When I can comfortably say that being quarantined inside my home with three children for an indefinite amount of time while the United States waits with baited breath to see what will become of itself is not the most unsettling experience of my last year, that says a lot. Applying the techniques and insights I’ve learned from my past year of chaos into my current isolated experience helped me create a daily sense of calm, and I hope it will help others as well.
I understand how destabilizing changes to a personal routine can be. How disorienting it can be in the midst of upheaval to reassemble our wants, needs, and actions into a comfortable order and rhythm that is productive, fulfilling, and relaxing. I know because I’ve been doing it consistently throughout the last year, as Gd threw one obstacle and another into our path as we struggled to get back on our feet. Pretty much every day of the last nine months felt to me like I was waking up on the side of a boulder, holding desperately on, gaining my footing, and climbing back to the main road, all while trying to appear to the outside world that I was just breezily going for a morning stroll. Until the next morning when I would find myself on the side of the boulder again.
To describe a recent shaky day, the last day I taught high school art on March 2, before coronavirus exploded, I rolled groggily up to the school’s steps, reeling from less than a few hours of sleep. The night before, after learning that we had scabies and not, in fact, bedbugs as we had so believed for two months, I had slept on our wooden floor for two hours while my husband did all of our linens at the laundromat. Garbage bags stuffed with every piece of clothing we owned lined our hallways. When he returned at 1 a.m., we woke up all of our kids to take baths, put on scabies-cream, and then got them back to bed by four. I awoke at six a.m. to get ready, catch the train, and teach class while acting like everything was totally cool.
That day was pretty average in terms of stress level compared to the previous nine months.
Rather than go into all the gruesome details, I’ll summarize by saying that it started last June, when my husband didn’t have a job, we were broke, and, it turns out, because of my husband’s vocal activism and views, no one in the Jewish nonprofit world wanted to hire him. And we had no way to pay for camp.
Now I’m not a Mommy Camp kind of Mommy. I tried it, a few years ago, and it left me so depleted and down in the dumps that I resolved to never try that again. I like schedules, structure, and plenty of free time to think clearly, resting assured that somewhere else in the world, my children are being taken care of by competent adults who are not me. But we couldn’t do that. We set our sights on a long, strange summer. Which turned into a long, strange nine months. My husband did eventually get a job around Rosh Hoshanah, but it only paid the bills for tuition and rent. And we were hit hard by a fruit fly infestation and a two month bedbugs/scabies ordeal on top of that. The scrambling of life, to climb off that cliff and get back on the main road, has been a daily reckoning since that fateful day in June when we hit rock bottom.
I would like to share the things and epiphanies that kept me sane that protected us from rolling off the edge of life, in hopes of offering helpful ideas for how to maintain our sanity in this new, isolated reality we find ourselves in.
1.Write a Journal Every Day and Date It
When I’m in a whirlwind experience, days and dates can fly by, and I find yourself wondering, What day is it? What month is it? Where am I? I can even find myself forgetting what year it is. Writing the date daily is a great way to reorient yourself and help you feel like you’re a little more on top of life. It helps position me for where I fit in the grand scheme of human civilization, or at the very least the school/holiday calendar. I try to daily write a three-page stream of consciousness Morning Pages every day, and date it before I begin. Morning Pages are great to just dump all of your thoughts and concerns, and all the brain gunk that’s been building of ahh what’s going to happen to me and what am I doing and I’m so angry and confused and excited and yes and what. Giving myself those 15 minutes a day to write is a great self-care move, that I’m doing something for myself, to listen to myself.
2. Schedules are Your Lifeblood
Schedules help me avoid all of the worries of the unknown (like where will the money come from or who will get hurt) and help limit me from expecting too much of myself. I write down a schedule, I try to follow it, and I try not to take on more that I put on the schedule. When I was feeling a lot of pressure to figure out ways to make more money, this helped me a lot, because instead of endlessly thinking I need to do more, I need to spend every waking moment searching for work, I scheduled my daily tasks, and then made sure to also schedule breaks and time to take care of myself, recharge, exercise etc. What I didn’t put on my schedule, I didn’t put pressure of myself to do, and that helped me not burn out. During these coronavirus times, there is a strange pressure to “make the most” of this time, to lifehack this pandemic in order to create incredible things. Create a reasonable schedule, just follow what’s on it, nothing more, and schedule in room to breathe.
