One month (or so) in

I have wondered how to take stock of one month (or so) of the pandemic and ongoing extreme social distancing measures. There are the good parts—my family and I have fallen into something of a routine, finding ways to get things done, work, chores, hobbies, and various diversions. We’ve found ways to connect with friends and family online and (at a distance) in the neighborhood.

The hard parts, of course, are watching what seems like so much incompetence and avarice by the U.S. executive branch and its enablers in the Senate, versus the valiant efforts by people at all other levels, regardless of political affiliation, to rise to this challenge. As someone who cares deeply about protecting and exercising the right to vote, I am still reeling from what took place in Wisconsin. Truth to tell, the hardest part of this pandemic hasn’t been social distancing, nor even worrying about how everyone will recover from shutting everything down (as frightening as that can be), but the pain of reading so many reports on all that is going wrong, of the pain and suffering caused by the illness and by the economic hardships, and simultaneously the horror of knowing that there are people whose only reaction is to figure out how to grab power and money in the midst of it. There are no monsters in fiction that come close to the cruelty and depravity on display in our country right now (and alas, similar patterns are emerging in countries led by autocrats around the world). I am a bit ashamed to admit that this still surprises me. I like to see the good in people, and I believe in the radical embrace of hope in the face of daunting odds. Yet what I am forced to witness these days beggars my attempts to describe it, let alone absorb it.

I have heard that emailing our representatives in Congress is as effective these days as calling, and as a writer, email has always seemed easier to me than calling. If you care about the vote as I do, and you happen to be a citizen of the U.S., please consider emailing your representatives (or filling out their website forms) urging them to

-Pass a fourth Coronavirus relief package that includes at least $2 billion in “safe election money” and protects the U.S. post office
-Require states to invest in expanded vote by mail and early voting
-Ensure that in-person polling locations have the resources they need to operate safely and efficiently

(talking points provided by Vote Save America)

Enough.

Even before our world turned upside down and/or made all of our fault lines even more distinct, I wanted to reflect on the concept of enough. If I am allowed to be judge-y this morning, and even if it is my blog, I am not sure it’s a good idea, but still, I tend to define as toxic the insatiable desire for more that permeates my culture. Whatever you have, your job, your house, your car… there is this tendency to want more. To feel as if you are missing out or failing if you don’t get more of something, somehow.

One of my superpowers (and alas, it falters at times) is to be content with enough. Or at least, to try to be. And if necessary, redefine or be creative about what I see as enough. What is enough? This moment, this breath, can sometimes be enough. The sunlight casting a pattern across the room. The birds singing as if it is spring. Kind words from a friend or a stranger.

It is daunting, though, to write on this topic now as I worry about people who do not have enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough human contact, enough medicine. It is hard right now to have enough hope, even though that is something we can, sometimes painfully, try to construct on our own.

There is a saying that I’ve seen out in the world, a bumper sticker, I think: Live simply so that others may simply live. Is it possible, and I ask this sincerely, to find ways to be content with enough so that others might, too?

Hold on.

This weekend I was pondering what to write on my blog today. I thought I might list all the people I am worrying about, fellow humans who I do not know but who are in extreme danger. Syria comes to mind often. Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan. People around the world and within my country living in places in a permanent state of violence and/or deprivation. All the refugees adrift in a world that itself is coming adrift with each passing day. Individuals who are made vulnerable by circumstances or systematic oppression. And the people who are not in extreme danger but who are experiencing heartbreak of the small kinds. Perhaps something they have worked for and planned for is suddenly crashing to a halt due to this pandemic. Or who took what seemed like a small risk in 2019, a new venture of some sort, that now appears catastrophic in 2020.

I am not especially comfortable with organized religion, but I have a spiritual side. A phrase from the American Friends Society always resonates with me: I will hold you in the light, one says, the way others might say I will pray for you. I like the idea of light, the echoes of healing, of renewal, of better days, of hope and possibility. I like the idea that I might be able to hold someone in the light, that this is an action I can take to make the world a better place. I am holding you in the light. Everyone, really. I send out light, hope, and love to the world.

As I write these words, the first two weeks of Full Scale Pandemic Alert have passed, and the threat has become very real, and in some places, nightmarish. It is predicted that in two more weeks, we will reach the peak moment when we are least able to manage the spread of Covid19.

I don’t know how to prepare for that. I hide away. I peek at the news, then turn it off when it threatens to overwhelm me. I take deep breaths, trying to make sense of the knowledge that a worldwide disaster is unfolding, slowly in some places, and at light speed in others.

Hold on.

