Month: December 2020

Reconfiguring for Health

One of the things I would like to prioritize in the next year is healthier eating and movement. I’m aware of the cliche of having new health habits at the beginning of the new year, but I want to be healthier more than I want to avoid cliche. The key is to approach health in a healthy way.

I have an online friend who is in recovery from several eating disorders. She is vocally opposed to any sort of restrictive dieting. She speaks often about health and weight being separate things. Also about the ways the modern society mistreats fatness both socially and medically. I like seeing her perspective, though occasionally she gets very deterministic about health saying that it is genetically pre-determined and that there is very little an individual can do to control it. I’m not sure I buy into pre-determined health, just as I don’t believe nature has full power over nurture. Our choices matter in health just as they do in parenting or any other aspect of our lives. But the array of choices we’re offered is definitely affected by genetics. A person with an autoimmune disorder has a different set of health choices than someone who has diabetes. A person with athletic gifts has different choices than someone whose body doesn’t easily form muscles or manage fine motor skills. On top of that we have different body options at 20 than we do when we’re 50. Learning to work with our individual set of ever-shifting health choices is the work of a lifetime.

The goal then isn’t to pick a desired body configuration and contort my life to achieve that. Instead I need to pick an emotionally and physically health configuration for my life and then accept the responsive shape my body adopts in reaction to that life. Bodies are incredibly adaptive both in ways we want and ways that aren’t what we pictured. I’m carrying more body fat than I would prefer because my body is responding to my current mode of living, my age, hormonal shifts, and seasonal cues. It is trying to help me survive and thrive by storing abundance against future need. It is doing this because my pandemic life has been too sedentary. It has also featured food choices made for emotional reasons rather than good life maintenance ones. I’d like to readjust the balance of those portions of my life.

(Note: when I say “emotional reasons” I am not scowling at the choice to eat chocolate in an emotionally low moment. That has happened and I intend to keep treat food in my arsenal of treatments for mental health lows. Food is valid medicine, and like any other medicine its use needs to be monitored and kept within healthy bounds. It can be a real help for a bad evening, it is not an effective treatment for ongoing daily depression. However I’ve also been eating when I was bored. I want to watch a show, but want something else to occupy me companionably while I watch. Instead of eating-to-be-occupied I want to find a non-food option, like crochet or some other craft.)

Having decided that I want to reconfigure my life to include exercise and healthier eating, I then have to make a plan for implementing that decision. I need to put small obstacles between me and the thoughtless habits I would like to eliminate. I also need to smooth the path so I can easily flow into the habits I’d like to have instead. Where do I place exercise into my day? Can I attach it to some other task so that I don’t have to make a separate decision to exercise? How do I remind myself to be mindful about food choices? I haven’t fully got answers to these questions yet, but by stating the questions and looking at how my days currently run, I’ve begin the problem solving process.

Starting to Shake Off 2020

We’re one day post Christmas and members of my household are ready to shake off 2020 and move forward into something else. This has manifested in two bedrooms sorted and cleaned, new acquisitions hung on walls (it was a very swordy Christmas for my youngest,) and us slowly eating our way through the Christmas leftovers. The 23yo has adopted our new Roomba and has a plan where he sets the robot in motion in the mornings when he showers. This is likely to result in a lot less scattered kitty litter for us to step on. The 19yo has set up an alarm for 10am each day with a different task for each day of the week. If things go to plan, they’ll be emptying all the garbages in the house every Monday. Plans are likely to fall apart, but I like that my young adults are stepping up and trying to build household contributions into their lives.

I have plans for next week where I haul my two in-house assistants over to the warehouse for some year-end maintenance and inventory. On another day we’ll be moving furniture to re-configure my office and to prepare the front room for the dividing wall to come down. The wall-removal work will begin after the Christmas tree is stowed post-New Years Day. We’re ready for our lives to be shaped differently. And we’re ready to put in some work to make it happen. I’m glad to feel this way. I was concerned that 2020 wouldn’t feel over until the pandemic ended. At least for today that isn’t the case.

Christmas Eve and Tradition

On this Christmas Eve morning, I’m thinking about other Christmas Eves. Today I’m feeling content. Some cooking projects are begun, others in the planning stages, but none are under any sort of pressure. The results of the cooking don’t have any more importance than the project of cooking them, which is a nice way to approach the necessary fact of needing to eat and wanting the food to feel celebratory. I remember the year that I ran myself ragged creating holiday for everyone else and obliterating it for myself. I remember the years when I carefully coordinated all the gift giving between family members because I felt like it was my job to make sure no one was sad on Christmas. Then there was the year where the whole holiday season felt fraught because of frictions between family members. Last year we folded my daughter’s fiance into our celebrations. This year will be the first one where I don’t have all my children gathered together on Christmas Eve, because my daughter has her own family traditions to build. So many years, so many different emotional states when approaching the holiday.

