Mental Health and the Coming Weeks

This next week is an anxious one for members of my household and my online communities. The election looms large and everyone is trying to brace for the fall out without being able to predict what that fall out will be. It could be anything from relief to doom. Not surprisingly messages about mental health and seeking help have been common. This is good. It is impossible to know which message will be the right tool for a person in their moment of crisis. All we can do is scatter tools in the hope that people will have one handy when they desperately need it. I’m worried about November on multiple fronts, (election, Covid, mental health, darkening days, cold weather) but I’m trying to focus my attention and energy on accomplishing things rather than sitting in the waiting place. It is a worthy effort even when I don’t always succeed.

This has been a year full of unexpected life shifts and grief for everyone. The result has been an upsurge in the need for mental health services. I’ve spent my share of hours laying still unable to do anything but cry. Yet I don’t think I’ve had it as hard as those for whom this level of emotional wrangle isn’t familiar. Depression and grief have been residents in our house since 2013, prior to that they were frequent visitors. I know how to live around them, contain them, process them, and move forward despite them. I’ve felt a lot of peace and happiness in the past months. I even made the decision to wean off of my anti-depressant because it was contributing to insomnia which led to fatigue-induced depression and anxiety. Sometimes the meds are essentially helpful. Other times they are counter productive. Mental health is a complex social, emotional, intellectual, and chemical system. Changes in one of the axes can require balancing shifts in another.

My battles with depression are almost always situationally driven. I become depressed when I expect myself to carry an over-sized emotional load, when my loved ones are depressed and I can’t help, when the finances are strained and I feel powerless to change it, when grief rips through my life and I have to process it. If these situations persist long enough, then it unbalances the chemicals in my body, which might require medication to get things right side up again. I’ve been various levels of depressed since 2013 because of situational elements in my life. In contrast, anxiety seems to be chemically endemic in my body or psyche. I can find balances that make depression a non-issue, anxiety is always with me. I have family members for whom depression seems to originate in the brain chemicals and persist long enough to seriously disrupt the social and emotional components. They may always need some sort of medication so that they aren’t constantly pulled off-kilter. Or so that they don’t have to constantly spend energy adapting for the weight of chemical depression.

Just because I have been depressed doesn’t mean I fully comprehend the internal emotional landscape of someone else’s depression. One of my loved ones lives with a constant existential nihilism which I can intellectually understand as they explain it, but I don’t viscerally get. This is why the best support I can be for a loved one with mental health issues is to sit with them and make space for them to express the thoughts that come to them. It can be a delicate balance to accept all their feelings as valid, but then to gently challenge the distorted thinking that mental health issues can produce. That’s the hardest bit. Depression is a lying liar who lies. And the longer someone lives with it, the more plausible those lies seem, the more ingrained into our habits of being.

Some people are having their first encounters with depression or other mental health issues this year. Some have been living with those issues, but have been forced to confront them in new ways because their old coping strategies were stripped away. Some people will need more medication and help. Others will discover new balance and need less. Some, like me, cycle through both. I’ve been both better and worse in 2020. My family members retreated hard for months, but now seem to be emerging and finding ways to inch forward. November may be a mental health setback. Yet one thing I’m slowly learning is that sometimes the best thing that can happen to a person is to have a setback, to be forced to stop and re-calibrate. In so many ways this year is a year of setbacks and re-calibrations.

Today I’m feeling hopeful that all the reverses and changes of this year are teaching us how to be stronger and more proactive moving forward. If enough people learn that lesson, then the world gets to have a shift for the better over the long haul. I can choose to be that person no matter what the outcome of the election and the mental health fallout may be.

Winding Down and Moving Forward Post-Conference

There is this point at the end of a convention or conference where all of my responsibilities are complete and the conference itself is winding to a close. It is the point at an in-person event where some people have left and others are still lingering. I could either leave or linger, I just have to choose which I want. The trouble is that I want both. I’m tired and my inner introvert is ready to crawl someplace cozy and not talk to anyone. Yet I’m also aware that some of the most precious moments at an event are those lingering moments. All of this still exists for an online event, at least until the moment that the host shuts all of the Zoom rooms leaving us all to connect through non-conference channels if we want to keep in touch.

