And then, there’s the Tuesday Morning Wake-Up Call

We compartmentalized the stress and ongoing trauma, flattening it into something survivable, but we nonetheless ate it for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner. We swam in that stress. We slept in it. We swallowed it in gulps. We lived through it, and we told ourselves stories of resilience, because what other choice did we have.

But the body is bad at pretending. It keeps the damn score.

Lightly Child, Lightly

 

I wish, for the me I was then, that I could add one more flash, much further forward. I wish that the me nodding out in a cold cinderblock cell could see ahead five years, or even ten… I wish she could see who she will become, and the parts of herself she will leave behind. The darkness that she will learn to live with, and the light she will learn to let in.

Keri Blakinger, random excerpts from Corrections in Ink: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Press, June 7, 2022)


Notes:

  • See prior post on Blakinger’s new book, here.
  • Book Review by David Sheff in NY Times: A Harrowing Journey From Cornell to Addiction to Prison
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

“As much as I liked the fast pace of that hardboiled world, in the slow moments I wondered about the point of it all.”

“I learned quickly that there’s an intrinsically desolate feeling to being homeless. It was something I did not expect, and it cut far deeper than the simple, logistical difficulties and social stigmas of being dirty and unhoused. There’s something specific about not having a place where you are welcome or safe when the sun goes down. For an underage girl fresh on the street, safe was not really an option—but after a few days, I found welcome: the Family under the parking garage. The Family was a motley collection of a couple dozen young homeless goths and assorted street people dwelling beneath the first level of the curving parking garage across the street from the Alewife train station—the end of the line.”

I’ll have a year clean on the 20th and I won’t get a certificate for that, but it’s the only thing that I deserve one for. But then, I guess maybe nothing really important in life can be validated by a piece of paper.

“I was not tempted; drugs finally felt like a past life, an escape I did not miss. Unlike so many of my friends, I was not haunted by cravings or drug dreams, and I felt like I’d almost cheated my way out of addiction. Sometimes, I’m still not sure to what extent I got sober and to what extent I just found more socially acceptable obsessions like running and crosswording and writing.”

“When the end is near (in prison, time slows to a trickle. Not the way it does on the ice at Nationals, when adrenaline moves faster than the ticking clock. Not the way it does at the top of a gorge, when the world is frozen. And not the way it does in The Place, when the hours blend together and disappear. This is not reality fading away or closing in but simply refusing to move forward, with such stubbornness that it seems physically painful—like the struggle of a wild animal trapped in a tar pit and straining to break free. In prison terms, this is getting short. That’s the word for when your bid is almost over, and you are about to go home.”

Keri Blakinger, random excerpts from Corrections in Ink: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Press, June 7, 2022)


Notes:

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

…What isn’t healthy? Being bombarded with such a relentless onslaught of tragic events that the condition of simply living in today’s world makes these feelings chronic. So chronic, our brains’ ability to process uncertainty and anxiety might be diminishing – as we speak.

First, some stress stats: according to a March poll released by the American Psychological Association, inflation, supply chain problems, global uncertainty and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on top of a two-year pandemic, have pushed America’s stress to “alarming” and “unprecedented levels” that will “challenge our ability to cope”, APA’s CEO said. And unhealthy behaviors that began in Covid’s first year – more drinking, less exercise – “became entrenched” in the second, suggesting that the path towards a collective recalibration may be a far way off…

One way I was able to turn these stats into something more vivid – beyond tallying up my glass-of-wine-and-fistful-of-gummy-bear-consumption-per-week – was to speak to a neurologist who has found herself particularly concerned about what all this might be doing to our neural functions.

“The whole world – but certainly we see it very vividly in America – has had brain changes due to chronic stress, which makes us less capable of making decisions that can give us a healthy future, both at an individual and cultural level,” Dr Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale medical school, told me…

When we get stressed or feel out of control, we shift down to our primitive coping mechanisms, ramping up our fear responses and shutting off the prefrontal cortex. The higher the levels of arousal or stress, the stronger those primitive circuits get, the less affected you feel by things that might normally give you pleasure, and the more things feel threatening or sad…

As Arnsten explained to me, your brain is wired to activate its fear system if it sees someone else afraid. So when horrifying news blows up our phones, we instinctively empathize. Combine that with the new normal of living in a constant state of Covid-related uncertainty, and a political environment that can feel hopeless and intransigent, and you get a perfect neurological storm that has her worried.

