First of all, it’s OK. Whatever you are feeling, or doing, it’s OK
Life today is not normal.
How can we hope for normalcy when planetary normalcy has been disrupted? It takes courage, daily, to stand tall and say to ourselves, “This is the new normal.”
Given the current global realities, together with our personal variations, it’s hard not to let an invisible wave of worry seep into us.
I’m finding it hard to let go of expectations of what I “should” be doing. I think I “should be” doing better.
It’s been difficult to write. I’ve been making false starts, often running out of steam in the back alleys of my mind. I have the time, so why is my output so low?
My writer friend Mindy and I both refer to our “fuzzy brains.”
My vision of the future and my hope condition how I see today, even as I want to “live more in the now.” Nothing is predictable.
I’m trying to invent routines and schedules that can support my new, stay-at-home life, but they don’t work as well as I’d like.
If only I could create a rhythm for my day and stop checking to see whether my email has changed in the last fifteen minutes. (I’m attempting to limit media…but news from friends?)
I repeat for you and for me: “Whatever you’re feeling, or doing, it’s OK,” and “It’s OK if you don’t feel OK.”
Spending time in your castle
Roger Harrison, a seasoned organizational consultant and wise friend, used to talk about the dynamics of change, offering the image of the castle and the battlefield. Sometimes, he said, we need to push ahead, taking risks on the battlefield of change. Yet other times, when we’re wearied from too much change, we need to return to the castle, cross the moat, and pull up the drawbridge for a while.
No wonder that these days I’m drawn to the most basic of tasks. Clean the closet. Pull the weeds. I don’t need excitement. I’m content to watch the world from a small slit window in the castle wall. There, my heart feels safe to connect with the peoples of the world from Mumbai to Mexico City. Even as I support my local community, I want to keep my personal borders open. The pandemic has brought the truth of globalness to us as never before. We experience the crises differently, but we’re in it together.
Betting on the good
I notice a few good things I’m experiencing:
As an introvert who needs time alone, I’m reminded by how much I also like being with people.
I’ve stopped taking for granted the idea of a simple cup of coffee with a friend.
I’m meditating more and spending more time in nature.
I’m more conscious of how I use toilet paper.
I’m learning to draw.
Seeing with new eyes
My beginning attempts at drawing may be “no big deal,” but for me, they’re life-changing. For 55 years, I’ve clung to the story that I can’t draw and therefore can’t “do” art. In third grade, my friends Toni Squitieri and Susan Hart were the real artists; they must have born drawing. It’s taken me years to finally test the idea that anyone can learn to draw. (If I can, anybody can!).
Staying at home, I’m discovering a world of online resources and am learning that it’s ok to copy, use measurement and rulers, and erase a lot. I’m amazed at how shading can transform a sketch. Who knew?
It’d be presumptuous to call these first sketches “art” but they are my expressions, my small steps on a path towards adding a bit more art and beauty into my life.
I’ve been surprised to discover how fun it is and how it’s opening my eyes to new ways to see the world. I contemplate shadows; I try to observe shapes; I wonder how I would ever sketch my dogs.
“I have lived through two world wars, survived, miraculously the horrors of this cruel century, and yet…my eye has been in love with the splendors of the world that surround us. My response to what I see has been to draw, and the more I have drawn the greater has become my delight in seeing and my wonder at the great gift of being able to see…”
Art in the ordinary
Even as we’re confined to our houses, we can add creativity and artfulness to ordinary life.
For you, that might take the form of cooking as you add a pinch of sweet cumin to a stew; cleaning the office, as you expose the wood on the surface of a desk; writing, as you think of how to send a note to a friend; playing, as you invent a game with your kids; or placing a single flower in a vase.
One drop of beauty, like my crude drawings, can transform how we see the world. And the world needs our beauty and artfulness, now more than ever.
In times that feel wobbly and uncertain, an ounce of beauty, a dash of creativity, or a dose of care add to the light we need to guide us into an unknown future.
On Sept. 19, 2019, the New York Times published a devastating statistic about declines in the bird population across North America, citing research quoted in Science Magazine. Since 1971, numbers had been reduced by almost 30%.
