Today I’m waiting for the outcome of a friend’s surgery, and whether that’s fear or anxiety, it’s pretty hard to take because there’s nothing I can do to influence the situation.
Fear and anxiety have set in. Technically, they are different although I consider them blended cousins. According to the psychologists who wrote the DSM, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders, fear is “the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat,” whereas anxiety is the “anticipation of future threat.” Whatever. They’ve both got me today.
I know that fear has its place. When it’s collaborative, fear gives me warnings I need to stay safe. But today, it’s overstepped its bounds.
What to do when fear charges at us like a grizzly, leaving us caught on the trail, frozen like a deer, fearing those huge claws, yet unable to run?
Today, that’s what waiting feels like.
As I write these words, I’m watching the clock thinking about my friend.
With each hour that passes, my anxiety starts feeling emboldened.
I remembered when my husband had his heart procedures. I could bear the tension of waiting for a few hours while I distracted myself, but when the surgery went beyond its expected duration, a five-star alarm started ringing in my brain.
Today, I want to do it differently. I want to keep my sanity while waiting for news.
As part of my make-it-through-the-day strategy, here’s what I came up with:
1) Do nothing.
Knowing that this, too, will pass, I can give myself permission to dog-paddle around feeling completely dysfunctional, unable to place bank statements in the proper “Bank” folder or even call a friend. At some point, the tension will release, and I’ll move on. In the meantime, I’ll try to be compassionate. Lots of emotions are running, and I must remember not to get mad at the unhelpful service representative or scream at the dogs for once again tracking mud all over the floors I just cleaned.
2) Get busy.
If I can manage to do that filing, make those over-due phone calls, or even write that report, I may be able to do an end-run around the fear by staying busy, at least for a while. I cleaned up the muddy floors.
3) Eat dark chocolate.
According to the research, dark chocolate may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure–as if I needed a justification. Perhaps 7 am is a little early in the day to start nibbling, but today was an exception.
This could be tip number one, but it requires some intention. I try to take some deep breaths with longer exhales. I offer myself as many time-out-to-breathe moments as I need.
5) Put it into perspective/meditate.
This suggestion requires more focus because it involves using my mind. If I’m lucky, I’ll reframe the situation to align it with reality and bypass some fear. The surgeons were positive. That’s good. When lives aren’t at stake, I can try to put my worries into the “greater scheme of things.”
But reframing assumes that I have control of my mind. Today it’s behaving like a couple of crazed horses who’ve cut loose and left the barn. Meditation may help, but it’s hard to sit still when I hear the runaways galloping and shrieking. I may need to calm my body before I can meditate.
This one might sound weird, but I tell you, it works. Today, I put on some music and shook for ten minutes. I can’t believe how much it helped.
Generally, when we’re waiting for someone to come out of surgery at the hospital, we’re not encouraged to shake. Too bad. Movement, and specifically shaking, is one of our bodies’ natural defenses against fear. When shaking might seem out of place (really, who cares?), we can try running, dancing, digging or even discretely tapping our toes under a table.
One problem with fear is that it can immobilize us.
That brilliant maestro of somatic learning, Peter Levine, who spent decades studying how we recover from trauma, noticed that animals, in the wild, shake after they’ve gone through a terrifying experience. After the lion leaves, the impala shakes her way back to normalcy. Humans, however, are rarely encouraged to use the body’s natural responses to fear: shaking, trembling, crying, or even screaming. Instead, we learn to keep fear locked under wraps within our bodies, often for years.
Trauma experts suggest that by shaking and moving, we can release some of our held-in fear, whether it comes to us from past or present concerns.
Shaking or moving breaks the trance of immobility, and allows the amygdala an outlet for its fearful energies.
I’ve been praying a lot. Whether you believe in God or not, prayer is one of those actions you can take because “it can’t hurt, and it just might help.” I pray for my friend. I pray for the family. I pray to make it through the next half hour.
Prayer helps me break through the illusion that I’m in my distress alone, which is almost never true.
8) Take a small step.
I’ve decided to treat my small steps today like gifts. I’m going to give myself the gift of 15 minutes of filing, the gift of breakfast, the gift of paying a bill. Hokey, perhaps, but one thing people who have stood at the edge of death often say, is that it’s the small, routine, sometimes overlooked parts of life, for which they are acutely grateful.
