Giving Thanks in An Exceptional Year

I always prefer to focus on gratitude, yet I hadn’t been feeling it this Thanksgiving week. So I turned to Facebook and posed a question to our community:

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wonder if you would share what uniquely 2020-related things you are thankful for?

In this exceptional year, I thought we might move beyond the typical answers: life, health, family, community. As it turns out, those answers carry exceptional significance this year. When U.S. COVID cases have reached 12.7 million and 260,000+ have died, the essential facts that we and our loved ones are alive and healthy becomes a precious truth for those who can claim it. This year has yielded a renewed awareness that we aren’t promised anything and everything can change without warning. We are learning anew to appreciate our own vitality, the breaths we inhale and exhale over minutes that become hours that become days, and the people with whom we share breathing space—especially those we trust within six feet.

Which leads us to: Family. We’re grateful not to frantically rush out the door for our commutes or carpooling children hither and thither and instead to move a little slower. To share family lunches, hearing about school in the middle of the day. To teach kids to ride a bike or overhear through the bedroom door as they sing along with the school choir. To have unexpected time with littles who grow too fast or with older children who will soon fly the nest, or those who tried and got COVID-grounded or those who’ve made a return trip with fledglings of their own. We’ve had time and space to connect and care for one another differently as we’ve all gone through the strange experiences of this year. Some increased the love under their roof by adding dogs or cats to their households.

Zoom has taught many of us that we can work remotely and it’s given us another tool to connect with family and friends in other places. Some have been holding weekly dinners or game nights via Zoom, an idea that likely wouldn’t have occurred to them before March. Who can tell how many families and friends will celebrate with a virtual Thanksgiving feast?

We are grateful for friends who make us laugh. Last spring the world witnessed Italians singing from the balconies of their homes and apartment-dwellers who held evening calisthenics each outside their own front door. As we walked our dogs, we saw socially-distanced neighbors in cul-de-sacs and on street corners enjoying a “six feet at six o’clock” cocktail hour. A local DJ held socially-distanced neighborhood dance parties. One person commented, and many chimed in, that she is grateful for the way those in our community “swarm” to help others with small or big needs; this swarm produces honey as it relieves life’s stings.

We’ve rediscovered ways to savor time, playing board games and card games with family, hiking our spectacular trail system under smoke-free skies, or dabbling in watercolor painting through a subscription art kit. Reading lots and lots of books. Developing our skills through online classes.

It seems to me that the unexpected and initially undesirable changes brought about by the pandemic initiated so much more than cleaner closets and bread baking skills. It gave us quiet in which to reflect on our priorities and lingering conversations with family and neighbors. It forced us to get creative about how we would maintain the essentials for living and it freed us to be creative in other previously neglected and also life-giving ways. It freed us to live into who we are and who we want to be.

One respondent admitted that she found my question difficult to answer since the pandemic has hit her family hard. Although I’ve never met her nor do I know the specifics of her situation, I extended sympathy. As we say, “we’re in this together,” and clearly this year has been hard…illness, death, unemployment, draining bank accounts, loneliness, mental health issues, grief on so many levels. That’s precisely why I asked the question. We know how hard it’s been, and most of us know that our mis/fortunes rest along a spectrum: we have it hard, and also easier than others. Everyone’s lives have changed…in the same and vastly different ways.

In my faith tradition we acknowledge that when you don’t have words to pray for yourself you can rest in the prayers of others. Similarly, when I couldn’t name my own gratitude, I relied on the gratitude of others. “Yes,” I repeated with each response. “Yes, me too,” I’m grateful for that, and that, and I’m grateful to hear about that small or spectacular development in your life.

And so…

A Prayer of Overflowing Gratitude During Thanksgiving Week of an Entirely Unexpected and Exceptional Year

