The Next Right Thing
|April 4, 2020||Posted by Melinda under Uncategorized|
Life likes to give me sabbaticals. Not the highly anticipated (and planned) I’m-getting-this-puppy-from-a-breeder-and-been-on-the-list-for-a-year type of sabbatical. Nope, they’re never of my choosing – an injury that sidelines me, or a medical diagnosis requiring treatment out-of-town. My sabbaticals are the skunk-sprayed, furry stray dog version that initially have you holding your nose and backing away…but, I’m learning a secret. They may show up at the door unannounced and initially unwanted, but so far I’ve always managed to shave and bathe the mangy, matted beast to reveal something special.
It took me a while to recognize this sabbatical. Like you, I was caught up in the news, having to decide what was fact, what was spin, and what was condescending nonsense from organizations I once regarded as trustworthy. Caught up in the debate between what was essential and what was not, and a growing realization of what a word I’ve heard my entire life – economy – actually meant. Nothing like having something shatter into bits to help you understand the structure of its being.
It’s been one risk-benefit equation after another. Go to work or stay home? Go to the grocery store now or wait? Pull Fig out of daycare or leave her in as long as possible? Continue my policy of leaving potential controversial subjects off my Facebook feed, or post the information I feel my friends and family need to survive the upcoming months? Ride my horse or stay on the ground? Go forward with my pre-covid plan of reducing my work days per week or work every shift I can? Save every penny or live like normal to “do my part” in the local economy since both me and my husband are “lucky” to be essential and still be working?
Sabbaticals don’t always come along in times of our choosing, nor are they always predicated on existing within a state of nothing. I find sabbaticals come in a time of change and are disguised in the form of a great loss.
I guess some people get to take proper pre-planned sabbaticals that aren’t the product of some disaster, but I haven’t figured that out yet. **shrug** So instead I’ll continue to use the space created by these kind of events to explore and evaluate life. And yes, I’m going to choose to call them sabbaticals instead of “forced downtime.”
My first sabbatical was a several month period when I couldn’t run or ride. The loss of those two activities was a huge gaping hole waiting to be filled. I found a new rhythm and new coping strategies that persisted even once I could ride and run again. My second sabbatical came at the loss of my job, my home, and my horses. I was physically removed from all of that for several months and again had to find a new life in a structure that started every morning with a radiation treatment and a long uncommitted day.
Every sabbatical has come with its own lessons learned (here, and here, and here), or as I like to think of it – the sabbatical theme.
The theme is NOT any of the concrete accomplishments that came out of my sabbaticals. Those accomplishments are happy footnotes. The real purpose and power of the sabbatical is the personal growth and reflection that happens.
There’s a meme going around right now about how if you don’t [insert long list of concrete accomplishments] during this time, obviously the problem is your dedication and drive, not your lack of time.
That is privileged bullshit that doesn’t recognize the low-level trauma that most “normal” people have right now, and indeed how a significant portion of the population lives even in “normal times.” Plagued by stress and worry about money, food, or things they can’t control, they neither have enough money to generate the time needed to address those things, nor the mental space to make it happen even when they do have some down time. Mental space, not time, is absolutely required to foster creativity and problem solving.
I’m experiencing that in my own life right now because of the COVID crisis. Like many of you, I have plenty of TIME. Granted I’m still working so I still have some time commitments, but I still have more time on my hands than normal because I’m not doing anything that requires me to drive, other than work. I’m not driving to trails to train, or traveling to various events.
Despite an increase in “free-time”, I am accomplishing NOTHING.
I’m taking care of my kid in a household where both people work in order to pay the bills and we have no childcare.
I’m figuring out how to run my household and buy essentials within the confines of social distancing.
I’m trying to figure out why my dishwasher has died without calling a repair person.
I’m trying to get my car repaired around limited shop hours and our work schedules, while being stressed that an unknown someone who could be symptomatic will be in my car touching everything.
I’m in a much more privileged situation right now than many people around me, and yet there’s no way that I’m doing anything other than pure surviving and self-care right now. Some how I’m supposed to come out of this with my bucket list completed because I have more time? Is time truly the only thing you need to do that thing?
Time isn’t the answer.
Mental space is how new languages, creative projects, and other things get accomplished and that is in short supply right now.
Remember this feeling – right now – of what it feels like to technically have the time, but not the mental space to get things accomplished. This is what if feels like to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and then be told that instead of watching TV for an hour in the evening, if you *just* took a night class to further your education in that time instead, you could better your own life situation. No. Actually that’s not realistic. If you don’t believe me, then go ahead and become fluent in another language right now or get your side hustle up and running, or write that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Yes, right now in the middle of all of this. I don’t know about you, but my brain can not handle any additional stress right now. I’m completely tapped out with figuring out work, money, childcare, staying married, and staying sane.
