“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness” Desmond Tutu
Life is pretty messy right now. We’ve lived with the loss, grief, and constraints on our lives as a result of the pandemic for almost a year. Life experiences that would have seemed inconceivable a year ago have become something that we face every day. As sensitive, caring, human beings, it is a heavy burden. I was beginning to believe that the new year would bring us slowly back to some kind of normalcy. One where we would no longer be counting daily the number of people who die, and where we’d be able to gather with family and friends and even travel to the places we’ve dreamed about. I hoped that there was the proverbial light at the end of the very long, dark tunnel we’ve been traveling through.
But on January 6, 2020, the hope I’d been feeling took a deep dive as I witnessed the attack on our Capitol. I was transfixed by the images I was seeing, and I was struck by the similarity in my feelings to 9/11. I first felt disbelief, followed by horror, outrage, sadness, despair, and back again to disbelief. As I cycled repeatedly through these feelings I realized they were worse than what I felt on 9/11. I was witnessing an attack on my country, not by terrorists from some foreign land, but by fellow citizens. As anguished as I was on 9/11, I never questioned whether our democracy would survive. That night I wasn’t sure and went to bed with a heavy heart.
Searching for Hope
I woke the next day with lingering feelings of anger, grief, and dread and knew that I needed to find the resources that would pull me out of my funk.
In times of tragedy, poetry has been a source of comfort for me and for many others. I turned to the poem by Wendell Berry that I always turn to first during these times. I share it here in the hope that you, too, will find solace in these words.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Knowing the importance of routine, I started my day with coffee, meditation, writing in my journal, and a four-mile walk. I walked quietly, searching for glimmers of hope. One of those moments occurred as I walked by the brook near my house. There are ducks and geese and, yes, a heron. These ducks are unable to fly any distance and would likely starve as the brook freezes over. Each morning I chat with the woman who has made it her mission to feed them. Her kindness touched me deeply on this day when I was questioning the goodness of my fellow humans.
Seeking out small acts of kindness like this is one way to find hope when hope can easily slip out of our grasp. And performing an act of kindness is a way to inspire hope in others.
Hope is a Choice
“Hope is a renewable option: If you run out of it at the end of the day, you get to start over in the morning.” Barbara Kingsolver
What exactly, is hope? There are numerous definitions of hope, but we each need to decide what it means for us, and what role it plays in our lives. I’ve spent the week since the attack on our Capitol thinking about what it means to me. I’ve struggled to write this post as my glimmers of hope argued with my feelings of helplessness. I knew that the grief and fear I was feeling wouldn’t magically disappear and that it was important to honor those feelings while looking for the light.
Hope is not passive, not something where we can sit back and wait for things to be different. It’s not wishing for a better future and doing nothing to make that happen. I’ve come to think of hope as a muscle, one that must be exercised regularly. There are things that we can do to build that muscle. Here are a few ideas and I hope that you will add to the list.
Look to the things that fill your life with light – family, friends, pets, the beauty in nature, the goodness in others. Buy a plant, nurture it and watch it grow. If you are a gardener, start planning your garden. If you don’t have the space for a garden, imagine the garden you would plant. Read books and watch videos that inspire hope. And don’t forget humor – a heaping dose!
Create something. The destruction we are witnessing can break down our spirits. Why not take the time to create something. It doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece or a great work of art. Perhaps you might try a new recipe for tonight’s dinner. Or if you are inclined, pull together some images from magazines (if you still have them) and create a collage of images that inspire hope in you. If you take photos with your phone, try one of the free online collage makers with photos that comfort you. What other ideas for creating might you have?
Know that whatever you’re feeling is acceptable. Whether it’s anger, sadness, fear, or uncertainty, your feelings are normal and understandable. It’s okay to feel them, but be sure to do whatever you need to do to let them go.
Believe that there is an underlying order in the Universe. Night becomes day, the seasons change, the stars come out at night. I’ve found that putting order into my life (cleaning off my desk, going through clothes and papers that I no longer need), helps me to feel a sense of calm and control.
Find what helps you feel safe. The National Guard is protecting vulnerable places in our country. Find an inner protector that helps to create a sense of safety whether that be meditation, prayer, or visualizing what your protector looks like. Or you might create a safe place that you go to in your mind.
Connect with others and talk about hope. It’s easy to talk about our anger and anxiety and fear and we need to do that, but it’s not helpful to stop there. Talk about what inspires you, what gives you hope for the future.
Write. You may already be keeping a journal. If you are, I hope that you are writing about the positives in your life as well as processing the challenges that you might be experiencing. If you’re not, you might try to write a list of the things that give you hope or the things that bring you joy. Try writing a dialogue with hope – what would you like to ask hope? What does hope have to offer you? This is an effective (and often fun) exercise.
Here are two poems that offer perspective on hope and kindness. Enjoy!
