“I think you have three choices,” says my wise friend when I ask him how he stays joyful in this world on the brink.
“You can live in ignorance,” (Been there, done that.)
“You can live in despair,” (Got the t-shirt.)
“Or you can live in hope.”
Well, that sounds good, let’s do that, I say.
But it’s not so simple, is it?
Hope, says Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.
Great, Em, says I, but how do you get the feathered thing to stay with you?
That’s what I’m wondering today as I sit on my deck in the cool morning and listen to the birds. I can’t see them all, but I know they’re there. I hear that beautiful chorus.
I want them to feel safe in my yard, to want to visit me, so I sit quietly with my heart open and ready. I silently invite these feathered beings to be with me today. And I will invite them again tomorrow. And when the rains come and their song is harder to hear, I will just have to trust that they are still out there and invite them over and over, and never stop at all.
It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and so far today, I have reorganized my office, burst into tears when I saw a picture of a lamb, started six emails and finished one, danced to a good song, ate Egg-in-a-Hole for the first time in about five years (in response to a wave of nostalgic cravings), wrapped a present for someone I probably won’t get to see at Christmas, stared at a picture of my great-niece for about ten minutes straight, went on a deranged search for tissue paper, cleaned the toilet, had an argument with myself and lost, balanced my cheque book and then ranted (to a picture of a dog) about the fact that banks don’t supply cheque book registers anymore.
Today’s topic is mental health.
Generally, I consider myself a fairly well-adjusted adult. Apart from menopause, I have never had to seek treatment for anything in the realm of mental health—and I know how lucky I am. Perimenopause, with its hormone surges, created mood swings that made me think my cheese was sliding off my cracker until I realized what was happening. That was the first time in my life that I really thought about my mental health.
And this is the second. Living with a global pandemic is a whole new thang for all of us. We are in uncharted waters, and none of us can predict how we will react within this new set of variables.
My life has been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, yet I am aware of the ambient stress in the air, the fear that hangs over our world like a global weather warning. We need to pay more attention to our overall well-being. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of this difficult time – it is pushing us to think and talk about our own mental health.
Few of us are shy about discussing physical health: exercise, diet, sleep. We love to talk about our aches and pains and ailments. Why do we lower our voices when we say, mental health?
I am not lowering my voice. As I told my students last week, sometimes I am the last to know when I am feeling dysregulated. We talked together about a situation last week, where I bawled them out about leaving their basketballs outside in the rain. I had been mid-rant when I heard myself, and realized I was discombobulated. I also shared with them how I got myself regulated again.
At home, I clue in to my dysregulation when I notice certain “red flag” behaviours in myself: like getting up in the middle of a conversation to straighten a picture on the wall, or cleaning the kitchen counter for the 80th time in a row.
One of the things I am most grateful for in my life is a partner who will talk me down when I ask her to. I know I can count on her to gently suggest that I do something to self-regulate when she finds me cleaning the bottom of the sliding door with a Q-tip, or flipping out about the lack of space in the refrigerator.
Lately, there’s been a lot more of these “unexpected reactions.” They are both a sign and a symptom to let me know it’s time to pay attention to my mental well-being.
The other red flag is what I call glitch capacity.
Now, under normal circumstances, I have a typical glitch capacity. Not as high as some, not as low as others. I think I can safely say that most parents have a higher glitch capacity than I have. All the practice, I imagine.
But I can handle glitches as well as the next seasoned teacher. They are, after all, part of the job. But, like most of us, when I am feeling worn out or ill, my glitch capacity falls. In these circumstances, I might have a more difficult time dealing with some little snafu that comes up.
In spite of NOT feeling ill or worn out, I have noticed my glitch capacity dropping steadily since the pandemic began. Once upon a time, being stranded overnight with a bus full of teenage volleyball players during a blizzard in northern Manitoba registered as slightly inconvenient. In my present emotional state, the afore-mentioned wet basketballs almost caused a meltdown of epic proportions.
A few months ago, the little hiccups of life barely registered as glitches. Now, they can cause tears, immobilization, indecision, panic . . . all manner of unexpected reactions. And being someone who is not used to these reactions, they can be upsetting, embarrassing, even a little scary sometimes. What to do?