This is called survival mode. Depending on what your “normal” life looks like (or how you grew up) this may be a very familiar or a very alien feeling. Your brain could learn a new language if it was part of surviving this crisis. But, if it isn’t integral to your survival, more likely your brain will discard it faster than an ADHD squirrel on crack for something it does perceive as immediately useful.
But, I’m getting distracted from the point of this post. I’ll tell you a secret. My brain isn’t certain this blog post in related to my current survival. I’ve already had to sit down three different times to finish writing this post – something that I normally would be able to do in a single hyper-focused ADHD writing session. My brain feels broken right now. Editing this is going to be an exercise in will-power, which means it will get done badly (Sorry Dear Reader. It’s going to be a more rough read than usual). A symptom of my life right now, and probably yours too.
If what you accomplish during the sabbatical isn’t the theme, then what the heck am I talking about?
In my first sabbatical I wrote a book, but the theme of the sabbatical was about finding ways to deal with stress that didn’t involve running or riding – my only two well-developed coping mechanisms. I learned new coping mechanisms.
In my second sabbatical I sold my first free-lance work, but the theme of the sabbatical was about rediscovering what life I would build for myself if I had a chance to start over again – how did a choose to spend my time and what did that feel like when there was no work, no family, no calendar engagements, no horses, no dogs. What would I keep? What would I discard? What had I been doing out of habit, and what was I doing out of love?
So in the time of this sabbatical – with lots of time, no mental space, and nowhere to go – what is the theme?
The theme of my COVID-19 sabbatical revealed itself early, about the time I realized that my life and goals for the future were about to be shattered into unrecognizable pieces, despite everything at that moment functioning normally. It was incredibly surreal. A wave was coming and I could see it but everyone around me seemed oblivious to it cresting out there in the ocean, unstoppable, with our only choice to run for higher ground and hang on tight.
It was during this early phase that I was out riding my new bike (more on that later) and listening to podcasts and heard the two things that I’ve been holding onto tight and using as my guide.
The ability to adjust and change goals FAST.
Think of life and the economy as the ocean. The ocean is unpredictable and DOES NOT CARE. If you are sailing on the ocean, you adapt to the ocean, not the other way around.
I’m a long-range planner. Yes, I actually have goals and plans that are 20 years in the future that are concrete, achievable and have action items for right now. I also have short and medium term goals – what I want to happen with my riding and my running. When we will sell this house and move to an area we want to actually live in. How much money I need to save each year for my husband and I to have the life we dream of, while still enjoying life today. I have careful notations in my bullet journal and review my progress several times a year, making adjustments as needed.
What happened last month meant BIG adjustments. Not merely a squall that kept me in harbor for a couple extra days, this was a damn storm that swallowed up the coast line and sunk cities into the sea.
I could waste time despairing over the things I thought would happen in a certain way or at a certain time. Or, I can be a pragmatic and be quick to adapt. “Readjust your goals and readjust them quickly” was the advice of the podcast, and I have. Things got crossed off the list, dates got changed, and current projects got reviewed. Is there a certain anger and grief that goes along with giving up what I considered my achievable “best life”? Sure. Just like when I went blind in one eye, there was grief and anger that I didn’t get to finish out my life with two good eyes and binocular vision. I’m now limited in very concrete ways by only having one eye. This pandemic is a blow that I suspect I’ll feel for a long time and some things I really wanted won’t come to pass now. That’s just the way it is. Readjust, recalculate, keep moving.
Life is always unpredictable. People like to point this out as an obvious fact, but even if we intellectually KNOW this, our actions speak a lot louder. How reluctant we are to readjust and move on. When the future is dead, it’s dead. Recognize that your possible futures have changed and choose a new one.
Do the next right thing
This is what has kept me sane in my day-to-day life. While the first point is very useful to put what is happening in perspective, it doesn’t do anything to help me not feel paralyzed and overwhelmed today. “Do the next right thing” has become my mantra and is the true theme of this sabbatical.
Unlike previous sabbaticals that allowed me to hyper-focus on certain things that couldn’t be done in “regular” life, I can’t focus on anything right now. I can’t write, I can’t be creative, and I absolutely can’t be trusted to follow through on anything. As I’m writing this I’m looking at last night’s dinner leftovers on the counter that didn’t get put away – which is a shame because those left overs were supposed to feed us through the weekend. I somehow ate dinner, put my plate in the kitchen, and did my entire bed time routine WITHOUT IT CROSSING MY MIND ONCE THAT DINNER NEEDED TO BE PUT AWAY. **&&^%^%%$%^&.
