Lost At Sea

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There are so many accounts of what it’s like to live in our current anxiety-ridden space of the unknown. People have opinions on the measures our city and state officials are taking as the pandemic permeates our lives. Governments are right but people are wrong. People are right but governments are wrong. No one is right and everyone is wrong. Everyone else is wrong and you are right.

From the inside of our homes and minds, perspectives other than our own feel fleeting, non-existent. We see from where we stand, sit, eat, work, lounge, binge, sleep. It’s all from the same forest so these familiar trees trick us into thinking there’s no way we could miss anything because it’s all right here in front of us. My god, if you can’t see what’s right in front of me, you must be blind.

Since Week One, much has changed but mostly it’s stayed the same. No classes or schoolwork to fill up the hours in my days since graduating in December. No celebratory trips to take since vacationing abroad in January. No gap-filler job with the Census since its postponement in March. Just the same number of hours to fill in a week as ever before and less imagination with which to do so.

Imagination comes from what? Time to sit and think about nothing and everything, I suppose—time to sit and compare reality with fantasy. Time to sit and dream of all the yes/ands one can string together and see what comes out on the other side. But then, what to do with that image? To me (a task-master), imagination feels pointless when I’m stuck inside and can’t move items from the Idea List to the Todo List and then check them off.

I have long understood that structure is the glue that holds my life together. It’s what I longed for growing up in my alcoholic home. So much so, that when given the opportunity to choose between freedom and structure as a 17-year-old, I chose structure because I didn’t trust myself with freedom.

So now that school (structure) is out, I find myself lost at sea, in a vast expanse of imaginational freedom. Lost in the comfort of my own home and head. Surrounded by a familiarity that keeps me physically safe but stunts my mental growth. I’ve started several projects, from essays to social justice research to home improvement to meal planning to binge-watching to looking for food in the fridge. Each leaves me feeling like I should’ve chosen a less taxing option.

I have more than ample time for all these projects and still, I have yet to finish one. I have a hard time concentrating and thinking things through. I have a hard time remembering what I started, let alone maintaining motivation. I read and get engrossed in one chapter (or sentence) only to find myself too distracted to get through the next.

My brain feels flimsy, able to neither create new information nor absorb anything of substance, no matter how trivial or interesting. I feel like a sponge, both wet and dry. There is but too much information already in my brain. Every new bit that crosses my path drifts without opportunity to be learned. And then, in anticipation of that pattern, I actively avoid new information. I seek out only the familiar so that when new information does cross my path, I readily reject it, sensing its unfamiliarity, which can only be of no comfort.

I find myself longing for the days of structure. Classes to be at by 9am. Papers due by Sunday at midnight. Internship hours to complete by the end of May. With the structure of deadlines set by someone else, I can easily fit in the things that contribute to my wellbeing. Go for a run by 7am or stop at the gym on the way home from class. Schedule time to do research for whatever papers are due this week and actually do that research. Log internship hours and make adjustments for weeks ahead I know I’ll fall off track (like midterm and finals weeks).

About school, I loved that didn’t have to think about what to do, I just had to follow a schedule. A schedule by which I was accountable to others. And that’s really the thing about structure. If I set my own schedule, I’m accountable to only myself. It’s easy to manipulate myself into thinking I don’t really have to do a thing because no one is going to be disappointed in me if I don’t do what I said I would do. Which is a lie I tell myself to get out of honoring my own values in any given moment. Make no mistake, I will be disappointed in myself and do plenty of internal berating. The lie is thinking that disappointment in myself is less heartbreaking than someone else’s disappointment in me.

Why do we allow our internal dialogue to be so cruel, to say things we would never say to our favorite people? If you’re like me, it’s because you grew up being told, shown that what everyone else thinks of you is more important than what you think of yourself. And even after years of therapy, this one is still hard to sit with and believe from the heart.

Something’s Different / Week 1

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This first week of shelter-in-place here in Chicago has felt mostly normal, aside from the scene at our local grocery store. My wife worked from home, which she’s done in the past from time to time. I’ve been out of school since December and awaiting what’s next for the past couple of months. Our dog still needs his morning and evening walks. We get up, we do our during-the-day things, and then we do our after-the-day things. There’s a fleeting sense of normalcy, but something has shifted and nothing is actually normal.

This week has been odd for us in the ways many are experiencing—shifts in everything from daily routines to living spaces to a sense of impending doom—but also in a can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it kind of way. Some things are the same as ever, while others are fundamentally different. Homebody-ness, working and otherwise: same. Virtual hangouts, not leaving the house for anything non-essential: fundamentally different. Everything is more exhausting.

We had a virtual hangout with friends on Friday night, and I talked to another friend on the phone for almost an hour on Saturday. I’ve been more active on Twitter so I can stay up-to-date and connect with friends. I am exhausted by all the interaction. This is somewhat normal for me, as an introvert but also wildly unexpected because of the whole shelter-in-place situation we’re in right now. Shouldn’t I have more energy (or at least the same) energy as before since I’m not face to face with anyone?

Then Saturday night, when I couldn’t sleep, I read a friend’s piece that was a reminder that these are not normal times*. Although the post was centered around working from home, it got me thinking about all its connections. Everything we find ourselves doing is now attached to the emotions we’re feeling in this so-not-normal time. COVID-19 adds stress of a) our associated emotions and b) the situations we find ourselves in as a result.

To put it another way, let’s say everything you’ve got in a purse or bag is the typical shit you’ve got going on in your daily life. Whether or not you use a purse or bag to tote your stuff around IRL, you probably know how they work. Some of you might have individual compartments for all your stuff. Some might have compartments but never use them. Some have just the one compartment everything goes into. Still, they know where everything goes, even if it looks chaotic to everyone else. And countless other configurations.

COVID-19 comes along and dumps everything out. Even if you know where everything goes, getting it all back in the bag is a task in and of itself. Now those emotions come along and are like molasses or milk or something else you would never want to be dumped all over your stuff. So now you’ve got your shit everywhere, molasses making everything sticky and stuck together. Not to mention, it’s all weighing you down because you’re thinking about what you had in your bag, what you need/want to put back, what you even have the mental space for anymore. And let’s not forget the physical space of the bag which may not fit everything anymore. After all, you’ve had to downsize because who can afford a fancy bag in times like these?

The bottom line is that all of this is happening. However you feel about what’s going on in your world right now, you’re right. You have a right to feel scared or tired or [insert your own feelings here]. And also, if how you’re feeling feels crushing or debilitating, you’re not alone. The thing is, there’s no one right way to sort it all out. You start with one thing you think you can deal with and you go from there. You wake up every day, start with one foot on the floor, and then keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get to wherever is next for you. (But please stay home unless it’s absolutely essential that you leave your place.)

We are all in this together. We are not alone, no matter how isolated we feel. That goes for you, that goes for me.

Be well, friends. Love and Light to you all.

* Ed Synnott’s article, This Ain’t Normal: Life in Lockdown is Not Working From Home https://link.medium.com/0lyjEFq204

The scary thing. A situation we don’t want to be in but we know is inevitable. We procrastinate because we just know it’s going to be awful. No way getting around it. Except …

We try to prepare for the moment. Perhaps an exercise in listing every scenario we can think of that might come up. And then our response to that scenario. Still seems daunting. Except …

List five scenarios. Then a response to each of those scenarios. Still seems out of the realm of doable. Well if this is the case, then perhaps you’re more interested in excuses than progress. In which case, come back when you’ve prioritized progress over procrastination.

If we can get the proverbial ball moving, then we create opportunities for ourselves to be well prepared for whatever will actually happen. Now I don’t know what the percentages of coming up with things that happen vs. Not coming up with what actually happens are, but personal experience in this practice has proven that I will rarely come up with the exact scenario to prepare for. The scenarios I do prepare for, however, will then prepare me for what I couldn’t have predicted.

I recall planning my coming out to my father, Mr. Former-Liberal-Turned-Right-Wing-Christian-Evangelical. 

The scenarios:

  • He’s going to be shocked
  • He’s going to hate me
  • He’s going to disown me
  • He’s going to yell at me
  • He’s going to stop visiting me every Sunday

My planned responses:

  • Something about looking at the signs that had been there since I was 8
  • Something about Jesus preaching love over hate
  • Something about hurting, but me being my own woman regardless
  • Something about asking him to leave before we say things we’ll regret
  • Something about being hurt and missing our time together

The reality of the conversation was that none of those things happened, specifically. He told me he’d “wondered about the nature” of my relationship with my then-girlfriend, but didn’t want to think “that” of me. He worried about not seeing me in the afterlife. He knew I was a good person and he still loved me.

While I wasn’t prepared with the specific responses to his reactions to my coming out, because of the preparation I’d done, I was prepared to have a conversation around whatever his reactions were. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to keep that conversation alive and turn it into an ongoing conversation, but that’s a story for another time. For the space here, we’re looking at getting started. First get started, then worry about planning for what comes next, or at least how you want to prepare for whatever lies ahead. If I had it to do over again I would add in the following questions before writing down any responses to the scenarios I’d come up with:

  • What do you want to give to this conversation?
  • What do you want to get out of this conversation?
  • How do you want this conversation to honor your relationship with your father?
  • How do you see this conversation evolving over the next 6 months or year?

This is just a start.

If you’re getting ready for a conversation that involves potentially intense feelings on either your part or the part of your audience, prepare yourself for all the scenarios you can think of. What will be your response if your audience is shocked? If your audience is nonchalantly totally okay? Is defensive or combative? Is loving and embracing? Is cold and distant?

