful. It gets me thinking about the week ahead and allows me to figure out my priorities. You don’t have to put your plan on Facebook, of course. You could write it on an index card that sits on your desk, or tell your spouse, or mention it to yourself in the mirror while you do your hair. (Bonus tip: Brush your hair.) Sometimes I get really busy with a lot of projects that need to get done. Usually I work on one project until it’s completed and move on to the next. But when it’s crazy around here, I print off a week’s calendar page and block out my time: these hours are for project 1, these for project 2, this hour is for showering and dressing, this hour is for project 3. I do it for each day, so there’s a plan I can follow or totally disregard. It’s helpful to lay it out and visualize the week. You may still be accountable to your office people, but you’re also accountable to yourself, your mental/emotional health, your kids, and your partner these days. Having a plan helps maintain balance because it allows you to see where you’re putting your energy. It changes day to day, probably hour to hour, but knowing what you want to accomplish for the week is good to have in mind. Even if you throw that plan out the window at some point because we’re living through a pandemic and Netflix if comforting.

April 21, 2020

Embrace simplicity. One of the things that happens in grief is paring down. As a griever, you can take in only so much: your brain can hold limited information; noise or visual stimulation becomes overwhelming. It’s all exhausting. Our world is experiencing a type of grief right now. We were thrust into it quickly and, in some ways, without a lot of warning. For some of us, it’s all-consuming. For others, it comes in waves. For still others, denial is a lovely place to live for now, and someday it’ll hit us what’s been going on. If you don’t know what’s happening to you right now, if you feel untethered and unsettled and are struggling to name it, know this: It’s probably grief. Know this too: You will emerge. One of the things I looked forward to in owning a home was gardening. As a child, when my mom made me garden, I hated it. Worms and dirt and mud and so much work. As an adult, I’ve been craving it: making things grow and enjoying the fruit of hard work. Ryan died during the third spring in our home. Everything fell away. But I didn’t necessarily realize it. Until I find myself doing something that I haven’t done for a long time. Some things came back quickly: cooking, baking, quilting. Others have returned in fits and starts: gardening is one such thing. For the past few years, I’ve maintained the garden more than made it thrive. On Sunday, Patrick and I went into our backyard and worked on pulling some of the saplings that like to grow along the fence line. It wasn’t easy work, but it felt so good to rip those roots out of the ground, to use my body, to feel dirt under my fingernails. And at one point, I thought, “I couldn’t have done this last year, let alone the previous two years.” We come back to ourselves eventually. It’s a process. There is much we want back these days, and there is absolutely no fault in that wanting. But we are in a time of paring down, of letting some things go. Do not fear this time. What is essential, what matters, what excites and enlightens and gives life will return. But for now we simplify, for now we do what must be done and know that someday we’ll emerge again able to do all the things that remind us of who we are.

April 22, 2020

Stand on the earth. I don’t know when I realized how often we don’t stand on the earth. I think it was in college, when I went from building to building on nice paths and rarely stepped off of them onto grass. We stand on pavement or carpet or sidewalks or patios or concrete. In some places, we’re told to “stay off the grass.” This creates quite the disconnection with earthiness. But there’s a difference between standing on pavement and standing on earth. You can feel it, even if you’re wearing shoes. The springiness of the ground, the crunch of leaves or twigs, the tickle of grass, the dampness of dew. These are the sacramentals of earth: they are the elements that remind us that we too are earthy. We can read our creation story that we were made from clay, we can be reminded on Ash Wednesday that “we are dust and to dust we will return,” but it’s all too easy—with screens and homes and asphalt and cars and appliances—to forget whence we came. So this Earth Day, take a step from the pavement onto the grass. Feel it differently. And maybe next time you see a sign in grass that tells you to keep off, be a little rebellious and step on it anyway. Briefly, just to remember that we are also earth.

