Sandra Tayler

Being Still

In a world where people can easily share the photos of their fantastic trips, it is easy to forget the beauty of ordinary things. One of the gifts of staying home so much right now is that when I’m seeking for peace of spirit, I need to look for it right where I am instead of seeking it at a destination. This is when I recognize the deep beauty of sitting in a garden shaded by trees I planted twenty years ago, scented by flowers I planted, and carpeted by lawn I have mowed. Any peacefulness this place possesses, I earned through tending. This is one of the reasons I bought a new hammock.

The view from my hammock is tree leaves, fences that are in need of repair, and a lawn with many bare patches.

Yet there is peace to be had here if I’m willing to hold still long enough for it to show up. Holding still can be hard for me. I have to put aside the feeling that surely I could be doing something more useful with my time. As if the process of untangling my thoughts, of just being, had no intrinsic value. I spent more than an hour out there today. Not thinking about anything in particular. Not reading the book I brought outside with me. Not trying to solve anything. When I cam back inside, the words for this blog post flowed instead of needing to be extracted from tangles. It is a subtle, but significant change.

Having the hammock makes this process easier because it is new and comfortable. But I always had the option to throw a blanket on the lawn, or to sit on my concrete steps, or to just stand under the sky. It isn’t the hammock that brings me calmness, it is sitting still and breathing without doing.

Scattered Thoughts

All of the days feel very long, so you’d think I’d get more done with them. Instead I feel badly that I’m not doing more work that is directly tied to bringing in money and feeling like the work I’m doing to tend and repair house is me not carrying my share. It is a strange mental twist, a mobius loop where I travel around and around without giving myself a break. It is the “I should be doing more” loop. I get caught in it often. The truth is that I’m occupied pretty much all day every day. Only a sliver of that time is on purely recreational things like a video game. Everything else is connected to maintenance or creation in some way. Cooking, sweeping, planning a grocery list, answering emails, maintaining contacts with loved ones, time for small kindnesses, driving, picking up mail, answering messages: it is easy to feel like none of these things count as work. They all are, of course. They all take a measure of attention and energy.

One of the messages I’m seeing on social media is about the brokenness of the Cult of Productivity. I know that I tend to tie self worth to the things I do rather than believing it is intrinsic. (Everyone else’s worth is obviously intrinsic, just mine that isn’t.) But I’m starting to readjust my thinking. This enforced slow down has shown me that the world doesn’t fall apart if everyone slows down. I confess to a hope that we will collectively decide that some of the slower pace is good. That it won’t harm us to wait a week for packages rather than being angry if they don’t show up in two days.

On social media I see a lot of people vehemently refuting positions or posts. These refutations aren’t aimed at a particular person or source, they are just a scattershot argument to a person that the refuter has imagined. I’m not sure that these refutations really do much good. It’s like we’re all standing in the cafeteria shouting on our soap boxes, hearing only fragments of what others have to say and then responding angrily to those fragments. I’ve decided that if I see a friend or loved one spreading information that I believe to be harmful, I have a responsibility to choose a private avenue to take it up with that person. If I don’t have access to a private mode of communication with that person, then I’m not close enough for them to disarm and listen to me.

Locally there is a group trying to determine if Covid-19 was transmitting locally earlier than March. They’re using antibody tests and patient histories. Howard’s January illness fit their parameters, so he went and had a blood draw today. Not sure when the results will come back, hopefully in a couple of days. Howard’s case is a useful study since he came down sick about five days after a wedding reception, had fever, body aches, coughing, and shortness of breath. He even landed in the ER one night because the coughing was so bad. They did a nasal swab which ruled out influenza. And Howard has had troubles with asthma and breathing ever since. A positive result won’t change many of our behaviors, antibodies =/= immunity. But it is information. We like having information.

The weather has been beautiful the past few days. It is my perfect weather. Comfortable to sit outside with the sun feeling pleasantly warm on me.

I wonder how much all this reopening will do to save businesses. Consumer behavior remains changed and regulations have changed. Some businesses simply can’t thrive in the current circumstances. I know that my purchasing and living behaviors have changed. Some of the changes I’d like to keep for a long time to come. I suspect others will also have permanent shifts. Perspective and priorities are different now.

I tried to bring these thoughts together into a coherent post, but I guess today is just scattered.

Today’s Shifting World

It continues to be fascinating to me what things are available at the grocery stores and which are in short supply. For some reason this week the case full of fancy cheeses was half empty. After two weeks of warnings in the news about disruptions to the meat supply chain, I’m beginning to see the meat cases empty out. Flour and yeast are back in stock, though not fully stocked. I’ve seen reports in the news about altercations between store staff who ask people to wear masks and people who refuse them. I’ve never witnessed any such thing. About half of the customers are wearing masks and everyone is polite about giving each other space. Most of the stores I frequent have added plastic shields at the check out counter. Combined with my mask and the employee’s mask, I’m having to repeat myself more often or to ask for the clerk to repeat something. Lip reading to augment hearing is no longer a thing I can do. It hasn’t been much of a problem, but it could be if I were tired and having trouble with auditory processing that day.

