Exhaling

I did not realize that it had been nearly two months since I posted here. This seems to be the nature of pandemic time – it’s all one big day until you look at the calendar. I got burnt out on the critical thinking and anxiety about politics and the pandemic. I took a breath, but now am back doing volunteer work for voter education, knowing that in another couple of years, elections may have worsening consequences. On top of that, due to a scheduling glitch, I am in the throes of two writing workshops and barely keeping my head above water.

Window iced over with sun glowing through.

Yesterday was the second coldest Valentine’s Day on record in Minnesota. Today, the subzero sun is shining through windows dripping with condensation over ledges of ice that formed last night. Usually, this is the time of year when cabin fever is at its apex, but it feels like doubling down after a nearly year-long quarantine. We’re still holed up, masking, avoiding contact as much as possible. The emotional work of unrelenting communication via email, text, Skype, Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, and even, on occasion, a phone call or letter, is necessary for school and work and for supporting those in our lives that are more isolated.

A friend once said I was the most extroverted introvert they’d ever met. Part of me wanted to let out a wail but I’m exhausted! Lately much of my communication with others has become a tad rote. I don’t know what I’ve said to whom and I’m pretty sure that the lack of recollection on their end renders it all moot. I protest on behalf of silence. The viola player in our house is currently learning cello as well. Never in my life did I imagine that I’d find beautiful music so aggravating. Or that my husband wandering about the house to escape his work desk would be distracting and irritating. I live with some of the more easygoing humans on the planet. They, however, do not. I can’t imagine how it is for families who don’t get along under normal conditions – they’re either undergoing a severe and prolonged intervention or are ghosting their own living rooms.

Sparrows on snow covered branches.

I keep reminding myself each and every day that I have a lot to be grateful for – we’re relatively unscathed in the scheme of things. I try to focus on helping those who are not. Still, it feels like too much now. When it feels like too much, I look to the small moments – warm food, the birds singing outside my window (sparrows, man, they don’t give a shit about the temperature), a nap at just the right moment of the day – with the sun warming my reading chair through those drippy, drippy windows.

One of my February goals was to focus on one long poem for the entire month. I chose “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, because I’ve always liked the lines when I heard them out of context. It has 52 stanzas, so I read a couple each day, and then listen to an audio version. I started with the theory that poets know how to write efficiently and that my own writing could benefit from that. It’s still a theory, but I ran across some lines that hit me in my Buddhist pretensions:

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Cello leaned up against a bookcase.

Suffice it to say, it is a reminder that all the anxiety in the world, all the imagined possibilities cannot be the focus right now. I need to look around and see what there is to see. I need to value the time when a cello makes the wood floors vibrate. I need to value that my husband still seeks out my company. I think about how my soon-to-be 17-year-old, who is chomping at the bit to be away from her aging and predictable parents, will become a rarity – overcompensating for the independence put on hold these last couple of years. And that silence will perhaps bear down on me oppressively instead as much-missed necessary solitude.

I’ve been forcing myself to meditate in the mornings. Like everything else, there’s an app for it. Mostly though, I focus on breathing deeply and exhaling slowly. There’s a lot of mixed messaging in meditation. Some visualization gurus have you focusing on drawing in breath to the areas of your body that experience tension (although I’d have better luck finding an area that doesn’t!). Or they have you exhaling the “bad” feelings or stress. I’m not sure what I’m doing except reminding myself I’m alive and my pulmonary system is still working which, in this world is a damned good thing. Part of me likes to think of it as a conversion process – taking in the bad and breathing out the good. It’s a literal way of thinking about what I’m putting out into the world.

Winter scene on Lake Superior

With a vaccine a few months or more out for our family, I think about how I want to emerge from this weird little cocoon in which we’ve been living. I think about the muscle memory we lose – how to be around other humans, traveling, attending events, being part of an extended family. Still, it also makes me realize what I don’t want to be, how I no longer want to spend my time. Like breathing in the bad and converting to good, positive energy, I went into quarantine with all my baggage, but I intend on leaving some of it behind. With an end in sight this year, this can become purpose-driven time, if I can rally myself. How do you want to emerge from this time? For now, I’m breathing out and hoping we find out sooner, rather than later.