“You are losing the very circuits that enable you to self-regulate, to be rational,” Arnsten told me, “and in a small-grained way not to be irritable, which is really important for family health.”

Can we get those circuits back? Research suggests yes, if we spend time in calm environments in which we feel in control. There are active ways to combat our new reality, many of which we know but don’t pursue: exercise can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, deep breathing can calm one’s arousal systems. Seeking out joy and humor, in the forms of books or music, can help. Another simple suggestion: “Do something that helps you feel more efficacious,” Arnsten said, “even if it’s very small. Often times, helping someone else can help jumpstart that.

Before we hung up, Arnsten mentioned one large caveat. In 2011, Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers put three cohorts of rats – young, middle-aged and aged – through stressful situations (which, for a rat, means being restrained by wire mesh), and determined that “aging modulates the capacity for experience-dependent spine plasticity in PFC neurons”. Spines, in this case, refer to “dendritic spines”, which protrude from a neuron’s dendrite, and receive input. You lose them during chronic stress exposure. In layperson’s terms, the study concluded that the older you are, the harder it is to weather the negative effects of chronic stress exposure and respond rationally – if you’re a rat.

“Now that I’m an oldish rat,” Arnsten told me with a chuckle, “I’m hoping they didn’t wait enough in the study; that connectivity did, in fact, return with time.”

For the older rats among us, here’s to hoping.

— Sophie Brickman, from “When stressed, we ‘catastrophize’ – but we can learn to calm our irrational fears” (The Guardian, June 21, 2022)


Photo: Kat Smith (via Pexels)

Crisis? Go Watch the Rain for 10 minutes.

It rained one morning this week. I moved back to Texas last year, in part for the rainstorms. Here, it rains decisively, gloriously, like it really means it. It explodes, pounds, roars, thunders and then, suddenly, moves on. I stepped on my back porch, not wanting to miss the show.

I sat, silent, smelling that indescribable rain scent and stretching out my hands, palms open in supplication, the same position I use in church to receive communion. The physicality of the experience, the sensual joy of sounds, smells, touch and sight, was profoundly humanizing. In a very real way, I am made for that. I am made to notice the rain. I’m made to love it.

But digitization is changing our relationship with materiality — both the world of nature and of human relationships. We are trained through technology (and technology corporations) to spend more time on screens and less time noticing and interacting with this touchable, smellable, feelable world. Social media in particular trains us to notice that which is large, loud, urgent, trending and distant, and to therefore miss the small, quiet importance of our proximate and limited, embodied lives…

Both Richtel’s article and another article released the same week by The Times highlight the emerging trend of people having romantic relationships with fictional characters, rather than human beings. There is evidence that teenagers are consuming more pornography, even as fewer are having sex. In a piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights the growing concern that screen habits are displacing beneficial experiences for kids, noting that compared with the early 2000s, teenagers are less likely to “go out with their friends, get their driver’s license or play youth sports.” They are also less likely to get enough sleep.

“Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation,” the National Recreation and Park Association reports, “devoting only four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media.” I realized recently that I can identify more apps by sight than species of trees.

We are made to enjoy the physical presence of other human beings. We are made to enjoy rainstorms or sunshine or walks in the woods. We are made to enjoy touchable things. We cannot escape or overcome this need through technology. Our attempts to do so go against the grain of our deepest human needs and longings…

In the same way, I think we are finding that there is something essential and mysterious — dare I say, holy — about human beings interacting in person and with the natural world that simply cannot be replicated in virtual reality.

So what do we do? In his book “Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing,” Andy Crouch writes, “Perhaps the two best beginning moves, for those of us swaddled in affluence and intoxicated by our technology, are into the natural world — the world of stars, snow and rain, trees and deserts — and into the relational world — the world of real bodies and heartbeats, hands and faces.”

