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The Pace Speeds Up

September seems to be skittering away from me. I’m not exactly sure how. Somehow my lists and thoughts have returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity. I don’t know yet whether this is an enduring shift or if I’m simply seeing a natural spike of activity around the onset of school season. I do know that I’m not being pulled up several times per day to process the experience of living through a pandemic. All of that just folds into my life right along with grocery shopping and making sure that my kid has a ride to their appointment. I’m having trouble figuring out what caused the slowdown in events and what has caused things to speed up again. Why did life feel paused for five months and why has that feeling of pause gone away?

We’re still limiting our social interactions. My daughter and her husband are the only visitors at our house. We’ve had workmen in wearing masks on a couple of occasions. We’re still doing our church worship at home with just the residents of our house. Groceries happen once per week, though I do confess that trips to home improvement stores happened more often this past month. I ship packages twice per week. We’ve gone to the doctor for necessary appointments. All the rest is still canceled. No conferences, no movies, no eating out, no social gatherings. So the physical movements of our lives are only a little bit different from the first shutdowns in March.

I think the difference is in the deadlines. I’ve got a list of gardening and house tasks I need to accomplish before the weather gets cold. I can feel the weight of our overdue Kickstarter that Howard is working to complete. I can see the edge of our financial resources and the work we need to do in order to make sure that funds continue to arrive before bills. I’ve a list of tasks for me to do in order to set up my consulting business. (Consultant for creator-owned small businesses, with an emphasis on writers and artists.) For several months all the deadlines were paused, everyone understood when things were late and that we were all adapting to a new situation. Now it feels like we’re all expected to just get on with things and find ways to hit the deadlines, because businesses have opened back up and life can’t be paused forever.

Or maybe the difference is just in me. But I’m back to feeling like I need to slow life down. At least I managed to hit one deadline only a little bit late. I sent out my monthly newsletter today. Tomorrow I have to start work on the Hypernode media (Schlock Mercenary) newsletter.

Fires and Embers

I grew up in the California Bay area. My parents still live there. I’ve seen photos from today and I know the sky is not supposed to be red like Mars. Fires have filled the sky with ash. My parent’s home is safe because they live in the middle of a town. It isn’t likely to burn, though there was a period where they were on alert to be evacuated for air quality issues. But as I was reading about fires and locations, I recognized another set of landmarks. I looked at the fire maps and my Grandma’s house is inside the “affected area.” Grandma is five years gone, and we sold the house more than a year ago. We have no legal tie to that property anymore. In fact it’s likely that the house no longer exists as the buyer probably intended to demolish it. Yet my heart twinges that a fire might have gone through there. I quick search doesn’t clarify if “affected area” means smoke, evacuation, or flames. It could be any or all. I am glad that we never had to help Grandma evacuate from her home. I am glad that my loved ones can feel sad twinges from places of safety. Yet I am reminded of how much I love that house and how I continue to be sad that it (needfully) passed from our hands and is gone. Fire burning through the area reminds me of the loss and adds a new layer to it because the trees, stores, and neighborhood may also be gone now.

Utah is also smokey today. We have our own fires that are burning, as we do every summer. None of them are particularly bad right now, but they could be. All it takes is a dry wind to whip up the embers and send a fire racing again. We had hurricane-force winds just two days ago which knocked over trees and semi trucks. About 90,000 people are still without power a full two days later. Fortunately the winds don’t seem to have sent any currently burning fires further out of control.

I think about fires and embers as I do my daily check in on the pandemic numbers in my area. The graphs for my state seem fairly steady, but the county-level numbers are telling me a different story. Utah County used to account for about 1/4 of the daily increase in cases. Now it is hovering just below 1/2. My county has two universities which started in person classes in the past two weeks. All of the elementary, junior high, and high schools began in-person classes three weeks ago. Utah county does not have a mask mandate. I’ve been watching carefully, and I think we’re about to see a spike in cases. How high a spike I don’t know. I also don’t know how quickly local officials will take steps to curb the spread or how effectively they’ll do it. (My guesses are not quickly and not effectively.) Suppressing a fire early is the difference between a burned field and a named forest fire. I do not want to have to grieve for people lost and lives permanently altered by out-of-control pandemic.

I can’t stop the forest fires. I can’t stop the embers of pandemic. All I can do is stay in my house and try to distract myself with projects. Yet underneath the satisfaction of working to make my house nicer, is a thread of thought about the impermanence of all things and how anything I create could be taken or destroyed in a way that I’m powerless to prevent. When those thoughts get loud, I remind myself that even if my physical creation is destroyed, the memory of making it will stay with me forever. Making is worthwhile even if the result is impermanent.