The Green Study Commencement Address

Commencement addresses have become a thing, like any other in this world – critiqued, reviewed, mocked, and admired. I wondered what I could say to high school or college graduates. What, at the ripe old age of 53, could I impart to a group of people whose adventures are beginning? Not much really, but I’m taking a swing at it.

Dear New-ish Humans,

canstockphoto24756944Congratulations! You’ve reached a milestone. With luck, you will reach many more. Like menopause and cashing out your 401K. Maybe you’ll patent an invention or live to see your grandchildren graduate. Maybe you’ll travel the world and dive off cliffs or maybe, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll see the world from your armchair through observation and a lot of knitting.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is your path, no one else’s. We live in a world where people advertise their lives and if you look long enough, yours will come up short. All lives look great with selective editing, but real life is a rough draft full of unresolved storylines and happy endings that only last a page or two before the next challenge arises.

The surprise ending is not really a surprise at all. It pretty much ends the same way for most humans. It’s the path on the way there that counts. Outcomes take up only a fraction of a moment. The process is where life is at – messy, complicated, wonderful, terrible – those moments when you are struggling are where the meaning resides.

canstockphoto9626422I have had a messy life. Or I should say lives. Once I was a poor kid growing up in a rural town. Once I was a soldier. A college student. A janitor. A tutor. I became, for a longer term, a spouse and a parent. I traveled. I stayed still. I ran. I grew fat. I shrank. I trained in martial arts. I learned to abhor violence and guns. I briefly tried politics. I grew up evangelical. I became enamored of Buddhism. I went to therapy. I tried on personas, boyfriends, jobs, hobbies. Humans shed and grow almost 1,000 new skins in a lifetime. Why would anything about us stay the same throughout our lives?

And that’s what everything comes down to. Your generation knows this better than anyone, as you transition to new lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Nothing stays the same. Nothing was ever intended to stay the same. Change is constant. Unless you want life to be excruciating for yourself, accept this fact. Learn the skills that help you deal with change – resilience, adaptability, flexibility, knowing when to let go, when to move onto the next plan or idea.

canstockphoto7017741We also live in a world where everyone has opinions and way too many ways to convey them. Outside entities want you to like and thumb and swipe your way through life. They want to elevate your sense of self-importance so that you volunteer every aspect of your life like wares at a marketplace. This is the nature of consumerism, the nature of data mining and advertising. This is not the nature you want to cultivate, because in the cold dark night, when you’re alone, none of those entities will be there for you. You must learn to trust yourself, to spend time in your own head, to be your own confidant and best friend. Know yourself best so that you might understand others more. Listen more than you speak.

Some of you will be embarking on relationships. Maybe one, maybe many. The secret to any healthy relationship is this: you bring out the best in each other. You like who you are with the other person and they like who they are with you. Friends, lovers, partners, spouses. The same thing applies. I’ve stayed too long in relationships where I was a lesser person, ashamed of myself, hyperfocused on keeping the relationship because I felt I was lacking. Even if your relationship is healthy, alas, change applies here as well. You grow along with a person or you don’t. The trick is knowing when to let go or when to dig in.

canstockphoto6437374The lessons of generations before me eventually landed hard on my head. No matter what rights have been gained, no matter what ground has been covered, you can’t have it all. You shouldn’t have everything at once. To learn how to deeply appreciate one thing, one person, one moment is to learn how to better appreciate everything else more. To savor a moment is a luxury in a society that tells us to quickly want for the next. Defy the speed of the world around you. Slow down. Feel the joy of the moment. Be in it.

Lastly, but most importantly, there is the practice of kindness. What does that really mean? This practice is the most important thing you will ever do – it impacts everything. It shapes your relationships, it can protect the natural world, it can affect your job, it defines your role as a citizen. Operating from a place of kindness is not going to solve all the world’s problems. Sometimes it won’t even make the person talking to you be polite. You practice for the muscle memory, so even under duress, you choose to be the person you’d like to be.

