How To Be Here: “Winterize” Your Life During Uncertainty

I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to recently have said the same thing: “I’m SO done with Covid!” We’ve hit a wall with the cumulative fatigue of the ongoing vigilance and adaptation, yet the marathon’s nowhere near over.

A couple weekends ago I was “winterizing”—preparing the outside of our house and garden for winter. I was enjoying the beautiful fall day as I did so, and I had this thought: What am I doing to “winterize” myself for the winter ahead?

The seasons of the year have a cadence to them – Spring, Summer, Fall Winter.  Over and over and over again.  And each movement of this cadence plays a particular role that the next one hinges upon.  I believe the same is true for the life-seasons humans move through.     Parker Palmer speaks beautifully to these seasons in Let Your Life Speak. Despite nature appearing “dead” in winter, there is in fact much needed dormancy and deep rest happening to renew and prepare for the next season, spring. At Liminal Space, we think of transition in terms of seasons: Ending, Neutral zone, and New beginning. The Neutral Zone is the wintertime of transition: “a seemingly unproductive time-out when we feel disconnected from people and things in the past and emotionally unconnected with the present.” (Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Biggest Changes, William Bridges) Doesn’t that sound remarkably like life several months into the pandemic? Deborah Wang explains we’re deep in the winter season of disillusionment. We realize by now, there’s no returning to the old “normal” but we can’t see the New Beginning either.

All this sounds dark and dreary indeed. And many days it is.  A quick glance at the rising Covid numbers reminds us each day of the season we are in.  But as Parker Palmer reminds us, there is a profound gift in winter: the gift of utter clarity. Many people have remarked on the life-changing discoveries they have gleaned during the pandemic so far. Have the unwelcome constraints and barrenness of this Covid-season revealed something in your life that needs to change or become a higher priority?  He writes, “In winter, one can walk through into the woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly, and together, and see the ground they are rooted in.” We can see the forest for the trees! We might see more of a path ahead, where earlier the path was entirely blocked by entangled overgrowth leaving us stuck and in the dark.   How do we “winterize” – how do we proactively prepare to receive winter and the gift of clarity it may provide? Rachel Miller poses 10 excellent questions along with very simple, doable action steps—economically and practically feasible for almost anyone—in her article:  If You’re Already Dreading Winter, Here Are Some Small Ways to Prepare Now.

To get us thinking along this “winterizing” path, she suggests we begin by asking ourselves: “What, in four months, would I absolutely regret not doing when I had the chance?” Now, that will bring some focus and clarity! All the best as you spend a little time with that question and go about winterizing!

How To Be Here: Finding Agency as You Weather Uncertainty

About nine years ago I did a hike with two of my closest friends up to Joe Lake. Cradled in the heart of the Cascades Mountains near Snoqualmie Pass lies Joe Lake.  It’s a gem of an alpine lake, but you’ve got to work for it. This was my first hike after falling off a roof and crushing my ankle almost a year earlier. I was feeling apprehensive as I hadn’t pushed my body much since my injury.

The first five miles were pleasant, even easy. I remember thinking, this isn’t so bad. I can do this. But I had read the trail report before we left and knew what was ahead.

At about five miles in, and for the next two, the trail started to get narrow and rough. We hacked our way through a hot tangled mess of brush so thick we barely managed to keep on the trail. Big rocks and roots were hiding beneath the brush, making it the perfect spot to roll an ankle. I managed to get through it though with just a few scratches….and then things got really hard.  

The last mile to Joe Lake goes straight up. Quickly, I began feeling how out of shape I was. My lungs burned as I pulled in each breath, and my ankle was screaming along with rest of my body.  My pack felt like a refrigerator, the straps digging into my shoulders.  And then these unsettling thoughts began to intensify.  

I don’t think I can do this. 
What if I can’t?  What then?!  

Do I turn back and go down alone? 
I’m not going to make it.  Damn it!
Why the hell did they pick this hike?!  

What were they thinking!?

Why didn’t I see this coming?

The Grip of Uncertainty

Uncertainty had a grip on me, and I was looking for a quick out.  When you feel uncertainty, watch out for blame.  It has one goal: to get you stuck.  Unchecked blame prevents you from seeing a bigger and more accurate perspective on your circumstances.  It is so easy to do, especially when things feel shaky and outside your control.  But blame is nothing more than a weak attempt to gain back some semblance of the control you thought you had, and to settle the uncertainty you feel in your body.  Right now, because of intense uncertainty on our planet, there are unsettled bodies everywhere.  All of us feel anxious and fearful as we look out ahead.  But ultimately, blame will never soothe or help us align with what we need most during uncertainty.  What we need most to get through and find a good way forward is clear eyes with open minds.

Unchecked blame narrows our perspective on reality, and with it our options.  For me that day on the mountain I saw one story with one outcome: walking down the mountain alone, angry at my friends and myself.  Not exactly a story anyone would want to choose for themselves.  Nobody wakes up and thinks, I’m gonna ruin what could be a good day by being pissed-off, anxious or afraid.  And yet, that is what people choose in the face of uncertainty.  All.  The. Time.

After about a 1/4 mile of misery, I collapsed frustrated and defeated, ready to turn back.   

