I remember being awake in the middle of the night from at least the age of 6. I never have trouble falling asleep at night, but after a few hours, anything can wake me and then my monkey mind is climbing trees and trotting through the forest. When I was young, I put myself into the books I was reading and let my imagination run wild. In recent decades, 3AM has been a time when my mind can process events (sometimes obsessively), let worries run rampant, repeat song lyrics endlessly, and simply think without interruption.
For a long time, I was able to function pretty well – or so I thought – on a few hours of sleep. When I began an extremely challenging job, it really showed me how much my brain suffered. In addition to feeling tired, I was far more prone to errors and missing small but important details. Still, wanting to sleep doesn’t mean being able to sleep.
A month ago I decided that I was going to add morning and evening journaling to my routine. I realized a few days ago that I have been sleeping much better since then, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. When I’ve processed everything already, putting it into words in a document, there’s less to ponder at 3AM. For my own sleep, I’m going to rank journaling right after exercise and regular hours.
The rest of my sleep toolbox includes more exercise (really, enough exercise so that I’m moving all day, but just shy of my entire body aching, which is unfortunately not compatible with my full-time job), and for those times I awaken, mindfully focusing on remembering a place where I felt completely at ease (I put myself back in the attic bed at my grandmother’s house, for instance), reading a few chapters of a book, or listening to an audiobook until I fall asleep.
But sometimes I just have to give up and accept that I am going to be tired all day.
About a decade ago, I took piano lessons for the first time. It went pretty well for the first couple of months. My instructor gave lots of positive feedback but pushed me forward at a pace that my middle-aged, busy mom self found pretty relentless. Perhaps she was equating my brain’s plasticity with that of the college students with whom she spent most of her working hours, and my practice hours with those of students attending a music-based school. At any rate, when I progressed to needing to make my two hands do completely different things at the same time, there was a train wreck in my brain. I could actually feel and hear it.
This year has made me feel that way – over and over and over again. It has eroded my creativity, motivation, enthusiasm, and energy. Knowing that this year especially, we are so fortunate to simply be employed and healthy, makes me not want to say anything that could be construed as complaining. Hence being stuck.
A few things have helped… Our cats provide lots of entertainment, purrs, and kitty hugs. Completing projects around the house makes me feel somewhat productive when I’m not accomplishing my primary goals. Sewing masks for family and friends has been a good distraction that was also useful. Journaling gives me space to write whatever’s on my mind with no editing, either pre- or post-writing. Talking to friends when I can’t see them is a balm to my soul. Learning a new programming language has been an absorbing pastime that keeps my mind focused.
In The Upside of Stress, research psychologist Kelly McGonigal details that the way in which we view a stressful situation impacts our likelihood of success. If we view something as a challenge, we are more likely to succeed than if we view it as a threat. In an interview about the book, she stated that successful stress management is associated with a significant capacity for uncertainty, and that viewing stress as a growth opportunity is helpful.
I am a planner through and through. Unsolved problems keep me up at night, and although 3AM is an excellent time to deeply and thoroughly ponder just about anything without distraction, it’s not the greatest time for completely coherent thinking. 2020 has already provided many occasions to learn to embrace uncertainty, and it seems like more will follow. Here, then, is an excellent opportunity to both grow and extract something good from this year… so my goal for the coming months is to accept and learn to welcome the uncertainty.
All I’m going to say about the past few months is this: It has been and continues to be grueling and arduous, for everyone, in so many ways, at so many levels.
My days, weeks, months have felt unfocused, mechanical. It’s been far easier to get things done than to sit down and think or write. While working and programming have forced times of focus, clearing brush and weeding, painting and organizing, and walking the dog are all meditative on their own and have provided time to sort thoughts, to mentally plan and file, while permitting distractions. As I view the shrinking number of days to the fall semester, I realize that the task at hand is to ready myself to support and mentor, and to do that I need to get into the quiet space that has been uncomfortable.