The past few days, I’ve put stuff on my schedule like 10 a.m. Face Painting, 2:30-5:30 p.m. alone time, lunch/dinner times and meal plans. Schedules just help me (and my kids) feel like there’s something in my life I can control and know what’s coming. Plus if you want to schedule in times to pray, do sacred activities, this will help you make time to send some positive energy out into the atmosphere.
3. Know Your Alone Time Sacred Needs
As an introvert and artist, my alone time needs are great. I’ve determined through my years of experimentation that I require a minimum of three hours of alone time a day in order to not feel super angry at everyone. I still wrestle with honoring those needs. During the summer, every day we made sure that I got time off in the afternoon to replenish my emotional fuel. And even now, during coronavirus-isolation, my husband totally gets that three hours off is non-negotiable, and we schedule it into our day. My kids appreciate when I emerge and no longer seem like I want to bite their heads off.
Schedule in that sacred time for yourself. Exercise, sleep, write. You deserve it, even now. Especially now.
4. Get Everyone To Pitch In
One thing this year has taught me is how much I can request familial help with chores and how much it benefits them to pitch in. Because we haven’t been able to have cleaning help for the last nine months, I had no choice but to get my kids (and husband!) to really pitch in more. I guess I felt guilty about asking my kids to help so much with laundry folding, hanging, putting things away, and just cleaning up in general. But I couldn’t do it on my own. And I found that, even if they complained at first, my kids actually enjoyed it! Self-sufficiency is a big thing. We put on music as we fold, and we get some good dance moves in as well. “YMCA” is a family favorite. I think it was important for my kids to see that Abba cleans with us and super-important for me to feel like this is not My Job, but all of our responsibility to take care of the home together. So especially during this time, when most people can’t have cleaning help come, put on tunes and make it fun. Our families are more sustainable than we may give them credit for.
5. Keep Dancing and Reach NYC-VANA
My husband and I joke about what we term “NYC-Vana”. NYC-Vana is when someone who lives in NYC gets so stressed from their lives -the financial struggles, the congestion, etc- that they reach a tipping point of nirvana in which they start dancing. ( I actually just applied for this word in the Urban Dictionary yesterday -and got accepted!- so expect to hear it more around your neighborhood soon).
You can observe this all over the place in NYC when it’s not on coronavirus-lockdown. Men walking around with a boombox strung around their neck, music blaring, clapping their hands to no one in particular. Women brazenly belting out lyrics as they cross the street. Once this year I was walking down the frozen aisle of the supermarket and there was a man standing in front of the frozen vegetables shaking his hips and grooving for a long time to music broadcasting over the supermarket loudspeaker.
Music and art are the great mood rejuvenators, the essential way we as human can forget our troubles. We need to tap into them when we’ve reached a place of crisis. When I was in some weeks of major stress, with barely had any money to purchase a subway card or to buy food for my children’s lunch, wondering when will this end, I found myself focused on catchy, exciting song lyrics, repeating them over and over to myself in my head. I found myself putting my iPhone on speaker to play music while taking my children to the bus stop (that’s when I knew I had officially reached NYC-Vana). One day, not too long ago, walking down the street in Brooklyn, I started rolling my shoulders, practicing some bellydancing shoulder moves while listening to Willie Nelson’s City of New Orleans. My landlord happened to drive by at that moment and I’m pretty sure he saw me. Such is the life of those who are fortunate enough to hit NYC-Vana.
We need to keep on dancing. Dancing will bring us through.
On that note, creating is essential. Creating art, music, or the written word allows us to release all of the angsty pent-up energy from our existence, forming it into something greater that elevates us. Creating art is a way to transform chaos into order. A lot of the best art comes from crisis of some sort. Use it. Release it. My favorite art pieces this past year came from moments of utter desperation. The redemptive spirit flows into our hearts when we create art from the tangled woods of our inner worlds.
