Quarantine Diaries Day 412: Distilled

In a tarot deck, there are a handful of cards that have a bad reputation. Folks having their cards read see these babies in a spread and they get scared. A few of these cards derive their power over our imaginations from their objectively frightening names: Card 13, Death; Card 15, The Devil. Tarot readers tend not to be those cards, though, because the meanings they carry are not inherently bad. Death means change. The Devil means freedom and choice. There is one card that has the power to strike fear into the hearts of readers and querents alike, and that is Card 16, The Tower. The name is innocuous enough, though the imagery is generally upsetting. Traditional decks show lightening splicing a black sky, flames pouring from windows, a fallen crown, people tumbling headfirst toward a rocky ground, and, of course, the eponymous tower, cracking and crumbling down. The real trouble with this card is what it means in a reading, and that is destruction, disorientation, and shocking change. The card is not all ugly, though. Framing the chaos are dabs of yellow gold that could be flames but are actually golden yods–the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signifying the presence of the divine. The crown, representing spiritual consciousness, is tipped over but still intact. The figures in the foreground are falling but they are not dead. The tower will burn but who’s to say what will be rebuilt in its place.

This last year was a Tower year. The pandemic ripped us from our lives and stripped our focus down to the barest essentials. Soap. Toilet paper. Daily breath and daily bread. For a time, everything that was deemed non-essential fell away. Businesses. Acquaintances. Routine physical maintenance.

My life certainly simplified in ways I didn’t expect it could. When I walked away from partnership at a traditional law firm to join a virtual firm in 2019, I insisted on still working out of an office. My new employer bought me a suite of all white office furniture–a large desk and bookcases and filing cabinets and multiple chairs–and all the IT I thought I’d need–a landline, a wide monitor, a printer/scanner, and a shredder for client PHI. I couldn’t imagine doing legal work without binders of documents, without stacks of paper, without a cup full of pens. I couldn’t imagine feeling like a lawyer without my law school textbooks lined up behind me and my diploma hanging over my head. I’ve been in my office exactly once since March 14, 2020. I take meetings at home. I print out nothing. And far from feeling like a pause, the last year saw me doing some of the most sophisticated, high impact work of my career. I don’t need the trappings of a traditional corporate job. All I need my brain, my training, my relationships, and time to work.

When my daughter was in preschool, we started throwing birthday parties. We don’t have family nearby, so we went all out to make her feel special and celebrated, renting party rooms at local play places and inviting every kid she knew. I found the whole event-planning experience–from selecting a date months in advance to plunking down a not insignificant chunk of cash, sending invites to parents I’d never met, tracking RSVPs, and acquiring snacks, cake, decorations, and favors all oriented around a theme–to be incredibly taxing, to the point that I was relieved when I realized that the COVID restrictions in place last April would make any sort of party impossible. When her birthday started to creep up on us this year, I was relieved again. Things had opened enough that we could probably get away with throwing a party, but certainly no one would expect it, least of all my daughter. Until my wonderfully thoughtful, generous, and unselfish husband opened his big genius mouth and suggested she invite a few of her friends over for cupcakes outside. April might seem like a reasonable month for an outdoor birthday party, but in Chicago it is not. In Chicago, April is cold, blustery, rainy, and, most importantly, wildly unpredictable. Without fail, it has snowed the week of her birthday every year since the year our daughter was born, sometimes a few flakes but usually a few inches. In other words, planning an outdoor party in April is an anxious person’s nightmare. Our daughter turned eight last week. We celebrated with family via Zoom on Friday and with friends outside on Saturday. In spite of my worst fears, it came together easily, if not entirely without effort. We invited all of the neighbor kids and a couple of friends from school and church. We scrapped paper and emailed invitations in favor of texts sent a week and a half out. We skipped serving any food other than cake. We briefly considered and then rejected a pinata. We were going to skip favors too, until my aforementioned thoughtful, generous, and genius husband scooped up some bouncy balls and finger skateboards at Target. We did not offer even try for a theme, or decorations. Rainstorms were on the radar, but we didn’t worry about the weather because outdoors was our only option. We didn’t worry about whether people would come because we understood if they didn’t want to. Day of, we put out bubbles and sidewalk chalk and kiddie corn hole and, what do you know, the sun came out and our friends showed up, and our daughter had the best time. She didn’t need the trappings of a traditional suburban birthday party. All she needed was her family, her friends, and time to play.