That is when my friend Joel, moving 20 yards ahead up the mountain with the stamina and agility of a mountain goat, stopped, turned around and came back to me.  He came to a rest a few feet from me, hiking poles in hand.  I looked up at him as he asked, “Hey, how’s it going?”  Though clearly obvious, his tone and face were kind. 

Still wheezing, something in me began to relax and my tears felt close as I spoke.  “Not good. I’m struggling. I don’t think I can do this.” It felt vulnerable to say what I knew was true.  I was beginning to accept and feel that my body could not do what I was asking of it, and that I was not okay with this.  I was being invited to see if this moment had something to give me.    

Moving Through Uncertainty

Life’s greatest trials rarely have easy answers.  You know this at a gut level.  And a quick survey of your life provides ample evidence.  There are no shortcuts through the wilderness.  No chairlift to the top. The only way out is through.  But maybe today you are feeling like I was in the story.  Waking up to another day of disquieting news and more troubles sounds unbearable.  You are weary from 2020 and the thought of taking one more step sounds brutal.  

What can relax the hold uncertainty has on our bodies and our perspectives?  

Uncertainty loosens by changing your relationship with it.  It is not a toxin to rid yourself of.  All uncertainty – no matter the circumstance that produced it– has something to give you that is ultimately for your good.  If you learn to listen to it, uncertainty will offer a chance to learn and grow.  Every time.  Without question, doing this work is uncomfortable.  But if you don’t, a story will be written, but not with your hand holding the pen.  It will look more reactive than anything.  Learn to be in relationship with your uncertainty.  This is critical if you are to become a more conscious and alive human being.  

Remember that uncertainty lives inside you.  It’s not out there.  Uncertainty is this tangled mess of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations throughout your body.  It’s best to start by paying attention to your body, emotions and thought patterns as collectively they guide your response.  Begin with an honest assessment with where you are at.  Your job is to tease this out, not abolish it.  

BREATHE, NOW SEE THIS

Below is a simple reflection that you can use to help untangle uncertainty that I call Breathe, Now See This.  If reflection is new for you, I’d recommend writing.  Writing helps to focus your attention and with repetition, build greater capacity (kind of like working out a muscle) to eventually do this more easily “in the moment” with your uncertainty.

BREATHE. 

Study after study shows that just the act of focusing only on our breathing helps to calm the body.  Before you begin following a thought and writing it out in the steps below, I want you to just breathe.  Quietly for two minutes, train your attention only on your breathing.  You may find it helpful to close your eyes or fix your gaze on an object like a plant or picture.  As you do, notice the cooler temperature of the air coming in through your nose and warmer air going out on the exhale.  Expect your thoughts to walk all over in distraction.  That is normal and okay.  Just bring your attention back to your breathing.   

NOW.

There are two parts to this step, both designed to help you focus on your personal experience of one area in your life that you feel uncertainty.  

The first part of NOW is to briefly describe something in your life that feels wobbly, an area you are losing some (or all) control of. 

As best you can, be specific with the details.  Better details will help you locate what is at the source of your uncertainty.  For example, don’t stop with, I feel shaky in my parenting during Covid.  Go further: I don’t know how to help my child with the mental and emotional strain he is under.  I think a lot of it is due to how the school year is going with online learning.  Each day he struggles to keep it together sitting there at his desk building up anxiety in his body until he loses it with lots of tears and anger.  

As is typically the case for most of us, one uncertain area will wrap its tentacles around many others.  Relationships, money, careers, family, sleep, eating habits, friendships, faith, unwanted habits – they all easily become part of the mangled mess.  Uncertainty loves to do this, making you more confused and unsettled.  For the purposes of this exercise, try to train your attention on just the one thing – your kids or family, your work, finances, the election, a key relationship, etc.  The goal with this reflection is not efficient problem solving or to catalogue everything that’s wrong.  The goal is clear eyes and an open mind to enable good choices as you face what is ahead.  

The second part of NOW is to pay attention – without judgement – to your body, emotions, and thought patterns connected to this area of uncertainty.  

When moving through uncertainty, the physical sensations in your body, as well as your emotions and thoughts, are trustworthy allies.  If you approach all three with a posture of curiosity and not as threats to place judgement over, you will be led closer to what needs further attention and care.  Engaging at this level helps you be present with the current reality, which, though perhaps an obvious point, is the best place for you to be.  Of course, you want to be on the other side of all this.  That starts by learning to be here, with your uncertainty.  

Below are a few examples to help get you going with describing all three with greater specificity.  

How do you experience this area of uncertainty right now…


…in your body?
…in your emotions? …in your thoughts?
e.g. tightening in my chest, heart racing, butterflies, exhaustion, breathing irregularities (shallow or holding breathe) mind “spinning”, brain “fog”, numbness, restless, “on edge”, etc. e.g. anger, despair, afraid, worry, parent guilt, focused, determined, rage, resentment, critical, calloused, confused, indecisive, tense, rigid, irritable, etc. e.g. I can’t do this!  I hate this!  It’s always going to feel this way.  It’s all up to me to figure it out.  Why can’t I pull myself together? I’m just fed up with all of this.

