When I picked my children up from school on the last day before Coronavirus action rippled across our town and country, my daughter got into the car and said, “Mama it was such a weird day; I feel so weird.” How so, I asked? She replied, “All these things we were going to do got cancelled; my teachers were acting different. I don’t know, it feels like a giant wheel could just roll across the street right now.” Totally. These are times when it feels like anything could happen. A giant wheel could roll across the road, schools could close for the year, basketball games could disappear, work could dry up, someone we love (and thousands of people we don’t know) could contract a novel virus that we don’t know how to cure.
These are unprecedentedly uncertain times for us all. In the midst of this shakiness and stress, where it feels precariously possible to slip into hyper overdrive anxiety mode, how do we cultivate a sense of calm within this storm?
These are some considerations I’m working with right now and offer them in hopes they may be of benefit to you too.
Meaningful rhythm holds us. In our normal lives, rhythm is usually imposed on us by time: what time school starts, when our first meeting begins, when bills and school papers are due, dinnertime, bedtime, on and on. There is comfort (and resentment) in structure and when that structure (and its associated emotions) is taken away, we can feel like we’re free falling. During this time, we can create meaningful rhythms, unique and tailored to our households. Below are some general guildelines I’m following to help structure our days.
Begin and/or end your day with quiet. What does this look like in your life right now? A few minutes of sitting meditation? Holding hands quietly together around the breakfast table? A walk in the woods? What does a bit of intentional quiet look like in your life right now?
Take a few moments to get clear on what you (and others living with you) want to do each day. Talk about what you each would like to do today, make lists and compromises, find a plan, no matter how loose, that works for everyone.
Questions to consider:
What does community look like for you today? Who would you (and/or your kids) love to connect with today and what could that connection look like? Who needs help, and how can you help safely?
What are your needs (ie: work you must get done, chores that need to happen) vs. the wants? How can we balance the wants and needs in a realistic way that will allow of us to end the day feeling accomplished and valued?
Go outside in some capacity for whatever length of time fits you and/or your family.
Mindfulness activity option: Notice what you notice. If you have them, ask your kiddos what they notice. Spring is unfolding right now. The earth is unchanging in its rhythms though our lives may feel completely foreign. We can trust the rhythms and endless capacity of the earth hold us just we are.
Limit social media and screen time to what is absolutely necessary. I’m just going to boldly say this one and I know everyone may not agree—and that’s totally fine. Screens are how we are connecting right now so I’m taking that into account. I think we all know that threshold where the reason we’ve picked up the device has been met and we are wading into mindless drifting in internet world. When this happens to me, I am left feeling disconnected from myself and my life. It is disorienting and not helpful to increasing sanity. Work with noticing when you’ve reached that threshold and then put the devices down, turn off the screens, and get your kids to put them down too.
Talk about how you and loved ones are feeling. Don’t be afraid to let your emotions be messy. Living in close quarters and finding new rhythms is rarely a simple recipe for happily ever after. Loving well is not about being nice all the time. It’s not about making sure everyone is happy all the time. Acknowledge how you are feeling. Forgive yourself when you have behaved in way that is not who you want to be. Apologize when you’ve hurt someone. Listen without needing to change anything. Let go of needing to control an outcome.
Move your body. How can you move your body today? Our bodies hold so much stress and anxiety, when we move them, when we exert ourselves, those happiness endorphins release and stress can move through us. It has been amazing to me to notice this week that as soon as I’m exercising, I can feel myself settle down and rest easier.
Bring to the forefront projects, ideas and possibilities that have been backburned for too long. What are those things you’ve been putting off forever because there’s never enough time? Now you've got it, you can get to it. Baking? Writing poetry? Gardening? Hacky sac? When something burns down, we have a chance to rebuilt it afresh.
End your day with gratitude. Neurobiologists tell us that choosing to focus on gratitude can relieve stress, improve your immunity to illness and generally make you happier. The wild cherry tree bursting into blossom, the ridiculous dance my kids and I made up to The Gambler, the hilarious meme a friend texted, my husband’s eyes on mine as a lifeline, nothing has the ability to center me more than choosing to notice what I am thankful for today, what has brought me joy.
My sister and I went to hear Roxanne Gay speak a couple months ago and she spoke to joy. She was asked how she takes care of herself with all the racism and cruelty she comes in contact with in her daily life. She had many powerfully helpful insights to offer and one that resonated deeply with me was choosing joy. She described a daily choice of joy: laughing with your partner, loving your kids, disconnecting from screens and chatter and being present to the joy that is available to you. She said that choosing joy is a radical choice. Sometimes the weight of all the bad things that could happen and are happening make it feel like we shouldn’t feel joy or we can’t trust our moments of joy. That when safety is not available to so many, it is not and should not be a possibility for us.
If we listen to the Dalai Lama, he would say it is suffering (our awareness of our vulnerability, our experiences of pain) that allows us to feel joy. “…it’s normal to experience great difficulties. But these experiences can, with the right way of thinking, lead to having great inner strength. So I think that is something very useful, particularly when we’re passing through difficulties.” He goes on to distinguish what allows some people to come through experiences of great suffering ennobled rather than embittered. He says that the distinguishing factor is choosing to find meaning in your suffering.
A couple of months ago I had a dream that I was walking toward my car and I saw a snake coming out of its hood. I couldn’t stop moving toward the car and, as I approached, the snake started to rise up in the air toward me and I could see that it was a poisonous snake. I was absolutely terrified and felt certain that the snake was going to bite me. As I felt this terror freezing me, I looked down and saw that I held my cat in my arms. Now in real life, my cat is fierce. He’s about one fifth the size our dog but he is fearless; he holds his ground. If our dog gets too close or misbehaves in any way, he will swipe at her and hiss and subdue her. As I realized I held my cat, I knew I could bring this fierceness to the snake. In my dream, I reached out my hand and I grabbed the snake by throat. I dug my thumb into it, and I killed it. I killed that freakin’ snake.
In the face of all these what ifs rising up in front of us like some sort of poisonous snake, we can remember that we were built for this. We are capable of handling what is before us. As apart as it feels like things are falling, we are not alone. When I start to think about what will happen if our income shifts too dramatically, or if my children never return to school, or if the hospitals start to fill up, or if food becomes scarce. I remind myself that we are all feeling these fears right now. I am not alone. We are all together in this, holding the same fears, making the same sacrifices, struggling with adapting to these sweeping changes to our daily lives. There are folks whose suffering is so much greater than mine right now, and I want their suffering to ease. I turn my attention to them. I remind myself of the joy in my life that I am so grateful for; I send a wish that everyone may experience moments of joy and abiding wellbeing. It may actually be our greatest strength: to be able to hold joy and suffering together. They are interdependent. The fear of not being able to anticipate what will happen and the rapture of being alive right now. One doesn't have to win; they are meant to live together in each of us. When I let my mind rest here, I am calmer.
 The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (HH Dalai Lama, Desmund Tutu, Douglas Abrams)