I need a plan.
There are many ways that I could improve my lifestyle, but I have a specific goal and want quick results. For the next week, I’m going to eliminate my biggest time waster: reading news and other things online. I’ll add my most effective tools for reflection and purposeful time: journaling, which I do on the computer, and my catch-all notebook, in which I log various lists, ideas, etc so that I can get back to what I’m working on. Morning and evening, I will sit with these tools and clear the mental clutter of these months.
The weirdest month of my life, right here. March 2020! My father-in-law fell on February 27 and it turned out, broke a vertebra, and a week later, on March 5, he died. The next Tuesday, my union went on strike and we were on the picket lines for 3 days. With COVID19 closures looming we reached a contract settlement and the next Sunday we learned we’d be closed for the remainder of the month preparing for a massive scale distance teaching of children of all ages. Said preparation was spent with my own two small children at home with me, competing with my husband for work time, and binging on faaaaar too much Facebook. I let myself indulge in a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve been eating a lot. Too much. Trying to avoid feelings. Needless to say, my stress levels have been somewhat elevated.
On week 3 of this, we are settling in, figuring it out. My husband started actually distance teaching; we are officially on spring break so ours doesn’t start for another week. I’m sleeping kind of better and kind of worse. I’m walking every day. Inspired by this post, I’ve been doing little projects that have just kind of sat around forever and it feels good to finish them, use them, put them away, be done. I’m pushing myself to actually finish up things rather than get close and not see them to completion, and to avoid my old foe of spending time researching and ordering yet more supplies for projects and then not actually doing them.
I left off writing that last night . . . just couldn’t feel out where this was going . . . but I’m back again today. I have a vague feeling hanging about me, a constant unease. Maybe, as this article suggests and much more aptly describes, it’s grief. So many griefs this month, and it feels shallow to admit that the one that feels the biggest right now is this sense that I’ve spent 15 years in a career that I’m consciously choosing to be in said career at this time in my life, but is renowned for its degree of superfluous crap. The paperwork. The meetings. The documentation. The events. The committees. The TESTING. The TIME. All of that, in the snap of a finger, gone. Done. Don’t have to do it! Now: Do only the most important thing (teach) and in the simplest yet most effective way you can given the novelty of the format, etc. and take care of yourself while you do it. So while my intellectual brain knows that it’s temporary, and because of a very unusual circumstance, I also wonder . . . will I actually be able to go back to that?
March 2020 – a month for which no one will ever be nostalgic.
After all the years it took me to learn to really slow down and not wish for the next, presumably better stage, my thoughts whisper that a year from now, there will be less uncertainty. A year from now, we will know how we all come out of this pandemic. But each day is still precious. Each day, though it brings tragedy and stresses of all kinds to many of our global community, also brings hope, creativity, and love to much of the world.
For me, it’s not the social distancing and staying home that has made this month feel like a year, but the combination of constant change and continuing threat. The thoughts I try to avoid: will I see my parents again? how will we support our friends who sustain losses, when the best we can do is teleconference? how on earth can we support the health care workers, who are generally always overstretched? There are many painful questions. I’m sure that you know them, too.
No one knows the answers to the big questions. The entire world is experiencing the human and economic results of the pandemic. These months will be in the history books. Our children will tell their children and grandchildren about it.
I don’t think there was any time in my life prior to right now that it was an advantage to be a complete introvert. My forever best friend is as extroverted as I am introverted. To me, it always looked so easy for her to do so many things that were difficult to me, like speaking to anyone in a room full of people (now I usually give myself permission to not talk much if there are more than 6 people). While the stay-home order gives me a time to recharge, she has that harried, unsettled feeling that I get after times without enough quiet space.
