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In my work and my life, I notice that I go through times of intense activity and productivity, but that these eventually spin down. No one can maintain such a fever pitch indefinitely. When I am working “well,” I cruise along at a sustainable rate, confident that I have that extra literary “gear” when needed. The same is true for emotional intensity regarding political and other matters, in my case preparing for the upcoming parole hearing of the man who raped and murdered my mother. We step up to the plate, do what is necessary, deal with what we must, and set aside what we cannot handle (hopefully for some future time, rather than burying it indefinitely).

For every advance, there comes a rest. A rest is not a retreat, not a failure, although at times it can seem so. We can become so accustomed to putting forth our maximum effort that it becomes normal. It’s no longer a matter of setting aside other needs to make a heroic effort; those needs get put “on hold” indefinitely. We become desensitized to our own inner promptings, as well as the needs of those closest to us such as our families and partners. We can find all sorts of justifications for our continued dedication to that task or good cause. Just because we can carry the weight to the exclusion of everything else doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for us to do so. It’s important to recognize the difference between an emotionally intense sprint and a long-term, marathon effort.

Another reason why it’s often hard to let go of sprint-mode is that a return to a more balanced life and normal energy levels feels like back-sliding or going in reverse. It’s the emotional equivalent of how the room keeps spinning even when we stop and stand still. Sometimes there is indeed a dip in energy to balance out the extra energy expended during the all-out push. I have to keep reminding myself that needing “down” time is not the same thing as weakness, failure, or deterioration. Recharging my physical and emotional batteries, so to speak, is an essential part of being able to take the next step forward.

These periods of rest always last longer than I think they should. Recuperation and regeneration take time, and they also take resources. Simply ceasing activity stops the outflow, but it may take a long time for the inflow to restore balance. I think of the earth as it passes through the seasons and how winter is a fallow time. Fallow doesn’t mean inert, though. We may not be able to see it, but there are slow, restorative changes happening in root and soil, branch and seed.

What does it mean for me as a human being to be in a state of restoration as opposed to immobility?

What nourishes my spirit? (Music, friends, nature, meditative practices, community?)

What refreshes my body? (Good food, exercise, fresh air, massage?)

What rejuvenates my mind? (Reading, learning a new skill or musical instrument, museums, lively conversation, travel, lifelong education?)
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Given everything I’ve been dealing with – fear about the unfolding political scene on one hand and the recurring nightmare of an upcoming parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother on the other – I have at times felt powerless. Not just powerless but unable to summon the energy to continue what seems like an endless, life-draining battle. I become prey to fear at these times, fear that I will slip back into unending waking nightmare that was my experience of PTSD. I have worked hard to claw my way back to health, and when I am overwhelmed, I forget all the lessons I have learned and the ways I have changed.

It’s said that fear is False Evidence Appearing Real (or Fuck Everything And Run). It takes courage and a dedication to clear-sighted integrity, seeing what is real both in myself and in the world, to overcome those fears.

But I’ve also heard courage is fear that has said its prayers. I don’t have to be fearless. I’m not sure that’s possible without massive self-delusion. To do what I am called to do even though I am afraid is the essence of courage.

Where do I find such courage? It’s commonplace to suppose that “doing something for someone else” or because no one else can do it is the best way to overcome fear. I’ve done my share of acting according to this belief. I find that although it is sometimes effective, it’s harsh instead of nourishing. It’s a position of desperation. I soon find myself “running on empty.” I’m the last person I take care of or even give consideration to. In fact, the very notion that taking action when afraid can be nourishing came as a startling revelation to me.

There are so many things I cannot change, the past being at the top of that list. But I do have some say in my own attitude. Instead of seeing myself as desperate and without any choices but to plunge ahead, gritting my teeth the whole way, I can see myself as resourceful. I learned to do this for others when my kids were having a hard time in their teenaged years and my therapist pointed out that they didn’t need me to inflict my own worries on them, communicating that I thought they were incapable of handling their problems; what they needed was my faith in their ability to find their own creative solutions.

