When Life Goes on Hold: Zen Ways to Thrive in a Pandemic

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This pandemic reminds me of the aftermath of bringing home a new baby.

How life goes on hold.

Right away, there is that same hunkering down feeling, that need to hone in, make things small and safe in order to deal with a much bigger loss of control. (I’m not alone; when my now grown kids came home back in March, they set up desks and monitors in the living room. It reminded me of their fort building days and also the letting go of familiar order to create a new one.)

All the new worries with this unknown “thing.” (I understand a baby is not a thing.) Long days and nights freeze in eternal moments.

What if?

What if this sneeze is the beginning of RSV?

What if the little baby shakes are a sign of something ominous?

What if the baby monitor isn’t working, or I sleep through it or I fall asleep with him in my arms and drop him on the floor?

Nothing feels recognizable; an avalanche of worries while well-meaning friends warn you, it goes fast, enjoy it, don’t waste a minute. Like the people are saying now, use this time to your advantage, learn a new skill! And I say “yes! Great idea!” I fight against instinct to wish away the unknown. I strain to hear the quiet roads, take joy in noticing that our daily visitor fox just chased a squirrel. So many things I haven’t seen before; I mustn’t let them be usurped, swallowed by what if.

When each baby was new, I often panicked and wanted things back to how they were because predictability was gone. I didn’t know about postpartum depression. I just knew I was off balance, that when the baby cried in the middle of night, I awoke with a feeling of dread.

Of course, at first there was a dreamy quality, maybe that was the Percocet and the initial comfort of nowhere to go; the joy of sweatpants and such.

Of no alarms, like now.

But that faded, maybe on the fourteenth day, maybe on the thirtieth; the gigantic leaking breasts, the unfamiliar body, the lack of routine, I craved some sort of normalcy.

I wanted to wrestle back my life, whatever it took, and this came in the form of three running bras, one atop the other and my treadmill in the basement and some way to keep the babies occupied while I ran. At one point I was up to six miles on that thing, heaving breasts and all.

Because running established itself, early on in high school, as a way to find equilibrium in the uncertain teenage years. It was only after a run that I settled, that I was too tired to worry quite as hard or as much.

It happened also, recently, back in January.

I couldn’t kick a bad sinus infection. Day after day I was feeling run down, coughing, clearing my throat, keeping my husband awake at night. At the same time, I was staying up late reading Katie Arnold’s book, Running Home.

She is an ultra-marathoner; in her book she describes all those running highs and I was jealous reading it because I’d given up running over the years, gradually, maybe because I have dogs now and they are walkers, not runners. And my hip labrum has a tear. And even though in my head I am a runner, in my body I am not.

But I pushed all this aside and started dreaming about a nice long run while reading the book. And getting antsy sitting there in bed, blowing my nose, my husband saying “shhh.”

And the next morning, even though it was winter and a hard driving rain outside I got on my sneakers and set out. To be a runner again. To get back my life.

I wanted control over this sinus thing. I was struck by the mantra Katie Arnold used while running, an idea someone gifted her for times when she wanted to give up.

“Just run from tree to tree,” they told her.

And I figured, on this cold winter morning I would do just that. Especially since I was out of running shape. It had been years.

YEARS

Down the reservoir hill I went, and the cold wet of what had now become hail stung against my cheeks, against my throbbing head, and did indeed mute my symptoms.

Although I was out of breath by the fourteenth tree.

There was a honk of geese that stopped me by the water, and I crossed the road to look closer, and there they were gathered by the thousands, sliding on thin ice in order to get a bit of water. A major goose meeting — I watched them and thought of Mary Oliver; thought how I’d made the right decision to be out there right then. My nose finally cleared.

Though I didn’t have a real plan for this run –except tree by tree — I turned into the woods at the bottom of the hill, a place where we had done so many family hikes. I started jogging again on the wet leafy path and it made me feel better, no cars screeching by.

Apparently, Katie Arnold likes running in the woods; she does so despite the real possibility of coyote and rattlesnakes in her New Mexican backyard. I, on the other hand, wish I am not alone, now, or rather I like being alone but still I am afraid of whether or not there may be bears. There is always this tension.

I remember, as I make it through the woods — now definitely walking — that Katie thinks about running as a sort of practice, practice meaning doing something “without an added idea.”

This is ultimately what is so very hard; my whole life I’ve considered practice as something that is supposed to lead to something very specific- like my piano lessons for instance.

And when they didn’t, there was frustration and disappointment and quitting.

So much quitting because I wasn’t good or fast enough at the thing I was practicing.

And so, this pandemic, child raising, the sinus infection that dogged me this past winter, the hip labrum I can’t fix —

It’s a practice of something else, of something bigger, deeper.

The practice of showing up for the moment that exists.

Running seemed to be the jumpstart, so many times in my life. But now, I wonder if it was actually the action of getting out of my sweatpants, taking a shower, of forward motion that made me feel the present, not ruminate it away.

“Make positive action for the good,” Natalie Goldberg has written, quoting her Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi. “Even if it is just getting out of bed.”

This comes back to me when I get stuck, now, when I wake up with dread. I find the small, purposeful actions that shock me back, that rise like dough. I vacuum the kitchen, make bread. I pick flowers for the kitchen table, I write. I watch the fat robins sitting on the grass. It’s time to fill up their feeder, take my dog for a walk. To not be on hold.

To give this moment its due.

6 thoughts on “When Life Goes on Hold: Zen Ways to Thrive in a Pandemic

  1. Oh Megan how I love reading you! Your style is so warm and safe and familiar. I just love it. Thank you for making my day – again!! Stay healthy and safe! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

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