Full Circle

A year ago today, I had a regularly scheduled quarterly appointment with my Rheumatologist. I knew enough about the “novel coronavirus” to know that being near other people was potentially a risk. We knew by then, also, that the virus was already lurking nearby because our local middle school had been shut for cleaning over the weekend due to a confirmed case. But I was still holding out hope that our family could sneak in a long-planned vacation to San Diego on March 18.

My doctor’s office is located within a large hospital, which was not exactly where I wanted to be at that moment in time. When I arrived, I mentally plotted the best course from my car to the doctor’s office that would ensure I minimized contact with others. I parked on the street instead of in the hospital garage and MacGyver’ed my way through back stairwells and infrequently used hallways, using only my elbows to open doors and letting them slam shut. I was very proud of my stealth, my well-honed survival skills (also known as being an anxious person who perpetually prepares for any eventuality) finally coming in handy.

When I opened the doctor’s office door, a woman was standing at the check-in counter speaking with the receptionist. Two others sat in the waiting room. My evasive maneuvers appeared to be for naught. Then I heard the words “just back from Italy” and nearly exploded. Was this virus really something I needed to worry about or was the news making an exaggeration of things? I paced, refusing to sit on potentially contaminated seats or to touch anything, and waited impatiently for my turn.

It’s still hard to believe that I walked into that office telling myself that I was probably overreacting and that, sure, caution was prudent but let’s not be hysterical. I had a hunch that getting on a plane and going on a cruise were becoming more unlikely by the minute, but it goes to show the power of – what? Denial? Incredulity? The sheer impossibility of what was about to happen? that I doubted the information in front of me – in front of all of us – to that point.

My doctor told me explicitly: no commercial airlines, definitely no cruises, and stay away from crowds. Because of my immuno-suppressed state I did, in fact, fall into a higher risk group. I left dazed – usually reality doesn’t match my over-active imagination. This time I underestimated reality. I felt suddenly quite mortal and very vulnerable. And no one really seemed to know what to do. We had information, but the idea of quarantine and social distance seemed drastic and irrational. People in authority – from the government and the CDC to school departments, business leaders, and medical facilities – kept referencing other people in authority in this bizarre hamster wheel of deer-in-headlights inaction.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped to see my mom for what I knew would officially be the last time for a while (you know, a couple of weeks – ha!). It felt like a risk – was I bringing something in or taking something home unknowingly? – and I regretted going almost immediately. That afternoon I stood apart from everyone when I picked my daughter up from school, waving to my friends from a safe distance, a little quiver to my lip. My neighbors dropped of N95 masks on my front porch. We debated whether or not our son should perform in his band concert. It seemed insane to cave into irrational fear. But when you can’t see what you fear, what is rational anymore?

March 11, 2020, my husband started working from home. He used to take the train to work every day. On his last commute home another passenger coughed the whole way. We couldn’t figure how me standing away from a crowd at school dismissal was going to help much if he was being coughed on to and from work every day. So he stayed home. And that was just the beginning…

THIS YEAR on March 11 I will get my first dose of COVID vaccine. I am excited that this moment is here – I can taste freedom and some semblance of sure footing again. The mask mandates made a huge difference, as has everything we have learned about the coronavirus and how to treat it and who it affects.

But I am also nervous for all the regular reasons an anxious person would be nervous – unknowns and straying from the norm always provoke anxiety. The norm has become staying home and staying apart, keeping this virus as far away as I possibly can. It’s odd to go out and actively seek it (I do know it’s not a live virus and the vaccines are thoroughly vetted – and I WILL get it, absolutely. I’m just being honest – life is full of both/and situations and this is one. I am excited and I am nervous).

Photo by Ju00c9SHOOTS on Pexels.com

The past year has required serious mental gymnastics. Back-bending our way back to the old normal will be an adjustment too. For me, anyway. To mentally survive this period of extreme isolation required adjusting my threshold for patience and accepting a version of life that was smaller and more insular than I would choose. I took a big step back from my regularly scheduled programming. A friend observed when the lockdowns first started that I was a social butterfly who got her wings clipped. I tried not to dwell on it too much, and to adjust. I just kept going the best I could. And I did. We did.

As the switch flips and we head in the other direction, this March 11 may be the beginning of something new – something normal. I am tempering my expectations and won’t celebrate too soon, but I do have this hopeful sensation bubbling up inside me. Dare I dream of being close to other people again? Hugging my mom? Sending my kids to school full-time and to camp this summer?

It’s a dream right now, but it’s a dream fueled by real, actionable progress not just wishful thinking. I am starting to think that, yes, in fact, we will be alright.

Stay the course. Stay well. We got this.

Hope employs positive action. It is actively moving toward a positive outcome.

Wishing is passive – a wait and see approach. That’s the stuff of fairytales!

– Nicole Seawell @SailorsSweetLife (dot com)

I’ve been taking a writing class which, ironically, means I haven’t got much time to write (here). But I came across this cartoon thanks to a friend and it was so perfectly aligned with my prior post about Valentine’s Day and Loving Fiercely that I thought I’d pop on, say hello, and share it.

Next week we hit the year mark of this COVID quiet world. I’m working on a piece about that so stay tuned – and stay well!

Have hope. Find hope. Share hope. Be hope.

You will be alright.

Finding Sanctuary

For years after having kids and while taking care of my mom, I had to modify what I thought my life was supposed to be to accommodate what it actually was. I spent far too long trying to shove the round peg that is me into the square hole that was my expectations of myself. Life intervened. Lessons were learned (painfully).

Eventually I let go of some things and I adapted. I left the working world and focused more on my family and my health. It was disorienting and I was consumed by guilt and grief because I wasn’t living the identity I had constructed for myself of being a “working mom.” A paycheck validated my worth and provided confirmation that I was contributing substantively to the world, as sad as that is to acknowledge. Without it, and without a title, I felt diminished and like my tether to and meaning in the broader world had shrunk. My life was fully in the service of others, consumed with sports schedules and camp sign ups, meal planning and doctors appointments. I craved purpose and passion. I got dirty diapers and dishes.

All moms are working moms.

a dear friend pulling me out of the abyss

I couldn’t accept for a while that this was a point in time, a temporary passage and where I needed to be for then, but not forever. I felt like I couldn’t hack it (and of course I assumed as I looked around that everyone else could and was doing “it” better than I was). What was “it,” you might ask? I am not even sure. Life? Work? Or, better, that most elusive work/life balance? My go-to mentality when I am up against a wall is that I must not be trying hard enough. But I couldn’t get out of my own way, and as most people eventually realize walls are pretty solid things. I remember reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and wanting to chuck it against the wall after the 13th page because what she prescribed was to sit with my discontent, essentially, and what I wanted was a to-do list to fix it.

When the pace of life and the noise in your head gets to be too much, where do you find sanctuary? For me, there’s nothing like the smell of warm pine needles on a forest floor, the lapping of lake water against an evergreen shoreline, a boulder-strewn mountain rising in the distance, the stillness of sitting quietly by a pond. No cellphones, no crowds, no distractions. With headspace I can reorient and find my center again.

But for the longest time when my kids were young, I couldn’t travel. The place I dreamed of, Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine, was simply too far away and my life was too busy and too consumed by caring for others for me to disappear into the wilderness. Eventually I would institute an annual pilgrimage to Katahdin, but what about all the time in between? I learned to seek elements of Maine closer to home, and to find stability and happiness within. This is what Pema Chodron teaches, but it took me a while to accept it. It’s still a work in progress. I still get wound up like a top and overwhelmed by life. I still am my own harshest critic. But I find my center by carving out time for exercise; laughing with good friends (always reliable for grounding); being curious and just saying yes! to something new sometimes; taking a walk in my suburban wilderness (often now with my dog); and delighting in the little things like a crisp blue sky, flowers, or a box of cookies arriving in the mail. These are highly recommended life hacks for moms and for everyone else who might feel like life is directing them versus the other way around.

Yesterday I was reminded, spectacularly, about the power of finding sanctuary, be that a mountain vista or a more traditional place of worship. At the end of a tour of historic properties in a small, central Massachusetts mill town, our tour guide invited us to see the interior of one of the local churches. As you might guess, I am more of a nature-than-built-environment-as-sanctuary kind of person, but I am also curious. We walked through a dark entry foyer, nothing of note. But as the door to the sanctuary opened, it was a like a curtain that had veiled and protected my heart through this long, challenging year of isolation, lowering expectations, and gracefully accepting our lot was swept aside. This sanctuary of towering ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate carvings forced a long, deep inhale. This church, modest in presentation from the outside and unexpectedly, stunningly beautiful on the inside, restored part of me that I didn’t even know was missing. It jolted awake a part of my brain that I hadn’t quite even realized was dormant. It reminded me of all the beauty there is in the world, and that you often don’t have to go very far to find it. There are unexpected treasures everywhere, if we are willing to stretch ourselves, be open-minded, and pull open the door to see it.

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part IV (Friendship, Community, and Humanity)

Virtue, tolerance, compassion, and kindness are, unequivocally, alive and well. It may not seem that way at times, but “the better angels of our nature” are on display much more often than not, especially in small moments and daily (even limited by COVID) interactions. There is plenty of headline-grabbing nonsense and legitimate worry about an abundant proclivity to act on our most basic instincts. There’s certainly much to unpack about human psychology and group think, demagoguery, isolation, and desperation. But there are also acts of unparalleled humanity, courage, love, and, fundamentally, connection, to celebrate.

“Emotional literacy is the foundation of resilience, empathy…connection. We are hard-wired for connection and, in the absence of it, there seems to always be suffering.”

Brene Brown

To keep with the dog theme, I’ll start with an example from the night Tucker was injured. As I scrambled to get him to the ER, I sent a quick text to two of his puppy friends (okay, their owners) to let them know what had happened since we had tentative plans to meet for a walk. The response wasn’t just “Oh my gosh, how awful” or even “how can I help,” but instead “I will add extra to the meal I am making for my family and deliver it to yours so you don’t have to worry about dinner” and “I will come sit with you at the vet so you aren’t alone.”

I ended up waiting at the ER for about four hours – there are LOTS of dogs these days and a correlating increase in incidents from dog parks gone wild (plus, I mean, COVID is the answer for any slowdown or SNAFU, isn’t it?). During that time, my family was treated to a homemade meal (not of my making – the best kind!) and I had a friend to help me process what the vet was saying and to remind me to eat something myself. When thanked for their help, both said “of course, that’s just what people do.” And I think that’s exactly right, actually. Generally, that is what people do. And it’s awesome.

Then there was December, a blur of a month at the best of times, which these most assuredly are not. This December was a season of too much loss and too many tears. Through it all I kept coming back to the simultaneous outpouring of compassion and love. Both/and.

During one week in December three friends lost loved ones (only one from COVID, a reminder that people are still suffering life-altering losses and then there is also COVID). COVID-19 – whether the cause of death or not – has turned all norms of grieving upside down with distance and masks and the migraine-inducing nightmare of holding back hugs when that is all anyone wants – and needs.

That awkward restraint notwithstanding, my breath caught at the lump in my throat seeing how people showed up, again and again and in so many ways, for those grieving. In one case, my friend organized a short ceremony outside at a cemetery. It was a frigid mid-winter weekday afternoon in the middle of a pandemic. But when I turned onto the cemetery drive I saw a long line of cars that I recognized, all loaded with friends and neighbors, individuals and full families, who came to pay their respects and show their support. When the bereaved family arrived, people slowly emerged from their vehicles and walked quietly up the frozen, grassy hill to gather around the casket. We represented multiple faiths, many cultures and different backgrounds – and we stood on that blustery hillside, spread at a distance, but together as a community, to honor the passing of our neighbor and friend, to support his family, and to show love despite and because of everything. The officiant noted that as human beings we have our differences and we don’t always agree, but we can all agree that death is inevitable, and we all walk this earth not knowing when the end will be just that it will come. There is unity in this fundamental humanity.

If you choose to peek around the formidable walls constructed by sadness, distance, difficulty, difference, and loss, you will discover some of the purest forms of community, commonality, compassion, and connection. These are where unity and humanity reside. It is from here that we rise up and hold each other up and together. Be curious and kind. Seek the good that emerges from difficulty. Our humanity is in tact. Love wins.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

amanda gorman – the hill we climb

To understand more about what makes us tick emotionally, here is a great podcast: Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda and Brene Brown (on emotional literacy , empathy, courage, and where they come from).

“Empathy is with someone, sympathy is for someone from over here.”

-Alan Alda and Brene Brown podcast conversation
In honor of my friend Ali

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part III (From the Dog)

Tucker here. I am the small Schnoodle that is the subject of much recent kerfuffle. Today I am your guest blogger, here to tell you about this dog’s life from my perspective.

Simply put, every day is JOY! That’s who I am and the spirit I live by. I look like a living teddy bear, for starters, but it’s also what I am all about – snow! food! friends! walks! my hoomans! My hooman thinks sooooo much – maybe too much? Me? I can distill life down to the essentials with me as the only fluff.

Here’s an overview of my day:

I wake each morning refreshed and ready to greet the day. I wiggle and wag at the Return of the Hoomans.

Before I do anything else, I enjoy a nice, long, delicious stretch. Downward dog….upward dog…maybe one more down dog before I sit for pets. That’s kind of the routine.

After that, I race down the stairs to the back door because it is OUTSIDE TIME. My hooman puts on my leash and I shake and shimmy and whine while they put on their shoes because it’s all so exciting anticipating the Opening of the Door!

As we walk around the block I literally smell the roses (and the leaf pile and the prior dog’s pee – the details are irrelevant. I sniff it all and enjoy myself tremendously).

When we are walking my main hooman is always saying, “Let’s go!” and “Come on, Tucker.” I wonder where we are racing off to and what’s the rush? Everything seems perfect to me – my hooman, fresh air, good smells. I’d never actually say, “Slow your roll, hooman” – that would be rude – but I attempt to train them better by locking my legs and focusing super hard on my sniffs so they have to chillax and take it down a notch.

Tucker the Schnoodle

When we get home, we EAT! Sometimes I need a nap first, sometimes I eat right away. I like to mix it up.

Sometime in the morning we usually go for a nice, long walk with my friends. We jump all over each other in greeting every time because yesterday – or even an hour – can feel like a very looooong time ago. And also because we live so much in the moment that every new moment is the BEST. Besides it is just so exciting to Meet the Friends. I don’t understand why hoomans refrain from showing such enthusiasm for their friends and curtail their jumping. Friends are important.

When I see my friends down the street I race as fast as possible, Chariots of Fire theme song a-blazing in my head, unbridled joy and love propelling me forward. My hooman gets her exercise, too, because she is always tethered to the other end of my leash. Joy and exercise for all!

tucker the schnoodle

Mind you, I would gladly run free, but I have been known to get a little carried away and forget to come back when called. Guys, there are SO MANY smells out there and the world is so much fun to explore that I just can’t stop! So leash walking it is. My hoomans say they’ve learned their lesson, whatever that means. I figure time will tell.

Usually during the Big Walk I find one special stick to bring home. It’s a big job, and I am a proud prancing poodle the whole way back.

After the Big Walk, I sleep. Beauty rest is important and also a lot of fun. My main hooman says things like “you look like the kind of dog that gets beat up” and “you better watch your back – you would be a delectable snack” but she’s from Philadelphia so, meh, what do you expect? Folks from the City of “Brotherly Love” have a weird sense of humor.

Speaking of getting beat up, the day I was attacked was such a surprise. I just wanted to be friends. With those dogs. With other dogs. With everyone. I did a good job loving the vets when my hooman took me to the ER. They gave me big hugs. Now I make sure that everyone knows I am out here waiting to be loved by barking my biggest, bestest barks and alerting the neighborhood to my joyful presence. I won’t make that mistake twice. Smart, right?

What else? OH! How could I forget Backyard Time and Riding in the Car?!? Anytime someone opens the door to the backyard, I race out to investigate any potentially nefarious activity in my domain by checking the perimeters and practicing my barking. I also love romping off leash, especially with my hoomans and my friends. Riding in the Car can be a little scary getting IN that big, loud, strange-smelling thing, but once settled I stick my schnoodle schnoz out the window – oh! the sensory stimulation – and thrill at the adventure.

Have I mentioned that I have these hoomans wrapped around my little paws? Yea, it’s mutual. I dig them too. Loyalty, unconditional love, and pure joy are my main game.

I could say more, but there is a squirrel on the fence, so I must go. If my schedule allows, I’ll come back another time. But, basically, it boils down to this: live in the moment, find and jump for joy daily, don’t hold on to hard feelings, friends are important, get your exercise, play, eat, and sleep. That about covers it. Oh, and take a deep breath and drink some water. It can’t hurt.

Pro tip: water tastes way better in a random plastic dish outside or from the pond than that boring stuff the hoomans procure from the sink and put in my bowl in the kitchen. Or maybe that’s just me?

My philosophy on life.

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part II (Heel!!! Or Heal?)

My dog is okay now. He is back to bouncing around the backyard like a pinball and leaping and jumping for joy. We went to the vet 5 or 6 times during his convalescence for various issues that arose. He received stiches, two courses of antibiotics, two pain medications maxxed to the highest doses allowable, and laid low wearing the cone of shame for two weeks. It was ruff. But he has healed. Physically. Mentally, the jury is still out.

After the attack, I knew he would have some trauma and anxiety to work through. What I didn’t expect is that I may be in worse shape! And I have been noticing that I am prone to avoiding dealing with it. As in, in general, avoiding things that make me uncomfortable. In this case, I attempt to avoid other dogs like the plague. My dog? He just barks his head off. Meanwhile, I am cringing and telling him in the not-so-gentlest of tones to stop it. Stop it. STOP IT. Why must he call more attention to us?

I started working with a dog trainer to help get us through this period. I called her in to help me get his barking under control. We have spent a lot of time working on “heel,” helping him to understand that his job is to stay focused on my leg and to follow me wherever I might lead. He doesn’t need to worry about the dog up the path or the squirrel in the bushes. Just focus on my leg and let me lead.

For my part, I need to be a competent leader. As we walk, the trainer honestly spends more time working on me than my dog. She tells me, “Relax. Loosen your grip on the leash. Stand up tall. Breathe.” And she keeps saying it. Over and over again. I can’t be cowering in the corner and high tailing it in the opposite direction every time I see another dog and expecting my dog to “just relax.” I recognize now that it doesn’t exactly set the right tone when I see a dog up the trail and say, “Oh, God. Here comes another dog.” At first I didn’t even consciously hear myself saying it. But even if that message wasn’t said outloud – which it has been – it was definitely the energy I was presenting with. Everything out there for a while felt like a threat. And whatever I feel translates right down the leash to my poor pup, who is looking for reassurance from me.

These days, we actively seek out other dogs on our walks so we can practice. I would have preferred to stay in the backyard or choose a quiet, untrod path. My favorite walks, by far, remain those when we run into no one. The dog trainer tells me I need to breathe and relax and face it.

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I’ve heard these messages before. I’ve practiced a lot with facing my fears. I see a therapist every few weeks, I’ve taken meditation classes, listened to podcasts. And I keep forgetting. Or, more, I am who I am and I go back to my basic instincts. And, then, THEN, all the work kicks in and I notice the feelings and the narrative. And that means I can pull it back. Then I remember that I have to face into the fire to extinguish it, not run the other way. Pema Chodron explains it so well in her talk “Getting Unstuck: Fear and Fearlessness.” Writing this post was a great reminder to watch it again. “It’s a process of being here all along, not just when we like how it’s going. Instead of that making you more self-absorbed, it makes you very decent, very sane, and very open to the world and other people.”

Every time I hear myself say “heel” to my dog, in my mind I think “heal.”

Life keeps on giving us opportunity to practice. Keep facing into it and keep going.

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It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part I (Setting the Scene)

We walked home, my cellphone clamped between my cheek and my shoulder, my dog upside down like a baby in my arms, unable to walk from the bite wound. Cars whooshed past during the more modest but no less loud flow of quarantine rush hour as I waited for the vet to pick up while admonishing myself not to panic. “It helps no one if you lose it. Do not cry.”

When the vet answered, I explained what had happened. “You need to go directly to an emergency vet if he needs stiches. Did the other dogs have their rabies vaccinations?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.”

“You need to find out. You both need rabies shots if you have open wounds.”

The enormity of the situation pawed its way through the fog and settled in. With moderate success, I instructed myself to take a deep breath to try to quell the out-of-control-coupled-with-a-strong-desire-to-crawl-into-a-hole sensation that was rising in my chest.

When I got home, I tiptoed up the stairs to find my husband, hoping to avoid drawing any attention from our kids before we had a plan. In whispers I described the surprise attack, showed him our wounds. “I think I need to take him to the ER?”

I said this as a question, almost imploring him to disagree with me. As someone who works with anxiety all the time I was open to the possibility that I could be overreacting, that maybe a gaping hole on the underside of our dog’s belly was not in fact something to worry about. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “the only easy day was yesterday” is the type of Navy ethos I was raised with. Which is a wild mindset to run smack into an anxious being, where the gray area between a real crisis and an anxiety-provoked one can be difficult to decipher. I know from experience that my gut instinct is actually pretty accurate, but I always do this little dance of second-guessing myself wondering if I should tough it out just a little longer.

It was late afternoon by this point. Having pulled multiple all nighters in the pediatric ER with a sick kid, I’ve learned to just go before it gets dark and all remaining rational thought goes out the window as fatigue sweeps in. The sooner you go, the sooner you get to go to bed.

Sure enough, once our dog was in the vet’s arms, I felt my shoulders drop from their alert perch near my ears as relief washed over me. That’s when the uncontrollable shaking started. Through chattering teeth I confessed to a friend over the phone that I couldn’t stop shaking. “That’s just the adrenaline leaving your body. It’s normal.”

Oh.

I had always thought when I got the shivers and shakes that it was a weakness, that I wasn’t tough enough, that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just keep it together. I should know by now that what I perceive to be my unique oddities are very rarely only mine. A nearly decade-old memory of a dimly-lit, brick-walled classroom at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine surfaced. All of us patients were sitting in a circle with our eyes closed as the teacher led a guided meditation. I was rolling my eyes behind my shut eyelids, bracing myself against the “woo-woo” territory we were entering.

“You are walking down a path through a forest. There is a tree in the distance. Walk over to it. The tree is you.”

Silence (apart from my internal groaning).

“Ask the tree for guidance on a character trait you need help fixing.”

I could barely contain my snark. BUT, I had chosen to take this class to explore every avenue I could to alleviate my RA symptoms. AND I was in this room with all these other people so I felt committed to do what was asked (or at least to not be rude). I kept my eyes closed, looked at the oak tree standing tall and sideways (oddly), and asked it the question as instructed. Out of nowhere – I swear – a voice said “self-doubt.” Woah. That is spot on, but I had never really thought of it.

The room remained silent, everyone was still, but the rush of blood in my ears picked up in intensity along with the pace of my breathing. The teacher instructed, “Now ask the tree how best you can heal.” Again, this voice, intoned, “Love yourself more.”

The root cause of every damn thing that gets in my way is doubting myself. What a novel idea to treat myself with the same latitude and compassion that I give others, to stop assuming that I am in some way to blame when something – anything – goes wrong.

As I sat there at the vet I realized two things: one, clearly I still have work to do. But, two, I noticed in real time the negative messaging and suffering I levy upon myself. I noticed the flood of could have, should have, if only you had narratives that began to consume me as the adrenaline ebbed away, as if I could have controlled what happened, as if any of us can control anything more than our response to what happens to us. And those were awesome catches – historic, life-changing catches. I may be my own harshest critic. And I may be pre-programmed toward self-judgment, writing nasty headlines and elaborate stories in my head about my imperfections and inadequacies. But if I can insert awareness to those moments then, well, then we are getting somewhere. I know I am not the only person who faces these challenges. This was a major oxygen mask moment. Breathe.

To be continued….