As always, I ask myself, what I would say to a student who was experiencing this? I would tell them not to worry, assure them that it was temporary, explain that it is probably just a sign of heightened anxiety and perfectly understandable. I would soothe them, cajole them, and distract them.
So, Mon, don’t worry. Your cheese is fine and your cracker’s never been all that steady anyhow. But you’re okay. Feelings are feelings, not facts.
Why don’t we go for a nice, long walk?
Today is September 19, 2020. As I went for what will presumably be one of the last swims of the season, I reflected on an upcoming marker in my life: Tomorrow is the ten year anniversary of my partner Shannon's stem cell transplant. As I often do, I left some tears in the safekeeping of the lake water. But today they were all gratitude, those tears. A heartful.
The world we are living in today affords us many reminders of our mortality and perhaps that is why I feel so especially lucky. Everyday is a gift. Even with the challenges and struggles we all face from time to time, every day with my best friend feels like beautiful, bountiful bonus time. 3650 days and counting. Every one of them a gift.
I think there is value in looking back once in a while. And as I look back to September 20, 2010 and see how far we've come, I feel grateful, lucky, and a little bit proud.
Below is a link to a reading of a piece I wrote ten years ago, when we were in the thick of it.
I’m not usually one for true blogging – no editing; just sit down, write, and post. But I need to process and I feel drawn to the page to do it. As always, my Virgo brain, god bless it, wants to sort, categorize and summarize these thoughts into some manageable framework. That’s how I make sense of my world and how I cope, I guess. Believe me, sometimes I wish I could just sit in the middle of the emotional storm and let it rain, but that’s not how I roll.
I have been thinking a lot about my mind and how it manages the vast differences between my logical brain and my illogical heart. In fact, I am going to share a journal entry from March, just before the world changed gears.
I want a mind that . . .
And days later, a time of challenge arrives on my doorstep and I am instantly pulled back into old patterns of thinking by my anxiety. Then, once I have adjusted to my new normal, the house of cards we call our “social structure” starts to wobble and I’m back in my head again.
So, here I sit this morning, watching my mind trying to take charge and reason everything out.
But my heart is bewildered. It mourns, it’s anxious, it’s full of wonder and joy one minute and it’s breaking the next. There is room for the whole planet in there; there is only room for me and my loved ones in there.
My heart is a two-year old child who is experiencing new emotions and has no idea what to do with them.
Well, I wouldn’t yell at a two-year-old and I’m not going to yell at my heart.
Hey soul, step in here and mediate will ya? Quiet my mind and make room for my tumultuous heart.
This kinda sounds like a job for meditation, doesn't it?
I’m off to sit.
Thanks for listening, friends.
I’m sitting on the deck with my morning coffee as I write this. The birds are busting with excitement about something – most likely, the big news is that they are alive for another day.
Welcome to my happy place. This spot is a touchstone for me. I know this view and I know that the only people I might see from this vantage point will be friends. I know that I am safe here. Just me, my partner, my coffee and fifty of my closest bird friends.
This feeling of security is so important right now. I imagine that in households everywhere, we are all – consciously or unconsciously – drawn to the places, people, activities, and maybe even foods that make us feel safe. Some of those things may not be accessible right now, so we find other ways to recreate the feelings associated with them.
It is interesting to me that feelings of personal safety can be created in such a variety of ways. In times of perceived danger, we suddenly become more conscious of what makes us feel safe and so I have been sitting here thinking about the ways I seek that in my own life.
In 1998, my partner’s mother spent the last two months of her life in a coma. My partner and I were both teaching full time and would go to the hospital in the evenings and on the weekends. During that difficult time, our home was certainly our touchstone, but we found we needed something more. Our daily lives needed to go on during those two months; the activities of “normal” life took place in every room in our home – except in The Fort.
I don’t remember precisely when we created it, but I remember how important it became in those two months. It wasn’t really a fort, of course, but rather a designated safe spot. We put futons on the floor in front of the couch, added comfy pillows and soft blankets, moved a side table within reach, and placed there a box of tissue, the remote control, a selection of favourite movies, and favourite snacks we normally wouldn’t indulge in. I remember licorice and potato chips.
When daily life became too overwhelming, we would get into our jammies and head for the fort. We used “fort time” as a way to let each other know when we needed to escape. It was a tiny corner of safety in a very uncertain time.
