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Updated: Mar 28, 2020

Note: March 2020: This post has been updated with an Eighth Habit

If you are grieving, contending with loss, living as well as you can with a chronic or progressive health challenge… then you know there are days when everything pretty much sucks. I have found that in the interim between feeling worse and getting better, it helps to have a plan to feed my resilience and build my sense of wellbeing. This list, developed over years of trial and error, represents my best strategies to encourage myself to rise to the challenge of another day. This is a tip o' the pen to you; to reassure you that someone hears you groan and to offer a few possibilities for keeping your lamp steady and your heart open.

1. At least one laugh a day: Seek it out. Provoke it. Trick yourself into a tickle. Crack a joke, tell a story, pitch a pun. Watch a comedy, make up tongue twisters, talk like a pirate for an hour! Laughter is good for the central nervous system. Laughter builds cardio-vascular health, increases lung capacity, and oxygenates the brain and the bone marrow. When I laugh I breathe life into myself. My heart opens, my eyes twinkle, my face gets some exercise, and I remember how to feel good.

2. Meet a kind stranger or be a kind stranger: With appropriate social distance! I adjusted this one for modern times. The other day I stopped by a brook on a dirt road in the woods for a breathing meditation, with my back turned I heard a jogger passing safely on the other side of the road. We each had that moment of choosing to connect or mind our own business. I said 'hello jogger person' first, and she said hi! and I said such a beautiful bit of the day, so nice to hear your voice, and she said yes, me too! and ran on... so we can still do this. Make eye contact above our masks and use our voices to reach out instead of our hands. ... I tend to get shut in by discomfort and routine. A random stranger in the check out line at the library or the grocery store may be someone with an interesting story or a tidbit of information that will lift my day. Or I may have an entertaining or useful tidbit for them. Connecting with people means risking the embarrassment of being that chatty lady, but it is also true that making a silly face for a bored kid fidgeting in a shopping cart is an opportunity to be generous. Giving or receiving, the kindness of strangers works in mysterious and wonderful ways.

3. Practice smile yoga: I have a friend whose physical and emotional challenges have caused their resting facial expression to alternate between perpetual frown and dark scowl. This causes people to give them a wide berth, which increases their sense of isolation. Sometimes we get together and sit in front of a mirror trying out smiles until our cheeks get tired. Practicing the habit of smiling sounds a little silly, but developing the muscle memory of smiling helps restore a more open resting pose to my face. It is more fun with a friend, you can even do it online! but solo smile-yoga is good too. I don't have any hard evidence to back this up, but results of my personal life-long study indicate a noticeable increase in cheerful interactions with other people.

4. Make a place to put the bad thoughts (so I don't have to carry them around in my head): It is hard to stop negative self-talk once it gets a foothold in my day; woulda, coulda, and shoulda are joined by the 'why me' and 'what if' twins. In a file on my computer I archive notes to myself about how badly I have failed, how insurmountable my inadequacies are, and every other dismal thought about not being this or that kind of successful. More than once this file has been printed up, tied in a bundle, and thrown on the fire to illuminate my darkest nights. This archive removes the burden of keeping a mental inventory of limitations and mistakes. And I can still learn from them! Even if the fire is just in your mind's eye, this can help.

5. Remember the gift of One Small Thing: This thinking-habit is a remedy for frustration when I am worn out and don't have energy to get a whole job done, but I long to accomplish something. So, I consider the parts of the task instead of the whole. For instance, I may not be able to make multiple trips with the watering can to get all the houseplants watered. But with one trip I can nurture the most thirsty ones, and that will be enough to satisfy my need for doing and to support the beauty the plants bring to my life. The gift of One Small Thing helps me maintain perspective when accomplishing everything on my list is out of reach.

6. Fantasy can be my best friend: On a bad day I try to find a place that doesn't hurt and curl up there for a while. A visit to the memory-palace, with as much sensory detail as possible, brings peace to my jangled senses and reminds my limbic system what feeling good is like. Leading my mind through the worry-free memory of a walk in the rain resets all the dials on my well-o-meter. Recalling the way the ground felt underfoot and the summer-laden air on my skin; the sound of rain under the shelter of an umbrella; the smell of petrichor; watching the worms squiggle into the open; my body with no pain. Taking my mind for a technicolor inner wander cheers me up almost as much as an actual walk in the rain would, re-calibrating my capacity for ease and pleasure.

7. When stuck, change the environment: Some days I show up broken (physically or emotionally) and can't even think whole thoughts. I feel like such a loser when this happens. I may not be able to change that something beyond my control is crushing me, but I can reliably change the scenery. For instance, if leg pain is making me crazy, then sticking my hand into ice water for a few minutes can help. The new sensation gives my brain something innocuous to be alarmed about. Similarly, when grief and winter make it hard to think or breathe, a trip to the Conservatory greenhouse at the local college plunges me into a world of color and abiding beauty. Changing the environment brings relief to body, mind, and spirit.


March 28. 2020/Update: Clearly this was originally written on a pre-pandemic day when something so simple as a trip to the greenhouse was enough to help me carry my grieving. We have slid into a very different context for managing loss and grief. I could not have seen this coming, even though the epidemiologists did. As overwhelming as our reality is in these early days of covid-19, it is going to get much more gnarly, very soon. These simple skills, to smile, to laugh, to create good memories and to look for the beauty that is yet to come... they matter, and should not be lost to us even though in our current circumstances they seem small. They are part of what we need to teach our children, for the resilience of their hearts and our shared humanity. A time of radical change calls for radical connection. Compassion. Generosity. Honesty. And some fierce collective showing up for each other in unprecedented circumstances.

We are going to be bent low on the shores of an ocean of sorrow, and the world will keep changing in relentless ways. Please, find moments to rest, from all of it. Moments to cocoon your senses and tuck in under a wing for a bit. Please, make time for your small animal self to curl up around a breaking heart and keep the pieces safe. I am willing to believe that moments of rest, strung together and precious, will help our hearts be mended and healed.

End note: I will close with this, because some days genuinely do suck, no matter which optimistic habits I employ to navigate a way through. On my desktop I keep a document titled Don't You Dare Give Up. I click on it when I am honestly despairing. It opens to a full page head and shoulders portrait of the poet Maya Angelou. She is looking right at me, her eyes know my soul, she sees everything. I always hear her amazingly rich voice commanding me when I read the quote above the photo: “Don't you dare give up! Be encouraged by the beauty that is yet to come.”

When everything sucks, I turn the page, and begin again.

Marc Chagall: 'Juggler Hero And The Village'

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