NaNo Month of Turbulence

This is the first time since I started writing that I didn’t “win” National Novel Writing Month, completing 50,000 words by the end of November. Being a recovering perfectionist, it was hard to let go of that goal but with pre and post-election chaos, the closing of my Michigan home, and Covid-19 numbers spiking, I figured it might be hard to focus.

In past years, I would have given up everything to avoid failure and pull out a win. Instead I spent a restorative last weekend of the month at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Western North Dakota. On the way, I visited New Town Sue (the World’s largest holstein cow) and The Enchanted Highway where the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture “Geese in Flight” stands 110’ tall, 150’ wide, weighs 78.8 tons. The meandering trip was a well needed break from the four walls and subdivision city living that I’ve come to know the last two months.

Instead of sitting in the house grinding away at a story that went to the dark side on Day 2, I chased sunrises and sunsets amid the stark beauty of the Badlands. Instead of inventing new characters, I delighted in the whimsy of a huge fiberglass cow and fantastical scrap metal sculptures that were larger than life. Instead of taking a walk on the city sidewalks, I hiked five different trails and scoped out the Maah Daah Hey trailhead for a future hike. And instead of domesticated city dogs, I relished seeing bison, big horn sheep, and wild horses in their natural habitat.

The weekend adventure served another deeper purpose for me as well. Growing up in North Dakota, I lived life small and afraid to venture outside my comfort zone. These past two months, I’ve felt myself reverting back to that person which made me sad, like I was losing a piece of myself. I needed this weekend to remind me that I’m an adventurous soul who is always learning, growing, and seeking out new experiences.

This November I redefined winning. I reconnected to my wandering spirit and got my butt in the chair writing again. Plus, there’s always NaNoWriMo 2021.

NaNoWriMo in Election Month During a Pandemic

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month the past two Novembers. Every October is a little nerve wracking thinking about what I’ll write.

The first year I planned a fictionalized version of my memoir, wrote an outline, and felt confident in my plan. November 1st came and I tossed the outline and wrote memoir. Having learned from that, the second year I intended to write a love story about Marines John and Lena Basilone. That morphed into three love stories spanning generations. I’ve learned to just let go because once November 1st hits, I’ll write whatever comes into my head with just a core story idea. In NaNo speak, I’m a “pantser”.

This year, however, is different on so many levels with lots of life changes and a global pandemic in an election year. If anyone had written the reality of what we’re living through and submitted it to a publisher, the dystopian novel would have been rejected as metafiction. But this is our reality…The Manchurian Candidate meets Contagion with a dashes of The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm, and The Day After Tomorrow thrown in for good measure. There’s A LOT going on.

Will I be able to focus on writing 50,000 words starting tomorrow? I can’t even focus long enough to read a book these days. I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix recently and it’s no surprise. Over the past 10 years as social media has permeated our lives, it has taken over the time we used to use for creating, reading, and other hobbies.

Once the pandemic hit, I found myself constantly seeking covid news updates. Then there were hurricanes hitting the Florida coast, out of control wildfires down the West Coast, and tornados in the Midwest…oh, and killer hornets (who had that on their 2020 bingo card!). As the insanity of this election cycle reaches a fevered pitch and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and death are spiking yet again around the country, I find myself doomscrolling, obsessively searching Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for news and information. More to write about on that subject but drives the point home that I need to set social media limits so I have time to do things that feed my soul.

“Winning” (writing those 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo) this year will be a stretch, but I’m going to consider it an escape from reality. I haven’t been writing so however many words I write will be more than I have been…and that will be a win in my book.

Life Cycles and Seismic Shifts

Just after the 2020 New Year, my daughter and I opened a time capsule from 2000 we had created with her father. It was eerie how it had seemed like yesterday, yet two decades had elapsed since we had buried that duct tape-wrapped plastic tote on Y2K near a tree next to our A-frame cabin at Lake Nacimiento.

Little did we know when dropped mementos like the circa 2000 Sony phone, my published poems, and letters to ourselves in 20 years how drastically our lives would change six months later. I reflected on our two decade journey and was amazed at how different our lives were. My daughter suggested creating another time capsule for the next 20 years but I declined. Maybe I wasn’t sure I’d live another 20 years, or maybe I feared I would be inviting another seismic shift.

Both 2000 and 2020 involved major moves. Moves we never saw coming at the beginning of those years. Even if we had tried to guess, it would have been a blind shot in the dark. In the Summer of 2000, we moved to Michigan where I’d live for 20 years. In the Fall of 2020, I’d move back to North Dakota, the place of my birth, childhood, and teenage angst.

Each move happened quickly, without much warning or time to consider other options. In 2000 (the dot com gold-rush days), my ex was offered a “once in a lifetime opportunity” with stock options. With dreams of retiring and returning to California, we were all in…then 9/11 happened, our dreams turned to dust, and life was a scramble. This year with the pandemic, the ending of my third marriage, and my daughter’s move to North Dakota, my day job was the only thing keeping me in Michigan. When they gave approval to telework remotely, all systems were go and “Operation Move” was on.

I could never have guessed what was to come for the next 20 years in 2000, just as I couldn’t have guessed what would happen this year, much less the next 20.  The pandemic complicated everything yet without it, I wouldn’t have been approved for remote telework.

Now, after 45 years of living away, I’m home…literally and figuratively.

Beauty…or A Love Letter to Trout Lake

On March 26th, I bundled up on a 30-degree day and headed to Island Lake State Park across the street from my home. After a week of Michigan covid cases rising from 60 to more than 560, the walls were closing in and anxiety was mounting.

img_4815I’d never had the courage to hike on my own, but over the past five years I’ve found strength and healing in nature. On that March day, I hiked 1.7 miles. In the early morning hours, it feels as if the lake and trail are my own.

Hiking the same trail brings the comfort of familiarity yet awareness that every day is unique. I’ve watched the trail transform from winter’s leafless slumber to fluffed up Summer foliage threatening to hide its treasures from interloping humans.

The sandy road surrounding Trout Lake can only be reached by foot, bicycle or park ranger patrol. The lake, oh the lake with its still water reflecting the deep coral and blue sunrise as if you are seeing double. As above so below comes to mind, yet ripples remind me it’s but an illusion.

trout-lake-sunrise-beautyOne day might be gloomy and overcast while the next is crisp without a cloud in the sky. Give me a tequila sunrise with interesting cloud formations over a clear sunrise any day of the week.

I’ve seen sand castles, socks on trees, forts, moats, and beach trash, lots of beach trash like Hungry Howie pizza boxes, empty Oberon bottles, and abandoned towels. Just be zen and don’t react, I tell myself. Then I get pissed off at the inconsiderate beachgoers and mutter “Seriously, pack it in, pack it out.” I remind myself to bring a bag next time.

Once a neon translucent teardrop hanging from a tree caught my eye as I passed. It appeared to be a fishing lure wrapped around a branch, but looked more like a charm decorating a tree for fishing season.

img_5602Mother Nature is a gifted artist and my photographs don’t do her justice. They don’t capture the steam rising in tendrils from the lake. My still images make the mallard swimming across the lake and the sandhill cranes flying a V formation with their rattling bugle calls above my head seem insignificant. But I’ve stored those scenes firmly in my head and heart so when I’m living a landlocked life, I can relive them.

Today I took my 68th hike since the pandemic hit. While Michigan cases spiked early making the state number 3 in the country, we’re now number 18 thanks to our Governor’s steady guidance. Work tells me I’ll be teleworking through the end of the calendar year. For now, I cope by hitting the trail at dawn, listening to nature waking up, watching steam rise from the lake, and savoring every sunrise…at least for another six weeks.

Holding On In Tumultous Times

“We have to find find those things that make us feel most alive, and hold onto those.” Chris Fagan, Adventurer

The above quote is from a Mother’s Day episode of She Explores: Women in the Outdoors podcast with adventurer Chris Fagan who shares openly about the strategies she had for coping with her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Although the episode was recorded pre-pandemic, host Gale Straub encourages listening with a Covid-19 filter for resilience lessons.

What makes me feel most alive these days is staying active through treadmill walks on crummy weather days and hikes on good weather days. Today is Day 66 of social distancing and yesterday I took my 16th hike. Getting out on the trails and seeing nature springing to life reminds me that everything has a season, and this too shall pass. Right now, it seems endless…and hard.

I’ve always been a planner, so the ‘not knowing’ is what has been hardest for me: how we can safely resume working with others without fear of infection; when we’ll get an effective vacine; how and when we’ll have effective contact tracing; and when we’ll ever be able to heal the fissures of distrust and hate that have come to define our political discourse.

On my last hike, I listened to an On Being episode where host Krista Tippett and musician/artist Devendra Banhart read passages from When Things Fall Apart, by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. The first passage Krista read from the book was “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

Although the book was written more than 20 years ago, it’s never been more relevant given world events. As Chödrön says later after that passage, “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.”

When I’m feeling anxious in the days to come, I’ll remember these take-aways…Give in to grief, because there is a lot to grieve now. Make room for every small relief you feel, the roof over your head and the food on your table, because so many are struggling. Move through your misery, because it too shall pass. And breathe in joy, that you are still alive in this moment.

Oh The Places We Used To Go

It’s Day 57 since I’ve been staying home and safe, but every day feels a bit like Groundhog Day. As the ongoing national trauma worsens, Coronavirus cases in Michigan have topped 45K with more than 4K deaths. Our Governor has extended the stay-at-home order until May 28th, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t get extended again.

If you’re like me, you can’t help watching a TV series or a movie and feeling a little envious for the freedom they have to congregate and do the things we used to enjoy. And I’m having a hard time getting motivated to write. It’s been more than six weeks since I wrote a post of substance. I’ve defaulted to taking care of myself by using my treadmill, going on hikes, and trying to read more books. As an older person in a higher risk category, I’ve limited my outings to only those necessary to pick up groceries and outdoor hikes at times when I can avoid people on the trail.

Some days are harder than others, but it has helped to do buddy checks on friends and family, and hold weekly Zoom calls with my extended family. Once we run out of things to talk about, we resort to playing a fun game of homemade Bingo together.

react-to-covid-lifeIn my search for Covid-19 news and it’s impact on our lives, one of the new people I follow is Scott Galloway. Galloway is a Professor at New York University Stern School of Business, author of two books, and a great email newletter called No Mercy, No Malice. In Post Corona: The Cosmic Opportunity, Galloway posted this graphic and discussed the concept of time, making a case for readers to consider their lives, family connections, and growth opportunities to prepare for the post-Corona age.

With opening of the Y2K Time Capsule at the beginning of 2020, the concept of time has been all too relevant for me. Twenty years of my life elapsed, seemingly in the blink of an eye. The question of what my life might look like for the next ~20 years has been on my mind a lot, and coming into sharper focus during these last two months. I try to limit my trips to the Fear Zone, focus on staying in the Learning Zone, with a goal to live in the Growth Zone.

In the spirit of making new dreams reality, sometime in the next five years I’d like to retire and hike the Camino de Santiago trail to celebrate. I’ve walked at least 3-6 miles every day for 36 days, and taken 12 hikes so I’m already training. I’d also like to have my memoir published, so it’s time for me to get back to work on that too…before the sands of time slip away.

The River’s Edge

Meet me at the river’s edge
Where we can reminisce and laugh
about the before times.

Meet me at the river’s edge
Where we can share our fears and anxiety
about the after times to come.

Meet me at the river’s edge
Where we’ll keep our social distance
until we can once again embrace.

Meet me at the river’s edge
So we can go with the flow
and rise with the tide together.
~ Deb Sinness

Keeping It Real About COVID-19 Anxiety

white and brown wooden tiles
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Earlier this month, my day job told me I had been selected for a six month developmental position in California. I miss the left coast and figured it would be a good way to get my Cali fix so I applied. I’d been monitoring the coronavirus situation in Europe via Twitter. The previous weekend I’d noticed an orange dot on the map near where the assignment would be located.

I confirmed my acceptance tentatively to begin April 1st. Then I added “Do you think the coronavirus situation will impact travel or the assignment?”

“I don’t know, let me check.”

Well, we know how fast things have escalated since then. Needless to say, I’m hunkered down at home with my wife, our two Australian Shepherds, and our tortie cat Mocha. I’m thankful to be able to work from home for the past week and for the foreseeable future, but I’m worried about our healthcare system, essential workers, and people living in the margins.

I’m not gonna lie…I vacillate between a zen-like “I’ll handle whatever comes” to an “oh shit, I said I never wanted to survive the zombie apocalypse” feeling. Daily life? It’s somewhere in between.

I’m a figure out a plan, get it done kind of person. I’ve never identified as being anxious until recently with all the unknowns. Sunday my anxiety was off the hook. The reality is I’m over 60, prone to bronchitis, and have an “underlying condition”. If shit hits the fan and what is happening in Italy happens here, I’ll be one of last priorities. With that in mind, I’ve been getting my affairs in order with the thought that if I’m prepared, it won’t happen. So given that, let me share a couple of podcasts that have helped me with techniques to manage my newfound anxiety.

Brené Brown has an awesome new podcast called Unlocking Us, and her first episode is about FFTs/TFTs (effing First Times or the family friendly Terrible First Times). She acknowledges that this locked-in pandemic living is new and scary for all of us. So she encourages listeners to name and normalize the new thing, put it in perspective, then reality check your expectations. It’s a great listen, and I look forward to her future episodes.

In my hyperanxiety state yesterday, I searched “coronavirus” in my podcast app and came up with an episode called Fear in the Time of Coronavirus on the Being Well podcast with Dr. Rick Hanson and his son Forrest Hanson. Dr. Hanson is a Bay Area psychologist and he and his son are the authors of Resilient. I was hooked at 1:22 minutes when Forrest says, “I can say personally, I feel psychoemotionally activated literally every time I hear the word coronavirus.” During the podcast, they talk about their feelings, how to cope with our inner and outer worlds, and techniques and tools for coping with this new reality. It was a great help in calming my monkey brain.

Today Michigan’s Governor Whitmer held a press conference where she said the Michigan COVID-19 cases doubled over the weekend. As a result, she issued a Stay At Home Order for the next three weeks. Excuse me while I go listen to the podcasts again.

Be safe and stay healthy!