To the One from whom all good gifts flow I whisper Thank You. Thank you for life and breath and health. Thank you for the reminder that we can’t take any of it for granted. Thank you for families and slow time to hike and ride bikes and learn to cook or bake or just eat delicious take-out food. Thank you for the particular humans I get to call “mine,” for the shared memories and the coming moments that will be tomorrow’s memories. Thank you for board games and card games, even the video games I don’t like but over which my guys bond and burn through their frustration loudly in the garage while I quietly read a book in another room. Thank you for skin care products which matter so much more than make up and baseball caps to hide pandemic hair and for the comfort of lounge wear all day and night. Thank you for the enthusiastic love of our furry friends and the hours upon hours we’ve spent walking the dogs through neighborhoods and along trails, watching the tiny and wondrous changes of the seasons. Thank you for California poppies and irises and hawkweed and thistles, roses and hydrangeas and mums, and mustard plants that grow taller than our 85-pound dog. Thank you for sunshine and clear skies and the end of fire season. Thank you for a full rainbow of autumn leaves twisting on the trees and carpeting the ground. Thank you for the neighbors we’ve greeted from a distance and waved at through windows and conversed with on the phone or over social media or Facetime or Zoom. Thank you for books and our library system and my never-empty Kindle. Thank you for Netflix and The Queen’s Gambit and Schitt’s Creek and Disney+ and Hamilton. Thank you for creativity and its multiple expressions we might not have witnessed except for this year. Thank you for freedom and those striving for freedom for all. In this Thanksgiving week and on every day of this ridiculous year whether I feel it or not, I whisper Thank You. We say Thank You. The people shout Thank You. And so, Amen.

How are you? No, really…

How are you? she asks, a simple question requiring an easy answer. But do we really have a simple answer?

I could tell her I’m tired, weary in my bones and soul. So weary that sleep plays hide and seek through the dark hours, slipping through my grasp each time I think I’ve caught it. And I understand, of course, that hide and seek was always more fun to play after dark. Still, I do all the right things: I go to bed at what they call a reasonable hour with a book soothing, not scintillating. I read until my eyes flicker and then, ready to slide down sloping fatigue into sleep, I turn out the lights. Timed to the flick of the light switch, my eyes snap open, staring into the dark interior of my sleep mask, which I now shove onto my forehead because I am instantly wide awake.

I could tell her I’m tired because, on those rare nights when I less eventfully hop aboard the sleep train, when its chugga-chugga forward motion lulls me into slumber and its choo-choo doesn’t rouse me, it speeds ahead of schedule to reach its destination before I’m rested. Or it breaks down with a screech of brakes and fire sparks of metal wheels straining on metal tracks as I am knocked meanly backward into my seat, clutching the arm rests for dear waking life, desperate for the slow-and-steady rhythm of safe passage to morning.

I could tell her I’m tired from my nightly boxing match versus my comforter, not doing its comforting job–I should spitefully call it “duvet,” or less fancy and more plain-spoken “bedspread,” or even “hot mess” except that more accurately describes me–as I fling my limbs free from the tangles of its stranglehold in search of the air flow from the oscillating fan. Until my foot or knee or elbow ice over and I yank them back to center, only to fight another round, and another, the fight cycle as endless as the fan, and the minutes on the clock, oscillating through the hours of the night.

I could tell her I’m tired from not sleeping because I’m a middle-aged hormonal woman. We could shrug and laugh and oh well meshuggenah at this sleeplessness. I could also explain that my anxious mind spins all night long through the circles of aching grief hell from the losses we have suffered this year, the loss of jobs, the loss of freedoms to be out and about at the theatres and the malls and the concerts and the parties, gathering with friends and family in countless numbers since the more the merrier was always the open invitation. The loss of travel, of vacations planned and cancelled. The loss of so much that added fun and celebration and punctuated the mundane, while the fatigue mounts from trying and flailing to sprinkle sparkle over days that recur with such similarity that we have lost the days of the week, the weeks of the month, the months of the year: I keep opening my calendar-planner to March, confused…

Pause: Let us now pause to mourn the colossal loss of the freedom to grieve through the rituals that allow and support and move us through grief. We have lost the freedom to be with our loved ones who are sick and dying; we have said our goodbyes in this life through plate-glass windows and computer screens. We have lost the freedom to hold memorial services and graveside gatherings. We have lost the freedom to gather in remembrance, for Memorial Day, 9/11, and Veteran’s Day is coming right up. We have lost, and perhaps just recently regained while perhaps to lose again, the opportunity to worship together in person, to worship and praise and lament and just be in process in this moment, side-by-side, right now.

I could tell her I’m tired from the heartbreaking loss of friendships because apparently some friends were truly occasional acquaintances and, without our regular joyful meetings in our ordinary joy-filled places, the colorful palette of our once-vibrant conversations dried, faded, flaked in the plein air breeze of months we thought would be weeks, leaving behind a faintly-hued shadow I hold tight as a memento. My gut aches and my soul quakes from the loss of friends who turned toward a different view from our place on the trail and wandered away to hike with others, new friends or those who share similarly-firm beliefs that leave us behind in the dust wondering how we could have seen things so differently when we once paced so steadily shoulder-to-shoulder?