Because they understand the gift that each small, routine, step represents.
Finally, one last, optional, step:
Ok. This tip is not for everyone, but it works for me. If you love dog kisses, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Mostly, I’ve been trying not to get frozen by fear. It brings some gifts: heightening my senses and helping me to realize what’s most important.
Not so bad, really, not so bad.
One thing I have noticed in recent years is that my “no’s” and my “yes’s” have gotten stronger and clearer. Being able to listen to one’s self and sense (and offer) a true “yes” and a true “no” may be one of the superpowers we can claim with age, even if gracefully conveying an honest “no” takes a lot of tact.
Clear yes/Clear no
A few years ago, as I was traveling the on-ramp to 60, a very generous friend of mine offered me his ticket to a national conference that was taking place in Seattle. Tickets were pricey, and his was a very kind offer. It made good sense for me to attend since the conference was related to my field. But when I considered going, I heard a voice inside of me saying, “No.”
Sense or no sense, I didn’t go.
Instead, I stayed home to work in my garden. My garden had become my teacher and my creative calling; I needed those days to dig.
Later that year, a friend suggested that I take a clowning class. Even though I had never clowned (and it turned out to be bloody hard), I heard, “Yes.”
That decision also didn’t make sense.
With hindsight, both my “No” and my “Yes” did make sense. A new impulse was calling me forward. My love of gardening would lead me to start writing; my forays into clowning and improv would open up a deeper understanding of storytelling.
Alas, not all of my “yes’s” and “no’s” are that clear. Some decisions still take years for me to muddle through. Other times I delay saying, “No,” for fear of hurting someone’s feelings–not the best excuse.
The art of an honest “No”
There’s nothing easy about saying “No,” especially to a friend. Ironically, though, “no’s” are often key to real friendship.
A friend hit it on the head when she said, “I want my friends to be able to say “No” to me, so I can believe them when they say, “Yes.”
We can tell when someone is saying “yes” out of obligation or not wanting to offend. A “yes” with a ‘no” disguised within it has a yucky feeling, a half-heartedness. On some level, we know what we are hearing doesn’t jibe with what we are sensing. It’s disturbing.
We need to be able to say “No,” blessing the friendship while declining an opportunity.
Saying “No” to support your creative time
In general, I prefer to be around people who live life with a spirit of “YES!” instead of a stream of “no’s.”
That said, many writers and creatives describe how important it is to prioritize their creative work, and to say “No” to invitations that might pull them away from it. I would love to have more coffees with friends, go on outings, or host a dinner party reciprocating some of the hospitality my husband and I have received.
But I can’t. Not just now. My work is tender, and I have to stay focused.
But how to be honest?
If I were to be totally honest (not there yet), what I might say to a friend who hosted us for dinner is, “Thank you so much for dinner–I really enjoy being with you and appreciated your lovely meal. I want to reciprocate but here’s the truth: cooking is not where I want to spend my time right now, and writing is. If I don’t keep going, my progress will dissipate. In another world, perhaps that of The Crown, the Netflix series I am binge-watching in my downtime, I’d have my housekeeper prepare the house, my royal staff would cater dinner, and my personal assistant would handle all the accompanying details. (I’m anticipating this after I’m anointed!) But even though I’m not entertaining these days, I care about you and enjoy being together.”
I’m afraid that’s too many words. I’ll probably just stick with the first sentence.
Open space in a calendar is not blank space
Growing up, I lived for weekends and wanted entertainment. Now, when I reach the weekend, I’m happy if there’s nothing on my calendar. These days, life comes in front and center pretty hard, and I need more and more recovery time. Even though open spaces in my schedule mean I could do something, I know in my heart that I need that time to do–nothing.
When you’re on a creative roll, allowing open space in a calendar is often more potent than filling all of your time slots in.
The nuanced “No”
Repeatedly saying, “No” to pursue your creative work can seem selfish. You can mitigate that risk by asking, “What am I being called to do now?”
You may have to bend your schedule and change your plans. A friend receives a call that her ninety-year-old mother has fallen; my friend’s painting project is put on hold. When my mother was in her last years, I flexed my schedule to say, “Yes,” whenever I could. Some sacrifices are worth making, not out of obligation but out of an inner knowing.
