Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Here are some key attributes of the voice in my head. I suspect they will sound familiar.

  • It’s often fixated on the past and future, at the expense of whatever is happening right now. The voice loves to plan, plot, and scheme. It’s always making lists or rehearsing arguments or drafting tweets. One moment it has you fantasizing about some halcyon past or Elysian future. Another moment you’re ruing old mistakes or catastrophizing about some not-yet-arrived events. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”
  • The voice is insatiable. The default mental condition for too many human beings is dissatisfaction. Under the sway of the ego, nothing is good enough. We’re always on the hunt for the next dopamine hit. We hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one party to the next, and yet a great many of us are never fully sated. How many meals, movies, and vacations have you enjoyed? And are you done yet? Of course not.
  • The voice is unrelievedly self-involved. We are all the stars of our own movies, whether we cast ourselves as hero, victim, black hat, or all three. True, we can get temporarily sucked into other people’s stories, but often as a means of comparing ourselves to them. Everything ultimately gets subordinated to the one plotline that matters: the Story of Me.

In short, the voice in my head—and perhaps also yours—can be an a**hole.

Dan Harris, from “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book


Notes:

  • Dan Harris Bio: Dan Harris is a co-anchor the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC News, as well as a correspondent for such broadcasts as Nightline and World News Tonight. He is also the author of 10% Happier, a #1 New York Times best-selling book about a fidgety, skeptical news anchor who stumbles upon meditation. Recently, Harris launched an app specifically designed to teach meditation to doubters and busy people. This ancient practice – too long associated exclusively with hippies and robed gurus – has been shown by modern science to boost resilience, focus, creativity, emotional intelligence, and overall mental and physical health. With meditation and mindfulness now being embraced by executives, athletes, educators and entertainers, Harris has become a leading voice for pushing for the practice into the mainstream, using plain English and dry humor.

Walking. With Ted.

277 consecutive mornings. My daybreak walk at Cove Island Park.

Ted tells Sylvia’s mother: “I try to keep her writing and drawing—the more she does, the more she can do, and the better she feels.”

—the more she does, the more she can do, and the better she feels.

Yes. Ted. Yes.

It’s a passage 463 pages into Heather Clark’s “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath.”  I’m not sure why Kiki, but I persist. I keep turning the pages. Soot, and all.

Hughes continues…

And the sky
Was vast gulfs of blue, and the air
Lifted us like alcohol

Not blue today Ted. Not blue.

But vast gulfs of sherbets, pinks, mauves, oranges, and everything but, Blue.

And lift it did…


Notes:

  • Photo: DK, Daybreak. 6:50 and 7:03 am, February 6, 2021. 28° F, feels like 20° F. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT
  • Lisa, thank you for Sherbet!

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Q: The need to share it, isn’t that what drives most musicians?

Helen: I think what drives most musicians is not dissimilar from what drives most people.

Henry: And what’s that?

Helen: People want to be appreciated…

Henry: Being appreciated is not enough. Most people want to overcome something.

—  Henry Cole, (Patrick Stewart), Coda (2019)


Photo source

I’m only now starting to fully understand is that this is an inside job. It only works if I believe.

But what I’m only now starting to fully understand is that this is an inside job. It only works if I believe. I’ve always been confident, positive, doggedly determined; but doubt is beginning to mitigate my conviction. Who am I to think I can accomplish this, when so many have struggled with similar setbacks; some with Parkinson’s, some with the aftermath of spinal surgery? I may be the only one who has taken on this particular two-headed beast…

I have to learn to walk again; to reclaim my mobility, remaster my motion. I consider this fundamental to my therapy —  for me, it all starts and ends with walking. And I understand that it’s more complicated than that. So many tiny disciplines have to be observed, and neglected muscles and ligaments need to be restored. I’m exhausted by the effort I’ve already put in at Johns Hopkins, and daunted by how much work I still have to do. It’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.

Back in the days of carefree ambling, I would have considered the topic of walking to be rather pedestrian. Now the acts of stepping, strolling, hiking, and perambulating have become an obsession. I watch Esmé gliding through the kitchen, grabbing an apple while opening the fridge door for a coconut water, closing it with a quick shift of her hip and pirouetting out the swinging door at the other end of the room. Down in the lobby, my neighbor and her daughter are quickstepping to catch a taxi. I spy on a man walking with a slight limp, which he counterbalances with a bag of groceries. I secretly watch the way they all move. Easy, breezy, catlike, or with a limp, every one of them is far better at it than me. It may be that the most difficult, miraculous thing we do, physically, is to walk…

It’s tough. With PD and the aftermath of the surgery, something as simple as remaining upright is often sabotaged by a rogue army of misfiring neurons. I try to stay organized. I have memorized a litany of admonitions, not unlike my golfer’s list of swing thoughts: Keep my head centered over my hips; hips over my knees; no hyperextending; stay in line with my feet; eyes forward; shoulders back; chest out; lead with the pelvis. All of this kinetic vigilance can dissolve in a nanosecond of panic, or come apart with some other distraction. A tiny nervous jolt or spasm, and like a house of cards in a sudden gust of wind, the only messages that make it through the debris are: Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall

—  Michael J. Fox, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality (Flatiron Books, November 17, 2020)

T.G.I.F.: It’s Been A Long Week

Look away, America. For your own good, look away. Everything will still be there when you come back. Even once the vote counting’s done, there’ll be the recounting, and the tag-along lawsuits.