I could tell her I’m tired of listening to and, in turn, shielding myself from the spits of anger bubbling and boiling in almost every cauldron-conversation, in person, online, on screen. The news I choose to read because the vitriol voices need no additional amplification. The pummeling lies that beat us to dust-level to sift through more and more foolishness piled up in more and more sources until, muscles sore from shoveling piles and digging mine deep, we strike a vein of truth: Eureka! Only to recognize that we will need to repeat the process, digging, sifting, digging, rinsing, hi ho hi ho, in search of diamonds and precious gems and 24 karat gold while smacking fool’s gold from foolish fingers.

I could tell her I’m tired of the ear-piecing voices that puncture the present to “get back to normal” ASAP, right this g’damn minute if not yesterday or last week already, that the restrictions meant as safeguards against which many fought and didn’t follow ever, you do you American individualism at its worst, be lifted for everyone everywhere. That theatres and malls and concerts and parties roar back to life, that workplaces open and freeways and BART trains fill up as commuters resume their daily to-and-fro trudge. That schools for students of all ages open immediately.

I could tell her I’m tired because the pandemic has worn me out, too. Just like everyone else, I’m tired of making all the meals for all the people and washing all the dishes and planning all the menus so we can stagger all the shopping trips or find ourselves again, unintentionally, offering the pet rabbit or the compost heap the produce that has gone off before we got to it. I’m tired of competing in the Pandemic WiFi Olympics with everyone under our roof and in our neighborhood on Zoom work and Zoom school all the freaking hi ho hi ho day long.

I could tell her I’m especially oh so tired of monitoring online school and emailing teachers and skirting parents who want me to agree with them, though I don’t and I can’t for the sake of my individual and particular struggling child, who likely represents more children than I or we know personally. The screech of brakes and fire sparks of metal wheels straining on metal tracks sting my ears and burn my brain as I realize that this time I’m the one throwing the brakes and I’m the one throwing my body over my child tied to the tracks as the train hurtles toward us… We’ve finally committed and settled in to our place on this track, as we thought required and necessary, and now that we’re here we discover wide-eyed that we’re stuck and left behind while others nimbly switch tracks and the train set in motion by life and pandemic and school board and caution and all those squeaky wheels might actually mow us down.

I could tell her I’m just as tired as every other K-12 parent from empathizing with the myriad losses my son has and will experience, losses common to all our kids, the games and sports practices and dances and lunchtime rallies and spirit days and concerts and plays and gallery shows and in-class support and Scouts and youth groups and parties and budding romances and old-fashioned face-to-face friendship and, oh yeah, Halloween which shouldn’t but probably will happen anyway in 2020, as this strange school year in this strange pandemic year unfolds bit by bit, a map we didn’t chart and don’t know how to follow toward a destination on which no one yet agrees.

I could tell her I’m tired of feeling anxious about a virus we can’t see and don’t understand for which there isn’t yet a vaccine–and patients in vaccine trials keep getting sick which halts vaccine trials and maintains our place in this holding pattern. I’m tired of having to think so intentionally about how to do differently all the things that once filled our days with normalcy, like a quick grocery trip on the way home from a day at the office to pick up a fresh ciabatta loaf so we can make a Tuscan pressed sandwich for dinner tonight with the fragrant basil and glorious tomatoes growing in our garden.

I could tell her I’m tired and shattered for feeling suspicious of neighbors and friends, those same shrill voices who insist that society and schools reopen, and yet I’ve heard about their summer vacations, multiple trips in fact while so many of us followed the suggested guidelines and stayed home, and I’ve seen their pictures of mask-less hugs gathered in tight for the camera on those vacations or at those restaurants that posted policies of family-only seating. Who to trust?

I want schools to open, safely. I want on-site work to resume, safely. I want stores and theatres to open, safely. I want to see friends and neighbors and family and colleagues, safely. I want “normal” life, whatever that ever meant, to resume, or our “new normal” to commence…safely.

How are you? she asks.

Tired, grieving, frustrated, sad, lonely, I could say.

Existentially and honestly, I could also answer: I am loved, safe, housed and fed, unintentionally funny yet funny nonetheless, smart and talented and engaged, creative and creatively fulfilled, thoughtful and kind and loving.

Grateful, I could say. I am all of this, and also grateful.

How are you?