End of week one

It may be helpful that my current goal is to blog once a week on Mondays. Weekly posts may give me some kind of measure to keep track of what is happening, so many seismic changes even as time seems to slow down. Today marks the first full week of Nothing Is Normal in my neck of the woods (schools closed, work halted, more people have heard of Social Distancing). So here’s a weekly check-in, of sorts.

On March 12, I began jotting down key data points from the New York Times map of the virus (and it is true that different sources provide slightly different counts). At that time, 127,800 people had been tracked with the virus. 4,718 had died. In the US, around 1,200 had the virus. I didn’t jot down the number of US deaths until a few days later.

As of this morning, 341,500 identified worldwide; 15,187 have died. 33,018 identified in the U.S., and 428 have died. And based on the slowly improving but still insufficient amount of testing available, those numbers likely do not show the full picture. The story of what is actually happening will not be told for several years, I fear.

An odd thought came to mind just now. In movies, there is sometimes the dark trope of a person falling from an airplane or off a tall building, plummeting to a certain death. I have always wondered what someone thinks about during such a fall, because nothing hurts yet. Everything that you know, everything that you are, is still the same, still intact. The ground below must seem like an illusion. And all of the actions that one usually takes for self-protection or survival are suddenly futile.

It’s not a pleasant thought, I know, and I am hoping that human ingenuity, compassion, and sense of community will outpace human frailties to help us survive this current state of free fall.

One note: The New York Times shared a report today based on extensive interviews with health experts (rather than the random guesses of someone who studied something once) that laid out what needs to happen, so I will share that link here, in case you are curious   https://nyti.ms/3dkfoCc

Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies I describe in my e-book. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.

Viral anxiety

This weekend I became an expert in epidemiology. No, not really, but you’d think that was my goal. The past few weeks have not been ideal in terms of limiting the time I spend on Twitter or skimming the news. It’s been several years of what feel like daily shocks running the gamut from cringes to gut punches. I stumble to find a response, any response, to all that is happening.

Today my mind is still sifting through what I’ve read. There’s a story I can’t tell in detail because it belongs to a loved one under 18, who went through a nightmare of a health crisis a few years ago. At a moment when we felt most helpless to understand what was going on or how to stop the suffering, we had to go back to the doctor’s office during the height of flu season. I walked as if in a dream because I couldn’t imagine how to deal with what was already happening AND the added risk of flu.

As of today, though, my loved one’s crisis has abated. On the other hand, I have a beloved parent in assisted living, another beloved parent with respiratory issues, both over 80, not to mention friends battling cancer, others living with asthma, and quite a few working in health care. For all of them, coronavirus is one more threat among many ongoing risks.

Though we learn more each day, none of us know what to expect from this coronavirus. My new online colleagues in the field of epidemiology make clear that without sufficient testing and mitigation, we will reach new levels of crisis within weeks and may have to endure several really tough months. But none of us know what will happen, not for certain.

What is certain is that so many people who already bear heavy loads, including just the challenge to make it from one day to the next, are weighed down even more by the thought of what might lie ahead.

I feel that weight, too. So let me hold us all in the light, as the Friends say. And I will do so every time I wash my hands, like a prayer going out into the world around me. I can’t do everything, but I can do this much to keep you healthy. To let you know that it matters to me what you are going through. Hold on. Stay in the light.

Path

Clearing a path forward

I am glad to report that I am finding my way back to the words, though my progress could best be described as uneven. After spending a few weeks mostly journaling and blogging, I have decided to shift priorities. My top priority each day is to spend time revising my YA SF novel and to train on how to use my newly purchased Serif Affinity Designer app to help me, eventually, develop a new nonfiction project. Or perhaps it will just be a hobby, in case I’m not satisfied with what I’m able to create. I’ve realized that it may take some time to feel comfortable with this app, and I’m more motivated if I can approach this learning process with a sense of play rather than a sense of urgency. So call it a chance to dabble with an artistic tool each day, regardless of where it leads.

Now that blogging is less of a priority, I’ve decided to save time each Monday so that I post at least once a week. It seems like an achievable goal. Maybe?

At least it’s achievable today, and that counts for something. It is Monday, and the week lies before me, glimmering with opportunity. I take one step forward. And another.

Crumpled papers

Don’t overthink.

So today I will write on my most recent affirmation, which is “Don’t overthink.”

Which means, I guess, I should end this post right now so I avoid overthinking about why I shouldn’t overthink. Perhaps like many affirmations, success is not guaranteed :).