Every holiday season I spend some time thinking about traditions, how they form, their purpose, how they frame the holiday, how they can trap us, how they can thrive or fade away. Though my kids are all adults, we still do the morning entrance into the room with Christmas morning surprises, though youngest-first got shifted to shortest-first a few years back. That grand entrance was designed specifically to help contain over excited children and give parents a chance to see faces when they saw the surprises. Our core Christmas Eve focus of lighting candles on our “poor man’s Christmas tree” was also born of me trying to figure out how to get small children to focus. Turn out the lights, give them a spinning candle-lit wooden nativity to watch, read them Christmas stories, ask them to write down a gift of service they plan to extend in the next year, then reward them with cookies. We continue because the shape of the tradition works for adults as well, the right blend of contemplation and snack food.

Even this year our traditions are bending to meet needs. Food is heavily featured this year because making food and sharing it is a means of connection for several family members. Pandemic increased that connection need, so: more cooking. This evening when we blow out the candles, we’ll have to decide who gets to blow out the extra one. We’ve had exactly the right number of candles for years, one per person. (Again, a tradition developed and codified during the years when we had to restrain children from blowing out candles too early or too many.) Now we’ll seek a meaningful way to extinguish a candle in honor of the person who has launched into her own tradition-building adventure. The nice thing is that whatever we decide for this year, we can decide differently for next year. Traditions connect us with heritage and who we used to be, it is important that they flex and shift to accommodate who we are now.

And with that, I need to go cook some more foods.

Sorting My Thoughts Out Loud

I’m watching snow fall gently outside my window and I’m trying to find words to wrap around where my head has been lately. I want to describe why I’ve managed to write in my paper journal, send two newsletters, write a Kickstarter update, even draft some fiction, but not been able to put words into a blog post. I suppose it is because each of those other things is focused on a single train of thought, often with a road map of what I’ve written in previous iterations. Blogging is so much wider. It catches all the thoughts or pieces of them. It tries to make sense of all the fragmentary ideas which float through my head making noise until I manage to pin them into a coherent set of words. Except I think I’ve been having sensory overload from the noise of the thoughts in my own head, so I keep trying to drown out the noise by re-watching familiar shows. I also think that I’m afraid to expose some of the half-formed thoughts/opinions to potential public criticism. And the world feels hyper-critical right now. Or maybe my own thoughts are hypercritical with all the sharp bits pointed inward.

The criticism is omnipresent on social media. Everyone notices other people’s pandemic safety choices and has opinions about whether those choices are helping or hurting the pandemic problem. I don’t think it is just me who has a cloud of contradictory thoughts in my head any time I see a friend’s picture. Are those two people part of a safety bubble? Are they indoors or outdoors? Did they just take off masks for the picture, or were they not wearing them? Is this a special outing that they carefully prepared for, or are they in the habit of jaunting off to social events without much forethought? I really miss just being happy for other people without having a jostling crowd of judgemental thoughts about what I can see (or not see) in the photo. If I have crowds of conflicted thoughts about others, I assume that they have the same crowds of thoughts about my posts. So I feel like I have to qualify posts with footnotes on the exact safety measures we took and all the conditions that led us to decide a social interaction was safe enough. Yet that impulse to qualify and explain is less about the world at large, and more about me arguing with the critical voices that are in my own head. I second guess everything I do. (And third, fourth, fifth, sixth, etc guess.) I give my daughter a hug. She doesn’t live in my house, but she is part of my bubble. She and her husband are the only part of my bubble that lives outside of my home. My anxiety screams at me about unnecessary risk while simultaneously screaming about mental health and the importance of connection. If I don’t hug I will be awake at 2am worried about the damage I am doing to relationships; damage that could outlast the pandemic. If I do hug I will be awake at 2am wondering if that hug set us on a cascade of consequences which involve permanent guilt and recrimination. No wonder I want to hide from thinking. I can’t think my way through to a useful answer. I just have to wait for outcomes. I just want to hug my child without needing to run a cost/benefit analysis.

