We’re having a rainy day. It is unusual for Utah to have a day where clouds stay over head and rain happens more or less all day. Usually a storm blows through and we’re back to sunny in only an hour or two. Somehow this storm is lending a sense of calm to my heart. The rain seems to soften the world and makes looking out windows more interesting. Combine that with it being Sunday and me trying to stay off of social media for the weekend, and I’m less anxious today than I have been for a week. On Monday I’ll pick up the load and participate in the world again. But this Sunday is a day of rest.
Life since March has been like standing in the surf on a northern California beach. (The type of beach I’m most familiar with.) Sometimes I’m ankle deep, squishing my toes in the sand and contemplating the horizon. Sometimes I’m knee deep and feeling pulled one direction or another. Sometimes I’m waist deep, watching another wave coming and thinking I should run for shore. Then there are the waves the smack into me unexpectedly and knock me off my feet. Every time I think I’ve found a life rhythm, something shifts and I have to adjust again.
The days were all feeling long and empty, but then my business brain kicked back into gear and I had a slew of small administrative tasks again. The 20th anniversary of Schlock Mercenary is next week and I scrambled a bit to prepare new merchandise to launch in celebration. Along with that I was able to knock out some tasks related to Kickstarter fulfillment. This ran in parallel to the weeks of protests and uproar around policing and race. The result was that the days still felt long, but they also felt full of things.
My emotional state has been like waves as well. Grief over pandemic would crash to shore, but before the wave could recede it would be crashed over by grief about all the emotional pain on display at the protests. That would be crashed over by fears and grief relating to Howard’s health. Which would be crashed by the news about a spike in Covid cases in Utah. Wave upon wave upon wave, so I can’t be sure where one ended and the next began. Mixed in with the waves would be the small joyful things, like sand birds dancing in the surf to find treasures and snacks.
Today I decided to consciously step back from the surf. I’ve parked myself further up the beach where I’ll still see the waves, but not be directly impacted by them. I’m glad to reach a point where this retreat is possible. I’m glad the protests have become less confrontational. I’m glad that cities everywhere are beginning to discuss how to re-adjust their policing strategies. I’m glad that Howard’s pulmonary function test ruled out the scariest options, though frustrated to still not have definitive answers. (The next experiment is for Howard to finish out Schlock Mercenary and once he doesn’t have daily comic updates, to put his health first in his schedule rather than work being perpetually first. ) The most concrete manifestion of parking further up the beach is that I’m going to spend less time doom scrolling today. Limit my social media and news checking, try to focus on doing some writing and house tending instead.
Later today I’ll check in on the pandemic numbers for my state. There was a vote earlier this week to move the state into green status. The next day the Utah Department of Health advised against that. The decision will be made today. No matter what color the state chooses, my household is keeping our current set of patterns. The same patterns which we’ve had for several months now.
The thing I have to remember is that I can’t control the shape of the waves, when they hit, or how fast they recede. Emotions come, news cycles arrive, other people make decisions. I can’t control any of that, but I can work to keep myself safely on the shore where they don’t knock me down.
Today in Houston a group of urban riders on horseback joined the Black Lives Matter protest there. They were fifteen or twenty black people mounted on beautiful horses. (I love horses. They’re all beautiful.) When I watched the clip I had a moment of surprise at seeing black people on horseback. This is racism in my brain: that moment of surprise before I self corrected and told myself that of course black people ride horses. Why shouldn’t they? Yet that pause in my comprehension shows that I have stereotypes in my head. We all do. It is the work of a lifetime to discover them and counter them. After that moment of surprise I did a bit of reading and learned about the history of black cowboys which has been erased from public awareness because they were not included in popular media and cowboy mythos. This is racism: where a people’s contribution to the history of this country is erased by hundreds and thousands of individual decisions not to include them.