Just as people have worked to revive slow, unprocessed and traditional food, we need to fight for the tangible world, for enduring ways of interacting with others, for holism. We need to reconnect with material things: nature, soil, our bodies and other people in real life. This doesn’t necessarily have to be big and dramatic. We don’t have to hurl our computers into the sea en masse.

But we do have to intentionally resist the siren song of digitization, which by and large promises far more than it can deliver. We have to be cautious and wise about introducing devices into our lives that fundamentally change how humans have interacted since time immemorial. We have to plunge ourselves primarily into the natural world and embodied human relationships, with all the complexity, challenges, inconvenience and pain that entails.

Go watch the rain for 10 minutes. Go on a walk with a friend. Get off social media and meet one neighbor. Keep your kids offline. Put your hands in the dirt. Play an instrument instead of a video game. Turn off your smartphone and have dinner with people around a table. Search for beauty and goodness in the material world, and there, find joy. The way back to ourselves, as individuals and a society, runs through old, earthy things.

Tish Harrison Warren, from “We’re in a Loneliness Crisis: Another Reason to Get Off Our Phones” (NY Times, May 1, 2022). Warren is an Anglican priest reflects on matters of faith in private life and public discourse.


Photo: Ahmed Nishaath of Manipal Lake, Udpi, India via Unsplash.

Walking. And licking the wounds.

697 days, almost consecutive. Like in a row. This daybreak walk at Cove Island Park.

38° F, feels like 30° F, flashes Dark Sky app. Sorry, but that’s crap. Winds gusting up to 35 mph.

Just look at those clouds overhead in the photo. Even they’re huddled together trying to stay warm.

I’m standing in the exact same spot as my last post. That pure and clean moment. That soul lifting moment, lifting me, elevating me up and over my pesky, 1st world problems.

And here we are, a week later, and I’m feeling nothing. Nothing spiritual. Nothing soul lifting.

Jill Horton’s words are pumping into my earbuds on Audible from her title “We are All Perfectly Fine.” No, we’re not perfectly fine Jill. “What’s that like? It’s like bullshit…it’s like violence to my soul.

So the picture must be crystalizing for you this morning. We’re cold, we’re in a pissy mood, and not really sure why. Why not turn this bus around, suspend this walk, go back home, roll under the covers and sleep it off? Whatever the hell ‘this’ is. But I know that I excel at wallowing in it.

I keep walking.

I pull the hoody (‘hoody’ Dale, not ‘hoodie’, or some other French Canadian separatist derivation) over my head to cut some of this wind. And I pick up the pace to warm these bones.

I walk the breakwall, taking care to avoid the slime, to avoid a headlong tumble, to add to the morning woes.

I hear a scurrying in the stones.

I hit pause on Audible, yank my ear buds out and stop.

[Read more…]

it was my calling, the way a bird is drawn to the song of its own kind

I could get into med school.

Couldn’t I?

I could. I would. I did. But there was a complicating factor. Right after a thick acceptance letter arrived from Mac, another envelope came. This one had a postmark from the U.K. I was being offered a full scholarship to go to Oxford for a PhD in English.

The medical school acceptance letter was printed by a computer; the package from Oxford included a personal invitation on crinkly yellow paper to drink sherry with tutors. I could picture my new Oxford life: I’d have a bike with a basket, and spend hours at the Bodleian. The real white cliffs of Dover. Weekends in Paris. Wool sweaters from the highlands, and a hearth and a stone fireplace older than anyone I had ever met. Bookshelves full of Yeats and Tennyson, and a room of my own, like Virginia Woolf’s. A place where the words could pour out of my heart and onto the page, and maybe someday those pages would find their way onto other shelves, maybe even the Bodleian itself.