Or so I try to remember, when I step out doors and breathe the smell of forest fires in the air.

Instead of Words

Sometimes the words escape me. I sit down feeling that I want to write, knowing I have thoughts to sort into words, yet the words themselves are just outside my reach. I am left with an empty white space on my screen, too tired to chase after the words. So I close my computer and let them go. I’m trying to be better about resting when I am tired rather than pushing to get things done. However I notice the accumulation of days with unwritten words. It is a symptom and the point of symptoms is to provide information about the status of the system. I’ve been a little bit broken this past week. The world felt heavy and I felt a little under the weather. Though, ironically, our weather has been nothing but sunny. We haven’t had a solid rain since mid-July and I find myself longing for one, water to clear the air and my head.

Instead of words, I place bricks in a pattern on top of sand that I smoothed on top of gravel that I poured in a hole that I dug. The pattern is nearly complete, patio finished. The work has been slow because I was making sure I rested when tired. The next pieces for my outdoor space will require funds instead of labor, so they’ll have to wait a while.

Instead of words I watch the inhabitants of my house, holding their moods and needs in my head. They are adults and custodians of their own thoughts, but the habit of tending flows strongly through me. I’m not sure how much of it I should attempt to unlearn. Some definitely, but not all. To stop care-taking would be to stop being myself and the world needs more care-taking not less. Despite that, I still worry that I do too much.

Instead of words I scroll through news feeds and posts. I scroll past the point of being informed, past catching up with people I love who are separated from me. I end my scroll and step away yet an hour, two hours, three hours later I am scrolling again. The day has not changed. There hasn’t been time for news to accumulate, but I check again anyway because somehow I feel like it has been enough time and something new will be there. I formulate plans for stopping the doomscroll, but when I am tired I forget them.

Instead of words I ship packages, fold laundry, answer email, wash dishes, write lists, buy groceries. My mind fills with the administrivia of keeping a household running.

Words are not my whole life, but they are how I make sense of the life that I have. I need to rearrange so that sometimes I am writing words and all those other things land in the “instead of” column.

Considering Before Clicking

I have a new practice that I’m trying out. When I see a link that I want to click on and read the article (or meme, or post) I pause and close my eyes for a moment to consider the following:

Do I really need this information, or am I just chasing input (IE Doomscrolling)

Will reading this thing add value to my day

Am I reading simply to confirm an opinion I already have, to gather evidence for “my side.”

Are there better, non-clickbait, ways for me to learn about this topic

A dozen times today I did the pause and decided not to read the thing. At least a dozen times more I forgot to pause, or I read the thing anyway despite the pause, which is why I deliberately chose the word “practice” to describe this new behavior I’m trying to teach myself. I’m not good at it yet. But I do think that working on this practice, like a meditation practice, will help my brain be less full of noise. It is worth trying.

Upside Down Summer Days

In the summer my days are upside down. Mornings are when I’m most able to be mentally focused on complex tasks. It is when I can tear through a pile of emails and answer them all. It is when I can sit down with a book design project and really get into the flow of it. It is when I can find the words of a scene, or write a blog post, or solve a plot problem. Mornings are my best thinking time. Afternoons are better devoted to tasks that are physical or rote. The type of work which just needs me to put in the time without requiring much available brain. Because I have less brain available in the afternoon. I used it all up in the morning. However the summer weather works against me. Gardening and home renovation projects are perfect for my afternoon brain, however afternoon temperatures in August in Utah are 95 degrees. Much too hot for me to engage in physical labor outdoors or in the garage. If I want to work on my patio project, it has to be the first thing I do in the day. If I want to stain trim, I have to get it done before the sun heats up the garage. These soothing low-brain tasks end up using time and energy during my best braining hours. This leaves me trying to do thinky tasks in the afternoons when thinking is like slogging uphill through mud.

(Amusing side note, my spell checker objects to the word thinky but not the word braining. Even though I know that both are me abusing standard usage.)

This upside-downness of summer is contributing to my restlessness these past few weeks. It wasn’t so bad in June and July because the pace of life was still pandemic slow. Days were long and I ended up with hours for my thoughts to spool slowly. The past few weeks have not been slow. We’ve had more store orders, more customer support, more home improvement work, more appointments, more school prep, more paperwork to never have to deal with school again, then even more appointments to dive into GED prep. On top of all that other more-ness, I’ve been doing work to update my websites in preparation for some new ventures. New ventures require emotional energy for me to believe in myself enough to launch them. The end result is that I am greatly looking forward to the weather cooling off a bit so I can put my low-brain activities back into the afternoon where they belong.