Racism lives in all our heads. I do my best to catch mine and correct it before anyone else sees it or is affected by it. However, I’m not perfect. No one is. So there may come a day when someone calls me racist. In that moment I want to have the personal courage and humbleness to not react defensively. A person crying racist is like a person shouting “Ow!” when I step on their foot. I hurt them and it doesn’t matter if I meant to or not. My job is to apologize and step back, then learn better where to put my feet. It is possible that the person I hurt will not believe my corrections are sincere or sufficient. It is my job to not get defensive about that either. Instead I should take an additional step back and get some neutral opinions on whether there are further reparations I need to make for the damage done. “Neutral opinions” is not me going to my friends for reassurance that I’m an okay person. It is me finding perspective, which includes an evaluation of boundaries to protect myself as well as repair the damage done.
Social media and the news is very noisy about racism this week with the ongoing Black Lives Matter / George Floyd protests. We saw similar protests on a much smaller scale in 2014. I’m encouraged that the news reporting of these protests is far more nuanced. I’m encouraged that more white people are learning how to explain and understand racism. I’m hopeful that the two months of practice we’ve had thinking collectively because of the pandemic will transfer to the systemic racism in my country. The “All in this together” slogans should not just apply to quarantine and pandemic. The only way to stave off another great depression is to make sure that we take care of the economically disadvantaged and remove the obstacles that keep them poor. Racism has to be addressed as part of that because it is a silent and pervasive obstacle in our country.
Years ago I watched a friend at a convention telling people that he had a terminal illness with only about five years left. Over and over he would speak the news and then have to feel the person’s emotional reaction to that news. Over and over he comforted his friends about his own impending death. Because the experience was dramatic it stuck with me, but the same holds true on a less dramatic scale. Everywhere those black horse riders go, they likely encounter people like me: white folks who are surprised that they exist. Time after time they have to be patient while white people work through that surprise. This is a very common way that racism impacts people. I, as a white person, can go ride a horse and no one will question me. I can just enjoy my ride. The black horse rider likely ends up having conversations about their existence with random white people instead of just getting to ride. (Note: I’ve not actually talked to a black horseback rider about their experiences and because of what I’ve just pictured in my head, I probably never will get to because I don’t want to accost some random horse rider and contribute to the problem. If I have a friend who is black and who I discover likes to ride horses, then during a conversation where they choose volunteer information, I might get to hear about their experiences.)
I’m afraid I’ve rambled a bit in this post. It doesn’t have a cohesive thesis nor a firm call to action. My college English professor would send it back for a re-write. But I’m going to leave the ramble, because the work of confronting our own racism is messy and confusing. We will feel contradictory things. We will have dozens of thoughts. I know I’ve revised and re-revised my understanding of racism a lot in the past few years. I did a pile more thinking and revision in the past week. This week is extra challenging because my emotional bandwidth was already impacted because of Howard’s health and the pandemic. It is less important for me to do a pile of advocacy and reading all at once than it is for me to commit to spending time learning and advocating in small pieces, as I can, over the long haul. Racism will not go away when the protests subside, not unless people actively work to make it go away. Bit by bit, year after year.
I first wrote and posted this in November of 2016, but it is how I feel about the news from this week and the thoughts are important to reaffirm. Original post here.
Last winter I fell because of a patch of ice on my front walk. It was dark and cold. I didn’t see the ice before my foot landed on it. The result was giant bruises all over, and a couple of micro fractures in my hand and wrist. All of that is now a memory, healed up. But today I am thinking about the moment after the fall. I don’t remember the fall itself. I do remember a moment of disorientation “why am I here on the ground?” Then the pain hit. I was incoherent with it for at least a minute. All I could do was make a loud, distressed noise. It was pure instinct, crying out. My brain knew that, in my pain, the best way to summon help was to make noise. That first wave of pain passed in a minute or two. I was able to control the noises more. Then I was able to assess the damage, figure out how to stand up, get myself into the house, and begin to treat my injuries.
