Catching up ~ Coping through the pandemic.
Part 1 ~ Connecting with nature
How can it be three years since my last writing here? I feel like I am coming out of a dark cave, blinking and rubbing my eyes as I squint into the light. The ongoing pandemic is only part of the excuse for my absence. But I feel the need to catch up for anyone who follows me, before launching anew. It’s been a couple of years of confusion, doubt, some new self-discoveries, and lethargy too. Since our move to town and all the unknowns while waiting for that to happen in the year prior, there have been some ups and downs, not just the scourge of Covid 19.
On the upside, I’ve established my little backyard garden, despite the roots and trees and “dry shade”, giving us a small oasis in this downtown residential district. I was still shuffling plants around in November, trying to figure out the best conditions for each. Edward built some high, raised beds around a gravel patio area for vegetables in 2020 (like everyone else in lockdown it seems!) and we grew everything from lettuce mixes and kale to eggplants, tomatoes, and hot peppers, and lots of herbs. I think pandemic vegetable growing, and gardening in general, while not only tasty and beautiful, gave people a greater sense of control in their lives, not to mention a feeling of being more grounded, literally. Always helps to touch the earth and really use all the senses when life seems unhinged and uncertain.
We found some joy last winter noticing a variety of birds attracted to our space, replete as it is with seeds and protection in the two hemlocks and some nearby cedars, also hiding spots in a yew and the neighbour’s huge rhododendron that overhangs the fence, (allowing us to share it’s fuchsia blooms in spring!) We started putting out handfuls of sunflower seeds and peanuts all winter around our deck at the behest of a few noisy young bluejays, and attracted a crowd of regulars: mourning doves, bluejays, goldfinches, downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, juncos, chickadees, two kinds of nuthatch, and lovely cardinals. We don’t leave a feeder out due to raccoons in the neighbourhood, and the risk of rats in this riverside town, so we just put out small amounts in the daytime. The birds give me and the cats much delight looking through the patio doors on a wintery day, and we’re glad to see their return.
My huge pot of swamp milkweed attracted a couple Monarch Butterflies this summer which laid a few eggs.The first eggs disappeared but Edward rescued a couple later on by bringing in the twigs they were on and we protected them long enough to grow into fat green caterpillars, then form their chrysalises and hatch into butterflies! It was a wonder to witness. I hope they managed to make their incredible journey south!
The many wooded parks in and around town have also kept me connected to nature, which is my salvation. My walks, usually with Alfie Dog, replenish me daily. It’s not quite the same as the farm and our woods there – I rarely see bald eagles and red-tailed hawks anymore without the hilltop vista; haven’t seen a snake, toad, or snowshoe hare since we moved, but I do get to see ducks, numerous painted turtles, the occasional muskrat, and lots of dragonflies at the two ponds in town, one at Woodland Gardens Park and the other at the cemetery three blocks down the end of my street. My parents, a brother, and grandmother are buried in that cemetery, so I give them an occasional hello too. I visit both locations on a regular basis for dog walks, although Alf, getting older and slower, and maybe a little lazy, prefers a car ride the few blocks to get there before we walk. Her pokey pace is a great chance for me to look around with my camera, mostly with just the phone’s camera which is easy to pocket when you have a leashed dog in one hand and sometimes a bag of poop in the other. My Facebook friends get to see what I spy in my “Daily Dog Walks,” almost daily.
Edward has enjoyed being a three-minute walk from his office, as well as having no lawn to mow, and to be able to merely shovel off the front step if need be, to get out to work in winter. We have a door that opens a step away from the sidewalk, with a short narrow driveway beside the house, so even if we need the car in a snowfall it has not required much work, except when the snowplow fills us in again with heavy slush. Edward sure doesn’t miss those 6-hour stints on the old 1979 Massey Ferguson tractor to plow a 1200-foot driveway. That said, there’s not been much snow the past few years.