Back to School

I’d stopped noticing the effects of pandemic life on a daily basis. I’d stopped being alerted to changes at the grocery store, in traffic patterns, in social media. I suppose that means I’d achieved an equilibrium of some sort, perhaps even a “new normal.” Today it all came slamming back. Today is the first day of school for kids in my school district. The grocery stores were bustling at 8:30am instead of empty because parents stopped by on the way back from dropping kids at school. I may have to adjust my shopping schedule to not have to dodge people in the aisles. The familiar patterns of my household have to shift to accommodate the fact that one family member is schooling. I am sad / afraid that people will get sick, while simultaneously not quite seeing what the big deal is about, while logically knowing that whether or not things feel normal/ safe I have a social responsibility to take action to prevent possible spread of illness. In some ways I’m feeling the way that I did back in March. Like all the feelings were stored in a cupboard in my brain right beside the back-to-school habits.

Right now Utah is experiencing a decline in Covid 19 cases. We’re not quite down to the levels we had in March and April, but the trend is that direction. But elementary, junior high, and high schools all welcomed students onto campus today. Next week the university in my town welcomes students on campus. The week after that the university in the adjoining town starts on campus classes. Given that combination of things, I don’t believe the decline will continue. Between the pandemic spike I expect to watch unfold in real time, and the increasing social noise because of the election, I’m going to have to reinstate (or invent) some mental health strategies. For today: I’m staining trim pieces for my pantry wall and I’m trying not to impulse spend on all the things.

The Feelings of Today

So, somehow I didn’t realize exactly how expensive kitchen counter tops are. I thought the cabinetry was the biggest expense followed by flooring. And I’d managed to bring the cost of cabinets down by a lot. I had that stacked exactly upside down. This is unfortunate because every type of countertop I’m willing to consider is outside my skill set. Today I gulped and started the process of purchasing the counter top for the pantry wall. Today I also revised my estimate for finishing the rest of the kitchen much further out because the cost of those counter tops have to be saved up for. That’s the part which makes me saddest, the delay.

Stacked on top of the sadness because expense and delay, is a thick layer of guilt. The fact that we can put any resources at all into kitchen remodeling is evidence of a level of financial stability that many people do not have. Especially right now. Even in my own head, to allow myself to improve my home, I have to do everything I can to reduce costs and make sure I salvage materials and pass them on freely to someone else. Hardwood flooring and old cabinets will both be donated rather than dumped. I find it hard to let myself just spend resources making my spaces nicer simply because I want them nicer.

The sadness and guilt are sprinkled with a fine layer of fatigue because my sleeping has been off kilter the past few days. All of it rests on a bedrock of anxiety about the state of the country, the post office, the pandemic, and impending school year. My head is noisy today. The best thing for it is to get some sleep and have a different day tomorrow.

School Decisions

Back to School shopping looks different this year

So many decisions are difficult this year. More than that, we are faced with difficult decisions on topics that didn’t require decisions last year or any of the years before that. One of these difficult decisions is the one parents have to make about sending their kids to school. Everyone has opinions. Many people are very adamant about theirs being correct and would like mandates requiring that their preferences be made the rule for every child and family. I’ve felt the pull of that myself, the fearful fury of “why can’t they see how stupid they’re being?” The problem is that each individual family has dozens (or hundreds) of variables that may not be visible from the outside. The families have to weigh all of those variables and try to chart the best course for their children through a terrain where all the paths are perilous. I’ve heard of parents who are oblivious and unconcerned about the pandemic, but I’ve not actually met any. All the parents I know have been struggling and weighing their choices. Some have landed on homeschooling, others will be sending their kids to classrooms. All of their decisions have been carefully considered. All of them are afraid of the consequences of the choice that they’ve made.

The thing that frustrates me is that it didn’t have to be this hard. In 1983 Salt Lake City Utah had a spring flood so bad that a sandbagged river was created through the streets of down town. It took a massive emergency effort to control the water and limit the damage it did. In 2011 the snow pack and spring flood conditions were nearly identical to 1983, but there was not a river through down town because millions had been spent installing flood pumps and overflow areas. Advance planning meant that people’s homes and businesses were safe from damage. Right now school administrators, teachers, and parents are frantically trying to figure out where to place the sandbags because the flood might be on its way and there aren’t any pumps or overflow areas in place. No amount of local sandbag stacking can do the work of advance planning. Parents, teachers, and kids are left in a situation where none of the available choices are good ones.

