About a month ago, I came across a tomato hornworm on my cherry tomato plant. If you haven’t seen a tomato hornworm (and I don't intend for this to be a long, boring diatribe about a worm, but you need to read the story to get my point), it’s a really large, green worm that is about as big and thick as my thumb.
As is often the case with Mother Nature, these worms are cleverly made to blend in with their target plants and are therefore extremely hard to spot. For the previous 36 hours, I’d scratched my head and stared at the plant, wondering what could possibly have decimated it so quickly. A third of the leaves were gone, half of the fruit was gone, and the stems were eaten down to nubs. I looked and looked but couldn’t find any anything out of the ordinary.
I’d learned a few months back that sometimes cutting off all the injured or diseased parts was step one to a plant’s healing, much like how we humans start to heal when we treat our underlying disease or remove things that are broken (like my poor gallbladder, may it RIP). And it was when I went around to prune off the jagged stems and half-eaten fruit that I suddenly spotted him gnawing contentedly on one of my green tomatoes.
I dropped my pruner and ran inside the house. Yelling up the stairs to my husband, who was working in his office, I requested that he come down immediately to provide moral support while I attempted to remove a huge worm from my plant. He was unsure of why I needed such support, but as good husbands do, he came outside.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Right there. Look. There.” I pointed.
“Right here, see? He’s on the stem,” still pointing.
“I don’t see it…”
And then, “Ohhhhh. Wow, they sure do blend in.”
As someone who likes to be thoroughly prepared so as to assure my own success, I’d already researched every possible tomato plant (and pest) issue – including the tomato hornworm. And the internets had told me I should remove said worm and throw him into a bucket of soapy water to snuff him out – much like stink bugs and caterpillars and the like.
So I went and got a clear plastic cup, added some water and dish soap, put on my glove like a surgeon, and went back outside to attempt to pull him off while proclaiming, “Yuck yuck yuck!” audibly enough for the neighbors to overhear.
Except he wouldn’t come off.
I tried, he clung tight. I tried harder, he didn’t budge. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to squish him if I gripped and pulled him off like Velcro, so I finally won the battle and quickly heaved him into the cup.
“Phew,” I said to my husband, relief washing over me that I’d done this necessary gardening thing and therefore was probably legit initiated into it now.
But then I looked over and saw this poor worm struggling, drowning, suffocating in a soapy swimming pool with insurmountable walls. And I felt my heart start to crumble.
“Gawd. I just can’t do that to him, Jason,” I said, and quickly dumped him out onto the grass. “It makes me really sad.”
“Yeah,” he said, understanding what I meant.
I thought for a moment about what I ought to do next, with said worm now squiggling around on the grass helplessly near my back gate. So I scooped him up in the empty cup - which had small soap bubbles still clinging to the rim - and then I marched out of my backyard, around my house, and down the street to a little clump of native brush that somehow hadn’t been destroyed by the construction of our neighborhood about 12 years ago (Texas has a nasty habit of bulldozing everything to the ground). I then heaved him into said brush even though I’d come to realize he’d likely die anyway from the soap residue, and I sent a silent well wish and an apology to his little soul.
Maybe my behavior sounds a bit nonsensical because, after all, it's just a worm. But I tell you this story because the worm changed how I see the life around me. It made me realize that we often fear the things we do not understand - and this fear response is an important behavior for us humans (myself included) to learn to manage properly.
I feared him because he looked different than any bug I’d ever encountered. He was large, he was green, he had a little horn on his back, and there were multiple sets of feet clinging tightly to a branch that was half the diameter of his massive body.
I also feared him because I did not truly see him. What I mean is, I didn’t see him as part of the same life that exists in me, nor did I see him as an important part of the well-oiled mechanics of our planet. He was just hanging around, doing what he’s supposed to do - which is, yes, eat my tomatoes - but I didn’t acknowledge that he has as much right to the plant as I have. We all share this planet and its resources, and I really had enough tomato plants left over that I could have given that one to him and been just fine.
I think we do this fear response thing a lot, fellow humans. I think this is why we have so much prejudice, and intolerance, and lack of understanding, and weird behavior. It’s because we don’t understand the “other” and therefore we are afraid of that thing or person or animal or way of life.