April 23, 2020

Look at color. This is kind of an odd one to do in the midst of spring, but grey days happen. So if it’s sunny where you are today, keep this in your hip pocket for a rainy day. Winters are long in Minnesota. There’s a lot of white, grey, and brown here. A foggy day can be quite lovely; there are snowfalls that take my breath away; rainy days don’t always get me down. But sometimes the grey just keeps on going, and it gets tiring. The same old thing, over and over again. That’s kind of what we’re doing with the quarantine, isn’t it? When a string of grey days happens here, I wear this ridiculous pair of yoga pants I have that are bright pink. They are frivolous and delightful and, well, bright. And they always make me happy. I am not good at buying colorful clothes, but the longer I’ve been in Minnesota, the more attentive I’ve become to adding color into my wardrobe. So if you find yourself feeling a bit drab, break out some clothes with color and put them on. Or search for photos on the Google of places with bright blue water and stunning colorful flowers. Or look for photos of birds or butterflies. Or put on that gaudy eyeshadow that you save for crazy nights out. Or notice that the trees are starting to get that green fuzz that promises leaves and summer. Or see that the grass is getting a little less brown in places. If you’re in a place that has already sprung, drink in that color. Let it energize and delight.

April 24, 2020

Celebrate your wins. Or at least acknowledge them. When you work from home, the wins can be pretty solitary. In an office, you can bug your officemates to let them know the totally awesome thing you just did. At home, the dogs or cats or that spider hanging out in the web in the corner of your office that you haven’t bothered to take down might get told. It’s not exactly the same. But it still matters. Quarantine has a lot of us leaning toward the worst-case scenarios. As an anxious person, I know that can lead to a pattern of thinking that’s not the healthiest way to be. It can spill into all areas, even if you think it doesn’t. Taking a few minutes to concentrate on what’s going right gives your brain a break. It refocuses your attention, allows you to breathe deeper, and reminds you that not everything is a mess. So what did you do well this week? Where did your hard work pay off? It doesn’t necessarily have to be work related. Did you bake something challenging and wonderful? Win! Did you get all the kids bathed and dressed at least one day this week? Win! Did you feed yourself and others? Win! Did you tackle that one project on your to-do list you’ve been putting off? Win! Did you step outside for a few minutes each day? Win! Did you reorganize your work space to better meet the needs of quarantine time? Win! Did you put on pants? Win! Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything is the worst. Some of it is, and that should be acknowledged, but today, celebrate what went well this week.

April 27, 2020

Anxiety is a weird beast. I noticed that over the weekend a lot of people were posting about being anxious or feeling grief. More than they have been in previous weeks. In late January or early February, I was really struggling with anxiety. I hadn’t quite decided to go back on medication yet, but I was leaning in that direction. I didn’t want to go back to therapy because, arrogant though it may sound, I know what to do here. I start being more intentional about walking, I drink more water, I actually use my meditation app, I pay attention to what I’m eating and make sure it’s good stuff, I talk to Patrick about it, I make sure I’m sleeping. The last few times I’ve gone to therapy have been helpful, of course, but it ends with, “You’re doing exactly what you should be. Keep it up.” Sometimes you need to hear that, but this time I didn’t want to spend the money. Another piece of the anxiety puzzle for me is grief. These two things are inseparable. I have known this for a very long time. Next month is Shaun’s ten-year suicide anniversary. I know that was sitting very heavy on my heart, as was Ryan’s three-year anniversary last month. I suspect my dad’s thirty-one-year anniversary in February was more difficult than I realized too. These are big numbers and the days just have to be got through. But as I was casting about trying to figure out how to manage the anxiety and the grieving, I came across a book I could have written: Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith. I ordered it immediately. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read about half. My God, I wish I’d had this book ten years ago. (It’s new; that would have been impossible. Still.) It tells me things I’ve intuited as I’ve been on this journey, but having it written out clearly is so very helpful. The first chapter is on anxiety as it particularly pertains to grief. One of the things she talks about is how panic attacks work. You might be perfectly fine one minute, and then all of a sudden you aren’t. When I start getting anxious, I look to my immediate surroundings. What am I reading? What have I heard? Did the air change? Did I smell something? While panic is sometimes induced by immediate surroundings, it isn’t always. For me, panic attacks often happen in the middle of the night. Usually I assume it’s because of a dream, but I suspect sometimes it might be because of something that happened or a thought I had in the day. Apparently science backs this up. Smith writes, “A person could have a thought or emotion in the morning that could then lead to a panic attack in the afternoon.” She quotes Dr. Sanjay Gupta: “For the person experiencing the attack, it will seem highly unexpected. But if you had the person hooked up to monitors hours earlier, you could basically say that based on things like their breathing patterns, blood sugar, and stress hormone levels, they were likely to have a panic attack.” This brought me a lot of comfort as I read it. Anxiety tricks you into believing you’re not thinking clearly and that the world is ending. It makes everything into a threat. But if you break it down, uncomfortable as it is, there is logic to the panic. It can certainly come out of nowhere, and generalized anxiety does precisely that. But we’ve got a giant trigger for anxiety right now called covid-19. That sucker is turned on all the time, whether we’re worried about the disease itself, or the financial implications, or the education of our children or students, or whatever your worries might be. If you’ve got anxiety attacks coming out of seemingly nowhere, they aren’t. So take some deep breaths, get some water, sit still for a few minutes, and know that you will get through this. I promise.

