Yes. Hi. Me too. There’s a bunch of us in this…boat, this space, this era.
I want to share two things I’ve been leaning on a bit when the pressure of words and feelings builds up.
Number One: I try to capture magic sensory moments in my day. This morning it was the unexpected scent of wild roses on my walk. Yesterday it was the gentle breath of the air when the wind finally dropped. And a couple of days ago, at the Dump, it was this stunning image inside the glass dumpster:
Someone–maybe one of our community’s glass artists?–had dumped a large pile of crushed glass on top of the usual bottles, and then, in a fit of artistry I guess, added a small glass sea star on top.
I took that photo, then got everyone else at the dump to take a look themselves. Voila–instant joy, in a dumpster.
Number Two: You know the game Bananagrams? It’s lovely, and I recommend it. But my sons and I play a variation on the game that we call Scramble. I won’t describe Scramble here, because it’s as fast & furious as it sounds–lots of fun, but not at all restful or comfortable. But SOLITARY Scramble is both. Here’s how it works.
Dump all 144 Bananagrams tiles out and turn them blank-side-up. 2. Turn 4 letters over and try to make a word. If you can’t, keep turning over tiles until you can. 3. Once you have a word, continue turning tiles, one at a time. But (HERE’S THE FUN PART) 4. Try to fit each new letter into an EXISTING word before creating a new one.
A few rules, of course. Adding letters to existing words requires re-arranging the word. You can’t just make something plural, change “bask” to “basking”, or “world” to “worldly”. You CAN change “bask” to “basket,” or “world” to “whorled.” Or even “latrine” to “relating.”
Unlike regular Scramble, where you’re trying to use letters before your fellow players do, Solitaire Scramble is deliciously slow. Deliberate. No backsies–whenever you’ve used a letter, you can’t later move it to another word! So take your time.
Hint: pay attention to “ING” and “ED” and “TION” possibilities. If you find the 4-letter-word minimum too challenging, start with three.
And if you’re both careful and lucky, you might just end up with a PERFECT ROUND, using up all 144 letters:
Now THAT is comfort: a good 45 minutes spent on nothing but language.
Anyone else? Comforting little moments to share? My spirits will thank you.
Anyone else getting tired of hearing about the end of the tunnel? Tunnels are concrete structures, figuratively and literally. They have beginnings, middles, and very distinct ends. Are we seriously trying to compare COVID times with a tunnel?
Right now, just as the graphs seem to be trending in the right direction, there suddenly seem to be even more unknowns. Can I get on an airplane now? Am I part of the problem for even wanting to? If everything’s getting better, why do I still feel dread? Why does optimism still get stuck somewhere between my throat and my stomach?
The other day I happened upon an “On Being” podcast about this EXACT frustration with the interminability of this time, and the effects of all that who-knows?ness on our mental state. I immediately thought about a bunch of different friends to send the link to.
But I don’t love it when people tell me I “should” listen to something nearly an hour long, even if I know I’d probably benefit. So instead, I’m excerpting that podcast for you here. I hope you can get something valuable from it, without having to spend a whole hour.
For starters, see if you can recognize something in this intro by host Krista Tippett:
“The light at the end of the COVID tunnel is tenuously appearing, yet we feel as exhausted as at any time in the past year. Memory problems, short fuses, sudden drops into what feels frighteningly to me like depression, and fractured productivity that alternately puzzles and shames us.”
Any of that sound familiar?
Krista then introduces her guest. Christine Runyan is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She also runs a clinical consulting practice, Tend Health, to support the mental well-being of health care providers.
Runyan, Krista says,
“explains how the very first news of the threat of a new virus in the world instantaneously activated our stress responses, sent our nervous systems into an overdrive from which they’ve never retreated. To use other words, the pandemic has disrupted our mind-body connection, which is always as sensitive to what is imagined as to what is real.”
Don’t know about you, but my own mind and body don’t need much reality to go galloping off in different directions. And this is a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.
As Runyan dives in, describing the classic fight-or-flight response, I note the metaphor she chooses:
“And that’s a very predictable response. It’s our source code as humans…And when that goes off, it does a number of things. It releases glucose, so we have some energy. It increases our heart rate. It increases our blood pressure. It diverts blood to our major muscle groups. It temporarily gives our immune system a little boost. It stops our digestion. It does all these things specifically…so that we can fight or that we can flight, and that we have all the reserve necessary to be able to do that.”
“Source code”? So it’s built in. So it’s not just me? So it’s not my fault if I can’t shake this gut-level dread?