I have a neighbor who’s job is involved with tools for hospital administration. He says he’s seen significant shifts in how hospitals are run. He has trouble getting in touch with his New York contacts because they’re all busy, yet in other areas there are hospitals which are slowly going bankrupt because all non-critical services have been canceled. High end hospitals which mostly catered to plastic surgery are facing dire financial situations. I don’t feel badly for the celebrities who have to wait for their beauty treatments, but I do feel badly for the hospital staff who are just regular people trying to make a living.

I asked my bishop (who is also my neighbor) if he’s seen a change in charitable needs within our ward. He didn’t give me any details, but told me yes he’s seeing big pattern shifts in who needs to rely on the social safety net provided by our church. It’s probably time for me to increase fast offerings since those funds never leave the neighborhood. They’re re-distributed right here and some of my neighbors need help. Then the bishop looked me in the eye and asked if we need help. I told him we’re okay for now, which we are. He nodded, but said be sure to speak up if things get hard down the line.

That’s the part I need to remember. For all the angry people in the news and on social media, all the people vehemently shouting for staying home or opening up. My town and neighborhood is full of people who are quietly trying to make the best decisions they can for their families, and who are quietly helping and supporting each other. Everyone I talk to acknowledges the strangeness of our situation. Know one knows what the long term outcomes will be for any of us. So we try to be kind. That is all we can do really while we watch the world shift around us and try to keep our balance as the shifts continue.

Long Slow Remodel Week 61

My last report on our long slow remodel was April 24, 2019. We didn’t intend to put the project on hiatus for more than a year, but flooding damage and emergency repairs took over all available time and funds. I finally have time to get back to improving our kitchen. It starts with the purchase of cabinets and turning my garage into a workshop again.

Getting the boxes finished only took about a week. I then set them up the way they’ll go into my kitchen so I could start visualizing.

It is a little hard to see surrounded by the jumble of garage, but this is the plan on the wall where these cabinets will go.

Next I’m working on the doors and drawer fronts. Sanding those smooth is the next step. Then I can move onward to the staining and varnishing. Once the cabinets are completed, the project hits a pause again until I can fund the flooring which needs to go underneath them.

Great-Grandma’s Hands

I remember my great-grandmother’s hands. The woman herself I hardly knew because by the time I was aware of her, she was simply a quiet presence in the corner of the trailer home where we would stop by and visit. For the most part my job as a child was to greet her when we arrived and then to occupy myself, quietly, elsewhere while the adults visited. Yet her skin fascinated me. She was the only person I knew who had that many wrinkles. There was one day when I was left un-attended near her and I touched the skin on her hands. It slid across the bones and tendons underneath. I discovered that if I gently pinched it and pulled it upward, the pinched portion would stay put as a miniature ridge on the back of her hand. That was the point at which some other adult realized what I was doing and began to scold me into stopping. Great-grandma told that other adult it was fine, she didn’t mind. So sometimes when I visited, touched the skin on her hands and was amazed at how translucent it was and how loosely it was attached to the rest of her.

The other day the skin on the back of my hands was so dry from all the frequent hand washing, that when I pinched it, a small ridge stayed put for several seconds before sliding back into place. I noticed this, and the increasing accumulation of wrinkles. Some day it will be my skin which slides loosely across my bones. I put lotion on my hands and the skin sprang back into place for now. The skin on my hands has adapted to the increased washing. Redness, cracking, and wrinkling have subsided. Yet there is still a texture difference between the skin on my hands and the skin on my arms. Each portion of skin adapted to its regular use. The older I get, the more my body bears the marks of how I’ve used it.

Negative Space

When I studied art history in college, the teacher devoted a portion of lecture to discussing negative space. When we are looking at an image, it is the human tendency to look at what is being depicted. In Hokusai’s Great Wave, our eye takes in the wave and the distant mountain.

Yet we’re only able to focus on the wave because of what isn’t in the painting. Instead of filling the image with trees, more waves, a few birds, the artist instead gives us a void. It is the space around the focal points which give the painting it’s tension and meaning. Because of the space, we feel that the wave is going to come crashing down. This is the negative space.

One of the places where negative space is most apparent to me is in love story lines in television or movies. There is often a moment when the two people are close, sometimes looking at each other, sometimes not. But I become very aware of the space in between these two people and of my desire for them to close the gap. When they touch, or kiss, I feel a relief. The tension is gone and I can relax with the connection complete. This, of course, is why so many romantic story lines end up oscillating in “Will they or won’t they.” The desire to watch people connect keeps the audience showing up, waiting for that moment when everything is okay again.

