Prelude: this is my second blog post of the month. I thought I would be able to develop a new cadence that wasn’t quite so exhausting — doing all the February posts was a great exercise and it also added a lot of stress that I didn’t need.
However, I notice that without pushing myself to finish a blog post most days of the week, and leaving it until the weekend, I’m back to my old bad habit of writing something so long that I fear nobody will read it. And I notice that vulnerability takes practice: without the near-daily exercise of opening up, the doors creep closed again, and my tone of writing slips back into writing soul-less advice instead of sharing what’s going on with me and how I feel about it.
Not sure how to find the new groove, but just know that I’m working on it.
Sitting down to read the weekend newspapers, I see everyone else’s retrospectives about a year of pandemic. People who are more practiced present a concise selection, like a box of chocolate miniatures: well-organized, with complementary shapes that all fit into a nice set.
That would not be me. But here are a few of my notes and observations.
Fairly early, I had posted that I felt like I’d just been dropped off into the middle of a personal development course that I hadn’t signed up for.
I was surprised by how many friends wrote to me with concern that my apparently indefatigable merry sunshiny spirit, the one they counted on to be there to lift them up, appeared to have dimmed.
Their response took me aback…and ended up tugging me even more deeply into what my intuition had indeed correctly identified as a massive, full-immersion, personal growth experience where I didn’t get to design the core curriculum, much less pick out the optional elective topics.
So, yes, this is my first pass at retrospection.
It won’t surprise you that I begin with gratitude.
Unlike well over half a million families in the United States and more around the globe, all of my extended family are well, and have stayed free of the virus. Despite stressful symptoms, concerns, and testing, we remain physically healthy and continue to make conservative decisions that are keeping us safe, While we’ve had some minor differences of opinion about what the best course of action is in specific situations, we’ve respected each other’s choices and have been pretty much on the same page about that.
I’m grateful to be part of a five-person, four-household bubble of people who have taken exquisite care of one another, with patience, creativity, and logistics wrangling, and have drawn from a greater depth of empathy and compassion than any of us ever thought we either had or might need to find. We have had clear, open communication within the bubble about what’s okay and what’s not, and that clarity has kept us all safe.
Within both the “friends bubble” and the family circles, we’ve exchanged support and been there for each other as much as possible.
I’m grateful for the experience my husband and I have had: after his office sent everybody home, for the past year we have spent more time together than I think we might have had in the previous, say, five years. The part I’m particularly grateful for is how much we still like each other. Not that that comes as a surprise, but maybe just a little relief as we ended doing — well, in racing terms, practice laps for a time fast approaching when we’ll be spending full time together by choice, not by diktat.
I’m grateful to have skills and business that meant I could keep working basically uninterrupted. Grouse as I might about “staying home,” I had been working from home for 17 years at the point lockdowns started. I entered pandemic with a strong professional online and on-camera presence. That made it a little easier and less stressful to step up my game when what was optional for a lot of people became a way of life in my business community, and people expected a lot of each other.
I’m grateful for the friendships I renewed, through old-fashioned phone calls as well as video chats, with people I’d been out of touch with for a while.
I put some practices in place that I knew were good for me, like journaling most days, and aimed to do SOMETHING physical four or five days a week. Pandemic happened JUST at the point where I had a physical and fitness routine that was working well for me when I lost my gym. My makeshift solutions have never really closed the gap.
I bought some more weights and a kettlebell, and splurged on the professional-grade TRX resistance training system. But it feels like mandatory drudgery while I’m doing it. And all those things where the person in the video sticks their feet into the straps and does planky things? Oh, please. Even when I stop and restart the video, I can’t seem to get the straps right and the entire elaborate core section of the workout is… Lesser-angel is growling at me, “You clearly aren’t serious about yourself,” as I flounder and flop around and in no way resemble what the trainer is doing.
I like personal attention and personal instruction. It makes a huge difference for me. And I miss high intensity training with my small group (which, to be fair, wrapped up in the fall of 2019 and I never found a successor to). Could I do a bunch of those things at home on my own if I dug out the screen shots of the workout boards from class? Yes. So what’s my excuse?
Goodness. My demons are all coming out for spring training.
I miss training in a fully-equipped gym and particularly miss the only sport I have ever really loved: rock climbing. I miss the joyful experience of putting my life into someone else’s hands and going up a wall. I miss the close relationships with my climbing partners. I miss the thrill of choosing a complex physical and mental challenge of picking a climbing route, working at it, even failing multiple times, getting support and encouragement from my partner as I work on it, and ultimately solving it.