It has been a really good conference. I’m left with memories of fun conversations. I got to give three presentations and people have told me that they got useful information from them. I learned that teaching can still feel rewarding in an online format. I’m convinced that I need to set up my own teaching spaces so that I get to teach more often than a few times per year. I also need to find ways to socialize with my writer friends on a more regular basis. However it is okay if I take a few days doing nothing in particular before I launch into all of that.

The weather turned last night. Instead of being warm/cool post-summer, we’re now having chilly/cold pre-winter. Trees are dropping their leaves in earnest and I’m discovering that many of the get-this-done-before-it-is-cold tasks have been shifted into the take-care-of-this-when-it-warms-up-again column. It is possible the weather will warm up again in a couple of weeks. That happens sometimes, but for this week it means I can put them down and focus more on indoors and on writing. Writing was a little neglected as I pushed on house projects. I have a pile of presentations from the conference to watch before they expire in 30 days. I want to use that learning and enthusiasm to push writing projects forward.

I want to cling to the conference happy and enthusiasm to learn because I have a looming awareness that November (and all of the November things I’m worried about) are only a week away. But I don’t have to think about those yet.

Mid-Conference Check In

I’m halfway through my week at an online writer’s conference. In many ways the experience is being quite similar to when I’d travel to a conference. I’ve felt camaraderie and the particular exhaustion that comes from joyous socializing, learning, and teaching all day long. My master class presentation went well. It was the one I was most worried about because the three hour time slot called for a deep dive into the topic (Marketing as Storytelling.) I was surprised to discover that once I got rolling I had no trouble talking to the camera and believing that there were people on n the other end listening. (Webinar format doesn’t show audience faces.) I missed having the micro-feedback of seeing faces nod or look puzzled, but it didn’t hamper my ability to teach the material. When we got to the Q&A section, having the questions written out was really nice, however that was also the moment I most missed seeing faces because I was unable to gauge if my answer had resolved the particular person’s puzzlement. I resorted to ending most answers with “If I’ve failed to give you the answer you need, please re-submit your question and I’ll try again.”

Despite being at home, I’m very conference focused this week. Lots of home tasks are slipping out of my mind and off my schedule. That’s okay, I can pick it up again later. There are only a few things that would be harmed by waiting another week and I think I’ve managed to catch and do those. It is really nice to turn all my focus and creative energy toward participating in a writer community. When I’m not actively engaged with people, I’ve been actively resting by watching Lizzie Bennett Diaries (which I’d never watched in full before.) Or I’ve been actively working on prepping presentations. There has been a lot of “actively” which probably explains why I hit the wall pretty hard last night. In this case “hit the wall” meant staring at left over pizza that needed to be stowed in the fridge and feeling ready to cry because the problem was too complex to be solved. Good thing Howard was nearby.

It is almost time for me to go to a class, but I wanted to catch a few of these thoughts before the moment completely got away from me.

All the Thoughts of Today

My head is full of things today and I’m supposed to be focusing on preparing a presentation for WXR at SIWC, the online conference that is going to occupy so much of my time for the next 10 days. I’m really excited for it, and if you want to join at the last minute, you have until noon Pacific on October 17 to sign up. Events for the conference start that same evening. Tomorrow.

This morning I had conversation with a long time blog reader who had no idea I have a Patreon. I do. You can sign up to support me here. I also have a newsletter that I send out once per month with a thought-filled letter, similar to one of my more extended blog posts. Also project updates. You can sign up for that here.

I’ve put a lot of energy in the past few weeks into setting up an October sale in our online store. I’m thinking about how messed up package shipping got for awhile in spring and early summer, and how clogged up the mail gets during a regular holiday shipping season. The mess is going to be epic this year and it is going to start in mid November. Add to that the fact that I think mid November is when the increase of Covid cases will force municipalities to start enforcing lockdowns. People will be stress buying online and at grocery stores. I expect to see shortages. Nothing dire, just increased inconvenience for various items. Mid November is also when I expect people to start realizing that maybe they don’t get to have all of the holiday traditions they’re accustomed to. You probably don’t get to travel home to see parents or grandparents this year. Or at least you shouldn’t. We’re having to evaluate whether to gather with a single pair of married kids who don’t live in our house. We’ve already ruled out all of the extended family and my parents. Those hard emotions of grief and anger are going to spike right along with cases and restrictions. Not looking forward to all of that. So we’re encouraging people to please shop early. Things are going to shift this holiday season, no one knows how yet. So maybe plan ahead?