So if I’m going to be creative and resourceful in facing the parole hearing and the distress rampant in my community, I need to think “outside the box.” Not attending the hearing is an option that never occurred to me in the early years. Once I let go of “I have to do this,” I see other possibilities. Some I can anticipate on a reasonable basis (another family member might attend, a representative of the D.A.’s office might – actually, does – attend; I could send a video of my statement; I could hire an attorney to attend in my place), but I must also keep in mind that my imagination doesn’t dictate what happens. Many times I thought I knew all the possible outcomes, only to discover that what actually happened was something I had no way of anticipating.

There’s also the aspect I hinted at above, that instead of forcing myself to do something terrifying, I try to discern where I am led. That implies a leader, a caller, or one who summons, and these are reassuring concepts for people of many faiths. I don’t mean it as a religious tenet. “Being led” is shorthand for finding the actions that are right for us. That sense of rightness is akin to true vocation. What lies before us may be perilous, filled with reversals and setbacks, but following that path brings us deep satisfaction and sometimes even joy.

I’ve found that it’s equally important to remember I am not alone. The rugged individual, dragon slayer mode doesn’t have any room for asking for help or delegating or letting someone else take point. All of these things allow me to catch my breath, so to speak. Once I’ve stepped back, I can evaluate where my abilities are best applied and how much energy I have at any given time. Knowing what I’m good at, what I may not be skillful at but am willing to tackle, and what I really, really don’t want to do allows me to make mindful choices. When I ask for help, I often discover that those toxic areas aren’t the same for everyone. For example, making phone calls is easy for some people and grueling for others.

Instead of “I have to do this. Alone. No matter what it costs me,” I move toward “I’ve created a support network, and together we can handle this.” Sorrows shared are thus divided; we carry each another when one of us stumbles. My resourcefulness includes the strength of others. By tackling daunting tasks in community, I become not only stronger but more resilient. I learn again and again that I am resourceful in my friends as well as my individual abilities, and that makes me powerful.
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When I received a letter from the Department of Corrections, informing me of the late March parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother, I felt overwhelmed. It had been as much as I could do to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of the election and then the illness and death of our wonderful German Shepherd Dog, Tajji. I knew the next hearing was schedule for 2017, but I did not expect to begin the year in dread of that ordeal. I know what these hearings have done to me in the past and how hard I have had to work on survival and recovery. Each hearing has not only opened old wounds but created new ones as more was revealed.

Almost immediately, I started noticing worrisome changes in my mental health. In the 30 years since my mother was killed, I’ve come to know the “warning signs” quite well. I no longer ignore them as I once did. I dare not “soldier on” or bury myself in work: that way lies madness. Thank goodness, I have never been tempted to use substances, legal or not, to escape. Instead, I run to anxiety as my drug of choice. This time I decided to take action on my own behalf before I got into serious trouble.

First I enlisted allies. At the top of that list is my family, both my daughters (one at home, one across the country) and husband, and my sister, with whom I’m very close but who lives in a different part of the state. I let them know I was having a hard time and that if I was distracted or irritable (or flaming irrational), to not take it personally because that meant I needed help. No matter what’s going on, extra hugs are always helpful! So it goes without saying that I am asking for – and receiving – more physical affection. I find my whole body relaxing into a hug and I often fall asleep while cuddling with my husband, I feel so safe and loved.

I decided to tackle my broken sleep first. My daughter and I had gotten into the habit of watching videos until it was bed time. We made a pact (and shook on it) to turn off the television early, to not begin a new episode of whatever program we were streaming after 9 pm. I was delighted at her enthusiasm for meditating with me. We got out our cushions and sat on the living room floor, facing one another. The first evening, we lasted only 5 minutes, but that was enough to produce a sound night’s sleep. Since then we’ve missed a night here and there, but have been continuing the practice for progressively longer times. I don’t need an hour; 10 or 15 minutes seem enough right now. Soon we realized that one of the cats was joining us, sitting in between us or on my lap, and purring. I found the purring added to my relaxation and mental calm.