Kindness is sometimes mistaken for weakness, but it takes a strong person to live in this world with compassion. Kindness is not agreeability or concession or surrender. It is approaching the world, your life, the lives of others, with curiosity and openness and compassion. It is one of the most powerful choices you’ll ever make, because it will characterize your life and inform your decisions.

canstockphoto2602119The world is full of wonders and dangers and conflict and love. We often judge lifetimes by accomplishment, by enduring works of art or invention or unfortunately, wealth. Most of us won’t end up on a college reading list or in a history book or on a Forbes list. But we can have lives well-lived, make the lives of those around us better, ensure that we do more helping than harm. Life is an adventure of your own making. Make it well.

Observations in the Time of Corona

The doctor shook his head after examining my daughter. We were talking about the Covid-19 crisis. This is a real public health failure he said. They were running low on seasonal flu tests, but he said they’d better test her because of the underlying conditions. We were in the middle of a dystopian movie, all of us in masks, him in a face shield and gloves. We’d been waved off from the main clinic entrance by similarly masked security guards and redirected so that we wouldn’t come into contact with any other patients.

Her cough started four days ago, followed by fever, body aches, and a severe headache. Our family had already begun sheltering-in-place before it started. We were the fortunate ones – my husband can work from home, I was already there, and the schools closed. Wcanstockphoto12785195e live in an urban area where, if stretched, we can get some form of grocery delivery. In February, I’d starting building up a small pantry so that we could get by for a month. Except for maybe toilet paper, of course. But they still deliver those anachronistic phone books. We have options.

I suppose if this last year hadn’t traumatized our family with large tumors and major surgeries, we’d be more panicky. We had hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves on hand months before coronavirus began rampaging around the planet. I started laughing a little hysterically talking to my husband and then I was so angry I could feel myself choking on it. Hadn’t we had enough? Hadn’t we spent enough nights on hospital couches and in waiting rooms? Hadn’t our kid been messed with enough?

The doctor called last night. My daughter tested positive for Influenza B. I’ve never been so grateful for a Positive result. A flu can be serious, especially for her, but she’s now on antivirals and resting like a champ. We are, in the scheme of things, extraordinarily lucky.

*****

My husband and I are both pretty shaken up, though. This week was a reminder not to get complacent about either our health or anxiety coping strategies. Being at home gives us a sense of false security, but like many people, our lives have changed drastically just in the course of a couple of weeks. There are a lot of canstockphoto15764544unknowns and scary times to come. People are arming themselves with guns and toilet paper (that seems very American and not in a good way).

We’ve learned to start with the basics: sleep, hydration, good nutrition, exercise. Then we level up with: meditation, yoga, journaling. The masterclass is creativity – solving problems with the resources we have, appreciating art and music and books, finding humor even when things are bleak, finding ways to grow our connections with other people, despite the physical distancing. And if you’re ready to hit the expert level: finding ways to help others, either psychologically or materially.

Having worked at home for many years, I’m on a first name basis with our postal carrier. canstockphoto2586629We yelled a conversation across the lawn yesterday, checking in with each other and asking about our families. I asked if they were taking any special precautions as mail carriers and she said not really. We talked about all the hoarding and she wistfully said I just wish I had some hand sanitizer for my truck. There’s no way to wash my hands on the route.

I told her to wait a minute. We’d had a bottle that we purchased after my daughter’s surgery, but we never used it. We weren’t going anywhere and we had plenty of soap. She was so happy and surprised as I tossed the bottle to her. It was a good reminder that in times of darkness, when we’re so much in our own navels, look for ways to help. Reach out to friends and family, donate to your local food bank, feed the birds, grow a plant. Anything beyond the hamster wheels in our heads that generate anxiety.