But lying awake on those tortured, miserable nights, working it all out as if it were a formula with an elusive right answer, the “Go” or “Stay” columns were really “tutors with sherry” versus my sister in her wheelchair, bent over at a forty-five-degree angle, holding her head in her hands and asking if I could please take her to the summer fair. Those tutors wanted to know my interests within postmodernism. My sister had a more basic question for me: When are you coming home? …

I didn’t need to study English at Oxford to learn the power of words. I’d already had my most important teacher. It was that doctor, yelling at my parents, There’s no brain left. He taught me that people with power have a duty to speak with care, because they have been entrusted with something fragile they have no right to break. He helped me understand that medicine itself was a very specific kind of power, one I would never, ever abuse, because I knew it was sacred. And anyway, I wasn’t drawn to power. I was drawn to medicine because it was my calling, the way a bird is drawn to the song of its own kind.

That was the only contest Wendy won in her whole life. She drew me home. Not out of pity, but out of love and its attendant duty, and a sense there might be things in life that would matter more to me in twenty years than whether I had a PhD from Oxford or had seen the Bodleian. So one day that summer, I was able to look Wendy in the eye and tell her something she would forget a few minutes later: because of her, I was going to be a doctor. And in a few years, I’d be coming home.

Jillian Horton, We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing (HarperCollins Publishers, February 23, 2021)


Notes:

  • Highly Recommended. And if you can listen to it on Audible, narration is absolutely the best.
  • Book Review: cecescott.com

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

So, if you can’t go back, what’s the harm in looking back? Twelve Step programs counsel “Look back, but don’t stare.” Wonder why? Because it’s fcking painful! I’m sitting comfortably at this lovely computer in my homey home office and almost everything coming to mind is about what an asshole I was and am still capable of being. So many stupid mistakes. So much selfishness and ego-driven thoughtlessness to bathe in. Sure, I recall the victories and joys and laughs and lovers, but for reasons beyond me, those happier remembrances are cloudy, dimmed, and distanced. I have to reach for them. Whereas the miseries and hurt, every mistake, misfortune, and betrayal I endured or delivered remains conveniently at my fingertips. The guns are loaded, the knives still cut, and the adage “Time heals everything” makes a lovely lyric but is a fcking lie. Time heals nothing…

In Twelve Step work we look back to identify the bad stuff we are responsible for and, if it’s possible to do so without causing more harm, we make amends for our wrongdoing. I recommend this cleansing exercise of exorcising. Suddenly, glancing over your shoulder is less frightening. There are fewer shadowy figures following you. You are freer to move about unencumbered, knowing that the scary shit of the past has been peaceably entombed. Unfortunately, entombed is not destroyed. It waits quietly in the dark for someone to dig it up again. Bad shit is patient. So, here I am with my work clothes on and my shovel in hand. If you’re willing to listen, I’m willing to dig.

Harvey Fierstein, from his Preface titled “Look Back, But Don’t Stare” in “I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir” (Knopf, March 1, 2022)


NY Times 11 New Books We Recommend This Week (March 10, 2022)

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

He points to those with hidden symptoms in a chapter reflecting on the deaths of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Alan Krueger. There is mental and physical agony in this life, and Bruni does not judge anyone’s decisions; rather, he grieves the losses and appreciates the grace. There is virtue in stoicism, but there is also danger in what strong people can hide. His own situation has made him even more keen to understand the other whose public face contradicts a private suffering. He proposes that each person should have a sandwich board listing her pain and how she adapts: “Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons, our pain were spelled out for everyone around us to see.” Bruni’s sandwich board would read: “Eyesight compromised, could go blind.”

You ask, why announce your troubles? Doesn’t everyone have something? “Well, yes. Tell us anyway,” I think Bruni would reply. Maybe if we knew, we might slow down, turn and fumble toward each other. Perhaps, then I could say that you’re not alone, and I’m rooting for you, because I am.

— Min Jin Lee, in her book review  of Frank Bruni’s “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found” titled “Eyesight Compromised. Could Go Blind.” (NY Times Book Review, Feb 28, 2022). Bruni had a rare stroke several years ago which damaged his optic nerve and severely impaired his eyesight. Read more here.

Alkalizing Self. Or, Something.

I mean seriously. Look at him. Is this a picture of sanity?