So take a walk, take a breath, take a break from the election drama unspooling at a pace better suited to a garden slug than an advanced nation’s sophisticated vote-counting system. So, psychologists say, maybe you should get off the smartphone, get back to work, and get some perspective…

“One of the things that happens with uncertainty is we often don’t think realistically about the outcome, and we tend to think catastrophically. So, you’re already thinking that if your candidate loses it’s going to be awful, it’s going to be unbearable, it’ll be disastrous,” said psychologist Shelley Carson. “We overestimate how this event — or any event — is going to affect our happiness in the future.” …

The year “2020 has been filled with many things, and uncertainty has been a major one,” said Sperling, who is also director of training and research at McLean Hospital’s Anxiety Mastery Program. “To have ongoing uncertainty with this election on top of all the uncertainty we’ve already had this year, I can imagine that being particularly trying. People are eager for results, some certainty, some knowledge of what’s going to happen.”

Sperling said worries about the unknown trigger the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight response and recruits internal resources such as the stress hormone cortisol. Under normal circumstances, this heightened response lasts only until the uncertainty is resolved, and the body returns to normal. During prolonged periods of uncertainty, however, the stress can wear us down…

“These are unprecedented times where there is a lot more at stake now,” Sperling said. “That may make this election feel bigger than they may have felt in the past. … There are so many big decisions that people may feel there’s a lot that’s important to them that’s at stake.”

Sperling suggested counteracting uncertainty by carving out times in our day for activities that are personally meaningful and that we control, whether it’s going for a walk, having a cup of coffee without interruption, or connecting with people who are supportive of us.

Carson said going for a walk not only breaks one’s focus on national events, it provides an exercise boost. She suggested deep breathing for two minutes, which has been shown to calm the autonomic nervous system. We can also try meditation or listing things for which we feel grateful, because anxiety and gratitude are incompatible, she said.

“The thing to do is step back from it. You have to quit hitting ‘refresh,’ ” Carson said. “You can distract yourself. … Go do something different. If you can put the phone down, that’s wonderful.”

—  Alvin Powell, from “Feeling election stress? Stop hitting ‘refresh’ in The Harvard Gazette (Nov 4, 2020)

Good Morning, Monster

Making psychological changes also provokes anxiety. It’s very hard to break a habit, especially when you’ve adapted yourself to a particular pattern that, however maladaptive, has kept you alive. The unconscious is powerful, and it will fight to the death to keep an old pattern in place.

Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery (St. Martin’s Press, September 22, 2020)


Notes:

  • Highly recommended.  Gripping stories…
  • Amazon Best Book of September 2020
  • CBC.radio: “Catherine Gildiner is an American-born and Toronto-based memoirist, novelist and former psychologist. In her latest book Good Morning, Monster, she focuses on five patients who overcame their personal trauma, a process Gildiner defines as being heroic.  ‘These five people that I write about always came back to me — out of the hundreds of people that I had seen.’ — Catherine Gildiner.

All My Friends

This book is dedicated to the voices in my head, the most remarkable of my friends.

And to my wife, who lives with us.

Fredrik Backman, the opening dedication to his new book titled “Anxious People: A Novel” (Atria Books, September 8, 2020)


Notes:

Enfold Yourself in Small Comforts

The scent of sun-dried sheets fresh off the clothesline can completely change my state of mind. Like the sense of well-being that comes over me when a song from my youth is playing on the radio, the smell of line-dried sheets takes me home to Alabama, back to a time when all my beloved elders were still alive, still humming as they shook out a wad of damp bedsheets and pinned them to the line.

This summer I have repeatedly washed not just our sheets but also our 20-year-old matelassé coverlet, whose scalloped edges are now beginning to fray. I have washed the dust ruffle for possibly the first time in its entire existence. Once the linens are reassembled, I crawl between the sheets, breathe in, and feel the muscles across the top of my back begin to loosen. As my friend Serenity’s mother is fond of saying, “There are very few problems in this world that putting clean sheets on the bed won’t improve, even if just a little bit.”

These days it’s truly just a little bit, even when the clean sheets have been dried on a clothesline in the bright summer sun. Everyone I know is either suffering terribly or terribly worried about someone who is suffering. When will they ever find work? What if they get sick at work and can’t afford to take time off? What if they bring the virus home to the people they love? How will they work and also home-school their children? Will their parents die of the coronavirus? Will their parents die of loneliness before they can die of the coronavirus?

For months now, all my phone calls and texts and emails have begun, “How are you, really?” or “How is…?” Sometimes I’m the one who’s asking and sometimes I’m the one who’s being asked, but every exchange begins the same way.