As you reflect on all three areas, you may notice feeling more grounded, more in your body.  That is why listening at this level matters so much.  You are becoming more connected to the only real thing you can control in all this: you.        

SEE. 

Now ask yourself, what has been illuminated over the loss of certainty I once had (or fear losing further) in this area of life?

What uncertainty often obscures is an ache tied to a big change.  Another word for change is loss.  When we name and feel that loss, what gets illuminated are parts of the old story that we are clinging to that need to be fully let go.  Grief softens and soothes an unsettled body and mind, giving us the chance to unclench our grip on what was, and eventually, open ourselves to what could be possible out ahead.  I’m learning that the body wants to do this naturally.  We just need a safe and caring space to do so.

Before I move to the final step of this reflection, let me pick up the story where I left off.  After sharing with Joel how much I was struggling, he said, “Yea, this is brutal.”  He did not say anything else for a few minutes while we just silently breathed and drank some water.  Then he spoke, “See that rock up ahead about 10 yards? Let’s get there. We can do that.” 

I looked beyond him at the rock.  I then lifted my weary body, caught my balance, and took each step with eyes focused only on that rock.  Reaching the rock, I immediately crumpled.  After catching my breath again, a minute or so later he said, “See that tree with the big roots? Let’s get there.” Same thing happened.  I got up.  We walked a few more steps, stopped, hands on my knees, bent over breathing hard.  It strangely started to get easier from there though.  After another spot or two, I started picking them.  For the next 30 minutes, spot after spot we moved together until finally we reached the top and laid eyes on Joe Lake for the first time.

Often, untangling uncertainty requires a witness, especially when grief is present.  Grieving heals and uncertainty releases best when we share with others our experience.  A spouse, a friend, mentor, or counselor – pick anyone who feels safe and wants good things for you.  Be sure that they have the fortitude to wait with you and hear what you are saying.  They should be capable of not forcing things along with “helpful advice” or a pep talk.  Show them what you have untangled so far.  And do this often as you move though the days, weeks and months of uncertainty.  

Sharing is one of the most powerful antidotes to counteract becoming truly stuck.  To be stuck is to see a very narrow slice of reality that for me sounded like, “I’m struggling here! I can’t do this anymore!” And it’s the sharing with others that lifts our eyes to see something we missed or need to be reminded of. The act of sharing openly makes it possible to receive some necessary care and move forward with a clearer mindset of grace. 

If you are thinking, yeah, but no one likes a complainer.  I don’t want to just sit there and moan about my problems.  Good.  That’s not what this is.  Complaining is similar to blame; it pushes away grief and lets us be the victim of uncertainty.  Complaint wants us to bypass our agency and courage.  You are moving toward a new belief in all of this: that your uncertainty has something for you; it is not set against you.  When you make this shift in your relationship with uncertainty it will alter forever the way you view major life transitions.

THIS. 

The final step of this reflection is to ask yourself, in this moment, what are my next most immediate steps forward if kindness and love were my goal?  And, what help do I need to take this step?

“Just take one step at a time.” Such a bland truism, but worth its weight in gold when stumbling through uncertain times.  THIS is about doing what is right in front of you.  THIS is about action, taking the next real steps, being as fully here as you can.  You are choosing to deal with what you’re responsible for, what you can control, but in as kind and loving a way as you can.   You are NOT trying to be with tomorrow’s problems.   You’ll do that then.  What you can decide is how you want to be present in an hour with your child when remote learning begins, or with your team members in the meeting you have 15 minutes from now, or your partner who is about to get home, or simply yourself this next hour.  Maybe your THIS is stopping what you are doing right now – with all its hurry and flurry – to rest, eat something good, or take a walk.  

Victor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  When kindness and love become the goal of this space, your next set of choices become clearer and your capacity grows with it to choose a better story.  Keep in mind, “better” during these uncertain times starts with your perspective and flows out from there.  It will be quite a long time before Covid-19 goes away, racial unrest heals, or financial insecurity stabilizes.  For now, you get better at being here with yourself.  And my hope is that this begins to feel like freedom for you.

To the Mountain Goats Among Us

Before I wrap this rather long blog up, I want to speak to those of you who are doing well during these challenging times.  Maybe right now you are Joel in the story. Your goat legs are strong and steady.  Enjoy this moment.  Give thanks for it.  And I would ask, who in your life is struggling that you can come alongside and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” And then, “See that rock?  Let’s get there together.”  If you don’t see anyone, do some backtracking and consider who you left behind.  You have capacity, resources, and care to offer.  Why wouldn’t you use this moment to help, like really roll up your sleeves and get in there?  Helping isn’t primarily for their benefit: this is for the sake of your freedom and growth, too.  Prolonged comfort and security have a similar blinding affect as chronic uncertainty, except instead of blinding you to seeing things like personal grief you become blind to seeing your neighbor.  Grief and love have a similar effect: they open our eyes to a bigger story.  There will come a moment, I would bet good money in the next year or two, where you will be that guy sucking wind on the trail.  Suffering will be part of your story.  This moment for you may be an invitation to do for others what you would hope someone would do for you.

