Month: December 2023

The Year that was Hard

Here on the last day of the year I am putting things away, and it is not just Christmas decorations. I have been cleaning house both physically and emotionally. I’ve been collecting items into donation piles because I don’t want to carry them forward with me into the new year. I have been rearranging furniture because I plan to use spaces differently. I have been collecting pieces of writing from my blog, my newsletter, my private journals and nestling them all into place inside a book where they will sit together on my shelf with the year 2023 stamped on the spine. A record of the year that was. A hard year, but not a bad one.

The difference between a hard year and a bad one is that a bad year results in coping strategies that need to be dismantled because they are traps and traumas or injuries that need to be healed before growth can happen. A hard year was a difficult passage that sets us up  for future growth.

I first developed this differentiation in regards to my kids and their schooling. Because of their various neurodivergences and mental health challenges we had more hard or bad years than easy or good ones. Sometimes as we scrambled free on the last day of school it was as if we had been drowning for months and finally found a beach. Even when we were exhausted and not ready for future effort, I could tell if my child had grown or shrunk during the year. Often both grown and shrunk in tangled up ways. I would use the summer to try to heal or rest. Then in the fall we would try to set up a better situation in the hopes of having that elusive Good School Year where my parent teacher conferences could be moments of rejoicing rather than intense collaboration or negotiation. Now that my kids are grown, I’m a little sad that I so clearly remember the bad years while the good ones come to mind less readily.

I wonder if, when future me looks back, whether 2023 will feel significant or if it will be lost in the flow of time. I don’t remember much specific about 2005. It just sits there, but the years 1999, 2001, and 2020 all have weight in my memory. Pivot points in my existence. In many ways I think this year was the preparatory year and next year will be the one where I can really see the result of the slow pivots and changes that have been accumulating since the pandemic hit life like a rogue wave. Some of the hard of this year was ongoing pandemic clean up. Floods are like that, there is damage that can only be discovered and work that can only be done once the waters are gone and the deposits of silt and debris are cleared away. Some structures must be knocked down and built anew. Others can be carefully restored and rebuilt.

I thought about this as I collected my year’s worth of words. I read through them all. Sadly, the unifying theme for the year was overwhelm and stress. Even the cheerful entries were bracketed by the ones where I was processing stress by writing it out. The effect was rather like a movie where the shot of a sunny meadow is accompanied by an ominous musical theme. Bright scenes with music that makes one brace for the disaster which is surely coming. My whole year had anxiety as its soundtrack. Here at the end of the year, as I am putting things away, one thing I am certain of: I want a better soundtrack for next year.

I want a life where anxiety is not allowed to steal joy from the bright moments. I want a life where the harder things are only as hard as they actually are instead of also bearing the weight of a hundred possible future outcomes that I’ve imagined, most of them terrible. If I want that life, then I have to change how I cope with my days. This is one of the reasons I name 2023 as hard, but not bad. As a result of this year I am finally ready to dismantle some long held anxiety coping strategies and choose different ones. They were adaptive at the time I developed them, but they became a snare.

After a particularly bad school year, I helped my child unpack their school bag. It had been dumped into a corner and forgotten all summer. The bag was full to bursting because my child had begun hoarding supplies as a means of feeling safe. To protect against the possibility of forgetting their pencil, there were twenty pencils. Thirty pens, five spare notebooks, three books to read, yarn and crafting supplies, fidget toys, and more filled the bag. We unpacked nearly twenty pounds of stuff that my tiny-framed child had carried every day. There was no room for any of the textbooks or notebooks required for class. Those got carried in my child’s arms where they could be seen and double checked constantly to make sure nothing was missing. At the end of that bad year all of it seemed essential. After the calm of summer, my child could see how much simply wasn’t needed and we could talk through strategies to prevent such a burden from accumulating again.

I have spent the last years (at least two or three) with anxiety constantly accumulating things for me to carry. Until this year I was so burdened that every step forward felt like a slog. Pile on top of that medical appointments and expenses which stirred up decades old traumas that I didn’t even realize I still carried. Add large measures of parenting feelings stirred up by family events. On top of that I assigned myself to be prepared for every possible eventuality, which meant thinking up every possible eventuality. I accumulated a huge and exhausting burden of “things to be prepared for”. Until I had a full bag and a pile of things in my arms so that I could check them constantly.

I need to dump out my bag and re-think what I choose to carry. Perhaps I am not always the crisis response team for every loved one with a need. Perhaps I’ve been treating things like crises that actually aren’t. Perhaps my over-preparedness prevents moments of serendipity which I should embrace, moments when someone else gets to step up and be the hero instead of me. Or when they get to fumble through and figure things out for themselves learning and growing in the process. Perhaps the answer is not always I step up and handle it.