Also driving sales is vital revenue for us because we can’t feel good about running another Kickstarter until we’ve fulfilled on this one. And while we’re continually making progress, Howard’s breathing issues have come back a bit and we’re waaaaay behind schedule. We’re okay for short term, but my job is to pay attention to medium and long term as well. With that in mind, I just sunk some money into a Schlock themed holiday ornament. I hope to have it in hand and make it available in early November. A new shiny thing in the store helps to drive sales.

Sometimes I sit in a quiet, peaceful place in my house or garden and think about how lovely it would be to be able to just make interesting and beautiful things without having to worry about promotion, sales or bills. That is not the world I live in.

Howard is breathing reasonably well today, but he needed supplementary oxygen a couple of days ago. We can’t prove that is ailments are post-Covid syndrome. He was sick in January, supposedly before the illness was local. When we finally got an antibody test, it was too late. Any antibodies he had were already gone. Yet his ongoing symptoms match those described by Covid long-haulers. So on top of the “what is going on medically and how do we fix it” we have to wonder if what we’re dealing with is post-Covid at all. It is so much better than it was last spring, but there are still regular impacts on our life and capabilities.

This week I had a lovely volunteer to help me test my intake system for consulting. I’m tooling up to hang out my shingle as a consultant for creator-owned small businesses. With her help I’ve already learned a lot, I expect to have to learn more. The best news is that I really enjoyed the hour I spent doing the actual consulting. That is promising that this source of potential revenue is a good one. Work I can get paid for, where I feel like I’m helping others, and where I come away feeling energized.

Had a tweet thread about helping an ADHD and depressed adult build a system to take their daily meds. It got a lot of positive response and I had a dozen tiny conversations as a result. I really liked making the thread and feeling like I’d put something helpful/happy out onto twitter. I want to post a follow up later, because the system I created has built in problems for long-term use. We haven’t even begun to address the challenge inherent in my kid learning to manage medication refills. I also have a set of thoughts around having my adult kids living at home, which is always pitched as a massive failure in media. “Living with mom” is failure at adulting. I want to write something to challenge that concept and to talk about building healthy interdependence with housemates where one person’s strength can help answer another’s need without anyone being taken advantage of. And without anyone being co-dependent.

I have election anxiety. I’ve had it for months. But now there is a filled out ballot sitting on my table waiting for me to take it to the drop box. The ballot represents the tiny amount of control I have over the outcome. I’m working to make plans to manage no matter who is declared president. However I suspect that if we get four more years of Donald Trump at least three close family members are going to crash hard into fear and despair. I am not looking forward to helping people navigate that, especially not with the other emotional load I’m expecting to hit in mid November. Theoretically we’ll know in just a few more weeks. I’m trying not to hyper focus on it.

Local races are also weighing heavily on my mind, particularly since I’m not impressed with the ways that the overwhelmingly republican local governments have been reluctant to impose restrictions. They’re waiting and hoping for people to exercise personal responsibility. I, too, believe that people are mostly good and want to do the right thing. However we are all social animals who use context and checking on our neighbors to figure out what is appropriate/good for us to do. We’re all reluctant to be the one to rock the boat or make others upset. This means that if there is a social plan that is a bad idea in a pandemic (say a pancake breakfast at a restaurant for fifty people) and 60% of invitees think it is a bad idea, the thing might still happen because no one speaks up. If there is a top down statement from the governor saying “No social events with more than 10 people” then those people who are concerned can point at the governor and say “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.” And the event organizer when calling it off can make the governor the bad guy instead of having to be the bad guy. Clear leadership and regulation is important to change social norms and to fight our innate desire to gather. The Utah spike has become less spike-y and more surge-y, but in both cases people end up in the hospital, or with post-Covid syndrome, or dead.