The most sacred work in our lives happens during times of the greatest uncertainty.  This is when we get to see the truth of ourselves and this world more clearly, and hopefully choose a kinder path forward to a better story.  Why wouldn’t we all want to look for opportunities to join that work? And who knows – maybe through caring for others and offering what you have, you will also be given fresh eyes to see like you’ve never seen uncertain times before.

Of course, over a lifetime, we need to be both – the experienced climber who comes alongside others to help, and the guy near cardiac arrest crying out for help. Both experiences are part of being human and part of learning to be here. Wherever you find yourself today and whatever condition you may be in, it’s okay to be right where you are in this uncertain wilderness and to be open and honest about it.  

Conclusion

When we reached the top, I dropped my pack, stripped down to my underwear and walked right into Joe Lake. To this day, I’ve never felt refreshed and enlivened by an alpine lake quite like that.  We would spend hours that night talking, gorging on gummy bears, sharing life, saying things during a quiet lull like, “Man, that last mile was brutal!”  Laughing and marveling at the stars and the Perseid meteor shower.  I felt so alive and grateful.  

And the best gift that day happened back on the trail.

My friends, remember, uncertain times eventually come to an end. We will not be here forever. Do not lose sight of what uncertainty illuminates for us all: we are each authors of the life we’ve been given, and this moment is for us to write.  As this difficult chapter continues, hold the pen with grace and kindness, and with the help of others, take bold steps forward, one rock, one root, one step at a time. There is a better story ahead.  Ask for help to see it. Be the help for someone who needs to see it.  

How To Be Here: Adaptability

Have you noticed? Nights are getting longer and cooler. Leaves are starting to change color. Summer got off to a slow start in the PNW, but we’ve been outdoors reveling in it the last couple months. And just as soon as we began to really soak in some consistently gorgeous summer weather, well . . . the seasons just keep a changin’ and summer’s already on the way out. What isn’t on the way out is covid-season. When the pandemic began, those of us in the northern hemisphere could console ourselves; we were heading into spring and summer. That was at least one “bright side.” Now we’re heading into fall and winter. I don’t know about you, but I’m already bracing myself for the dismal prospect of going back into the dormant and dark (and wet!) season.

Back in May I ran across an article that looked at how adaptability may be our most important skill to learn during Covid. Adaptability can be defined as “the ability to be creative and flexible in the face of new situations.” Covid has forced the world into a prolonged state of uncertainty demanding from us relentless adaptation. Adaptation comes easier for some more than others, but the good news is, it is a skill that can be developed. As we move into fall, I’m determined to keep growing in adaptability—to actively flex with what comes and proactively create some “bright sides” this upcoming winter.

Here’s a story from my own experimenting with growing my adaptability muscle (pun intended, as you will see…). Last January, for the first time in my life (six decades!) I began working out twice a week with a personal trainer. I’ve never been athletic or a gym rat, so I went to my first session, gritting my teeth, motivated only by the singular conviction “I want to stay in good physical shape as long as I can!”  I quickly grew to love it—I felt better in every way, the progress was rewarding, and to my complete surprise, I found it downright FUN. I couldn’t wait to go to my next session. I was on a roll…for all of seven weeks, until gyms got closed because of Covid. Now what?

Well, my daughter introduced me to her trainer—two states away—who was practicing some adaptability herself. She had pivoted (apologies if you are sick of the most over-used word in Covid-world) to offering personal training sessions online via video. I was extremely skeptical wondering how this could possibly hold a candle to a live session, with a “real” human being, in a gym filled with tons of equipment I will never have at home. Low and behold . . . AGAIN . . . I made another astonishing discovery. My second trainer is amazing. Nothing escapes her eye. Even through video she notices and talks me through the tiniest corrections in form in the most encouraging way. Bottom line, these online workouts have been even BETTER than going to the gym.

Even without contracting the virus physically, Covid is a serious mental, emotional, spiritual health challenge that takes a cumulative toll. Adaptability is one of your best tools to manage this prolonged season of uncertainty.  As you creatively flex your adaptability muscle you will experience the satisfaction and joy of overcoming some inner hesitation or resistance, accomplishing a long-time goal, finding something new to enjoy – or a new way to enjoy something. Give it a try!

REFLECT:

What life-giving activity have you been missing?
How might you replace it with something new?
How might you go about it in a new way? If you’re drawing a blank, discuss with a friend or family member (after all, that’s how I got the idea I shared!)

Articles cited

Adaptability your most important skill: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/adaptability-coronavirus-skills/2020/05/26/8bd17522-9c4b-11ea-ad09-8da7ec214672_story.html

Surge capacity depleted: https://elemental.medium.com/your-surge-capacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awful-de285d542f4c

How To Be Here

My wife and I bought our first home in the winter of 2019.  Immediately, we began a harrowing journey to remodel our 1960s home.  We had no plan and a woefully inadequate budget, but we also had a lot of moxie and sweat to give.

At first, it was thrilling to be finally working on our house after dreaming about it for 16 years.  Many conversations would start with, “What if over here we did this…”  Then one of us might say, “Oh, I like that!  And what about…and if we are going to do that, we better do this first.”  Quickly, the size and scope of the project ballooned.  A few cosmetics changes to make the house livable turned into a complete gut job.  Before long, the entire house felt like a FEMA disaster zone.  Entire walls were removed and replaced with beams and posts. Drywall torn down.  Flooring pulled up.  Old electrical and plumbing ripped out.  A bathroom completely removed.  It turned into a chaotic mess almost overnight. 