I worry that putting a shield around my schedule may discourage friends from remembering that I’ll be there for them if they need to go to the hospital, work through an urgent problem, or have a heart-to-heart conversation.
If you’re reading this, remember this offer to you!
Where it all starts
Etiquette aside, hearing (and speaking) a true “yes” and true “no” begins with listening to your heart. In today’s chatter of overfilled schedules and continual opportunities to do more than any mortal possibly could, hearing the subtle soundings of the soul takes particular attention.
A true “yes” and a true “no” have a ring. When a friend who has thoughtfully considered what she’s being called to do declines my invitation, I might be disappointed. I can also be inspired.
By listening with the heart and speaking from her inner knowing, my friend offers me permission to listen more deeply to what is calling me.
And I say “Yes” to that.
It’s so difficult to watch the pictures of the Amazon burning, knowing that there’s so little that can be done, at least in the short run, even as some countries offer millions in aid. One way I stay sane is by sending healing thoughts to nature, just as, on so many days, nature heals me. Rather than write more here, I found a few quotes by poets I admire, as well as the above quote by the late Nobel Laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai. They remind me to pause, bless our summer raspberries, and send healing thoughts to the Amazon. (I figure it never hurts).
“Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.” Mary Oliver
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” Wallace Stevens
“Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.” Wendell Berry.
A Navajo Chant:
The Mountains, I become part of it.
The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters,
I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen…
I become part of it.
From the book Earth Prayers.
What if thinking about death could bring you more life, more beauty, and more connection to the people you love?
Most of us want to avoid the topic. That’s not news. Ernest Becker wrote about it years ago in his classic, The Denial of Death.
I experienced how hard it is to talk about death when I interviewed author/scholar Dr. Judy Stevens Long about her new book: Living Well, Dying Well: A guide to choices, costs, and consequences.
It was my most challenging podcast episode to produce, ever. None of the usual ways to record worked, and when Judy and I finally recorded, the content was great, but the audio quality poor. We re-recorded. Then, somehow, I lost the recording, I think the death gremlins ate it, but more likely I forgot to push the record button–the first time that’s ever happened! Judy and I laughed at our “proof” of how hard it is to talk about death.
If you don’t feel like thinking about death, here are three “good” reasons to support your preference.
1. You might bring on death by thinking about it
Does this sound silly or superstitious? F you believe In the spirit of that you-can-manifest-anything-you-want-wth-what-you-think classic, The Secret, you’d better not think about dying, right?
Indeed, I’d much rather visualize a beloved family member recovering completely from cancer than contemplate a bad outcome,
Yet, at some point, life will ask us to brave the subject, acknowledge our mortality, and prepare, (hopefully in advance).for dying.
Stephen Jenkinson, the bold and irreverent author of Die Wise is outspoken about the failings of the “death trade,” of which he’s a member. He’s seen doctors do everything to save a patient in her last days, only to deny her the possibility of meaningful, quality time with her family at life’s end. Compassionate honesty would have been a better path.
He describes a family who didn’t want to tell Dad that he was dying. Their reluctance cost them the opportunity to do a few last things with him that he might have enjoyed. (He intuitively knew what was happening, anyway.)
If you don’t prepare for death upstream, before it is at hand, you may find yourself downstream withuout a paddle, in this case without an advanced directive that tells the medical system what you want towards the end of your life.
Families have split apart debating, “What would Mom want?” as she lay suffering in bed. Judy Stevens-Long suggests thinking through what you want in advance, creating an advance directive, and choosing who you’d want to represent you on health matters if needed. Then, have a conversation with your family, so they understand your wishes. (Her book is packed with stuff like that we all need to know.)
2. Talking or thinking about death is a bummer
I get it. I’m trying to avoid bad news these days, and I won’t go to most tragic or twisted movies.
Color me weird, but I found reading the following books about death and dying tremendously life-affirming.
Most of us fear death, on some level, and getting friendly with the topic might open the door to embracing more life. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande opened the door for thousands to begin conversations about mortality. His skillful writing blends science and story as he describes how the medical system approaches dying, (Big take-away; chart your course and don’t leave it to others to decide for you.)
I also recommend Judy’s book with its more practical focus.
