From the Ashes We Will Rise – part two – the evacuation

(To read part one, the beginning of this story, click here.)

These signs appeared everywhere.

This is what it was like being refugees from the Northern California wildfires.

My husband Miles and I arrived in Sausalito as guests of a friend of his, someone whom he had only known online. They had never met in person, but after many years of exchanging ideas in various political forums they felt very comfortable with each other. She told us there was a vacant artist studio we could stay in, which I had somehow pictured as a bare room in a commercial space in town. But as I drove behind him, up a steep windy road that led sharply up a hill I saw that it was, in fact, an apartment attached to her house.

We were very grateful to have a place where we could unpack and regroup, which began with pulling the dog beds out of the car and setting up a place for them in the living room. Our biggest concern was that our three dogs behave themselves and not mess up our host’s house. We have a greyhound and two whippets who are used to being able to go through a dog door into our backyard whenever they want. They are not accustomed to having to wait to be walked in order to take care of their needs. This was going to be very different for them. But I was so grateful. Had we evacuated to one of the shelters, we most likely would have had to keep them on a leash 24 hours a day, which would have been very hard on them and on us.

Before unpacking anything else we walked the dogs down the long driveway.

They kept sniffing around, looking for a patch of dirt or grass to squat on, but there were no places like that. We then turned down the road, but every surface was either paved, planted or built upon. Eventually they crouched on the pavement and we pulled out the bags to scoop it up. As we returned to the studio, Maggie, our greyhound who is twelve years old, stumbled while walking up the steps to the door and almost fell over the edge. She is at that stage in her life where she is having difficulty maneuvering her body and I realized I needed to walk her separately from the whippets to make sure she didn’t trip and hurt herself.

Our cars were crammed full of bags, so I just brought in a small overnight bag that had a change of clothes and toiletries, as well as our bag of food. We were very fortunate. This place had a bedroom and a small kitchen.

The dogs looked at me anxiously and I thought I better give them rawhide bones to chew on so I went back to the car, looking for them. I knew I packed them, but I couldn’t find them at first as I dug through several canvas grocery bags. No, they weren’t in the bag with the cans of dog food. Nor were they with the kibble. I definitely remembered packing them. Eventually I found them nestled with my dark chocolate Dove promises. I guess that was during the second round of survival packing, when I grabbed treats.

As we tuned into the news websites on our phones we realized how lucky we were. Many people had been forced to flee in the middle of the night, wearing only their pajamas. In some cases their pets panicked and took off, forcing them to leave without them. And there were some people who didn’t even wake up and didn’t make it out at all. Elderly people who used hearing aids didn’t hear the bullhorns at 3:00 a.m. telling them they needed to evacuate. Some couldn’t move fast enough. Trees had been knocked over by the wind, blocking the roads. All of this had happened so fast it was more than our first responders could initially manage. By now it was three days later and reinforcements were coming from all over California but initially it took everyone by surprise. The wind was fierce, blowing down power lines, which sparked and the sparks got carried further, and within a very short time, miles of land, including large residential areas caught fire.

Maggie

I checked the website that was tracking the progress and saw that containment of the Tubbs Fire, the one closest to us, had only gone from 1% to 4%. There were national headlines that wine country was on fire. This was the big news. We were beginning to piece the story together. It was bad, much worse than we thought. And it was far from over. The wind was the wild card that could either give us a break, and enable firefighters to contain the fire, or spread it more widely. Our home was still in danger. Nothing was under control and the wind could blow the flames right down our street. As it was, a neighborhood just a mile away from ours had burned to the ground. One block from us was the border of a mandatory evacuation zone, which meant we could be receiving our orders at any moment. Again, I thought about my belongings, about our home that meant so much to me. Was letting go of everything some spiritual lesson I was supposed to learn?

“I forgot to pack my massage certificate, “ I told Miles, fretting.

“That’s the least of your problems,” he said.

We ate energy bars for dinner and walked the dogs again. Grace, our female whippet, sniffed and sniffed the ground but refused to pee. She’s going to want to go ten minutes after we get back to the studio, I thought. Sure enough, at midnight, after we’d gone to bed she was crying, needing to go. This became a pattern. We walked the dogs about four times every day, but no matter what we did, they woke us up in the middle of the night needing to go again. Just like us, their routine was completely disrupted and they didn’t know how to act.

The next day, after Miles and I ate a breakfast of crackers and peanut butter, Jennifer, our host, asked if there was anything she could pick up for us at the store.

“Can I come with you?” I asked. The long driveway was very narrow, so our cars were blocked in and it wasn’t easy to get in and out, so I jumped on the opportunity to go to a grocery store.

We drove to the Good Earth market and I started thinking up possible dinner menus I could make for Jennifer and the other people living at the house as a way of saying thank you. Walking through the grocery store was somewhat similar to the way I ran through my house, grabbing items at random to put in the car. I didn’t know how long we’d be staying in Sausalito so I started reaching for all sorts of things to put in my basket, trying to think in terms of meals. I’d be halfway across the store searching for tofu and come scurrying back to the produce aisle because I remembered I wanted to put sliced oranges in the dish. I went to another aisle to pick up a bottle of wine and then thought I should go back and get some fresh ginger to spice up the stir-fry. Once again, I was halfway across the store when I suddenly thought I should get walnuts to toast and put in the salad. I wanted to make tasty food, to show my gratitude. But my mind was anything but organized. I was getting lot of exercise running all over the store, worried that I was forgetting something I would want once I started cooking. Once I finally got through the checkout, Jennifer was patiently waiting for me outside.