This is how I can tell it was a hard year and not a bad one, I am able to decide to manage things differently for next year. I can look at how I carry each of the burdens which I need to keep. I can remember a recent conversation with a friend about my role as household financial manager. She wisely told me that redoing the math several times per week doesn’t change the numbers. It just means I’m stewing in my stress about the numbers. “trust past Sandra.” My friend said “she’s pretty smart and you don’t need to re-do her math. Until there is something new to calculate, leave the numbers be.” I’m going to listen to my friend and put the finances into the bag instead of carrying them in my arms.

A thing I’m going to attempt to abandon entirely is the cloud of self judgement that surrounded so many things. What if when I say “sorry we can’t afford that this month” it is a statement of fact instead of the beginning of an emotional guilt spiral about how I’ve failed in my role as steward of finances. What if I say “sorry I can’t do that” without the massive spiral of social guilt at telling a friend no. What if I just do (or don’t do) tasks without carrying a cloud of anxiety about each one.  What if I put down the extra pencils and trust that I put one in my bag or that a friend will have one for me if I didn’t.

I’ve wandered through a trail of metaphors in this post. Some of them are fighting a bit. I’ve had a theme, a flood, a soundtrack, and a bag. I suppose those are a lot to juggle in a single post, but it’s been that kind of year. The artistic thing to do would be to wander backwards along the same trail, collecting and connecting them as I go. If I could connect all the dots and land this neatly, that would be very satisfying both for me and possibly for you. But 2023 has been messy. It defies my attempts to entrap it inside a single metaphor. (I didn’t even deploy the one where I talk about how I want the story of next year to not be stress-themed.) So I’m going to let all the metaphors stand as they are, each expressing a different aspect of the meaning I’m trying to convey.

Standing here on the edge between last year and new year, it feels like I can make the new year different. Better. Not all at once, but day by day I can choose to set down old coping strategies and pick better ones. Day by day I can craft a year with less disaster clean up, brighter music, a lighter load, and a more hopeful story. The year just passed was a hard year, but I feel ready for the next one.

Carefully Healing

Twenty days ago I twisted my ankle while stepping off a stair. It is the stupid sort of injury that sometimes happens with an action that should not be injurious. I wasn’t even doing anything interesting enough to make it a good story. Surely if I suffer this much I should get a good story out of it, right? And maybe I am now, I mean, I’m writing it up. Except the story isn’t the misstep nor the alarming popping noise inside my joint. This story is about healing as a process.

Within minutes I was fairly certain nothing was broken. It hurt, but I was able to talk and to limp my way back into the house. Elevation and ice packs were the story of the first twenty four hours. The four days following were an ankle brace, swelling, cautious limping, and sitting down a lot. It was when the swelling started to go down that I started thinking about how swelling is the body’s natural immobilization protocol. My brace was an aid to that natural process, but as the swelling receded, I began testing the available motion in my ankle. I was finding what motion I could regain, what motions were uncomfortable in a stretchy way, and which motions were instantly painful in a way that said “Don’t do that!”

Healing was steady. It felt slow as I was passing through it, but in hindsight twenty days is not that long. Within two weeks I had stopped needing to move carefully through my day to adapt for my ankle. The swelling ceased around the joint, but there remained a stiff swollen feeling to the joint itself. I realized that I could choose “good enough” and just live with that residual stiffness. Instead I chose to pick up my yoga practice again, deliberately stretching and moving to find the edges of which motions were stretchy and which were hurty. Day by day I discover that a motion which was hurty yesterday is only stretchy today. Slowly my hurt ankle is coming back into alignment with the capabilities of the uninjured ankle.

It has been a deliberate and slow process of listening to what my ankle is telling me about what it can do, what it shouldn’t do, what feels uncomfortable now but will create capacity later, and what might create new injury. At the moment I write this, there is an ache in my ankle from the yoga stretches I put it through this morning. I’ll go easy on it until the ache subsides and tomorrow we’ll decide again how much to stretch.

My ankle isn’t the only injury I carry. I’ve been working on my annual One Cobble book where I pull together public blog posts, private writings, and journal entries into a written record of my year. This process helps me evaluate the year I’ve just had and lay it to rest so that I can start a fresh year in January. I stalled out on the process by the August writings. I found myself tired, knowing what was coming and not sure I wanted to wade through all of it. I’d found “that might cause reinjury” for emotional wounds that felt remarkably similar to the “don’t move that way” messages from my ankle. I paused for several days, gave myself rest. I carry emotional wounds from my medical adventures that are very similar to my sprained ankle. The events didn’t seem like they should cause injury, and yet I have odd over-reactions, stiffness, and avoidance happening in similar ways to my limping gait around my house.

Then there are the larger, deeper, and older injuries that I still carry around motherhood experiences. They’re getting stirred up now from watching my daughter have her first baby. I find myself wanting to warn her of things that might be coming in much the same way I’ve been telling people to watch their step as they go down stairs. I stepped wrong once and am still dealing with painful consequences. As the ankle stops hurting, the impulse to warn people about stairs will also fade. The impulse to warn tells me I have something unhealed, a residual stiffness or pain that I haven’t worked all the way through. I do my best not to spread the contagion of my anxieties to my daughter. She is mothering a baby and has a sufficient supply of her own anxieties. She doesn’t need my unprocessed emotions even if they’re couched as helpful warnings. (An actual warning of an imminent possible harm is a different thing.) She has her own joyful, painful journey to take. She is growing so much from it, they all are, parents and baby together. Which is a beauty I lose track of when I focus on what might hurt.

