Most of us are living in an advanced state of Stress Factor 10 right now. Between the COVID virus, economic shutdown & political unrest, we continue to experience the severe emotional stress of living without any sense of control over our own lives.  It’s in the background of every event, every trip to the store, every recreational activity and every decision we make.

world weary

Me and my inbox.

Every. Day.

Unfortunately, we can’t even choose to escape the worries of this world as gardeners, and now find ourselves in a polarized society which no longer respects the need of every human being for “time out” – a place to get away and regroup, no matter how informed we are, or how strongly or righteously we believe in a certain cause.

Those once-carefully observed lines between work, play, politics and religion have been crossed; and even though we know that minds that have no down time are not healthy minds, we continue to push these boundaries.

However I believe we can lessen the negative effects of this constant underlying stress by effectively managing the things we do have control over, scheduling our exposure to outside distractions, and celebrating the rhythms and routines in our lives that shape who we are as human beings.

Some involve the garden, some do not. I’d still like to share them with you, and hope that in little ways you might find a bit more peace in an increasingly upsetting time.

Manage and Organize

We are all office managers in our own lives.

To that end, I’ve been organizing many things in my world and tackling a few of the monkeys dancing on my back in the garden and in my life indoors.  I cannot express how empowering it is to walk into a clean garage and know that the racks are ready for my tropical plants in a month, or how great it feels to face down that pile of pots and make strong decisions about what needs to go and will stay.

organized seeds

Even getting seeds organized is one of those little things you can do while watching TV.

My potting shed, my office, the garage…the pile of random garden implements in front of the barn. I don’t have time to do all the organizational jobs I want to, but each one I undertake contributes to a very much happier me.

I love my stuff – but I don’t need as much of it as I think. And I am always happier when I’ve sent a good amount back into the universe for someone else to excitedly find.

Ditto the jobs that I have not faced and which grow in severity the longer I put them off.  Whether it’s a dripping tap I need to fix, or the Sales Tax I need to file, the fear of facing the job is so much much worse than actually facing the job.

Schedule & Self-Discipline

john freeman tyranny of emailIn 2009, before society fully opened the Pandora’s box of social media, John Freeman wrote a fantastic book entitled The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your Inbox.   I cannot recommend it highly enough for those who have not read it.

In his book, Freeman discussed the stress caused to the human brain when ingrained, rhythmic systems of communication established over millennia are replaced by a 24-hour communication cycle in the space of a decade.

That hasn’t gotten better in the last 11 years.  Our inboxes, social media platforms, and news sites stay open all day, the alerts ping us like arrows, and though we do not understand why exactly, we feel a constant sense of anxiety, and inability to finish tasks or concentrate for long periods of time – or indeed, how to have enriching face-to-face conversations over dinner without a phone in our hand just in case we lose interest.

Freeman outlines several steps for stepping away but still remaining connected to this world we must be a part of, and I use them, or at least modified versions of them, to keep my head above water. Scheduling time to open your inbox is one of the most important.  Giving yourself ‘phone-free’ days is another excellent tip which is exceedingly difficult to implement and yet so incredibly freeing.

In effect you are inviting others into your space on your terms – not having your door battered down by everything from a doorbell ditch to a letter from an insurance company or employer.  They can wait four hours until the next time you check in.

Ingrained, rhythmic systems of communication established over millennia have been replaced by a 24-hour communication cycle in the space of a decade.

I give myself three times a day to check my inbox. And I strive to keep Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays social media-free.  If you see a post from me on those days, it’s most likely scheduled.

This not only gives me a sense of control when things feel crazy, but stops me from distracting myself from important tasks that need to be faced.

If you’ve got friends or family members who simply refuse to give in to the huge benefits of a device-free mealtime, they obviously have plenty of ‘friends’ on social media they can commune with away from your dining room table.

I have to admit that I have officially lost my patience for this anti-social, ‘social’ activity. I’m not interested in being the background music for anyone’s life.

Rhythm & Routine

I often think of my late father as a perfect example of embracing the necessity of morning chores to give his life a beautiful rhythm:

Rise, let the chickens out, feed the dog, empty the dishwasher, make the coffee, watch the sunrise, check the weather, make breakfast, breathe deeply, meet the day – all to the strains of classical music coming from the garage.