One of the most difficult times in my life was when my partner had leukemia and needed a stem cell transplant. For this, we had to leave our home and relocate to Vancouver. We had a comfortable place to live for those six months, but it wasn’t my home. I never felt completely safe there, but it wasn’t because I was in someone else’s home, it was because my true home – my partner – was in jeopardy. We were together, which made us feel as safe as was possible in our tenuous situation.
I have included a clip of video today, because it got me thinking about all this in the first place. I went hiking last weekend and visited a lovely set of falls. I climbed out onto a large, flat rock and from there, I took the video below. Everything around me was moving. It was fast, loud and chaotic. Water ran at various speeds and seemingly in different directions. Yet I was completely safe and secure in the midst of all that turmoil. My rock didn’t shift or even wiggle. It was solid and I felt safe from the dangerous swirls all about me. And I thought about COVID 19 and this strange era in our lives. I thought about how we each need to find our rock from which we can observe what is going on around us with curiosity and compassion; where, if necessary, we could safely extend a hand to someone caught in the current.
There is no doubt that for me, my partner is my rock. I love our home – this deck – this safe place. But we survived our toughest time away from our home. As long as we’re together . . . we have said to each other in every scary time over the past 32 years.
No better time than now to reflect on who your rock is.
Have you told them lately?
I generally avoid commenting on anything political because I am usually willfully uninformed. I don’t watch the news every day. Or even every week. I have whole-heartedly embraced the slogan, Ignorance is Bliss. And while I say this lightly, it is essentially true. I honestly don’t know how people can watch the news several times a day. My spirit would be dragging behind me like a bag full of dirt.
Part of my discomfort with listening to the news is the format in which most information moves in this day and age. I remember a time when hearing both sides of an issue was considered a good thing. I remember when people like me could comfortably approach a discussion and ask to be updated, by people with opposing opinions. Anyone else remember that?
I really don’t feel equipped to discuss politics with most people because the new format is a mystery to me. I guess I shouldn’t have tuned out for so long. Anyhow, it would appear that in order to “engage in discussion” in the current climate, you must have already made up your mind, be passionate about it, and try to refute everything said by people who disagree with you. Listening seems to be frowned upon, and admitting that someone else’s point has given you something to think about seems to be as shameful as yelling “uncle” when your brother sat on you as a kid. And the more sarcastic you can be, the better. The only good news I can see is that you don’t have to come up with any ideas of your own to participate in one of these discussions, you just have to have the sharpest tongue in criticizing others in order to win.
So, I am late, and ignorant on a lot of points, but I can’t stop thinking about my country. Even a turtle like me can see we are at a turning point in our history. But I’m not the one to fill you in on the facts. You must do that for yourself. In the meantime, as always, I will resort to a story:
This week I was invited to read to the local school children for I Read Canadian Day.
It was a sweet event and a good time was had by all.
On the surface.
Inside my Canada jersey, beneath my pale skin, in my second-generation immigrant heart, a storm was raging. I looked out at the faces of our future, in a variety of skin tones, and felt the joy and hope I always feel when I look at my students. Even when we are facing such challenges as our climate crisis. But this time, I also felt conflict.
Just before going to the school, I watched a video posted by a young woman from Winnipeg who was verbally abused on a city bus for no other reason than the colour of her skin. I was sick listening to her tell her story. Sick at the incident and sick at the idea that no one on that bus told the abusers to stop. Twenty minutes of verbal abuse and no one said a word.
I am seeing more and more disturbing things in the news and on social media. As if the news isn’t disturbing enough on its own, now I am sitting here listening to coverage of an “economic crisis” caused by the “unlawful actions of a few terrorists.”
Oh Canada! No one was talking about this years ago when I first started following the work of Freda Huson of the Wet'suwet'en. No one was talking when we were dealing with an environmental issue; a call to attention about the ramifications of the pipeline construction tearing through wilderness, let alone the potential dangers of the pipeline itself. No one was talking about it when it was becoming a land title and sovereignty issue. No one was talking about it when a notable portion of our FN countrymen/women started saying that Reconciliation is Dead.
