Right now, many of us are experiencing a barrage of uncomfortable feelings stemming from this unprecedented global pandemic. Stress. Worry. Fear. Fatigue. A perpetual state of being overwhelmed. Restlessness. Maybe even anger and frustration. Sometimes it all feels so surreal, and that in and of itself can be draining. I know I’ve been consumed with various feelings as a teacher, as a parent, and as a person who was just trying to live her life before 2020 derailed us all into this current shit show.
It’s the uncertainty that kills me. I have a tendency to want everything figured out from the get-go. I can’t take things day-by-day. I’m not good with last minute plans or changes– it disrupts my thinking and planning. I have gotten better at dealing with this kind of anxiety as I’ve grown older, but I still get triggered, and the feelings of unrest whirl inside of me.
When I contemplate the uncertainty around schools reopening and what that will mean for me and my family, it feels overwhelming to not know. To have to jump through hoops and risk personal and family safety, to face criticism and assumptions, trusting my fate in the hands of others, and to think about how much complexity has arose from the unfortunate tangle of science and politics during my lifetime. There are big what-ifs looming over our heads: economics, health, where we will be this time next year. If we’ll even be here.
We’re being asked to do things we never expected nor had to envision.
We’re outside of our comfort zones when we desperately need to lean into some sort of familiarity.
I have to remind myself to pause.
I think about court cases. Random, I know. But going through a court case is an excellent exercise in testing patience, poise, how to address turbulent uncertainty, financial stress, loss of privacy, and having your life temporarily disrupted. I don’t know why my mind goes back to these terrible memories, but they rise to the surface of my consciousness once in a while as reminders.
My experience was through my husband when he was embroiled in a turbulent custody dispute with an ex-girlfriend. I remember sitting in the lawyer’s office with him after receiving one of the latest curve balls. Your first reaction is to want to fire off something in retaliation– which is why family law is evergreen. It preys on emotions and dysfunction, both of which people have in abundance. The lawyers are experts at sealing their contracts as soon as possible. Sign on the dotted line. There is urgency in paying your bill because if you don’t do x, y, or z you’ll completely ruin your case, according to them. In that moment, they make you feel like everything is on the line and you need to act NOW.
But once the lawyer has your money and consent to take action on something which they can now bill you for at an exorbitant rate, I noticed they are suddenly not in hurry for anything. They would take their time. Ours took breaks in the middle of writing up excruciatingly painful accounts of thwarted visitations to flirt with his office assistant, or he would walk away from his desk to accept the dinner that just got delivered while we waited and had to smell the food. The lawyers waited casually in the hallway before our case was called, chatting with someone they recognized, perusing the headlines in the morning newspaper. Or they’d call to tell us they were stuck in traffic, and you know, just let the court know if they called our case before he got there. Meanwhile, we would be biting our nails raw and trying to hold down the bile rising inside of our stomachs. But the lawyers– they wouldn’t hesitate to pause. Maybe they’d get around to sending a document by the end of the week. You know, once the secretary got around to it. They might answer your email within 24 hours, but maybe not for a couple days and after a few phone calls.
For us– especially for my husband– everything seemed urgent. If the kid came back from a visitation without his belongings, that felt like a crisis. If the mother of the child didn’t put him on the airplane, the sky was surely falling. It was all so emotional.
I sat in the back of courtroom silently waiting for our case more times than I can count, watching other people’s cases, listening to their problems, observing a bored commissioner dismiss them one-by-one. Father didn’t return a sweater after visitation– don’t bother us anymore. A former couple both asserting domestic violence– case dismissed. It’s a wonder they didn’t all yawn on the job.
Once a mother dressed in all black came in. She looked at the bailiff and said, “This court ruined our lives with their custody judgment. My daughter just killed herself and the blood is on your hands.” The bailiff didn’t stop reading his newspaper. The court reporter rolled her eyes. The commissioner never came out of his chambers. The woman hung her head low and walked out of the courtroom without another word, probably feeling like she had just gone through the courthouse security rigmarole for absolutely no reason.
None of it was their problems! None of it is ever the problems of the commissioner or the bailiff or the annoyed court reporter or the lawyers.
The emotions weren’t personal to them.
It was our emotions. Our feelings. Our lives.
I don’t know. Maybe they had a point? Looking back on it, what felt urgent then would not even ruffle my feathers today. If I knew my husband would be dead 4 years later, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend so much time on the negative. I would have ignored the hate mail regularly flooding our email inboxes from the other parent.