Any time I venture out into the world right now, I am very aware of the spaces between me and other people. We are all like magnets with similar poles, pushed away from each other by an invisible force. I change my path through the store so that I do not impinge on another person’s six foot space. I appreciate the space with strangers, but with those I love, the ones I want to connect with, the space has become painful. I’m not sure whether talking on the phone with people I miss makes missing them easier or harder. I suspect that being socially distanced in the same place would just make us more aware of the space that should be maintained. The space definitely feels negative. We’re all trapped in that moment of not-quite-connecting. The moment of highest tension. And there is no relief in sight.

Garden Evening

The garden behind my house smells of lilacs and wisteria.

All the purples of spring carried through the air to where I sit.

The sky overhead has gone cloudy, perhaps it will rain later.

The sounds around me are a mix of human engines and the chirps of birds. A saw, a weed whacker, an air conditioner, a horn, and also a robin, some doves, a far-off crow. I glance over my back wall and laugh to see that the business on the other side has parked a mobile billboard where it can peer disapprovingly at me.

A distant rumble of thunder suggests that rain is coming sooner rather than later. I’m glad for the rumble and the rain. Summer rain is among my favorite things. My garden feels of summer though we’re barely mid-spring. The weather is spring, but I’m in the head space of summer where long days only have the structure that I give to them. The lawn has begun to have dry spots. I’ll need to readjust the sprinklers.

Our gargoyle Winston sits in one of the dry spots. He’s been a resident of our garden for the past twenty years. He acquired his solar light only last year. He has a lady bug rock painted by my mother to keep him company.

The red bistro table and chairs where I sit are also newer. I don’t use them nearly as often as I should. They lend brightness to my space and my heart.

The wind picks up and tiny maple flowers fall from the tree like rain. Rumbles grow louder and the first drops of real rain hit me. My old lady kitty informs me it is time to go inside now.

While my young gentleman kitty would very much like to join the outdoor adventures.

Still I sit as rain drops accumulate on my arms and my page. I’m prolonging this outdoor moment before I retreat to the safe interiors of my home. Distant lightning flashes and thunder rolls loud. The wind is lively around me, tossing loose strands of hair into my face and out of it again. Petals from pear blossoms land in my lap, carried across the length of the lawn.
Rain comes in earnest now and a sharp flash of lightning comes with a crack of thunder. Time to go inside.

Notes From Today

Last night I wrote a very long journal entry where the subject changed every two sentences. My head is so very full of far too many thoughts. So today I switched off. I slept late thus causing my son to miss his video therapy appointment (we rescheduled) and I missed a phone call from my daughter who I would very much have enjoyed visiting with. I stayed off of the internet except to answer emails and a brief check-in on headlines to see if the world shifted again without notice. It didn’t this time, which is nice I suppose. I spent a little bit of time weeding then spent more time staining the cabinets which are destined to go into my kitchen.
Cabinets before:

Cabinets ready for varnish:

This evening I made risotto for the first time, which requires stirring constantly for 20-30 minutes. I didn’t feel particularly energetic or creative. Most of the things I did were hands-on work with very little thinking required.

My state has decided to begin relaxing restrictions starting this Friday. It changes nothing for me and my family. Our restrictions are mandated by the virus, not the government. Incidence of the virus is low in my area, but the consequences for catching it are potentially high.

Finding the Point

For several days now I’ve been fighting a pervasive feeling of pointlessness. Every activity I do requires an act of willpower to get over the “why bother” roadblock. This morning as I contemplated going out for the week’s groceries, I found myself dreading the trip. In the past weeks getting groceries was an interesting challenge in resource acquisition, yet today I did not want to go. I went, of course, because we need food options for the next week. While I was out, a realization shook loose. The portion of my brain which likes to organize, predict, and plan has been functioning on overdrive. This is why grocery shopping has been so interesting to me for the past weeks. Sometime in the past week it became apparent to my subconscious that all my planning, organizing, bread making, and preparations have completely failed to conquer the pandemic. I don’t get to have a Mission Accomplished moment where all my preparations saved us all. Without that emotional reward for completion, a part of my mind did the equivalent of flouncing to her room to sulk. If I don’t get to triumph over pandemic, then why try at all?

Dragged out into the light, this particular brain loop is obviously ridiculous. Many emotional tangles are. Seeing it clearly has already helped make it begin to dissipate. I’m feeling better after having returned to my house. A phone call with a business partner about a potential project also helps. I am reminded that even while physically isolating, I should be expending effort in emotional connection. Collaborative projects help others as much as they help me. The answer to “why bother” is the same as it always has been. People and creations can exist for their own sake even if they never become triumphs. Even if they’re never “completed.” Even if they are clumsy at what they’re trying to accomplish. Things don’t have to have a point to be worthwhile.