Without mental space, time becomes meaningless. You are constantly doing, but nothing gets done.
Focusing on doing the next right thing is a way to break that cycle.
As a bonus, sometimes in extraordinary times, doing the next right thing is something you might have never considered doing before.
Should I take that shelter dog home that I spayed last week that doesn’t have a home?
Meet Honey. She’s a foster, but Fig is convinced she is hers. She’s settling in well and I don’t know if she’s here to stay, but this old girl with old dog problems (tumors) is here for now. I’ve never taken home one of my patients to stay, and I’ve never had a foster fail. I’ve never owned a small dog, and I swore I’d never own three dogs again. But here she is for now.
Should I impulse buy a new bike?
Sure. And let’s name it FTS and when it all becomes too much, I’lI hop on her and ride like the wind from my front door for a couple of hours. With a commitment to not traveling for training (essential travel = work, livestock care, doctor/pharmacy, or food shopping ONLY) any miles I want to do means miles that happen from my front door. Getting a road bike and GOING FAST is a consolation prize for losing my trails when I made the decision to follow the recommendations for essential outings only. I had never been on a road bike (“death traps!”) before last month but here I am learning about power watts, cadences, and the benefits of planning my routes with right hand turns.
Should I ride my horse?
No, at least not right now. Should I continue to visit? Yes. I’m their farrier, which is an essential service, and I’m their vet and while I do not feed daily, putting eyes on them regularly and evaluating them is something I need to do. Especially with a mare that has a history of a GTCT and another mare that has flare ups of allergic conjunctivitis.
Should I continue to pay my home day care provider even though she’s closed, but I’m still able to work?
Yes. I can’t save everyone, but I can do this small thing and have it be the right thing this month for both my family and for hers. Next month I’ll decide whether that is the next right thing to do at that time. But for now, it’s enough to focus on the NEXT right thing NOW. The thing after that will reveal itself when its the next thing, not the thing that will happen in 4 weeks after a lot of other things.
Should I reach out and video chat with my family daily?
My whole family is very much a “why call when you could text or email?” sort of family. Weeks or even months easily go by without contact. Group messages are very much the way to go. But yet somehow a couple weeks ago typing letters wasn’t enough and I initiated (*me*! the ultimate “please don’t call me and for the love of everything holy if you try to video chat me I will block you, that’s what texting is for” person. Yes, *I* initiated this) a DAILY video chat with my extended family. Because it was the next right thing to do.
Should I try to raise quail?
YES ABSOLUTELY THEY ARE CUTE AND WE CAN EAT THEM TOO. My husband isn’t convinced. We are currently debating whether this is the next best thing, or whether I’m just crazy.
40 min later he asked the obvious follow-up question:
It’s too early to tell what this sabbatical will produce. Maybe I’ll fall in love with a different outdoor sport and have the most unlikely dog added to my household. Maybe I find some mental space and I finish my fiction book with my co-author. Maybe I’ll finally succeed in doing a full dolphin pose during yoga. But, no matter with the “results” are, it won’t be because I made a check list of what I needed to accomplish during this time. It will be because I’ve stayed open to what this time has to teach me and because I tried to do the next best thing.
Last week on Facebook I came across a wonderful little list that has helped me immensely. It both makes sure the important things get done, and I get to the end of the day satisfied with how I spent my time – but also guards against me overestimating how much I think I can get done, which is a real danger considering that even right now my mind wants to mix up the concept of “time” with “mental space.” Maybe this list will help you too.
Here’s a bright lining to spending more time at my home. Ironically I bought the patio furniture I’ve been coveting for two years at the beginning of March, before all the madness started. Although I would prefer to enjoy with friends, being able to sit somewhere lovely outside during this has been a quiet pleasure.
PS. By the way, for people who think that the answer to humanities societal problems is to return to a quieter and slower time 100 years of more ago, I beg to differ. We are getting a taste of what was normal life back then. Lots of things could (and did) kill you and your family members. Medicine wasn’t all that effective. Let’s face it. Turn the clock back 100 years or more and you aren’t in high society – you are working class just like the majority of the populace was – so let’s not delude ourselves of what that life looked like. The survival mode our brains are operating in right now is how the human race has lived for much of its history. Low-level trauma that is associated with the struggle for basic survival and knowing that there were many ways to die while trying to fight for the best survival you could. It was a damnable lot of work to live 100 years or more ago, and while this plague thing is interesting on an epidemiological, population health, and psychological level – I’d rather read the carefully fact checked and edited version and get back to my modern, globally connected world and all the luxuries that entails.