Secondly, I began keeping a journal again with the specific purpose of using this method to sort through the various logistical decisions surrounding the parole hearing. Taking out the old spiral bound notebook was like meeting an old friend again. This practice had the effect of “corralling” stressful thoughts into a specific setting. Knowing I had a time and place to figure things out – and that I was not allowed to do so at other times and places! – is very helpful. I reminded myself that once I decided what order I wanted to do things in, it was necessary to only worry about the one at the top of the list. One thing at a time, breaking what seemed like an insurmountable load into small, manageable steps. Soon I had prioritized the decisions and tackled the first, most time-critical action. At this point, I had to take myself in hand and not go on to the next one but to allow myself a breather in which to regain my emotional balance.

Third, I have been reaching out to other people I trust, most of whom know the whole wretched story. This way, I have people to talk to with whom I don’t have to rehash history. I miss my best friend, who was an incredible source of support through very painful times, but since her passing I have gotten closer to other friends. As has happened before, I have been sometimes surprised and deeply touched by the kindness and wisdom of the people in my life.

Next up is to ask the Quaker meeting (of which my husband is a member, and I an attender) for a Clearness Committee. This is a small group of weighty Friends who sit with you not to offer advice but to support you in your discernment of a path. I’ve done this for the last two parole hearings and the experience of being “held in the Light” with such tenderness has sustained me.

I find myself missing the comfort of a dog, especially one as responsive and emotionally literate as Tajji. The cats have been extra cuddly since Tajji died, and Shakir, the one who meditates with my daughter and me, curls up beside me at night on the other side from my husband. But it’s too soon to get another dog, so I imagine Tajji wagging her tail at me and giving me a big doggie grin.
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Life has treated me to a bumpy ride recently. I’ve written about challenging times following the election, with all the fear, confusion, and so on. It seemed the bad news would never end when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. We lost our old German Shepherd Dog after a short but difficult illness that turned all our lives inside out. Through this, I tried to practice good self care, cultivate insight and perspective, and share my journey. Mostly I was able to regain my emotional and spiritual balance, and the periods of feeling at a loss grew shorter. The grief for our dog felt natural and healthy; she had gone peacefully in the end, surrounded by love, and we all had so many happy memories of her.

And then I received a letter from the Department of Corrections with the date of the next parole hearing of the man who’d raped and murdered my mother. It’s such a horrendous thing to be reminded of at the best of times, but now, when my stability is already fragile, it’s particularly awful. I’ve written about the murder many times over the years, from my introduction letter upon joining SFWA to a recent post as part of #HoldOnToTheLight (a blog campaign encompassing posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues). I tell my story when I campaign against the death penalty. As much as I do not want to give a single thought to the murder and its aftermath right now, I’m going to have to deal with it. Whether or not I attend in person, send a letter, record a video statement, ask friends to write letters opposing his release, it’s in my mind. Like some particularly vile parasitic worm, it’s wending its way from my thoughts into my guts.

Sometimes treading water is the best you can do, and that’s enough. Running as fast as you can to just stay in place at least keeps you in place. Life flattens us and we have a good cry and then pick ourselves up. Our friends (and sometimes strangers) give us a hand up. We do the same for them. But sometimes what life piles on us is Just. Too. Much.

I didn’t get to vote on this. I didn’t ask for it. My mother was an amazing, compassionate, intelligent, radiant soul. Even if I walk away, the way her life ended will still be with me. I can’t take it out of my mind and body, let alone my spirit.

It sucks bigtime.

That’s where I am today. Despite all the self care, I’m sleeping badly. I’m irritable, at times bordering on irrational, although my family nudges me back to sanity. My muscles reflect the inner escalation of tension. Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun to be me, but not now. I’m not sure why the people who love me put up with me.

Sleep is my miner’s canary, my early-warning signal that I’m no longer treading water, I’m sinking. I don’t ever, ever want to go back to what happened to me after the first parole hearing, so I take these signals very seriously. I take it even more seriously when a dear friend and, separately, a family member express concern for me. I’ve learned to not brush off such concerns with, “I’m fine.” I’m so clearly not fine. If someone who cares about me sees something in my behavior, or hears something behind my words or in my unguarded expression, for them to say something to me is an act of pure love.

