I’ve never lived through a pandemic before and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. So each one of us is approaching our lives right now without a toolbox. Without an instruction booklet. Without a compass or a shortcut and without knowing how to make it to the other side.
Go easy on yourself.
I think we’re all having days where we’re struggling to maintain our positivity. Sometimes the dark thoughts completely char our world for a few hours, or sometimes we recognize keenly that there will be more collapse and death before this chapter of our history is closed. The ongoing daily trials of soldiering through so much uncertainty can make us feel very sad or very afraid sometimes. At least, this is what happens to me regularly now.
But I like to remind myself that my feelings are heavily influenced by my brain—the part of my body that thinks and plans and maps out a future that doesn’t even exist yet. It’s just one part of my body, true. But it’s a powerful one when it goes rogue from all the stress.
So when I feel like I’m drowning emotionally, I’ve made an effort to put my screen away and get quiet instead. I use that time to tune in to my essential self: the “me” that sits calmly beneath the ruckus, unbothered and unafraid. The “me” that knows humanity has been subjected to plagues and pandemics before, that many people died, but also that many people lived and went on to build new and different ways of being—often better than before—from the ruins of those experiences.
The essential me understands that we humans are mere specks on this planet and in this universe, and that although we think we are in charge, we really aren’t. We have an illusion of control because we conquer and destroy and consume, but we don’t have it, really. So then I ask myself, “Why, Elizabeth, are you worrying about a lack of control when you never really had it to begin with?”
I find it’s often best to let my fearful thoughts roll onward like storm clouds, and to just make the best decisions I can every day. You know, like washing my hands and staying safe at home. It’s also helpful to stand back a little and observe whatever transpires in order to discover the lessons in what I’m living through. I don’t think it’s an accident that any of us are alive at this moment in history.
Some of you know that I used to be a yoga teacher before my health issues hit. In fact, I’m a certified yoga and meditation teacher although I don’t wave it around obnoxiously. I tell you this because I think now is an exceptional time to learn how to get quiet. It’s the best way to maintain our sanity when we’re flailing around, because we remove ourselves from an unwritten future and instead focus on the present moment. And unless we’re in the hospital or being mugged or our cat is dying, the present moment is usually okay.
I like to take my lessons from the pages of Thich Nhat Hanh’s playbook. One of them goes like this:
2.Breathe in and out.
3.Notice that you are breathing in and out.
My favorite variation of this exercise, if you want to explore it a bit more, is where you say to yourself (while breathing):
"Breathing in, I smile. Breathing out, I release all my worries and anxieties."
I find that even a few breaths like this can be grounding and will turn down the intensity of my emotions.
I know it doesn’t feel like it, but there really are so many things we can do despite living in a time of social isolation and perceived powerlessness. We can choose how we respond to the world and to our stresses, and we can choose to do this positively (to the extent that we're able to, anyway). We can also breathe in and out, as I mentioned. Or we can think about our dreams and start sketching out a roadmap. Or we can write. Or we can walk. Or we can find ways to help others. Or we can just rest.
There is so much possibility in the pause.
My hope is that all of us take this time to not only contemplate what we might like to do differently in our lives going forward, but to learn something about ourselves and how we can continue to evolve. I know you’re hurting in one way or another; I’m hurting too. Even the people who still have jobs and whose loved ones aren’t sick are hurting and live in fear of what’s next.
You are not alone.
So while you try to cope, make sure to breathe and pull yourself back into the present moment every once in a while—where you are okay, where you still have food, and where you still have a roof over your head. None of the catastrophes in your mind have happened yet. And anyway, you’ll figure out how to persevere through everything once "everything" finally gets here. You have infinite knowledge in the quiet place inside of yourself…that non-thinking place. It’s where the answers to the hardest questions in life lie.
And if all of this doesn’t work on a particular day? Just go to sleep and try again tomorrow. Shutting my eyes and starting over with the sunrise works miraculously for me when even breathing feels too hard. Mornings have a way of bringing new perspective and a fresh start.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt or to order a copy. Click here to subscribe to my blog/mailing list.
I was listening to a podcast the other night and it really resonated with me because I’ve struggled for decades to find meaning and my place in the world. There was a specific quote from Oprah that has stuck with me, and she said, “Whatever is holding you back in your own life, whatever is preventing you from being your authentic self, is also keeping you from your truest, greatest power.”
When I look back at the last 17 years of my life (meaning the time I entered the professional workforce after college), what I see is that graduating from college was the point at which I began rejecting my authentic self. Up until that point, I’d followed my heart and did what I wanted to do. I wasn’t worried about bills or the future or choosing a practical field; I wanted to study literature and Spanish—so I did.