7. It’s Hard To Be Dependent, But We Can Reach Out
Being dependent on others can feel shameful. It’s hard. There’s a privileged power in independence. I saw from this past year the power of youth and wealth, and the judgement placed on those who are, because of their life situation, dependent on others. But luckily the human spirit gets rejuvenated by giving. I’ve had friends and family in the past year who chipped in, and helped me feel like this is not your fault. You will get through this. You will return the favor. I cried tears of gratitude when my neighbor randomly texted: I heard you’re going through a hard time. I’ve just left bags of food on your doorstop for you. I’ve also gone through the shame of being in need and being told no, and I’ve survived. Humans need to have boundaries for how much they can give and when, and that’s an inevitable aspect to reaching out.
Right now, we need each other. Getting through hardships takes a village. Whether just for social video-chats, critical news and information, emotional support, or little errands like my neighbor printing out pages for my children’s online school assignments for me. If those you reach out to can’t help, that’s okay, too. It will lead to other avenues where you can find your needs met.
8. Get Professional Help
Our lives changed drastically whenever we would reach out to a professional for help. Whether it was a financial advisor, an exterminator who located the source of the fruit flies after we spent weeks trying to vacuum them out of existence, or the dermatologist who exposed that we had scabies and not bedbugs, eight weeks too late. Or, of course, a therapist. It’s hard to fork over money, but usually it’s worth it, and saves money in the long run. BetterHelp has been a great, cheap but quality experience for me (they also have an option for applying for financial aid, on top of their reasonable prices).
9. You Will Adjust For The Better
Though the past nine months have been super hard, I’m so happy with where our lives are going. I’m so glad our original dream of Hevria House didn’t work out. I don’t think it would have been the right path for our family life, and we found jobs and careers that fulfill us in ways we wouldn’t have experienced had our original dream materialized. I’m not saying that coronavirus is good, and Gd forbid again that our loved ones suffer from it, but I do have high hopes that the School of Hard Knocks for the mundane, daily struggles of our indoor, insulated lives right now will lead us to realize ways in which to lead our lives better.
I spoke with a New Rochelle parent of a high school student recently, whose family was on quarantine for two weeks because they attended the shul that got infected by coronavirus. How was it? I asked, concerned. “It was great!” He laughed. “Our kids made up so any games, we had so much family together-time. I really felt like, I must have been done something right, look how wonderful my kids are.”
Honestly, looking at my kids these past few days, they seem… happier. Like their lives previously (and our lives) were too stressful on them; the constant running around, doing, expecting more. How difficult spending quality time together was. And now… here we are. Haven’t gone outside in a week. And they seem rather thrilled. I know I’m going to spend reckoning about how I want to reconfigure our lives to create more relaxed togetherness when we get out of this isolated reality.
10. You Will See The World Differently
My empathy grew immensely from going through hard times. I see things I never noticed in NYC before we were financially struggling, I feel the pain of racial and socio-economic inequalities acutely, and want to be part of the solution to solve it. I am resolved to hustle and invent creative new ways to hustle because I crave independence, self-reliance, and the ability to give back so much more. I believe deeper in my ability to overcome and to stand on my own feet. And I appreciate our home, which is finally pest-free, like no other. Life has become more intimately precious. Good things will come from our strange lives now. We will become better.
11. When Life Gets Better, You May Feel Worse
The human body and mind has an incredible ability to withstand hardships and change. We are resilient. But once the hardships are over, many times the stored up stress has its long-awaited tantrum release. During our very long Mommy/Abba Camp summer, I was surprised by my coping ability. I expected that once school started, I would breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy my newfound time and freedom. I was not prepared for the avalanche of emotions that came. After the first few days of school, I found myself in the midst of a very intense breakdown. It was as if my body/heart/mind knew it couldn’t collapse during Parent Camp and subconsciously repressed my emotional needs. And once it sensed it was safe to come out, it just exploded all over the place. Hopefully this won’t happen post-coronavirus isolation, but I think it’s a good thing to keep in mind and prepare for, just in case. Having the right expectations, and the right tools for coping during and after can make a world of difference.
May we overcome this challenging time as quickly as possible, with as little suffering as possible, and may we blossom into something better, healthier, more sustainable, and kinder when we finally emerge.