Describing us in our balanced state, Runyan notes,
“And this window of tolerance, which does get quite disrupted…for people who’ve had prior trauma, that window really shrinks, and so you can activate this nervous system at lower levels. And that’s one of the things that I think has been happening throughout this whole year, for various reasons, both related to the virus and related to our social circumstances in this country.”
Uh-huh. Yeah. Go on.
Then Krista really captures the point:
“…here we are, a year on, and we never got to — the threat never went away. But what I’ve also experienced as I look back on the year and its many chapters, including the death of George Floyd, the racial reckoning and rupture, the drama of the election — it feels to me…like there was a lot of adrenalin that got generated at different points in the last year…and that’s just quite apart, again, from people having incredible losses and stresses in their lives and losing people and illness and jobs and all of that. But just — you kept going. There was this energy source.
And then it has felt like winter set in, the election was over — I feel like all of the energy flowed out of my body. [laughs] …it’s not just that I have felt low in energy, I’ve felt disembodied and like I’ll never be the same again.”
And Runyan is on it, reassuring Krista (and the rest of us!):
“I think that’s also part of the nervous system, both assault and response. We talk about fight or flight, but there’s also a state of freeze, which can look very much like you’re describing — this state of apathy, of detachment, of even disembodied or dissociative, and numbing, a lot of numbing.”
Numbing. Yes. Think back to all those terms we used to describe our days: “Shelter in place.” “Blursday.” “Quarantini.” Day after week after month. Even when we spoke of “silver linings” (telecommuting! wildlife roaming streets!) we still knew they involved a big ol’ cloud.
Krista really speaks my mind when she focuses on the physicality of our restrictions:
“You talk about, also, symptoms of this stress on our nervous system that I think I recognize in myself, and we all recognize, as being more impulsive, moody, rigid in our thinking, irritable, lashing out, our frustration tolerance — and you could almost see that play itself out in our political life. And so, collectively, we were faced with this impossible choice — that the very thing that makes us human, which is our physical connection to other people, was the cost of keeping each other safe.“
Hugs! She’s talking about hugs! And smiles! Hell, even shaking hands has been taboo.
And she goes on,
“…naming this feels relieving, even though what we’re naming is a really just impossible and terrible situation we’ve all been placed in. So what do we know about…the effects on us as humans, as creatures, of what we’ve called social distancing…the lack of touch, the lack of seeing and being seen, in a world of masks?“
Ooh, ooh, me! I know that one! We feel CRAPPY.
Runyan responds with pretty much my favorite response to any problem: naming it.
“So this process of naming and “allowing,” I think is the term that I would say — seeing it as a human response to the conditions that are, rather than something wrong with me — so many of us humans are prone to even ask that question, “What’s wrong with me?”
She goes on to remind us that the naming is just the first step in a process of self-gentleness:
“…I think the self-awareness piece, even before the allowing — we have to have someinternal vision…and know that how it shows up for you is gonna be different than how it shows up for me; how it shows up for you, today, is gonna be different than how it may show up for you next week. So that awareness and the allowing…being curious. If we can be curious, just what’s going on inside of our own bodies — the neurotransmitter of curiosity is dopamine, so if we can be curious, we can give ourselves a little hit of dopamine. And then compassion, if I had to say the one thing that probably supersedes all of those, is compassion, including compassion for oneself.“
I LOVE that bit about the dopamine! Did you know that? I didn’t. The compassion part? That I already knew, but sometimes compassion is hard to get to. But…drumroll…curiosity is the gateway to compassion! And you get dopamine as a choice of sides!
In the latter part of the podcast, after naming the stressors, Runyan moves on to dealing with them. She mentions well-known techniques, like listening to music, or surrounding yourself with your favorite calming scent.
She mentions breath–not, to my surprise, deep in-breaths so much as–well, this.
“…There’s various techniques you can do with the breath, but if you’re gonna do one thing, a long exhale, because that’s part of our sympathetic nervous system, that dorsal part of our sympathetic nervous system that activates our calming — so, a long exhale.“
(Which I suppose involves in-breaths by necessity, right?) And then comes one of my favorite parts:
“…And then, one of my common go-to’s is…“tend-and-befriend,” and particularly if I don’t have people around me, is to just make contact with myself. I put my hand on my heart, on my chest —
Tippett: Oh, you mean literally.
Runyan: Literally. [laughs]
Yes! A little self-caress. (I actually don’t even care if others are around. Self-care is self-care.)
My last big takeaway from this fascinating conversation was the reminder of how our pesky imagination, which likes to occupy itself by creating extra worries, can also summon its own comfort. Runyan asks Krista to imagine cutting open a lemon and tasting it. Krista does. So do I. (So, now, perhaps, do you.)
