With Forethought of Grief: Coping With Anxiety Through Nature and Poetry

Tall evergreen trees in the foreground. Mountains visible in the distance through a clearing. Blue sky.
Photo from my recent visit to the Pacific Northwest

Here’s how good I am at hosting anxiety. I will let a worry trigger a stress reaction — dry mouth, tight throat, racing heart. And in the middle of this, I’ll take it up a notch by fretting about whether I’m using my life’s allotment of heartbeats through these panic attacks. How many days did that episode just subtract from my lifespan? Unsurprisingly, this line of thought does nothing to allay my symptoms.

Two things that do help me cope, though, are nature and poetry. A hike in the woods is the best medicine ever, but not something always available to me. However, even paying attention to a wildflower valiantly blossoming through a crack in the sidewalk can help still my mind, reset my internal rhythm.

Poetry has been a constant touchstone throughout my life, a supportive companion for any feeling, mood or circumstance. “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry is one I turn to often. The words in it that really anchor me are “…wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief…”

Maybe this poem will help you, too, in some way.

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

-Wendell Berry

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Seeing My Kid in His Chosen Stomping Grounds

The hubs, my younger son, and I just returned from the longest trip we’ve taken since 2011, a week spent visiting my firstborn in his adopted hometown of Bellingham, Washington. It was my first ever visit to the state, and every turn I made presented an opportunity for a postcard-quality photo. I understand now why he loves it so much and will probably never leave the Pacific Northwest.

Person's hand holding a colorful seashell
Showing me a colorful shell.

He was eager to share with us his delight in the natural wonders of the area. Like so many folks in these difficult years, my two kids have both had their struggles, leading me at times to lie awake at night questioning every parenting decision I’ve ever made. But seeing my grown-up son in absolute child-like bliss while investigating tide pools and telling me everything he knew about the life forms in them helped me resolve some of those angsty feelings. Here was solid evidence that we did some things right raising our kids.

Though we always had enough to meet our needs, we didn’t always have a ton of money for extras. I didn’t sign the offspring up for a lot of organized activities with associated fees. But my husband and I are big believers in outdoor play and exploration. Family vacations were often camping trips to state parks, where we hiked and did cave tours and listened to park rangers give presentations about area wildlife. Our kids never went to summer camp, but we spent a lot of time taking them to parks and places with rocks and creeks, where they could investigate and learn organically. When many of their teen peers took a rather pricey science trip to the Grand Tetons, we acquired the needed maps and supplies to go orienteering locally as a family. Firstborn, especially, always took a keen interest in any member of the animal kingdom, from tiny to huge.

My heart grew three sizes during our trip, seeing the child inside the man. The same things still bring him joy. His finances are a bit ragged currently, but he has heaven in the form of a rocky beach a thirty minute walk from his house. “Imagine, for you this is a fabulous vacation, but I have this available as part of my daily life,” he said.

The only “nightlife” activity we did during our visit was a midnight visit to a beach where we could wade out and see bioluminescent plankton, a magical experience. We didn’t sign up for any tours and kept shopping mostly to food. The one real touristy day we spent was a trip down to Seattle for the Van Gogh Immersive Experience (amazing!) and a quick visit to Pike Place (collectively our purchases amounted to a sheet of stickers — lol.) For the most part, we spent the family time much as we did in the old days, climbing around on rocks, splashing in the water, exploring nature. It was good medicine.

I Say Hi to My House Plants Now

Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus I received from a friend who was moving. In six months, it should have flowers.

For much of my life, I joked that I have a brown thumb, that my house is where green things come to die. But something’s changed in the past few years. I’ve started keeping house plants alive. A while ago, I decided to try the experiment of talking to them to see if it would help them do more than cling to the last vestiges of life and actually begin thriving.

I believed it was hokum, even as I started doing it. But it turns out my three indoor specimens of indoor potted vegetation have perked up, greened up, and look truly healthy. It’s not because I say good morning to them every day. It’s because putting this practice into my daily routine reminds me to open the curtains to give them sunlight, along with checking the soil to see if they need water.

When I pass by one of my plants and ask “How ya doing today?” they don’t know it means I care. My utterances don’t provide the self esteem needed for mental and physical health, as it they would for humans. But making a point of interacting with my plants does cause me to notice if any leaves are turning brown and need pinched off, to think about how long it’s been since I put plant food spikes in the dirt.