Part 2 ~ Creating
In the autumn of 2018 after we got settled in I began a new certification program, called Creatively Fit ™ coaching. Having wanted to paint all my life but never giving myself full permission to just plunge in without formal instruction, I had found this program that uses a simple intuitive painting process to help people focus on the “energy” and vision they want to bring into their lives. It’s really an intention-setting process that starts the painting, first marking the canvas with words and symbols reflecting your desires, moving onto randomly painting on the colours you feel drawn to, then eventually developing a chosen theme or seeing what emerges to create the final subject matter of your painting. It is more about the process than product, and about getting over your resistance to creating and being seen (or seeing yourself!)
Having it be a “coaching” certification sort of made it feel legit for me to pursue, as ridiculous as that may sound. I know I inherited my mother’s belief that painting for the fun of it was kind of self-indulgent, and I also had my own belief that everything had to be formally schooled or certified, otherwise you weren’t a “real” artist. (I have thrown that one out now!)
I had started playing with acrylic paints the year before, having seen paintings by some fellow coaches in the US who were familiar with the Creatively Fit™ program and other so-called “intuitive” painting processes. I had started my Mary Doodle doodling project in 2015, then had dabbled in drawing with pen and colouring with watercolours, so I was ready for the next step by layering with acrylics. Once I got a taste of that I decided to go all in and take the program, created by Whitney Freya. It involves some self-exploration and a training in helping you see the canvas as a metaphor for life, learning to step up to that blank space, get through your fears around creating and being judged, doing it for the process and the experience and joy of it, and focusing on the energy you wish to feel, rather than worrying about having to produce “art”. In February of 2019 I started teaching my own painting-as-meditation workshops and was certified as a Creatively Fit™ Coach that spring.
I should also mention that I set myself another daily challenge last year, like Mary Doodle except more random, I called it “365 to 60”. My 60th birthday was in December of 2020, and so at my 59th I set myself the challenge to create 365 drawings or doodles or pieces of art between then and my 60th. One of my self-discoveries is that as distractible as I may be, I do tend to work to deadlines, even if everything produced that way is not great, something gets done and in that you find things that you love. I think I made it to the autumn of 2020 with that project, not a full 365 pieces, but certainly better than had I not set the challenge at all. Those images were also featured for my facebook friends and for followers of Mary Dixon Works of Heart, my business page on facebook. https://www.facebook.com/MaryDixonWorksOfHeart . That daily project inspired me somewhat to reinvent Mary Doodle, although I’ve only done a few of her so far. She was gradually re-drawn and looks nothing like her original incarnation. I do plan to revive her with this new look. So, maybe I have managed to be more creative in the past 20 months, despite pandemic fatigue, than I’d even realized.
Part 3 ~ Changes
In March of 2019 we also seized what had seemed, at the time, to be a great opportunity, to move into a new office space downtown with a couple of new-to-our-area massage therapists, with a view to having various other healing practitioners join us. Edward and I shared a lovely treatment room (at alternate times) and the attraction for us to that space was that there was a large common area in which we could hold his Reiki Ryoho classes as well as my intuitive art workshops and Soul Coaching© groups. We also started a Monday night meditation series there.
Things were rolling along well for that first year, I was just starting to get some wider awareness of my workshops out there, and of course Covid 19 hit. We were shut down for three months for Edward’s massage treatments, and longer for any group events. Not long after he’d resumed practising in June of 2020, there were some totally unexpected changes at our new centre, and we suddenly found ourselves the only ones there. Feeling uncertain about the situation, we opted to move Edward back to an office in his previous location around the corner from our home. Unfortunately that left us without a classroom space, but with gathering limits, masking, and social distancing, it looked like it would be a while before I could even hold a class at all. When I began to write this post the Delta variant of SARS CoV2 was circulating and seemed dangerous enough, but now with cases skyrocketing with Omicron, my gatherings are definitely postponed for a while longer. I am not sure yet what to do and feel a loss of momentum and huge disappointment. Online course creation still does not appeal to me as I know personally as a student how easy it is for folks to buy classes they never complete. That seems unsatisfying.