When we got back to the house it was time to walk the dogs again. Miles took the whippets and I took Maggie. We walked up and down the driveway, three or four times until the dogs finally squatted, both of us keeping track of who had done what, so we had a sense of who might still need to go out later.

I got busy in Jennifer’s kitchen, opening drawers and finding my way around. I made a marinade for the tofu, started toasting walnuts for the salad. Cooking kept me busy and I really needed to be busy. I was so frantic I hardly knew what to do with myself, so this was good. Cooking helped me feel slightly normal. I have a Bluetooth speaker I always travel with, that syncs with the music on my phone and enables me to fill a room with music. I managed to find it among my things and soon we were listening to jazz. I think this helped calm everybody down. We opened the wine. I got the food prepared and we all sat around the table, eating and sharing stories.

I learned about modnomadstudio, this place that Jennifer created to invite artists to do retreats, and met a woman who was currently an artist-in-residence who was living there and going to school. Jennifer had all sorts of creative ideas about ways to bring people together to change the world, to be activists, and to use their art to make statements. She had spent many years as an editor, working for the publishing company Chelsea Green, among others, and was now doing less of that and had time for other pursuits. I was impressed by the way she not only had great ideas, but also knew how to make them happen.

As dinner began to wind down Miles said he wanted to check on the dogs. We didn’t want to leave them alone for too long. It wasn’t just that they might need to go out, but also that they were out of their element and we didn’t want them to act out from nervousness and cause a mess or break something.

The following morning as I got ready to take a shower, I realized my overnight bag didn’t have any more fresh clothes, so I needed to get some more from the car. Besides, I needed my nutritional supplements. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t put them in the same pocket with my sleep herbs and wasn’t sure where to find them. I also didn’t know which bag had my t-shirts. They must be in my large suitcase, I thought. I pulled the heavy bag out of the back of the car and muscled it up the steps into the studio. When I opened it, all I found were sweaters and heavy clothes. Where had I put my t-shirts, I wondered? And where was my underwear? I felt really lost. The car was so filled with layers of canvas bags and I had no idea where anything was. I stood in the driveway, pulling them out, rummaging frantically for a pair of underpants and a clean t-shirt. Why was there no order to the way things were packed? What was wrong with me?

We were able to keep up with friends and hear about new developments through Facebook. Friends from around the country continued to contact us to see if we were okay, and expressed concern about our situation. But while thousands of people were in shelters, facing the enormous loss that we dreaded, we were momentarily safe and comfortable. The anguish of witnessing the devastation to our community was all around us, not knowing if we would be next. As Miles wrote in one of his Facebook posts, our best-case scenario would be survivor guilt. Indeed, we could already feel that.

As delightful as Jennifer’s house was in beautiful Sausalito, we wanted to get back home. The dogs woke us up in the wee hours every night and either Miles or I got up to walk them. I figured no one was going to see me at 4:00 a.m. in my pajamas, so who cares, as I walked up and down the driveway with Grace until she felt comfortable enough to relieve herself. But this lack of sleep was getting to us. We felt anxious being away from our house. Miles, who works from home, needed to keep working, problem solving for his organization and logging in for video conferences, doing his best to keep up, but it was hard.

One of my neighbors was on vacation in Boston when the fires occurred and she called to ask me to pick up her mail, as she was expecting something important. I knew I needed to get back. As uncertain as everything was, we needed to return to as much of our routine as we could.

On the evening of our third day away, George called and told us the electricity had come back on, so we decided we would go home the next day. I made roasted ratatouille for dinner that night, with pasta and sautéed cannellini beans and we enjoyed one more meal with Jennifer’s household.

The following morning we packed our car, got the dogs positioned where they would be most comfortable, and said goodbye to our magnificent hosts. How strange, we said, that it took a catastrophe for us all to finally meet.

Then we headed back up north to Santa Rosa, unsure what we would find.

 

 

 

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From the Ashes We Will Rise – Tubbs Fire; part one

These signs popped up all over the city.

It was 4:30 a.m. and I awoke to the sound of my husband Miles, telling me that Santa Rosa was on fire and we might have to leave. Adrenaline replaced caffeine as I quickly became alert, sat up in bed, struggled to take in what he was saying and then raced into the shower, dressed, and tried to wrap my mind around what was happening. Miles gave me the number of Nixle, the warning system that sends text alerts about voluntary and mandatory evacuations. Text messages immediately began coming through, citing locations that needed to evacuate.

Frantically, I began throwing clothes into a bag, not sure what I should take, grabbing a little bit of everything.

An hour later the house went black, as our power went out, just in case we hadn’t taken the situation seriously enough. We continued to pack in the dark using flashlights until dawn arrived. Outside, the air was brown and smoky, as I walked back and forth from the house to my car, carrying suitcases and bags of belongings. I had no idea how long we would need to be gone or where we would go. After packing a few changes of clothes I started grabbing other things at random. A good pair of walking shoes, sleeping bags, blankets.

Our toilets still flushed, and since the gas was working there was hot water for showers, so we decided to stay at home for as long as we could. With three dogs, taking off would not be easy, so we chose to postpone it for as long as possible. Our mobile phones stopped working once the cell towers burned down, so after the initial news, we had no way of knowing what was happening. Occasionally a text message would manage to slip through from a friend asking if we were safe, but when I replied I received notice that my message failed. So frustrating!