But that introversion also makes me prone to ruminating, particularly in the middle of the night. To fight that, I keep busy and try to make myself too tired to wake up at 2AM. Working at home is efficient in terms of time (no commute) but leads to a lot less walking during the day, so my evenings are devoted to moving. I anticipate many projects being completed around the house in the coming weeks, possibly even the one I’ve been avoiding for nearly a year, which is painting the kitchen ceiling after patching up the damage from a pressure cooker incident. I just finished a task I’ve long had on the back burner – assembling all important information in one place so that Thom and Mari could easily access it.
I call family and friends, email, and text, trying to focus on the positive and entertaining, like the crocus that are blooming in the front lawn, the beautiful, gigantic spring snowflakes that fell this morning, and how our dog tucked herself under a blanket yesterday to hide from the thunderstorm. I’ve been writing real letters, on paper, hoping to give a distant loved one a smile. The daylight hours are expanding and warming, and soon evening biking, walking, and gardening will become routine.
How do you embrace the gift of each day during this difficult time?
It’s been 8 days since my last workplace commute, 8 days of the three of us together alone all the time. I haven’t been sleeping well; every time I awake, whether it’s morning or the middle of the night, I have that feeling of something looming, and I remember that life is completely different now, with more changes to come at an unknown time. It’s not a dream – we really are all living the plot of a dystopian novel.
There have been positives. I’ve been taking long, unrushed walks with our dog. Mari, Thom, and I have played some games that were gathering dust. I accomplished some yard work and housework, both of which are more attractive than finishing the income taxes or painting the kitchen ceiling. I am spending less time than literally ever before on errands and commuting; the latter has given me about 6 hours per week. A tank of gas is going to last a long time; we won’t need new tires anytime soon, and the 15-year old car will keep going longer.
My work-from-home situation is temporary, and returning comes with another set of anxieties. Mari will be spending her 17th birthday with her parents, without her friends, and she’s bummed about that. I’d had many ideas for activities that we could do to celebrate her birthday, but now I need to brainstorm again. I am concerned about my parents, who live 2000 miles away, with few friends or contacts in a small town. Should they become ill, it will be difficult for me to assist them. I worry about the virus finding its way through our door, or those of my friends and colleagues. I worry about the effect this will have on the businesses that have made Minnesota’s economy so resilient in the past. I worry about the workers who will become ill and possibly infect their families. I worry that this virus might orphan some children. I worry about everyone losing their savings.
There are more worries, but I know everyone else has them too.
To think, last year we were all complaining about the brutal winter we had weathered!
Here’s what I am going to do to try to counteract the worries: my daily commute time will become meditation and journaling time.
Recently, a friend was bored while recovering from surgery and asked me for ideas of what she could do. I am revisiting this list now to have ideas for our household in the coming weeks, when we will be limiting activities outside the house.
Go outside. Sunshine and exercise maintain body and soul. Watch sunrises and sunsets, look at the constellations, observe wildlife, identify birds, notice when the first flowers and insects of the season appear, have a family campfire. Walk, hike, bike, skate.
Do something with your hands and let your thoughts run. You’ll probably come up with lots of things you’d like to do with available time. (Make bread or a finely chopped salad. Knit or crochet. Bead. Whittle. Etc.)
Make lists – things to do with family or for yourself; places you want to go, whether near or far; tasks to do inside and outside the home; ideas for meals; books to read…
Look at family photos together.
Learn a new skill or hobby – or resume one that has fallen by the wayside. If trying something new, just get supplies for one project.
Refresh a skill that has long gone unused, such as the calculus learned in college. Or expand on a skill, such as learning a new programming or world language.
Play an instrument, or start learning a new one.
Journal. Write letters to friends. Write letters to family. Email is fine – but try communicating in complete sentences outside of texting!
Plan a vacation for the future – just plan, no commitments here. Plan where and what you’ll do and where you’ll stay. Half the fun is in the planning and looking ahead. (Mari had to do this two years ago for an economics class and still talks about it!)
Think about life goals, what you want to accomplish, how to prioritize. Choose one goal and really plan it (look up SMART goals).