And that is when we moved into the basement.

Everything that comes to mind when you hear ‘basement’ is spot on.  Dark.  The dank smell from 40 year old carpet.  Wood paneling.  Spiders.  Cold concrete walls.  The loud droning of a old furnace about to die, which did by the way.  We used seven space heaters strategically placed to keep warm that winter.  That same week the furnace died, so did the fridge. 

For the next six months little felt familiar and nothing felt like home.  The “kitchen” area was a plastic folding table with two portable electric burners.  A set of storage shelves became the pantry with all the canned goods, produce, dishes and utensils on it.  Because everything was out in the open, meal time required us to first wash off the construction dust that had settled that day.  Our three boys slept in one dungeon-like bedroom with mattresses on the floor.  The work hours were long and brutal often ending late in the night.  What we thought would be a few weeks turned into months of full-blown disillusionment. Eighteen months later, our house is much more livable, but we are still miles from the finish line. 

We own a house, but now we really see what it means to be homeowners.  Now we know that “sweat equity” is gratifying, but it is also physically and emotionally grinding.  Now we know that to create beauty from something old and broken down meant we had to learn how to live with some chaos and uncertainty. 

There is a lot of chaos and uncertainty in the air, isn’t there?  Everywhere you look there seems to be the unsettling mess of a full-scale remodel, and by all accounts we’re not even out of the demolition phase of this thing.  This is a marathon of uncertainty.  The rising number of Coronavirus cases and deaths, the unrest against racial inequity, a global financial crisis, and the pandemic of confusing and divisive leadership highlight a sharp truth about life’s most difficult trials: there are no shortcuts through this wilderness.  The only way out is through.  This is a journey measured in steps.  And we each have to learn how to be here – in this day – as we continue on this unknown path.

How do we be here, with all the difficulty that comes with these trials?  How do we keep putting one foot in front of the other when so many feel weary and worn thin?  How do we stay hopeful when it seems like everything is barely holding together?

In the weeks ahead, I want to explore these questions and offer a few thoughts and ideas on how to be here.  I hope they offer some encouragement and help you plant your feet on the ground to keep moving forward, one day at a time.  

Here’s the first though about how to be here:

Remember, you’ve been here before.   

If I had the opportunity to ask you, “what stories most shaped you?”  I’d probably hear about moving to a new town as a kid, the loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, losing your job, starting a business, failing in business, getting married, getting divorcing, having kids, or life after launching kids.  In the middle of these stories just after the plot thickened you didn’t know up from down.  Everything felt off and unsettling.  Messed up.  You were stressed out, likely anxious and fearful.  You didn’t know what to do next.  You did your best to cope.  Some of those ways were not healthy.  Some were.  Often, you just wanted to go back to how things were.  Life was in a state of disorder, and you had to do the slow, gradual work to make some sense out of it.  Wanted or not, these moments were highly disruptive and hard for you.    

Weren’t these stories also revealing?  Didn’t they show you a great deal about the makeup of your character – what was there already and what you sensed lacking?  Didn’t they ask you to grow up some and face your demons?  Didn’t they force you to put a fresh grip on questions like, “What do I really want for my life?”  Didn’t you see how some things matter very much to you now and some things just don’t?  And then, didn’t you have to make a few leaps of faith, these partially blind choices where you take the best step forward with what you know at the time?  Didn’t those moments call upon your courage?  Or, put another way, didn’t you have to put some legs on your fear?  If they are stories that shaped you most, I’ll bet they held deep learning and discovery. I bet over time you gained more self-awareness and confidence, I bet your courage grew, and you felt alive.  I also bet that who you became and what was discovered because of that story in your life would have remained hidden, perhaps forever, without that trial.

These times in life go by the name liminal space.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, which literally means, “threshold”.  A liminal space then is the time between the old familiar story and the new one.  It is a transitional space of intense uncertainty.  They are undefined, confusing and uncomfortable days, just like the ones we are living through right now.  It is the waiting and not knowing, the deep encounter with uncertainty, that makes these moments terrible and often unbearable.

It’s easy to look at a long, difficult trial as something to bear since many days are simply a fight for survival.  But that’s rarely the whole story, is it?  The stories you just recalled tell us that.  If we are fortunate enough the most formative stories wake us up to the life we have and are deeply transformative in shaping us into better human beings.  And by better I mean more grateful, less fearful, more joyful, more loving of our neighbor, more creative, more comfortable in our own skin, more kind to others in their skin, more purposeful, more service-minded and justice-oriented, more present here and now in this day that we’ve each been given. 

So, you are still here.  Another day.  Five months into a pandemic and a world gripped by uncertainty and unrest, most days feel like this thing is barely hanging on by a thread.  But remember, you’ve been here before.  Of course, just like the rest of us, you’ve never had to paddle through these dark waters.  And just like the rest of us, you’d rather be on the other side of the storm.  That’s miles away.  We are here.  And you are no stranger to pulling at the oars in a stormy seas.  Navigating uncertainty in life is a given for all of us.  Who you become and how you respond to the uncertainty is entirely up to you.  Looking back at your life will catalogue this quite well. 