When we’re drowning, we need all the love we are offered.

I am loved, and that’s how I’m going to get through this as a sane, loving person.

In the next installment of “In Troubled Times,” I’ll share some of the ways I’m giving myself extra help. I don’t expect it to be an easy passage, but I’ve learned a lot over the years about surviving even what seems to be unsurvivable. Please come on that journey with me: it’s not one anybody should ever take alone.
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Recently, I’ve noticed more articles on staying grounded in joy and hope, even when surrounded by fear. Perhaps such articles have always been part of the general social media discourse and I am only now becoming sufficiently calm to notice them. But I rather think (hope!) this is a trend. In me, it certainly is. After the initial rounds of fear and trepidation, the constant adrenaline wore off. I’m not naturally a person who enjoys being fearful; from my experience training dogs, I suspect it’s not an appealing state for most of us. Some, I suppose, enjoy the “high” of confrontation, even violence, but I’m not among them. Harming others and myself is not where I want to live my life.

I see also posts affirming commitment to action, often in terms of “We Will Fight On!” and I’ve been resisting the urge to jump on that bandwagon. (Also the “Organize the Resistance” brigade.) It all sounds so necessary, a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. And is just as unrealistic for me as remaining in that state of terrified fury.

As unhealthy.

I am not objecting to others following the paths to which they are led. Resisting fascism and protecting the most vulnerable are inarguably vital to our survival as individuals, communities, and a society. I am thrilled that people have the drive and knowledge to organize such resistance. I will be right there, cheering them on. But I won’t be in the forefront.

It’s taken me a long time, coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool organizers (labor unions, radical politics, war resistance, etc.) to come to terms with not being one of them. Undoubtedly, seeing the cost to my family played a role in my reluctance. I’ve marched in my share of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, written a gazillion letters, painted an equal number of signs. But it’s not where my heart is. I’ve seen the joy in the eyes of those for whom this is their passion, their “thing.” I want to hug them all and say, “I’m so glad you’re out there, doing this for both of us.”

The fallacy is that making the world a better place is an either/or proposition. Either I’m out there, making headlines by facilitating events of vast numbers for the people’s revolution (as an example), or I’m sitting at home, knitting while Yosemite burns.

The fact is, any social movement happens on many levels. There’s the outward, banner-headline, political level, one that often requires organization on a national or international level. There is a community level, supporting your neighbors, particularly those in need. Soup kitchens are just as necessary as demonstrations outside the White House, although they serve fewer people. Taking care of ourselves and our families is yet another.

Quiet, mindful actions that focus on compassion, justice, and unity need not be limited to small numbers. In fact, outward activism must be balanced by inner activism. We can all find where we are called to act along that spectrum, and we can move back and forth (or in and out, whichever image works best) with circumstances, experience, and energy levels. What a relief to realize I don’t have to pick one thing or level of involvement!

So what speaks to me right now is remembering joy. The year to come is almost certainly going to be full of occasions for grimness if not despair, so I don’t want to start off that way. I want to full up my “savings account of hope” as much as I can, cultivating those people, places, and things that lift my spirits. I want to never, ever let go of believing we can survive this, kindness and persistence will triumph, and no matter how dark it may seem at the moment, love will win.

I refuse my consent to fascism. I also refuse my consent to despair.
I affirm that I will cling tenaciously – relentlessly – to hope, and I invite you to do so, too.
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Last week I had a meltdown. It did not take the form of tears, irritability, or burning pots of vegetables (as I am wont to do when I am upset and distracted). Instead, a horrible doomsday scenario popped into my mind and I could not talk myself out of it. Normally I’m not given to imagining worst-case no-hope futures. I try to keep in mind that no matter how distraught I am at any given moment, whatever is bothering me will not last forever. (This goes for good times, too. All life is impermanent.) This time, however, the dreadful sequence had taken hold and would not be dislodged.