How can we deal with such an overwhelming statistic, knowing it’s just one of many similar coming at us every day?
Maybe we use the words of author Anne Lamott. In her book, Bird by Bird, she shares a story about her brother when he was ten. Having procrastinated for months on an assignment to write about birds, he panicked as he sat down to meet the next day’s deadline. Her father put an arm on his son’s shoulder and gave him this advice,
“‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
Thinking about the magnitude of loss we are facing is mind-numbing. Better to take it bird by bird, grounding ourselves in the particular before trying to fathom the more global.
Bird by bird
I’m thinking about birds after attending a fascinating lecture this weekend on Birds, Song and Poetry by Dr. Brian Reed. I’m not even a birder and I was entranced. Dr. Reed read and explored examples of poetry describing specific birds. Through the poems, I saw the birds, heard them, imagined their flight, and felt moved. I was drawn into their world. When he presented the above statistic at the end of his talk, the loss of bird populations was no longer an abstraction. It felt personal.
In the face of tragic news, however, I didn’t tank because art and poetry continued to carry me.
Delighting in the beauty and behavior of birds, I discovered, could be an antidote for despair. Birds are colorful, amusing, song-filled, and aerially acrobatic, even if often endangered.
Poems opened me to more curiosity and compassion, serving as a portal into an expanding sense of care.
My love for our dogs, (the turbo-charged, whirligigs named Winston and Royce), leads me to care about all dogs. My passion for dogs fuels my concern for all animals.
This love helps me counter the creep of environmental despair.
A process for surviving environmental gloom
Addressing environmental despair has become a topic for our times.
How can we bring more love and imagination to strengthen our capacity to deal with environmental loss without going down? This week, I’m experimenting with the following three-step program: Observe, Create, Care. (The order’s not too important; the steps reinforce each other.)
First, I pick an aspect of the environment that interests me. This week it’s Australia’s Superb Lyrebird.
Step 1: Observe with fascination.
Full of curiosity and more than a little wonder, I search online for everything I can learn about the Lyrebird. The male, large and fancy, has two stunning, arched tail feathers laced with silver strands in between.
A common bird in Australia, it has the uncommon ability to be an impersonator who can imitate the sounds of other birds and animals, as well as human-made ones like camera clicks and chain saws. David Attenborough calls the bird’s vocal skills, “the most elaborate, the most complex, and the most beautiful” in the animal kingdom.
Watch his incredible video.
Step two: Create something. Play. Make art.
As I became more and more interested in my new friend, it was time to do something with my body and imagination. Art was one option, and I could create a painting, poem, a letter, song, dance, or story. Or, I could take a walk while thinking about the bird, thus connecting my motion with my mind.
Art, for me, is challenging. As some of you may know, my ceremonial middle name is She-who-cannot-draw-and-stays-away-from-creating-art. Nevertheless, I decided to draw.
My goal wasn’t to do a “good drawing,” but to let the experience change me.
After copying the bird’s wings, beak, and wavy tail from a photograph, I saw it with new eyes.
We risk becoming jaded by lectures and statistics. The arts, including poetry, story, and other forms, give us a way to embody what we learn and carry the weight of painful subjects without shutting down our hearts.
Multi-talented artist and educator Dana Lynne Anderson understands the power of art to transform consciousness. She designed and offered, with others, a performance piece called Ancient Future to help audiences envision new ways to save the environment. The work debuted at a conference on Art, Consciousness and the Environment at Findhorn in Scotland. Using myth, music, dance, art, as well as audience participation, Ancient Future informed and uplifted, stimulated thinking, opened hearts, and created the possibility of new pathways for action. Dana’s work allowed people to envision new futures by touching their imaginations–through art. (Listen to Dana talk about it here.)
I’d like to see an environmental conference open with poems about birds. Or better yet, an invitation to participants to write poems about birds. The conference would be transformed!
Step three: Let your care fill your heart.