The words I’m saying don’t matter. Or do they? I’m convinced my plants would have responded in the same way had I said nothing to them at all. But would I have responded to them in the same way? Become as nurturing? Noticed their needs? Speaking to them reminds me they are indeed living things that need attention and care. Maybe this is a tiny example of how we change the world by changing ourselves.

I just told the Christmas cactus on my desk that I’m posting its photo on the internet. Since it didn’t object, I’m going to go ahead and click that “publish” button.

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Redirecting My Toddler Brain

Monarch caterpillar on a green milkweed plant.
See it there in the middle? It’s going to be a monarch some day.

I have a brain that doesn’t like to stop. It’s like a toddler at a playground, running from one structure to another, never wanting to rest because there’s so much to explore. I’ve been experiencing a fair amount of stress in my life lately, sending my mind into a frenzy of anxiety. Instead of fun and joyful discovery, my mind has been peering into all the dark nooks and crannies to see what terrible things might be lurking there. World and national news doesn’t help. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights, bad dreams when I do sleep, and an often racing heart, with none of my usual measures really working for me.

It took a while, but I managed to get set up with a counselor. During one visit I mentioned the tricks I use on myself to keep from doomscrolling the internet. But as I spilled out my worries for the present and future, he said, “Sounds like you’re doomscrolling your mind instead.”

I expected him to give me tips for how to stop or at least slow down my mind. But he told me that might not be my best approach. “Your ability to think so much and imagine possibilities is a super power,” he told me. “Instead of trying to stop your thoughts, you need to teach your brain to imagine the positive possibilities and notice the things that are going right more often.”

Huh.

I went home, thought it over, and realized he was telling me to treat my brain like a toddler. Anyone who has raised one of those small humans knows that saying “don’t” is usually futile. Instead of saying “Don’t climb on the refrigerator,” you offer an alternate activity. “Let’s play with toy cars on the floor.” Redirect, redirect, redirect. I have lots of practice at this. I understand it.

The photo above, the milkweed with a monarch caterpillar, is something I told my mind to notice going right. I first planted milkweed two years ago, hoping to attract and nurture monarch butterflies. I have seen a couple of adults flitting about before, but this is the first actual caterpillar I’ve seen. I’m so excited. It’s working exactly how I hoped it would. My brain would like to dwell on my various failures, but hey, let’s look at the ecology project that’s succeeding instead.

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Mother’s Day: State Your Wishes Edition

A funny thing happened partway through my motherhood journey. One day I realized I was more likely to get what I wanted if I stated it out loud instead of expecting anyone to read my mind. I’m not saying I’ve ever been guaranteed to get what I wanted, but I have become a big believer in clear, specific communication. Saying something along the lines of “just surprise me” is asking for trouble.

I don’t generally care for a big hullabaloo on Mother’s Day. Mostly, I’d like not to cook and to have some time to relax. I’m very clear that I have no desire to be in a crush of people waiting in line somewhere for brunch or dinner. Even pre-pandemic, the crowds were too much for me.

I guess I forgot to tell my employer the wish to relax part because they scheduled me to work this afternoon. However, I was very specific with my husband that I would like donuts from the new bakery that opened a few blocks from our house recently. So here’s my celebration before I head out to be of service to others:

Assorted donuts in a box.
Just what I asked for! I’m not eating them all. The box was for the household.

Happy Mother’s Day to all who play a mothering role in someone’s life. Remember, you’re occasionally allowed to speak up and say out loud what you want.

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Frozen Pizza Putting on Airs

Do you ever think about catching up with an old friend, but then feel overwhelmed with where even to begin? Everything seems either too monumental to explain or too trivial to bring up. That’s how I feel about this blog right now. However, let’s go with something trivial and frivolous.

I try to strike a balance in our diets around here between healthful, from-scratch, lots o’ veggies fare and a few indulgences. Sometimes I just want a frozen store-brand pizza because it’s easy and it’s what I want. It’s a certain kind of comfort food and I’m honest with myself about it. But then the pizza goes putting on airs.

Cooking instructions from a pizza box.
You’re still just a store-brand frozen pizza.

Oh, frozen pizza. Sigh. I didn’t buy you expecting an Instagram influencer or a renowned chef. Oooh, serve on a plate as they do in the fine restaurants! How fancy! You don’t have to be pretentious with me. Just be yourself. I love you exactly for who you are.

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We Have Stairs!

