Pandemic Brain

Pinball machine image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Dear friend,

I recently had an aha moment about the pandemic. It came after days of typing and clicking on my laptop without producing or accomplishing anything of value. I had zero energy and wondered if I was depressed.

Do you have those days?

Many writers have struggled to practice their craft after COVID-19 hit. I had been fairly productive for several months, but lately, I’ve felt my enthusiasm wane. During this period of writing sloth-dom, even this short blog took me three four five days to finish. (Below, I list of some of the topics that bounced around my head in the process. It’s kinda funny, actually.)

I was pretty discouraged, as I get sometimes. Building a name for oneself as a writer is not for the faint-of-heart. And the pandemic adds another layer.

The pandemic adds to our already-full plates.

I think it’s because every day—every hour and minute, for some of us—we’re facing existential questions about our lives, the future of our country, even the future of humanity and this planet. My husband and I have gone so far as to give each other “if I get COVID” instructions above and beyond our advanced directives.

Many of our deepest existential questions have no easy answer, if they have an answer at all. The whys and hows just bounce around our brains until they fall in a black hole, only to pop up again the next time we ask.

This intensity of unknowns creates… (and here’s my aha moment)…Pandemic Brain.

Pandemic Brain is caused by an overload of existential questioning and the intensity of the unknown.

When I realized I had Pandemic Brain, I already felt better. Funny how naming a problem can do that.

Imagine a pinball machine. If you walk past it, it’s quiet. But as soon as you engage with it by pulling the plunger, you’re trapped. There’s so much pent-up energy in that tightly coiled spring, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to let it snap back. And when you finally release it, bedlam ensues.

With Pandemic Brain, the plunger is engaged by the news, a Facebook post, a comment from a friend, or even a thought you have in a quiet moment. You may have felt on top of things, but as soon as you release the plunger with a sproing, your thoughts zig zag in a million directions with a gazillion different trajectories all at at once, and you try frantically to create some semblance of order, knowing you’ll have little control.

Pandemic Brain is like a pinball machine

Yup. That about describes it for me. So whatami gonna do about it?

What I’m going to do is return to the strategies I use anytime I feel overwhelmed, distracted, unproductive, in a funk:

  • Give myself permission to be imperfectly human.
  • Look for and articulate the lessons I learn from every struggle.
  • Meditate–even five minutes helps.
  • Look for moments in the day when I am not in overwhelming pain or discomfort, nor under extreme pressure. For many of us, there are more of those moments in a day than we realize. I revel in the calm of those moments.
  • Practice gratitude of the little things. Of course we’re all grateful for family and friends, but don’t forget to appreciate curbside pickup at the liquor store, plentiful rolls of toilet paper again available, and programmable coffee makers.
  • Laugh. I’ve never watched the Ellen Degeneres show, but her funniest moments Youtube videos are fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

And for some roll-your-eyes humor, here are some topics that dinged around in my Pandemic Brain for this months blog:

  • Why I call my husband Michael “Mike” in my book, and my son Matt “Matthew,” and what it’s like to be “Karen” lately now that the name is infamous, and do you even know that “Karen” is a thing, and what’s really in a name?
  • My book proposal is almost done except the marketing section, which is the thing I dreaded most about writing a proposal and I think I’m having a major flare of imposter syndrome.
  • I’m such an introvert that even virtual engaging like on Twitter and Facebook is exhausting so I take breaks for a few days but then I think about what I should be posting and tweeting and I’m going to coin the phrase “the vortex of engagement,” and that would be a great essay if I ever have the time or energy to write it.
  • And what authors can I ask to blurb my book, but the real question is, do I have the nerve to ask?

One thing I failed to mention in my list of “treatments” for Pandemic Brain is writing. It may be hard to generate intelligible prose with a blur of ideas and questions and fears buzzing around in my head, but when the words come, they help me understand myself and the world I inhabit.

So writing is another thing for me to be grateful for. And I’m grateful to you for reading this today. Thank you, my friend.

Now it’s time to get back to work.

Racism is hidden within ourselves.

Kneeling in prayer for George Floyd.

Dear friend,

Once again, I’m writing about a topic I didn’t plan to write about–racism. Once again, as a writer, I feel obligated to use my skills and my modest platform to say something of value. I’d rather leave the societal commentary to the bigwigs—those with sway, with clout, with fancier and more relevant degrees than me. Those who can make a difference.

But to not speak is to be complicit. And. I. Refuse.

So I’m sharing my thoughts about the murder of George Floyd, the black man in Minneapolis who was “kneeled to death” on camera. He was yet another man killed for the color of his skin.

I didn’t want to watch the horrendous video of the last eight minutes and forty-six seconds of his life, and yet I couldn’t not watch. I made myself pay attention to bear witness to his death. To look away was a privilege he and his family and his community could not exercise.

So what am I gonna do about racism? That’s the question we’re all asking ourselves, isn’t it?

I start by looking within. I consider myself a non-racist, but I acknowledge that in the past, I’ve not always confronted racist words or actions of others. That is racist on my part. I own that. For many of us, if we dig deep enough, I believe we’ll find racist leanings in our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and in our visceral reactions.