April 28, 2020

Let it wash over you. This is a bit of a follow-up to yesterday. Maybe you’re feeling more panic than usual. Maybe you’ve never had a panic attack, but they’re happening now. Maybe you’re used to them. Maybe you’re not having them, but someone you know or live with is. What do you do? Here are some things I can feel in an anxiety attack (your results may vary): my palms get sweaty, I feel a little nauseated, my stomach churns, my heart rate goes way up, I feel lightheaded, I feel very hot all over even though my skin is actually cool, I shake uncontrollably, my breathing is rapid or I hold it, my muscles are very tight, I feel unable to settle down or sit still, I feel like moving will spin everything out of control, my brain reels, the world is either way too big or it’s suffocatingly small. Sounds like fun, huh? An important thing to know about panic attacks is that they’re actually quite short. Generally, they last less than five minutes. It feels like forever when you’re going through it, but the reality is that it’s not very long. Your body is responding to a stimulus, and it’s going through all the protective fight, flight, or freeze motions at once. It’s bracing for attack. I find it very, very comforting to remember this is a temporary state, that it will pass, that it isn’t forever. The one symptom I have that lasts longer than the actual attack is the shaking; that usually lasts about an hour and it happens when I wake up in a panic. Another thing to remember, and this is something I really struggle with, is to let it happen. Do not fight it. The automatic response when anxiety surges is to tamp it down, distract yourself, push it away. Sometimes that works, but in a true panic attack, it doesn’t, and the fighting only makes it worse. So what do I do instead? Acknowledge that the anxiety exists, and then I start breathing deeply. This gives me a focus. Count your breaths. In and out. Some people recommend grounding yourself by focusing on your senses: five things you can see; four you can touch; three you hear; two you smell; one you taste. I always forget which number goes with which sense, so I don’t do this. But once my breathing is going, I find one thing outside myself to focus on. It might be feeling the air blowing from the fan, or counting something around me (besides my breath), or recognizing that I am upright and okay. I also keep my phone and a pair of headphones by my bed, and I turn on a meditation from Insight Timer if the panic comes at night. If it happens during the day, when the worst of the attack is over, I usually step outside and breathe fresh air and look at nature for a few minutes. If I let the panic wash over me, instead of fighting it, I’ve found that I feel better much more quickly. But this is something I have to remind myself of every single time. And yet, it’s worth remembering. This covid-19 thing is happening; these lockdowns are happening; homeschooling, homeworking, homeeverything—we can fight it or we can let it wash over us. We can certainly do both, depending on the day. And I certainly understand the inclination to fight, but maybe today go with the waves instead of against them.