*****

Adversity tests our character. We can all be good people when life is relatively comfortable and predictable. But who are we under canstockphoto6297403pressure? Do we buy the last two packages of toilet paper on the shelf, or do we leave one? Do we choose to deny the problem and in doing so, put other people in danger? Do we adopt the language of war and battles and hunker down in our foxholes?

There will be challenges ahead. There will be a lot of choices taken out of our hands. But the choice of what kind of person we are in crisis is powerful.

Who do you want to be?

*****

Lastly, this blog has been oft neglected over the last year and half. If there were any time to connect, to share, to reach out, the time is now. I’ll be here more frequently and am coming up with some ideas to reconnect with blogging friends and showcase new bloggers. I’ve gone back on Twitter and you can find me @TheGreenStudy. Stay well and let’s make blogging cool again!

Escaping Reality: Variations on a Theme

There was a moment in time a couple of weeks ago when I was binge-watching episodes of Leverage while playing Freecell, eating, checking my email and text messages, and rage-reading Twitter feeds. I had a brief insight, a moment standing outside of myself, seeing a kind of desperate escapism at play. I was numb, distracted, and when I stopped all activity and sat still – utterly, utterly depressed.

It was time to wake myself up, to stop sleepwalking through my emotions, and to take some responsibility for the quality of my life. Compassion allows for the fact that this last year was the worst of my life, but when does self-care lurch into self-medication and then stagger into self-destruction? For me, it’s when I can’t remember my days. What did I do yesterday? I have no idea.

It’s a hard road back from the Land of Numb. I take preventative measures – delete the games from my computer. Log out of everything so I’m forced to log in – one step in mindfulness. I make myself get back into an exercise routine – the pain and muscle aches end the detachment from my body. I force myself to do one activity, one step at a time. I do it initially, resentfully, repeating the mantra it doesn’t matter if you feel like it, just do it.

*****

I started to think about distraction and escapism and self-care and how it all gets conflated and confused. There’s a whole economy built around the idea of self-care with few definitions on what that truly entails. The Venn Diagram that includes self-care, distraction, consumerism, entertainment, and addiction is a giant black circle with slivers of light at the edges.

10639Our brains are so overwhelmed not just by our own human predicaments, but by the constant influx of information and messaging. Maybe the paralysis of mindlessly entertaining ourselves is all we can manage. I think about Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. We have so many diversions to choose from, so many choices to make in our lives, that paralysis comes rather easily. As Schwartz explains, even when we make choices, our satisfaction is less because if our choice is not great, we think about all the other ones we could have made.

I’ve taken to asking myself a lot of questions about what I do with my time. Does this support my intentions for myself? Do I feel energized or drained after this activity? Is there something better I could do? What am I avoiding? There are times when taking downtime is a necessary part of life, to let your mind zone out or wander, to be purely entertained or engaged. But how much time? When does comfort become a coma?

*****

48895108I had the pleasure last week of reading David Puretz’s The Escapist, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. The protagonist/anti-hero is self-medicating, incapable of dealing with the reality of his life and sets off to find his father, a veteran of the Iraq War. The protagonist is alternately self-destructive and introspective, but learns and experiences enough to make this a satisfying read.

Debut novels can be hit or miss and I was wary of reading another drug-fueled odyssey, which is usually the purview of male writers – especially those of the David Foster Wallace era. In The Escapist, the anti-hero is just sympathetic enough, the writing is strong, and the story is engaging. Bonus points for lack of misogyny and rare masturbatory or bodily effluvia references (not a prude, but how much does one need to know about sputum and semen?).

Self-medication as escape is nothing new. I come from a long line of self-medicators – booze, smoking, drugs, more booze. I sobered up in my mid-20s, gave up smoking when I was 30, but there was always food and an addiction to running shoes and books. And for this writer – the productivity-killing need to research. For some people, it’s sports or religion or patriotism or political ideology or fashion, whatever makes the answers easier, life more palatable, something to subvert our fears and anxieties and any other untenable emotions.

Some of these things are perfectly healthy, but anything can be a way of detaching from emotion or reality. I’ve become intensely curious about life with all of those things stripped away. Our addictions, distractions, comfort blankets, the groups we identify with, and the cozy philosophies – who are we without them?