How do I fight the racist hidden within me?

First, by acknowledging it. And here I am.

Second, by changing.

Speaking up doesn’t come easily to me. Even the potential for conflict is anxiety-provoking. I’ve been actively working to escape the unhealthy people-pleasing box I built for myself. Now, when a voice in my head says, Karen, speak up, I do. I don’t give myself a choice.

George Floyd took his final breath under the knee of an oppressor. I will use my breath to speak up on his behalf and others who are oppressed. I will call out racism wherever and whenever it hides.

This declaration scares me. I’m not an in-your-face person. Then I think of the terror Mr. Floyd must have experienced, and I resolve to be mightier than my fear.

Third, by increasing my awareness.

Other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, I can’t recall if I’ve read works by African-American authors. (Truth be told—I’m very bad at remembering authors and titles, so I may have read other black-authored works. I promise to pay more attention going forward.)

So I’ll buy books to enlighten me. Anti-racism books are selling out across the country, and I may have to wait for Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. You can see these and other recommendations here.

Anti-racism books are selling out across the country.

But, even before I became a memoirist, I knew I gained more insight into issues through personal accounts than from most other forms of writing. Offer me story vs. expository writing, and I’ll choose story every time. Here and here are great lists of memoirs by African Americans.

If you have other book recommendations, memoir or not, please let me know.

After I finish one of these books, I’ll pass it along to someone in my majority-white community, and ask that they pass it on when they’re done. Collectively, in my little part of the world, maybe we can become better allies to our neighbors of color. And maybe, if this type of thing happens all over the country, it will make a difference. And maybe, just maybe, George Floyd will be the last person to fall victim to his skin color.

My efforts feel so… disconnected, so abstract, when others are protesting and putting their safety and lives on the line to make their statement. But sometimes, when so many are screaming, one more loud voice is not heard. Sometimes a whisper gets the attention.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

I will fight racism in my gentle, meaningful way, and continue to look for other ways to change our world for the better. We so need it, don’t you agree?

How about you? How are you fighting racism?

Purpose–it may be simpler than you think.

Image by ArtCoreStudios from Pixabay

I had intended to write a blog last week to process some of my emotional overload, but after starting a draft or two, nothing substantial materialized.

Then, I got caught up in the whirlwind of coronavirus writing and submitting, because there’s so much I want to say and so much that needs to be said and so many opportunities not be squandered and this could be my big break to get a byline in a big mainstream publication and I’d better not blow it.

The outcome after three days of frenetic writing and revising was two essays and a handful of rejections. Everyone, it seemed, was writing about COVID-19. No one, it seemed, was interested in my words.

By Friday, after I submitted my essays one final time each, my thoughts returned to writing a blog. Easter was almost upon us, and, even for those who don’t celebrate, the metaphor of resurrection from darkness was too meaningful to ignore in these pandemic days. Again, I started a draft, but nothing gelled.

My thoughts were dandelion seeds dispersing in the wind, and in my attempt to catch them all, every single seed slid from my fingers.

Then I thought maybe I’d wake up early yesterday, Easter Day, and tap something out. Surely a seed would germinated on Easter, right?

Wrong.

Easter morning dawned on the heels of a few worse-than-normal gut days for me. The morning was another physical and emotional ordeal. By noon, I was so exhausted, I had to lie down.

Usually, when I need a ten or twenty-minute reset like this, it will revive me enough to face the rest of the day. Yesterday, it didn’t. I didn’t know if I could get up. I didn’t know if I wanted to.

I’ve never had a day when I couldn’t get out of bed, when depression or illness imprisoned me so fully that I gave in to the pull of the cocoon under my covers.

Yesterday, I wondered if it would be the first.

But my son was coming over. He was coming to celebrate Easter.

My husband and I had nothing special planned. We got curbside take-out on Saturday, wiped down the containers, and put them in the fridge for Sunday. We planned out our social-distancing-together strategy—where we would sit, how we would handle food distribution, which doors to use or not use.

Steve, our son who lives further away, didn’t make the drive for the weekend as he’s done for years. It was the right choice not to travel. I missed him, but he was safe–that mattered more.

But Matt lives twenty minutes away, and he was coming over. He was my purpose in getting up. So I did.

Please excuse the pun, but I rose from the bed.

I brushed my teeth and showered and got dressed and ate lunch and picked up a little around the house and scrolled through Facebook.

By the time Matt arrived at dinnertime, my gut had settled, allowing me to enjoy our visit. The day that I thought might break me turned out to be a great day.

Sometimes, we just need to find one purpose in the day that won’t allow us to quit, that makes us get up, show up for our day, and crawl through it if that’s all we can manage.

If you think you don’t have a purpose, you are wrong my friend.

For you have read my words. You have given me purpose today—to get these imperfect words onto this imperfect page so they reach your imperfect eyes.

Today, you are my purpose.

You may not think anyone cares if you get up or not, but you may be the very reason someone else rises, too.

If you can rise, I can rise. If I can rise, someone else can rise. And if more of us rise, then we make a statement that all hope is not lost.

The world needs that message right now. The world needs you. I needed you today, my friend, and you showed up for me.

Thank you.