So I did what I have been advised to do about other problems. I put my nightmare out there and asked folks what they thought. I often joke that we muddle along because we’re not all crazy on the same day. I figured that even though my brains had taken a sharp turn to crazyland, there were some saner people out there. Some agreed with me, others had their own dire forebodings, and still more had confidence that wiser heads would prevail.

After I’d calmed down, I had a serious moment of “What got into me?” I admit that I was a little embarrassed at losing it, especially in such a public way. I tried to make light of the situation by joking that aliens had eaten my brains (one of my stock explanations for moments of temporary insanity).

Then I remembered to be kind to myself. No harm had been done, after all, except to the illusion that I am always calm and rational. That’s a good illusion to shatter now and again for fear of being insufferable. Through painful experience, I’ve learned the importance of getting friendly with things that upset or frighten me. What if my lapse were doing me a favor and what might it teach me?

Once I got some distance from the moment of panic, I realized that I’d been expecting myself to progress in a straight, continuous manner. No backsliding or side tracks. No relapses. Recovery sometimes works like that, but more often it’s full of slips and detours, three steps sideways to every step forward. Just as when an alcoholic or addict “hits bottom” before they are ready to make substantial changes in their attitudes and lives, going “off the deep end” was a wake-up call for me. I saw then that I had been stressed by more than the political situation. We have two sick or injured pets, one of whom will likely not recover and will have to be euthanized. Several other challenging events have occurred that, taken singly, would be manageable, but all together on top of everything else pushed me off-center.

I’m grateful to the friends who offered sage (and not-so-sage) comments and thereby helped me to gain perspective on my own condition. I’m incredibly annoyed that the universe ganged up on me in so many ways all at once. I’m also appreciative of the experiences I’ve had (good, bad, insane) over the years that have shown me I am not invincible but that if I am willing to ask for help (and then take it), I am resilient and resourceful. I value everyone and everything in my life that helps me to keep my priorities straight.
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As the days post-election melt into weeks, I observe myself moving from disbelief to despair to relative calm . . . and now to feeling just plain annoyed. I am tired of the news being dominated by one horrible announcement after another, and even more tired of how much attention is paid to the continuous verbal effluvia flowing from the president-elect. I am tired of being jerked around emotionally by a bloviating buffoon whose chief delight seems to be keeping everyone else off-balance. I’m tired of every conversation about the news beginning with “Guess what outrageous thing president-elect/his newest appointee/some member of Congress just said?”

It’s one thing to be appalled and frightened by the statements of politicians now in power. There’s a time to focus on politics and a time for other parts of my life. It’s quite another to have my thoughts and days hijacked by irresponsible sensationalism. Not to mention counterfactual (aka “lies”) distortions. Remember the meme of the person who can’t sleep because somewhere on the internet, someone is wrong? When my brain gets taken over by provocative statements, that’s where I am, duped into a cycle of research and refutation. It’s a gazillion times worse if I give in to a lapse in judgment and actually reply to one of those folks-who-are-wrong. That never ends well, no matter how many times I persuade myself into believing otherwise. Social media do not, by and large, promote genuine discourse, but I get sucked into trying. Of course, the responses only get me more wound up. That’s my responsibility, because I know better. But I really would like to be able to glance at the news or visit a social media site now and again without having to fend off the lure of the outrageous.

Why is the fruitcake (and surrogates) dominating the news? I swear, every time he twitches a finger (especially in proximity to his cellphone), it makes headlines everywhere. On his part, the tactic of controlling the dialog by throwing out pompously outrageous lies is nothing new. That’s how he dominated the primary debates. He got billions of dollars worth of free air time during the general campaign by poking one hornets’ nest after another. Now he’s doing it on an international scale. And the news media buy into it every time, battling the hydra that grows a hundred heads for every one they whack off with facts. We’ve gone from sucking all the oxygen out of the room to sucking all the oxygen out of the news sphere and now the world.

I draw the line at sucking all the oxygen out of my head. Okay, I’m not hopeful that the media will take my suggestion to just ignore any sentence that includes “Trump” and “Tweet,” nor am I a good enough nerd to reprogram my computer to do that for me. Nor do I want to shut myself away from news of any sort. For one thing, I know myself well enough to admit that would be too anxiety-provoking. I will likely do better when I become better at not responding to trollishness.