First it was a gentle nudge.

She sends me an article. “You might check this out.”  I skim it.

“The Ice Man.”

“Ice baths.”

“Deep breathing”

“Inner fire meditation and how it alters body chemistry.”

“You can experience lightheadedness, as the arteries and veins to the brain and body close slightly in reaction to the alkalizing blood.”

“You are inducing voluntarily a short stress response which ultimately will lead to more resilience towards everyday stress, mentally and physiology and feeling more in control.”

Blah, blah, blah. Total Bullsh*t. Whack job.

A few days pass.

She comes at me again. [Read more…]

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

…In the 25 years since I graduated from college, such demands have relentlessly ratcheted up. The quantity and complexity of the mental work expected of successful students and professionals have mounted; we’ve responded by pushing ever harder on that lump of gray matter in our heads.

The result has not been a gratifying bulking up of our neural “muscle.” On the contrary, all the mental effort we’ve mustered over the past year has left many of us feeling depleted and distracted, unequal to the tasks that never stop arriving in our inboxes. When the work we’re putting in doesn’t produce the advertised rewards, we’re inclined to find fault with ourselves. Maybe we’re insufficiently gritty; maybe, we think, we’re just not smart enough. But this interpretation is incorrect. What we’re coming up against are universal limits, constraints on the biological brain that are shared by every human on the planet. Despite the hype, our mental endowment is not boundlessly powerful or endlessly plastic. The brain has firm limits — on its ability to remember, its capacity to pay attention, its facility with abstract and nonintuitive concepts — and the culture we have created for ourselves now regularly exceeds these limits.

The escalating mental demands of the past quarter-century represent the latest stage of a trend that has been picking up speed for more than 100 years. Starting in the early decades of the 20th century, school, work and even the routines of daily life became more cognitively complex: less grounded in the concrete and more bound up in the theoretical and abstract. For a time, humanity was able to with this development, resourcefully finding ways to use the brain better. As their everyday environments grew more intellectually demanding, people responded by upping their cognitive game. Continual engagement with the mental rigors of modern life coincided in many parts of the world with improving nutrition, rising living conditions and reduced exposure to pathogens. These factors produced a century-long climb in average I.Q. scores — a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect, after James Flynn, the political philosopher who identified it.

But this upward trajectory is now leveling off. In recent years, I.Q. scores have stopped rising or have even begun to drop…Some researchers suggest that we have pushed our mental equipment as far as it can go. It may be that “our brains are already working at near-optimal capacity,” write the neuroscientist Peter Reiner and his student Nicholas Fitz in the journal Nature. Efforts to wrest more intelligence from this organ, they add, “bump up against the hard limits of neurobiology.” This collision point — where the urgent imperatives of contemporary life confront the stubbornly intractable limits of the brain — is the place where we live at the moment, and rather unhappily. Our determination to drive the brain ever harder is the source of the agitation we feel as we attempt the impossible each day.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It entails inducing the brain to play a different role: less workhorse, more orchestra conductor. Instead of doing so much in our heads, we can seek out ways to shift mental work onto the world around us and to supplement our limited neural resources with extraneural ones. These platforms for offloading, these resources for supplementation, are readily available and close at hand…

We, too, extend our minds, but not as well as we could. We do it haphazardly, without much intention or skill — and it’s no wonder this is the case. Our efforts at education and training, as well as management and leadership, are aimed principally at promoting brain-bound thinking. Beginning in elementary school, we are taught to sit still, work quietly, think hard — a model for mental activity that will dominate during the years that follow, through high school and college and into the workplace. The skills we develop and the techniques we are taught are mostly those that involve using our individual, unaided brains: committing information.

The limits of this approach have become painfully evident. The days when we could do it all in our heads are over. Our knowledge is too abundant, our expertise too specialized, our challenges too enormous. The best chance we have to thrive in the extraordinarily complex world we’ve created is to allow that world to assume some of our mental labor. Our brains can’t do it alone.

Annie Murphy Paul, from “How to Think Outside Your Brain (June 11, 2021)

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)

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