Liminal spaces are hard to tolerate, especially when they stretch on for months and years.  Remember though, an incredible story could be up ahead that you might get the chance to tell someday.  Much of that gets determined by how you show up and simply be in this day.  By learning what it means to be here. 

Remind yourself often that you are in a liminal space, and that you are not a novice traveler.  You have experiences to draw upon that speak to your resilience.  For today, remember that you are this magnificent and mysterious human being who can not only make it through hard thing, but can also become more alive and more human along the way. 

reflect

  • Think back over the last five months. Make a list of all the challenges and problems you have had to solve for. Many of these I assume you thought you’d never have to figure out! As you review the list, what does it teach you about your resilience?
  • What have you been hard on yourself about lately? Write down what it sounds like in your thoughts. After each thought, consider this: what kind words or acts of care do I most need that these thoughts are preventing?

The Gift of Simple Pleasures

As I look back on the last month of social distancing and “Stay-at-home”, I realize this COVID-19 pandemic hits in waves—not only the “curve” we’re rightly obsessed with “flattening”—but powerful, unpredictable emotional waves.

The first few weeks the waves were coming so fast, there was hardly time to get back on my feet. Directives changed daily. “Functional” meant I still had the ability to react to new information, follow new rules and get through each day in survival mode (vs total paralysis).  Shock, disbelief, and numbness are a mercy and got us through those early days. Now we’re a few more weeks into this and the reality continues to set in. You and I and our world is not going back to “normal.” “Normal” as we knew it has ended, but we certainly aren’t on the other side of this yet.

How long until we’re living in the new normal? We don’t know. We’re suspended in a liminal space. The good news is, having already navigated several weeks, we’re a little more steady amidst the waves, and we have a little more margin to respond vs simply react: we’ve recovered a little space to ponder our choices, and a little will and energy to execute. We have choices about how we’re going to navigate this space.

I like to cook, and especially to bake. Even more specifically, bake yeast breads. Early in this pandemic I thought to myself, I’ll just make sure I have a good supply of flour and I’ll be set with a highly rewarding way to “kill time.” I very quickly discovered, that next to toilet paper and hand sanitizer, flour was about the most difficult thing to find.  Anywhere. Including online. One day in desperation I googled two words: flour + Washington. Up popped a flour mill about an hour north of Seattle and miraculously, they had one kind of whole wheat flour still available. I was able to order this flour (25# minimum!) and got a message I would be contacted when it is “ready for pick up.” What does that mean?…wasn’t the flour sitting somewhere in a bag if it’s available to order? To make a long story short, a couple days after my online order—and a short road-trip—I had 50# of 100% whole wheat flour that had been fresh ground just for me!

I was so psyched to bake with this flour—and it did not disappoint! This little adventure got me thinking about several things about navigating life in this unprecedented global liminal space:

It’s good to take a break from the intensity.

It’s good to get a change of scenery.

It’s good to enjoy a hobby and simple pleasures.

At the same time, I begin to ask myself if making and eating “comfort food” in this season is a healthy, self-soothing activity…or is it a medication for the grief and anxiety the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving in its path? Honestly, it’s a little of both for me.  And that’s fine.  I’m not beating myself up about it.  Though I am noting if my daily step count and weekly workout routine are roughly keeping pace with my baking. J

The important thing is to recognize the gift in the COVID-19 pandemic – that is the gift of the opportunity to grow. Grow in the direction of health: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual. Grow in resilience. Grow in character. Grow in hope. I need the comfort of small mercies and simple pleasures AND I need to lean in, toward choices and activities that will result in growth. Growth is the opportunity and gift of every liminal space.

Name it. Feel it. Move it.

COVID-19 Liminal Space tip of the week:

“When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. . . . Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling.”1  And your body will continue to produce the feeling, even if you think you’ve successfully buried it. You only buried it alive and it will find a way out.

A few weeks ago we were plunged into a global “liminal space” – that intensely uncomfortable space between an ending (of our normal life as we knew it) and a new beginning (yet to be revealed and we don’t know the timeline).  We are all presently suspended in a “terrible cloud of unknowing” as Richard Rohr calls it.  

We don’t know when we’ll get relief from the circumstances we are stuck in, but we can still experience movement. A small, immediate, opportunity for movement is to simply keep our feelings moving. Don’t resist or suppress the feelings the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting in you, instead consciously name and feel them, as immediately and as often as you can and let them pass through. You will actually feel—in your body—emotional space freed up; you will gain capacity to keep going.  

Exercise: What is your primary fear right now? Put it into words, and share it with someone who will graciously listen without offering advice or attempt to “fix” it. Doing this will rob that fear of much of its power and turn its volume way down.  In your body, you will physically feel a big exhale, and an unexpected peace. I have been doing this daily – I hope you’ll give it a try!

1Full article here: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief
by Scott Berinato

These Uncertain Times

My three boys and their cards for our next-door neighbor, Ellen.

A month ago, the kids were in school, we were shaking hands and had no awareness of social distance.  Words like pandemic and global recession weren’t on my radar.  Coronavirus was this far away thing on the news.  