I chose to minimize my risk — and the risk to my bubble-mates — by staying away from a gym that, to its credit, is using sophisticated procedures to keep its members safe. I’m not as strong as I was a year ago, or, sigh, as thin.
What could be so hard about setting a routine and sticking to it? What could possibly be so exhausting about another day at home, working, working out, and keeping company with a loved one who’s had pretty much the same day?
I come back to remembering the idea of chronic micro-trauma. Pandemic has played with our heads, warped our sense of what is normal, stolen our sleep, and repeatedly drained our resilience.
I am putting down markers for at least two future posts: First, I’m still recovering from my stressed response to the politics of 2020, which left me feeling so…well, I realize that I spent much of particularly the last year shoving most of my feelings under a trap door, and that hasn’t gone well. And, second, 2020 was yet another horrible year for racial justice in the United States, and pandemic continues to make that injustice ever more stark. While that weighs ever more heavily on my mind, I have not yet figured out where I can contribute meaningful words or actions I want to make public.
I’m still trying to find the sweet spot between my better angel of self-compassion, who whispers, “you’re doing the best you can, and that’s plenty good enough,” and my old “friend” Slayer, the judgmental angel who brandishes the flaming sword while roaring “not good enough.”
(Dude. Not you again. Seriously. I have some lovely parting gifts for you.)
I am so grateful to have decided that what I probably needed was to add a non-aerobic element to my mix, and took up tai chi. The repeated immersion in the humility of “beginner’s mind” has given me a foundation that I expect to keep building over years to come, and provides me with support throughout my day.
Hah! I caught the vulnerability shields closing down instead of opening up. That last paragraph sounds really happy-dappy, doesn’t it? The reality of my Beginner’s Mind is something like, “Again? You got it wrong again? Waaait… you’re still a beginner even after ten thousand times. This is the journey. This is the work. Imperfect is who you are. And that’s absolutely okay and truly good. We promise.”
Tai Chi is a singular pitched battle with my perfectionist, who gets to spend my Tai Chi practice time locked up in the equivalent of what at church they used to call the “crying room”, a sound-proofed balcony where mothers (it was almost always mothers) could take crying children so as not to interrupt mass but still get to watch.
So, with curtailed fitness options, I appreciate the simple pleasure of walking anywhere outdoors, even with a mask on…and especially when I’m far enough away from anyone to be able to be unmasked. I cherish the hour or so of walking I do some mornings, and the company of my walking partners (one of whom I look forward to climbing with again once I’ve been vaccinated).
Then there are the discoveries: things that might never have happened without the jolt of pandemic.
I figured out that I can completely relocate my office every week, alternating between Alexandria and Baltimore, and have continuity of operations. On the one hand, I find it challenging to change gears and immerse in the standard operating procedures of two different households. On the other, I feel like I’ve always got a change of scenery and fresh company coming up.
I made new friends in an online community called the Onward Movement, created by Emily Harman, coach and podcaster of Onward, and met kindreds spirits who support each other as we go through life and its challenges together.
I crashed a bunch of times before I learned that that boundaries are different from limitations.
It took me six months to fully understand something I knew in my head pretty fast: that the amount of work I had been expecting myself to get done in any given day or week was not sustainable, and if I kept it up, I was going to break. So by October, I began to place much firmer limits on the end of the work day — or at least make a dedicated effort to do so. I have not mastered that art, but I’ve really noticed that I can be much more fully present for the people I’m with, and simply feel more resilient if I’m treating my personal energy as a finite resource that needs care and replenishment.
Because of that rearrangement, I’ve spent countless hours hiking three or four chunks of Maryland’s outdoor woodland trails, taking a couple thousand photographs and spending time with people I love. Until pandemic, we’d mostly walk in the city to a restaurant and back. Now, our excursion is to drive out of town away from people, and renew body, mind, and spirit outdoors. When I take pictures, I look closely, reflect, unpack ideas and metaphors from the natural world for the rest of life, and have new things and images to share with people.
I’ve had a whole year of empathy practice. More than a few failures, but with lots of practice comes lots more success. I’m much better able to walk my talk, slow down, really listen to the people who want to talk to me, and hear in their stories how I can not only serve them better as a business owner, but be there for them as another human being, whether or not we ever do business together.