*****

18209520Writing is an escape of sorts, but these days I don’t know if I’m running away from or toward it. I guess it only matters that I’m doing it, anchored in a moment, neither here nor there. I keep thinking about the path and how a writer lives two lives, moving in the world and then living on the page. And that my fears have often allowed one to supercede the other.

I’ve started reading The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free from Complacency and Fear by Ezra Bayda. The first chapter was all about facing fears head-on and he ends it with a prescient quote from Chinese Zen Master Wu-Men: When the mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best moment of your life. 

Wishing you some of your best moments in the week ahead!

The Troubled Path

Almost eight years ago, I published my first blog post. It came on the heels of challenges I had created for myself – training in Taekwondo, learning how to climb rock walls, pushing myself to write publicly. I’ve given up martial arts and rock climbing, but I’m still writing. My challenges are different now. They usually involve trying to get a good night’s sleep and not letting my anxiety overrun my sensibility.

12934562I just finished reading Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. It’s a short, inspirational read – a reminder of some basic tenets of being a writer. I’ve been thinking a great deal about a quote in the book by Ezra Bayda: Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.

My path in 2019 was the most difficult of my life. It started off with a family death, spiralled into personal health problems, the loss of a pet, crescendoed with my child’s medical crisis, and has now found an uneasy holding pattern of doctors’ appointments and testing. I’d begun sleeping, finally, in this last week for more than three hours at a shot, loaded up on melatonin, soothed by a white noise machine. Maybe, my brain said, things will get back to normal.

We found out yesterday that the chemotherapy drug refill my daughter needs is out of stock. One company in the world makes it. I had a panic attack while on the phone with the specialty pharmacy. My heart was pounding louder than the hold music. How often had I been here in the last year? Anxiety steamrolling me, brain racing to problem solve, catastrophizing in “what if” land.

Normal? What the hell was I thinking?

“When/if…then” thinking always catches me off guard. I realized that I’d been telling myself when things got back to normal, I’d get back to a stricter writing practice. I’d exercise more regularly. I’d be more careful about what I ate. I’d catch up on correspondence. I’d sleep better. I’d be able to think more clearly – be less hostile, be more compassionate – be a better person.

canstockphoto14061639While I’m not someone who is inclined towards drama, it occurred to me that this waiting is a living death. Because what if “normal” never returns? I’m getting older. My peers are getting older. Illness, death, change – it comes to us all and it accelerates as one ages. Time is a finite resource for a human being.

This morning, I re-read a 1993 Paris Review interview of Toni Morrison. She talked about her early writing life. She was a working single parent with small children. She wrote in the early hours and no matter her level of organization, she always ended up writing on a small square of her desk or table. Within those limitations, she created beautiful works of art.

I think about her writing in that little space with limited time – creating a universe of love, joy, hate, pain – weaving together the threads in a poetic yawp to the world. We can make choices in the spaces between troubles and limitations. I’d gotten so overwhelmed by the big, scary stuff that I’d stopped making the small choices that would bring me joy. Writing in that 15 minutes before the next doctor appointment, going for a short run, napping near a sunny window, digging out a recipe book and cooking a good meal, writing a thank-you note to a friend, sinking into a book.

canstockphoto2904213It’s hard to unravel the idea that to write, I don’t need a huge expanse of time, a clean desk, the recommended amount of sleep, an uneventful day or ten. It’s hard to believe, that after so many years of an interrupted life, that I still allow circumstances to override this visceral need to put chaos on paper. This forgetfulness is always how I arrive here: depressed, cynical, often simmering with a vague, low-energy rage.  Writing is how I survive, even thrive when life eddies about me.

So this path, full of potholes and thorny briar patches and distracting squirrels, is the path. And the only way forward is mindfully, pen and notebook in hand.