We were afraid to leave the house and go downtown in search of WiFi because we didn’t want to leave our dogs alone in case the fire suddenly began to engulf the house. The previous night there had been fierce winds that tore through town at about 70 miles an hour. It was like the opening scene in the Wizard of Oz, powerful enough to blow down trees, power lines and spread a wildfire for many miles. We didn’t know it at the time, but the fire had already traveled over 20 miles and was blowing in our direction, already devouring neighborhoods near us. Depending on the intensity and direction of the wind, the fire could reach us very quickly.

We needed to be ready to flee and take our dogs with us. I continued rushing around, looking for things I should bring and shoving them into the car. I went through my filing cabinets pulling out important documents like my passport, birth certificate, insurance papers, mortgage papers, trying to think of what I should take. I shut down my laptop and put it in a carrying case. I grabbed a canvas grocery bag and filled it with cans of dog food. Miles picked up the large bag of dry dog food and put it in his car.

More and more supplies were put into the car. Rawhide bones for the dogs. The book I was currently reading. As the hours passed I added more things. An adjustable back scratcher I’d recently received s a gift. The thought of losing everything filled me with a combination of shock, disbelief and panic. A bag of dark chocolate Dove promises went in next. Then a bag of almonds.

After so many other places around the country had had huge environmental disasters we were now having ours, and at the moment I had no idea how bad it was. Food and clothes were my immediate concern. I like my comfortable clothes. I didn’t want to have to buy new ones. I hate shopping for clothes.

With the electricity out that meant stores and restaurants would be closed so I started gathering together food that didn’t require preparation to eat. I packed crackers, cheese, peanut butter, nuts, energy bars. I had been drying figs that had just been picked from our backyard tree, which lay on the food dehydrator which had turned off once the electricity died so I pulled the partially dried fruit off the trays and put them in a Ziploc bag.

George, our friend and housemate, had been awake since 3:00 a.m. and was already showered by the time I woke up. He was hurriedly leaving to go to work several hours earlier than normal, to his job at our daily newspaper, since it was clear that something big and newsworthy was going on and he would be needed.

Around 7:00 a.m. I walked out the front door. It was just beginning to get light and a few neighbors were coming out of their houses in shock, like us. People were standing outside, talking about the fires. I walked across the street and joined a few people who stood talking. We gave each other hugs and shared whatever information we could. I saw a big orange wall of fire beyond the smoke. We weren’t sure at what point we, too, would be required to leave.

For the next few hours I stayed outside, frantically sweeping the porch and cleaning the walkway while Miles hosed down the house. The winds had blown a terrific amount of debris everywhere. Leaves were piling up. So I swept, not that I was accomplishing much. Mainly it was something to do with the ferocious anxiety and energy that was pouring through me. Yes, I’ve lost my mind. The world is burning down and I’m scrubbing the sidewalk.

I had watched hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and now the dark hand of catastrophe was here in Sonoma County. It was our lives on the line this time.

When Trump became president in January, I felt a horrible dread. I didn’t know what or how, but I knew that terrible things would happen. I knew I would go through something hard but had no idea what or when that might be. I had been bracing myself for an unknown horror since the day he took office. I had read about the destructive policies he wanted to pass, the protections he want to eliminate, all the ways his cabinet wanted to turn us into a desperate third world country, where only the rich could afford healthcare, where the air is hazardous to breathe, where food is so expensive it takes everything you have just to eat.

For months I had lived in a state of dread. How long before it would affect us? When would we start to notice the results of their actions? Would we have to flee the country?

Not that these fires had anything to do with our president or our government. But I had been braced for something terrifying to happen and now it had.

Around 6:00 p.m. George came home after more than 12 hours at the newspaper with stories about the fire. How the fierce winds had spread it throughout four counties, decimating neighborhoods, devouring acreage, businesses and landmarks and was only 1% contained at this point. We heard about entire mobile home parks that had burned down to the ground. Places where we shopped, including my beloved Trader Joe’s had burned. It was surreal. Nothing like this had ever happened. Earthquakes were the disaster we worried about, the danger that we prepared for. Not a massive fire.

We kept thinking the electricity would come back on soon. It had never been out for more than a couple of hours. In the meantime, we could take showers, we could cook on the gas stove. We could cope.

The second day, the power was still out and we decided to drive downtown and find a coffee shop with WiFi. Occasional texts continued to pop onto my phone, but attempts to reply were getting very frustrating. I really wanted to be able to contact my friends.

We drove a mile into the downtown area and parked. It was eerie getting out of the car and walking towards the main street. No one was there. Nothing was open. Through the thick, dark smoke we only saw deserted streets. No cars were parked in the spots where it was usually impossible to find a space. It looked like the scene from a post apocalyptic sci fi movie. Or a war zone.

We walked down Fourth Street, the main drag, somewhat in shock as we passed Starbucks, Peet’s, all the usual places to congregate and get coffee and use WiFi but they were closed. There were no people anywhere. After a block we saw a sweet shop open. Inside, a woman was standing by the counter, and it was almost like seeing a ghost. She smiled and greeted us, made us tea and gave us the WiFi password.

We sat down and were finally able to text with friends, check the news and get a grip on what was taking place. The fires were going strong. We realized we should probably leave for a few days.

I posted about our situation on Facebook and people began offering us places to stay. Thing was, with three dogs it would be a big imposition. As kind and generous as my friends were, I couldn’t imagine showing up with all of our baggage for an indeterminate amount of time. I also knew that hotels were out. Even if it weren’t for our pets, by now all the rooms would have been taken. By now there was a massive exodus taking place. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.