Delighted by drawing the Lyrebird, I feel stronger. Now, I care about a new creature. My affection warms my heart and balances the coldness I experience in learning the devastating statistics about bird loss. My caring won’t protect me from pain; environmental tragedies may hurt even more. My imagination and care can gird me and support my resilience.
The Lyrebird isn’t endangered yet, but fires have devastated thirty percent or more of the habitat it shares with the kookaburra and other birds and fauna. Caring about the bird makes the tragedy of the Australian fires more real for me, just as watching pictures of a polar bear on a melting ice block can provide an unforgettable image that captures the impact of global warming.
Offering poetry may not be the same as taking action in the streets and legislative halls. Yet the arts have a place in the puzzle of what to do next–if only to keep our imaginations and spirits from deadening.
Mary Oliver wrote:
What I Have Learned So Far
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside, looking into the shining world? Because, properly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kindness begins with the sown seed. Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
Let your caring, attention, artistry, and imagination help keep your flame alive.
That meant no heat and no hot water. We warmed the house by turning on our stove’s gas burners. My husband chivalrously carted buckets of hot water from the kitchen to the bathroom so that I could take a bath (sacred evening ritual) pioneer style.
After the furnace was repaired, I had several moments of reverence for the miracle of hot running water.
Last winter, we lost power during a winter storm (not unusual on our island). After a couple of days, the delight in dinner by candlelight and experiencing a computer-free existence faded, and I was tired of looking for clothes in a dark closet.
When the power came back on, I flipped on the closet light with amazement.
Years ago (many), while a college student, I traveled to Turkey on the cheap and encountered overflowing stand-up toilets in a hostel in Istanbul.
When I returned to the States, I had epiphanies of appreciation feeling the soft toilet paper in a clean bathroom.
Each of these times I felt, for a moment, the magic of the ordinary.
Sadly, in all cases, my reverence faded away with time, and I returned to taking much of life for granted.
How can we wake to the magic of ordinary life without enduring blackouts or filthy toilets?
The magic in ordinary life
I’ve read that what people miss most when they are forced to leave their homes or know they are dying is not the lost opportunity to visit Timbuktu or climb Kilimanjaro, but the simple stuff: Adam’s peanut butter on whole-wheat toast, the smell of fresh ground coffee every morning, the purple and yellow blooms on a winter pansy.
My friend Merna teaches immigrant and refugee teenagers to write poetry; the results are heart-rending. The kids describe what they miss from their homelands: onions cooking on the stove, tortillas on the grill, honking bicycles and jitneys, the morning smell of jasmine, a grandmother’s touch. Daily life. Ordinary stuff.
These days what I would sorely miss are my husband’s hugs, horse’s kisses, and movie night with the dogs, when we all crawl onto the bed to watch “The Queen” on Netflix. (The dogs are crazy for the Queen’s corgis.)
How can we wrest ourselves from the unconscious sense of entitlement that lets us take so much for granted?
If we could see how much is there for us on an ordinary day, we’d soak in abundance and delight in wonder.
Welcoming more enchantment
Enchantment invites the imagination to be a part of our everyday, grounded, worldly life. No need to leave science and common sense behind when we allow curiosity and surprise to accompany us through our days. (How many great scientists were enchanted by their fields and used imagination to interpret their data?)
Here are some ways to try:
Do without something for a while. You may be able to interrupt the trance of taking things for granted.
Stop and observe. Notice the world before you. If you were painting, what would you see? If you were conducting, what would you hear? If you had to leave, what would you miss?
Imagine that stones carry stories and trees, history. What might they tell you if you were willing to listen with curious ears?
Wander differently. You don’t need to visit another country. Take a spin around your backyard, neighborhood, or city, and deviate from your usual path. Walk backward for a bit. Close your eyes, and listen to sounds. Try navigating without sight. Vary your routine and see what you discover.
Indulge your senses. Eat your food super-sloowly and track the sensations that come with eating an everyday fruit, like an orange. Imagine what it was like for the first Northern European to take a bite. Using your imagination and all your senses, you may taste the hot sun and dusty paths where that orange was born.
Talk to the things that surround you. Not everyone wants to be Dr. Doolittle, but I regularly converse with my horses and say hello to my trees (especially Harriet, my copper beech). Do they understand? Don’t know–but it puts ME into more relationship with them.