I’ve only got one school age kid. This is his senior year. Fortunately he’s completely uninterested in most of the trappings that typical teenagers want. He won’t care about canceled school dances or missed social events. He’s completely indifferent to a graduation ceremony. His indifference will make the coming year emotionally easier, because I expect to see most of those things continue to be canceled. Next spring’s graduations will look like the ones we had this past spring. The thing he does care about is having teachers to interact with, having a place to go where there are things to learn, and having access to a library of books. All of the things he cares about are easier to accomplish if he is in the classroom. I feel strongly that packing 30 kids into a classroom isn’t in the best public interest even in non-pandemic times. If he were at a school which planned full classrooms, our choice would be a clear “no.” With his smaller, alternative school that only has about 6 kids to a class… there are additional variables to weigh. The choices are not easy. Not for us, not for the staff at his school who work with kids who have been tossed into their hands as a last resort. These teachers watched kids slip through giant cracks when everything moved online. My kid was one of the ones who vanished in the cracks despite their best efforts and mine.

It is all experimental. Every district plan, every classroom plan, every family plan. None of us knows what will work and what won’t. Every plan is good for some people and bad for others. This was always true, of course, but now we see it all differently. We’ll muddle through, aborting some experiments, adjusting others. After the flood is over, we then need to spend time, effort, and money putting structures into place so that the next time we have a flood (be it pandemic or some other thing) life can continue undisrupted.

Efficiency and Stress

Yesterday and today I was completely booked. Task followed appointment followed task with very little time to reset in between. That used to be normal, but it hasn’t been my experience for months. It did not take long for me to feel a bit frazzled. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but I could feel the stress in my body as extra resources went into keeping track of what came next and making sure I completed each thing before task switching. Yet I remember having far busier days. I remember the adrenaline feeling of having dozens of things to do and getting them all done. The key words here are “stress” and “adrenaline.” They are hugely important ways that the body shifts to manage whatever life throws at us, but they’re designed for short sprints, not long haul marathons. The low level of stress I felt in my body today was constant in my pre-pandemic life. It was the reason I kept talking about needing to slow my life down, find spaces.

I don’t want to keep the pandemic, nor the barrier it places between people and many of the things we want/need to do. Yet I feel like I gained something from having long empty days. Those long days often were full of anxiety, fear, and thinking. I frequently felt overwhelmed with adapting and the state of the world in general. Yet those stresses felt different in my mind and heart than this thing-after-thing stress. I’ve just now realized that efficiency is a high-energy state. In order to run anything efficiently, energy needs to be spent on maintaining optimization. If I always try to organize my life efficiently, I will run myself ragged, and I will miss out on the serendipitous benefits that come from natural flow. Those long pandemic days let me experience life sans efficiency. I moved through my days mostly without task lists or schedules. I learned that motivation can exist without deadline pressure.

Life is shifting here at Chez Tayler. With Howard’s schedule no longer driven by the daily comic, I’m able to step back and let Howard handle more of his own admin tasks. Perhaps some of the house admin tasks will also shift to him. We don’t know yet. We are both trying to be conscious about what patterns we settle into. As we launch on new creative projects, there are going to be times when I need to be in full project manager mode. I’m going to have days like the past two, where I need to task switch and move efficiently. However I also want to make sure that not all of my days are run that way. I like high energy creative work and I need to have unstructured contemplative time. Having that framework in mind is good as we’re establishing life post-Schlock Mercenary, mid-pandemic, and pre-whatever comes next.

Learning to Rest

A thing that I am slowly learning how to do is recognize how fatigue feels in my body and my heart. Physical fatigue after a physical exertion is fairly easy to identify, but most of us are trained to ignore emotional/psychological fatigue. This is the natural result of a society which admires and praises productivity. There are constant rewards for getting things done, so it is easy to just push and push and push without rest. Because the rewards do give us a surge of endorphins, which grants us additional energy to do more things. However no amount of endorphins can do the fully restorative work of actually resting.

This morning I had a day stretching out ahead of me and nothing on the calendar. I could have looked at my long to-do list and filled the day with tasks. Sometimes that is exactly what I like do when I encounter empty time. This morning I was having trouble wanting to tackle any of the things. This is a subtle sign of fatigue, because I like my projects, I want to work on my projects and complete them. If I’m instead avoiding picking them up, then that tells me something is off in my mind and heart. Sometimes fear is throwing me off and preventing me from engaging with a project. This is frequently the case with my fiction writing. Today it was simply fatigue. I’d had a week full of things and I need some time resting from the things so that I can be glad to do them again on Monday. This is the purpose of having weekends, to take time off from working.

So I’m having a Saturday. I’ve done a few tasks because they landed in front of me and I had desire/energy to do them. The rest I’ve set aside. On Monday I’ll be back to focusing and getting things done. Starting with shipping packages. The end of the comic prompted many people to buy things in the store. (Thank you!)