My fall projects are winding down to a close. The patio is finished and I even did the plantings in the patches of dirt so I can have pretty greenery going forward. I’ve made significant progress on pulling wisteria vine out of the pine tree. There is more to do and probably a blog post to write about it. I have a plan to use reclaimed hardwood flooring to create a table top to go over the firepit that I repaired using sheet metal. That should probably get a blog post too. Kitchen remodel is currently paused because the next step is to start dismantling the old pantry. It is a “making a mess” step, but right now I’m enjoying having our new pantry wall done and the kitchen being nicer. Also I want to finish up some other projects before launching into another one. I need to finish removing nails from hardwood flooring so it can be donated or reused. Then the jumbled pile of hazardous wood-with-nails can be turned into a neat stack in the garage. There are other clean up things that need to be done in the garage as well. The space needs to be cleared out and organized so that I can manage the next stages of project. Clearing the garage is also a bit time sensitive because it gets cold out there in the winter and winter is coming. I’ve finished all of my fall harvest tasks. We have grape juice, grape compote, grape jelly, and raisins from our vines. I’ve frozen pumpkin to make pies next month. We’ve also got pear jelly and pear butter. I carefully marked the grape vines according to which kind of grapes they grew. This means next spring when I’m cutting back the vines I can offer cuttings to friends and tell them which kind of grapes they are getting. There is also a plan for an arbor and increased height supports along the run of vines. I’m actually planning to use some of the lumber from the dismantled pantry for that. One project always leads to the next. Oh, and I have a plan for spare lumber to be turned into a compost bin as well.

I haven’t been writing fiction as much as I want to be. I’m hoping to correct that by winding down some of the house projects and not picking up as many new projects. However I’m not good at preventing myself from thinking up new projects. So.

… That might be all of my top-of-my-head thoughts for right now. Maybe now my head can be quiet enough to focus on presentation prep. My head is really noisy some days.

October Afternoon

It occurred to me today that I’m almost halfway done with October. I’m not entirely sure how that happened. Somehow I moved from “all the days are three days long” to “Many days still feel very long, but somehow weeks slip away from me.” I made this realization while wearing long sleeves and a sweater, laying in my hammock and wishing it were in the direct sunlight instead of the shade. Shade was just a hair too chilly, but sunshine had just the right amount of radiant warmth. It wasn’t that long ago that I’d have to retreat indoors because it was took hot even in the shade. I lay there and tried to savor the near perfect weather and the smell of leaves which were just starting to accumulate on the ground. Catch it now because moments like this will be subsumed by cold and I’ll soon need to stow the hammock for the winter.

My thoughts meander today.

I think about the visit I had with two friends earlier in the day. I set out chairs on my patio, carefully spaced. In the middle I set a small table that had a bin of water bottles and pre-packaged snack foods. This is what gracious entertaining looks like in pandemic times. I was grateful to have the lovely weather and the patio I worked all summer to create. I was grateful to have friends willing to come and sit with me for two hours. I was pleased to have thought of loading a bin with snacks. I figure I’ll be able to entertain this way for another month before it gets too cold even when I light a fire in the fire pit. Or perhaps Utah will have a mild winter. That has happened before and would be great for keeping the pandemic manageable. Of course it would be terrible for the extreme drought conditions. We need a winter full of snow.

I had a book with me in the hammock as I watched a few leaves drift from the tree to where my friends and I sat only a few hours before. But I wasn’t reading the book. Instead I watched a lone quail bobbing his way across my patio to pick at fallen walnuts. I wondered where his companion was. Quail almost always travel in pairs. There were doves, finches, sparrows, and blue jays to keep him company. All of them flittered to and from the feeders I’ve stocked at the edge of the patio. I thought about going to fetch a notebook so that I could work on the presentations I need to give next week at an online conference. I’m excited to try out some of the ideas I have for using zoom backgrounds as part of my presentation. The green screen arrived today and I just have to go and see if the frames I have at my warehouse are the right sized for hanging behind me on camera. I’ve given the presentations before, but I always like to refresh my thoughts and presenting in an online format is new to me. However if I can make it work, that opens possibilities for me to teach classes on my own schedule without being attached to a conference. I like that idea quite a lot. I don’t actually go get the notebook though. I don’t want to scare off the birds.