Be grateful for the small stuff and the people around you. In amplifying my appreciation, I feel more connected to the world, and crack the door open for new enchantment to enter.
While we may think “enchantment” means spells, the real spell we’re under (or I am) is sleepwalking through life, taking the ordinary for granted, ignoring the opportunities for wonder that are right in front of us.
Brewing a batch of enchantment requires doses of gratitude, sensory awareness, being very present, wonder, and imagination.
We all have rhythm. It’s built into us through our heartbeats and the circadian (24 hour) rhythms that influence when we feel hungry, energetic, or sleepy.
As our biology influences our rhythms, so, too, does the way we work.
Our distant ancestors followed rhythms that were tied to light. Our parents may have worked “on the clock,” subjected to a rhythm established in industrial times.
We no longer follow the sun or work 9–5. With our increasingly flexible workdays, we have the option of working 24-7.
Such flexibility might seem like a good thing. If you’re a night owl, you might be more than happy to forego commuting before dawn for another dread breakfast meeting.
I can assure you that I wasn’t happy when a former client announced that he was scheduling my workshop for 7 am. (I like to write in the morning – but strictly in my pajamas.)
Lack of schedule: liberating or not?
Freedom from an imposed or arbitrary schedule can feel liberating, which is why vacation, retirement, or working for one’s self can feel great, at least for a while.
But, devoid of rhythms imposed by other-directed schedules, our days can lose their spines, and we’re left feeling like we’re spinning around.
At a minimum, those external demands, deadlines, and meetings keep us pulsing through our days.
Without them, where’s the incentive to get out of bed on a bad hair day?
Job or no job, many of us have gone a-rhythmic with our days.
I was initially delighted when the Internet offered me the freedom and flexibility to work when I wanted. Ride my horse at ten am? Yay! Work at 9 pm? No problem!
Until one day, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t tell, from my schedule, when I was “off work,” and when I was “on.”
My schedule had lost its boundaries. It was as if I was composing music by stuffing in more and more notes while forgetting to add rests. (Usually called cacophony.)
What I lost
As I survey our new world, I notice how many the rhythms that used to be part of life are endangered:
Eating regular family meals together. (Stats vary, but a 2003 study suggested that US families eat dinner together only three or fewer times a week, with 10 percent never eating dinner together at all.)
Going to bed and rising on a regular schedule. (Sleep doctors keep trying to convince their patients on this one.)
Observing a sabbath, rest day, or even intentional time off, consistently every week. (Read Marilyn Paul’s book with her convincing rationale for rest days. You could try a rest break if you’re not yet up to taking a full day.)
Taking vacations at all. (In one 2017 study, 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their paid vacation days.)
Stopping work at a given time, or establishing work-free zones. (Guilty as charged!)
Rhythm is about more than schedules
Our loss of rhythm isn’t just about our crazy schedules. It’s about listening to our bodies in a world that’s gone head-centric and body-negligent.
In some African cultures today, the beat of work lives like a pulse entering the body and then manifesting through music, song, and dance. It’s as if the rhythm lives in their bones–and in their souls. You can see it in this video.
Listening to the rhythms of life
Can we recapture that sense of everyday rhythms by listening more to life?
Watch how people walk and see if you can feel their beat. Listen to how a rooster crows on fixed intervals. Explore if that amorphous rush of traffic might contain hidden rhythms that give its noise a shape.
Maybe some of your everyday work, whether chopping onions, sweeping a broom, or pumping iron, might be more fun when you can feel its beat.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the erratic tap tap of my fingers on a keyboard gives me the rhythmic boost that I need.
Become your own composer
Once you start to listen, then you can compose. Has your life become bland as you march to a steady, but monotonous, four-four beat? Could you add more rhythmic variety?
If you’re always working at a high rhythmic intensity, could you deliberately insert some downtempo activities?
Have you structured the rhythm of your days to be so complicated that even a professional dancer might stumble? How about notching back, and introducing some time in an easy to follow two-two beat?