Without even thinking about why, I engage in useless compensation. Bringing a few swallowtail caterpillars inside to save them from the red wasps. Repotting eight years’ worth of Mother’s Day orchids. Buying mask after mask, as though this color or this style or this pattern will somehow protect me and those I love. I am getting through these days primarily by way of magical thinking, and sheets billowing on a hot August wind are my talismans against fear and loss.

In June, after 25 years in this house, my husband set to work on our 70-year-old kitchen cabinets, chiseling out layers of paint, planing and sanding warped edges. When he was finished, the cabinet doors would close all the way, and stay closed, for the first time in decades. If you ask him why he went to all this trouble, he has no explanation beyond the obvious: For 25 years it needed to be done, and so he finally did it.

But I think it’s more than that. I think he was worrying about his lonesome father, quarantined in an efficiency apartment, and that’s why he fixed those cupboard doors. He was worrying about our oldest son’s pandemic wedding and our middle son’s new job as an essential worker. He was worrying about whether our youngest son’s university would make the inevitable decision to hold classes online before we had to sign a yearlong lease for an apartment our son might never set foot in. My husband can’t control any of those things, much less cure Covid-19, but he can by God make the kitchen cabinets stop flying open and knocking us in the head while we cook.

The other day, I posted a picture on Facebook of our masks drying on the clothesline. “At some point I’m going to have to stop buying masks with flowers on them,” I wrote. “I don’t know why I keep thinking a new mask with flowers on it will solve everything, but I keep thinking it anyway.”

My friends began to chime in. “In case you are wondering, ice cream doesn’t seem to solve anything either, but I’m still collecting data,” my friend Noni wrote. “I confess I have not picked up an iron in years, but I now iron our masks each week,” wrote Tina. “It’s important to get the pleats just right. For some reason.”

We know the reason. In Margaret Atwood’s 1969 debut novel, “The Edible Woman,” a character named Duncan copes with chaos by ironing: “I like flattening things out, getting rid of the wrinkles, it gives me something to do with my hands,” he says.

A few days later I was still thinking about Tina ironing those masks, so I asked, outright, what my Facebook friends are doing to manage their own anxieties. When I checked back a few hours later, there were more than 100 comments, and every one of them was a lesson, or at least a needed reminder, for me.

My friends are giving themselves difficult and absorbing assignments: reading classic novels, learning a new language or a challenging song on the guitar, working complicated puzzles. “I am doing so many puzzles because it feels good to put something back together again,” my friend Erica wrote.

They are throwing themselves into the domestic arts: preparing complex meals, learning to make paper flowers and, yes, ironing. “I’ve been ironing my pillowcases,” wrote Elizabeth. “They feel so crisp and cool on my poor menopausal cheeks.”

They are putting in a garden, in the suburban backyard or on the city balcony. They are feeding the birds and sometimes the turtles, rescuing orphaned opossums, walking in the woods. They are sitting on the porch — just sitting there, listening. At night they are going outside to look at the stars.

They are taking care of others — adopting puppies and lonely neighbors, coaching elderly aspiring writers via Zoom, breaking their own rules against pets in bed, taking the time to get to know their U.S. Mail carriers. They are meeting friends — outdoors and from a safe distance — and making a pact to talk about anything but the coronavirus. They are reveling in the slower pace of family life and falling in love with their partners all over again. My sister, who still lives in Alabama, is sending boxes of Chilton County peaches to faraway friends who have never before experienced the taste of heaven.

Tears welled up as I read their stories, and by the time I’d reached the end, I was openly weeping. It felt like nothing less than a blessing, in this hurt and hurtful time, to remember how creative human beings can be, how tender and how kind.

We may be in the middle of a story we don’t know how will end, or even whether it will end, but we are not helpless characters created and directed by an unseen novelist. We have the power, even in this Age of Anxiety, to enfold ourselves in small comforts, in the joy of tiny pleasures. We can walk out into the dark and look up at the sky. We can remind ourselves that the universe is so much bigger than this fretful, feverish world, and it is still expanding. And still filled with stars.

—  Margaret Renkl, “A Reminder to Enfold Yourself in Small Comforts” (NY Times, August 24, 2020)

none of us can bear too much reality

Thinking about swifts has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I’ve dealt with difficulty. When I was small I comforted myself with thoughts of layers of rising air; later I hid myself among the whispers of recorded works of fiction. We all have our defences. Some of them are self-defeating, but others are occasions for joy: the absorption of a hobby, the writing of a poem, speeding on a Harley, the slow assembly of a collection of records or seaside shells. ‘The best thing for being sad,’ said T. H. White’s Merlin, ‘is to learn something.’ All of us have to live our lives most of the time inside the protective structures that we have built; none of us can bear too much reality. We need our books, our craft projects, our dogs and knitting, our movies, gardens and gigs. It’s who we are. We’re held together by our lives, our interests, and all our chosen comforts. But we can’t have only those things, because then we can’t work out where we should be headed.

—  Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020)


Photo Salvi Danes, (Barcelona) (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)

T.G.I.F.: Truth


Source: Thisisn’thappiness

 

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