But now that our wallets are involved, look at us all spring into action! I had to go looking for information about this crisis in the earlier stages. But now that businesses are losing money, this story is about the only thing getting coverage.
Oh Canada, I think I can imagine the fear that some of us are facing because of the impact of the demonstrations on various aspects of the economy. Some of us are most definitely in a crisis situation and my heart goes out to all. I can understand why we are focused on getting the railway moving or one of the other specific side-effects of what the nation is suffering. Although, I wonder why the National Farmers Union’s unequivocal support of the Wet'suwet'en was over-looked in the mainstream news.
I’m trying to keep the big picture in my head. When I reroute around a demonstration, I’m grateful to live in a country with free speech. I hope everyone manages to feel heard by the end of this. Funny how some of us can just say our piece and others of us have to erect blockades and camp in the snow to be heard.
That’s my bigger picture. For everyone to be heard, so we can move forward together. Reconciliation received a standing ovation until it got uncomfortable. Some people stopped clapping and sat down on their hands as soon as they found out that the first part of the plan was for non-indigenous Canadians to listen.
Well, we’ve hit the first really uncomfortable and inconvenient growth spurt. We have just begun taking our early baby steps together in this new path, like a couple of wobbly toddlers, and the first time we are required to climb an obstacle, we have stumbled. Of course we have. But what now?
Change hurts. Not just for those trying to hold onto their power, or for those trying to get some power, but for all of us. Change usually costs us something and it is almost always uncomfortable. Even scary.
But when I look back at my life, every change, no matter how painful at the time, has led to growth.
When we look back at our collective past, we have tried to make the changes necessary to ensure all Canadians feel heard. Right back to the Suffragettes, we have made change after change. Often late, but we get there eventually. And we recognize that we have many more changes to make in areas of race, gender, and all the other things that we use to separate ourselves from one another.
Except for when it comes to our racist history. We tend to take a long time to own up to our national mistakes. And apparently, when we say sorry for those mistakes, we mean the kind of sorry that little kids say to get the babysitter off their backs. We don’t apologize, because that means turning away from the behaviour you apologized for. A true apology denotes a desire to change the offending behaviour.
It’s going to be uncomfortable, but somewhere up ahead, we are going to look back and say, Thank god we finally made that change. It was a tough time, but things are so much better now.
If we are serious about Reconciliation, and many millions of us are, then let’s try to support each other. Let’s find some compassion for all those affected by the blockades in all the many ways Canadians are being affected. Let’s commit ourselves to getting through this painful stage without causing more pain than is absolutely necessary. But methinks, some pain is necessary. Maybe this time, the pain doesn’t all land on the First Nations.
Oh Canada, I have always been so proud to wear my maple leaf. But this week, I pulled that jersey over my head with tears in my eyes. For Ms. Baptiste from Winnipeg. For a nation so scarred and blinded by Colonialism, it sometimes feels we will never heal. But I believe in us. I believe we can do better.
I want a government that chooses people over dollars every time. Believe, me I know how naïve that sounds. But I’m okay with you pointing out the weakness of my argument. I welcome it. You can even mock me and ridicule me, if that helps ease your anxiety. But I will hang on to my ridiculous idealism. I will stay here away from the front lines of the blockades or the halls of government while others braver and smarter than I try to deal with the discomfort of the details. I, with nothing but the big picture in my nearly-empty head, will pray for everyone’s safety. I will send my respect and support to all involved and hope that the big picture stays present in every minute negotiation: Who are we as a Nation? Do we really want Reconciliation or don’t we? How do we move forward side by side?
One day, when I am up at my school, I want to be able to look out at those small faces and say to them, that we managed, in the end, to get on the right side of history. That even though it was hard, we put them and their future first.
Look! They let me into a REAL art show!
I am so excited to be part of this project with Janny Thompson and Ester Strijbos in Victoria in December. I will be reading at our opening on December 6. If you don't make the show (but seriously, people, you have a whole month), I will be selling the books on Cortes Island as well.
Island Time is an interactive, multi-disciplinary art show which emphasizes story. Three artists present the theme of time from an islander’s perspective with mono-prints (Janny Thompson), ceramics (Ester Strijbos), and short fiction/poetry (Monica Nawrocki). This artistic exploration speaks to the passage of time and what it means to be an islander. The show also highlights the connections that grow among artists in small communities as the three presenters have drawn direct inspiration from one another’s work to create Island Time.