Groundlessness and the Cultivation of Courage

I return here, unsure of how to proceed. Writing this blog has always been an exercise in being present, but distant. I’ve written from wherever I’m at, but writing itself, putting life in words, is an exercise in putting emotions at arm’s length. My family is having its worst best year and it will carry on into next year and perhaps, beyond. This is unfamiliar territory, this landscape of worst fears. My anxieties have always nibbled at the edges, but now they are front and center.

canstockphoto8606963.jpgAs I’ve written in previous posts, my teenage daughter has been seriously ill. After two major surgeries this year, we are now moving into the chemotherapy stage. I don’t want this blog to become a recitation of medical victories and setbacks, but now I understand why people write them. It becomes your life. How is it possible to write about anything else? In fact, how is it possible to do anything in the midst of this? I’ve been unable to focus enough to read, to really write much, to do anything but read dense medical articles and try my best not to be steamrolled by what if, what if. It’s funny that the what ifs never include positive outcomes. How very me.

Perhaps life would be easier if I believed in higher mechanics at work. But the pain of seeing my bright, beautiful girl struggle makes it better that I don’t. The rage and bitterness would consume me. I’d rail at the sky gods and pulpit liars. I’d be unforgiving. Thoughts and prayers indeed.

I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism, lightly adhering to the idea that what is here is it. What is now is now. Never have your life philosophy tested. You will discover a derelict home and how little you’ve done to maintain it. You’ll find there are foundations of styrofoam and duct tape, leaky pipes, and an overabundance of distractions/fixes that no longer do the job. You’ll slap up a foreclosure sign and walk away. Time to start over.

Yesterday I read a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for canstockphoto3326225Difficult Times and it hit me – nothing I was accustomed to doing for comfort/distraction/numbing in my life was working anymore. I was suddenly and sharply aware of a nightmare I have of falling off a cliff, before I jerk awake in a sweat. The sense that all that was before and all that would come after no longer mattered. But there is no waking up, no relief to discover I’d just fallen asleep on my arm, drooled on my pillow. I’m awake and groundless at this very moment.

I grew up in poverty, plagued by its cohorts alcoholism and domestic violence. I struggled to put myself through college by serving in the Army for four years. I quit smoking. I overcame years of dysfunctional relationships to meet and marry a wonderfully kind and smart man. I went through a dangerous labor and delivery to introduce my daughter to the world. I trained in martial arts in my 40s – bruised and injured sparring with behemoth 18-year-olds. But nothing, nothing in my life is as hard as this moment right now.

How does a person live in this space? I’ve asked friends who have had similar life experiences. How did you do it? The blank look on their faces said it all. They just did what they needed to do. I wrote in my last post about the exercise of stating exactly what one is doing to bring the current moment into focus. That little trick stopped working a few days ago when I found myself mentally shrieking Woman folding clothes while trying to fend off another round of laundry room sobbing. It started to seem more like a defense against thinking unpleasant thoughts.

canstockphoto8192278There is, at the heart of all this contemplation, a concrete reason to keep learning how to work with my own mind – I will be a better person, a better parent, a better partner if I can live well with uncertainty. My thinking brain is a construction site – all activity and planning and loud machinery. It does not provide solace. It does not expand compassion. It does not cultivate courage.

So I’m learning all over again – how to meditate, how to silence the raucous noise, how to sit still. This insistence is also an insistence to be courageous – to recognize I have no control, no soothsaying powers, no magic remedies. To face that no amount of chocolate or bingewatching or reading or writing or housecleaning will distract from the sharp edges of my life.

I re-read this post and thought well, this certainly sounds like you’re making things canstockphoto11582099about you, you narcissistic twat. To write about my daughter at this point would invade her privacy and likely shred me. She is who I want to be if I ever grow up – self-possessed, funny, and honest. I take so many of my cues now from her. Still, it’s not on her to make me a better person. I have to do the work. I have to practice. I have to be mid-air, still able to breathe, still able to comfort, still able to laugh. I’ve been in flight, trying not to notice the lack of a parachute or wings. The trick is to not look down.

Sources that Have Been Helpful to Me:

Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy by Bruce Tift

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzberger