Tag: Coping

20May

Twenty-Minute Vacation

I woke up this morning in deep dark funk territory. You know it, yes? That mapless bog of unfocused angst reeking with a sense that you should be doing something else! but no clarity as to what that something is or how you should summon the energy to do it? That one.

For me, the funk is almost always tied to a lack of writing time. Words are my anchor to the human race, and I can’t drop the daily practice of communing with them without also relinquishing my hold on sanity. I know this… and yet my relationship with writing is a complicated and painful one that I walk away from on a regular basis. All it takes is one day of tasks clamoring for absolute precedence; others step into their place the following day, and within the week, I am clinging to a defeatist mantra, a lifesaver carrying me out to open sea—I can’t do it all, I’m not enough, I have to let the inessentials go, let the hobbies go, let anything remotely falling within the self-care category go. There is no time for self-care selfishness, no justification for pouring valuable hours into something without direct and measurable benefit to my family. I can’t do it all; I just have to suck it up and accept that there is no room in my life for writing.

The funk inevitably follows, though I can sometimes power through for weeks before admitting I’m lost. Sometimes. Other times, the crash follows hard on the heels of a busy weekend, and I wake up to a beautiful wide-open morning with complete paralysis of soul. When this happens, there is little I know to do. Nearly every option I come up with is dredged in my sense of futility and promises to make me feel worse about myself. Wash the dishes? Sure! If you’re okay with my letting the occasional plate shatter on the floor in a fit of Kirkegaardian misery or my stabbing the occasional husband with an errant steak knife. Go for a run? Why not! I need another reason to feel the breathless, side-crampy extent of my failure at life. Read the Bible? Clearly you don’t know much about my mangled relationship with that particular text. Work on taxes? Are you f-ing kidding me??

However, I say nearly every option because I have discovered one—am discovering one—that lifts me out of the bog rather than engineering new sinkholes under my feet:

Meditation.

Now, before you indulge the mental picture of me in the lotus pose with a beatific smile and a halo of silent tranquility gracing my head, please understand that I am awful at this. Truly terrible. My meditation practices would give the Buddha high blood pressure were he unfortunate enough to witness me sitting crookedly against a pile of sofa cushions with my phone timer ticking down twenty minutes beside me. All the worse if he could see my mental process, which involves a lot of chasing thoughts down rabbit trails and yanking myself back on a leash and precious little of the focused silence I’m trying to achieve.

Still, I’m always shocked when the timer goes off and twenty minutes have passed in the guise of three. I know I’m terrible at meditation—buzzing around the spectacle of my own spiritual practice, hyper-aware of everything from my newness at this to the sound of traffic outside—but it works anyway. While my mind spends those twenty minutes fighting its golden retriever tendencies with all its might, my overwrought soul gets a twenty-minute vacation. It sips margaritas on the beach and naps under the palm trees and returns to me in a kind of time-warp glow. I might not be stumbling onto enlightenment or ascending to new spiritual heights here, but I am giving myself a desperately-needed break from my own mental bombardment.

Meditating makes me realize how much attention I typically give to each and every thought that comes bounding into my head, how I ascribe equal importance to them all even when logic would demand I place some on hold for more appropriate times and throw others out on their destructive asses. I have no thought-filter. I simply absorb and interact with each new string of mental clatter as if it were valuable and urgent and true. Purposefully deprioritizing the yammer in my head, however, is showing me how subjective it all is—how reflective of emotion and circumstances and the weather outside my window. It is not all true, and almost none of it is urgent. When I forcibly silence my thoughts (or at least try to) is when I finally begin to understand them, to see their origins and motives and what it all means for my penetrable heart.

You should know that the funk didn’t entirely disappear with my meditation this morning. The twin pests of impatience and indecision were waiting on the other side of those twenty minutes to be swatted away again and again throughout the day. The difference was that I had the energy to swat them away. I had the optimism to lace up my running shoes and head to the park before lunch. I had the confidence to push all the complications and doubts and martyr complexes to the side and start writing this for no other reason than that I needed to write it. I had a lookout tower there in the funk, above the funk.

Tomorrow, I very well may wake up neck-deep in the muck and malaise again. If not tomorrow, then next week, or the week after. It’s going to happen again. But maybe next time I won’t need to cycle through my roster of futile options before admitting that less is more and what I really need to do is to not do—to sit and be and fight-rest my way toward the silence that lifts me up and out.

~~~

Do you meditate (or have you ever tried it)? Are there any meditation practices that work especially well for you? 

29Apr

Drugs and Cocktails

Family photo from yesterday’s jaunt to Assisi, snapped by our sweet friend Shannan.
(Not pictured: allergies.)

My allergies have done that thing they do wherein they take over my inner skull and morph into Inner Skull Head Cold of Suffering and Death. I’m on drugs (legal), which don’t so much make me less miserable as they do dilute my brain’s ability to distinguish misery. They also dilute my brain’s ability to do other complicated tasks like staying awake and generating thought. It’s awesome.

However, I’m determined to write something with actual words today, to check back in with all you in the land of the living and assure you in turn that I am still alive (albeit drugged). We’ve been so busy lately that it’s absolutely ridiculous. In fact, ridiculous is exactly how I feel every time I start an email with “Sorry it took me two months to reply…” or answer friends’ kind inquiries with a full-body slump and a conspiratorial eye-roll. I feel ridiculous because we’re freelancing and theoretically in charge of our time and energy. Masters of our own destiny, that kind of thing. We are currently under no deadlines other than the impending financial black hole of summer.

It’s that black hole, though, that’s got Dan and I hunched over our desks, eyes singed around the edges with LCD light, for a collective total of 120 hours a week. Freelancing is a trippy cocktail of creative mojo and guesswork garnished with desperation, and we simply have no idea which 12-hour day’s work will be the key to stability. During this particular stage of our lives, the only way to find what works is to try everything we can think of and then some more. We expect that one day, we will be generating more passive income than we know what to do with and will spend our days taking leisurely walks on the beach in Bali and using our annoying excess of gold coins as skipping stones, but for now, life necessarily has to revolve around work.

I can’t accurately describe what it’s like for me to be so far removed from the daily-writing-fairy-art realm in which my heart claims its citizenship. I’m a hard worker, and sitting down to power through spreadsheets or edits actually gives me a little buzz of satisfaction. I like accomplishing, I like knowing that I’m helping make my husband’s business possible, I like feeling like an indispensable part of the family team. I’m endlessly grateful for the ways my abilities and personality traits intersect to make our lifestyle work.

But by the time one day without the chance to write has turned into two (much less three or five or twelve), I’m already grappling with the bleak coping mechanisms my mind calls up for just such an occasion. The obvious solution, according to my brain, is to give up writing forever. If I don’t yearn to write, see, then my hopes will no longer be crushed by each overfull hour. Another option, lighter on both despair and logic, is to get up at 5 a.m. to write… after working straight until insane o’clock at night and figuring out how to forego both sleep and downtime with my husband. (Uh, no.) Repression is the easiest solution; I just put all thought of writing out of my mind and do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, one of the side effects is that I slowly lose grip of myself and end up shadowy and hollow-eyed, wandering through my days in a thick pocket of fog.

That’s why sick days like today actually come as a relief. I simply don’t have the neural activity required to Get Things Done, so the ringing in my ears is the sweet sound of permission to lounge around in my pajama pants and blog. (And perhaps later, even read a blog or two? Be still my heart.) I’m not exactly saying that I would choose to spend today with this Inner Skull Head Cold of Suffering and Death, but it sure beats repression-induced fog, and I have to admit that this mandatory break from work is helping me retain the light and color and pre-head-cold joy of the weekend better than any accomplishment-triggered buzz ever could.

~~~ 

How are you doing, friends? What is your spring looking like so far? 

8Feb

What I Know to be True

The sky shifts and stretches, and sunlight spills through the elongated gaps. It’s still too hazy to see the mountains, but light is reflecting off a hundred smoking chimneys and dancing on a million silvered olive leaves, and I think I might take my coffee—a regrettable but necessary second cup—out into the joy of it. I make it nearly two steps onto the balcony before my Texas bones start shaking in protest. Sunny or not, this is still the crux of winter, and I in my morning zombie trance am no match for the cold.* I retreat to the kitchen table, backhand a swath of crumbs out of my way, and sigh long and deep.

* Disclaimer: I realize that my calling a sunny Mediterranean winter “cold” is causing some of you to smash your heads repeatedly into your desks right now. I apologize for any resulting trauma and invite you to come sunbathe on our balcony at your convenience.

I’m in so many mental ruts right now, ruts within ruts, that it’s hard to distinguish which one is suddenly closing the walls of our kitchen around me. My eyes wince across the trail of soup pots and mixing bowls waiting to be washed. In the next room, laundry is draped over radiators to dry; another load sloshes in the washer, and my lungs feel like they’re wrapped in damp socks. Chores multiply like rabbits around here in the winter, and beating them off with a broom could be my full-time job. I wonder if it is. Last week while reading a picture dictionary to Sophie, I asked her if she knew any janitors, and she answered brightly, “Yes, you!” And yet our floors still feel like syrup and sand and one has to use parkour to navigate the guest room and mealtimes feel like punishment.

This is a doozy of a rut, this resentment of my domestic life and its endless repetitions of damage control. Home should feel like sanctuary, so I try to distract myself from the messes spawning like video game villains across my universe. However, distraction turns out to be its own form of rut; my mind wanders and flits until I realize with a jolt that I haven’t felt my own soul’s pulse in weeks.

I should have picked up on it earlier, the very minute that the dust congregating on our windowsills became a universe to me. Even as I say that though, I recognize that I have no easy answers for how to push back at the shinkwrap, how to keep filling my lungs with the air of a wide wide world while the four walls of our house clamor so loudly and the cold seals them shut.

Yesterday, I read a bit from two women whose words light fires inside of me, and for those ten minutes, my heart remembered how to move again. It pumped away my zombie fog and stretched out, out, beyond our sleepy Italian valley and the mountains standing guard, out across oceans, out past the stars. My universe expanded to make room for eternity, and the only thing I could ask beyond that is the strength to hold onto it more than ten minutes at a time.

I’m writing now from the bittersweet place of awareness without answers, trapped in a rut with eyes full of stars. I know who I am—the true me, the eyes-wide-open me who isn’t afraid her life’s work will boil down to laundry—but I’ve never worked out just how to keep those fires lit. One of Shame’s favorite adjectives for me is “selfish,” and I hear it now in the clacking of the keys while the soup pots go unwashed. I hear it in the turning pages of a book and in the stillness of attempted meditation, in any pursuit of my own personal peace. The clock becomes a rushing sound in my ears, and I scramble to get back to the duties that pile around my vision like blinders.

Or… I write, because Shame is not going to stop advancing any sooner than the laundry pile is, and if I’m willing to hinge my worth on damage control, why not start with the soul-damage? Why not battle to climb out of the rut instead of battling to keep it mess-free?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I know the answer, and the answer is Shame itself. Shame is the bully pinning us down while taunting, “Why don’t you just get up?” Shame is the dictator citing himself as the source of truth. Shame is the fear profiteer. Shame is what makes us feel unworthy to fight the burden of unworthiness, and how do you pull yourself up from that if not by looking the bully square in the eye, saying his name out loud—S C R E A M I N G it if necessary!—and informing him that he no longer calls the shots?

Here is what I know to be true:

  1. No one will die if the dishes go unwashed until tomorrow (although I reserve the right to boycott the kitchen in the meantime). Repeat: No one will die.
  2. My soul will die, slow and purpling like frostbite, if I don’t allow her the unhurried time she needs to connect with God, refresh her focus, and do what her heart is nudging her to do.
  3. Sometimes that will mean half an hour; sometimes it will mean the entire day.
  4. That is not selfish.
  5. It’s not selfish because a whole and peaceful me brings direct good to the world around me, even the little one within our walls, while a resentful and distracted me spreads negativity.
  6. It is much easier to keep eternity in my perspective when I’m prioritizing the eternal things—soul-ties, relationships, art, justice, kindness—and letting Mount Laundry take whatever energy I have left over. Not the other way around.
  7. Shame has no redeeming characteristics. Not a one. I will gain nothing by listening to it, ever. That voice sneering at me that I’m selfish and worthless and a big fat failure? deserves no acknowledgement other than a big fat ass-kicking.
  8. Shame might masquerade as a bully or a dictator, but I can always recognize Truth; it’s the one shifting and stretching my mind, spilling light through the elongated cracks, lighting fires, imparting courage.

~~~

What do you know to be true despite Shame telling you otherwise? 

10Jan

Anti-Anxiety Meditation

This is what we opened our front door to when we arrived home after a family Christmas in Milan.

Our Christmas tree shoved to the floor, the window frame behind it ragged with crowbar marks, and every top drawer in the house pulled open. Our house, along with several others in the neighborhood, had been targeted by burglars while we were away.

After a panicky inventory, we were dumbfounded to discover that the thieves hadn’t taken a single thing from our home, not even Dan’s expensive work computer. (Let me tell you about gratefulness…) However, the post-home-invasion experience isn’t as much about what the intruders take as it is about what they leave: their invisible fingerprints on our underwear, their shadow-selves around each corner when the lights go out, and their harmful intentions toward us lingering in the air.

This is the first house that I’ve felt safe in, ever. I’ve lived in fifteen different homes to date, and this one—this gated, shuttered, dog-guarded, and triple-locked third story refuge—is the only one that never pricked at my fearful imagination. Until we got home from Christmas break, that is. Now, I am noticing the odd creaks and squeaks of our house as I have never noticed them before; the groan of a radiator is an intruder, the rattle of wind against the shutters is an intruder, even the spin cycle of our washing machine is an intruder (brandishing a weed whacker, perhaps?). Everything from our coat rack to my rocking chair catches my peripheral vision at night with an icy splash of fear, and even as I’m checking the locks for the fifth time before bed, I know they offer no assurances. Our safe place no longer promises safety.

My mother-in-law, who’s been through this herself, shared the comforting perspective that the burglars now know we don’t have what they’re after (gold, jewels, cash, anything that would look right on the set of Downton Abbey) and won’t be back. From a rational standpoint, we really don’t have anything to worry about. Yet anxiety doesn’t always see things from a rational standpoint. It sees things more from the standpoint of Oh God it’s dark outside and bad guys could be hiding below our balcony preparing their grappling hooks right now and we’ll probably all die in our beds tonight.

Anxiety is clearly not helping the situation. It offers no constructive advice, only helplessness and an unfocused panic, and I know that my task is not to indulge the anxiety by barricading our house or stocking up on defense weapons or living in suspicion but to counteract it—to refuse to hold onto the shadows and harmful intentions left by our intruders.

In light of this, the girls’ perspective is pretty awesome. I was worried how Natalie and Sophie would react to seeing evidence of thieves in their own bedroom. I’d braced myself for tearful bedtimes and nightmares and wondered how in the world I could assuage their fears when my own were so pronounced. However, I’d underestimated their generous little hearts. “If the thieves come back,” announced Natalie, “we’ll just invite them to stay for breakfast.” “And then give them two euros!” piped up Sophie. Not a trace of fear. In fact, I think they’re sort of hoping the thieves come back.

While I do not share that particular hope, my girls’ idea of repaying harm with kindness is straight out of Jesus’s teaching. I told them that yesterday, and Sophie grinned. “I love Jesus,” she said. “Me too,” I grinned back, getting the first hint of an inkling how perfect love really might be able to cast out fear.

19Dec

Above the Cloud-Line

The sun rose this morning. It rose, and I blinked and then ran for the camera because I hadn’t seen that kind of light in days. Certainly not since Friday.

After the initial gut-pounding shock and the waves of salty-wet grief and the anger carved onto journal pages and the carefully chosen conversations, I find myself in the next stage of my own post-Newtown journey: the doldrums. My soul wants nothing so much as a long nap, an utterly unconscious respite from the knowledge of evil, and my heart is trying to offset this weariness by emotionally disconnecting from it all.

I’ve stayed away from the news and social media these last two days out of fierce necessity, and now the facts of the shooting keep melting down the sides of my mind like timepieces in a Dalí painting. I can’t grasp anything. I can no longer feel the twenty-seven concurrent stabs of horror, the chest-wracking sadness, or the wild urge to do something, anything to change the way our world works. Feeling has been replaced with fog.

I know that the internal process of grief is not a matter of right way versus wrong way, yet I’m convinced I’m making a mess of it. I’m sure either that I feel too intensely, presuming a deeper connection to the victims than I have a right to, or that I feel too little, dishonoring the tragedy through numbness. I’m afraid that my timetable won’t fit into appropriate standards, that I’ll start forgetting about Sandy Hook before a mere slip of a week has passed or that I’ll be hanging onto it long after the rest of the world has laid it to rest. I don’t know when it will be okay to write about other things again, to absorb myself in this life that’s moving onward even as the lives of twenty-seven Connecticut families have shattered to a stop. At the same time, I don’t know if I should already have left them in peace.

In this swirl of unknowing, with sorrow simultaneously fresh and faraway and time playing tricks on my eyes, the sunrise is pure gift. It’s the most visual display of hope I could imagine—a light bigger than this world and beyond our ability to destroy, its effects constant even below the cloud-line, its rise after days of gray a reminder that darkness doesn’t have the final say. Ever.

15Dec

Grateful to Care

Today’s my day off from writing—a day allocated for errands and ironing and all manner of riffraff that didn’t get seen to during the week. Yet I can’t not write today. I have a desperate desire to make sense of yesterday’s massacre, though I realize there is no sense to be made, nothing that could possibly make the murder of twenty young children into something as succinct and graspable as sense. Still, writing down the whirlwind in my head makes it easier to keep my footing. A little.

I have a kindergartener, and I don’t say this to claim dibs on grief or to cheapen a single facet of people’s heartache or even to play the I’m-so-glad-it-wasn’t-my-child card that has to twist dagger sharp in the ears of bereaved parents. I say it because my kindergartener trotted off to class yesterday morning hand-in-hand with a friend, their little heads bobbing in enthusiasm, and that that could have been a death march… that we live in a world where a room of bright and busy and trusting five-year-olds can be sprayed with .223-caliber slugs… it’s unendurable.

This heartbreak feels so literal, the actual sinews in my chest threatening to rip loose, and I know you’re feeling it too. We’re all breaking apart and trying to hold ourselves together in different ways, whether by anger or action or silence or advice or prayer or time with loved ones or time alone. My social media feeds are full of opposing viewpoints, but they all come from a similar ferocity of grief, and I’m comforted, like Mr. Rogers, by seeing “so many caring people in this world.”

Every one of us is shouldering a tiny portion of the pain that the Newtown parents are going through right now. Every one of us is united in grief, though we might process it very differently (and that’s ok). Evil was done yesterday, and we care. It doesn’t make sense of the violence and pain we experience to different degrees in this broken world, but it does lighten the load.

I’m grateful to care alongside you.

20Nov

Day In and Day Out

A few days ago, as I was rummaging around in the darkest corner of our fridge for the ginger, I found a granddaddy long-legs, its limbs pinched around itself like a claw. It was so unexpected and out of place—this arachnid death-tableau in the crisper drawer—but it struck me immediately as a totem, an image bearer for the memories that have been creeping around my consciousness on skeletal legs these last several days.

I’ve grown unaccustomed to bad memories, healed as I am by years of color and distance and impromptu dance parties. Yes, PTSD is a zombie escape artist who rears through the packed earth every so often to feast on my brains, but the breakouts have become rarer with time, and I simply wasn’t prepared to feel the past whisper-scraping up to me again.

It’s like this:

First, the sound of a lock turning from the inside; stealthy intentions grating against rust. I know what comes next, but I’m slow to react, seconds too late to stop the iron-plated door from sucking suddenly open. And there it is—a memory no longer pinched around itself but extending its claw legs, freezing me in a moment I once fought hard to escape. My perception of the world fractures, and I become the spectator and the victim at once. I relive all the helplessness I felt as a young girl in extreme emotional and physical pain, and then the helplessness of regret. I should have known it wasn’t right. I should have told someone. I should have fought, tooth and nail and voice and soul. Why didn’t I fight?

I know that letting myself get sucked back into that room only does me harm. There is no redemption in unanswerable questions, and their cobwebbed pain will cling to my skin for days after I leave. I do leave though, on the strength of repeat forgivenesses and the strain of personhood that runs deep enough to wake me from dreams. In this case, it wakes me to compassion, and I turn my anger from the child who didn’t know better, who had been taught wrong-as-right and don’t-tell-a-soul all her life. My anger turns away from my former abusers as well. They deserve my anger, certainly, but I’ve expended plenty on them in years past, and grace gives me room to breathe.

As my anger fades to the bigger picture—to religious despotism and church-sanctioned cruelty and this messed-up world where anything can be justified with enough jargon—my memory-cell fades from view, and I hear the door thud shut as if from underwater. There are other doors, of course. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or even an unguarded moment later today, I’ll hear the scratch of spinneret against doorjamb and scramble first to hold the past shut and then to escape it. This is the reality of life after trauma.

But there is also LIFE after trauma, a spacious world of possibility surrounding and surpassing moments of regression. In fact, that’s what I most wanted to put into writing today—that the very best way I’ve found to keep bad memories at bay is to invest myself in the present. Looking into my daughters’ eyes just to study their blue, to count the laugh lines ringing their irises… Folding the laundry with fingertips attuned to the interplay of threads, each filigreed whorl of cotton… Holding the bitter of coffee and the sweet of cane sugar on my tongue a few seconds longer… Pressing snooze to slide like a puzzle piece into the curve of my husband’s back, to soak in our collective warmth before the day… Turning the music loud in my earphones and feeling, with all my heart, the beauty of this unpredictable, compassion-won life I’m living.

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