When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, I added new routines to my days to keep some structure in place, and keep myself sane. Mostly, I kept my body moving. A little yoga flow when I first woke up. A walk around the block before and after work, and a bigger loop around the neighborhood during lunch. Two minute planks and push-ups in the middle of the day. Running four to five days a week plus cross-training on the rower or with weights. This week, I had surgery to remove a precancerous mole from my leg and the most shocking thing about it, other than the size of the scar, was when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t be able to exercise for three weeks. Not even yoga! Not even walking! The version of me that clung to running as an identity and to fitness as a signifier of health and discipline as a hallmark of my self worth would not have coped well with this development. When I got the news, I felt around for that version of myself, for the anxious lady that I was certain was lurking just under my skin, and, to my surprise, I couldn’t find her. She died when Lauren died. She died when my doctor told me the mole in my leg might morph into melanoma. She died when the tower went down. Since the surgery, my days feel eerily like the early days of the pandemic in that I’m not really leaving my house, but this time around I’m not losing my mind. I don’t need a million routines. I don’t need to always be moving and doing. I don’t need to be the best, healthiest version of myself. All I need is to, you know, be. Is this enlightenment? Is this what it’s like to be distilled into the most essential version of yourself?

Quarantine Diaries Day 380: Turn It Around

I’ve always been curious about other people’s morning routines, in a nosy let me take a peek behind the curtain sort of way. This one chick I used to follow on Instagram washes her face with cold water every morning. Another lady I read about on Into The Gloss takes hot baths at 5 a.m. Tammi Salas, an artist and woman I really looked up to in early sobriety, starts the day with a song and a cup of tea and then makes these stunning gratitude lists. Various family members have dabbled in Wim Hof breathing (again, with the cold water!). Wellness influencers over the years have touted the benefits of hot lemon water and apple cider vinegar and vigorous exercise and green juice and fasting, just like beauty influencers swear by twelve step skincare routines but I don’t care about what you put in your body or on top of it, I just want to know what your days feel like, and mornings are where the whole thing kicks off.

Before the pandemic, my mornings used to look like this: alarm goes off between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m. (never hit snooze; can’t, no time); change into the running clothes sitting on a little pile next to my bed; fumble down the stairs; gulp 2 full glasses of water quickly enough to give myself a stomach ache; fall onto my knees in front of the couch (pillow under my aching knees, blanket around my shoulders, happylight blasting in my face); recite prayers from a sheet my sponsor gave me in 2016 (worse than dog eared; crumpled, creased, torn, worn soft); clamber up to sit cross-legged on the couch; read pp. 83-88 in the Big Book (try not to skim); meditate for 5 to 20 minutes (try not to fall asleep); 5-10 minutes of dynamic warm-ups in the middle of the living room; guzzle more water; gear up and head out the door to run 4 to 8 miles (outside or at the gym, weather depending); back home and collapse on the floor for core on the living room rug (maybe put a mat down for sweat, maybe not; this is where my child might enter the picture and start crawling all over me while I try to extend the number of seconds I could hold a side plank); eat a piece of fruit and spoonful of peanut butter; head upstairs for a scalding hot shower; scrunch my hair; apply no-makeup makeup; suit up for the day in a literal suit; wake up my husband; go back downstairs to make breakfast for my daughter; eat with my family; pack a lunch for the day; and leave the house by 8 a.m. to catch a train downtown.

I remember my old morning routine down to the minute because minute-by-minute was how I used to structure my life and because those were the minutes of the day from which I derived most of my well-being and all of my import. To my intense irritation, I couldn’t talk about what I did before I got to work. Sure, I could proselytize about prayer and meditation in recovery groups and share my workout with other runners, but I could never accurately convey just how much I did in a morning. It would be too braggy! Look at my incredible discipline! Look at how spiritually fit I am, and have you seen my banging bod?