Why this affirmation? Recently I was second guessing all of my choices as a writer, as well as questioning the wisdom of submitting my writing for publication. There are many good reasons for doubt. There is no perfect choice of what to write or where to submit. Rejection is not much fun, especially because it is often justified yet simultaneously a result of the randomness of the selection process.

Indeed, I have been on enough hiring committees to know that wonderful candidates can be passed over mostly due to the random alchemy of views and biases of the committee members, of the way one quality is sought over another, and a lot of what I might call the quirks of the moment. It is not really a logical process, though we all go through the motions of trying to be logical and fair. We try. The people who reject my writing (and there aren’t many because I don’t submit my writing often) try to make the best judgement based on the moment. It’s not them. But it’s also not necessarily me. So  I stare at this random mix of meaning and meaninglessness, and think, hmm, maybe I shouldn’t play this game?

But then I come back to this. I need to write. Every day is better if at some point I spend even a few minutes with the words. So I can’t choose what to write based on what might be published. Instead, I need to write what I need to write. Don’t overthink it. And now and then, submit into the void, remembering it’s a void. Just because I don’t know what will happen, or that there are risks within both rejection and success, doesn’t mean I should back off. I have to tap into my courage, tinged with humility. I offer my ideas, my hopes, my reflections, my jokes, and even my grief into the void. I don’t have to be in control of what happens after that.

Just write, I whisper to myself, and to anyone else who is listening. Don’t overthink.

Balloon hovering above water

Courage + Humility

Writing about my affirmations must have been helpful because I have found my way back to the words lately, spending more time revising my novel than posting on my blog. Still, I would like to continue to share some affirmations that have aided me in the past and perhaps present.

This one is not a catchphrase as much as a juxtaposition: Combine courage with humility.

Courage makes sense as a value to embrace, especially for a writer. So often, writing involves the effort to capture ideas in print only to be disappointed by how my words fall short of my vision. It can certainly be discouraging, and then the editing process involves hitting my head against flaws in my writing again and again and again and again… I can look a thousand times and still find more to fix. And that doesn’t even touch on the experience of submitting my writing for publication, which involves what feels like endless opportunities for rejection.

Courage is essential. Yet humility is essential, too. I have to keep in mind that whatever vision I bring to my work will always be partial. There will always be something I am missing, either in my understanding or in my efforts to share this understanding. Any amount of success can do more harm than good if I lose the ability to listen and watch for what I don’t know or for where I am falling short. Indeed, the more I come to know, the more I become aware of what I don’t know.

Humility is what brings the greatest insights to me, the greatest opportunities for transformation. Yet humility exists in tension with courage. Courage requires a boldness, a devil-may-care attitude that is the antithesis of humility, which suggests hesitation and observation.

Within that tension, perhaps, is the energy necessary to tackle the many obstacles inherent to writing… and living a meaningful life.

mountains

Where you’re meant to be

Yesterday I set to work editing my novel after leaving it alone for several months, other than a short research trip to study possible locations for the setting. It felt good to revisit the words, even though I know I have my work cut out for me to fix this rough first draft. Blogging about past affirmations has helped me get to this point, even though the doubts I have been experiencing didn’t have much to do with this specific book, but rather the larger project of sharing words with a world that may find good reason to criticize those words and/or me for writing them. It’s not an unreasonable fear.

Today’s affirmation is one that came to me in college when I was second-guessing all of my life’s choices, including being at that particular college. I certainly believe there are times when we need to evaluate our situation and make a change, including moving away or starting over. But this was not that kind of moment, just a more general worry that I was supposed to be doing Something Else Somewhere Else, an existential FOMO (fear of missing out) that the life I was supposed to be living was passing me by.

What helped me was listening to the Beatles’ song, “Love is all you need,” which, dear Millennials, was not my generation’s music because I am an okay Gen Xer :), thank you very much. But the Beatles are worth a listen no matter what generation you are. Love is an essential lens with which to view the world, but the line that helped me the most was this one: “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”

Maybe I didn’t have to question every choice. Maybe I didn’t have to have all the right answers or make all the right moves. Maybe I could find my way where I am rather than look for it somewhere else. Maybe the journeys that call to me have nothing to do with my physical location. Maybe I am meant to be here right now doing what I am doing. Maybe I will start to see why and what as I move forward.

It helped then, and it helps now. The risk of criticism and rejection is part of the writing life; whatever happens in this process may be meant to be. Criticisms and rejections can teach me something that I might need to learn, sometimes to revisit what I have written to see how to make it better or to revision what I choose to write in the future. And sometimes what I learn is to grit my teeth, dig in my heels, and write anyway.