When What’s Staggering Isn’t: Seeing Sad Truths

The US has now passed the staggering statistic of 200,000 COVID-19 deaths (global deaths are approaching one million).

That’s the equivalent of:
66 days of 9/11 attacks
109 Hurricane Katrinas
Almost 1,200 Oklahoma City bombings
1,450 full commercial planes, or eight plane crashes every day of our six-month quarantine
The combined US death toll from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf

If things keep going as they have been, researchers project that another 180,000 people may die by January 1, 2021, almost double our current numbers.

Our brains aren’t wired to comprehend such big numbers, especially when we’re already tapped out by all the factors involved in this never-before experience: we’re depressed from dealing with economic uncertainty, managing work or unemployment while also navigating online school alongside our children, changes to how we do all the details of life, and a volatile upcoming election amidst social unrest.

Of course it’s a lot, and our sense of shock has dulled with each new report. Add to that the reality that many of us don’t yet know personally someone who has died as a result of COVID-19, and that traditional methods of coping with grief such as memorial services have been restricted during the pandemic, and we simply don’t know how to respond.

It’s no wonder that, in the moments when the pain and grief of this unthinkable situation to which we cannot foresee an end seeps through our vulnerable cracks, we prefer to numb out instead. We downplay it, imagining it’s not that bad, or that it won’t happen here, that it won’t affect our families or our kids’ schools.

I have been extremely cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t like wearing a mask (not that anyone does) so I’ve mostly stayed home and walked the dogs. In six months I’ve been on one restaurant patio and in two stores. My husband has done all our grocery shopping.

I’m not in a high risk group. And while being a natural rule follower partly explains my response, it occurred to me the other day that I also learned early that you can be careful and still be party to unexpected, shocking results.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

During my senior year of high school I took a Child Development class with the absolute best, wackiest teacher ever. If you remember Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus children’s educational books and TV series (voiced by the fabulous Lily Tomlin), she was just as wonderful and memorable. She intended to encourage us to expand our knowledge while also having fun and learning practical lessons, so we did a lot of role playing and simulations.

For instance, one time we pretended we were medical interns doing rounds with our attending physician (Teacher) diagnosing issues related to postpartum women and/or their babies. I’ve forgotten a lot of things I learned in high school, but when my own babies were born I recalled specific lessons from that class.

That year, 1986-87, AIDS was taking center stage among major health issues, and our teacher organized a simulation to help us see up close something that felt remote to us. Because our class consisted primarily of young women, she invited the men’s choral group that met during the same hour to join us – which heightened the fun factor for sure.

We all received a slip of paper with a number on it and instructions to stand up, mingle, and exchange numbers with people we “liked.” We each wrote the other’s number on our paper to effectively contact trace, though we wouldn’t have known to call it that.

We pretended to be college students at a party deciding who we would hook up with. Insightful teacher that she was, she anticipated that the good little church girl would be disinclined to swap numbers, so she specified that everyone had to exchange numbers at least once. Unbeknownst to me, she also designated me Patient Zero, a recipient of bad blood.

Within the simulation, my one-time number swap led to a substantial percentage of my classmates becoming “infected” with AIDS – at that time a certain death sentence that also carried significant social stigma. Something inside me crumbled as I looked around to see how many people would have died because of me had this been a real scenario; I wasn’t the only one stunned to silence for the rest of the day. Her experiment created a vivid picture of how quickly diseases might transmit even when we’re careful.

Our actions have consequences. Even as I stay home to mitigate risk, I realize that I’m still not safe. That one patio meal might have been the place and time that I contracted COVID-19. Today’s trip to Costco might be the place and time that my husband is exposed. Though we may be careful to lessen the probabilities, no matter what we do, we can’t prevent all risk – nor would we want to. Risk remains a necessary part of life, and some risks are absolutely worth it. We have to live, after all.

Still, as this pandemic pause continues, I maintain my commitment to caution – to stay home as much as possible, to wear a mask, to avoid crowds, and to exercise good hygiene – because if I, if we, do become exposed, I don’t want to give it to you. I never want to be Patient Zero again.

Note: I cited several articles in this post and particularly recommend the article from National Geographic on why our minds don’t compute these staggering numbers and how we can remain sensitive.

Cover image by congerdesign from Pixabay

9 Prayers to Squelch Pandemic Panic (aka, anti-anxiety prayers)

A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place, I knew I needed a different kind of spiritual discipline, one that focused my creative writing on Scripture God could use to lift me out of the sudden onset of anxiety. I began searching God’s Word for promises related to anxiety and fear, and what I needed most, peace.