April 29, 2020

Treat yo’self! Yes, we here at Thornphy Manor are fans of Parks and Rec. I started rewatching it a few weeks ago during my lunch breaks. It’s a great lighthearted, endearing, sweet show. And it’s been perfect these days. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, two characters take one day each year for Treat Yo’self Day. They go on a shopping spree, visit a spa, do whatever the heck they want. They buy totally ridiculous things, but it doesn’t matter. Treat yo’self! For good reason, there’s a lot of giving up right now. No in-person visits with family and friends. No random trips to stores just because we want to. No trips. No frivolous spending, for the most part. We are living quite intentionally these days. Or we should be. But we can be intentional about treats too. Patrick has had a hankering for the show Scrubs lately. I looked at buying a DVD box set for him for his birthday, but it turns out they don’t exist for sale anymore. So last night he purchased the first season on a streaming site that shall not be named. This morning, I bought myself a t-shirt from one of my favorite bands. When we went to the store last weekend, we got M&Ms, and I’m enjoying the heck out of them. Little things or big things: treats can be wonderful bright spots in our days. Treats don’t necessarily have to involve purchases either. A walk around the neighborhood. Calling an old friend you haven’t visited with in a long time. Looking at your garden every morning while you drink coffee. Reading a book for an hour. Taking your work outside so you can sit in the sun. Baking cookies with your kids. We may feel deprived of things we want these days, but in reality we are still surrounded by abundance. We are very, very fortunate. So treat yo’self—and give thanks for the ability to do so.

April 30, 2020

Do not be surprised. There is a very fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed. I walk this line a lot. Mostly because politics fascinates me. It’s not something I grew up caring a whole lot about. But I do remember my grandma being very interested in JFK’s assassination and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. She soaked up these stories and the information that went with them. I didn’t understand it then; I totally do now. Through the years of Trump’s “presidency,” I’ve learned to watch my outrage. The opportunity for it is there daily. He does things we should be angered by. And I am angered. But I can’t let it overwhelm me. That way madness lies. One of the tricks I use to handle the constant onslaught of chaos from this administration is to remember that they are doing what they’ve always done. Trump said one thing one day and the opposite thing the next? Yep, that’s how he works. Pence didn’t wear a mask to the Mayo Clinic? You thought he would start respecting people today? The administration told blatant lies? That’s not going to change. These people have shown us who they are over and over again. We can lament the chaos: the losses of life, the trauma inflicted on numerous groups, the unnecessary pain and cruelty experienced by people. But I refuse to give my peace of mind to this administration on a daily basis. Once you stop being surprised by them, they have no power over you. The frustration and anger can be channeled to things that matter: becoming an educated voter, donating money or goods to charities, making phone calls to representatives on behalf of causes you care about, reminding people that children are still in cages, knocking on doors for candidates you care about, baking and cooking for friends and neighbors. So don’t be surprised when Trump is Trump. See it, but don’t get caught up in it. The best thing we can do, the greatest act of resistance we have, is to take the wind out of his sails, and I do that by not giving him space in my head and heart.

May 1, 2020

Rest. Today’s tip is inspired by Sojourner‘s Verse and Voice e-mail. The “voice” is Virginia Woolf: “I shall rest and continue to exist.” We often think of resting as a negative, an indulgence, a selfishness. We don’t have time to rest. We have important things to do! All the things are important! But stepping back is important too. Busyness can mask a fear of sitting still, because if we sit still our brain gets to do some thinking and that’s just plain scary. But there’s a flip side to this: we get to process, we get to explore those thoughts, we get to let them happen and make sense of them or dismiss them. When we rest, we settle. There’s a phenomenon in anxiety treatment where, once you start breathing deeply and being still, you can actually become more anxious. This is because your brain has been trained to believe that it needs to be on alert all the time. So once you start trying to tell it that things are fine, you aren’t under attack, you don’t need your system to be preparing for a fight, your brain tries to fight against that stilling. It’s so used to bracing that it thinks relaxing is a threat. But you keep doing it. You keep resting, stilling, breathing. Sometimes only a minute or two at a time. Eventually your brain and body learn that it’s okay to loosen the muscles, to let the breath reach a little deeper within the body, to let the mind wander a bit. We are a resilient species. Your body believes what your brain tells it. And in many ways right now, our brain feels very much under attack. We are braced. But we can rest. Take this weekend to cultivate some resting time. Listen to what’s outside: rain or birds or neighbor dogs or mowers. Listen to what’s inside: the hum of the fridge or your housemate moving around or the children chasing the pets. Listen to what’s way inside: the fears, the hopes, the emptiness, the lament, the joy, the reassurance. One of my most sacred resting activities is reading. Saturday and Sunday mornings are for books and the London Review. My phone stays away, where I can’t see it. My computer stays off. For a few hours on these days, I am “off,” and the restoration I feel from this is delightful. It is how I exist.