My father was one of the most content human beings I have ever known. He looked for joy in the little things throughout his entire life.

ducklings at Oldmeadow

When I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list, I try to meet it instead, and be thankful for it. The basic chores that meet our needs for survival and shelter have a calming effect on a frenetic, modern life when they are recognized as treasured rhythms instead of endless to-dos.

The things we must do each day will vary – my morning routine includes feeding chickens, ducks, dogs and cats, watering the pots, harvesting a little veg, unloading the dishwasher, making my coffee and two fresh eggs, and sitting down to check the weather and glance through some garden porn with one of the numerous magazines kicking around here.

I save the news for lunchtime and a less vulnerable state of mind. In a few months I’ll be feeding the furnace in the morning and checking on houseplants instead of outdoor containers.

I’m naturally an early riser, so I can do these things before it’s time to hit the office and the fresh hell of my inbox, but even if you’re not, there is space for a little rhythm and routine, no matter what time of day it is or what it happens to be.

Two years ago at a conference, a work-from-home colleague told me that each afternoon at lunchtime she got her lunch together and sat and watched a half hour of The Bold and The Beautiful. I LOVED how much she loved this little routine – how much it obviously added to her state of mind – a little dose of blissful escapism.  It has really stuck with me, even though I’ve never been a fan of soap operas. She related it all over a glass of wine with a guilty, giggling blush – and I will take her identity to the grave (just in case she’s reading this now).

Find your rhythm and routine and let the steadiness of it guide you through an extremely challenging period.

Listen & Respect

We’re hardly leaving the house.

We’re conducting a huge amount of business, socialization, recreation, and education through our screens. Together, but undoubtedly apart.

When we do go out, we’re wearing masks that cover the emotive social signals that for millennia have allowed us to positively connect to those around us — smiles, sighs, smirks, laughs, etc…

Meanwhile, our politics are becoming more divisive — our rhetoric more righteous.  It is easy to fall into the trap of treating those who don’t agree with us as “the other” — particularly as you cannot have them over for dinner, chat with them at a picnic, go to a concert you both adore; and observe them as the friends and family that you have known and have loved for 4,896 reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with politics.

chick in hand

There’s so much more to the world than we allow ourselves to see each day.

Reasons like the garden, cooking, music, literature, travel, art, sports, humor, business, etc…

Remember those days?

It’s a perfect storm.  Isolation (and the echo chamber it inevitably sets up in a digital world) allow us to further “otherize” people through an increasingly narrow lens and feel totally justified in treating them with contempt, condescension, and disrespect.

Nothing good can come of this. Nothing good has ever come of this.

Reach out to those around you – those that you love – not just with kindness, but with respect.  When you feel tempted to let lose with some particularly witty trolling on an inflammatory post by an old friend…just don’t.   Posting ultimatums?  Yeah, no.  Pushing people into corners never ends well.

Ask yourself, am I asking for kindness, but harboring a blind spot in my own dealings with others?

I deeply believe that being brave enough to have calm, one-on-one conversations with those we disagree with is something we should all be striving for. Even if we don’t feel we’re up to it, or don’t feel we have the skill, we must try.

Every three weeks or so I have a long-standing lunch date with an old friend to discuss the affairs of the world.  We’ve been doing it for years and call it Fryday, as there are always French fries and we aim for Fridays when we can.

Technically he and I are on different sides of the political aisle, and yet, we have wonderful, civil discussions that often end with many points in common.  These lunches have acted as a training ground for me to temper an instant emotional response and choose a rational one instead.  It’s like doing Pilates for the brain.

He’s just naturally good at that sort of thing. Damn him.

Sometimes we bring topics, sometimes articles, sometimes things just evolve.  There are more laughs than heated words, and I believe we’ve managed to avoid cheap shots for sometime now.  I’m sharing this because these conversations are not just enriching, they are enlightening – and they go a very long way towards understanding, not de-humanizing, ‘the other.’

People know when you’re truly willing to listen – just as they know when they are not being listened to.

Lastly, Choose How You Respond

Back in April I referenced one of JRR Tolkien’s wisest quotes and it’s worth repeating one more time. We don’t get to choose the times in which we live, he tells us through the words of his wizard Gandalf,

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

The creek and rural life at Oldmeadow

Above all else, I hope you are forgiving of others as we all try to navigate this unprecedented time.

We all need a time out from the barrage, and that’s not a terrible thing.  It is a very, very human one. Please allow yourself, and others – all others – that grace.