From there, I wrote short prayers following the tradition of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury during King Henry VIII’s reign of England and author of the first Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: an address for God, a characteristic of God, a request, an intention, and the name of Jesus. While I used a traditional form, I also personalized it in ways Cranmer couldn’t have imagined.

Listening to God through the Bible and then listening for what my heart wanted to say in response has helped me channel my energy into making something meaningful. Praying these prayers resets my anxious mind, centering my focus on God’s presence here and now. I pray they’ll also share some peace with you. Please feel free to share with friends who might want to pray along with you!

Psalm 40:1-3 I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.

My Rescuer, always listening and quick to respond, rescue me now. Lift me up to new, safe heights so that I may bellow your praises. In the name of Jesus Christ I sing, Amen.

Psalm 94:18-19 When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.

Loving God, though I fall, you never fail; you extend comfort when anxiety topples me. I’m slipping, Lord! Catch me in your strong arms of love and hold me so tight that, instead of fear, I am squeezed by joy in your presence. In Jesus’ name I squeak love, Amen.

Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Creator God, who sculpted my heart and knows me inside and out, excavate the junk I can’t, or won’t, admit. Take my hand and direct me in better ways to better days with you by my side forever. In your Son’s name I pray, Amen.

Joshua 1:9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Lord my God, you who have been with me since before the beginning and will be for eternity, dress me in your strength, your courage, your nearness, so that I am prepared for the adventures of brave living each day. In the name of your Son who is the Way, Amen.

Matthew 6:25-27, 32b-34 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? …your heavenly Father knows [what] you need… But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Provider God, who feeds the birds and cares even more for me, give me what I need for body and soul. Set my eyes so firmly on your kingdom and plant my feet so firmly in today that my faith in you motivates my every step. Thank you, Jesus, Amen.

John 14:1, 27 Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Faithful Savior with arms full of offered peace, sprinkle your sparkly glitter dust of peace over the messy glue of my heart to create a down-to-earth and still frame-worthy work of art entitled “Confident Belief.” In your name I pray, Jesus, Amen.

John 16:33 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Hey Jesus, my Comforter, the world is in trouble and I feel stuck in the world. Wrap me up in your peace and show me how you are overcoming so that I can move forward into this braveheart life. I pray in your name, Jesus, Amen.

Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Jesus Christ, my near and gentle Lord, fill my mouth with rejoicing and drench me in peace so that your gentleness, rather than my anxiety, becomes evident to everyone I meet. I rejoice in you, Jesus, Amen.

1 Peter 5:6-7 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Servant Savior, who loved us fully by showing us how to be humble, I am tossing all my anxiety at you like a sack of dirty laundry–I don’t want it, please take it. Thank you for gently loving me, for cleaning up my messes and holding me tight. Humbly your child prays to you, Jesus, Amen.

Cover image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay 

3 Things I’m Learning About Anxiety and 5 Things that Help – part 2

This is part 2 of a two-part series on anxiety. Read part 1 here.

Let’s jump right in. Here are a few things I’m finding helpful in dealing with anxiety:

Routines
The pandemic taught me that I rely on imposed routines. When all normal routines vanished, it took me a while to find my way back to some kind of order. It hasn’t been easy, but intentionally developing consistent blocks of time for consistent activities helps. I also switch up my seating: writing in my recliner in the morning or at the patio bistro table in the afternoon, for example. I can’t control a lot, but I can control how I structure my days.

Well, mostly. Let’s be honest: sometimes life happens and even my own plans go down the drain…causing anxiety. Take a deep breath, acknowledge the mess, and move on, asking What’s my next right step?

Also, adding a touch of ritual to the routine, like a favorite mug within reach during my morning writing or lighting a scented candle during my evening reading, lends whimsy or beauty to the occasion.

Outlets
We need healthy ways to get out the Big Feels. When I wasn’t sleeping, exercise felt hard but also eventually helped me sleep better. Getting outdoors is especially important when exercise has been the only regular reason to leave home. Long brisk walks, running occasional stretches, and yoga locate me firmly in my body and help me feel healthy and strong. I can’t stand “stretching,” but call it “yoga” and I’m in; whatever works! I’m using the Down Dog app and love that it’s fully customizable to what I need.

