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.