Write elected officials in the state or federal legislature about topics that are important to you.
Organize closets and drawers, garage, basement, etc. Declutter: if there’s something in the house that doesn’t get used during a time like this, it may never get used.
Find some new music that you enjoy. Listen to it while doing chores.
Seed the vegetable garden as soon as the ground thaws – brassicas, lettuce, and spinach don’t mind the cold soil.
Write the story of your childhood for your kids. They might not appreciate it now, but they will love it when they are older. Collect stories from the other adults in your family, too.
Make photo books for yourself, or for your kids or friends.
If you make gifts for your loved ones, get a jump start on upcoming gifting events.
Clean and sharpen garden tools. For that matter, sharpen the kitchen knives, too.
Read a book. Read poetry. Read.
Complete the online Census form.
Learn to do something on the computer that’s generally useful, such as image or video editing.
Play a game, maybe one of those board games that never comes off the shelf because it takes too long.
Finish the taxes.
Get from the library some kids’ nonfiction books on topics that interest you – they are quick reads and you can learn a lot. Get a big stack of books, in general.
Walk, and walk some more. Walk meditatively at whatever pace you like. Notice all that you sense: sounds, smells, sights. Enjoy the birds – they are miraculous, truly.
Your turn! What are some of the things that you never have time for?
I have a goal for the next few days, and that is to achieve a mental state of being miles from anywhere. It would probably be impossible for me to do that at home. We’re at our friends’ cabin, a few hours from the Cities and nearly deserted in winter, which is therefore my favorite time to visit. This morning’s treats have been waking after an unusually undisturbed sleep, watching the sun rise over the frozen, snow-covered lake, walking the dog and hearing a bird that I couldn’t identify, and now smelling bread baking… and I’ve only been up for an hour. Since I’m the only morning person here, I have at least a couple more hours of silence to enjoy.
I unplugged the wifi last night at our family’s designated screen-off time and will leave us disconnected until someone complains (at which time this will be posted). Cell phone service is spotty here, a situation which Mari might feel is disastrous but which I would welcome even under normal circumstances, and which is particularly refreshing after a week of being on edge, waiting for announcements from every entity and agency and trying to strategize for the truly unpredictable future.
I scheduled these few vacation days quite some time ago, thinking that this would be a calm time at work, but now would like to be there for the planning that is taking place. It will be ok. At work and at home, everyone will have to use their best talents in these coming months, more so than usual. This is an interesting time for Mari to be experiencing as a teen; it may shape her future, her career choice, and even her everyday reality for the next year.
For today, I have freshly baked bread, the moving shadows of pine trees on snow, a softly snoring dog at my feet, cozy pajamas and no need to change, a stack of books, and a notebook for thoughts. Today is vacation.
After that, we cleaned up/put away the fall decor items and got out the Christmas tree and decorations, and set about getting that all ready to decorate later in the day. The kids were soooooo excited to see the Xmas stuff come out again, especially their books.
Then we packed up our kiddies and goodies and headed to my sister’s for a belated Thanksgiving of delicious and simple foods, games and play. I made my family do an activity where we wrote down what we were thankful for and had to guess who’d written it. We laughed really hard. I kept them for a future year to look back on, though I’ll admit that may be wishful thinking!
We came home and finished the decorating (which is adorably lopsided), had a yummy leftovers supper and the kids went to bed with zero fuss in my big bed snuggled up on either side of me. And miraculously, I didn’t fall asleep myself, but just drank in those little bodies snoring there next to me.
I headed downstairs and decided I’d do some crafting, so I got out my Pandora and earbuds and fancy paper from when I actually scrapbooked and all the photos of why I want to lose weight that I printed weeks ago and got my creativity on. And doing so revealed a big aha! I don’t necessarily want to lose weight for the loss of the weight itself. I want to lose it so I can be active, mobile, adventurous for a long time to come. But I can have activity and adventure now. And I’ll only achieve the mobility part if I DO have activity now. I don’t have to wait to lose one more pound. So today, I went to yoga.