On the side of the patio near the house there are potted plants sitting in the dirt. They’re waiting for me to put them into the ground. I meant to do it on Saturday, but emotional distress from one of my people prevented them from assisting me with it. I thought about doing it today, but I was focused on setting up for my visitors and then on birds and hammocks and presentation thoughts. The fact that I’m short on sleep does not make the planting more likely. I want to tap one of my in-house assistants to help me, but I’m not sure if they’re in a good emotional space to do assisting. This is one of the disadvantages of being the primary emotional support for my assistant. I have a hard time asking them to step up and do the work that I need done. I always have to provide the motivating force to get a project moving instead of being able to join someone else’s project momentum. Over all hiring my kids as my assistants is being beneficial to everyone, but it is both more complicated and much simpler than hiring someone I’m not related to.

I close my eyes for a moment and just feel the sway of the hammock. In the distance in my mind, out beyond the peace of the moment, I can feel the presence of all the tasks I should be doing. They are the things I must do in order to financially support my ability to have this moment in the hammock under my trees with birds near my patio. If I want hammock moments, I also need to have focused business moments. Fortunately I can enjoy those moments too, just in a very different way. I sometimes forget that I enjoy the business tasks, which is why I need moments of peace to help me regain perspective.

Eventually I do get up from my hammock and wander myself back inside. Dinner hour is close and I should make some decisions about food. As I enter I see my new pantry wall. It is the promise of the kitchen I’m going to get to have. There are a few more clean up and preparation steps for me to take before I can launch into the next project phase. I’m not rushing to get through them. I’ve had a period of pushing on house projects. They can lay idle for a week or two while I focus on business and career tasks. November is soon enough to tackle the house again, but I have at least two weeks of October remaining before I get there.

Preparing for Winter

Our lives are governed by seasons. Even in modern living where we have grocery stores stocked with every item almost all year round, there is still a seasonality to our lives. Marketers capitalize on this natural inclination using seasonal shift to send demand toward different items. Though there is a simple life logic to purchasing certain items in the spring (swimsuits, sandals, patio furniture) and other items in the fall (fuzzy blankets, flower bulbs, pumpkin everything.) Even during the years when my life was so internally focused that the seasons changed unnoticed around me, I was still affected by things such as holidays and the onset or cessation of school. We don’t have any household members in school anymore, so it would make sense for me to be less aware of seasonal change. Instead the opposite is true.

This year there is a hum in the back of my head spurring me to prepare for the winter. It is going to get cold, some tasks are harder in the cold, so get them done now. Fix that cracked window. Spray wash the garbage can. Deep clean the kitty litter. Cut back that over grown vine. Preserve food and acquire food so that it can be available out of season. I’ve done far more canning this year than I have in quite a while. I know that some of this food prep is driven by the pandemic and economic uncertainty. I have this urge to acquire resources now against potential coming hardship. I’ve been streamlining and organizing food stores, not just accumulating, but starting to understand exactly how many sticks of butter we go through in a week so that I can calculate what is a reasonable amount to store. If I store too much food, it will go bad before we can eat it, which is a waste. If I don’t store enough, then if my family is hit with a mandated quarantine period or some other financial hardship, we could run out.

Several months ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, my neighbor and I were talking about the empty grocery store shelves. She pointed out that the food-hoarding behaviors were often driven by food insecurity. Anyone who has experienced food insecurity is more likely to grab extra food just in case. At around the same time I read some posts from an online friend who grew up in the Caribbean. At the beginning of the pandemic he suddenly found himself selling off an extra car, buying an extra freezer, re configuring his house for working and schooling at home. He was ahead of the curve on all of those things because he was raised in hurricane territory and some deep-instinctual part of himself was thrumming with “there is a storm coming.”

I’ve never lived in hurricane country and I’ve never been food insecure, however I grew up in a culture that valued emergency preparedness, we spent two years with massive financial insecurity, followed by nearly two decades of highly variable income which continued to feel financially insecure. Like my online friend, I feel a storm is coming and I’m storing up the things I might need to get through it. It is one small lever of control when so much is far larger than me.

Making a Garden Bed in Rocky Ground

Invariably finishing one project leads to the next project. Finishing my patio left me sitting and staring at two patches of dirt next to the patio which needed to be turned into something not ugly. Running drip irrigation and planting green things seemed the prettiest option, so I began digging again. Or chiseling might be a more appropriate option.