Runyan:We can create a physiological response through our imagination, which is…a double edge. [laughs] It’s a gift and a curse, because that is worry.
Tippett: Right, but you’re saying we can also activate that to comfort ourselves, if we take it seriously enough.
Bingo. Although I’d really prefer imagining these.
Runyan then reminds us that part of healing that mind-body connection in times of stress is simply being kind to one’s body.
“I’ve had a lifelong struggle with my own body, and probably up until maybe about five years ago. And this reverence — now it is just a wonder and a source of curiosity, and I can appreciate it for all the ways it’s working on my behalf, even when I meet it with frustration.“
Have I thanked my knees lately?
“And this is why, when I think about what are the superpowers that we all hold in us that is also part of our source code, it’s that self-awareness — is there a pause point to be able to step out of that automatic pilot and then be able to make an intentional choice?”
I sure would like there to be.
“There’s a quote that’s attributed to Viktor Frankl, and he says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our power to choose. And in our choice lies our growth and our freedom.” And it’s such a beautiful encapsulation, I think, of that self-awareness and that pause, which is so hard to do at this time, because we’re so activated. And so it’s just recognizing when we can pause and say, oh, that’s what that is.”
I think that’s going to be my new mantra–at least until the world is vaccinated. “Oh, so that’s what that is.”
But lest Dr. Runyan seem too saintly, she ends on a good reminder of why that self-gentleness comes in so handy:
“It’s really that power of the pause. It’s imperfect — there’s plenty of times where I have done that, paused, and then just went right back down the rabbit hole.” [laughs]
Yep. “Oh, so that’s what that is.”
In case you were wondering, the Non-Road Trip series will return next time, at least for one more installment. But I think I heard that end-of-the-tunnel phrase just once too often this week. So that’s what this is.
Like probably most people in the world right now, my sense of the calendar has gone all wonky. I’m frequently not sure what month it is, let alone the date. Day of the week? Forget it.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all too well what year it is.
The arrival of fresh cherries and strawberries at a fruit stand took me by surprise. Wait–it’s Solstice already? Since then, I’ve been trying to pay more attention. Salmonberries have helped.
Salmonberries are a huge thing around western Washington. Whether battling them as ferociously scratchy pests around our yards or admiring their bright pink flowers in Spring, we probably spend more time thinking about them than we even realize. And then they make berries!
If looks could taste…
I used to make fun of salmonberries for being so un-delicious: The only reason anyone even thinks about eating you is because blackberries aren’t ripe yet.
But (again, like a lot of folks) I’ve been walking even more than I usually do, and trying to pay even more attention to things besides the global pandemics of COVID and racism. So I’ve been nibbling salmonberries again, as part of my noticing–and guess what? Turns out if you wait to eat them till they’re so ripe they’re juuuuust about to fall off their thorny ol’ bushes, they’re actually pretty tasty.
So what else merits my noticing, and my thanks?
The tide. Twice a day. EVERY day. Talk about essential work!
I know this isn’t exactly a glam shot, Tide–but this is you your work attire.
And some of the humblest of flowers–look at these ones here, engaging in a socially-distanced Easter bouquet!
C’mon, guys, it’s June, not April. Shouldn’t you be decorating for wedding season?
That’s more like it.
What basic, REGULAR things are you feeling grateful for right now? Postal carriers? Baby birds? Marshmallows on display shelves? Let’s celebrate the regular where we can find it!
I agree with my friend, author Iris Graville: “EVERY month is poetry month.” But I especially appreciate her post, “30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month,” for its reminder of a convention I’ve been trying to lure myself back into: memorizing a poem. (That’s #4 on Iris’s list.)
When I was a kid, my dad would pay me and my sisters a dollar for each poem memorized. Go ahead, ask me to recite “I’m Nobody” or “Jabberwocky”! I still got ’em.
No one’s offering cash right now, but the rewards of having poetry in your head are undeniable. It’s SUCH a better response to the daily noise of ugly news than going, “la la la, can’t hear you!” And, as I wrote in my last post, I’ve been starting my day with a poem since the election of 2016. If reading poetry works, how much more so memorizing? What a glorious way to start your day, with words of beauty coming out of your own mouth!
How my brain feels when NOT insulated and reinforced by poetry.
Incidentally, my other response to the “daily noise” and its lure toward tribalism has been to immerse myself in the words of bridge-builders. Relying heavily on Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” I spend at least an hour a week listening to people talk about how they’ve bridged terrible divides in their lives, or healed themselves or others, or found practices that lead toward the community they envision.
