Not your Sister’s Self-Care

I was asked to write a wellness article for a local women’s magazine, sharing practices that can help us find our footing in the midst of uncertainty. I was in the midst of drafting it when the world blew up for the second time in a few months, with George Floyd’s murder.

Not for the first time, that confluence of events made me really think about self-care in the context of  inequity and social change. Is self-care an inherently selfish act? Does it require donning blinders and living in a syrupy bubble of pampered and precarious comfort?

Not the kind of self-care I mean.

Embodiment teacher/activist Abigail Rose Clarke has said that having the time and space to do mindbody practices is a privilege. And the very fact that this kind of practice is a privilege, she notes, makes it a responsibility.

We who have the time and space to create the change within ourselves that can help heal the world, must do so.

I believe that building our personal resilience does in fact heal the world. I think of the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher and claimed he threatened her, after he lawfully requested that she leash her dog. The level of reactivity in that act, aside from its painful demonstration of racism, indicates (to my mind) someone who is not awake to her own need.

Self-care, and not your sister’s self-care of pedicures and bubble baths and pricey skin toners, is a muscular act. It requires facing up to the boiling mess of emotion inside us, and giving it room to flow and transform. So often we suppress the things we don’t want to feel, but they don’t go anywhere but underground.

Then they burst out in annoying and sometimes dangerous ways, like chronic pain or low-grade irritability. Or acute reactivity that puts another in danger.

In actual fact, turning towards our emotions on the regular, with self-kindness, is what relieves and releases them. And it may not look pretty or feel yummy. Rolling on the floor and wailing is not a Calgon-take-me-away moment (totally dating myself with that reference). But I would much rather have a private tantrum than inflict that pent-up frustration, fear, and resentment on another.

(It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tantrum. Maybe it’s just experiencing that inward trio of sensation, thought, and emotion—and following where they lead with curiosity.)

By turning to kinder practices that nourish the body and soul, we become more resilient and less reactive. As we move through our day with less fear, suspicion, and hostility—less triggered, or more able to stay with the triggers and breathe before acting—we truly do build a more compassionate community and world.

I used to teach a class I called Radical Cell(f) Care, offering self-care practices I’d gleaned from various energy healing traditions. I called it radical because this kind of practice gets to the root, because it gives us tools to pause, because it creates change from within. It generates more kindness in a world sorely in need of that.

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The portulaca blooms closed up in yesterday’s rain, and opened again when it stopped. Life inhales and exhales, contracts and expands. 

Now, kindness alone won’t solve the pattern of deadly force against black people and the dearth of justice for their murders, or other ways massive inequities show up in our society. It won’t halt a pandemic’s spread (but may slow it down, as people take precautions, expressing their care for each other). On its own it won’t fix the breakdown of our planetary systems, or the rise of fascism, or other seemingly intractable problems. But I still contend it is a vital tool for addressing the general awfulness that faces us at every turn.

Policies are behind much of the awfulness—policies set by people with power. We are also people… with our own power. Our choices and behaviors can uphold the awfulness, or challenge it, transcend it, create something brand new.

We need to continually refuel for the big and small acts that will make change. We need to embody and radiate the kind of muscular compassion that doesn’t look away from the awfulness, and doesn’t allow it to persist, and points the way to a different kind of world.

Gratitude: I am grateful for the view I have from my desk—our tiny back yard, where I can see young robins eating mock strawberries, and all the garden freshening under rain, and all the chipmunks, neighborhood cats, hummingbirds, bluegray gnatcatchers, sparrows, cardinals and so on making it their playground.

Tip of the Day: From the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is HardI learned that willpower is a finite resource. We exhaust ourselves quickly if we power through with grit alone. It’s not high-quality fuel. I’ve been cultivating a new motivation to fuel I do throughout my day, connecting to a feeling-level motivation where I can. Positive feelings like love, kindness, pride, excitement, and joy have staying power. If you are working toward change, it might be useful to check your fuel levels!

Resource of the Day: I started watching the Reimagining and Remaking America replay with activists Valarie Kaur and Van Jones. Now I can’t wait to read her book, See No Stranger, which makes a case for the ultimate long-haul fuel: revolutionary love.

What I Learned

There was a lag between my dad’s tests and the results. We knew something was wrong, and it could be bad, but we didn’t know for sure. The Saturday between his test and the oncologist appointment, I stopped over as usual for lunch after hitting the farmers’ market. It was a brilliant June day in 2011, and Dad was making the most of it in the back yard. Mom and I agreed: We wished we could just freeze time.