There is a reason that during more agricultural eras Orem was a place of many orchards instead of fields. The ground here is rocks and clay. The clay is hardened to almost concrete levels of hardness, particularly when dry. In order to turn rocky clay into plantable dirt, I have to sift out the rocks. I constructed a sifter using wire mesh, a frame, and a wheelbarrow. My sifter needs repair as the mesh has pulled loose from the frame, but I’m still making it work for now.

I then scrape and shovel to pile dirt and rocks onto the sifter.

You can see that some of the dirt immediately falls through the holes into the wheelbarrow. The rest I stir around with my shovel. As I stir the dirt falls through and the rocks stay on top of the mesh. Eventually all I have left to stir are rocks. Lots of rocks of all sizes.

I pick out the biggest and prettiest rocks to use for decorative purposes later. The rest get dumped into a bucket to be hauled away. This leaves nice crumbly dirt in the wheelbarrow. Note that the amount of rocks and the amount of dirt are roughly equal.

The rocks get hauled over to a corner of the yard where I put all the spare dirt from digging the patio. That pile is flanked on one side with spare un-sifted sand, and now on the other side I’m building a pile of rocks and gravel. Theoretically these things might be useful resources for a future project. If I ever get around to building raised garden beds anywhere.

For now I just have to keep sifting dirt until I’ve scraped away enough that I can reasonably plant growing things in the soft dirt I lay into the hole.

Listening to General Conference

This weekend I’m listening to General Conference, which is my church’s twice-per-year opportunity to hear the Apostles of our church speak to the entire membership. They speak at other times during the year, but usually to smaller audiences. There will be five sessions of two hours each, so a total of ten hours of listening. I usually turn on the stream and let it play while I work on cleaning or gardening. Sometimes I just sit with a notebook or a craft. It is a lot of information all at once, but everything is recorded and I can re-listen whenever I want, so I don’t try to catch and remember every detail. I let it flow past me and trust that the things I most need to hear will jump out at me as inspiration grabs my attention and tells me what is most relevant to me.

I’ll admit that I approach conference with more caution than I used to, because I believe there are ways my church needs to change and hasn’t yet. Culture and tradition are powerful and often slow to shift. This time I was pleased to notice that several speakers in the first session addressed the political polarization in society and issues of racism. It was interesting to me how the words that were spoken could be either comforting or upsetting depending on what the audience brought with them to the words. One speaker said that the gray area was going away, that we would all have to choose whether to be on the Lord’s side or not. One interpretation of the statement could lead to additional polarization where people are convinced of their rightness and double down on things they see as sinful behavior. Another interpretation is that people at church need to stop being comfortable that they are right simply because they are going to church. A different speaker mentioned that in seeking to be part of the gospel of Christ, we might have to give up aspects of the culture we come from. That statement could be exceedingly worrisome to people who have experienced a history of white christian churches systematically erasing portions of their people’s identity and history. However I think the statement is very true, just not aimed the way that worry fears. I think that white suburban people need to give up the part of their culture that makes them oppose having low income housing or other outreach programs in their neighborhood. They need to learn how to love their neighbors when they don’t get to carefully filter who qualifies to be their neighbor. And when I say “they” I mean me. Because I need to be better, and I’m listening as part of figuring out how.

These talks are like scripture in that the messages they give are so much more than the words. I combine those words with my life and experiences, the lens through which I see church and the world. There is also inspiration from God that comes to me as I listen, because sometimes the words spark a thought in my mind that wasn’t previously in my head and wasn’t in the words either. So I am listening. I am taking notes both for my benefit, and because I may be able to use these words to help broaden the perspectives of my fellow church members. In the wise words of a man who was not in my church: Be the change you want to see. I’m trying, and it starts by listening. Listening to these talks. Listening to resources on racism. Listening to resources on protecting the vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalized. Listening and thinking and praying. Slowly learning how to be better and how to help others to do the same.

Contemplation and Gardening

I remember learning about Thoreau’s On Walden Pond. It was a survey class, so we didn’t pause long enough to fully read and examine the text, but I remember hearing how Thoreau retreated into a simple life connected to nature. Even when I learned that Thoreau considered “without support of any kind” to include his mother providing him with food and doing his laundry, I was still drawn to the idea of a space where I let go of my regular pursuits and focused instead on a life of contemplation. I always pictured traveling somewhere to achieve this. Yet when I did go to writing retreats, I often discovered myself beset with anxiety. Social anxiety around living with other people, and anxiety for the tasks and people I’d left behind. Anxiety and contemplation don’t co-exist very well.