If no one but you is driving your schedule, why not introduce a few regular beats into your life to set a rhythm for your week?
Create routines, for your early morning, evening or mealtimes, that punctuate your day.
Set regular weekly meetings with friends and colleagues, or join a class.
Plan together-times with your family or partner you can count on.
Create deadlines that fit the rhythm you want to establish for yourself.
Publish a blog every Thursday–my secret formula!
Finding more flow
Rhythm comes from the Greek word that means “to flow.”
Let’s give it more attention, so we can become master composers of our days.
This week, I’m balancing writing an article about coping with life’s little losses by remembering all the joys that I’m finding.
I’m creating a “Joy List,” a go-to, no-thinking-required list of top pleasures, delight-full projects, music that moves, things that make me sing, gratitude-enhancing activities–a list I can quickly summon when the pain of loss is great or the weight of the world is heavy.
A Joy List is like an emergency kit for the soul that doesn’t require you to think about what will pick up your spirits (who wants to think when you’re weighed down already?). I go to it for items that are sure-fire, often sensual, and easy to pull off. I use them to restore brain sanity before I decide what to do next, maybe reading a great book, continuing my writing, or picking a project that will, hopefully, also be pleasurable.
NOT reading the news.
Given the state of the world, I’d recommend a Joy List to anyone.
Always near the top of the list is my garden. I need do nothing more than open my eyes and peer out our living room window to soak in delight. I planted our flower beds a bit randomly with flower colors that don’t “go together” and are too near each other, like magenta and white oriental lilies near the fading orange-red gladiolas. But the fragrance from those misplaced lilies make me swoon.
Captivating fragrances always have a place on my Joy List.
Our dandelion-like weeds, which spring up everywhere, are stunning if you ignore the fact that they are uninvited party crashers. My Joy List requires delighting in the abundant growing-ness of life (and letting go of my expectations to ever be weed-free).
My list includes simple pleasures like coffee and telephone calls with friends, Upbeat music like Gambia by Sona Jobarteh or sweet and mellow like the acoustic version of Take on Me (acoustic) by Ah-ha. Keep a list of your sure-fire favorites to use in a pinch. Sometimes I put my songs on repeat and let them salve my soul.
Comedy always has a place on the list–thank goodness for online access! I never tire of watching a young Bill Murray in Stripes lead an unusual Army drill. Robin Williams. Kate McKinnon and Tina Fey almost always make me smile. Pick whatever crazy thing will make you laugh. Your list is just for you.
The furry additions to my list this week are staring at me right now with tails wagging furiously–Royce and WInston. How did I forget how much energy a young Springer Spaniel can pack into a relatively small body? As my husband describes them, they’re like two thirteen-year-old brothers, rambunctious, loveable and possibly on speed, careening around the property on dirt bikes. If I start the day at 5:30, I know that the moment I try and sneak into the kitchen for my first quiet cup of tea, it’s “Game On!”
Who can resist a compressed package of joy running straight at you? Unlike our last foster dog, Franklin, who was a bit stand-offish about showing and receiving affection, these guys are in-your-face with love. Fortunately, I adore doggie hugs and luscious licks.
The boys would need a lot of training and a big dose of calm before they could ever be used as “therapy dogs.” But, already they’re therapeutic to me.
Like mainlining joy.
My dogs, like the other items on My Joy list, counter my despair as I look at the United States and our backward slide in areas like care for the environment, civil rights, and education. Unprecedented heat waves, blatant racism at rallies, immigrant and refugee children held in cages–heartbreaks are everywhere. I used to believe that the world was becoming steadily better, and I was a part of making that happen. Today that idea looks like “the good ‘ole days.”
It takes effort to keep the faith and notice all the good that’s still happening around me, often undocumented.
That’s why finding joy is so important. With one whistle, my furry joy-boys will remind me that life is GOOD and will be even better when I agree to PLAY BALL NOW. Then, they’ll reward me with some of their super slobbery Mommy-it’s-going-to-be-all-right kisses.