So I love the serendipity of finding this poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama in last week’s “On Being.” It offers me all three prizes at once: a beautiful, heart-opening meditation with which to start the day; a way to turn my sights toward hope and away from cynicism; and a path toward the kind of bridge-building thinking I want in my own head.
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a good guy to listen to, regardless of any hoped-for outcome. According to his “On Being” bio, he’s “a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.”
He’s also extremely Christian, which I am not. But I’ve long since found a way to put my own meanings on the names “Jesus” and “God,” so they don’t stop me. If you find that they do, in this poem, I encourage you to substitute other words that work better. I’m sure Pádraig wouldn’t mind.
Here, then, is his poem.
“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder. I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege, I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognize and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body. I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day, and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.
Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of North Belfast.
I don’t have a photo of the sun rising above the chimneys of North Belfast. But here’s a photo of the view from my own rooftop, which is a bit more apropos, isn’t it?
I’ll be working on memorizing these lines for probably the rest of the month, maybe beyond. But who cares? Isn’t every month Poetry Month?
Hey, welcome back to Wing’s World in its non-travel-blog iteration. If you’re hoping to read about travel adventures, sorry–you’ll have to wait till my next trip. THIS entry is about the art of staying home, one day after the next.
Home, for me, begins with a ferry ride.
If I were still teaching school, finding a daily routine would be no struggle; the struggle, as all teachers (and students, and parents) know, is keeping your head above water enough to teach/learn/communicate/eat/sleep/repeat with some minimal effectiveness. In my 20 years of teaching, I got all the news I needed during my commute.
As a former teacher, however, employed in one part-time, manual-labor job and one completely non-paying, artistic one, the idea of routine is usually just that: an idea. I gave up commuting, but I was fine with creating my own balance of baking and writing and keeping vague touch with the rest of the country for the first several years of my post-teaching life. Then came the election of 2016, and the real illusion was revealed: that America was on the right path, that Dr. King’s good ol’ Arc of Justice was bending appropriately.
Since that time I, like a lot of my White friends, have been working hard to re-educate myself in American reality, recognizing my own unwitting but comfortable complicity in helping make Trumpmerica possible. Routine is long gone as I cast about for the best way to make of myself a better instrument, a better citizen.
Going back to teaching is a decision I have moved beyond. I’m too deeply immersed in my writing career to be willing to sacrifice it, and too respectful of both jobs to be able to do justice to both at once. So I work at the bakery I continue to love, and fill my non-baking, non-writing time with a slew of different types of volunteer activity. This makes for a ragged schedule. I rather like the variety of my days…after breakfast. It’s that first hour that, since 2016, has really gotten to me.
See, my Mate is an early riser, and starts his day with a workout. Which he does in front of the TV, watching the news. He keeps the volume low, but our living room lies between our bedroom and kitchen. So by the time I’ve prepared my tea and sat down with my cereal, I’ve had, willy-nilly, an injection of CNN that makes my stomach hurt.
How I don’t want to start my day: angry, defeated, cynical, self-berating.
How I do want to start my day: hopeful, inspired, open-eyed, empathetic, challenged.
I’m lucky to live in a place where the scenery itself can inspire. But this view is NOT available to me first thing in the morning; it takes a 25-minute drive to the ferry dock. Not to mention clear skies.
Here are some steps I’ve taken to try to shape that first hour:*
Hum to myself to drown out any CNN until my tea kettle does it for me.
Before turning on my computer, re-read the poem I read yesterday from the collection of poetry I keep on the kitchen table. (Currently: Seamus Heaney.) Then read a new poem. (By this time CNN is a mumble in the background, nothing my brain cares about.)
Turn on my computer, but before going to email, read some news stories. Lately, after finding myself turning to BBC, NPR and the Christian Science Monitor to escape CNN’s Trump focus, I decided to subscribe to the good old “failing” New York Times. The story that really got me today was about the escalation of violence against women in Honduras.
Again, before email, I look at the weather forecasts, not just for Lopez Island, but for the whole country. I try to imagine how different people are being affected in different states and regions. (Road trips help with this–we know a lot of folks in a lot of different states and regions!)
OK, now it’s time for email, Facebook, all that delicious focus on ME and my near-and-dear, or far-and-dear. But because I started with the bigger picture, it stays with me in perimeter even as my focus narrows. And because of the poetry, my brain feels brighter, my noticing muscles primed to do their job.
*on baking mornings, which start around 3 a.m., this routine is foreshortened, of course. I don’t need to worry about the Mate’s news habits; I’m actually up before him. But I spend the first ten minutes of my ride (if biking) or my drive, saying the names of people in need of special attention and love–anyone from an ill neighbor to, for example, the people of Puerto Rico.