With the ongoing state of uncertainty, fourth or fifth waves with shifting restrictions and requirements, I, like many others, have been experiencing a kind of lethargy and lack of focus that has dampened my enthusiasm and I have been creating art only in fits and starts in the past year and a half. That said, I did do a large commissioned mandala painting on plywood for a neighbour’s garden last year and have four or five 24” square or bigger canvases complete or almost complete in my studio. I will feature and talk about those soon on my marydixon.com site, which I am in the process of revamping. It will focus on my art for sale, including some photographic prints as well as paintings and drawings, creative classes, and a blog about my work and creativity.
Life and Soul Coaching© and Reiki are no longer on offer from me. That’s the other big change, not so much a big change really, just an acceptance of what hasn’t worked for me, and sunk costs really are not a good enough reason to keep hanging on. I have not been seeking work in that vein since my last Soul Coaching® group just as the pandemic was reaching North America.
I am ultimately a creator and am finding ways to do what I do best and try to make it sustainable, even if that means taking other employment to subsidize the creating. For now I am juggling various projects, and still want to do it all, painting, doodling and cartooning, some writing, and doing something with my photography (prints and cards, not work for hire). And eventually getting back to teaching workshops. The one thing I am clear on is that I can’t not create, and I am a better creator than coach. So, this return to my blog is also step in that direction.
Part 4 ~ Random Minor Disasters
Adding to the overall stress of pandemic limitations and fears, some of the “normal” life events aggravated my stress levels. In April we had a wind and rain storm that tore some shingles off our roof. I awoke early in the morning to water pouring through our upstairs ceiling. Ceilings in the hallway, two bedrooms and the bathroom were immediately affected as well as some walls. We live in an older home with lathe and plaster, not so easy to fix. Fortunately insurance came to the rescue due to the wind event. After having the roof replaced (the unaffected part and plywood base renewed at our own expense), we’ve been living with a slow-to-resolve ceiling issue. Alas a new leak was discovered in the new roof! That has been rectified but not without damaging the previously undamaged ceilings upstairs. So, there is still significant repair still to be done as we enter the new year.
Besides that unfinished business, add a cat who had a cancerous tumour removed from his back last summer, as well as my ongoing struggle to get some diagnosis for the partial loss and distortion of my sense of smell (oh yeah, that happened, PRE-pandemic…. some things I don’t smell, some are distorted, and then there are yucky phantom smells too!), and one. just. gets. tired.
Part 5 ~ Pandemic “Languishing” and Finding Flow
My physical and mental energy has been much more down than up, which is not necessarily untypical for me, nor untypical for most folks under the present circumstances I guess. And the pandemic uncertainty is causing some of us to be constantly on the lookout for what’s next, and how to prepare, our sense of danger heightened. And like many folks through these past 19 months or so, I have been in a bit of a holding pattern, reassessing my direction, holding my breath (a lot), going through bouts of extreme fatigue mixed with anxiety and doom-scrolling.
Start. Stop. Breathe. Hold. Look ahead. Step back. Get hopeful. Be disappointed again. And then worry that it might always be like this. I read in the New York Times some months ago that the condition many of us find ourselves in is being called “languishing”:
“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.(By Adam Grant ~ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html)
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.” […]
“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.”
So, even though living in lovely Nova Scotia with its sparse population and proactive public health measures protecting most of us from contact with the virus, I have still been languishing. Understanding more these days about my own general tendencies which can heighten anxiety, I have made some conscious choices that have helped me, somewhat, and which, it turns out, are also good ideas for anyone experiencing this sense of languishing. The rest of that NYT article includes tips to help counteract this condition, including getting into flow.