When the late William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, was asked how he managed to write one poem (or more) every day, he offered a phrase that endeared him to many:”I lower my standards.” Stafford wasn’t suggesting that he had low standards for the poems he published, just that he knew how the daily practice of turning his thoughts and observations into poems furthered his craft.
Many of us have high standards and want much of what we do and plan to be the best it can be.
We want the report to look beautiful as well as be useful. We want to find the best AirBNB in Barcelona, the most highly rated pair of shears, and cook the best dinner for our dinner guests.
All are admirable goals, but “best” can be exhausting.
We’re egged on by online sites offering have-to-read rating systems, because who would want to buy an electric toothbrush that had a 4.2 rating when you could have one that was 5 stars? We study the comments. Two hours later, we’re still researching toothbrushes while being tempted to check out the best roller point pen before ordering our next batch. (Guilty!)
The problem with “the best” or even “great” is that it sucks up our time and turns us away from what’s most important. Often, our friends don’t want “the best” dinner–they just want us to be wholeheartedly with them. In the area of house cleaning, I am definitely “good enough” and not “great.” When I focus on making my home impeccable, it usually means I’m avoiding writing.
My singing teacher, Peggy, hung a sign on her studio wall that said it all:
“Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually,”
That was so Peggy, choosing to focus on her students one hundred and ten percent plus, rather than worry about a little clutter or dust around the edges. Her students accepted the bargain and loved her for it.
When we set a bar too high, we may talk ourselves into giving up before we’ve even started.
Lower the bar, with humility
I recently took on a project of teaching Zumba at a local senior center. (I know, this defeats rule # 1 below, “Say No” to new projects.) I couldn’t resist the possibility of teaching Zumba for the first time with this absolutely wonderful group.
Turns out teaching Zumba takes way more preparation than I anticipated, and I didn’t have much time. Half of the day I had allocated for preparing was lost as my computer came up with every possible tactic to keep me from putting together a simple playlist of music. Then, I realized that my poor, getting poorer, memory was not about to allow me to memorize the choreography for seven songs in one evening. What to do?
I lowered my standards.
When I dance, I’m usually improvising, so I decided to call on that skill. With a heaping dose of humility, the next day I explained to the group that I’d need to improvise class for a while.
No one complained.
The group was more than OK, and we had fun together. Turns out they needed my smile more than perfect steps.
How many mountains do you want to climb this week?
Many of the mountain peaks in our schedules are caused by our expectations. I’ve been informed that podcasters “should” produce on a regular weekly schedule. Guess what? No can do, even though I have some great interviews in the queue. No one will die as a result of gaps in my production calendar.
Gardeners “should” weed and keep the most pervasive weeds down. My standards dropped below the low mark while I tried negotiating a truce with a major group of weeds: “If I don’t pull you out this year, could you promise not to come next?” (Lost that one.)
Writers “should” write. Now, this point is different because writing is a priority for me and not a “should do.” I aim to write every day and I do pretty well with that. Good enough.
Tips for best-aholics or those who always go for great
Learn to say “No” or negotiate. Breathe before you pick up that Zumba class (alas). Overfilling your tank won’t help your engine run any better, and it might defeat you. (But you already know that.)
Check your priorities
Reserve “great” or “really good” for what matters most. Then limit your priorities. (You can read about a cool system that helps you focus here.)
If Tom Sawyer could do it, so can you, Pay for help to paint that fence or stage a work party people can’t resist. Buying help may be pricey, but if it relieves you, improves the work, or allows you to keep your attention on what matters most, maybe it’s not as expensive as you think. At your workplace, delegate and collaborate.
Assess what’s required
When I’m avoiding a task, it looms large. When I assess how much time it will actually take, I usually calm down. I estimate that weeding that pernicious sticky weed out of the garden could be done in an hour. That’s do-able. The rest can wait.
Don’t polish the first draft
If you are working on a project that will go through multiple iterations, don’t fuss the early versions.
Choose when not to settle
Lowering your standards in some areas allows you to focus on what’s really important. Enjoy polishing that final draft.
The memoirist Kerry Cohen, with whom I did a writing weekend, encouraged me to keep writing by signing her book with this inscription: