The gifts of time

I meant to stay away from this space until after the new year, thinking I’d want to spend my time in other ways, but this morning Jill of Open Space Practice shared an article on Facebook about the choices of a man dying of glioblastoma–which are the choices all of us make, every day, whether we know death is imminent or not.

This man, who chose to begin an important creative project (knitting a sweater for his son) even though he knew he might not finish it before dying, made me think of a conversation I had this week with an old (from college) friend. We acknowledged that we are moving into a new stage of life, one in which time feels short in ways that it never has before. “I find myself wondering what I want to do with what remains,” I said to her.

It brought to mind, too, a piece that Kate shared on her blog this week, The Satisfaction of Practice in an Achievement-Oriented World, in which the writer, Tara McMullin, makes a case for doing things for the experience of doing them–not for accomplishment or some byproduct that doing the thing might provide, but simply for whatever benefit we get in the moment of doing. She advocates for the value of practice over achievement.

This is a different thing, in some important respects, from the man who hopes to finish knitting a sweater, but it also isn’t. Both are about letting go of outcomes–starting the sweater even though you might die before it is done, taking up running because of how it feels while you’re doing it and not because you want to lose weight.

Talking about the article with Cane, I recalled how I felt the morning after my book of poetry won an award–how I understood, for the first time, that I would from then on write–if I wrote–for the sake of writing itself and not for accolades or publication. The accolade was nice, but fleeting, as was the feeling I’d had when I first held the book in my hand. It wasn’t enough to sustain me or the effort it took to write while parenting and teaching full-time.

Yesterday, my daughter needed to go to work even though our city had become a block of ice. “Who is going to go ice skating today?” I wondered, but I knew the question was meaningless and futile. It was two days before Christmas, and there was no way a mall was going to close. Her boss called to confirm that she could make it in, and he told her that yes, the rink was open even though no one was skating. I had planned a day of baking and general house puttering, but as she, her husband Fredrik (arrived just the night before from Sweden, getting in right as the ice storm was hitting), Cane, and I sat eating breakfast, we mused that it could be a perfect day for skating. “Mom, no one will be there! This could be your only chance until after New Year’s to have a good session.”

For me, a good session is one that is not crowded, something I haven’t had since Thanksgiving, really. It means the ice will be smooth and the spaces open for practicing moves. We spun a fantasy of having the whole rink to ourselves. I imaged gliding in big, swooping turns over the ice. We knew it might not happen, but it could. And so, I ditched my plans for the day and we all found warm clothes and headed out to the bus with her. (We were not driving on ice-covered streets.) It was an adventure! In the frozen city! She, Fredrik, and I would skate before her shift began, and Cane would watch for a bit and then head off to the bookstore coffeeshop.

Well, by the time we got there, others had made their way there, too. We got to skate for about 15 minutes before she had to clock in. Fredrik’s rental skates hurt his feet, so he left, too. That left me alone with terrible ice and a crowd of non-skaters, which wasn’t anything resembling fun. I changed out of my skates, found Cane in the coffee shop, and browsed through a book until he’d finished his drink. Then, we bundled up and headed off to the bus. “This was a lot of effort for 15 minutes of skating,” I said to him.

“Are you regretting your life choices for today?” Grace asked as I stopped by to tell her we were leaving. I assured her that I wasn’t, but her question made me wonder.

After an hour, we realized that our bus line’s route had been canceled (staffing shortages). An hour after that, the four of us were shivering on a shuttle bus driving the route of our city’s light-rail train. Grace’s boss let her go early, worried that she might become stranded in the cold. It was dark, we were hungry (no restaurants had been open), and we knew we might have a 25-minute walk once the shuttle got us as close to home as it would go.

“You sure you’re not regretting your choices?” she asked as we waited for another bus after getting off the shuttle, wondering if it would really come.

I thought about the day I might have had, the cookies I’d have baked, the meal I would have eaten as soon as I felt hunger, the quiet ease of a warm house. I thought about the skating I’d hoped to do but hadn’t.

“No,” I said, knowing I meant it. “It would have been a nice day at home, but I can have a lot of nice days home alone with Cane. I wouldn’t have remembered that day years from now, but I know I’ll remember this one. We will laugh about it and say, ‘Remember how we all went out after the ice storm and only skated for 15 minutes and it took us hours to get there and back in the cold?'” We’ll remember how we spent the day together. The day wasn’t about skating, just as skating–for me, now–isn’t about passing tests or competing or even mastering new skills. It’s about how it feels just to do it. It’s about how we choose to spend our limited time. It’s about what and how we practice.

Later that evening, after our bellies were full and our hands were once again warm, we decorated the tree with our beloved old ornaments. We’d waited until Fredrik arrived, so he could do that with us. Grace pulled out a ceramic ice skate my mother gave me when I was in my 20s. At that point, it had been over a decade since I’d quit skating, but she still saw me as a skater. Or, perhaps, she wanted to remind me of something skating had meant to me, and what it means to have something like that in a life. I’ve let go of many ornaments over the years, but never this one.

We never know what a day, a season, a year is going to bring us. My college friend and I missed decades of friendship. In our 20s we both moved away from each other, and in those pre-internet days it was much harder to maintain ties. We let ours drop. I don’t remember how we found each other again, but now her adult child lives in our city, and our parents live near each other, and here we are. Having that friendship back is a lovely surprise I never anticipated. I was supposed to go skating the morning I met her for coffee but chose to spend the time with her instead; we don’t get many chances to see each other in person and I didn’t want to miss one. A year ago I had no idea that skating would come back into my life, but now it is something I treasure as a regular practice. If I knew I had only a year or so to live (and who knows? I might), I’d still choose to spend much of it on ice, even though I’ll likely never compete or land an Axel. I’d choose a day on a cold bus with my beloveds and a morning in a coffeeshop with an old friend. I’d choose to spend my time here, putting words together because of what I get from the act of doing so and, after hitting “Publish,” connecting with kindred spirits who read them. And I would consider all of it time well-spent.

As we embark upon the culminating days of this holiday season, I’m wishing all of you the gift of time well-spent, too. What better gift could there be, really?

Tidings

It’s been a frosty, sunny stretch of days here. We put up the tree, celebrated my birthday, meandered our way toward the holidays.

When I was a young teen, I made all the gifts I gave to adults. I had so many people on my list–great-grandmothers, grandparents, parents, an aunt and uncle–that I began working on them in September. I remember plotting out when I would make each one on a calendar, amazed at how little time I had. I sewed, made art, wrote books that I illustrated. I remember trying my hand at candle-making and other kinds of crafts.

This week, I have been uneasy because I am not stretched for time. By design and through loss, I have few gifts to give this year, and I can’t shake the sense that I have forgotten something important. I keep thinking there is something I’m supposed to be doing that I haven’t, and I’ve been remembering a recurring dream in which it is Christmas and I have forgotten to get presents for my family. We are having the simple holidays we decided, back in the summer, that we wanted, but I am discovering that the conditioning of 50+ years is not so easy to cast off.

I’m feeling a bit of sadness, too, some longing for holidays of years past. Today some of my cousins are gathering, but I won’t be joining them, much as I’d like to. They are too far away, Cane has to work tomorrow, and we are limiting our contact with others to increase chances that we’ll be healthy for a visit to my parents in the week after Christmas. We haven’t seen them since the summer, as illness keeps canceling our plans. The last time my extended family gathered was the Christmas of 2019. We ate the food we always eat together (Croatian spaghetti, kroŇ°tule, scotcheroos), and after dinner we sat at the table and played Apples to Apples. It was normal, familiar, comfortable, unremarkable, wonderful. For much of my life we gathered every year, around my grandmother’s table, but that year was the first time we’d been able to do so in several. We said then that we needed to make sure we didn’t let so much time pass, that we would need to make sure to meet again the following year. We had no idea what was coming at us in 2020, or that it would be years before we could gather in such a way again. Writing these words, I can’t help wondering if we ever will. How many years can we go before a tradition that had already frayed breaks completely?

I’m doing my best to let that sadness sit beside different kinds of comfort and joy–to accept that a long life is a thing of constant inconstancy, a coming-and-going stream of people and places and things that we love, a rich amalgam of grief, abundance, loss, gain, and surprise of various kinds. (We never know what might happen in any given day, do we?) This year we have my daughter with us, and her husband will be joining us from Sweden. We are looking forward to good food, a fusion of Swedish and American holiday traditions, and a day designed for introverts. I am sure there will be a year in the future–if I’m lucky–in which I will look back on this one and miss the parts of it I no longer have.

Wishing all of you peace, comfort, and joy in the coming days. I will catch up with you again in the new year.

(I just love this little bird. Another highlight from the week: Our rabbit is back. Hadn’t seen it for weeks and weeks, but yesterday we caught it eating berries from a bush in the front yard.)

On tanks, the repairing and filling of them

I might have mentioned that I’ve got a small, part-time curriculum-development gig this school year. About twice a month, Cane and I develop a social-emotional learning lesson for students at his high school and facilitate a professional learning session for staff to support them in delivering the lesson. This week our lesson was focused on wellness during the holiday season, and I thought I’d share here a resource I developed for it.

I was inspired by a similar board I saw in multiple places online; I am not sure who originally created it, but I’m linking to a school librarian’s site because I’d bet money it was her or some other librarian. I revised it to include links for all the options and to make it holiday-season specific. Two of the boxes contain links to our local public library system (Multnomah County Library, which is awesome), but everything else should be useful for anyone, anywhere. It contains items to hit all the categories of a typical wellness wheel.

(source: https://www.ginger.com/activities/wellness-wheel)

Our students responded positively to this, so I wanted to share it with a wider audience, and I know that some of you are raising teens and some work with teens. This time of year is challenging for teens, y’all. If they are in school, they are fast-approaching or are at the end of a grading period, which is stressful whether they are doing well (and don’t want to blow it on their final exams/projects) or not doing well (because they may be out of time/opportunities to fix things). If the holidays that none of us can entirely escape from are not part of their religious/cultural practices, they may be feeling unseen and left out. If they are, they may be feeling anxiety about gift-giving (lack of $$$, pressure to get the right gifts), having to see family who are unpleasant or harmful, and dealing with their care-givers’ holiday stress. A break from school is not a positive for many teens. It can cut them off from IRL contact with their friends, it disrupts their usual routines, and it may mean increased responsibilities at home. For some, rather than going to school and focusing on their own lives, a school break means being at home and responsible for giving care to siblings or other family members. If they have jobs, they may be working extra shifts (and dealing with folks who are acting out their own holidays feelings). As is true for many adults, this is a time of year when grief can strike hard. Teens may be grieving people they’ve lost, the holidays of their childhoods (that felt different from how holidays feel now), or the family they wish they had (maybe once did have) but don’t.

This board is geared to teens, but it was helpful for me to create it and remind myself of the variety of kinds of self-care available to us. The table includes a link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium live webcams*, and I’m just gonna tell you: When I watched the jellyfish, I could feel my breath slowing and my body softening.

I so wish we had known in the 80s (when I was a teen) what we know now about the physical impacts of chronic stress and complex trauma (or that there is such a thing as complex trauma), and how to mitigate them. I finished up my pain management course this week, and I attended an introductory session with a doctor who focuses on re-wiring (not the clinical term) our unconscious brain so that we can respond differently to perceived threats. This is a slide I screenshotted from the session:

Chart that lists common effects of chronic stress:  inflammation, tension and migraine headaches, insomnia, back pain/chronic pain, fibromyalgia, IBS/digestive problems, high blood pressure, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, anxiety/panic/depression, obesity, sexual dysfunction
(Hey, mirror)

It was so helpful to gain a greater understanding of why simply understanding the stress/trauma that is causing physical issues isn’t enough to cure them: The action is happening in the parts of our brain that we don’t consciously control, so we can’t entirely think our way to different responses. (I have an extreme startle response, for example, and even when I know a noise is coming and that it’s not a threat, my whole body often still jumps when I hear it.) Because of neuroplasticity, though, we can create changes in our parasympathetic nervous system, which will change how we respond. Or that’s the theory, anyway.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about the sources of my chronic stress and complex trauma, especially those that relate to working for 3+ decades in public education. The thoughts are barely formed and if I tried to share anything right now, it would just be a big word vomit. But I can say this:

Things are not the same as they were when you went to school. Our teachers and students are under constant stress, and it’s different than it was 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s not sustainable. We have got to find better ways, because a society full of traumatized and under-supported people is going to look…well, a lot like the one we’re living in.