Show runs from Dec. 6 to 30 at the Cedar Hills Art Gallery, 3220 Cedar Hill Road, Victoria, British Columbia.
It's low tide again.
I am standing on the beach, sinking a bit in the mud, looking longingly at the water, pulled away and out of reach. Gone are the sun's diamonds scattered across the surface, the antics of the Scoters, the curious gaze of the seals. I'm left with sand, rock, broken shells. Everything is laid bare, nowhere to hide, and I comb the shore, a bit desperately, hoping to find some little treasure as a consolation.
That's how it feels, in this place of mourning. Our tiny island community has recently said good-bye to one of our dearest matriarchs, and I feel like I am standing out on the sand flats in a cold wind, longing for the return of the water, the fullness of the high tides of summer, brimming with life.
But low tide has its own beauty, doesn't it? Its own tranquility and spaciousness. It's own treasures, half buried in the sand.
In my sadness, connections with those I love feel stronger and deeper; their value suddenly as clear as a cut gem. The world's gifts are everywhere I look, shining like gold. My own good fortune feels like the fortune that it is.
I think about my dear friend, Ginnie, and I see how much I learned from the way she lived her life. I see how much I have learned from the way she died.
It's low tide again, and I walk quietly along the sand flats, watching for treasure. The tide will return, the fullness and business of life will cover our broken hearts. But for these memories - these treasures - I will find a place of honour, like sea glass on a sunny windowsill.
“I’m feeling anxious about the changes I am currently experiencing and/or anticipating. Your patience is appreciated.”
It’s mid-August, and everywhere we look, these three little words - back to school - scream at us, inspiring a range of emotion from Christmas Day Anticipation to Root Canal Dread.
Teachers will not turn on their televisions, look at newspaper flyers or listen to the radio. They avert their eyes when they see billboards or bus panels. They stick their fingers in their ears and sing la-la-la at the top of their lungs if they hear the S-word. They avoid Staples and Wal-Mart. Social Media is a mine field. Teachers are running around frantically trying to finish (or start) all the things they wanted to do with their glorious summer. When they tire from the running in circles, they lay in the hammock pretending they are not laying out lesson plans in their heads.
Meanwhile, parents are studying their hand-made calendars of August with an interesting tingling sensation. While the bright paper is scuffed, spilled-on, and dog-eared, it is still legible. The kids’ activities are strategically placed every few days to keep time moving quickly. The most prominent feature of this calendar is the Countdown. Parents are planning The Shopping Day. They have a nearly illegible list that spent the summer in the couch cushions, and they are trying to figure out how many colours are necessary in a crayon pack. Eight? Twelve? Twenty? Are there actually 64 different colours??
They may also have re-negotiated their mortgage to finance The Shopping Day.
They are already making fall survival plans with other parents. Most plans include alcohol. They think of their child’s teacher with a strange combination of loathing and longing.
The kids are vacillating wildly between a desperate need to get in as much fun as possible, and complete boredom. They are over-stimulated and over-tired. They are sick of summer and want to go back to school tomorrow. They don’t want the summer to end, ever. They miss their friends. They are so sick of their friends. They have stuff to do. They don’t want to do anything. They are still planning to get in shape this summer. They just spent their allowance on a box of fudgesicles.
Some people in this scenario have a vague idea of what September will look like. Some have no idea. New school. New class. New kids. New teacher. The fall transition is stressful for everyone. There are certainly ways to ease the transition – talking about it, most importantly – and beginning to shift routines gradually. But most of all, being gentle with each other.
Managing our own feelings and stresses as the adults is enough of a job. But understanding that your child or student is acting out because of transition stress, takes real concentration and compassion. Children rarely say, “I’m feeling anxious about the changes I am currently experiencing and/or anticipating.”
But that is probably exactly what they mean with every outburst, tantrum, and rude rejoinder. That’s always the trick: seeing beyond the behavior to the feelings that are fueling it. We all try to do this consistently as parents and as educators, and we all fail. So, we say sorry when necessary and we try again. Be gentle with each other. Be especially gentle with yourself. Have a great autumn, everyone.
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