Last week, my next-door neighbor died from the virus.  His name was Alan.  I didn’t know Alan really.  We’ve only lived as neighbors for not even a year.  The busyness of life kept the relationship to neighborly waves and hellos.  One evening last summer I remember sitting with my family in the backyard around a fire.  From time to time, we’d hear Alan’s hearty laugh as he watched a rerun of the show Frasier.  We smiled and chuckled with one another as Alan unknowingly shared a simple pleasure of his with us all.  

This week his wife, Ellen, grieves alone in the silence of her home while under self-quarantine.  She was with him at the hospital just before he died.  I can only imagine the precious words shared between one another after 50 years of life together. 

We’ve been sheltering in place for over a week now.  Sometimes all I feel is disbelief.  I think, is this really happening?  Did Alan really die?  Is the couple walking their dog outside my window really going through this too? 

Sometimes I don’t feel anything at all. 

And every day I feel this foreboding sense of vulnerability –a low-grade mix of fear, worry, dread and panic.  I especially feel it when watching the news.  Less when I don’t.

Sometimes I feel sad over so much that has been lost, like my youngest son’s remaining year of kindergarten.  Such a beautiful, mystical year of his education, now likely over. 

Sometimes I just keep my head down and stay busy.  Work.  Get something done.  Stay productive.  And it feels good.

Often, I feel worn down and exhausted.  I struggle to peel myself out of bed or off the couch to go to bed. 

Sometimes all I want to do is watch an episode (or four) of Seal Team.  Such a good show.  They know how to work a problem while under fire. 

Sometimes I start sentences with, “You know what we need to do?  We need to…”  And I feel certain and clear about my next steps. 

Often though, I am confused.  And I start sentences like that because I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to show it. 

Everyday I worry about money.  Every day. 

Sometimes I pray randomly, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come.”

A few times this week, I opened the fridge and stood there looking for something good to shove in my mouth.  Preferably chocolatey.  Then I shut it without grabbing anything because what I want is not there.  I then do it again…12 minutes later with the same result. 

Sometimes I feel on edge and cranky.  I say things that are unkind to people I love.

Sometimes I like home school, and I catch myself wondering, maybe this would be better for us as a family.  Maybe this is a profound moment to reset our lives

Sometimes home school sucks.  And I’m like, W.T.F.

Sometimes I do stuff that is so simple, pleasurable and feels revolutionary, like take a walk.  During and for a time after my walk I feel better.

Everyday I feel mostly relieved that I’m not on social media.  And everyday I feel like I’m missing out on the latest.

Sometimes I do stuff I’ve never done before, like a workout video on YouTube.  (Check out Heather Roberston’s channel.  She almost put me into cardiac arrest yesterday.) 

And sometimes I feel restful and calm, enjoying this chance to be at home with my family.  It feels like this surprising gift to connect and feel safe, together. 

And sometimes that peace is interrupted because I remember the Why.  Or, my kids are bickering over who gets to play their video game next. 

These uncertain times are many things.  And that’s okay.  Let them be.  Let them happen.  What we are all going through is so disorienting.  So unknown.  And with great uncertainty comes many varied and jumbled thoughts and feelings, and they seem feel like conflicting experiences.  But they are not.  It’s all normal.  All true.

And it’s all heading somewhere. 

Right now, so much is ending and being let go of.  And there is still this foreboding unknown ahead: we don’t know how bad the suffering will get.  And at the same moment, something is being reordered.  Though we are feeling the sting of discomfort, we are awake.  And we are beginning to do things like reassessing what matters now, and potentially reprioritizing our choices and commitments. 

Suffering and Discomfort.  Pleasure and Possibility.  Both are true.  Both ready to teach us if we will listen.

Don’t rush to concretize anything.  That’s not the phase we are in.  Most of us are in triage mode, doing what we have to do with what we have available to us, for that day.  Take comfort in the fact that we are in the midst of an ancient rhythm of life called transition.  It always begins with disorder.  It always brings a reordering.  And those that stay attentive during transition become better humans.  More alive.  Less fearful.  More generous.  More courageous. 

So simply notice.  Again, stay awake.  Write things down that are true, both what’s hard and what’s good.  My family is doing this by writing things down on big poster-sized sticky notes.  Why?  Because we don’t want to forget.  Humans forget easily.  It’s all at the surface now, so pay attention.

The Parable of the Trapeze

I often reference the metaphor of trapezing when navigating through a major life transition. I’ve made it a living metaphor, having personal experience with what it’s like to leap from a platform 30 feet up in the air and feel my body hurtling toward another set of hands that I’m told are going to catch me.

“Legs off!” The instructor yells. What a terrifying and thrilling invitation.

Trapeze is quite an apt metaphor for transition, don’t you think? We are between “what was” and “what is yet to be.” It is a time in life when we feel the need to apprehend a future, but transition invites us to pause and hang out for awhile in the not knowing. The invitation calls us to discern – to “distinguish between things” – learning, I believe, what it means to live courageously whole and undivided lives. But that takes some time. It’s a natural process in life that doesn’t do well under demanding and rushed conditions.