But right now, mostly I’m annoyed to the point of being downright pissed. I recognize that anger can be friend or enemy. It’s energizing, which can be exhausting if I spend too much time wound up, or focusing if I master it. If I give in, I run the risk of descending into petty insults and ad hominen fallacies. Or I can use it to point the way to improvements in my own attitudes and behavior. What’s getting to me, and why? My anger can show me the line between things best shrugged off and those that call for action.
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I have long understood the dangers and seductions of overwork. I’ve frequently coped with stress by balancing my checkbook or going over budget figures. Or reading and replying to every single email in my Inbox. It needn’t be intellectual work: scrubbing bathrooms or reorganizing closets works just fine. All these things involve attention to detail and (to one degree or another) restoring a sense of order to an otherwise capricious and chaotic world. I come by it honestly; when I was growing up, I saw my parents, my father in particular, plunge into work in response to the enormous problems our family faced. He and I are by no means unique. We live in a culture that values work above personal life and outward productivity over inner sensitivity.

“Work” doesn’t have to result in a measurable output. Anything that demands attention (preferably to the exclusion of all else) will do. Reading news stories or following social media accomplish the same objective and have the same result: they put our emotions “on hold.”

As I’ve struggled to detach from the waves of upsetting news, I have noticed an increased tendency in myself to overwork. It occurs to me that I reach for those activities in a very similar way other folks might reach for a glass of liquor or a pack of cigarettes (or things less legal). Or exercising to exhaustion, or any of the many things we do to excess that keep us from feeling. There’s a huge difference between the need to take a breather from things that distress us and using substances or activities in a chronic, ongoing fashion to dampen our emotional reactions. The problem is that when we do these things, we shut off not only the uncomfortable feelings (upset, fear, etc.) but other feelings as well.

The challenge then becomes how to balance the human desire for “time-out” from the uncertainties and fears of the last few weeks and not numbing out. In my own experience, the process of balancing begins with awareness of what tempts me, whether I indulge in it or not. Is it something that can be good or bad, depending on whether I do it to excess? (Exercise, for example.) Or something best avoided entirely? (Some forms of risk-taking behavior, like unprotected sex with strangers.) If it can be both a strength and a weakness, how do I tell when enough is enough, or what a healthy way to do this is?

When is it time to run away (to Middle Earth, to a night club, to answering every single Tweet) and when is it time to come back? Am I able to extricate myself or do I need external help (an alarm clock, a family member)?

What about getting creative with escapes? Instead of binge-watching Stranger Things, how about taking the dog for a long hike and then watching one episode? A bubble bath instead of a drink? Calling a trusted friend before clicking on FaceBook?

Finally, a word on being gentle with ourselves. No matter how resourceful and conscious I am, I’m going to slip. That’s part of human nature. All these numbing escapes work, and that means not only will we reach for them, we’ll keep doing them. Will power alone isn’t enough to break us out of a session that’s gone on way too long (or that fourth drink or second pack of cigarettes). Some days we’ll do better than others. So it’s important to be kind to ourselves and others. We’re all coping with a difficult time, sometimes in healthier ways than others. Beating ourselves up for spending too much time playing video games won’t stop us the next time we reach for the console: it will only give us one more thing to escape from. One of the most helpful things I’ve done is to talk to others about what’s going on with me. If I notice my eyes and shoulders are screaming at me from too many hours staring at a computer screen, that’s a great opening for a conversation. I can ask for a friendly ear, whether I want advice or not. Commiseration and sharing of our different experiences – our failures as well as our successes – makes me more likely to try something else.

What escapes appeal to you particularly these days? Are they healthy (or can they be, if indulged with moderation)? How do you handle occasions of excess? What helps you to stay in touch with your feelings, or to come back to them after a break?
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Recently a friend voiced her despair about the effect of the elections and the president-elect’s nominations on the future of the planet. She said “fear” was too mild a term. Her conversation kept referencing the Permian extinction event and the destruction of the Earth. I admit I didn’t respond well. I tend to react to emotion-laden exaggerations of complex issues, and that reaction overrode the compassionate thing to do, which was to listen to her feelings. My mind flipped from a conversation about emotions to one about facts. Needless to say, she was not interested in whether current projects are for a target global warming of 3.6 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius.