After that, as real life hit, I almost always took whatever jobs were available regardless of whether or not I wanted them. I was afraid to change trajectory and afraid to examine what could be, and I was also afraid to walk away from any opportunity to earn the money I needed to pay bills. The result is that the last 17 years have been a complete and total loss of myself despite material advancement and professional success.
The podcast was looking back to 1997, when Ellen Degeneres came out and when I was 16 years old and still being me. It examined how the negative fallout of her telling the truth morphed into something beautiful and impactful, and ultimately became the best version of Ellen’s life that there could be.
I’ve found myself in the same space lately. I’m forcefully rejecting who I’ve pretended to be for so many years (a corporate professional) and instead am seeking to become who I truly am (a writer and a teacher). If you’re out of a job like me, it’s the perfect time to contemplate whether or not what you’re doing is authentically you. Are your life and/or career choices allowing you to not just grow your bank account and skills, but to grow into the greatest version of who you were meant to be?
I said to someone the other day that I’ve been chasing money for a long time. I’m not a materialistic person at all, to be clear; I’m a person who spent her childhood and most of her young adulthood hurting for money. So I live in fear of returning to a feeling of lack. I live in fear of running out of food, of losing my home, of not having even fifty cents to spend on anything extra. So my response to that fear was to use my liberal arts degree as a way to chase increasingly larger paychecks in the absence of a meaningful career path, and therefore avoid finding myself in a bad financial spot.
But what happened was that, while I avoided becoming financially poor (although I did become poor again for a while in 2010), I instead became a different kind of poor. I became poor in spirit, because I was doing jobs that sucked the life out of my soul. I became poor in health, because the stress of my work was taking a daily toll on my body. I became poor in emotional happiness, because the turmoil of doing something that was not “me” was a constant gaslighting on the inside.
I’ve spent years insisting that everything is fine, that I’m making good money, that I should be grateful instead of perpetually discontent. And I've also reasoned that life is pretty darn good and that I really have nothing to complain about, so I just need to soldier on because nobody really loves their job anyway.
But lying to myself is pushing the real me down into a black pit. It's dimming the light inside of me that has always strived to do and to be extraordinary, and instead has caused me to settle for what is instead of striving for what could be.
As I sit at this juncture in my life (as an unemployed person who’s lost yet another corporate job that was antithetical to who I am), I feel like Ellen probably felt in 1997: I can no longer continue living a life that isn’t actually who I am. I have to tell the truth about me. And the truth is the complete opposite of the life I’ve been living.
“Me” is not the managing editor in charge of digital marketing programs to make a corporation money, like I most recently was. "Me" is not the technical writer or the project manager or the marketing consultant, which I’ve been too.
No, “me” is the writer who creates meaningful blog posts like this one and who also has a book coming out about how to get through life. “Me” is the 5th grade teacher that I was back in 2010-2011, who wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids but was dismayed to find it was just too hard.
“Me” is also the Student Body President I was in high school, leading other students in activities such as painting an old man’s house with Habitat for Humanity, or cleaning up garbage along a creek, or tutoring elementary school kids who needed help. “Me” is the lit major focusing on American lit and African American lit before life hit, and having in-depth conversations with professors and students about humanity and all its flaws.
So that’s me.
Now, who are you?
It pains me to admit that the only true-to-me things I’ve done in my post-college career are writing a book, starting this blog, and teaching school. Everything else was a boldfaced lie that I told to myself and to the world so that I could avoid that poverty thing I’m so afraid of. And I suspect this is probably why every single one of my corporate jobs imploded—even the ones that started out with promise. They just weren’t who I wanted or was meant to be. I only did them because of fear, every single time.
Change is hard, but when I look at Ellen and how her life completely transformed after she had the courage to just be who she was, I can’t help but think my life will be the same. All of our lives could be the same if we just had the balls to figure out how to be more truthful about ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard to stand vulnerably in front of the world, waiting to see if you will be accepted or rejected for who you are. But there is no other way to live fully except to be whoever you happen to be.
To discover our true selves, we can start by listening to our guts. I think if you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right in your life, or if you just can’t seem to be fully content in your days, or if you think you would love to do (or be) something else, then you’re probably living some form of a lie that you know is there. The question is, how long can you continue living it before you just can’t do it anymore?
I turn 40 in November and I’m at a point where I cannot, for one more second, continue to live the lie. I cannot work in places I am morally opposed to. I cannot participate in capitalism when the real me is not a money-making machine. I cannot give so much of my creative and physical energy to jobs such that there is nothing left for myself. And I think if I just follow “me” wherever I go, as long as I really do follow my truth, things will turn out ok. I’ll make it. Life will unfold in a magnificent way.
So I look forward to stepping boldly into my next chapter with naked authenticity. I look forward to finally being myself and experiencing the magic of living a life based in truth. I also look forward to seeing who will accept me and who will reject me, and finally deciding I just don’t care about anyone’s opinions anymore.
How about you?
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt or to order a copy. Click here to subscribe to my blog/mailing list.
I woke up this morning to a friend messaging me through Instagram about her anxiety around the news and all the civil unrest. It was good timing because today is one of the rare days when my anxiety is mostly under control, so I was able to console her a bit.
As a mostly white (I’m honestly all mixed racially, though) woman who is married to a black man, and as someone who studied African American literature in college, issues of race are really important to me even though they don’t usually affect me very much. I’m not going to get all pedantic about the state of the world and try to lecture people one way or the other, and I’m also not going to go into why I think what’s happening in the streets right now is predictable. But what I will say is that whatever you believe is the correct behavior for the moment, what’s actually happening is that humans are really hurting.
When I went through my divorce many years ago, I passed through a stage where I was so angry that I couldn’t say enough F words to get it out. I was not a person who had ever cussed much, and I certainly never said that word because it felt like the worst of the worst, but an accumulation of negative experiences began to change who I was and how I behaved. I was looking for a valve to release the pressure and that word was the best one I could find.
I’d also started to go through these mini rages at home alone when I’d never been a particularly angry person before. After each storm finally passed through my system, my true emotions would start to take over and my eyes would rain buckets as I realized I was actually deeply hurt. People who are angry are hurt. Remember that. An angry person is someone you could potentially be if your life circumstances had aligned in a certain way.
Most of us can surely recall times when we've exploded. We usually explode with words and use them to wound those around us, but sometimes we take a step beyond words into physical action. This may mean we throw something against the wall or punch a hole in it because we recognize that hurling objects (or fists) at humans isn’t a good way to go, and thankfully most of us engage in these escalated explosions sparingly.
When I used to explode particularly badly, my favorite behavior was to use a pillow to beat the arm of the sofa or the footboard of my bed. There was also one time, again during a divorce-era mini rage, when I took a big wine glass and shattered it in the sink so as not to create a huge mess for myself after the explosion was over. At least I had the mental faculties to contain the glass to a small area rather than spewing it across my kitchen.
Even with all of the work I've done to be a happier person and to heal myself, I still beat the bed or sofa with a pillow on the rare occasions when lifelong hurts get the best of me. And I wonder if that’s how some people with lifelong hurts are feeling right now? And then I think, what if my own hurt/anger was amped up by centuries of abuse and pain rather than just a few years or decades? I wonder, then, what sort of explosion I might have?
I don’t condone violent behavior. I never do, because I don’t think violence is a good solution to anything and it usually brings about more violence. But I do understand it at this juncture in our history, and I encourage you to try to understand it (understand it, not condone it) instead of judging people for their explosions—especially if you’re a white person like me.
A few days ago, I cried on my husband’s shoulder and hugged his neck, spitting out words in between sobs about how I didn’t want him to be next and how I was afraid he’d get hurt. He reminded me that he’s had to watch his back his entire life, and that what we’re seeing isn’t all that much different than the things he’s had to be aware of for more than four decades while I was blissfully privileged to be born a different color.
As I’ve caught up with the news about fires around the White House and extreme unrest all across the country today, I’ve wondered again if there’s a better spot on planet Earth for me to live out my days. For now, though, I’m going to continue to stand with the oppressed in whatever way I'm able (through my writing, through petitions, through awareness) and just wait to see what transformation comes (or doesn’t come) out of this moment of chaos.
Sometimes big changes come painfully, and I do wonder if we are in the last few pages of a dramatic chapter in the human story. I also think that humans, as a species, can’t seem to get where they need to be without first creating destruction. I’m not sure why this is the case.
But if you’re reading my work, you’re probably one of the humans who is striving to be better. You’re probably a kind person with a good heart; you’re probably introspective and thoughtful; you’re probably someone who would help your neighbor as much as you can. These are the types of people I try to connect with through my writing because we can work together to become a beacon in the darkness. We can still be angry ourselves (my anger is deep and scarlet, believe me), but we can express it constructively while also understanding and holding up our fellow human beings who simply cannot restrain themselves in the same way.
I invite each of us to save our judgment of one another for a different day and instead work together to find solutions. And when we can’t do that - either because we’re emotionally exhausted or because we have no idea what to actually do to help - let’s at least stay in our own bubbles and do no additional harm to humanity while the world is swirling. As I said in my poem, Morning Trash, “We are one people. Two eyes, two feet. Two hands to hold or to steal life.”
Be well and be kind.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt and to order a copy.
Life Shows You Your Calling