When I over-exercised and injured myself, I doubled-down on writing. Every day I type fast and furious for 20 minutes, dumping on a document no one but me will ever read. Putting words to what life looks like and how I feel about it gets it out.

I’ve always loved to read and I’m reading more than ever to keep my mind occupied with something beyond me. I’d also like to create more art or put together some photo albums, but I’m wary of pandemic productivity pressure, of comparing what I know of myself to what I see in someone else (especially since what I can see are their curated social media posts); I will get to those things when the time feels right for me.

Interestingly, a synonym for outlet is safety valve, and these regular practices combine to help me feel safer.

Be
I tend to live in my head, either in the past or the future, so it’s always a challenge to be here now. But when anxiety grips me I need to do something – noticing the feelings in my body, walking away and taking intentional deep breaths, stretching – anything that healthfully disengages the immediate cause for panic helps. I also capture a few things each day for which I’m grateful; I have a journal specifically for that purpose.

One recommended way to ground yourself is the 54321 method; this hasn’t been as helpful for me, but naming my feelings and putting them in the clouds that gently drift away has – I may have a cloudy hour or even a few cloudy days, but eventually the sun will shine again.

If you’re a reader, I recommend Tara Brach’s book Radical Compassion. Let it RAIN: Recognize your feelings, Allow them to just be (rather than stuffing or numbing them), Investigate how they feel in your body, and Nurture your inner self. She writes that RAIN “awakens mindfulness and compassion, applies them to the places where we are stuck, and untangles emotional suffering.” As a Christian, it’s a course on prayer I didn’t get at church. (Please note: as an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases).

Boundaries
I fell hard down the social media rabbit hole and my scrapes hurt. At first it made sense since a) it was a way to connect when we were all stuck at home and b) everyone had a different news source to share.

But alongside “news” I saw pictures of friends not taking things seriously and posts encouraging “you do you” individualism rather than “let’s all give a little for the common good.” I saw conspiracy theories and rants of many colors. I had to set radical limits.

And since the world is a wee bit scary right now, and everyone seems to be angry about something (I feel others’ emotions so hot they burn), when we can’t easily gather and seeing even a few people feels emotionally risky, I’m resigned to staying home as much as possible for as long as necessary.

To stay connected, I’ve started reaching out by mail; a note in the mailbox brightens someone’s day and often they respond with a text or email that brightens mine. Yes, I could call, but I like the phone less. Don’t even ask me to Facetime; I’ll Zoom only if it’s essential to you.

Anxiety doesn’t have to make sense, and my triggers will be different from yours. I’m paying attention to how I feel and giving myself permission to set the boundaries I need. Sometimes I feel guilty – everyone else can [fill in the blank], so why can’t I? – and I’m working hard to let that go. I’m not everyone else; I get to make my own rules.

Love
Jesus loves me, this I know… The fact that I’m dealing with anxiety absolutely does not invalidate my faith. God still reigns in heaven, and here on earth I’m having a rough go. Yes, I pray, and yes, I can pray while engaged in self-care practices.

My family has managed to balance time together with sufficient alone time even in our small home. I’m grateful for the support and joy they add to my life. But I can’t expect them to shoulder my burdens continually. I have to do this work myself.

I’ve been reading about anxiety and self-care. I have saved so many images to my camera roll that remind me to breathe, to be gentle, to tell myself a better story. I’ve asked myself what someone who loves themselves would do, and I’ve spoken to myself the loving words I’d speak to a hurting friend.

None of this is rocket science, and honestly, none of these approaches work on their own or all the time. So far I haven’t been able to banish anxiety from my life; this has become my new normal and I expect I’ll continue learning how to be me – and how to be kind to this version of myself – for the rest of my life.

What works for you? I’d like to know. And if you’ve found this post helpful, please share. We’re in this together.

Reminder: YOU are Essential Even if You’re Not an Essential Worker

Essential: s·sen·tial
/əˈsen(t)SHəl/
adjective
Definition: absolutely necessary; extremely important.

Who knew the word essential would take on such significance in 2020?

At midnight on March 17, 2020, Californians were suddenly under lock-down orders due to an unprecedented pandemic. Everyone but essential workers would stay at home, leaving only for exercise (and that on foot or bike) or essential needs like picking up groceries or prescriptions.

Essential workers are those on the front lines: health care workers and first responders; government officials and those employed to maintain needed infrastructure like water, electricity, transportation; grocery workers and minimal restaurant staff; mail carriers and delivery people; and a few others somewhat randomly defined. Yet even essential workers were asked to work from home whenever possible.