I wonder if there is a name for that moment when the pain hits. Doctors probably know it. Even if there isn’t a specific name, I know that emergency personnel are trained to handle it. People in that first blast of pain are not rational. They can’t be. The pain short circuits careful thought. What is left are survival strategies: howling into the darkness and lashing out at anything that might cause more harm.
I have been present when someone gets hurt. I’ve seen that moment of irrationality from the outside as well as felt it from the inside. I’ve seen someone pound the wall because they stubbed their toe, only to discover later that the damage to the hand is worse than the toe. I’ve heard people say hurtful things in the first flush of pain, things they would not ordinarily say. I’ve learned that it falls to those who aren’t hurt to help those that are. Part of helping is having compassion for that moment of yelling an flailing. No it doesn’t make sense. Often it isn’t productive. It can lead to further injury both to that person and others. Sometimes the flailing hits the helper so hard that the helper then has to manage their own pain for a time. In that first painful moment rationality and planning may not be possible.
All people experience pain in their own way and on their own schedule. One person may proceed to rationality in seconds while another requires minutes, hours, or even days. The severity of the injury also affects the recovery. In this too, everyone is different, a blow which one person shrugs off, can destroy another. I fell and had bruises. An older friend’s fall left her with three broken ribs and fractured arm. I was functional, if hurting, the next day. She was not back to normal for weeks.
Emotional pain is as real as physical pain. It can trigger the same neurochemicals and the same physiological reactions. An emotional blow can trigger the same irrational reaction as a physical one.
I am seeing a lot of irrational reactions to recent events. I’m seeing lots of lashing out. I hope that those who are not hurting can be kind to those who are. Give them space while the pain overwhelms them. Understand that they have to yell and lash out, they can’t not. Recognize that they may be overwhelmed for a lot longer than you think is reasonable. Depending upon the extent of their injury, they may be permanently different, even when that first irrational pain has passed. Pain changes people, changes perspectives. Have compassion for that too.
We have wounded. There is healing to do. There will be disagreements about how that healing should be accomplished. Those disagreements will cause new pain, new irrationality, new lashing out. So we must come back to compassion. Over and over again. Every time there is anger, fear, damage, we must return to compassion, empathy, kindness. It will be hard.
As we move out of that first pain, the strategies adapt. Then we must learn to live with the cognitive dissonance of having compassion for those who rail, howl, and fight against us, while not relinquishing our resolve to change the world for better. We must learn to hold tight to both resolution and to compassion for those who react in pain and fear to the changes we seek. This sort of compassion is exhausting, but it is necessary. Many people who seem like opponents could be allies with an application of compassion. There are true opponents out there, people who calmly and rationally choose things which hurt us. We’ll have more energy to oppose them if we can tell them apart from people who are reacting out of fear or pain.
I wish there were easy answers. I wish that there were one set of words that could provide healing to everyone. There isn’t. My words here will be healing to some and will make others angry. Both the person healed and the person angry have every right to feel as they do. Emotions are what they are. They should all be allowed. It is actions which must be controlled and managed. I do not control the feelings which show up, I have a responsibility to carefully choose my actions. Today I’m choosing to extend compassion toward people who are in the midst of pain and fear.
Today is hard for a number of reasons. National news is filled with people hurting each other and bad administrative responses. There are riots in Minnesota that make my heart hurt because I think people have every right to be angry and I wish that they hadn’t been hurt /trapped so badly that rioting seemed like the best option. I wish there were more funds and will for police departments to make sure that the demographics of the police force matches the demographics of the people they are in charge of. It isn’t a full solution, but it is a concrete and measurable step that can be taken. The president just pulled funding from the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic because he is unhappy that they didn’t respond how he wanted them to. That doesn’t feel like the right move to me, though I support investigation. My president also picked a fight with social media companies. Again, it is a national conversation we need to be having: what is the responsibilities of social media in deciding what information gets spread and what gets removed. Yet the worst possible framing for that discussion is to make it an angry, partisan argument.