I guess the thing that sticks out the most to me about the court experience was: not everything lasts forever. Emotions are valid, but we need to put them in perspective.
This is when I first realized the power of the pause.
Now, I’m not saying I have fully mastered it. There are some buttons I am still learning to control. I also definitely don’t think you should dismiss your feelings, or roll over when you’ve paid four hundred dollars for a plane ticket and countless hours coordinating travel only to have the ex-girlfriend not put the kid on the airplane.
In the courtroom, in the lawyer’s office, in those stark hallways waiting with butterflies in our stomachs for the bailiff to call our case, I realized that we don’t actually have to act on our impulse to respond. Maybe our feeling are inflated in a moment– maybe life isn’t as dire as we think in the midst of heated emotions.
Maybe we can pause.
We can seek to understand– including our own feelings.
It’s something I feel could be useful when life is overwhelming us– pressing pause. The idea that we don’t have to have everything figured out today. Not everything has to be settled in a moment. We won’t always feel the way we do right now.
It has been hot in Southern California, and with the heat come the ants. We had our first ant invasion in this house since we moved here over seven years ago. It coincided right when school started, so it was a powder keg of emotions between technology snafus, a huge learning curve with kids in distance learning, and hundreds of pesky little ants invading the cat food. Little persistent ant scouts traversing counter tops, floors, desks– literally every square foot of the house.
I don’t do well with ants. I get frustrated.
I want them gone, immediately. And when they just keep coming back, I become unhinged.
Yet I also don’t want to spray chemicals all over our house, so it’s a bit of a quandary. I want to nuke them, but I also want it to be organic and natural and I also just want to blink my eyes and have them gone and really I just want my life back from before the 2020 ant invasion.
What I noticed over the past few weeks is that I have become more meticulous about my house. I’ve always been tidy, but it’s another level of tidy. I can’t leave even a crumb of food out for an extended amount of time, and this is more difficult than it seems, especially with kiddies and kitties.
I think about the Goethe J.W. quote, “Everything is hard before it is easy.”
I literally had to remind myself of that as I lost my mind over these ½ centimeter insects. They won’t always be here. They won’t always be here. They won’t always be here.
I commissioned the kids to take on additional chores. Wiping clean dishes immediately and putting them away. Assigning a child to lunch clean-up. Sweeping after meals. Getting better at keeping food only on the table. Swapping cat duties so I can oversee when they get fed and then put bowls in Ziploc bags. I researched and contacted and finally settled on natural orange spray and applied it where needed.
We started implementing new routines that kept our house spotless, and largely ant free.
Now, we still have a few scouts, but no outbreaks. The weather will cool down and I think– fingers crossed– we’ll make it through the great ant invasion.
More importantly, I’m kind of liking this new level of tidy. It feels so much more precise. No cat food remnants on the floor. Sparkling counter tops. A clean, organized home makes a person like me feel less anxious. I like this new normal, even though it made for a stressful few weeks and extra work. Now that extra work is becoming habits.
Ants may seem silly, but I find tiny lessons embedded in everything that I do. I feel some of these lessons apply to distance learning. Little by little, we utilize strategies that we have tried and know work. We learn and master. It becomes second-nature and comfortable, but first it is new and hard and frustrating. We build our toolbox, one tool at a time. We stumble a lot in the beginning, but it doesn’t always stay hard. Even though we’re in the thick of hardness right now, we all know from our personal life experiences that we can conquer hard things. I was once a first-year teacher who worked until 7PM in my classroom every night. Now teaching is second-nature to me as I start my 17th year; it has become a craft fused to my DNA from trial and error, time, experience, success and failure, and a commitment to stay in the game. I was once a new mother drowning in lack of sleep and sore breasts, having no time to myself and losing my sanity. Now I am happy to report that I take long showers by myself and I have almost kicked out all of the kids out of my bed at night– haha!
As a parent, COVID-19 has impacted the way I run my household. My kids have become more independent. They manage their breaks and keep track of asynchronous work with little meddling on my part. Today they used their free time in between synchronous sessions to do their chores, finish Japanese homework, and practice instruments all on their own. My mom heart swelled with pride that slowly, baby steps at a time, they are becoming people with lives they are learning to self-regulate and manage. When moments get difficult, I try to remind myself to take a deep breath and consider it practice. Every day is practice. Life is a series of dress rehearsals that prepare us for our moments on stage, but we spend most of our time in practice. If we can just do a little better tomorrow, we’re going to be okay.