I find it easier to really answer somebody’s question, “How are you doing?” and find my way in the space between “Fine, just great…” (because NOBODY is “fine, just great…”) and having a meltdown on camera. Every so often I do get into emotionally ragged space in real time when everybody’s looking, and that’s… okay. I’m certainly more willing to say, “Well, I’m having a hard day and I miss my family and I just worked too long last night and wish that something as simple as sleep weren’t quite so elusive…how are things with your mom?”
Walking my talk, showing greater comfort with vulnerability, has brought home to my clients what that looks like and sounds like in a way that’s more powerful than giving someone a list of seven voicemail scripts that help you get your calls returned. They are more connected with their clients, and I’m building better relationships with them.
Then there are the bright spots that either just happened to happen during this time — like being invited to edit one nephew’s sports blog, or engage another nephew to build a gamification business quest board for my elite clients.
And…we bought our next house. Exciting, a place we’ve wanted to be and can start spending more time. It brings a ton of new work we’d like to do faster than we’re able, and some stress managing that transition as best we can.
After losses come the firsts, and the memories of the lasts.
It’s been a year since my last haircut.
It’s been a year since I last taught a group of people how to put their lives in each other’s hands — literally — and go up a wall. I remember considering what it might mean to be older and at higher risk of COVID, and, a few days before shutdowns were mandatory, the president of the climbing gym where my gear is still sitting in my staff locker telling me that she was concerned for me and wondered if this might be the last class I taught for a while.
I remember my two gut-punch moments of “oh, wow. This is really happening.”
One was the day in early March, before Virginia closed down, that we got the letter from the place my husband and I traditionally go for a week of summer vacation, saying that they had decided to close down through November of 2020.
We look forward to that time away, just the two of us, away from it all, deep reconnecting, all year long. Now, it wasn’t going to happen. That annual rest and reboot was gone. The restorative break that leaves us refreshed and renewed…nope. Endless same-old-same-old was coming. I could not imagine how it would be possible to get out, get away, anywhere, let alone to any place that had the unique mix of special experiences we longed for.
I was somewhere between ashamed and embarrassed that, with the threat of literal death and illness on a massive scale sweeping the globe, the wave of grief I felt was for…
…a lost vacation.
When I confessed my embarrassment about this to my thoughtful friend Robert, he offered me a way to be gentle with myself on that one. “Grief is real,” he said. “What you lost, you lost. You don’t have to compare your loss or the cause of your grief, with anyone else’s. Your feelings are real, and you can — and should — acknowledge them.”
That helped a bit.
Still, when I look ahead and consider the big features of that trip, I have a little trepidation about whether a getaway that’s all about quiet isolation will be the same kind of treat as it has been… Oh, come on. I love that place and I’m going to be just as thrilled to get back to my favorite cottage with the view of the Atlantic as I’ve ever been. I am not going to let my brain make up problems. Just no.
I remember the other wave of grief: I was driving into Baltimore one night in April, listening to the nine o’clock news, which included the story that Prime Minister Trudeau announced the closing of the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential traffic.
That was when I knew for sure that I wasn’t going home for Christmas 2020.
At least I had a good seven or eight months to come to terms with that reality. I felt lonely, and then of course selfish that, in that moment, I felt worse about losing my vacation than I did about going not one, but what would become TWO, full years without seeing my Canadian family.
I love them and I miss all the messy complications that come with loving the people I’m related to. In some respects, we are in more frequent contact than we were before pandemic, and we’re more deliberate now about finding ways to bring everyone together for capstone and milestone events in our lives.
Will I be glad when I’ve got my vaccination and can look ahead to being with more people again? Probably. I notice that part of my way of dealing with things I can’t have is to not think about them. I saw a meme last week saying something like, “Not sure if you’re ready to go back to in-person conferences? Don’t worry: your social skills have completely atrophied anyway.”
I feel like I’ve adjusted to simply be more of an extrovert-facing introvert: I’m “on” when I need to be on, and when the ring light clicks off, I’m ready to hide under the furniture, right after I wash off the makeup.
Spring arrives this week.
I welcome the longer days. I welcome the return of the light, and of the feeling of hope that comes as vaccines become more available and more people get them.
As things open up, I’m a little more willing to dream again, but my sense of hope is weary. Research shows that humans are incredibly resilient, so odds are good that I’ll get through the months ahead just fine. I ricochet between happy and exhausted.
Maybe it’s also a good thing that the return to…well, “pre-pandemic normal” is not ever coming back, but… whatever post-pandemic life will look like is going to be slow. What will come back? What will I just leave behind and not try to pick up again?
I know I’m not feeling ready for whatever is next. I do know I’m ready for what is to start being over.