In observing my own mind, I notice what I do when faced with the notion of looming ecological disaster. I run away to information. In this case, at least, I find it calming. The facts don’t change, but researching the issue and reading the considered opinions of people with legitimate scientific credentials who have studied the matter in depth changes my emotional reaction. I suspect a portion of this runs along the lines of, “Whew, I don’t have to figure this out all on my own!” I’m only one of many who are grappling with the problem.

Clearly, this was not my friend’s process. A little bit of information (the Permian extinction event plunged her into even greater hopelessness. From this I take away something so simple, its profound truth often escapes me: we don’t all cope with stressful news in the same way.

I’ve written about paying attention to what makes me feel calmer or more distraught, and then making mindful choices. Although information is helpful to me, it can also have an addictive quality. We writers joke about doing so much research on a novel project, the book never gets written. Similarly, I can mire myself in one source after another until I go numb. That numb state is a sure sign I’ve either made a poor choice or gone too far.

Blogging about my process, however, seems not to have a down side. I suspect this is because such writing puts me in better touch with my feelings and increases my sensitivity to what is good for me and what is harmful. It has the added benefit of being of service to others who are wrestling with the same issues, searching for a way through the morass of upset feelings to a way forward in what the Buddhists call “right action.”

Reaching out to others, offering my help, sharing my experience and insight and listening to their own, all these things lift me from despair.

What things help you?
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A few days ago, John Scalzi wrote in his blog, Whatever, “…the Trump administration and its enablers are going to make a mad gallop out of the gate to do a whole bunch of awful things, to overwhelm you with sheer volume right at the outset.”

Pretty shocking statement, huh? That was my first reaction. My second was that Scalzi is very likely correct. All the signs are there…all the signs that in my panic-stricken moments, I want to ignore so hard they go away.

My next reaction was to surrender my mind to a gazillion chattering monkeys, each with her own idea of What Must Be Done Right Now. I can work myself into a downright tizzy in no time this way. Not only that, I can paralyze myself with too many alternatives and no way to prioritize them, jumbling actions I might take with those that are impossible or unsafe (crazy-making) for me.

Any of this sound familiar?

It’s all based on a false choice. I don’t have to either prepare now for the logically impending “awful things” or play ostrich on the river in Egypt. But in order to see other, saner alternatives, I must first evict the Monkeys of Panic so I can regard the situation calmly.

We’re in for some hard times, and knowing that is a relief.

At first, it seems counter-intuitive to say that acknowledging we are in for some dark times comes as a relief. The relief is because instead of nebulous fears running rampant, bursting into exaggeration and melodrama at every turn, vulnerable to any sort of fact-free hype, I’ve stepped away from the emotional storm. I’m facing the problem squarely, as my tai chi teacher used to say. We’re in for some tough times, and likely there will be a whole slew of bad news in the early months of 2017.

When I’m no longer trying to deny or distort the way things are (for example, Trump’s cabinet choices and what is known about them, or what he has said he will or won’t do) I not only become calmer, but better able to see things I might do, alone or in solidarity with like-minded folks.

This is based on a simple truth that in order to act effectively, I need to be sane. I can’t be sane if I’m bouncing off the walls at every headline on social media. I could, of course, disengage entirely from social media and refuse to read or listen to any sort of news. But I don’t want to do that. I want to stay engaged, but in a mindful way. I want to know what I’m up against. Once I stop fighting the reality of what that is, I free myself to use my energy and time in productive ways. I don’t know exactly what form these tough times will take, but I don’t need to prepare for every twist and turn. I can trust my ability to respond appropriately and creatively.
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Most of us who drink alcohol have sooner or later imbibed too much of it. Setting aside the embarrassing and unhealthful effect of such overindulgence, we then got to experience nature’s own payback: a hangover. Not only do we feel wretched, we grapple with the fact that we inflicted this misery on ourselves by our own choices.