The morning routine meant more to me than that, though. Ruth Ann Snow, a writer with a day job that looks a lot like mine, once wrote about taking your cut off the top, and she was talking about making the thing you want to do most, whether it’s writing or walking outside or whatever, the thing that you do first, before life takes over and drains all your good juices. I loved the early hours because they were the ones that were mine for the taking, before my family woke up and my colleagues got online belonged to me suddenly everyone but me was deciding how I spent your day.

When the pandemic hit, I knew it was reasonable to let some of my habits evolve in response to the new, extremely stressful, conditions under which we were living. The morning routine was one that morphed, and morphed is putting it lightly. What happened to the morning routine is that it shriveled up and died. I tried to get it back as the months wore on, I really did, but in the light of day, that old morning routine was not a routine, it was a gauntlet! There’s so much in there I can’t make my spirit or my body do anymore. Waking up at the crack of dawn is just the beginning. It’s the thought of cracking the big book and whispering those rote prayers that makes me go all stiff and brittle inside. The concept of core work makes my stomach turn.

The world turned and I turned with it, into a different kind of person. It’s harder to force things. I can’t sit or walk or dance my through things I find intolerable. My old morning routine was far from empty, but going through the motions now would be.

In so many ways, I fall short of the person I once was. My stomach is soft. My mind is wild. But there is progress on this path, too. There are days when I can sit still long enough to consider whether I actually want to do the thing someone somewhere once told me I had to do (so many committee meetings missed). Occasionally, I can take a beat before swan diving into the thing that I think I have to do (so many angry emails unsent). Now, I am the kind of person who pays close enough attention to my body to realize that the pelvic pain I’ve been ignoring for 18 months is a muscle tear that isn’t going to going away on its own if I don’t stop doing crunchy abs and scissor kicks on my living room floor. The sensation of a quiet mind is familiar enough that I notice when it starts spinning again and what kinds of things set it off. The twelve step program that saved my ass became one of the things that lit a fuse in my brain; that’s why I stopped going to the meetings.

These days, my mornings look like this: Sometimes I wake up early. Sometimes I sleep in as late as my husband. I write morning pages. Sometimes I meditate for three minutes max. If it’s an early day, I might stretch a little bit and brew a cup of tea and write some more. If it’s a later day, I might stay in bed and read. I shoo my kid away when she pops into my space before I’m ready to talk. I skip the shower, get dressed and ready in five minutes flat, and pull a tarot card. I head downstairs for breakfast at a different time every day. I eat breakfast with my family, sometimes with candles, because breakfast is the nicest meal.

What about my cut? Don’t worry, I’m still taking it. Those morning hours are still mine, and now I’m using them to do exactly what I want to do. When I stay in bed it’s because that’s where I want to be, and when I wake up early to write it’s because putting words on the page matters more to me than stacking miles or meditation minutes or sober days. Don’t worry, I still do the other stuff too. The difference is I’m not trying to squeeze it into a window of time before the world wakes up. Bitch, I own all the hours of the day! I have a flexible job; I can finish an essay in the middle of the day. Most men I know exercise after work, before they go home to their families; I can do that. Now, I do do that.

When do I shower? I used to do it late at night because I felt guilty about delaying dinner and not hanging out with kid the second I stepped in the door, so I’d put it off until after bedtime and spend the evening sweaty and cold. By the time I made it to the shower–if I wasn’t too tired to give up on the notion altogether–the hot water would be gone. Now I shower before dinner. I say hello to my family and head straight up stairs, make the water as hot as I can stand it, and stay until I can smell garlic or onions or bacon well enough to know dinner will be on the table when I go back down. I deserve to luxuriate when people are awake, when people are at work, when the world is turning. I live here, too.

Quarantine Diaries Day 271: Burnout

There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.

The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.

Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.

Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.

I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?

The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.

In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.

I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.

Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.

Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.

Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.

Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.

Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.