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Dad on a summer day

We couldn’t. The oncology appointment brought the kind of news every family dreads: terminal cancer.

I sometimes feel, now, like I’m in “please freeze time” mode. A pervasive sense of dread stalks some of my days and many of my nights. Watching swifts in their lilting flights as I walk my dog early in the morning, I have a weird sort of anticipatory nostalgia. This spring has been stunningly beautiful. The world is so inviting. And who knows what lies ahead for my family, my community, my country, the world?

But then again, who ever knows? We just think we will keep on our merry way, that nothing will ever change, but that’s an illusion.

But time can slow down a bit, when you pay close attention and know that you are really there, occupying the moment with all your senses.

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Follow the path with senses open…

What I learned from that horribly short period between Dad’s diagnosis and his death (and from what came next) is this: We can handle the worst. We get through it. There are still beautiful moments even in the awfulness. Dad speaking into a circle of family and friends around a fire. Grinning over a fat slice of cake, his 71st birthday. Going to the front door to thank the folks from church who surrounded the house in song one evening. Hugging me close, saying he didn’t want to leave us. Tender times I will never forget.

This is a tender time for us all, no matter how we show up for it, and the intensity packs a punch. I won’t soon forget standing in a parking lot with tons of neighbors spaced more or less 6 feet apart, scanning the skies for a Blue Angel flyover tribute to essential workers (including my nurse spouse, who got to be there too). Hailing from a pacifist tradition, I didn’t expect tears to well up, but they did.

There are many things I will remember as touchstones in the coming months, no matter what happens. And being here with my whole body/mind/spirit is the only way to navigate the uncertainty.

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Rooted

Gratitude: Sharing garden plants with friends and neighbors feels so abundant, and brings Dad back to me. We dug up Virginia bluebells that had spread all through his and Mom’s yard since he’s not there to thin them. We took some to Kate, who gave us two different kinds of tomatoes and 3 different kinds of peppers, plus basil. A neighbor came by with cilantro starts and went home with shovelfuls of various overgrown perennials from our yard. I have my eye on some wild ginger and salad burnet spreading in my beds that I can pass to another gardening neighbor. And on it goes.

Tip of the Day: Try this practice from Martha Beck to bring you into your body and the moment: Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Now experience them all at once. Guaranteed to take you out of your thinking mind and into your body.

Resource of the Day: Check out this article from time expert Laura Vanderkam about savoring time to stretch out the feel-good moments (and to make memories more vivid).

The View from Here

Program Note: When I first started this series, I had the ambitious idea of posting something daily. Turns out life is not as spacious as I imagined it would be in sequestration, and spring weather has me loath to spend any more time in front of  a screen than I need to. I have not wanted to add force to the equation, believing that “powering through” would taint the result with an energy I don’t want to perpetuate. I’ve tried to take my own advice and rest more. But… I do miss the days when I just let fly with my words, and I wonder if all the napping and stepping away from screens might also stem from reluctance to be seen. Several half-finished/half-baked posts are languishing, “not good enough yet.” All to say: I hope to find some balance and post regularly without too much drivenness. I don’t want to add more jangling to the global collective. And now back to our regularly (?) scheduled programming…

Several years ago, when I was dealing with chronic pain, I read a book written by someone with a similar condition. She wrote of widening beyond the place of pain and all its attending emotions.

One example: Her feet hurt terribly every time she took a step. But they did not hurt during the part of the step where they were off the ground. So she put her attention on the lift, not the footfall.

The spaces between the painful things can expand in our awareness.

These days when it seems like there is so much that hurts, or has the potential to hurt, where do I put my focus?

This past week we’ve seen the lifting of stay-at-home orders in my state and elsewhere. Here this is happening in a phased way, more or less status quo in my county till May 15—except the golf course opening, which foils my afternoon jaunts. I would have been glad to stay hunkered down much longer, but I know that people without a work-at-home job, broadband internet, a harmonious home, a friendly neighborhood, rainy-day fund, etc., are hurting.

Even knowing it was inevitable at some point, the announcement of this new phase brought back me some spikes of anxiety and dread. Wondering how an ambitious rollback of restrictions (“back on track” by July 4?) will play out for people most at risk, and how it will impact the front-line workers, such as my spouse, who stand ready for fresh numbers of COVID-19 patients.