Locally, we just had the biggest ever jump in new cases. Yesterday was the highest new-case count we’d ever had at 215, but that was in line with numbers we’ve had for a month. Today there were 343 new cases. Four days after Memorial Day where people had family parties, went to public places, went to restaurants, went to malls. There are still people who became infected over the weekend who don’t know it yet, and some wards will be having their first meetings in months this coming weekend. It feels like a potential one two punch that spirals the virus out of control locally.
Howard is having a reasonable breathing day today, but the past two days were bad. Every bad breathing day forces us to face that this is our normal for now. We have pulmonary function testing scheduled next week, but the results of that test could be anything from “Let’s order more tests” to “huh, that’s weird” to “here is a treatment plan so you can get better” to “here is a terrible, permanently-life-altering diagnosis.” Health related anxieties are running high. And there isn’t anything we can do other than wait for the test.
So with all the hard things, I’m staying away from the internet today. I’m finishing cabinets, and I plan to watch a movie with my people. Oh and I’m admitting out loud that things feel hard today. Because sometimes that happens.
I’ve been watching Good Bones on Hulu. It is a show about two women who buy dilapidated houses, salvage as much as they can, then gut and repair everything else. Frequently they tear houses down all the way to the studs. The process is only slightly less expensive than tearing down the house and building from scratch. I enjoy watching their process. While I watch, I think improvement thoughts about my own spaces. Even more important to me is listening to how the women talk about the houses. For them each house has intrinsic value that is worth saving, even if they have to replace rotted floor joists or entire roofs. My own house is in an ongoing process of renovation. The massive emergency disruptions of last summer have subsided and this summer will feature slow but steady kitchen progress. The progress is slow in part because I’m doing almost all the work myself, but also because I have to find funds to cover the next state. Currently the next thing to be funded is a big pile of flooring.
In the past weeks, as I’ve been finishing cabinets and weeding flower beds, I’ve also been thinking about my house and the land where it sits as a place. This is the small patch of earth over which I have stewardship. The work that I do to tend my house and garden has value because the house and garden have intrinsic value. I’m not talking about resale value. The price tag on this plot of land and structure is irrelevant. What matters is the shelter it gives to bodies and souls, the memories it housed, the laughter soaked into the walls and earth. I have friends who spent their quarantine in small apartments with little access to green space. My family has a house with enough rooms in it for us to separate when we wish, and a garden of green things we can walk out into. We are fortunate.
I appreciate this perspective because I so easily get caught up in the costs of everything. Houses are victims of entropy at every turn. Daily maintenance and attention are required just to make sure that the house doesn’t fall apart. If you catch the dripping sink, you don’t end up with a flood. If you stick down the curled up corner of wallpaper, it doesn’t tear. Of course some maintenance isn’t daily or minor. Last summer a third of our house was torn apart to repair a sewer line. Every time I turned around that summer there was another break or expense. At times I felt very exasperated with my house and the cost of everything in time, money, and stress. I was frantically trying to restore life back to normal without quite recognizing that the very shape of the experience meant that normal would be permanently different.
Perhaps that is why I knew back on March 11 when everything began to be canceled that the world would be forever different. I began shifting my efforts away from efficiency and productivity into preservation and sustainability. (Not just the environmentalism version of sustainability, thought that is part of it, but making sure I set up life systems that I could keep running in the long term with the new resource landscape.) I used to spend money for convenience, preserving time as a precious commodity. Now that all the days feel so much longer, I find less need to conserve time. In fact I’m finding huge benefits in using time on maintenance tasks. Which is probably why I’m finding a big emotional connection to two women on my screen who believe that damaged things are not only worth saving, they are beautiful. You just have to be willing to strip the house down to its bones and restructure. Quarantine has stripped my life down to its bones, and I’m beginning to see new ways I can put things together.
