seeking the mechanism

Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.

Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?

I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.

I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)

But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.

Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.

You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.

I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.

I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.

Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?

after the thrill is gone….

….happens to be the title of one of my favorite Eagles songs from the 1970s. But I was also thinking about this yesterday when I was doing yoga. On June 27 I started a big project I kind of jokingly called the “anti-flailing project.” As of yesterday, that’s ONE HUNDRED AND TWO DAYS. First of all, a big hurrah for sticking with it for 102 days. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

changeI have nothing new to say about the benefits, the changes I feel that seem due to this new way of doing things. But I do have something to say about the slog factor that hits once the thrill of newness fades. When I was on the yoga mat a couple of nights ago, I was facing that feeling. Actually, I faced it before I started. Ugh, I just don’t feel like it. No thrill to get me out of that chair. My focus was on how tired I felt, instead of on how great I knew I’d feel during the practice, and afterwards. A few weeks ago I went through a brief 1.5-day period of slipping back into my multi-tasking ways. Television on in the background all day, I’m sure I cooked and ate but I don’t remember, noise all around. When it hit me what I was doing, I thought nah, I’m just going to watch this show while I work. But pretty quickly, on the second day, that new wore off too. So moving as if I were wearing weights and reaching through molasses, I found the remote and turned off the television. Kinda resentful, I felt.

sloggingIt can be very hard to persist in a change when it’s no longer something new and different. When the contrast between before and now has faded in your memory. Across the span of my life I’ve tried to make changes, hit that persist point, and for any of a number of reasons just went back to my old ways. You know, they’re so comfortable! They’ve been my ways as long as I can remember! They’re normal, natural! That’s pretty seductive, especially when you feel a little weary of the new thing, when you feel like you’re just slogging along.

There are a couple of ways I have found that help me with this slog deal:

  • As in meditation, find the attitude of “just bring it back.” Just bring it back. OK, just turn off the television, bring it back. OK, just go change into your workout clothes. OK, just run to the market and get something fresh to make for dinner. No judgment of any kind (you’re not “bad!”), no stories (“well hell, I’ve ruined it now so whatever, more cake!”), just bring it back. I love that old Chinese sentiment, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. OK, maybe you’ve fallen off and that was several days/weeks ago (20 years), just bring it back (today). The “just bring it back” attitude is gentle and compassionate, and has nothing to say about what went ‘wrong,’ nothing at all. It’s not chiding. Just bring it back, that’s all.
  • If the compassionate approach doesn’t seem motivating to you, try the JFDI approach! People in an online weight loss group I belong to (now I just stay there to support the others) use that acronym on occasion and it always cracks me up. Just Fuckin Do It! As a Texan I drop my Gs, so that’s how I hear it. Now and then you might just have to be your own drill sergeant. For me, JBIB works better, but I share this in case you think it’ll help.
  • If that doesn’t work, use a cognitive-behavioral therapy technique: tell yourself you’re only going to do it for a set period of time. “OK, I’m just going to turn off the television for the next three hours.” Implicit there is that you can go right back to it when the time passes. And probably, assuming it’s something you really do want to be doing, probably you’ll remember why you were doing it in the first place! Probably it’ll feel good. Probably you won’t want to go back to the old thing after all.

Those have helped me when I stumble. To help with the long haul, though, at some point you have to let go of the words and idea “my new thing.” At some point it has to become just part of your day, part of your life, part of your identity. I am a person who tries to do yoga every day and mostly succeeds, unless I’m having an airport and flying day. (Even then I think about it and try to do some stretches when and where I can…..because I am a person who….) I am a person who tries to be present as much as possible. If the new thing can be phrased more simply (e.g., “I am a Quaker” instead of “a person who”) that’s even better. That is in fact an identity statement. The changes I’ve made don’t lend themselves to that, but the more I incorporate them into just who I am and just how I live my life, the easier it is to do the long haul. Because now it’s just my life.

Making a substantial change and sticking with it is so hard, and not all that common! Millions of dollars are spent on self-help books, diet books, and if they worked, the need for them would quickly disappear. Instead, people try this thing and then give up, so they try that thing and give up, and on and on. It’s hard. I’ve never been able to do it before, in all my years, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure why it’s been so easy this time. Maybe there’s an element of being ready for it. I’m sure that’s true.

If you have other tricks of the trade that have helped you stick with a change, please share them! Most of us are trying to make some kind of change, and we need all the help we can get. xo