If you’re want to learn from the experiences of the dying, several books appeared over the past few years that are eloquently written and soul-strengthening. Rather than bum me out, each book gave me renewed hope and an appreciation for the beauty of life.
Gratitude includes parting words by the late, great Oliver Sacks, published originally in an Op-Ed for the New York Times that went viral. This passionate writer-physician opened his heart to us while writing, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.”
I promise Paul Kalanthi will move you with When Breath Becomes Air. As a physician who wanted to write, Kalanthi seized the moment during his last year to reflect on the process of dying after spending years saving others. Sadly, his wife had to finish the book. I found it magnificent.
Phillip Simmons wrote Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life during his years of living with ALS. Being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a grim, inevitable death sentence. Yet Simmons writes with lyricism and gratitude about life. If he could find so much life, beauty, and humor while living with ALS…what’s possible for us now?
Poets know how to pull beauty out of any darkness. Ilf you want proof, go no further than Joanna Macy’s beautifully curated collection, In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. I like to savor Rilke’s lyrical and accessible poems that bring out the mystery lurking in the shadows of our mortality.
3. I don’t want to think about dying because when I’m gone I won’t be here to care and the next generation can figure it out.
Oh dear. Don’t leave your life for the next generation to clean up. Wouldn’t you prefer your friends or progeny to think kindly of you rather than lamenting that they have to go through your closet and decide what to do with those never-worn shorts from Chicos hanging in your closet, tags attached?
Of course, I can think of a lot of things I would prefer to do–ride, swim, almost anything–but at least I’ve taken care of three critical items;
- A will
- An advance directive telling what I want at the end. (I also filled out the more personal and comprehensive FIve WIshes.)
- A prescribed health care agent with legal authority to make decisions for me if I can’t make them myself.
I need to create a plan for the distribution of anything I have of value, especially the animals. My pony, Mariah, and the dogs won’t want to figure out where to go if I’m not here.
Then, there’s the closet. Do you think a biographer would be interested in reviewing all my stuff? I have to believe, not at all.
Better to take some of that life I’ve received in thinking about death and get to work.
Today, as this post is being published, our dog, the irrepressible Jackson, is being put down. Perhaps dementia was triggering his increased aggression–we don’t know. Our trainer assures us that this is the right way to go; our old dog will be fine and it’s better to let him go now then wait for (another) bite. But no way does this make it easy, especially when most of the time Jackson was adorable. Despite the fact that he was “only” a foster dog, and we had him for “only” six months, the pain of letting him go keeps ricocheting unmercifully, through my body.
Love is love. Jackson will be better off. My husband and I are a mess.
I write because once again I am overflowing with empathy for those who have suffered loss, in any form.
I recognize the first steps in healing: stay away from platitudes (even “that it’s for his good)”, feel the pain, and keep moving. Keep my eyes up, stay present, don’t think too much, and find something, anything, that looks beautiful or feels comforting. I’ll share pictures below.
One thing I’m discovering is that our bodies are masterful at holding pain and trauma when we can’t deal with them. I’m grateful for this–there are times when we need to soldier on, delay dealing with grief, help others, or just get work done. But as much as I can, I want to give my body a little ease, offering times and safe spaces when it can let down, ungird itself from emotional protection, and soften. Maybe I’ll walk slowly, dance, or have a good sob. I figure that’s better than letting my rage fly out at the next inept customer service representative.
This loss, like the others I’ve experienced this year, can teach me to better support others through their losses and bad news. (For that reason, I’d really love to know what works best for you.)
Here’s what my experience has taught me so far:
When the loss is new, the grief acute, or the bad news is fresh: what I need most are friends who can just be present, almost without words or offering only an “I get it.” Being present is helpful at any stage of grief. Hugs are always good, but please don’t mind if I turn away. Sometimes I can’t deal with the pain.
When I’ve taken one step away from the acute pain, I appreciate the friends who can offer condolences and share their experiences–as long as what they offer is empathy, nor sympathy, and they don’t automatically assume that their experiences are the same as mine.
Later, as the grief settles a bit I can appreciate friends who offer thoughts about how to keep going or what to do. (Like please tell me how to find another Springer Spaniel NOW.) One caveat: be cautious with advice, which, unfortunately, can be a way of not being able to “be with” someone else’s pain.