Despite that dire last paragraph, I am feeling hopeful in ways that I haven’t in decades, and the hope is a tremendous gift. Now that I have it, I can see how long I didn’t, and what impact a lack of hope has had on me. For many weeks now, I have not been attending to much other than my health. I go to various appointments, I go skating, I make nourishing food, I tend my primary relationships, I run our household, and I rest. All of that adds up to a full-time job. I haven’t had much time for writing or any other creative work (other than the small curriculum job) or other kinds of things that have typically filled my tank (for example, dates with friends). But I’m OK with that. This isn’t the season for me to fill my tank; it’s the season for me to repair the holes in it. I’m playing a long game here.

Hoping that you are finding ways to fill and/or repair yours. Would love to hear about them–or your thoughts about anything connected to this post. Sending wishes for health and peace to all who read here.

Cozy bed in front of a window, through which you can see a snow-covered tree.
(What self-care looks like for me right now: This is the room that used to be my office/project space, but it is now a space to support healthy sleep. Cane slept here when he had Covid this fall, and I go here any time his snoring is keeping me from going back to sleep in the middle of the night.)

*The live cam link can be a bit finicky. For some reason, it works best for me when I access it through the link on the chart. Have no idea why that should make a difference.

’tis the season…

…to get outside

…to delete apps

…to make soup

…to read

…to nap

…to puzzle

…to complete a small project

…to eat a dive-bar burger

…see a nostalgic, mostly feel-good movie

Yesterday was cold, but sunny, and so we spent a few hours working in the yard. I shuffled some plants around, cut back stems that finally withered from our first frosts, and planted a few new things for winter. Cane pruned the pear tree and took a load of lumber scraps and other detritus from summer projects to the dump. It felt really good to move our bodies in the cold air and look closely at the sparse kind of beauty that late fall brings.

The first thing I did yesterday morning was make soup (recipe linked above; I recommend mashing the beans a bit to make the broth a little thicker), and it was so nice to go inside and warm up with it after getting cold and dirty and the best kind of tired.

After lunch we took naps, and then we went out for a real, honest-to-God date. We walked around a fancy part of town to look at lights and storefronts, and then we had one of our favorite dinners, a dive-bar burger. Followed that up with Spielberg’s latest schmaltzy offering, but we found it more charming than eye-roll inducing. Sometimes you just want to spend a few hours with simplistic characters, grand speeches about Important Things, swelling music, and gorgeous people, clothing, and interiors. This time of year is a good one for that kind of movie. We made our annual obligatory trip to our city’s main square to see the big Christmas tree that is erected there every year. I’m glad we did.

This morning I read Anne Helen Peterson’s latest newsletter offering (linked above), on reading, and so much hit so close to home. I miss reading the way I once did. I keep trying to find my way back to it, and it eludes me. I then spent a good amount of time deleting apps from my phone. I’d already deactivated the dumpster fire that is Twitter, which I rarely used anyway, but I’ve put both Instagram and Facebook in timeout. I really love some Instagram accounts I follow (e.g., poetryisnotaluxury), but I would rather be the kind of reader I once was. I’m not sure this will do the trick, but I’m willing to try it.

Not much in store for today. I’m sitting at our dining table in the living room, on new-to-us old chairs we bought and recovered last weekend, watching snow blow out the window. The weather app tells me it’s supposed to be rain and 37 degrees, but my eyes tell me those are snowflakes and that they are sticking to the ground. I’d rather believe my eyes than my phone. We’ll be celebrating the second Sunday of advent at dinner tonight, a Swedish tradition my daughter has brought home with her. We celebrated first Sunday last week, and we really enjoyed it. There will candle lighting and a fire burning in the fireplace and something warm and comforting to eat.

(I am not eating pie for breakfast, though I would if I had some. Snow is reason enough to eat pie for breakfast, I think. This is a shot from last weekend, so you can see our sexy chairs. Fabric from the Pendleton wool outlet we are so lucky to live near.)

I don’t know if it’s the most wonderful time of the year. I know for many it isn’t–and I think you probably can’t live as many decades as we have without feeling some sorrow through the holidays–but we’re doing our best to make the best of these weeks. We’re keeping it small, and simple, and listening to what our bodies want. Our souls, too. Hoping you can do the same in the weeks to come.