I have tried, by the way, to internalize this kind of empathic meditation and make it part of my day when I’m not leaving for the bakery. But I haven’t yet found a place and time that feels natural. Still a work in progress.
“No man is an island, let that be my prayer/ no matter how alluring be the shore…”
Because of that, I would love to hear of other people’s routines. What special things do you do to start your day off on the right foot, for both brain and soul?
The other day I went for a walk with a friend who has been spending time meditating and going to Buddhist retreats, and I felt a bit of envy. Inner peace? Yes, please!
But I know myself too well to think I’m going to take up any of those habits now, in middle age, when I can barely get myself to Quaker Meeting. Instead, I’m finding ways to turn my own weakness–Horizontal Space Disease–into a strength.
HSD is my #1 disorder, according to my Mate. Its symptoms: I see an empty horizontal space, and–according to him–I instantly need to cover it with something. Books. Laundry. Flowers. Little caches of rubber bands, paper clips, and batteries for guitar tuners. (Hey, that stuff is USEful.)
Over the years we’ve found a good compromise: certain areas of the house are fair game for my stuff, others are kept shipshape. So this is NOT a Wing house picture.
(…although they do have nice stuff…(Courtesy Sugar Pond, Wikimedia Commons)
But something of mine I’ve noticed is looking a lot like this photo these days: my schedule. It’s a cluttered mess.
A typical day generally involves the following:
2:30 or 3:15 a.m. rise, depending on whether I’m riding or driving to work
8 1/2 hour workday at the bakery
mini-power nap (20 minutes) before heading off to writing group, or music practice, or a meeting for some community organization
ride home, OR drive home to power-walk or do indoor workout
dinner/catch up with The Mate
study Spanish/practice music/catch up on correspondence/see how those spinning plates are doing–anything crashed yet?–good, keep spinning, and…time for bed so you can do it again tomorrow!
Understand, I am NOT complaining. Just noticing. Noticing that life feels a tad hectic these days. So the other morning, I used my starry morning bike commute to list all the ways I can keep myself feeling in charge of my schedule, instead of the other way around.
Start the day with a poem, preferably about nature. It puts everything in perspective before little things start assuming too much importance.
Use my drive or ride to air-journal about what’s on my mind, or to sing, or to call up memories that bring me joy.
Use my power-walk to do the same, or, if I’m riding the indoor bike, listen to a thoughtful podcast like On Being.
Even when I have a lot to do in a short time, I try to move my body deliberately. It’s amazing how un-rushed that makes me feel.
Could I clear my calendar, quit some groups, attend fewer meetings, do less? Absolutely! But I don’t WANT to. I like my full life. Just got to find a way to live comfortably with my “disease.”
Any HSD/Calendar fellow-sufferers out there? What are your remedies? Please share!
I don’t mean a day of rest, drinking coffee and reading in your favorite armchair. I mean a day of NOT SPEAKING.
I know, right? Here’s an embarrassing truth about me: even when I’m alone, I talk. Aloud. A lot. I’d like to pretend I’m holding a conversation with my dog, but…my dog is not present when I ride my bike or go on a long drive. And I’m still yakking producing fascinating monologues.
So it was both a relief and a challenge to attend, this past weekend, the silent retreat held by my Quaker Meeting. It wasn’t even an entire DAY–just 6 1/2 hours of silence, the last hour of which was allowed to be punctuated by people who wished to share the insights that the previous 5 1/2 hours had delivered.
I spent my time alternately walking out to the rocky nature preserve near the retreat house, staring out the window, sitting on a giant lichen-covered rock, and writing, writing, writing in my journal.
Oh, and eating. Quakers are master potluckers. But even lunch was silent, broken only by the occasional crunch of chips.
To say the day was refreshing would be a massive understatement. It was an ENORMOUS gift (as I know, in my old teaching life, I would never have used up an entire weekend day for something like that, much as I needed to). It was weird–especially walking while keeping all my “air-journaling” conversations inside my head for once. It was wonderfully social, all communication held to smiles and nods.
And it was too short. At the end of the 6 1/2 hours, I didn’t feel the need to break the silence. I almost wished we could have finished up, including all the dish-washing and vacuuming and figuring out whose coats were whose, in quiet communication, like the rest of the day.
I’m Word Woman, OK? So for me to wish to step away from words for so long…well, that tells you something.
So I’ll come back to my first question: when’s the last time you were quiet for a long period of time? What does silence do for you? Especially those of you with children still in the house, do you have a way to find any silence in your day? What do you do with it? We’d love to hear.