I also notice some exuberance, sort of like “the nightmare is over! they said so!” And that scares me too. I live with someone facing the toll of COVID-19 every time she goes to work, and I can still entertain “it was all a bad dream”?

Then there’s the fraying of social cohesion. I’ve had this nice notion that this crisis will eventually result in a new, saner, more equitable world, but how exactly is that supposed to happen? It seems like divisions are being drawn ever deeper, scapegoating is on the rise, and the pandemic is far from over (no matter how tired of it we might be, or how much our leaders want to declare victory).

I don’t really want to document all the things that worry me right now, but instead expand my awareness to the space that holds the fear. I’m not saying fear never offers valid or useful information. I’m talking about including it in something bigger.

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View from the morning walk, leaning against my hackberry tree friend.

(Short rant: Sometimes in the spiritual development world, there’s a certain pollyanna way of looking at things, where people try to hush up the hard stuff by pasting a smiley face on it. There’s a lot of bullshit around the role we play in creating our reality, a mindset that makes it easy to ignore major systemic injustices. I’m not of a mind that nothing bad will ever happen to those who live right. New Age bunkum implies that feeling bad is basically your own fault for not being spiritual enough. That way lies madness, and further injustice. We don’t need to slap a happy face on things that are really crummy.)

So, what I’m talking about is not so much looking the other way as widening out. 

I made a very basic list of things I could count on in my journal early on, when I was reeling. Maybe it’s still useful. A place to put focus. I added to it and buffed it up a bit to put here—maybe you can add things to it too.

20200426_164339 (768x1024)Things we can count on:

  • The sun in its cycle.
  • The moon in its cycle.
  • The seasons of the planet.
  • Stars up there. Milky Way.
  • The fact that the sky will cloud and clear and cloud and clear.
  • The way buds open, flower, fruit, and fall.
  • The fact that every oak tree starts as an acorn.
  • The universal truth that everyone experiences loss and grief.
  • The space between the tiny particles that make up a body. Particles whirling so fast they seem solid but actually hold vast spaces between them.
  • The way ice melts when it’s heated. The way fire burns.
  • Gravity.

Gratitude: Friends who hold me up even from a distance when I’m falling.

Tip of the Day: This one brought to you by the one and only Fred Rogers, whose biography I’m listening to: “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices, and hopefully your choices come from a deep sense of who you are.”

Resource of the Day: Speaking of gravity: Abigail Rose Clarke, founder of the Embodied Life Method, offers a marvelous free meditation, “The Solace Practice.” It gently guides you into really feeling the way your body gets heavier on the exhale. I can’t describe it, you just have to experience it. Go here to connect with her and receive a link to the practice.

Looking Down

For a short month during my horse-crazy girlhood, I took horseback riding lessons. I remember riding around an indoor arena. I remember not being allowed to choose the same horse each week, because “you’re learning to ride horses, not a horse.” Beyond that, I don’t remember much.

Other than the instructor telling me repeatedly, “Look where you want the horse to  go.”

Weirdly, I couldn’t seem to do it. Down and to the side, that’s where my eyes went, to the churned-up wood chips on the floor.

Looking back, I think I was rattled by the stimulating environment and the scary thrill of being high on a horse’s back. All I could see was the ground.

I sort of thought I was looking forward, and I was even more rattled by the frustrated instructor’s repeated injunction to “stop looking down.” I may have managed to glance at the horse’s ears a few times, if not actually through them to where I wanted the horse to go. (On the other hand, where was there to really go in that small arena?)

Did I mention I was a myopic and dreamy child? When I later started driving, on rainy days I found myself absorbed by the raindrops hitting the windshield of the vehicle, vs. the street I was driving down.

But about the riding lesson, two things come to mind. 1) It’s hard to learn something new while overstimulated or scared, and no amount of clear instruction will change that; and 2) Looking where you want to go, while good policy, may require some preliminary work.

I was reminded of this episode by Martha Beck’s video, Thriving in Turbulent Times. In it, she talks about being mindful of your focus, and training it toward where you want to go—looking between the horse’s ears, say, or kicking into a goalie’s net. Or moving toward a future defined by resilience, justice, and mutuality.

I absolutely love this idea, and it makes total sense, and I have sought out evidence the positive side of humanity, wanting to put my focus there. I live for the kind of good news that can somewhat counterbalance the hard stuff (see Resource of the Day below).