Along with all the noise about pandemic choices, my head is also full of thoughts about the growth I’m seeing in my live-in young adults. They are overcoming their mental health challenges inch by inch, day by day, small habit by small habit. It is like watching a slow-growing plant carefully unfurl a leaf. The new leaf is brighter, smaller, and more delicate than the other leaves. It is able to grow because of the sheltered bubble we’ve created. We’re all critters in a terrarium, completely comfortable, physical needs met, but still a little trapped and maybe stifled. Because we’re all in the terrarium together I don’t get to walk away while they grow unobserved. Instead I have to sit right next to them, see the growth out of the corner of my eye, and pretend not to notice. Because learning to adult works better when Mom isn’t constantly hovering nearby to say “good job.” I would love to detail the little stories, the tiny triumphs, describe why something that seems so small counts as a triumph. Yet if having Mom hover and say “good job” is a problem, having her describe your accomplishment in detail to the entire internet would be far worse.

In the Spring every day felt three days long. This December the days keep getting away from me and I suddenly discover myself at 4pm, which feels too late in the day to launch into a new project, but still hours to spend before I can reasonably sleep. Each day has a unique task list. Each day I tick off most of the things on my list. Yet each day has a sameness with the days before and after so that I begin to lose track of the day of the week. Shipping every day does not help with this. The fact that we moved to grocery delivery instead of me doing a shopping day has not helped either. I’d been using groceries and shipping as day-of-the-week markers. Now the days all feel the same, while being different, and Christmas is inexorably getting closer, while still feeling like it will never get here. And I have no idea how I’m going to feel about New Years. 2020 is bounded not by a calendar, but by pandemic. It feels like 2020 began last March and won’t end until March of next year. Will I get that inhale, and ready-for-a-new-year energy which usually accompanies early January? Does that energy depend on sending kids back to school and the resumption of normal schedule, both of which are things which will not happen in 2021? What, exactly, do I have to look forward to during the cold dark winter after the holidays are accomplished? (Yes I’m aware these are depressive thoughts. Yes I’m going to keep doing my throwing breadcrumbs forward thing. Yes I’ve acquired a light therapy lamp to see if that helps. Yes I do have many things to look forward to, they just keep getting lost in the mess of noisy thoughts.)

I don’t have any conclusion to put here at the end of the blog post. My thoughts are far too unruly to herd into a conclusion today. Instead I’ll just stand here for a moment and watch them careen all over the landscape. Then perhaps I’ll step away and watch a show where I don’t have to pay attention for a while. It is remotely possible that the act of writing paragraphs to describe the shape of them has helped to tame them for a bit.

Christmas Saves Us

The entire genre of Christmas stories with the formula “Protagonist Saves Christmas” is doing us a disservice this pandemic year by teaching that the holiday is “saved” by massive efforts to restore the status quo: Santa-Delivers-Presents and accompanying traditions. These stories say that Christmas can’t be Christmas without a specific set of events and trappings, that it will be ruined if there is any disruption to those events and trappings. This primes people to panic and feel huge loss if they can’t celebrate in the ways they are accustomed to.

This year, more than ever, we need the story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where all the trappings are stripped away and Christmas saves the Grinch. This “Christmas Saves Protagonist” formulation is far more in tune with the holiday. So much so that it is a frequent sub-plot of “saves Christmas” stories. Yes, the Grinch story does end with the restoration of the traditions and trappings, but it didn’t have to. Christmas would have been fine even if the sled had gone off Mount Crumpit. That was the point. That’s WHY it saved the Grinch.

Pandemic restrictions may steal away portions of your holiday traditions that you value greatly. I’m pretty sure the Whos found great joy in all those trimmings and trappings. Yet on the Christmas morning when the Whos woke and found bare walls, the Whos gathered with a space in the middle for Christmas. And they sang. And Christmas came.

All of our traditions, gatherings, decorations, etc are merely a frame for something larger than ourselves to arrive into. We can change the frame without harming the holiday. If Christmas is holy to you (as it is to me,) that holiness exists with or without the tinsel and trappings. Trust that no matter what form your holiday must take this year, the holiness will show up to fill the space you create.

Analyzing Two Weeks of Depression

On Sunday the depression I’ve been under for the past two weeks lifted. Some of that was seeing the results of the Covid tests (negative) but the sense of lightness was more pervasive than that. I’m able to feel that life is good and I no longer feel like the slightest thing will puncture the barrier between me and an ocean of crying. I’m grateful to have depression back off, but I’m also doing some analysis to figure out why it hit me the way that it did and why it lingered for two weeks instead of resolving within a day or two per my usual pattern. Yes I know that I am very fortunate that my usual pattern has short stints with depression instead of dealing with it for months or years at a time. I worked my way out of that place and analyzing the pattern change is part of how I stay out. Also I have the emotional resources to do this analysis now and put preventative measures in place.