Finally, there is longer-term support. I recently learned that a close family member has cancer–so I’ll be learning to give this form of support. I’m not the queen of cooking meals (not even for me) or baking cookies. Yet, I know that help with the ordinary matters of life: food, rides, visits, or help in the garden can be appreciated, especially when custom-tailored to the needs and desires of the person experiencing grief, or encountering a health crisis, as a patient or caretaker.
Today, in my grief, I move a small step at a time, trying to live in my senses rather than in my mind. A sweep of lavender. The smell of a rugosa rose. The crunch of fresh lettuce. The nuzzle of a horse on my neck. The beauty of a mushroom.
Rather than writing more, I’ll send a few images that have cheered me from the farm.
New crop of luscious lavender
Fragrant rugosa roses
A load of lettuce
Breakfast for my champion
A woodland convention
Tell me what helps you. I really want to learn.
I’m feeling pretty despairing about climate change these days. The idea that people in high places dispute the science behind what’s happening to our environment seems unconscionable. Barbaric. But then a lot of things seem that way to me these days.
I recently interviewed storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade for my podcast. He talked about how truth and beauty are important as we work for change. I asked him, “Where’s the beauty in the environmental movement?” It’s been feeling so heavy.
Five days later, I found my answer in the backyard: my trees.
When I feel bleak and despairing about change, it’s often because I’ve become overwhelmed. I’ve lost my relationship to the particular. I’ve generalized and started painting with only one color – gray. I’ve objectified my relationship to the world. In Martin Buber’s famous words: I’ve shifted from I-thou to I-it.
In the face of such grim news about the environment, I’d forgotten the love.
Buber wrote a lot about trees. Here’s a snippet.
“I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself…
When my husband and I moved to the island where we live, I found myself with an acre plus of lawn staring at me. Even though we had beautiful madrona, cedar, and doug fir in the background, the lawn looked so boring. Fortunately for me, many people in Seattle on small city lots were putting their trees “up for adoption,” when the trees needed to be taken out in favor of a vegetable garden. I adopted many and promised each a good home.
I adopted a weeping cherry, a colorful katsura, mature vine maples, Japanese maples, two redwoods in five-gallon pots, and more. Each came with a story and the affection and past intention of the owner. The redwoods we adopted had been bought to honor a deceased dachshund. They now stand 30 feet tall. Each time I pass them, I think about the dachshund.
Then there’s Harriet, the only tree that came with a name.
Harriet is a copper beech, grown from seed by a Master Gardener living on a small city lot near Seattle. How, on the hottest day of the year, we rescued Harriet after she broke through her oak barrel, is another story, as is how I planted her in the wrong place twice. My friend Beth carefully broke the news to me: copper beeches get BIG. Harriet had to be transplanted a third time. I apologized profusely as she was carefully moved to her new (I promised, it would be permanent) home where she’d have plenty of room to spread.
Harriet was never an “it” or “just a tree.” She was a friend. Yep, I loved her. Her survival meant a lot to me.
Today, she flourishes at twenty-feet tall and she’s one of the reasons I’d hate to leave our land.
My trees come with stories. I steward their growth. When a storm breaks a major limb on maple, or a dang raccoon climbs up and breaks the leader (main branch) of a plum tree, I take it personally.
My trees give nature a face.
As I feel despair about our environment, they comfort me, inviting me to not give up.
You don’t have to live in a rural area to have a relationship with trees. Living in Manhatten, I was nurtured by the trees of Central Park.
Maybe your most intimate connection with nature is not with trees. Maybe it’s with chipmunks, or sea otters, abalone, or sea urchins, coral or moss or sword ferns–the part of nature that you hold personally dear.
When I listen to my trees, I don’t turn my back on science. Listening to the “spirit of our trees” has awakened a curiosity about science that I never had when I thought science was just statistics, facts, and formulas to memorize, woven together into mechanistic concepts.
Today, scientists and “tree huggers” work together. Team earth needs us all.
The environment isn’t just a problem–it’s a living world.
It needs a face.
Scientist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer names the objects that surround her.
In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants….
Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.
The trees welcome that intimacy. Their faces remind me to not give up or lose hope about addressing climate change.
Harriet expects nothing less from me.