“Flow states” refer to having deeply focused periods of uninterrupted work, creation, or even play, or as he says in the article, a state of “absorption.” For some that might mean Netflix binge-watching, but not for me. It’s too passive rather than engaging for me. I find more flow when my body is at least somewhat involved, as well as my mind. For me that would especially include gardening, or photographing along the woodland trails or while beach-combing. Zooming in on the details in nature keeps me in the moment and out of fears of an uncertain future, which, pandemic or not, is always actually uncertain.
I can also get really focused and in flow when I make a special meal for guests or when baking, although I try to avoid too much of the latter with the risk of getting into the flow of eating a pan of cinnamon rolls!
I can get into flow at the painting easel, but I find it a greater challenge, and it may be partly that I still lack a lot of specific skills in painting. The Creatively Fit™ process mentioned above is really helpful for less-experienced painters to get started. Once you’ve marked up a clean canvas with random colours and words it is much easier to continue and find some momentum. The challenge is staying out of judgment as you get into messes, and trusting that you’ll find your way through.
The blank “page” of a word processing document is daunting too, so if I have not got a plan I just start typing random questions to myself until I get something to riff on. “What do you love about this season?” “What is bugging you most lately?” “What are you grateful for?” “Why do you even want to bother blogging again?” Many writers and writing coaches offer books and cards with writing prompts (see a new one from my friend Jennifer Browdy below*) to help people get started.
My biggest hurdle is starting, actually dedicating an hour, turning OFF the social media (see a tip for that below too**), sitting down to that blank screen or page and getting some words down. Once I’ve begun I usually find my way, and can often continue for over an hour at a time. Sometimes it’s not until I am a few pages in before I discover my topic. As the physicists point out, it is easier to keep a body moving once it is already in motion. You need the force of a regular practice, or sometimes a deadline, to get over that initial inertia. Structure. Always my challenge when working at home. It helps with exercise too, get the workout clothes ready the night before, and get out the door…then you’re on your way.
Another author I follow who coaches writers, launched a book last year called “Why Bother?”*** for those times when you have been side-swiped by life, been ill, had a personal disruption and so on and you can’t get going again. That’s kind of where I am right now, wading through the “Why bother?” of this continuing pandemic languishing phase, and attempting what often feels like massive effort, to create some structure, to settle down, and get some focused creation started, getting past the inertia so I can find the flow.
As we all reorient to this “new normal” as some call it, I will continue to write here about my own discoveries, what works for me to keep me grounded, my observations of people, myself, and my experiences in nature, and how it all gives me some sense perhaps of what my spirit needs in the face of all this. That “spiritual” aspect is a part of my life that is in upheaval too, as my touchstones and rituals from the farm life are no longer so present and the past couple of years have left me wondering even more “what’s it all for?” I’ve also found myself questioning some of the people and belief systems that purport to be spiritual. I am working on a new definition of that for myself. Until next time…
Resources mentioned: (And no, I do not currently have any affiliate links /commissions for any of these recommendations.)
* My friend, Jennifer Browdy PhD, professor of literature, writing, and media arts at the college level, has just published “Quest Writing Prompt Cards”–Set of 54 cards and images (with beautiful images of Nova Scotia!): https://www.jenniferbrowdy.com/store/Quest-Writing-Prompt-Cards-Set-of-54-cards-and-images-p384101483
** If you have trouble as I do avoiding the trap of social media scrolling or surfing web sites and podcasts, you might wish to try this app for a low monthly fee to block out some distractions for periods of time. The key, of course, is actually going to the app and scheduling those blocks! https://freedom.to
***Jennifer Louden’s “Why Bother” was published just as the pandemic was emerging in N. America, although written before, and urges you to keep going after various pauses, losses, perceived failures, and life challenges when you’d be inclined to say “Why bother?” Using very personal reflections and stories from others it might help nudge you beyond this pandemic languishing stage we’re in. Jen Louden is a writer and creativity coach in the personal development field.