And I also know that for me, sometimes there’s a crucial first step before I can reclaim my focus from where I don’t want to go.

I must first find a way to hear the parts of me that may not be on board with positivity in the moment. I need to find a way to calm my nervous system. I need to be extra extra gentle with myself for falling into an unwanted pattern.

(Martha Beck is also down with this, by the way, so I’m not dissing her work in any way.)

This week I went to ground a bit. John Prine died, the refrigerator broke, I had to wear a mask to the drug store for the first time. Everything piled up and seemed sad and scary and hard. I couldn’t sleep. I found myself sinking into despair and anxiety, overloading my nervous system, ending up shaky and overwhelmed—then making it worse by shaming myself for going there.

Enough already. A good cry is as necessary as a good nap, in my book. Why do we have tear ducts, if not to use them?

If I let myself look down, or allow full absorption in the raindrops instead of the street ahead, it can be a relief. It’s honest. Right now, my body says (from the floor, curled up in a sobfest), this is where I need to be. Time enough later for windshield wiping and plotting a course.

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Me and my brother and one of our cousins, long before the lessons.

Gratitude: One thing that has really sustained me, and given incentive to continue this project, is all the feedback I’ve received, even third-hand. In addition to this blog, I sent out an e-newsletter called How Will We Choose to Live? that received more responses than any in recent memory. Thank you to everyone who takes time to read these words. I know how much content is out there to wade through, and I’m honored.

Tip of the Day: A double-edged one today. Writing this series has helped me, and has given me a sustaining project, an outlet. Friends are going deep into gardening, or rediscovering crocheting, or learning languages, or making masks. Maybe there’s a project that can help you through this time.

But maybe it’s also, conversely: Don’t try too hard to get shit done. Maybe don’t try out a new skill or join another online lecture. There might be some inner tending that needs to happen before new learning can happen. Do we really need to take a free Yale course on well-being right now? Maybe the highest of higher education is found down deep within.

Resource of the Day: In the good-cry department, here is John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” episode 2. I love everything about this DIY online news show, which gave me a fine place to land while surfacing from my funk. Around minute 9 is where it really kicks up a notch, at least for Hamilton fans.

 

Touching in the Time of…

Strange days indeed. When a hug or handshake could be, I guess, lethal? When what human comfort we long to give, we must give via pixels?

In this time of COVID-19, when “social distancing” has become our norm, I wonder what is being ingrained into the minds and energy-bodies of today’s children. Everything is a potential threat, particularly the hands of others. Any surface we touch could potentially be contaminated. We must be on high-alert at all time.

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Sign at the entrance of my father-in-law’s funeral.

This is starting to be ingrained in me as well. How strange it is that now, when I see people interacting on a TV show, I’m conscious of how close their faces are? Back up, I find myself thinking. Droplet alert!

I don’t know what to think about all this. But it makes me sad. Isolation is not a healthy state for any human, and I can’t imagine living alone right now (or living without furry companions).

What I do know is that there are more ways to touch than through the physical realm. When a friend was barred from seeing her dying mother because the nursing home closed to visitors, I texted, “I believe that you can contact your mother by getting quiet and reaching for her in your mind and heart.”

Maybe this time of physical distancing will shorten our learning curve (as a species) for connecting through other means. I don’t mean Zoom or FaceTime, though those are a godsend.

I mean: Think of someone, put them in your heart, and part of you is with that person in that moment.

I mean: Connect by touching the same earth, reaching for the same sky (as a recent EmbodieDance class explored).

I mean: Feel how we are each more than our molecules, bigger than our bodies, part of the All in All. Meet me there.

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Gratitude: A snuggly nap with my cat, Edgar (Eddie).

Tip of the Day: See if it’s possible to replace worry with a heart-connection, or prayer, or spiritual delegation. Send the object of your concern a lighter energy than worry. (But don’t be hard on yourself if you do worry. Lord knows these are worrisome times.)

Resource of the Day: Meditation teacher Tara Brach is offering a free online mindfulness class to improve sleep and address anxiety. It is free until March 30, so check it out soon. You can download it and take the course later.

Wishing you expanded awareness during this contracted time!

“Creating Beauty in the World We Find”

Last week I listened to a podcast with author Terry Tempest Williams, in which she says that one job of writing is to make other people feel less alone.

I started this series partially for that reason (as well as for my own sanity) and I’ve gotten a few notes from readers affirming that they do feel less alone. Because we’re all feeling it: The uncertainty and pain of everything we know being upended, the sorrow of losses (ours and those we empathize with), the loneliness of isolation, the fear and dread of what may come, the anger too.

