Leaving the Safety of Your Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is a psychological state in which one
feels familiar, safe, at ease, and secure.
You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone;
change begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Roy T. Bennett
Tracking the US cases became a daily obsession in the early days. This was from 13 March 2020

This month I’ve struggled with how to process the last year. I’ve wanted to write a post remembering the last week of normal life before the world shut down. The sign in CVS saying they were sold out of isopropyl alcohol and antiseptic wipes. The lines of worried patrons pushing toilet-paper topped carts down grocery aisles waiting to check out. Feeling foolish wearing a mask for the first time, like I was playing cops and robbers.

Shit got real for me when I heard Tom Hanks had Covid-19.

Michigan locked down, we were third in the nation for covids deaths, and every day seemed more surreal than the last. Each lockdown day was marked on the calendar, as if I was doing time. I dyed my hair purple. I doomscrolled social media searching for the coronavirus cavalry and watched a young woman in YouTube videos explaining the pandemic to her past self…and was horrified when she asked what year it was.

As the telework days turned into months and Spring turned to Summer in the chaos that was my personal life, I tried to hike every day at the state park across the street to prevent the walls from closing in. I needed something to look forward to so I set a retirement date of 31 July 2021. I moved closer to family to have a home base and quit numbering the lockdown days on the calendar.

Searching for and buying a home via Facetime turned out easier than I imagined, and packing up and selling the home across from the state park I loved to hike was gut wrenching. Having worked from home with a lockdown mentality, it was tough having people in my home getting it ready for sale, but it had to be done.

I was nervous about traveling because the last thing I wanted was to catch was the virus. With the Uhaul hitched to my Outback, I headed to my new life, and spent a restless night in a hotel halfway there, the first since being locked down.

Moving back to North Dakota in September, it seemed as if people were in denial about coronavirus and I felt like I was living in an alternate reality. The first weekend in my new home, the neighbor across the street with the Trump signs in her yard wanted to have a gathering of the neighborhood ladies to get to know my daughter and I.

“Where would we have the gathering?”

“In my Living Room.”

“I don’t really feel comfortable with that. I just moved from Michigan where we had refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals.”

“Well, by October can be pretty cold. I guess we can play it by ear.”

The Friday before the Sunday gathering, my neighbor called to say she had Covid and the gathering had been delayed. I was relieved. Shortly after, local cases skyrocketed and the state hit the national news becoming North Dacovid. I questioned whether I had made the right decision to move back to my home state.

The upsides of the move were the first holidays spent with family in decades and access to great medical care when my daughter had emergency surgery in December. I had spent months avoiding people and hospitals, now I had to be there for my daughter. I focused my thoughts on her to avoid disaster-sizing the what ifs. My temperature was checked when I arrived at the hospital, they only let one visitor in at a time, everyone was masked, and they moved around like normal people in the land of the living. It was the beginning of starting to feel comfortable again out in the world, yet staying masked and protecting myself.

Hiking in the mountains near Tucson

I was so glad to put 2020 behind me, hoping that with retirement on the horizon 2021 would be a better year. After the national chaos that was January, February loomed large on the horizon with memories of Portland, the last trip I’d taken before the pandemic. I needed to step outside my comfort zone again.

I’d seen reports of people flying and I had an airline credit with Delta, which was still committed to social distancing. I booked a flight to Tucson, a place I visited in the past, had family and friends who wintered there, and thought it might be right for me in retirement. At least it would be an opportunity to enjoy a long weekend in the warmth of the Arizona sun.

Tucson was everything I remembered and more. With a higher elevation, hiking and bike trails surrounded by mountains, the RV resort with their tennis and pickleball courts, and activities of every kind got me hooked. In my short long weekend trip, I made plans to winter there myself.

Returning home, I set my sights on planning the rest of my retirement dream. I ordered a 16′ Scamp to be delivered in August 2022, then found a 1973 13′ Boler as an interim solution until my Scamp is ready. She’s one of 10K ultralight fiberglass campers that were manufactured in Canada between 1968 and 1988. I won’t have time to do extensive renovations before I hit the road, but the original upholstery is really quite groovy. And she’s light enough to tow with my Outback.

I filed my retirement paperwork and with plans in place, it was just a matter of tying up loose ends…but the nagging shoulder pain I’d been nursing since the move last Summer had other plans. After an MRI revealed tears in the right rotator cuff, an orthopedic surgeon gave me the option of surgery or taking a wait and see approach. I’ve got places to go, things to see, and I want to lead an active retirement with biking, pickleball, and camper hauling, so surgery is scheduled for Tuesday, March 30th.

Life without the use of my dominant arm isn’t the way I imagined the last few months of my working life, but better I get it taken care of so I can enjoy life on the road. I keep reminding myself it’s just another speed bump and growth opportunity. I’ve come through worse so I’m keeping my eye on the prize…an active retirement and a new goal. #ambidextrous

Seeking Center After Capitol Chaos

With the upheaval of 2020 behind me, I was so hopeful going into 2021. Who could have predicted the chaos in Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday…yet it’s not surprising given the rhetoric that has been spewed the last five years. A few years ago after the president’s tense exchange with a foreign leader not known to be an ally, I remember an early morning commute to my day job when I looked to the sky and wondered for the first time ever, if bombs were going to start falling.

It’s A LOT to process.

I couldn’t watch the live feed of the mob storming the Capitol because I started thinking Where are the police now? Surely they’ll stop this like they did the earlier protests this year. When that didn’t happen, my next thought was Is this the moment we lose our nation, the one I swore an oath to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic?

My chest tightened, my muscles tensed, and my anxiety increased.

So I went shopping at Costco to avoid watching and I hoped for the best. But I’ve been hoping for the best for the past 50 months since the president was elected when I saw him for what he was…a failed businessman who had used the system and women for his benefit and pleasure.

When meeting high school classmates in Washington, DC in December 2016 to share the joyous celebration of a classmate’s retirement, I avoided discussions of the recent election until I could no longer. Two classmates starting talking about visiting the gift shop to buy inaugural kitsch for Christmas when the discussion turned to politics, “her emails”, and what a good job they were expecting him to do as a businessman.

“I’m not so sure,” I said.

“Well, he’ll grow into the job. I have faith,” one said.

“I hope you’re right, because you have more faith in his abilities than I do.”

Social norms have been shattered, there is reduced faith in our institutions, and a deep social divide separates our nation while Covid-19 kills more than three thousand Americans a day, the equivalent death toll of 9/11…every damn day.

Like so many Americans, I was glad to see 2020 come to an end and looked forward to a vaccinated future so our lives could return to some semblance of normalcy. I can only hope this is our darkest hour and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming freight train.

Yesterday I sought contemplative refuge walking a labyrinth. The gloomy, grey sky overhead seemed appropriate given recent events. With each and every mindful step, I focused on my breathing, the rhythm of my heartbeat, the honking snow geese overhead in their V formation, and the multitude of varied rocks thoughtfully placed on the North Dakota prairie by the Benedictine Sisters of nearby Annunciation Monastery.

As I navigated the winding path, I became aware of how similar a labyrinth is to life and world events. Each step takes you closer to the spiritual center, a goal, a more perfect union then a sudden shift finds you in the farthest ring, impatient and wondering when you’re going to arrive again.

At long last once getting to the center, you realize although you’ve arrived, your work isn’t done…but you walk out knowing you have arrived before and will again.

2020…What A Decade It’s Been

With all the hope and optimism 2020 opened with, no one could have predicted the dumpster fire that it was. I didn’t write many posts because I was consumed with processing and reacting to changing life circumstances. First, reflections on the before times…

Where was the last place you traveled freely before the pandemic started shutting things down?

I flew to Portland, Oregon the first weekend of February for a writing workshop with Pam Houston and Stephanie Land at the Corporeal Writing Center. I had been tracking Covid-19’s impact in Europe through Twitter and wondered if I should be concerned about traveling.

In the end, the weekend was a magical mix of music, writing, synchronicities, and what Pam calls “glimmers”, things that you overhear, witness, or take note of that may end up in your writing. I am most successful at living in the moment when I’m traveling and having new adventures. I’ve missed that the most these last nine months.

What was the last thing you saw amongst a big crowd before the pandemic hit?

A friend and I went were among the throngs at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to see the self-described “Sarcastic Lutheran” Nadia Bolz-Weber on her book tour.

We snagged seats near the front and were treated to an amazing performance by America’s Got Talent finalists, the Detroit Youth Choir. I thoroughly enjoyed their joyous singing, but I wistfully wonder when we’ll be able to have those kinds of experiences again.

Michigan reported their first two Covid-19 cases on March 10th and the Governor declared a State of Emergency. By the following week, the state had experienced the first death and things were shutting down.

It’s been interesting to go back and read what I wrote over the course of the pandemic. In the beginning, there’s a sense of naivete and morbid curiosity as I was checking the Covid-19 statistics daily.

April hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized the 6-month California assignment I had applied for at my day job was cancelled. I died my hair purple and took refuge in nature, hiking and savoring each sunrise. Homes became workplaces with no commutes for decompression time.

There has been collateral damage but unlikely blessings as well. I’m grateful to have had so few of my loved ones seriously impacted by virus. I’m also blessed with a day job that allowed me to move closer to my family in North Dakota enabling me to spend Christmas with them, the first in 15 years.

I’m glad to leave 2020 in my rear view mirror, but who knows what 2021 will bring. Hopefully, widespread vaccination leading to lower cases, few fatalities, loosening of travel restrictions…and a return to gatherings for writing retreats, book tours, and live music.

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.

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!

Week 1: How Are You Doing?

balance blur boulder close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s been a week since we started social distancing in our attempts to flatten the curve. Weirdly, I miss my commute to work where I listen to podcasts of shows I never have time to watch, Audible books, and music. I also miss the personal interaction with other humans. As an introvert, I’m surprised by that but I guess I shouldn’t be. When I was working from home in real estate a decade ago, I welcomed the chance to work with clients face to face. The difference now is that it’s not a choice. Michigan cases have gone from 60 to 560 over the past week and based on reports from other areas, it may continue to worsen for awhile.

I’m grateful to have a day job where I can work from home. I’m worried about the economic fallout, especially for those people whose lives depend on serving the public. As Stephanie Land, author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, writes in the New York Times, “Social distancing is forcing us to make decisions that go against our capitalistic nature: to cut back. Remember who this affects the most — the hourly wage workers who have no option to work remotely, no safety nets and, still, families to feed.”

black laptop computer turned on
Photo by John Dubanek on Pexels.com

After a work week struggling with a new normal, I needed an escape last night to avoid going down a rabbit hole. Thankfully my Facebook buddy Gordy offered just the medicine I needed…listening to musicians via Facebook Live.

First up was from Stay In Your House Shows with five different Michigan musicians: Dan Rickabus, Steve Leaf, Loren Johnson, Justin Stover (Stovepipe), and Emilee Petersmark. Unfortunately, I was too late for performances by Dan and Steve, but I thoroughly enjoyed Loren’s soulful voice, Stovepipe’s quirky “Haunted Americana” songs, and Emilee’s crazy wicked talent on covers and originals. The heartfelt messages from the artists made me feel like I’m not alone in my anxiety. Stay In Your House Shows hasn’t announced when their next concert will be, but I’ll definitely be tuning in.

Then I saw that Bobby Jo Valentine, a musician I’ve followed since hearing him perform locally, was on Facebook Live. Bobby Jo’s soulful lyrics “…when life gets complicated, when life gets hard to understand, the simple things are sacred, like the touch of another hand…” brought me to tears. It was yet another reminder of the power of connection.

img_4143Earlier in the week I had read about Keith Urban, John Legend, and other musicians doing live streaming for their fans. After listening to the Stay In Your House Show artists and Bobby Jo talking about being musicians who earn their living doing live shows, I’ll be supporting them and their music making this time of social distancing tolerable.

This morning I started my day with a 1.7 mile hike around the lake across the street. I’m intentionally avoiding news, taking care of myself, and reaching out to friends and family. That’s what is important to me right now. How are you doing?