Thank you for this. You’ve somehow managed to crystalise my own disordered thoughts and feelings – even some I hadn’t yet identified for myself. I have the huge good fortune to be in SW Western Australia, on a smallholding close to a little town where as yet the virus is yet to penetrate, but it’s coming. It feels like we are watching your wave but from such a remote perspective that even though we believe in its inevitability it is still occasionally possible to forget its existence. Both husband and I are in ‘essential’ work so that continues, but life is already hugely changed. Our two daughters are finding it stressful and this stress manifests itself in interesting ways. We are so lucky to have vast areas of bush on the doorstep so we don’t feel cooped up, but the horse is on hold while I figure out whether to ride or not at this time. (I say go for the little dog and the quail.) Stay safe and well and keep sharing. It really helps me to read what you have to say.
Oh good!!!! It’s the first time I’ve felt like writing in a month and I’m so glad it resonated.
Good post. “Do the right thing now, when I can, for as long as I can” has been a mantra of mine for a while. It’s been — good. And occasionally exciting. Keep it up Dr. Mel.
Yes, to all the things. And I can’t help with the quail or the dog or the car BUT if you get totally stuck on the dishwasher, I betcha you could videochat with my Santa Jim and he could help you troubleshoot.
You are making the right choices for you right now. Sometimes, the only right choice is to stay in bed, so you’re way ahead of some folks. Stay well.
Matt stripped the dishwasher all the way down and got the serial numbers off the two motor things so we could price them because it HAS to be one of those two motor things (or the mother board, in which case we will just buy another one) and then put it together again and plugged in all the little thingys…..AND IT WORKS. lmao. Small mercies. The motor things are 100-150 apiece so depending if it does it again we may replace those before replacing the whole thing (dishwasher is four years old). If it happens again I’m totally taking you up on Santa phone call.
Your brain and mine are in the same lane right now. “Can’t be creative” and “can’t be trusted to follow through” is my daily existence. It’s like I’m watching myself from a distant place in slow motion. I have huge amounts of time I didn’t have before “the virus” but beyond doing more yard and garden work I have little to show for it.
I have to think this feeling we have is a little like what horses feel in their normal existence. They cannot totally focus and relax and still be a prey animal. I think we are feeling like prey animals right now. We try to think beyond just meeting our daily needs but we feel an uneasiness and vulnerability that is just distracting enough or be almost paralytic.
Our KY Governor begins and ends every 5pm press conference by saying “we will get through this. We will get through this together”. And we will get through it because we are learning to think like herd animals.
This a very intuitive observation. I was thinking that this mindset must be similar to how it felt to feel death around every bend such as before drugs and modern medicine, but you are right – it’s also a symptom of being a prey animal. We aren’t behaving like the lions – calm and confident – we are the deer in the forest. Thank you for your thoughts. We will get through this.
Thanks for your blogs Mel! The strange part is the numbness that is pervasive. I feel like I can’t focus on anything in particular either. Trying to clear clutter is taking a lot longer than it should. Figuring out what steps to take in running the business is an every day task. Glad we don’t live 100 years ago for sure. I’m very thankful we have space around us, and can live comfortably. And your patio furniture looks great!
I live in town so likely less space than you, but I keep being so grateful I have a house with two living rooms (luxury!) and a backyard. My sister is in a small apartment. If we get locked down to the point where I can’t do the miles outside my house, it’s going to be unfortunate to do laps in my backyard ? but it’s not forever.
Spot on! It must run in the family. I do nothing yet am mentally drained. Every little project seems overwhelming and I don’t know where to start. That’s when I go for a walk, clear my head and refocus.
Love this post.
My partner and I are both public servants here in New Zealand. We’re both working from home. I’m grateful to both my organisations leadership and our central government – kindness has been a recurring theme.
I’m going to steal a couple of things from this post if you don’t mind – “doing the next right thing” and the wee list of things that you can do. I’m part of the team running our “cafe”/de-stress Teams area and I think a few people would find them helpful.
And thanks for reiterating something that we were talking about today – about the mental load being too high for many of us to do “extra”. A year ago I was celebrating being back at work full time after a severe concussion – with the increase in stress and screen time, I’m getting some of the lingering symptoms back. Luckily my work is ok with me rearranging my day to work around it.
Absolutley take from this post whatever you think will help others. Concussions are no joke…I got one falling off my bike in vet school and it was SOBERING how much a mild one affected the brain. Glad your work seems to be allowing you to take care of your self. Stay well 🙂