These are things we have to breathe through. The only way out is through.

Terry Tempest Williams also talks about staying in the present:

“If you are present, then there is no past, as you well know. And there is no future. You are there. And whether it is being with a family member who is dying, you are present with them. You are breathing. And in that breathing there is this commitment and communion to that breath. Presence. And you don’t look away…I think when you are present, fear is still there, but you are moving with it. You are breathing with it.”

Seeking pathways to stay in the present: That is one of my top priorities now, when thinking too far ahead can completely derail me. My hope is that this blog series can contribute to some grounding for others, even as I regain my own footing over and over after being knocked off balance.

There’s this idea that “If we’re not all OK, none of us are,” and I feel like we are being shown its truth in real-time. If I have something to contribute to that OKness, it isn’t medical care. (That is the role of my nurse spouse, bless her, and other healthcare workers all over the world, who all need our support and light.)

One thing I can do is send these words out, in case they are a comfort, because “…finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.” —TTW

I’m not used to sending words out without first parsing every single syllable. But these are different times. And even though I often write these missives in the evening when my brain is tired, and I don’t remember all the insights I planned to share, I feel like this is an evolving conversation. There’s time to explore.

Gratitude: The sun peeked out today while I walked Opal. Also, I got to see my mom (we sat on her back patio, 6 feet apart). Plus: online dance and yoga classes  saved my patoot during a tense day when my beloved was pulling a long shift at the hospital.

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If a sycamore sees its shadow, how many more weeks/months of pandemic will persist?

Tip of the Day: From Lani Weissbach, who teaches EmbodieDance, here’s a good way to ground yourself if you feel off-balance. Put your hands firmly on/around your upper leg and draw down with strong pressure, all the way to the foot. Do this several times for each leg. Good for rocky times such as these.

Resource of the Day: The body and breath can lead us back to the present moment. See the links above for good mindbody options, and also find Sanctuary Community Yoga here with many more offerings. My adored neighborhood studio, Irvington Wellness Center, has gone completely online, and you can find the full schedule here. The classes are free to all for the next 30 days and include t’ai chi, yoga, self-care, meditation and more. You can click the class name and then “More Details” in the lower left corner of the pop-up to find a Zoom link. More info on the studio here.

Steady on, beautiful people!

Routines, Supports, New Delights

How are you finding comfort and stability in this wild new world we find ourselves in? Are there humble routines that bring you some sense of normalcy? Support systems in place to bolster you? Surprising new delights of any kind?

Just now the dryer is spinning my sheets dry, the supper dishes are in the drainer, and my sweetie and I are super-relaxed from a restorative yoga class offered via Zoom. My yoga studio has taken its offerings online, and I’m so grateful. Even in life pre-COVID, my nervous system benefited from the regular reset of a good yoga class. I would say it was a nonnegotiable before, and about a hundredfold more so now.

I can practice at home, and have restarted that this week, but there’s something about communal practice that takes me deeper. Even when the community is remote, it’s still very nourishing to be in a virtual “room” together.

As far as new delights, let’s talk about another kind of community. I have never seen so many people out walking the neighborhood. I have never taken so much time to stop and chat while I’m out walking Opal. I always had to hurry home to get my shit done.

I still have plenty of that drivenness, which is a blog post for later. But it seems so important to stop and smile and chat with strangers, and catch up with neighbors.

It does feel like this collective experience is already turning everything upside down—what we thought was so important…is maybe not.

Gratitude: See above. Plus: a hint of sunlight this morning!

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Some blue sky this morning.

Tip of the Day: This one is courtesy of Gaynell, who taught yoga last night (thanks for the good night’s sleep, Gaynell!) A practicing Buddhist, Gaynell reminded us of the transitory nature of… well, everything. Observing what is occurring—giving it space—allows connection with the wider awareness that everything is impermanent. So this is the big tip: Instead of thinking “I am anxious,” (as I sometimes do), try: “What is it like, this experience I call anxiety?” Then notice, allow, bring compassion. An excellent and timely reminder. We may feel fear or anger or confusion or grief, but we don’t have to turn it into an identity.