A Small Grain of Hope
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment to send to you.
Please take this grain of a grain of hope so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division, will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower unless you distribute the clustered roots, unlikely source– clumsy and earth-covered– of grace.
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
The issues we are facing aren’t going away soon. The pandemic and the divisions in our country will be with us. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness may creep in. I am making a commitment to wake up each morning and choose hope. I invite you to do the same.
“A transition is a journey, destination and time of arrival unknown.”
We’ve been through many changes individually and as a society. Some have been gradual, others have been an instantaneous shock to our system. What we are experiencing as a result of the COVID- 19 pandemic is something that we could only have imagined in a dystopian novel or post-apocalyptic movie.
Change is the event (pandemic) in this case. Transition is how we respond to the event. It involves a psychological process of disorientation and eventual reorientation in which our perception of self and the world is altered. We are currently in a time of profound disorientation as we make changes that we would not have considered a few weeks ago. We are on a journey and don’t know where we will end up or when. We don’t know in how many ways our lives will change and for how long.
Leia Francisco, author of Writing Through Transitions: A Guide for Transforming Life Changes, identifies the first phase of a transition as “Letting Go of the Old Way.” During this time we consider what aspects of our lives we must let go as we live in a new reality. We may feel that what we have known and hold dear is being ripped from our being. Even our most basic needs, as identified by Abraham Maslow, of health and well-being, freedom from fear, financial security, order, predictability and control, love and belongingness are threatened.
What are you letting go of? In what ways has your outlook changed? Have you always been a person who thinks positively and you now find yourself swimming in negative thoughts? Do you find yourself feeling hopeful one minute, noticing that the forsythia is blooming and the daffodils are beginning to open, and the next find yourself in a moment of anxiety wondering when and how this will all end? I know that I do. It’s important to recognize that whatever you are feeling is normal, accept those feelings and know that they will pass.
Just as we experience loss during this transition, it is important to take stock of what we keep. We all have cherished values that have been with us throughout our lives. What are yours? Love? Beauty? Generosity? Hope? Kindness? Now is a good time to reflect on what matters to you. You might write down your values and find a way to include one of them each day.
There is much that is out of our control right now. It is important to remember where we do have control. I have control over how caught up I get in the news, over how I spend my time, over keeping in touch with people I care about. When I wish I could do something that is not available to me right now I remember how many things I can choose from to take its place.
What are some of the things that you are able to hold on to? Why not start a list and add to it as things occur to you.
Beyond the Basics: Five Ways to Take Care of Yourself
By now we’re aware of the things we need to do to protect ourselves. But it is important to find ways to care for ourselves beyond the basics.
Every day I read a multitude of suggestions about self-care during this stressful time. Some I can relate to while others don’t work for me. I cannot tell you what will work for you but I’ll share what works for me and you might find something that will be helpful to you.
1. Keep to a schedule as much as possible. At a minimum try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day and get 7-8 hours of sleep. Keeping a schedule doesn’t mean planning every hour, but do plan some times in which you know what you will be doing. I am still getting up at 5:30 each day, making my coffee, meditating, and writing in my journal. Starting my day this way is comforting and puts me in a positive mindset. I have planned work and exercise times, times to connect with family and friends and times when I don’t schedule anything.
2. Be informed but not overly informed. I imagine that we all feel the need to know what is happening as this virus makes its way in the world. We do need to be informed but in the interest of your mental health, limit the time you spend watching or reading the news. As someone who feels it is my responsibility to know what is going on in the world at all times, this has been hard for me. I turned off notifications from news apps a while ago and encourage you to do the same. I can assure you that you will get caught up if you check the news a couple of times a day. If you’re like me, this will be challenging, and you might have to gradually wean yourself from the news. Identify some things you love to do and go do them when the urge to check on the world hits you.
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”A.A. Milne
3. Practice gratitude. When we are struggling through a difficult time, our hearts can feel contracted. Gratitude can go a long way in helping us to get out of our angst and connect to our world. Setting the intention to find things to be grateful for throughout the day is one way to focus on gratitude. Like all good intentions, it can be hard to remember to practice. Why not set an alarm several times a day and when it goes off ask yourself “what am I grateful for right now?” And why not express that gratitude to others? When you go to the grocery store, ask one of the people working hard to keep the shelves stocked how they are doing and thank them for being there. Thank the people who deliver your mail and packages, your pharmacist, everyone you can think of. It won’t be good just for them but will also benefit you. This might also be a time to thank the people in your life. Check out https://gratefulness.org/ They have free cards that you can send and also have a lot of resources.