Recently I’ve noticed behaviors (other than drinking) that leave me with a feeling of emotional or spiritual malaise. Not “What was I drinking?” but “What was I thinking?”

When I take note of the symptoms of “spiritual or emotional” hangover, I become aware of the situations, topics, or even people that lead me to abandon my center. While it is undoubtedly theoretically true that no one can make me feel or behave in ways I will regret, in practice my will power needs help.

When I am already anxious, distracted, confused, or all the other things I have been feeling since the election, I’m not at my best. My judgment can be unreliable. Ditto my self-control. If I put myself in compromising situations, I am likely to say things I will regret. The regret stems not so much from external consequences but from how I then feel about myself. No matter how I value kindness, I can behave in harsh, unkind ways when I’m in over my head. Over the years I’ve gotten very good at admitting error and making things right, to the point that I would much rather avoid acting badly to begin with.

Many of us have remarked how social media is both addictive and inflammatory. In a fit of irritation or self-righteousness, we zip off a caustic comment and push ENTER. Then we keep coming back for another dose. It’s an engraved invitation to insanity! Very few of us are capable of going cold turkey, and I’m not sure that’s really a solution. When we return to social media, as most of us will, we will be in exactly the same state in which we left it. We won’t be any more skillful in detaching ourselves or of passing by the temptation to be cruel or snarky. We won’t be any closer to finding communities, people, topics, or environments that help us to feel calmer, kinder, and more hopeful. We’ll be like alcoholics who stop drinking but never address the underlying issues or the consequences.

In addition to being careful about situations that may provoke me to things I’ll regret, I can ask myself what keeps me coming back. Is it the illusion that news (including gossip) will somehow make me safe? Or popular? Or smart? What do I get from visiting those sites (maybe there is something positive)? Is there a grey area in which the positive benefits become negative, and if so, how can I better discern it?

What situations leave me with heart lifted and spirits mended? Who or what gives me hope? In what settings do I act my best? Who brings out the qualities in me that I value? How do I seek out such encounters?
deborahjross: (Default)
Elsewhere, a friend who is wrestling with some very hard stuff made a reference to a relationship that became a casualty of said hard stuff. I recently had a chance to meet some other family members of murder victims (more about that when I'm ready to write about it) and one of the questions that came up was whether a significant other (spouse/lover/bestfriend) had been supportive. The question unleashed a flood of response. This is something we don't talk about much, how the people we count on sometimes walk out on us. It happened to me. I wasn't dealing with life-threatening illness, but I went absolutely nuts after the first parole hearing of the man who killed my mother. I ended up having to rebuild my life alone. It took me a long time to let go of feelings of anger and abandonment.

We as a culture have this image that it's noble and wonderful to stand by a loved one who's struggling with hard stuff. Although we don't say it aloud, the implication is that loyalty is a measure of love.

It isn't.

I've come to understand that the people who walk out, don't do so because they don't love us or they're weak or they haven't tried hard enough. They do love us and they hang in there as long as they can. The bottom line, though, is that no matter how empathetic they are, no matter how many books they read on whatever we are facing or how many counseling sessions we attend together, they are not living our lives. We all come to a place where we run out of emotional and physical resources, where we just can't see our way through, where there's nothing left to give and the darkness, the pain, the fear are unrelenting. We all crumble under such oppressive weight. The difference is that they can crawl back into "normal life" and we can't.

I believe that the ones who love us and leave us wish beyond words that they could take us with them.

Something breaks in us both, but they get to put their lives back together without our agony and we don't. But we can do it, anyway. The miracle is that even when they give up on us (or so it seems) and we give up on ourselves, something remains, something tenacious and faithful. Maybe it's a part of ourselves that we can experience only in extremis. Maybe it's something beyond or outside ourselves. Maybe it's a moment of kindness from an unexpected source.

It is the seed not only of survival and growth but of forgiveness. It is a whisper of hope for us all.

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Deborah J. Ross

May 2017

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