I created a careful yoga regimen for regaining use of my ankle, perhaps I can do the same for regaining access to the joy I felt while parenting or to allow me to participate in my ongoing medical care as a routine part of life instead of an ongoing trauma. I just need to figure out the emotional equivalent of finding the motions that are stretchy but not hurty. Writing this post is one of them, but I can’t simply re-write this post each day. I’m considering whether outside assistance might be required. I’ve managed my ankle injury without needing a physical therapist, it feels like my emotional processing is of a similar low-level injury. I’m emotionally sprained, not emotionally broken. Yet I’m holding the idea of seeking out professional therapeutic help as a possibility.

Honestly, If I could just grant myself rest, that would resolve most of it. I’m tired. The first and most urgent need for an injury is always rest. My ankle is always worst at the end of the day and best after a night’s sleep. My review of 2023 shows me a year where I had transition after transition after transition with no stabilizing spaces in between. Working on event organization pivoted to Kickstarter fulfilment pivoted to major convention prep pivoted to medical adventures piled on top of writing conference, followed by Kickstarter funding, followed by my daughter having a baby, and another convention, and holidays. On top of that, the whole year had a soundtrack of omnipresent financial anxiety and urgently needing to create more. And here I am. Tired. Depleted. Depletion is also a sort of injury requiring slow and careful recovery.

The first few months of next year are not going to have fewer things in them, but perhaps I can turn off the anxiety soundtrack. I can definitely put some slow and deliberate practices into my life (yoga, scripture study, reading, walking, gardening) that will rejuvenate me and help me build strength and resilience. At the beginning of this year I caught the idea of wanting to be able to do handstands. I began doing some skill building exercises into my yoga practice. My practice was very sporadic and often neglected. Yet I managed an unsupported headstand yesterday. Even a sporadic and often neglected practice can create strength and skill. Perhaps next year I’ll sporadic myself all the way into a handstand. Perhaps I’ll sporadic myself into healing and joy. Perhaps life and injury always go hand in hand. Maybe hurting is part of wholeness. We’re always healing from some hurt. To live and to walk is to exist with the possibility of a sprained ankle. There is a thought there that I want to tease out further, but this ramble has been long enough I think. For today I’m going to be kind to my ankle, and my tired brain. I’m going to make sure I rest both.

When All the Days are Busy

I have been busy since July. I am supposed to slow down in December, but not this week. Which makes me the epitome of that meme where adulthood is saying “things will slow down next week” over and over for decades. The problem is that this week was full of wonderful things because the Writing Excuses crew were in Utah for a recording retreat. The first priority is getting enough episodes recorded to post an episode per week until we reach the next recording retreat in mid summer. Part of getting the recording done is scheduling breaks and making sure that everyone has the necessary calories. I work logistics and craft services, providing groceries and helping plan meals. Dinners are social.

Since the AirBnB was in Orem, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between home and working on the retreat. On one day I was doing a grocery run where I bought groceries for my house, the Writing Excuses folks, and for my daughter who just had her baby. Juggling three lists and three deliveries was a lot of thinking work. The joy of the retreat is being here. I’m sitting quietly upstairs right now while they’re recording downstairs. Hearing them all laugh together brings me joy. We had some bonus activities during the breaks. They arranged with some local falconers for us to have a day standing out in a field watching gorgeous birds fly. I met Krista and Skye:

Skye flew hundreds of feet in the air and then caught a pigeon right in front of us. Then she was very cooperative with lots of photography.

During the falconry day we met with a photographer Danielle Lore and quickly developed a plan to do a photography outing for professional photos. (I very much need new photos) So there was a second outing for that. Danielle is amazing and you should all go peek at her Instagram.

I am very much looking forward to sharing the photos when they arrive. In the meantime I have this selfie. Given a cobblestone bridge I had to that a cobblestone selfie.

I love this group of people. I love the opportunity to spend time with them, even though after this week my introvert self is going to need to go and hide in a hole for a while. I’m also going to have to pick up the slack on dozens of tasks that have been sliding this past week while I went full-bore into being support staff for getting the recording done. At least I can claim a small personal triumph in that I have made some progress on SLSC even while busy with everything else. Even while healing from spraining my ankle on December 3rd. Even while coping with cats having litter problems, catching mice, and locking themselves into rooms where they weren’t supposed to be. Even while managing customer support around holiday shipping. Even while carpooling between houses, and checking on my daughter with her son. Even while writing the weekly church newsletter and helping with the church streaming. So many things happening all at once, and still I managed to sneak in time to write. I feel very good about that.

It has been a week of very busy days, but they were all good ones.