“Can we have waffles?” My son asked hopefully. Then he clarified that he didn’t just want waffles, he also hoped for enough waffles that there would be left overs to freeze. That way he could heat them up in the early morning hours before he heads off to work. I agreed that homemade waffles would be a good use for Sunday morning.
“Waffles!” the squeal of glee came from another of my kids who walked into the room just after I put the first cup of batter into the iron. They plunked themself at the counter to wait for the first hot-from-the-iron waffle. We discovered that we were short on the cheap corn-syrup based maple syrup, but we had plenty of the higher end real maple syrup. My kids tend to go for the cheap stuff because it is the one that has childhood nostalgia in it. I added syrup to the list for Tuesday’s grocery shopping.
The third kid in my house didn’t joyfully greet the waffles with words, however he did manage to appear in the kitchen just as one was coming out of the iron. Butter and syrup were applied. Waffles were consumed.
In the days when I had to plan meals out of self-defense (hungry children melt down in spectacular ways, so meal planning and insistence that they all eat was pure emotional survival as well as important care taking) waffles were a go-to Sunday meal. Along with quesadillas. They got tired of the quesadillas and one of my kids acquired an aversion to tortillas, but they all still enjoy the waffles. It is interesting the things which connect us to our pasts, spur us to tell each other stories about who we were, and connect us to each other. Food is survival. It is also memory and connection. Which is a lot to expect out of a goopy slurry squished between hot plates until it becomes solid enough to eat with a fork. Yet that is the magic of waffles.
All the days feel longer now than they used to. That isn’t just my perception, I’ve seen similar statements from many friends online. My way of describing it is that time comes in days now instead of being packaged into hours and minutes. Even after two months of this adjusted mode of living, the days can feel very long. Then I realized there is some science to explain it. The first piece is explicated in this article about how movies have changed from 1930 to now. There are several ways, but the most relevant to this discussion is that in 1930 the average length of a shot was 12 seconds, today the average length is just 2.5 seconds. Every time a shot changes it triggers an instinctive part of our brain that is designed to assess new situations and look for dangers. Changing scenes more often keeps triggering that portion of our brains and thus holding our attention by grabbing it over and over. Another example of his is the fact that our brains reset when we walk through doorways. This is why you can enter a room and not know why you came there, but if you go back to where you were before you remember. The passage through a doorway resets the brain so it is ready to assess and deal with a new scene which contains possible new dangers.
Life before pandemic was often split into segments. Travel time to work and back again, dropping off kids or picking them up, running to the store for a single missing ingredient, each of these things served in our minds as a scene change, a re-set. We knew the scene changes were coming, and they put time constraints on our other tasks. Hurry and finish sending the email before you have to go pick up the kid. Cook dinner now because the movie starts in an hour. That tiny rush to finish, and the tiny triumph of completion, put adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment into the day. Because completing a task had adrenaline attached, it registered in our memory. There is clear science that adrenaline can improve memory retention.
Pandemic living is different. I don’t have the appointments or the transitional time. Task completion is not being registered in my brain the same way. Also I used external structures, such as school drop offs and pick ups, to provide urgency to tasks. I used to joke “give me 10 things to do and an hour to do them, and I’ll get them all done. Give me all day to do one thing and it won’t happen.” Which was true when I was depending on urgency as my source of motivation. It turns out that when I spent long enough without those external structures, I learned that urgency isn’t the only source of motivation, nor even the best one. I feel a lot less productive because my mind isn’t registering all those just-before-the-deadline task completions. Yet if I measure actual progress on projects, things are moving along at a rate that is possibly faster than I was maintaining before.
There is a hidden cost in using interruption to create task urgency. It also disrupts focus and creative flow. If I’m having to keep my eye on the clock to do a school pick up, there is a piece of my brain that is distracted from the work I’m trying to do. Even if I use an alarm so my brain is un-distracted, there are the scene changes of getting in the car, driving, talking to the kid, and returning home. When I get back to the house I might be able to remember what I was doing, but picking up the pieces and re-focusing is not the same as not being interrupted. With pandemic living I’m flowing from task to task and back again. When I finish something it isn’t an event. I just move on to the next useful thing I can do. In fact, that is how I direct my days, by asking “what useful thing could I do with my time right now?” This question has me getting things done even in the absence of deadline pressure.