May 4, 2020

Dreams are just dreams. Mostly. I’ve been having covid dreams: being in a busy space, food shortages, being in grocery stores. I had one last night. It was slightly unnerving. At night our brains get to process what’s going on during the day, what we’ve pushed aside to get on with the business of living. As I mentioned last week, sometimes when I wake up into a panic attack, I suspect it’s because of a dream I’m having about my uncles. I don’t remember these dreams, but I remember an impression of them. When you’ve lived a trauma, whatever that trauma may be, your dreams can change. And you can carry those dreams into your days. I try not to do this when it’s a bad dream. It’s hard sometimes. They stick around. You worry about a person who showed up in your dream. You are convinced that person who did a horrible thing to you in the dream did it in real life. You analyze the dreams for symbols and hidden meanings. There are, of course, the good things to carry from dreams too. A few weeks ago I dreamed about Ryan giving me a hug. I don’t know if it was his way of showing up to say hey; I like to think it was. And this is what I mean by “mostly” dreams are just dreams. We’re living a trauma. Don’t discount that. I’m a firm believer in picking and choosing right now. And these days, I choose the meaning from the good dreams while trying to leave behind the fear and unsettledness of the bad dreams. I know I’m worried about stuff; that’s obvious. And while that’s going to filter into my sleep, it doesn’t necessarily have to seep into my day more than usual. (Yes, this is often easier said than done.) It was a dream. It was the brain processing and purging what needs processed and purged. This is what the brain is supposed to do. So yay! Something’s working! Take the good; try to leave the crap; have the coffee or tea or water; go about your day.

May 5, 2020

Grief is cyclical. It doesn’t go in a straight line, despite how you want it to go or how you think it should go. It winds and weaves and folds in on itself. It loosens a bit and stretches and unfolds. It tangles and untangles. It is not predictable. Or not entirely predictable. I know that February is rough until we get to the seventeenth, the day after my dad’s anniversary. Then I can breathe again. I know that May 15–25 is just a fog of days as we mark a triduum of anniversaries and birthday. I still haven’t figured out what to do with myself at the beginning of March, with Ryan’s anniversary; I just feel it. But then there are those random moments that take your breath away: a laugh that reminds you of someone who no longer laughs, the way a stranger walks that brings to mind someone else’s gait, a food that takes you back to a trip together, a song you shared in moments of joy or stress or sadness, a smell that brings back their laundry or cologne or sweat or favorite flower. The rug is pulled out from under you. It’s the same and yet new. I think this is why I find so much comfort in the liturgical year. We revisit the same stories, the same moments over and over again. We see them new each time. The temptation is to let them grow stale. What? This old thing again? But that does a disservice to the story and to ourselves. We are not the same old thing from year to year. One of the truest things I’ve ever heard about grieving came from the show Castle. Beckett’s mother died when she was fifteen; she’s a cop now, and she investigates the murder of a young woman’s mom. At the end of the show, the young woman asks her how Beckett does it, how she keeps going. Beckett says something along these lines: “You keep getting up with it each day, and one morning, you realize it not so hard to carry with you anymore.” It’s always there; you’re always carrying it. But some days it’s a lot easier than others. This covid experience is cyclical too, just a much tighter spiral that we’re experiencing, given the timeline. But the same ups and downs exist here. The same moments of space and breathing, of tightness and fear. It is an expansion and contraction. We cycle with it, similar but different each time.