And to top it off, I got lost in the rest of a book and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished. I had to hide in the bathroom to finish it, but it was worth it. And since it was a YA novel, I didn’t have to stay up all night to get my lost-in-a-book feeling.
A Facebook friend shared this graphic recently and I can’t stop thinking about it. I have to-do lists miles long on the computer, in notebooks, in my head, unspoken, carried around all the time. I suspect many women, particularly mothers, relate. She kindly posted an inclusion of dads, but I wasn’t so nice or feeling so accommodating about the mental load men carry, as in most circles, men can simply opt out with no repercussions to career, standing in society or family. But it was stopping to articulate that thought in a comment to my friend that got me thinking, well, why couldn’t I opt out, too? So I decided to explore a bit more.
As I’ve written about before, I’m trying to practice new ways of thinking about thinking. The programs I’ve been a part of use what’s called the Model: We have Thoughts regarding Circumstances. Our Thoughts create our Feelings which drive our Actions and create our Results. Our Results always prove our Thoughts true. We outline this in a graphic organizer labeled CTFAR. Brooke Castillo, Corinne Crabtree, Kara Lowentheil, and many other coaches trained through The Life Coach School use the Model to teach and coach.
Here are some unintentional models I think I have working about mental load:
C – mental load
T – If I don’t think of all this crap, I can’t guarantee it will get done.
F – pressure
A – Constant tasks, constant making of lists, always “optimizing” time and doing errands, orders, thinking.
R – I think about all this crap, but can’t guarantee it will all get done.
C – mental load
T – Men don’t suffer any consequences if this crap doesn’t get done.
F – victimized
A – Spend inordinate amounts of time in thought about everything there is to do, OR NONE in rebellion – sticking my head in the figurative sand
R – Men DON’T suffer any consequences, but I do.
C – mental load
T – People will think I’m a terrible mother or an unfit employee or (insert any number of perceptions/opinions of others here) if I don’t stay on top of this crap.
F – anxiety
A – perpetual to-do lists, taking on more, proving myself, not fully relaxing/recharging at any moment
R – I’m not a great mother OR employee OR . . .
Here was a surprise one:
C – mental load
T – It’s time to pare down.
F – overwhelmed
A – spin in deciding what to get rid of (physical or mental/emotional)
R – It’s still time to pare down.
Here are some Models I’d rather have (Intentional Models):
But what if I tried on:
C – mental load
T – What gets done gets done.
F – Peace
A – prioritize, eliminate, allow unfinished tasks without worry
R – What gets done gets done.
C – mental load
T – I don’t have to think of everything right now.
F – Permission.
A – relax, or fully finish one thing before starting another. Case in point: as I’m writing this, my husband popped his head in the door and reminded me I should wake the 3 year old up from a rare nap. I sat back down and kept writing.
R – I don’t think of everything right now/all at once.
I could try:
C – mental load
T – Maybe I could pare down a little at a time.
F – Curious
A – Cull some low hanging fruit, think about systems to set up/change that would save time and mental energy
R – I pare down a little at a time.
(That one works 🙂 )
Regarding others’ thoughts:
C – mental load (and what I do/don’t get done as a result)
T – What other people think about me is their Model
F – free
A – go about my own life
R – What other people think about me is their Model
So what I’m trying to get at with all this gobbledygook, which is meaningful to me but maybe not so much to you, is that 1) I can control my Feelings about all the tasks to be undertaken in an adult life by my Thoughts, and 2) whatever anyone else feels about me as a result is from THEIR OWN Thoughts about the issue, and is not within my control to change. So: do I need to let mental load be such a problem? I think I can work on my thoughts to feel more positively about the many things I choose to do in my life. And maybe part of that IS to pare down/streamline. And maybe some of it is simply to shift my thoughts, without changing a thing.