And what do we do when we’re afraid? We self-protect. We mount our defenses. We turn our heads in disgust, we kill, or sometimes we just run away. In other words, we lose ourselves in some weird egoic protective instinct instead of clearing our heads and seeing the world for what it really is: a place where we are all kind of the same.
Back in grade school, I was fascinated to learn that everything is made up of atoms which are then comprised of sub-atomic particles. A recent Google search says the smallest currently known particle is a quark (these are sub-atomic particles that combine to create protons and neutrons), and that we don’t yet have the ability to break these particles down further.
So we are ALL comprised of this stuff at our core – and it’s true as much for you as it is for a rock, a bird, a tree, or a worm.
I feel like once we get in touch with what this really means, we can start to rethink some of our behaviors. This is why I felt sad for hurting the worm and had to abort the mission: killing him was killing a part of myself, a part of my essence, because we are formed from the same stuff. And not everyone is going to be able to follow me when I say that (it's okay if you don't). But I try very hard not to kill anything and this little guy was new to my world. So I got afraid and lost my center until I looked, understood what he was, and immediately changed course.
Have you lost your center with people who aren’t like you? Or maybe with that little rat who lives outside your house, doing nothing but trying to live life just like you are, but you simply don’t want to share the space with him because you’re afraid he’ll <fill in the blank>?
What this time in our history has taught me is that so many people live their lives in a fear state. It’s MINE. They’ll TAKE what’s MINE. There’s not ENOUGH to go around. I’ve got to have my SHARE. They’re coming to take my LIFE, my PROPERTY, my LIBERTY.
Me, me, me. But what about others?
What about this planet of ours that is smoldering? What about the humans who are starving? What about the ecosystems that are collapsing?
What about the trees that are eaten by big machines to make way for MORE buildings? And what about the animals that are killed with poison, with shovels, with guns simply because they want to exist just like you do but landed in your space by chance?
It’s not all about us, fellow humans.
So I can tell you exactly how I'll react the next time I see a tomato hornworm: I’ll look at him with kindness and I’ll tell him hello. And then I’ll tell him I appreciate that he’s visited and has found some food, but that this is my food, and I hope he has had a good helping and can find more food elsewhere.
And then I’ll glove myself again like a surgeon to pry him off the stem, but this time I’ll place him gently into an EMPTY cup. I’ll walk down the street to that patch of brush, drop him there carefully to give him his best shot at survival, and wish him well as he goes on his way.
This is how life should be, guys. This is how we should be to each other – to other people, to animals, to birds, to bugs, to plants, to the planet. Let’s not forget that we all need each other in order to exist. Too many people don’t seem to understand this anymore, and if we don’t get it together…well, I don’t want to think about that. We’re already seeing it on the west coast, and with storms, and with temperatures rising, and with…so many things.
Let’s all just try to do better.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife (Warren Publishing), was released on August 18, 2020. To read an excerpt, check out reviews, see the author Q&A, or find links to buy, click the Learn More button.
I was sitting on my patio this morning watching some rare summer rain rumble in from the east, the winds pushing through the neighbor’s trees as the sparrows flitted around my feeders, when I coined a new term for myself and my current reality: The Big Pause.
I’m in this weird place in my life right now where I’m sort of “in between.” In between then and now. In between health and sickness. In between joy and sorrow. And in between who I was and who I may become. As a result of all of this instability, I’m spending a lot of my time during this pandemic (and during this break in my work life) just sort of existing.
So this means I get up in the morning and I make some sort of breakfast, whether it’s oatmeal or eggs or gluten-free pancakes, and I follow it up religiously with a little cup of homemade vegan chai. I sip it from my pale green, polka-dotted teacup with a rim of gold that I bought myself after buying one as a gift for a dear friend of mine. I loved it so much – and she loved it so much – that I ordered one for myself, too. It not only made me happy, but it made me feel closer to her in a way. We are separated by hundreds of miles and many states the last few years, and I miss her dearly as a physical presence in my life.
When I’m finished downing the many pills and supplements I have to swallow in the first hours of my day, I use the mental notes I’ve taken on my body and my health since I woke up to decide what I’m going to do next. I have just a few choices these days and most of them don’t involve much.