4. Practice self-compassion. We are likely experiencing feelings of compassion for people who are most affected by this virus. As a nurse, I feel great compassion for the health care providers who are out there every day saving lives. And there is often a wave of guilt that I am safely sequestered in my home while others are putting their lives on the line. That is one time when I need to practice self-compassion. Kristen Neff Ph.D defines self-compassion as: “a practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it most – to become an inner ally rather than an inner enemy. The nurturing quality of self-compassion allows us to flourish, to appreciate the beauty and richness of life, even in hard times.” Feeling compassion for myself allows me to move on from feelings that are not helpful and explore ways that I might be of service.
5. Find time to be quiet and reflect on your experience. Meditation is a practice that I have cultivated and find helpful. Right now it is difficult to quiet my mind, so I am using guided meditations that are available on Insight Timer. If you are not familiar with it check it out here. https://insighttimer.com/. There are both free and paid versions. There are also other good meditation apps. Headspace is one and they currently have free resources. https://www.headspace.com/covid-19. Calm is another https://www.calm.com/
If you are not doing so already, consider starting a journal as a way to get your thoughts out of your head and on paper. There is much research on the benefits of writing for health and healing.
Take time at the end of the day to write down three things that worked for you and why they did. Consider how you might incorporate one of them into the next day.
Poems and Writing Prompts
Poetry can be a great comfort during times of sorrow and distress. Here are two that I hope will bring you some breathing space. I’ve also included some writing prompts if you would like to reflect on what you read.
The Appropriate Response: Stock up on poetry not toilet paper, Grace rather than guns. Gorge on love, Which multiplies like loaves and fishes. Call people and talk for hours, Fill their hearts with hope. Hoard every sweet moment of your life And then release each one into the world To seed more joy. Be stingy with nothing, Least of all yourself. Ensure the shelves of your heart never fall bare, That your soul seeds new sprouts And the wings of your imagination Refuse containment. May you realize what matters, who matters, The rock that you can be, When the world is shaking. Stockpile only what is limitless, And can be shared with all.
Make a list of some of the sweet moments in your life, present or past. How can they sustain you now?
What have you stocked on the shelves of your heart?
What new seeds can you plant during this time of letting go?
Where are the “wings of your imagination” taking you? How are they helping you to embrace freedom during this time of containment
Today, When I Could Do Nothing
Today, when I could do nothing, I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the morning paper, still being delivered to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books, time, a garden, silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked the morning paper, as if loosened ink taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer — warm — then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone, crossing a navy cushion, moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun, it could not have found again its nest. What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened, even while walking my hand, which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions, whose ant-heart I could not fathom— how is your life, I wanted to ask.
I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing, contribute nothing beyond staying distant from my own kind, I did this.
– Jane Hirshfield
What remains essential in your life at this time?
What small acts of kindness have you noticed? How might you practice kindness?
Lookingto the Future
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” JRR Tolkien
None of us wish to be living in this time. We must decide how to live with our uncertainty, grief, and fear. We must find light in the midst of darkness. It is there. Though it’s difficult to see right now, there are opportunities for creativity and growth. What opportunities do you see? What will you do with this time? I would love to hear your thoughts.
I wish you peace, comfort, and strength to see you through this time.
It seems that almost everyone I talk to is experiencing a transition. Some arise from an obvious change- moving, the death of a parent, taking on a new role at work, a new relationship. Others arise from the unsettled feeling that life needs to change but it isn’t clear how or why.
While a transition of any kind presents an opportunity for growth, it can also create stress. Even transitions that we identify as positive – a promotion, a promising new relationship, a new home, leaving for college – can be stressful. I recently talked with a 13 year old girl who is moving into junior high school. She is bright and confident and excited about the change. But she also expressed some anxiety about her ability to assimilate and meet new academic requirements. This was a reminder that transitions happen at any age and can be stressful.
We know the basic ways to manage stress. Eating healthy, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep are listed in every article on stress management. These are the building blocks to a lifestyle that will minimize the effects of stress. Sometimes they just aren’t enough.
I would like to offer some additional strategies that I have found to be helpful, especially during times of transition.
Keeping a Journal
Many people find that keeping a journal is a helpful practice. You don’t need a fancy book or special pen, but these can make writing more inviting. You don’t need to write every day, but you might find it helpful to do so. Writing is a safe container where you can process feelings and share your fears and hopes. It is a place to suspend judgment and be curious about your life. It can also help you to set priorities and create needed structure. A transition journal provides a guide for managing future transitions. I can honestly say that my journal has been my most trusted support during challenging transitions.
Breathing is something we take for granted. We don’t pay attention to our breathing until we find ourselves stressed and unable to catch our breath. If you develop a practice of conscious breathing before life gets too stressful it will become a habit.
There are many websites, videos and apps that will teach you breathing techniques. It is a good idea to explore different techniques and find what works best for you. Check out the video below. It is a good way to learn to regulate your breathing.