One of the surprises of having all my travel canceled has been an increased connection to my house and my gardens. Neither is particularly large, nor particularly natural. Yet my house is surrounded by green things. Most of them are green things that I planted years ago that have thrived through benign neglect.

This evening I went to look at my grape vines. I was looking to see if there were any seedless grapes left. I thought there might be in the overgrown corner where the grape vines had swamped both a lilac bush and a rose of sharon bush. The under layers of the bushes had died for lack of sunlight leaving a twiggy impenetrable tangle where ripe grapes might be hiding. I’d only intended to seek grapes, instead I found myself slowly clipping away dead twigs and branches. I accumulated quite a pile that would make excellent starter material for a fire in our fire pit. In the process I created and arched hideaway where I could stand out of sight of most everything. Greenery overhead and on all sides. It was the kind of secret garden space I always longed for as a child. It was calming and contemplative to slowly transform the space clip after clip, twig after twig.

Last night I had a friend over for a visit. I placed our fire pit on the new patio flanked with chairs on opposite sides, a good six feet apart. We sat and talked for hours my friend and I as flames consumed branches that we cut from our trees years ago and stacked. Those stacks gathered spiders and bugs and dust. Now they are finally getting used. I want to burn all the old pest ridden sticks. It will make space for a new accumulation of dead wood from various corners of my garden. The contemplative act of tending my plants provides material for contemplating next to a fire. Strange how profoundly peaceful it can be to sit by a fire surrounded by darkness, even when the darkness is only my yard, and is ringed on most sides by street lamps and lights from signs or cars.

For so many years I had abandoned gardening as something I did not have time for. Life was too hectic. I lost something in choosing to let go of that piece. I also failed to comprehend that “gardening” isn’t just growing a vegetable garden or flower beds. Gardening is tending my outdoor spaces. It can be trimming trees or digging a patio. It can be trimming back twigs and marking vines according to which flavor of grape they grew, so that next spring I can make cuttings to give to friends. Gardening is tending. And it happens right here at home in between all my other things. I didn’t need to find time to run away from all my things so that I could be contemplative. I had to rearrange and re-prioritize so that mundane, time-consuming tasks forced me to slow down in contemplative ways.

There are things we all want back when the pandemic is over. However there are also changes I don’t want to lose.

My Pandemic Patio

Near the end of June I was in dire need of a project. I needed something physical to do which didn’t require much thinking. So I decided it was time to tackle my long-intended patio project. Back in 2014 we demolished a rotting deck, leaving a dirt patch.

I decided to tackle the project in pieces. Dig out a section, lay pavers, dig the next section, etc. Doing the project this way had some benefits in spreading out the cost of supplies. It also let us see finished sections much sooner than we otherwise would have, which was important encouragement and motivation to continue. I don’t regret our process even though I can see how construction would be simplified by digging everything first then laying each layer all at once. Instead we muddled our way forward, finding tree roots, and fixing leaky sprinkler pipes as we went.

They layers are: fairly level dirt, landscape fabric, gravel, sand, pavers.

We used a level when laying the pavers so we could push around the gravel and sand to make sure each paver was set correctly. I’m certain we would have gotten a more even result by leveling each layer completely and tamping it down before adding the next layer.

In fact, toward the end I had to pull up pavers and re-level because I discovered that a whole corner of the patio had developed a slant. The end result still has un-eveness and a slight dip in the middle.

The final step was sweeping polymer sand into the cracks between the pavers. You sweep the sand on dry and then wet it down so that the polymers bond and set into a mortar.

So now our patio is set into place and ready for use. I just need to save up enough money for some patio furniture. The thing I’d really love is a fire pit table that runs on propane. It’ll probably have to wait for another year though. I’m really grateful I had this project. I’m glad to have an outdoor space where I can invite a friend for a socially distanced visit. And hopefully in the future I can gather friends in a group. The patio will outlive the pandemic, and that is reassuring.