Resource of the Day: This is a spiritual resource. I love Nichola Torbertt’s conversation with redwoods about coronavirus. “What if this virus brings you to your knees so that you have to admit that you don’t really know how to move forward? And then what if you started reconsidering how you’ve been living? And then reaching out to each other—especially to those most at risk—and talking about what you long for and noticing the redwoods and the daffodils and talking to us, too? What if?”

See the whole post, it’s worth a read, and the photo is gorgeous.

Wings

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I got up and looked through my growing collection of COVID-19-related resources, and discovered that a likeminded friend was also up at an ungodly hour curating her own list. (See Anna’s new Facebook group,Community Connections, for “creative responses to hunkering down.”)

On my list was Rebecca Solnit’s nightly live fairy tale reading. Since I was up, I decided to watch the replay. I don’t usually have the patience to watch long videos, but I was glad I stuck with it to the end (and what did I have better to do anyway?). For one, it filled my heart to hear her naming folks who were watching live from all over the world. With that black swan behind her, she was mesmerizing.

And the fairy tale itself–The Wild Swans–was well told, magically interwoven with this mysterious moment: Our current time resembling a fairy tale, a challenge of mythic proportions that no one could have dreamt up while moving through our daily routines and distractions.

But the very best thing: At the end, she told a story about an imprisoned friend named Jarvis. One day in the prison yard, Jarvis spotted another inmate throwing rocks at a bird. “Hey, don’t throw rocks at that bird!”

The rock-thrower challenged him, “Why shouldn’t I?”

Quick-thinking Jarvis said, “That bird has my wings.”

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It’s hard to spot, but there is a Pileated woodpecker in this photo, right about dead center. I took the picture last summer on one of my many creek outings with my dog. Big poodle nearby, feet in creek, eyes on beech tree/bird: That’s pretty much heaven for me.

We may be restricted in our movements–some more than others, some for reasons that predate this COVID-19 wackadoodle world–but birds still fly, and maybe they have our wings, along with Jarvis’s.

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Sunrise from the airplane that flew me to a conference last fall, courtesy of my workplace. Wings…

Gratitude: I am so grateful for my job at Central Indiana Land Trust right now. Not just that it allows me to work from home and keep my income. I serve a mission that fills me with a sense of purpose and perspective. Yesterday I helped to draft and send this “Nature is Not Closed” letter from our executive director, speaking of the solace we can find in nature (even as we have to cancel upcoming events).

Today, in a telephone meeting about our nature preserves, I learned how 85-foot bluffs along the White River were formed: They are massive outwash deposits left by the meltwaters of receding glaciers, 12,000 years ago. The river itself would have been a massive gushing thing. The land was malleable, with great gouges and piles of sediment being formed in real time.

Isn’t that a thing to contemplate just now?

Tip of the Day: Sleepless in Shreveport or wherever you are? Think of me, awake at all hours too. If in distress, take a tip from Jen Louden (who may have adapted it from Tara Brach)… Hand on heart, breathe, notice: Can anything eat me right now? Am I safe in this moment? Then consider: Many people feel the very same way as you, right this very minute. Send them your love and care, and feel that love and care in yourself. We are all in this together.

Resource of the Day: Weekend’s coming. So many options for planning some fun. Check out this evolving calendar of livestreamed concerts--Indigo Girls starts in a minute here! You can watch a Broadway play (not sure how many are free though). Have a movie night with friends while staying in your own homes. Do check out Community Connections if you’re a Facebooker, for more ideas and support.

Above all, may the 50,000-foot perspective, the geologic timescale, the wings of birds, bring you some freedom.

Hacks for the Holidaze

If you, like me, are a sensitive sort prone to getting off-kilter this time of year (whether that’s about year-end goals, consumption of food/drink/stuff/media, family drama, past losses, expectations on the part of yourself/family/others, or any other cluster)… I give you five hard-won holiday hacks. These are good in any stressful time but especially useful this time of year.