My Guy’s a pastor. Pastors inspire hope, essential (anytime and) in a pandemic. He works from home for all but a couple hours each week when a very few people gather to record elements for the now-online services.

Pre-pandemic, I worked at a wine bar. While some might argue that wine is also essential during a pandemic, you don’t have to go to a wine bar to get wine. Our bar closed. Guy can work from home; I can pour wine at home all I want, but I’m no longer paid for it.

He is considered essential; he can continue to do his job. I am not considered essential; my job can’t be done remotely; I can’t do my job. 

That right there is the fly in our ointment: essential and essential worker have gotten mashed up-messy like mud pies. Just like we’ve mashed up our occupations and identities since forever. Guy’s job may be that of an essential worker whereas mine is not; however, we are both essential. We are essential because we are.

You are now and will always be essential even if your work is currently not that of an essential worker.

Your occupation occupies a lot (or, currently, little to none) of your time, but what you do is not who you are.

You are who you are; you are not what you do.

Who you are matters regardless of what you do.

I’ll admit, it’s been a struggle. Guy’s done a lot of what he’s always done, plus a few newly-related things, just differently. Meanwhile, now and again I’ve floundered trying to figure out what to do next.

What you do matters, but it doesn’t make up all of you. It doesn’t create your identity. Purpose and Meaning are different.

For example… Purpose: my job required me to pour wine for customers; Meaning: as I poured wine I also offered generous hospitality and, when invited, a listening ear. I made customers happy not just by doing what I had to do but by serving wholeheartedly.

Currently unemployed, I spend a lot of time doing stuff for my family. Most moms know that can be a thankless job but it depends on not just your purpose, the activities that fill your day, but also the meaning you give to those actions. I do dishes and laundry, I cook and clean. But what I’m really doing – the meaning in the purposeful actions – is providing tangible care for the people I love.

Payment doesn’t provide meaning, either. A paycheck doesn’t equal value. I don’t get paid to care for my family. I’m also not getting paid to write these blog posts. But I write because it’s who I am, how I process the world and my place in it, and I hope that my writing extends hope to others. Purpose: I write words. Meaning: I write words that offer hope.

Please remember: You are essential. Whoever you are and whatever you do, you matter. You have purpose (your to-do list, whatever that looks like these days) and meaning (the why behind it). You are unique, one-of-a-kind, with strengths and gifts to offer to a waiting world that needs you. You are absolutely necessary and extremely important. You are loved.

Cover image by Jessica Joh from Pixabay

Pandemic Pause: Month 3

Tuesday marked three months since shelter-in-place (SIP) began in NorCal. We’re in Week 13. Other than exercise, out the door on my own two feet, I’ve left the house four times; three times I stayed in my car; I haven’t interacted with more than a few people at a time.

I recognize how incredibly fortunate I am. My superstar husband, whose “acts of service” love language has seldom been more apparent, has done all our shopping and errand-running. While my job got “postponed” I have a (tiny) side gig that helps (a tiny bit). We’re also spending less, with little need for gas, new clothes or make up, entertainment, etc.

I wish it weren’t so, but wearing a mask gives me a panic attack. I need to freely breathe fresh air and, though my mother-in-law has sewed us an assortment of masks from beautiful materials, I’d rather stay home than wear a mask for any length of time. (For what it’s worth, I don’t love snorkeling, either.)

Three months is a long time to stay home; Pandemic Fatigue has set in everywhere. Then again, there are those who never took it seriously or who kinda-sorta went through enough of the motions to at least resemble those who played by all the rules. Anyway, reopening has begun and people have ventured forth.

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm was interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air. He points out that, worldwide, we’re all confused as to how to live in this pandemic time.

He warns that so far, only 5-7% of the U.S. population has been infected. “All the pain, suffering, death and economic disruption have occurred with 5 to 7%. But this virus is not going to slow down transmission overall. It may come and go, but it will keep transmitting until we get at least 60 or 70% of the population infected and hopefully develop immunity — or if we get a vaccine, that can get us there too. And so I want to be really clear: None of us are suggesting this is going to stop and go away…”

One commenter did the math: “So given 7% of the population of 328 million has been infected and 119K have died that makes the mortality rate 0.5% over all. Given 70% of America’s population would need to be infected before we get herd immunity I calculate that would be over 1 million dead.” While 0.5% sounds negligible, 1 million dead does not.