Option 1: If it’s cool enough, I go tend to my plants in the garden or look for my squirrel (yep I feed a squirrel; I have named him Marley).
Option 2: If I have enough energy, I do a fifteen- to twenty-minute yoga practice by myself in the spare room.
Option 3: If I’m feeling creative, I sit down to write or maybe head to the kitchen to bake something.
Option 4: If I’m feeling sick, as is quite often the case in the last six months, I don’t do much of anything. I lay on the sofa and let myself reside in the “in between.” Or, as I was doing this morning, I sit outside with the rain brushing against the side of my skin nearest the wind, and I watch it form puddles on the ground.
I breathe. I wait. And I don’t rush whatever is to come next.
I’ve coined this time of my life “The Big Pause” because that’s really what it is for me – the biggest pause of my entire life. But also, I got to thinking about how most of humanity could really use a Big Pause sometimes. We go and go, and traverse a number of obstacles and heartaches, until we get to a point where we’re just worn out and have nothing left to give to ourselves or to anyone else. We’re tired from our hearts all the way to our bones and our skin, and we badly need to take a rest (although most of us rarely do).
Many of us have finally been given that bit of rest because of the pandemic (not a stress-free rest, mind you), and I’ve observed so many people talking about “making the most” of the time if you happen to find yourself in a pause because you’re jobless, or because you’re scared to leave your home, or because the world is crumbling around you and you aren’t sure how to handle it all just yet. And I don’t think becoming more busy is necessarily what we should be doing.
Well, not all of us anyway.
I think 2020 will unfold very differently for each person depending on their individual circumstances and their personality. And we should make room for every version of this unfolding in what is considered “okay” and a “successful use of time.” Some people might put immediate action and goals into place – and this is great – but some people can’t do anything but just sit and wait for a while.
I’m sort of in the latter category: I’m sitting and waiting. I know things are changing dramatically and that I’m getting closer to some truth about myself that’s been brewing for decades, but this process is not one I can push along. It’s not one I can write my way into or out of, or will my way into or out of, or otherwise tangibly manipulate until the time is right for it to manifest in my life. And on some days, when I feel particularly lost or worried about finances, it’s an exceptionally painful time to traverse.
I’ve seen many people building masterpieces in their Big Pause, which is great if that’s how life is unfolding for you - and I kind of wish it was that way for me. I honestly felt distraught in the beginning because I wasn’t able to do something of the same with my own free time. However when I examined the unique circumstances of my life rather than looking at the lives of others, I realized I was already at the end of my masterpiece (my first book). I’d been working on it for several years and was wrapping it up when the pandemic hit, so I wasn’t in a place to light new fires and create new contributions.
I’m still not.
And I keep wondering when I will be. Maybe in 2021?
I think most people mean well when they say you should take advantage of every moment you have right now (or in life in general), but I think we also need to examine what we define as “advantage.” For me, taking full advantage of this moment means I’m not doing much of anything that would be considered productive – not unless I feel like it, like I do right now. I’m in a period of desperately needed rest that I've pined for since late adolescence, and I'm not going to squander it.
I know there will come a day when The Big Pause will be over. I know there will come a day when I’ll be ready to do something else or move in a different direction. But I’m not going to force it to come before it’s ready, and I’m not going to busy myself into creating something that others deem more valuable – like churning out another book when my heart couldn’t possibly be in one right now. I’m going to do what feels right for me. And I encourage you to do the same.
Times are tough for everyone and we are all processing things differently. Don’t fall victim to the idea that you have to be anyone other than who you are in this moment, even if that means you feel like an outcast or that perhaps you should order some bonbons with your next grocery pickup.
Remember that gardens need a fallow period in order to grow green riches that spill over the sides, with tendrils grasping at soil and air, climbing out to become the greatest expression of what they were meant to be. Don’t skip that part. Don’t be ashamed to not "produce" for a while. Don’t be afraid to take your Big Pause - especially right now. I think more people than ever need to stop and breathe for a bit so that maybe humanity can be different going forward.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, is now available for purchase! Click the button to find out more about the book and order your copy today.
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.
The Big Pause