Then a friend of my husband’s offered us a place she called an artist’s retreat space, someplace separate where we could just be ourselves. That sounded good. We said, Yes.

Now we had to get ourselves ready to leave. I had to face the fact that I may never see my house again, so I kept adding items to the already over-packed car. I grabbed all of my sweaters. Coats. All my hand-woven scarves. Winter was coming. At least I would be warm during the apocalypse. I packed pillows and more blankets. I had no idea what we would be facing in the days and weeks to come. Perhaps this was not going to be for just a few days. We may not have another chance to see any of our things. We took photo albums and our wedding album. Miles walked around taking photos with his phone to document everything of value in case we had to show our insurance company what our belongings used to be. I packed a scrapbook I had made of stories and photos from our first trip to Italy and France. Miles went through the bookshelves pulling out copies of signed books from his heroes.

I folded up the seat in the rear of my Honda Fit, which opened up a large space. Placing several blankets on the floor, I lay one of the large dog beds on top. Then I brought my two whippets out. The dogs didn’t know what the hell was going on. We had never taken them on a trip like this. I knew they would feel more at home on the bed that smelled familiar that they would identify as theirs.

Afterwards I walked around my house, trying to figure out what else I should stuff into yet another grocery sack, sure that I was forgetting something terribly important. I thought about how much time time it would take to shop and repurchase everything I owned, even if we did get money from our insurance company. All my cooking tools. The pottery I’ve collected from a lifetime of art shows and craft fairs. Beautiful pieces of art. The stained glass lampshades that made our living room so warm and cozy. It had taken most of my life to acquire these things. And now it might all be gone.

“I have to let go of attachment,” I sighed. I sat down, slowly taking in all of the contents of my home. This is the ultimate Zen moment, I thought. These were the things that created a life that looked like me. That felt like me. And I had to let them go. I had to let go of everything. My life had been so well planned and now I had to let it go.

I stopped looking at all my things and turned back to the process of getting ready to leave. I frantically went through closets one more time, grabbing more odd pieces of clothing, hats, socks, jewelry. There was no order to the packing. More like a crazy person running through a house looting. It was totally disorganized. Same with the food. I didn’t know what we would find once we left, so I kept pulling things out of the cupboards, anything that didn’t require any preparation, rummaging for more canvas bags until the car was completely full.

It broke my heart to drive away, to leave the solar panels I was so proud of, the bushes full of ripe raspberries, the fig tree, all my flowers. I left George’s sleeping bag out and I packed him a bag full of clothes, so if he got evacuation orders he could also leave quickly.

Fortunately the tanks in our cars were full, since, with the electricity out, all the nearby stations were closed. Keeping a full gas tank was an emergency practice I had maintained since Hurricane Katrina. Then we took off, heading south down the freeway. Miles drove ahead of me with our greyhound, Maggie, and I had the two whippets, Grace and Spencer, in the back of my car, curled up on their bed as frightened as I was as we headed to our refuge. We had no idea what would happen next but were soon to learn that this was the worst wildfire in California history.

 

 

 

 

What Do You Really Want To Do?

That is the question.

It is a question I grapple with a lot.

It sounds simple at first. Of course you know what you want to do. But do you, really? Can you separate what you really want from what you think you should want? Or more to the point, what other people think you should want and since you want other people to approve of you, you adopt that as your wish? Yes, you might have to read that through one more time.

My backyard Hammock

Complicated as it is, I would say that what most people want is for other people to approve of them. And there lies the problem. This is often something people are not consciously aware of. It’s so ingrained to want approval that we often make choices based on what we think others’ reaction will be, without questioning whether it’s something we deeply desire.

I haven’t written a blog post in months. I’ve thought about it often. Various topics have run through my mind. But I’ve been too busy. The nagging feeling that I “should” write a blog post has continued to bother me. Why? Because when you begin engaging with people online you “should” keep it up on a regular basis. And I admit, I have let things slip. The truth is, I’ve been trying to do too many things. I know I have to cut some things out and I’ve been at a loss.

So this question: What do you really want to do? This has been hanging over my head. Every day. For months.

The underlying topic of pretty much all my blog posts has been self-care. I love this topic. The importance of self-care never goes away. You never get finished with self-care, just like you never get finished eating or sleeping. It’s an essential part of life. There are so many layers to it. It comes up in big and small ways around everything we do.

It fascinates me because I am always craving more self-care. I fantasize about taking myself to the coast, going for a walk in the woods, lying in my hammock reading a book. But all too often, I put these things off because I’m trying to get other stuff done. And I’ll tell you, there is an endless amount of other stuff to get done. When I am exhausted, worn out, overwhelmed, even burned out, the question always comes up. What can I do to take care of myself? What do I really want to do?

The quiet spot in my driveway

One of my projects is writing a book on self-care. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t had time to write blog posts. My previous posts inspired the book. There’s a lot to this topic. It’s important for our health, for our well-being, our sanity. It’s so important to take care of ourselves because it’s so easy to get worn out and have nothing left to give. You are no good to anyone when you are burned out, including yourself. Especially yourself.