Bread

Over the weekend I baked six loaves of bread in three batches. The first was begun on Friday, baked on Saturday. It ended up a sourdough and rye hockey puck. The second batch was plain white bread on Sunday. The third I began yesterday and is currently rising in loaf pans. I’ll bake it in the next hour to make two sourdough loaves. Over two days I did a total of an hour and a half of kneading. My arms are sore. I’ve been pondering why the restrictions of pandemic have prompted bread baking. I do find it reassuring to see that I can take raw ingredients and turn them into something edible. If food supply chains begin to break, easy to store and transport ingredients will be more available than complex pre-made foods. A successfully baked loaf of bread tells me I can survive whatever is coming. There are so many flaws in this causal connection it is laughable, yet this is what is happening on an instinctual level.

When the Israelites were in the wilderness wandering with Moses, there was a span of time where they consumed manna. This was a “bread” that “fell from heaven” each morning and the people collected only what they needed to eat that day. If they collected more than they needed it spoiled before the next morning. Except on the day before sabbath when two days of eating were collected. Many a scholar and scientist has tried to explain (or explain away) the phenomenon described in scripture. I’m less interested in the logistics of the manna showing up than I am in how this daily allotment of resources shaped the people. Scripture says they survived on manna for forty years. They spent all of that time learning to expect food to arrive, and learning not to try to gather and store. They had to take each day individually with no reserve against illness or disaster. I assume that when one person fell ill, others gathered to feed that person. For a people who were nomadic and had to carry everything with them as they moved, this focus on today makes sense. I’ve heard it posited that the Israelites needed this wilderness time to re-learn how to be free people. The generations who had been slaves needed to pass on. Yet I wonder, when they stopped wandering, when the manna stopped, were another forty years required for them to reshape their culture again?

I see the idea posted in a dozen different memes, tweets, blog posts, and articles. It is the idea that during this worldwide crisis we should, as individuals, not spend too much energy thinking very far ahead. I’ve even expressed this thought myself on more than one occasion. It is an important survival mode. Solve today’s problems with today’s resources and leave tomorrows problems for later. I’m in that mode. Each morning lands with its allotment of manna, its bundle of tasks for the day, emotions, energy, brain space, and physical resources in my house. Sometimes the tasks have me acquiring physical resources, other times expending them. Sometimes the emotions flood everything else and the whole day feels like a trip through the Swamps of Sadness. Sometimes I have space to think and wonder how this survival mode is shaping me, shaping my family, shaping the world at large. The longer survival mode lasts, the more it will permanently alter the people who lived through it.

There are advantages to living in the now. This is why it is often taught as a meditation practice. Control over our lives is always tenuous at best and people are happier when they make peace with that reality. Yet it is one thing to consciously choose to relinquish the attempt to control and a different thing to have control (or the illusion of it) ripped from one’s hands. I imagine an Israelite woman pausing in her morning gathering of manna for her day to look at the vast wilderness all around her. Does she open her heart and accept that wilderness, or does she hurry back to her tent to feel safe again? I know I’ve done both, depends on the day. Feelings of safety are definitely one of the things which are in short supply. Sometimes they’re available, other times not. This past weekend I felt like that woman staring out at the wilderness and wondering what happens if one morning the manna just isn’t there. The perilousness of existence loomed large. Which is probably why I focused my eyes on kneading bread.

Give us this day our daily bread. When Christ spoke those words in his sermon on the mount, he was deliberately reminding his Jewish audience of their Israelites-in-the-wilderness heritage. “Daily bread” had deep cultural significance. Daily bread is manna, the gift from heaven that arrives just when it is needed and vanishes when not. Give us this day the things we will need to conquer the challenges of this day.

Because my mind is incapable of seeing a single facet of any thought, as I’ve been writing all of the above I’ve had a running commentary about the importance of planning ahead and being prepared. I’m waxing philosophical about manna and the needs of each individual day, but I’ve been building up my food supplies deliberately so we can hard quarantine for weeks without going hungry. That is the opposite of manna philosophy. It is deliberately seeking a control lever on the world, something concrete I can do to increase my family’s chance of survival. I suppose it is the result of the culture I’ve been raised inside: Exercise faith, rely on God for all things, but also store a year’s worth of food. I’m nowhere near a year’s storage of food, and I’m in a similar state with my attempts to exercise faith and rely on God.

The bread is in the oven now. Hopefully this pair of loaves will be light and fluffy. If they are, some part of me will relax a little because I managed to supply a bit of daily bread. It is not rational, but it is real. As for the rest of this day, I’ve got my allotment of tasks and resources. Hopefully the latter is sufficient to meet the needs of the former.