May 6, 2020

Heart forward. Grief settles in your body. So does anxiety. I’ve said this before, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Breathing and body scan exercises help you pay attention to where these things are settling. But moving helps get them out. I’m not great at this. My job and hobbies tend to be sedentary activities: editing, reading, quilting, writing. None of it requires much movement. But once I start realizing how tightly I’m holding things, I start moving more. And then I quickly realize that what’s shifting isn’t just my unused muscles and bones. It’s so much more than that. It’s fear and worry and sadness and hope and joy and excitement and lethargy and concern. This is one reason I like yoga. It acknowledges that movement is about the body and the mind. We are protecting ourselves a lot these days. Vulnerability is dangerous. For those of us who lean toward self-protection anyway, our walls are way up, and our trust is way down. We are curling in around ourselves, if not physically, certainly mentally. It’s not the best way to be. Often in yoga teachers say to move your heart forward. It’s an odd concept: our hearts aren’t in places you can just put forward. Until you do it, and you realize that, whoa, that’s different. That moved some stuff around. That opened me up. That changed the breathing. It’s hard to live with our hearts forward right now. Our inclination is to tuck that baby away and keep it very safe. But heart forward is precisely the movement we need, precisely the motion that softens hearts that are tempted to turn stony. Try to move your heart out today; see what space that creates for you to fill with something good.

May 7, 2020

Back off. In recent years we’ve embraced a “lean in” culture, particularly for one gender. Women are expected to “lean in” to their work and families and education and hobbies and all the things all the time. If you’re not “leaning in,” then you’re leaning back, which means you’re lazy and missing out and not being your best self. To hell with that. During this quarantine time, we’re seeing what works for us and what doesn’t. If that means that a day is a bit more relaxed, a bit more fluid, so be it. If it means we attack all the projects on our to-do list because we want the stimulation—and not because we feel pressured to get stuff done—so be it. If we mix and match relaxation and accomplishment, so be it. Another yoga lesson: Yoga is not supposed to be painful. It stretches and lights up and challenges. But if it hurts, if it causes pain, then you back off because it means you’re pushing too hard. And there’s a big difference between breathing into a pose that is challenging and being in pain. Choosing to back off isn’t weakness or laziness: it’s knowing yourself, knowing your body, honoring your limits, and accepting when you can and cannot push your boundaries. And the amazing thing is that this changes day to day or, as anyone who has done yoga knows, side to side. One day you can balance on your right foot but not your left; the next day it’s the other way around; the day after that it’s neither, and the day after that it’s both. Backing off isn’t giving up. It’s allowing rest or stillness or softness, which is also a strength. It builds strength. Because maybe next time you will be able to go a bit further. So if you feel yourself pushing too hard these days, if there’s pain in your head or heart or body, back off a bit. Take a breather. Let yourself settle. You’ll be fine, the world will keep spinning, and you can come back when you’re ready.

May 8, 2020

Be amazed by our ability to change. “We’ve always done it this way.” That’s a refrain we hear a lot. I certainly heard it when I worked in an office. We hear it in government, church, families, everywhere. It’s an excuse for maintaining the status quo, for ignoring calls to justice, for staying comfortable because we’re afraid of change. All of that is out the window now—or it could be. Status quo can be useful: we know what to expect and how things will (or will not) work. It allows us to go on auto-pilot. But we’re not really on auto-pilot anymore. Trips to the store require planning and thinking. We’re evaluating what we need and don’t need. Perhaps we’re even consuming less and better. We’ve been forced to become intentional about our interactions with others, about our purchases, about our space. For many of us, we’re no longer doing what we’ve always done. We’re reimagining and reshaping how to be. This, in and of itself, is a massive achievement. This is the type of conversion that happens as a result of crisis, and we’re all experiencing it together. It’s unsettling. But it’s also rich soil for growth. We have changed quickly. For all the talk of getting back to “business as usual,” people aren’t ready. We may desire it, but we know it’s not time yet. We have changed from constant going and busyness and motion to a society of stillness and intentionality. Maybe not everywhere, and if you have kids running around you might not think of your life as very still right now. But we’re moving at a different pace. This is really astounding if you think about it for a few minutes. So think about it: What do you want to carry forward from this time? What changes have you made that could be permanent? Will you be as resistant to changing things up in the future? Yes, I will be, just so you know. I’m stubborn. But maybe my resistance will be a little softer.