My favorite books are about people’s journeys. I love memoirs and self-help books. These books help me feel less alone when I realize how other people have struggled and how they coped. They give me ideas and inspiration. And they inspire me to write my own stories. It is why I am writing a book on self-care, as I spend every day and every week exploring the issues around this. I am also writing a memoir about two very difficult years of my life when I attempted a career change that was not right for me. It was the ultimate in doing something that everyone approved of but was not a good match. There were some big realizations I had that I want to write about as I tell the story. It was quite a journey and I will someday finish that book. But I have put it aside for the time being to focus on the self-care book. This is how I end up with too many projects.

Relaxing on my patio

The more I write about self-care, I keep seeing an underlying issue. And that is, we get very strong messages about what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to look, what we’re supposed to want, what our families should look like, what the progression of our careers should be. These messages affect our choices. Whether the messages come from our parents, our teachers or even our close friends, everyone has an opinion on this. Whether the message is to conform or to be a rebel, people have very strong opinions. One only needs to take a quick look at social media, to the abundance of selfies to see how important it is for most people, to have approval. “Look at me! And for God’s sake, like this post!”

So, what happens when you want to do something that perhaps no one understands?

First off, it’s not necessary to tell people everything you’re doing. It’s perfectly okay to keep parts of your life private. In fact, it’s a good idea to have privacy around some of the things you do, just so you don’t have to think in terms of how you will be judged.

Here’s the thing. You are totally okay exactly the way you are. No matter where you are in your process, it’s okay. Whether you are on your way to developing a new skill, a new career, creating something, or choosing to take it easy and not do anything new, it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s your right as a human being to be however you want to be.

As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you have a right to living the way you want to live.

I have a lot of difficulty allowing myself unproductive time. Wherever I got those messages that I should be getting things done, they are very deeply ingrained. One of my biggest self-care practices is to allow myself to do nothing. To simply rest. I have set up a number of resting areas around my house because this is so essential to me. Yet, I struggle to take advantage of them. I have a hammock strung up in my backyard, a chaise lounge on my porch and another chaise lounge under a tree, down my driveway. These are all very attractive places to relax. I am embarrassed to admit how rarely I take advantage of them. My goal is to spend some time relaxing in one of these spots every day, but honestly, I am doing well if I do so once or twice a week. Everywhere I look, I see things that need to get done. The garden always needs weeding. I’m always behind on my writing projects. There are too many papers on my desk than need sorting and discarding. My closets need to be cleaned out. My emails have not all been read. On and on it goes. I cannot wait until everything is done to relax. Otherwise I will wait forever.

What do I really want? Honestly, it’s to feel less pressure. And that pressure comes primarily from within me.

When I realized I didn’t feel like writing a blog post I gave myself permission not to write posts for a while. The world would not come to an end if I did not write a blog post. Instead I focused on the book when I had time to write. I have a great critique group where I get wonderful feedback. The process of crafting a good book fascinates me so this is clearly a project I want to keep.

All the books I have about writing say that you need to have a writing routine, so you can get so many thousands of words written every day. I do not have a writing routine. I don’t want one. I just want to write when I feel moved to. So that’s what I do. Maybe I will never finish my book. It’s okay. I am not depending on my writing to support me, so these things really don’t matter. Even though I can see the ghosts of writers shaking their fingers at me, telling me I won’t amount to anything if I don’t get my writing done, I know ultimately it doesn’t matter. I am not living to gain their approval. They are, in fact, my own spooky creation. I am not living to gain anyone’s approval. How freeing it is to say that! I am not living to gain anyone’s approval! I needed to say it again!

Each day that blooms is fresh. Each day is an opportunity to do what I really want. Or to not do things I don’t want. Regardless of the expectations.

My work schedule provides a little structure for which I am grateful. I am someone who needs a little structure. But beyond that structure I get overwhelmed trying to do way too much. My biggest challenge with time is narrowing the list down so I can spend more time lying on the chaise lounges, and rocking in the hammock.

What is your challenge? What do you really want to do that you have not yet made room for?

Staying Sane During Insane Times

You can’t go crazy right now, tempting as that may be. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant about our emotional state. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling torn into pieces as I am watching events in our country unfold. I find myself going through a wild cycle of feelings, none of them good. Fear, anxiety, anger, disgust, despair all take turns occupying my psyche.

Take the sane road

Take the sane road

It’s been hard to go about the usual activities in my life without talking about it all the time. But, honestly, I can’t talk about it all the time. When I do bring up the state of the world, because that’s what’s on my mind, people nod and I see that same stressed out look on their faces that I see in the mirror. They are reading the same articles I’m reading, the same news stories. They are feeling much of what I’m feeling.

This gets exhausting very quickly. After the big Women’s March I said, somewhat flippantly, “We should March every Saturday!” Now I realize that wasn’t just a random remark. We probably WILL march or protest every Saturday. The Saturday after the Women’s March people were protesting at airports around the country because of the outrageous and chaotic ban on immigrants that was suddenly imposed out of the blue. I saw people’s rights being violated. I saw the Constitution being violated. I wondered about our system of checks and balances. I wondered if this was still the United States of America.

So, given that the assault on our rights and way of life is not going to stop, and aware that being in this debilitating state of mind is not any way to live, I had to figure out how to get a grip if I was to be of any use at all. One of the strategies of the people who are currently in power is to wear us out, so after a while we have no energy to fight back. Here’s how NOT to let that happen.

I am always telling people, “In order to have the energy to take care of others, you need to take care of yourself, first.”

That has never been more true than right now.

All things considered, these are my thoughts regarding the best way to manage right now. Although a great deal is happening beyond our control, make the most of situations where you are in charge. Start by being present in your own life. Often, we can get so wrapped up with anxiety about the future or about things happening beyond our reach that we lose sight of beneficial things that exist right here, right now. We tend to focus on the things that need fixing, rather than on what’s working. And even though we are watching our democracy getting smashed like a beautiful piece of pottery, we mustn’t lose sight of those things we do have that make our lives worthwhile.

Say a silent prayer of gratitude for everything you love about your life, throughout the day, as often as possible. For instance, I love the beautiful Northern California community where I live. I love the work I do for a living, being a massage therapist, helping people feel better in their bodies and their hearts. I love the people in my life and hug them as often as possible. I love watching the patterns that are made with light when the sun casts shadows on everything. I love when the sun comes out and warms everything up. I love when it rains and the cool water soaks into the earth and cleanses the air. I love watching the clouds move. I love eating squares of dark chocolate and almonds. I love eating apple slices with cheddar cheese. I love my new writing class, Creative Unbootcamp 2017. I love cuddling with my whippet, Spencer. I love taking all three of my dogs for a walk. I love going for walks while listening to my latest audiobook. Throughout the day, whatever else I’m doing, I give thanks for everything about my life that I treasure. I suggest you start doing that as a regular practice. Focus on everything you can be grateful for.

Take time to disconnect from the world every so often, to give yourself a break from the constant bombardment of information. News sites, social media sites, TV, email. There is so much info coming at us all the time it gets overwhelming very fast. The other day someone was saying, “What did we do with our time before there was Facebook and Twitter and Instagram?” We lived, that’s what. We had time to ourselves to quietly relax and enjoy life in the moment. We got together and talked face to face. We did more in person. We relaxed more. Try giving up your connection to electronic devices for brief periods. Or not such brief periods. Not permanently, but for sufficient chunks of time. Maybe only check-in a couple of times each day. Notice the difference. It’s called breathing space.

I stopped checking Facebook first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, as had been my habit. It makes a big difference to start my day without immediately reacting to the latest news. And at night, switching from the media to reading a book before bed helps me sleep a lot better. I have begun limiting my attention there to just a couple of times a day. I’m not missing much, and I’m not in an emotional state of constant reaction. That reaction button? That was my heart that kept getting pushed.

Make a point of scheduling quality time every week (or every day) to do things that make you feel good. Whether it’s getting together with a friend, going for a walk in nature, finding a quiet place to read a good book, give yourself some respite from engagement. Because only when you leave the constant madness, to recharge your soul, can you come back to it and be effective in whatever you’re trying to do. We will figure this thing out as we feel the growing pains of shaping a new world. We are smart, capable people and there are huge numbers of us. But this is going to be a long haul, so we need to maintain our energy wisely.

We all need reminders of how to maintain our balance. Me, too, which is why I wrote this.

A Fresh Start for 2017

How are you feeling about entering the New Year?

The turning of the year has always been an opportunity for a fresh start. Whether last year was the best year or the worst year, it is now over. Time to let it go and embrace the new, whatever that may be.

Hello 2017. Female hands holding movie clapper.

Hello 2017. Female hands holding movie clapper.

I like to use this as a time to reflect and evaluate things. What is working? What is not? What do I need to release in order to make room for something better? What is missing from my life? What annoying things do I need to get rid of? Are there bad habits I need to stop? Good habits I need to foster? It’s time for a change, so what needs to be different?

Winter is a time that calls us to go inward and reflect. It’s cold outside. It’s dark. It’s comforting to curl up with a nice, hot cup of lemon, ginger tea, lean back against some cushions and think about how we want to go forward with our lives.

In 2017 there is a huge change coming and I don’t know what exactly it will be but it has me unsettled. When things are beyond our control, and so much of life is, it’s helpful to take charge of the things we can. The best way I know to channel that anxiety into something positive is to create my own landscape for what I would like to see. It is my form of prayer.

Every New Year’s I have a ritual that I do. I have a special journal set aside for this purpose where I write my aspirations. Here’s how it goes.

First, on a piece of scrap paper I write down everything I want to let go of and I put GOODBYE at the top of the page. It can be anything. Bad attitudes. Five pounds. Clothes I never wear. Feeling guilty. Anything that is not serving me that I can actually let go of. I write these things down and then as an act of release I burn the paper. Goodbye.

Next I look at my list of things from the previous year that I asked for. Always fun to do this part. I love to see what I wanted that actually happened. I check all of these things off. It’s amazing how many things I ask for do happen. Intention is powerful. It’s not magic. It’s being clear and focused, so that when the opportunity comes up to bring in something I want I act, rather than let the moment pass.

The first list I write down in the journal is also part of reflection. “Thank you for…” I write down everything that I’m grateful for that happened in the past year, whether it’s something I specifically asked for or not. It’s interesting to realize that great things happened that I didn’t see coming. I published a book. I met some wonderful people at a writing retreat. I found a fitness program that has transformed my body and my health. I am reminded that life is full of possibility. It’s so important not to forget this.

And finally…”2017 Hello…” and the big list begins.

I frequently like to do this at a quiet restaurant, where I can get a glass of wine or champagne, order something special from the menu and have my precious, solo time to write and reflect. (I don’t do the burning part in the restaurant. I save that scrap of paper for later.) There’s something about whisking myself away from my family that gives me the peace of mind and uninterrupted time to treasure this practice.

Later in the month, I make a collage for the year. This is another practice I have been doing for over 30 years. I love creating collages for important things I want to see in my life. I have done them for career, for love relationships and I even made one when I was looking for a house to buy so I could find just the right place. They work! Again, it’s not magic. Spending time paying close attention to what you want and taking the steps to visualize it helps you recognize it when it’s in front of you. Make sure you have the right magazines to find the images and words that you want to put in the collage. I have been known to buy a particular magazine just to cut up for this purpose.

This year I’m going to make two collages. One will be personal, for my life. The other will be for our country and the world. I don’t have a lot of control over the future, but I can voice my hope, with cut out pictures and words. This is my positive vision for the world.

No one can take away our dreams and our visions.

Or our sense of humor.

Happy 2017!

Self Care During Times of Uncertainty

It has been months since I’ve written a blog post. After publishing my book “Successful Strokes – A Realistic Guide to Creating a Lucrative Massage Business” last March and spending energy promoting it, I needed to take a break. I have three other books partially written but haven’t decided where to focus my attention. So, taking my own advice, I decided to take time off and just do nothing for a while. For me, doing nothing means taking lots of walks, spending time in my garden and getting lost in a book.

I was starting to feel relaxed. Allowing that void to be empty, knowing that creative ideas would soon form.

Then the election happenedYoung beautiful woman with reddish hair sitting home by the window with cup of hot coffee wearing knitted warm sweater. Christmas tree with decorations and lights in the room, snowy winter outside and I was totally unprepared for the result. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. Really? How could this be possible? There must be some mistake. Is this really going to happen?

My adrenaline, which had settled into a nice, quiet tide pool was suddenly churning in tsunami waves. Suddenly all I saw in my Facebook feed were articles that scared me to death. I felt sick. My stomach was in knots. I no longer needed to watch my diet as I had no appetite. It was immobilizing. All I could feel was panic and a sense of dread.

I want to live in a world that works for everyone. Unrealistic? Maybe, but truly, that is what I want. I know we are a very long way from that ideal, but I have seen over time that the quality of life has improved in countries around the world and slowly things have been getting better. The thing that blindsides us is that technology and communication have made information so much more accessible than it ever was, so we hear about more terrible things happening than we ever did. But, in general, people have more freedom and a higher quality of life than they did, say, 50 years ago.

Things were getting better in our country, too. The economy was better, there was more advancement on human rights and equality.

Then I woke up to an election that favored a man who wants to set us back 70 years, back to times of terror and struggle, who wants to undo so much progress we have made over hard fought battles.

I have been seriously distraught, unable to write or make anything. I even thought maybe I’d start working on a sewing project but realized my creative juice is zapped.

Anyone else feeling like this?

As I sat with this, I knew that it is not healthy to allow oneself to turn into a tight little ball of fear and that I had to keep going somehow, so I tried to analyze what was going on.

I feel like I just woke up in the middle of a dystopian novel. And it’s a cliff hanger.

And that, dear friends, is what’s driving me crazy.

Right now we don’t know what to do because we aren’t sure what’s going to happen. And so we read the scary headlines and we panic and despair.

Uncertainty is hard. When there is a crisis, we figure out what we need to do and we get to work. The surge of adrenaline gets channeled into action. If we see a vicious storm coming, we batten down the hatches and lay in a supply of food. Right now it’s unclear what to do and yet we want to do something.

It is emotionally overwhelming to focus too much on things over which we have little or no control. The key to mental health, is to take action on things where we do have some control and that’s what I’m doing now.

I have taken some steps to cope, and I’m sharing them in case you’d like ideas of how to get through these times as well.

  1. Take breaks from the news and social media. This has become a major habit of mine, since I’m constantly checking to see what my friends have to share. New rule: no news or Facebook after dinner. I do not need to see upsetting articles as I’m winding down from my day and preparing for sleep.
  2. Do small, simple tasks that make you feel better about your life. For me, that amounts to tidying up my house, cleaning out drawers and going through piles of accumulated papers to make my environment clean and orderly. I have been getting my garden ready for winter, pulling weeds and mulching the beds. It gives me peace of mind and a sense of accomplishment to see messy things get tidier.
  3. Connect with friends. During stressful times it helps to channel more love. I’ve been calling people I haven’t spoken to in a while and making dates to get together and that makes all of us feel better.
  4. Do random acts of kindness. Hug people. Smile and chat with strangers. Help whenever you can. As much as possible.
  5. Donate to organizations and causes you believe in. I started a few recurring monthly donations to human rights organizations and other places I want to support. Even tiny donations add up and feel good to do.
  6. Do simple tasks you enjoy. Cooking has always been a way for me to express myself and I especially love to cook during the cold winter months. A couple of times a week I whip up something hearty and satisfying for my family. It’s productive, its fun, and it’s appreciated by others.
  7. Focus on things you can control. Back in August I started a fitness program that combined healthy eating with exercise and I have religiously kept that up, sticking to a healthy eating plan, doing frequent brief workouts and walking eight thousand steps each day. So far I’ve lost 9 pounds and am almost at my goal. The walks are especially helping as I love walking among the trees and enjoy the patterns of fallen leaves as I go down my neighborhood streets.
  8. Read good books. Just finished “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes. She’s the writer for the TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” It’s hilariously funny and very uplifting.
  9. Participate in things that uplift you spiritually. I occasionally attend Center For Spiritual Living, a non-denominational church that recognizes all religions and spiritual paths as having value. I’ve been going more often.

All of this is helping. And hey, I just wrote a blog post.

Body Tweaking

My latest self-care practice, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, is that I signed up for a fitness program. Yes, the kind that you pay for. I was determined that my nemesis, those stubborn ten pounds, were not going to get the best of me. They have slowly creeped up over the past few years and I have dismissed them, excused them, helped hide them and accepted them as a new normal. Ten pounds may not seem like a lot to some people, but when you’re 5’ 2” it’s quite a bit.

Image: By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany CC BY-SA 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Image: By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not fat shaming myself or being obsessed with a certain look. I could feel it dragging me down. I was losing my juice. I could see how easily we gradually succumb to sluggishness. As we age we need to take care of these little things before they become big and turn us into lethargic sloths.

I was about ready to find the tree limb on which to crawl and spend the rest of my days when this program popped out at me. I checked it out and it seemed healthy, in line with the way I live so I decided to give it a try. Clearly I was not succeeding on my own.

I signed up for the 8Fit app because it both includes meal plans, fitness workouts and the shining crown – a Personal Trainer. Yes! A real human with whom I can email and ask questions! There are short video workouts to do as many times a week as I can.  You grade each one as easy, perfect or difficult and they keep tweaking what they give you by your feedback. It’s pretty cool. The rest of the time I walk until I reach at least 8,000 steps, as the app has a built in pedometer.

I like the idea of a trainer I can actually work with. Reaching goals is so much easier when I have someone to be accountable to. It seemed worth a try for $79/year. They offer a money back guarantee during the first week, so I figured I didn’t have much to lose. Except hopefully a bit of blubber. I can squeeze that roll on my stomach with my fingers and I say nasty things to it, as I try to drive it away. Hopefully this will be more effective than that.

So, the plunge is taken and I am diving in and giving it my all. Everyone who knows me will think I already eat healthy, but one thing I’ve already learned is that I eat too much fruit and the excess glucose turns to fat. Who knew? Those sweet, heavenly mangoes, and my precious homegrown raspberries, turning to ugly fat? I shivered in horror. No, please don’t take my favorite foods away!

I learned that sugars, even natural sweets found in fruit, need to be balanced by protein in order to be used by the body. Otherwise they will turn to fat. That was quite a revelation! At night I frequently grab a handful of figs or an apple, thinking I’m staving off hunger responsibly. Now I balance fruit with nuts or cheese.

I thought I was doing a good job tracking my calories with the MyFitnessPal app on my phone, but I cheated. I did not track all my fruit. Or that occasional piece of dark chocolate, or the slice of cheese and cracker that I ate in a ravenous stupor when I came home from work famished. I was definitely having an affair with undocumented foods.

By The Numbers

My delightful 8Fit coach, Alice tells me not to focus on the numbers but to pay attention to how I feel. Is she serious? I know she means well, but I have so many feelings going on at any given time, all I can say, is that they are extremely unreliable. Bloated, blubbery, excited, hopeful, disappointed, frustrated, exhausted, despairing, fierce, resilient, hopeful (again), grateful, alarmed, worried, relieved, elated, sleek, fat, acceptable, unacceptable, fit, hippo. Basically every body image and emotion possible, depending on my mood. Each of these feelings takes only a second to come and go, meaning that in any given minute I can cycle through 60 of them. They are highly unreliable.

When I turn a certain way I can look at myself in the mirror and my waist looks positively thin. And at 26 inches it’s not bad. But right above that is a roll of blubber, which I never had before, an unwanted guest in my body that has definitely overstayed its welcome.

Whereas the numbers are scientific. The number on the scale gives me a data point. It can be 128 pounds of fat or 128 pounds of muscle, but it tells me what I weigh and over time I can watch those numbers go up or down.

Same with food. I track my calories and I have used the 8Fit meals as a guideline, but being fiercely independent I ultimately design my own. The program has given me some new ideas, like blending Greek yogurt with uncooked rolled oats at breakfast, something I never thought of before. I like that I get oatmeal combined with protein. I add some fresh fruit to that for sweetness, chia seeds, flax seeds, and some chopped almonds. Nine almonds. 63 calories of almonds.

If I walk at least 8,000 steps the app tells me I burn 250 calories,. This is in addition to the calories it takes for me to run my basic bodily aliveness. Since there are 3500 calories to a pound, if that’s all I manage I will at least lose ½ pound per week, or eight pounds by New Year’s. The app’s brief workouts also burn a couple hundred calories so that will help, too. What I love about the workouts is the strength training. I’m using muscles that I normally do not challenge and I realize how weak I’ve allowed myself to become. I don’t really like standard exercises. I would rather walk or dance. But it feels incredibly good to be getting stronger and fit.

The really rewarding thing about this? It’s something I have control over. There are so many things I have put effort into that did not yield the results I was hoping for. Most of my creative endeavors are like that, especially the ones where I tried selling something I made. But this is something where it’s scientifically laid out. If I take in a certain number of calories and burn a specific number of them I ought to get results.

Without a clear plan we fool ourselves.

We tell ourselves lies. We sweet-talk ourselves into falling in love with our fantasies, into those things we want to be true. Especially when we feel lost and don’t have the energy to make changes. We know exactly how to turn our heads and not look at the parts we don’t want to see.

But now I have Alice. I even sent her a photo (I took “before” photos as another motivator to keep on track) so she knows just what that belly roll of fat that I want to get rid of looks like. She is incredibly supportive and helpful and we are slowly getting to know each other.

So we shall see.