Whenever my children prepare a meal on their own or troubleshoot tech problems without my interference, I can’t help but think about our lives four years ago when Kenneth died. Four and a half years ago, I was left alone with a 13-month-old who I was still nursing, a 3-year-old who could barely talk in sentences, and a precocious 6-year-old. Every hour, every day, felt like an insurmountable struggle. The kids needed me for so much, but there was only one of me. I felt like I was failing in all areas of my life at all times, never quite able to do anything more than keep my head barely above the surface of choppy, frigid water while a riptide of grief tried to pull me under.
But hey! I’m here right now, and comparatively speaking things aren’t so bad anymore. Every day that felt hard was also another day that something got easier. The kids began to dress themselves in the morning for school. They outgrew the messy toddler stages. Dinner made it into their mouths and not on the floor. One day I blinked and the load didn’t feel as heavy on my shoulders anymore.
I still worry about the what-ifs. There are still parts of my life that scare me– the parts I don’t have answers for. Yet, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I will never have all of the answers. There will always be unknowns. I just have to do my best and stay in the game.
The Dalai Lama said, “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
It’s true. Except, worrying appears to be part of human nature. Fear is an evolutionary feeling, a physiological response to potential danger.
But what happens when we focus too much on our fears? According to research in the article “Bad is Stronger than Good,” negative experiences “will have a greater impact on the individual” than positive events.
I certainly can relate. Failed relationships. Times we were embarrassed. Getting flustered at work. When someone snaps at us. The growing pains of learning something new. Losing somebody or something. It sticks to our being, weighing us down.
The study offers a bit of hope. Despite how impressionable bad events are in our lives, we can overcome them with good events. The researchers write, “many lives can be happy by virtue of having far more good than bad events.” They even give a magic number: five good for every one bad.
This makes me wonder if shifting our focus can help. Instead of dwelling on everything bad, perhaps we can make a conscious effort to look for the bright spots.
At a work meeting, I had a conversation that centered around the struggles with technology amongst our teachers. The unpredictability, the sheer volume of new things to learn, resistance, being forced out of comfort zones, and all of the messy complexity of how our jobs are evolving right now. I shared that it is hard when so many people start snapping at you and pointing their anger in your direction. One of my colleagues shared that they focus on the bright spots on campus. There’s a lot of negativity out there. Look for the good and share them.
I used to think that was super hokey. I’ve never been accused of being a cheerful, happy-go-lucky kind of a gal. I do like my share of complaining and venting. But I’m a vent and then take action kind-of-a-gal. I find myself fatigued by the amount of toxic negativity out there– not just at work, but the negativity permeating our entire country. It bleeds into my boundaries and weighs me down. I struggle with walking the fine line between being supportive of others and protecting my own mental health.
When life starts to get tough, looking for the good might be what we need to overcome so much bad news. When negativity surrounds us like Pig-pen’s dust, the bright spots might be our oxygen.
According to Rumi, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” And in the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Our brains cling to the bad. The mistakes we make. Criticism. Harsh words. Being treated badly. Bad luck. It is difficult to ignore the pain. It’s easy to get caught up in our misery. I’ve experienced it many times and I see it on a daily basis with other people.
I think it’s valid to sit with our pain, acknowledge our feelings, and try to understand what it is telling us.
We don’t have to drown in it. It doesn’t have to define who we are. We can generate our own good. In fact, our pain often leads to new growth.
Find things in life to be grateful for. Focus on what is going right. Look for the light. Search for the paths that lead us to better places.
You don’t have to be perfect. Most of what we accomplish is done in incremental steps.
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones,” said Confucius.
You don’t have to have everything figured out today.
Just do a little bit better each day.
Look for what is going right in your life.
You’ll never be happy with everything. But what are you happy about?
My bright spots today:
- Watching my kids’ smiling faces on their new skateboards.
- Running at lunch time, feeling sore but proud that my body is getting stronger.
- We are healthy. My family is healthy.
- Our sweet, adorable, loving kitties who were the best, best parts of 2020.
- Not having to make dinner after a long, tiring day (thank you leftovers).
- Getting enough sleep.
- Scratching everything off my to do list.
- Making a list of things I haven’t experienced yet in life and still want to try. (I want to learn how to skateboard too!)
- Sour patch ice cream and sugar cones.
- A roof over my head.
- My little nephew said I’m his best friend.
- The opportunity to work with students and teachers.
In this ever-changing world we find ourselves in, fear and stress are understandable and valid.
But I’d like to leave you with words from Michelle Obama to think about: “Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.”