Practice Awareness, Acknowledgement and Acceptance
Transitions can be messy. I don’t know about you, but I prefer a certain amount of order and predictability in my life. A transition can turn us upside down and inside out. Just like the woman in the image you may find yourself running away from uncomfortable moments and feelings as quickly as possible. Consider what it would be like to stop resisting and accept what you are experiencing. When you stop judging your thoughts and feelings as “good” or “bad,” acknowledge and accept them, the difficult moments don’t last as long. Like breathing, this takes practice. The more you practice, the more it becomes a part of how you operate. There are still times when I try to resist my thoughts and feelings, but I now remember to stop, take a few breaths acknowledge the moment and practice acceptance.
Your transition may be one that has you juggling many moving parts. Imagine that you are someone who is working 10 hour days, has a family and is planning to move 500 miles away. And you have your house on the market with regular showings, while building a house in the new state.
Or you may be someone that has nothing on your calendar most days. You might be the person who has created a life around work and has recently retired. Your sense of purpose, friendships and routine are all related to your work. You have little that is required of you and don’t know how to fill your time.
These situations are different and both may be stressful. The people in each of these scenarios will benefit from creating some type of structure. Structure provides the framework for your day. It helps you to focus and get things done. It helps you to stay grounded. However you create structure in your life, it needs to make sense to you.
As I said earlier, transitions can turn us upside down and inside out. Having support is essential. Make a list of your supports and adjust as you move through your transition. Who are the people who will support you during this time? Family, friends, colleagues, professionals such as coaches and therapists? Don’t limit it to people, but include beliefs, things that inspire you such as books, quotes and movies, pets, time spent in nature. It may be helpful to let people know that you will ask for their support. Be clear on how they can help you and once they have agreed to support you don’t hesitate to ask.
An internet search will lead you to a wealth of additional information on the ideas in this post. You will also find additional ideas about ways to mange stress.
The next time you feel stressed, stop and take a few conscious breaths. Notice what you are experiencing without judgment. See how this helps you to move through the experience in a different way. You might jot down a few thoughts so that you can reflect on your experience later.
Note: if this is a new practice for you, don’t try it for the first time when you are overwhelmed. Start with a time when you are slightly stressed. Do this for awhile until it becomes a habit. Over time you will be able to use this strategy in more stressful moments.
I hope that you will try some of these strategies. Above all, remember to be patient and gentle with yourself.
I would love to hear from you. What has helped you to manage your stress during a transition?
When I closed my office door for the last time, there was both a sense of relief and loss. I was leaving work that I had loved for 30 years. I had no plan and no schedule and looked forward to all the things I hadn’t had time to do. I read for pleasure, walked every day and cleared out clutter. My garden looked better than it had in years. I bonded with our new dog and had more time for family and friends. Sounds great, right? For awhile, it was.
It wasn’t long before I felt restless and bored. Much of my identity was connected to my work and I hadn’t found a new identity. I lacked a sense of purpose. What I missed most was knowing that at the end of the day I had made a difference in someone else’s life.
I was fortunate to find a class that used writing as a way to work through transitions. Offered by the Therapeutic Writing Institute, www.twinstitute.net,the class was based on the book Writing Through Transitions by Leia Francisco. The writing exercises helped me to sort through my feelings of loss and sit with my discomfort at not knowing where I was going. The class helped me to understand not only my current transition, but past ones. As I became fascinated with the topic of transitions I knew that I had found the focus of my future work. I set out to learn as much as I could. I was on my way to defining my purpose.
Like most people, I thought transition was another way of saying change. It’s not. Change is the event that happens. It can be one that you choose such as moving, retirement or getting married. It can also be unexpected such as a change in health or the end of a relationship.
While change refers to the event, transition is an internal process. It’s your reaction to a change that is significant enough to affect life and functioning. The more areas of your life a transition touches, the more unsettling it can be.
A transition is not static. It is a journey, one without a clear destination and no certain time of arrival. No one sets the GPS or gives you a map with a direct route. It’s up to you to look inward and find your own map, adjusting the stops along the way.
In this post I’ll give a brief overview of the phases of transition. Future posts will provide more detail about each phase. I’ll also discuss the value of writing during a transition and provide you with some writing prompts.
William Bridges, a respected authority on transitions, identified three phases of a transition.The first is Endings. During this time of psychological letting go, you can be affected physically, emotionally and spiritually.
The second phase Bridges calls the Neutral Zone. It is the in-between time, when you are navigating the uncertainty between what was and what is yet to come.
When you finally leave the old way behind and have moved through the Neutral Zone, you’ve crossed the bridge to New Beginnings. In this phase you integrate your experience into your life. You have a new way of looking at yourself and your world.
A few key points about transitions:
It is a process
It is not linear or logical
It takes time. You cannot rush the process and need to be patient
You may be immersed in the change for some time before you start the transition process
I hope this gives you a preliminary understanding of what is involved in a transition. What transition are you experiencing right now? What are your thoughts about transitions?