Contributing factors and possible countermeasures:

Weather: The days are shorter, the nights are longer, outside is cold, and all of the green has vanished from the outdoors. This happens every year, however I’d been using the green space behind my house as part of my pandemic coping strategy. It simply doesn’t have the same effect with the green gone. Countermeasures: I’ve planted my little hydroponic garden with flower seeds. They should be flourishing and blooming by the end of December. Hopefully that will help. Also I need to get outside and walk despite the lack of green.

Somatic crash post election: Once I realized that I would not have to deal with another four years of the same man being in office, there was a level of tension and emergency response in my body that was finally able to let go. Sometimes tension relief manifests as depression because there is finally time to process. Countermeasures: None needed. This won’t be repeated.

Covid fears: Watching the rising case rates and knowing that Thanksgiving was coming, created a sort of helpless panic. I could only make my own choices, not control anyone elses, but I felt compelled to try to push information out to encourage others to make good choices. Now the holiday is done, the fallout is yet to come, but the choices were made. Waiting is a different kind of stress, but somehow less anxiety inducing for me personally. Anticipating a crisis and contingency planning for all possible outcomes is always worse for me than crisis management. I can deal with what is in front of me, planning for what might one day be in front of me is how I drive myself crazy. Countermeasures: Sing Que Sera Sera a lot. Recognize I can only control my own choices. Practice dealing with what is in front of me and try not to contingency plan so much.

New holiday norms: When my daughter was away at college, part of how I supported her was to reach out and make sure she felt included in holiday preparations and celebrations. I found ways to extend my traditions and patterns to bring her in. This year she is married and has her own household of two. Unconsciously I was trying to do the same holiday-expansion to include both her and my son-in-law into our holiday. However I kept slamming into (necessary) pandemic restrictions that prevented inviting them inside my bubble. I was hugely grieved by my inability to include. Disappointing people is a huge anxiety trigger for me, and I often fail to recognize in the moment that the disappointment I’ve imagined that they are feeling exists only in my imagination. It ties into the extensive contingency planning that is one of my instinctive anxiety responses. Imagine possible disappointment –> make branching contingency plans to avoid that disappointment –> planning reveals additional ways for disappointment to happen –> repeat until I’m curled into a non-functional ball.

Once the holiday was over and the disappointments were aimed at covid restrictions rather than my failures, that alleviated some of the stress. However I could also feel the looming Christmas holiday and felt the beginning of the same contingency/disappointment loop for that holiday as well. But I had a conversation with my daughter talking about some of it. In the wake of that conversation I had an insight: the current situation is fundamentally different from when she was in college. I said it right up there at the beginning of the prior paragraph. She has formed a new household. I can’t, and shouldn’t, be trying to stretch my household traditions to cover hers as well. They need to be deciding who they are and how they want their own traditions to go, where they want to include us and where they want to be on their own. Some of our preferred methods of connecting will be harder to accomplish this year because of Pandemic, but we’ll figure it out. So in this I am strangely grateful to Pandemic. If it hadn’t enforced boundaries around my attempts to include, it would probably have taken me several more years of anxiety (or a confrontation with my married kids) for me to recognize how and why I needed to back off from assigning the task of “Multi-Household Holiday Coordinator” to myself. Countermeasures: Writing this post to solidify my realizations

Brain chemicals: I’m 47. Over the past several years I’ve noticed wider emotional fluctuations that hit me every month or three. I’ve also had more trouble with migraines and vivid dreaming. Since these were all things that plagued me during puberty, it makes sense to me that they would also be part of peri-menopause. Howard is helping me keep an eye on it and I have a doctor I can discuss things with. Honestly that was one of my concerns when the depression did not abate after the usual day or two, that I’d hit some chemical switch that would require medical intervention. However, as listed above, there were quite a few contributing factors of which brain chemicals were only a part. Countermeasures: Good diet, exercise, and sleep habits. Consult with doctor as needed.

Additional proactive steps: Find small personal projects to do which bring me joy and which I can share on social media to fuel a sense of connection with others while we all have to be isolated. Continue throwing the breadcrumbs forward through the dark winter, even when I don’t need them desperately. That way if a depressive moment hits, I’ll have a good breadcrumb habit to keep me moving. Make time for career-related projects that will move me closer to my goals. Continue to make efforts to connect and build community.

In hindsight the depressive period makes sense, and I think I have a good shot at not having it hit me again in December. At least not in the same way. That is good. For today, I need to wait on grocery delivery so I can do weekly resource management. Onward I go.