There is a lot more for me to think about here, because this is a fundamental change in how I thought it was necessary to run a creative life. It runs counter to advice I’ve given for years in my presentations on structuring life to support creativity. I had a deadline and urgency bias that I didn’t even realize was there. What else have I been biased about? I’m also wondering how my experiences with accomplishing tasks on pandemic time would be different if I had ADHD or full-fledged OCD, both of which have significant effects on how people relate to necessary tasks. There might be people for whom urgency is really the best option to motivate. For now, my approach seems to be working. I like the change in how I think about organizing my life. Even though all of the days feel so much longer than they used to. In fact there is a strange benefit in the longer-seeming days. Because my days feel longer, I’m less anxious about running out of time to do things. I find it easier to let things go because I’ll have time for them later. My brain actually believes there will be time because it has spent a lot of time thinking “wait it’s still Tuesday?”
Yes it is still Tuesday. Tuesday has a lot of time in it. All days do. And we’re gifted with that allotment every day of our lives. Pandemic hasn’t changed the allotment of time, which is why I find it so fascinating that re-arranging the use of time changes my experience of the passage of time so dramatically.
This week my task lists resembled what they used to look like pre-pandemic. I was focused for a significant portion of the week and I accomplished many things. Most of them were fragmentary tasks, small assignments that move a larger project forward. It was good to get some of those larger projects moving again. Between health concerns and pandemic, they’d stalled out for a while.
Then I arrived at this morning and task focus was gone again. I found myself wandering from house maintenance to cooking and back again. All my hours have been spent usefully, but not many of them went toward business projects. An interesting side effect of all the pandemic shut downs is that I’ve found myself valuing maintenance tasks differently than I used to. They used to be invisible annoyances, the things which I had to do in order to be able to get the important work done. Lately I recognize that these tasks are gifts. A morning spent weeding means that my flower beds thrive with beauty which anyone who walks past can enjoy. Doing the dishes means the kitchen is ready and available for whoever needs to use it next. Cooking food helps make sure that perishables are eaten before they go bad, or provides calories for myself and others. The time I spend on house and human maintenance is just as valuable to our family as the time I spend on business revenue generation.
The other day I was out back in my hammock, pondering what exactly it is that I want to gain in life and what I fear losing. The answer I found is that I want to be sure that I can keep and improve my house. I want my people to be safe and healthy. I’d like for my children to discover and claim their own paths forward. I’d like to be free to spend more time in the ways that I have during the full lockdown: giving myself permission to enjoy my space, bake foods I feel like eating even when it makes more economic sense to purchase pre-made versions, tend flower beds, read, write, and have a calendar that is mostly empty. I think I will get back to wanting to go places and attend conventions. Teaching fills a part of me that is laying fallow during this quarantine. I think it is good to let that rest for a time. It is good for me to ground myself in where I am with all the non essential things canceled.
I have a lot to lose, which is why I’ll be back to business tasks on Monday. Acquiring income is important. It is also why I’m staying home as much as I can to keep my loved ones as safe as possible.
I love that there are so many free personal enrichment offerings online. I’m glad that so many conferences are available virtually. I wish I had the emotional/mental bandwidth to take advantage of any of it. One of the things quarantine is teaching me is that saying no to good things is as important as saying no to stressful things. And there is huge value in empty space physically, temporally, and emotionally. The things I am learning right now are mostly invisible. It is a mental and emotional reconfiguration of life. It doesn’t feel like progress or learning, yet I have this vague inkling that it will be transformative in the long run. The caterpillar spinning its cocoon looks like it is just hiding.