Each of us gets to decide what to do in that space; it is a choice to say ‘no’ to the invitation. It saddens me greatly when I see a person say no or “not now.” And it inspires me deeply to see a brave soul let go and reach for a new story of wholeness, especially in a world where the choice to do so isn’t easy. Parker Palmer writes, “We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole. But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, making us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.”

The choice to transition is risky business, for sure. But the riskier choice is to cling desperately to the old bar, afraid to let your legs slip off. We just weren’t meant to live in small ways. Below I share with you the Parable of the Trapeze by Danaan Parry. As you stare down the space of “in-between” in your life, may you accept it’s thrilling and terrifying invitation to pursue a more wholehearted life.

Turning the Fear Transformation into the Transformation of Fear

By Danaan Parry

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.

I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while as I’m merrily (or even not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”

It’s called “transition.” I have come to believe that this transition is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing,” a noplace between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming toward me, I hope that’s real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?

NO! What a wasted opportunity that would be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.article continues after advertisement

We cannot discover new oceans unless we have the courage to lose sight of the shore. – Anonymous     

So, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition between trapezes. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly. 

From the book Warriors of the Heart by Danaan Parry. 

On Rest, Work and Burnout

Do you ever have those weeks—or series of weeks—in which one by one, things pile up: frustrations, to-do lists, exhausting work days, injuries, cancelled plans, etc., and then you’re just walking along in this fog of fatigue and realize you’ve hit your limit. If you’re lucky, you recognize this is happening and take steps to combat it before you reach burnout. But oftentimes, I’ve found, I have to get pretty tripped up before I’m willing to address that slow and steady progression toward burnout.

This time, it seems, my intuition was ahead of the curve; or rather, my intuition is often ahead of the curve—it’s my mind that seems to (over)confidently ignore the wisdom of my body. And so I get to enjoy a day off today, planned a month ago, simply for the purpose of rest. And, here I am wondering as I often do what it is that would feel restful on a day like today. I thought it would look like getting out of the city to ski on a day when most have to show up to the workplace. It’s beautifully sunny out and couldn’t be a more fitting bluebird day out on the mountain. And anyone who knows me knows that rest (to me) is NOT doing nothing. But after two failed attempts at plans to ski with friends, it seems the invitation to a different sort of rest is being offered.

I’ve been in the midst of a season of discernment and impending transition for the past several months. The months have been full: full of good, hard work and exploration, full of challenge, full of promise, and most definitely, full of frustration at the length of time it is taking to make change. Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a series of brief conversations that have in mere moments offered light in this darkness of waiting and uncertainty. A patient, a roommate’s friend, and a dear friend of mine have all offered validation of the difficulty that discernment and waiting hold. And by waiting I do not mean sitting idly by as I am already adept at doing; I mean active participation in the process of change. I mean listening—and deeply—to the life that is stirring within and without. I mean choosing to take those steps I’ve resisted for a hundred and one reasons. I mean choosing, also, to wait until that life in me has had the time and nourishment it needs before becoming visible in the world. Waiting is hard.

Rest, also, is hard. When that to-do list continues to grow. When you are nowhere near where you thought you would be at this moment in time. When your mind or body or both just don’t seem to know how to slow down that ever-present need to just keep moving… or else.

After hitting a wall this past week, I’m pondering a different way forward. A way that involves letting go of this need to be “working” or “on” at all times in order to speed up this process and get on with my life, to have an actual answer to that question that my patient and I so deeply loathe: “So have you figured out what you’re going to do yet?”

My transition coach/counselor adamantly believes that there is much to learn in the midst of seasons of transition. And, the answer to that one question that brought me to him, I am so slowly learning, is not the one and only question worthy of the investment of my time and money. Rather, learning how to navigate the changing of seasons, learning when and how to rest, learning what play looks like, learning how to be with others (and myself) in ways that honor desire and need—these are some of the elements that contribute to a life that is rich with meaning and joy.

And so I am able to hit pause today and venture outdoors to practice a different way of being in the world. I’ll hop on a ferry and travel across the Sound to one of the many marvelous islands in Seattle’s backyard. Alone with my bike, I’ll wander the forested roads thankful for the chance to slow down and take in the abundant goodness that surrounds us, a goodness not dependent upon any sense of worthiness whatsoever, but rather on a sheer willingness to turn, notice, and give thanks for simply being here.

Being Found by Mollie Taylor

 

Did you ever think that the ache in your gut
Could one day transform into such a treasure as this:
The way your heart has come alive,
Been given a voice—and space and reverence,
The way your words which spring from this aching heart
Find resonance and meaning in the hearts and lives of others.

This is the radical hope of renewal:
That in the face of all the beauty and pain,
You choose, finally, not to run but to turn
And face the presence of every other aching heart
Longing to be seen, longing to be known,
Longing most of all to be held in the fierce grip of love.

Do you want to keep running? 
Go ahead—for there is a well-worn path
And it carries its graces, too…

But know there is no place—no place
Like the arms that long to hold you,
The eyes that will see you
As you’ve never before been seen—
As though within your face is held
The very face of God. 

 

If you enjoyed this poem by Mollie Taylor, you can find more of her brilliant courage here.

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