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“Stress Elf” Photo by Dylan Tweney, via Flickr Creative Commons

  1. Switch off the sirens. Your nervous system is most likely on alarm overload, like a firetruck siren that keeps on shrieking long after the six-alarm fire is out. In the modern world, this is a widespread issue that leads to adrenal burnout—and that’s why it’s so important to develop calming practices. This video shows some calming practices derived from the energy medicine tools of Donna Eden, but you can also simply take deep slow breaths, note your surroundings and safety, come into your senses, place your hand on your heart/belly/cheek and send your nervous system some love. Especially helpful: Leaning against a tree while doing any combination of these.
  2. Strenuously commit to missing out. I skip holiday parties if my body says “no.” I tune out most media, and turn down the noise of social media in particular. I know I miss out on certain things. Whole categories of pop culture and current events pass me by. I enjoy airplane mode from time to time, even when not inflight. I figure I can take a little trip to the insides of me. This tends to give me more energy than endlessly scrolling, which is what can happen if I’m tired.
  3. Reframe your emo-pictures. This tip comes by way of creativity coach Jen Louden, who suggests renaming unwanted feeling states. The goal is not to bypass the uncomfortable emotions, but to experiment with widening out in possibility. I tried it and found that I could reframe my anxiety as alertness, my sadness as soulfulness, and my judgment (sometimes) as clarity about my boundaries. An interesting tool to play with!
  4. Give yourself a big gift. Do what you want, only and exactly what you want, for a few hours. If you worry that this is selfish, your family will hate you, etc., consider the findings of Adam Grant, a generosity researcher: People give more over the long term when they keep their own goals sacrosanct. To my mind, if I avoid burnout by giving myself this gift…I’ll be more resilient, more loving, more present, and more generous over the long haul.
  5. Watch the birdie(s). By this I basically mean: watch your emotions and sensations come and go. (We just got a bird feeder and I’ve been watching the birds come and go, like my internal states.) I’ve also heard this skill taught in terms of identifying with sky vs. weather or (Jen Louden again) observing fish in an imaginary aquarium without getting in the tank.

However we can, as soon as we remember, the idea is to separate identity from emotional state. A friend who intensively practices mindfulness will say to herself, “sadness is present in my awareness,” to put distance between her essential self and the emotion. Isn’t that so much lighter than “I am depressed” or “my life is miserable”? It’s a ninja move designed to decrease reactivity. Bottom line: The more we can observe ourselves with compassion and curiosity, the more we are able to pause in the presence of strife, confusion, or (in my case) that fudgy brownie that will jack up the nervous system for sure.

Bonus hacker tip: Look for the nourishment. When deciding what to give (yourself or others) or how to spend your time or what to consume, discern with your body what feels truly nourishing to you.

My earlier post, Tips for the Anxiety-Prone, may help too. What about you—what hacks do you have to share for holiday time?

A Safe Space

When someone says all is lost, do you agree? Do you match her intensity of lament with your own, amping up the despair?

Or do you try to talk her out of her fear and angst, knee-jerkily attempting to cheer her up so you don’t have to hear her pain?

Or do you make a safe space for her to express what she needs to express, without agreeing or negating, so she can hear herself and move the lostness and pain out of her body and mind?

I do all three, though I aspire to the latter. Depending on my own emotional state of the moment, I may or may not be able to offer that spaciousness. Sometimes I turn away from another’s declaration of lostness. My own fears get triggered, and I shut down. Or try to shut the other person down. “Don’t catastrophize,” I snapped once when a friend told me of her overwhelming fears. Not my finest moment.

Sometime earlier this week the streetlights on my block mysteriously went out. I am sure someone is following up with the city, keeping the neighbors informed on Facebook, monitoring when they will be turned back on. In the meantime it seems more important than ever that our porch lights stay on and illuminate the street. (I’m adjusting the timer on ours today to match the shorter day length of this season. Happy fall, though it feels like endless summer around here, just another disquieting “new normal.”)

But you get what I’m saying, about the lights, right?

Last night in yoga class our teacher guided us through an experience of mutual support that could be felt in our very bones. We stood four and five across in the small studio space, and each took a tree pose (balancing on one foot with the other pressed into ankle or thigh) while pressing palms into our neighbors’ palms. Some worried they would destabilize those around them and trigger a domino effect of falling tree-bodies.

But that didn’t happen. We stood separately yet connected, a grove of human trees. No one toppled, and if we wobbled a little, the contact with another’s hand steadied us.

I was in the back row and got to glimpse this roomful of interlinked trees, like life-sized paper doll chains.

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Photo by The Real Estreya, via Flickr Creative Commons

Balancing in mutual support felt effortless—even when Gaynell next had us reach one leg backwards and bend forward into Warrior Three, this time with our arms outstretched and resting straight across the arms of our neighbors.

What a pleasure to bend forward in synchrony with my yogini friends. I felt that we could sail across an ice rink as one! Simultaneously holding and being held.

When times seem dark, we have this to count on. In the press of each other’s hands, we are stronger and steadier than we could ever imagine.