And let’s not just think about how you would react, let’s think about how you want to react. Use the questions above to find out what you’re willing to both give and get out of the conversation. Then look within for your ideal reactions for each scenario. And to get to that, we need to think about your values and who you want to be in this life. What are your top 3 personal values? If your top 3 values are compassion, relationships, and authenticity, (mine are) then use those values to form your ideal reactions to each situation.

If your audience is shocked.
I understand you’re shocked, and this may feel like it’s coming out of left field, but this is who I am and it’s important me to be who I am. Our relationship is important to me, and I want you to take all the time you need with this information and ask me any questions you want to. We can sit right here or go for a walk or come back to it after going for a run, but it’s important that we talk about this.

If your audience is nonchalantly okay.
I just want to check in with you and make sure you’re as okay as you seem about this. I know this may change some aspects of our relationship, but I don’t want it to change the core of it. Ask me anything you want, even if it comes up later. I don’t want this to be something we talk about only once or feel like we have to talk about it all the time.

If your audience is defensive or combative.
It seems like this news is tough for you to digest right now and I don’t want either of us to say things we don’t mean, and I don’t want to put myself if a position to take abuse from you or dish it back to you. Let’s take a break from this conversation and revisit it once we’ve had a chance to take it in. I love you and I know you love me, and I don’t want this to destroy our relationship. I’ll check in with you in __ days.

If your audience  is loving and embracing.
I had no idea how you would react, and as much as I hoped it would be in loving support, I’m so relieved that you’re responding this way. I love you and want you to know if you have any questions even after today, I hope we can keep an open dialogue because this relationship is important to me.

If your audience is cold and distant.
It seems like this news is tough for you to digest right now and I’m sensing you’re putting up a wall and disengaging from the conversation. Our relationship is really important to me, and I want to make sure we continue this conversation once you’ve had some time to digest and are ready to talk about it. Know that I’m open to any questions you have and that I love you.

These are just some starting points. Obviously these are some reactions I’ve thought through as how I might respond in these situations, and you are likely to use different words, even if you honor the same top 3 values and/or would have the same general response. I’m of the mindset that it’s usually easier to revise someone else’s words than create your own, so please feel free to use these words as a starting point and then make the responses your own.

Another thing to keep in mind is to be realistic about your initial response and how you feel you might actually respond before writing out your idea response. This will help you craft your ideal response, so you’re able to gradually move from what you would say to what you will say.

If your response to someone being cold and distant is to shut down or become defensive, own that. Be honest with yourself about your natural reaction and then decide if that’s the reaction you want to have or if you would like it to be different. If you’d like it to be different, what specifically would you change about it? What would help you make the leap from being defensive or shutting down to _______? If it’s difficult to think about what would help, think about those two things as separate islands and then build a bridge from one to the other. What’s on that bridge? What’s it made of? Who is helping you build the bridge? What’s the scenery from the bridge?

Asking yourself questions like these can be helpful to go from, “Well, fuck, I have no idea how to do that!” to the little steps that help you say, “Okay, I can start here and then see what I come up with next.”

It’s not that we need to figure out all the answers to all the questions, but really that we trust ourselves that the answers will come if we keep asking new questions. From that trust you will uncover the knowledge that already exists within.

Knowledge alone is not power

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Knowledge is power.” [“ipsa scientia potestas est” (‘knowledge itself is power‘)]
~ Sir Francis Bacon

Forgive me, Sir, but I disagree. Knowledge in and of itself is a base for power, but it is not itself power. What good does knowledge do if you don’t use it? Don’t act upon it? Don’t let it inform your decisions?

Only when married with action is knowledge true power.


Inch by Inch, part April

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I don’t know how it went for you, but April moved through my life pretty quickly. Much learning was ingested, both personally and academically, although I didn’t always make time for writing it down. Thus, this recap of learning for the month of April is a bit sparse. And yet, contrary to popular belief, just because it didn’t get written down (or photographed or posted on [social media]) most certainly doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

Here are some April notes-to-self for you to steal/borrow/leave right here, at your choosing:

  • sometimes honoring one relationships means neglecting another and this is ok
  • it’s fine to not care what other people think; just don’t stop caring how other people feel (adapted from a @mmeditations OpenCircle note)
  • sometimes having a conversation with a stranger is more important than [that “important” thing you were just about to do] #becausehonortherelationship
  • don’t assume someone else’s motives, questions , or actions just because you have learned something before (you think) they did
  • make suggestions based on what will help, not trashing what came before
  • you can actively slow your heart rate by slowing your breath
  • it’s okay if you love something someone else thinks is stupid or meaningless; this does not change your self worth

And now let the learning continue, my friends.

Inch by Inch, part March

I mentioned last month that started keeping a list in Evernote with the tag “note to self” wherein I remind myself of things I think will help me be a better me tomorrow than I am today. While I had planned on writing in more detail about some of these things during the month of […]

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