Last weekend a neighbor posted this:

I followed the link to a CDC graph of CA cases. Yikes!

Tell me again why we’re reopening?

Another graph specific to our county shows that right now our small town is actually one of the safest places in CA to live in regards to the pandemic. And yet, as the county rushes to reopen, cases have begun to rise. And as people begin to travel and return to shops and restaurants, it may get worse. A county spike of 114% in the last month is nothing to sneeze at. Goodness gracious, please don’t sneeze!

Of course there is the debate about what SIP was meant to do. Even though the CDC graph shows a dramatic spike from March through June, that may be considered a flattening of the curve from what had been predicted. The spike might have been gargantuan, Jack and the Beanstalk tall versus The Hulk. The Hulk is still larger than life, but not Giant in the Sky ginormous.

We needed time for hospitals and medical personnel to prepare, and for medical equipment to become available. So our case numbers are low enough that they could potentially handle a full load of very sick people. Okay.

Some argue that SIP was never meant to drop the infection rate to 0. But why would we not do everything we can if we have it in our power to at least keep the infection rate from climbing? Even if that means not doing things we’d like to.

CDC guidelines specify that reopening should only happen after a downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over fourteen days, which hasn’t happened yet. In fact, according to Dr. Leana Wen, an ER physician, visiting professor of public health at George Washington University, and former Baltimore city health commissioner, “Nothing about the virus has actually changed.”

But…the economy. Our country runs on money. We need money to feed and house our families. Committed to supporting small local businesses, our family seldom ate out before yet we’ve gotten take-out every other week in the last three months. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be eating in a restaurant filled with people and servers milling between tables, even out of doors. And I don’t need anything at TJ Maxx.

But…mental health. New-to-me anxiety soared as SIP began, so I followed all the guidelines to a T and made meticulous shopping lists and got kitchen-creative to manage our needs while limiting Guy’s grocery runs. That helped my mental health, while others in my household struggled differently. We had good conversations and did our best to be gentle with ourselves. No matter who you are, this pandemic pause has taken a toll.

As reopening continues, Managed Risk will be key. I continually ask, “Is it necessary?” Is it necessary to meet in person if we can talk on the phone? Is it necessary to eat out if we can eat at home? Is it necessary to go to the gym if I can go for a run?

For me, the answer tends to be a big, fat NO. Meanwhile, my 16yo son went out last night. Three teenagers in a car together, all wearing masks, drove down the freeway to a fast food place. They got take-out and ate as they drove home. A fairly small risk that certainly helped his mental health.

Sometimes as I have observed loved ones and neighbors differently negotiating SIP, I have felt ashamed, like Chicken Little crying, “The sky is falling!” Maybe I’m just annoying. Maybe I’m not equipped to correctly interpret the scientific data. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong, and maybe I’m reading the info correctly. Caution doesn’t make me a coward.

For now, I’ll continue to stay home.

Cover image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

My Five Things – Part 2

As I shared yesterday, I discovered a fun pandemic-related blog topic going around called “My Five Things.” I started playing with the idea and got a little carried away, hence two posts.

I’d love to read your five things, fun ways you are staying sane during these unusual days. If you’re a blogger, tag me. If you’re not a blogger, leave a Five Things list in the comments. Let’s play!

5 Things New to My Life Since Quarantine
Anxiety (related: Headspace – offering a free year for those unemployed due to the pandemic)
At-home yoga with the Down Dog app (purchase includes customizable workouts + HIIT, Barre, and 7-minute total body workouts)
SoundCloud, particularly 2F Big Bootie Mixes, upbeat dance mixes long enough to make my dog walks (almost) commercial free
Take-out food from local restaurants on a regular basis
I joined a writing group

5 Bands/Musicians I Listen to on Repeat
U2
Mumford & Sons
Judah & The Lion
Indigo Girls
David Crowder

5 Books I’ve Just Read
I’d Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Daily Rituals edited with text by Mason Currey
Radical Compassion by Tara Brach (almost done)

Read all my reviews on Goodreads

5 Books in My To-Read Queue
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Peacock Emporium by Jojo Moyes
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Beach Read by Emily Henry
(Please note: as an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.)

5 things I Want to Do When the World Feels Safe Again
Take the dogs to the beach for a long walk (repeat as often as possible)
Hug friends
Gather with others – at church, a movie, a concert
Camping
Explore a new neighborhood, a new city, or a new country – or all three