It finally happened! A year after we started the process of trying to get our front stairs redone, here they are.

Concrete steps
Ever seen anything so beautiful?

I won’t repeat everything our contractor said about the old stairs nor how he maligned the long-ago person who built them. He assures us, “These are done right.”

No more daily worries about whether our mail carrier survived the journey to our porch and back. And I’ve had the opportunity the past few weeks to pick up more work than usual on both of my jobs, so we’re even able to pay for it.

I keep a running list of home repairs and projects that need done, but I’m not even going to look at it for the next month or so. I’m just going to bask in the glory of these steps.

The Stairs Are Out!

The hubs and I are living the dream over here in our vintage house. This dream:

The Money Pit

About a year ago, we started looking for a contractor who could rebuild these things:

The stairs leading to our front porch.

We’ve had a number of people out to look at them over the months. Some bigger outfits thought the job was too small to be worthwhile. Some handyperson types told us the job was too big for them to take on. A few contractors said they’d get back to us with an estimate and then ghosted us. We had begun to despair of ever finding anyone to tackle the project.

But a coworker’s husband who does various home repairs (and had told us the job was too big for him) was assisting a concrete and foundation guy on a job in our neighborhood a few weeks back and brought him by to show him the stairs. Turns out foundation guy was between big jobs and looking for small jobs to fill in while waiting for some paperwork to go through on a project with the city. He said he’d do it!

All we had to do was give him half of all the money we owned to start and then the other half of all our money when he finished. I exaggerate, but not by much. At this point, hearing similar stories from friends, we figure the contractors can set their prices for whatever. The stairs needed to be rebuilt before someone was injured on them. I myself nearly took a tumble one day when a chunk broke under my foot.

We wrote him an enormous check and he began demolishing the old stairs the very next day. That was…a while ago.

Chunks of concrete in trailer
The remnants of our crumbling concrete stairs

The hard part is done — taking out and hauling away the old stairs. It was loud and our cat was terrorized. But we celebrate every inch of progress. When it happens. I keep saying, “The trailer is still in our yard. He has to come back at least once, right?”

Of course, this being the lower Midwest, the weather isn’t exactly stable. We’ve had repeated cycles of 60-degree days followed by snow storms. So that’s slowed the work down. But during our last unseasonably warm day, some forms got built. We now have a hint of stairs to come.

Wood forms built for new stairs

And there it sits while we wait for the latest snow to melt.

About five more inches fell after this picture was taken.

Good thing we have two other doors in and out of the house. Surely this will be done before summer. Right? Someone tell me I’m right! I’m already planning to use some vacay time from work to repaint all this. I have a vision of stairs that are both safe and spiffy.

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First First of 2022: Wordle

Remember how I was going to try new things and have more firsts in 2022. Here’s the first first of the year. It’s the game all the cool kids are playing – Wordle. I had never attempted to solve one until yesterday.

This is a graphic of my progress as I guessed the five-letter word.

If you’d like to try, here’s the site.

I love word games. The simplicity of this one appeals to me a lot. I like that it’s free and there are no ads. And I especially like that there’s one word per day, so I don’t get sucked into an endless vortex that shreds my to-do list. I don’t need any extra help with that.

New thing number one in the books!

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Goals and Priorities for the New Year

Trail
Oh, look. It’s the path to the future!

I’ve been thinking about where I want my focus to be in 2022. I tend to set one modest, concrete goal each January 1 with the self-knowledge that my ability to think up great ideas far outstrips my ability to follow through on all of them. I can easily overwhelm myself and give up trying anything at all if I set out to do too much. For example, one year my goal was to establish the habit of taking reusable bags to the grocery store. That was the one self-improvement task I assigned myself, and by not letting it get lost in the noise of a thousand other efforts, I was able to make this single positive change a part of my routine to the point that I usually don’t even have to think about it anymore. The next year, I could move on to a new single goal.

This year, I believe I’m going to extend myself a little and set goals in more than one area and maybe not keep it as specific to one action. The first and most important involves climate change. I haven’t generally gotten into “issues” too much on this blog, but I believe every one of us needs to make sustainability our top priority. My sort of nebulous aim is to remain mindful of my actions and to continue to educate myself. A concrete goal is to foster more native pollinator plants in my yard. In addition, I am on the newly formed Sustainability Committee at my workplace and we’re in the first steps of working up a plan there to put in a mix of more environmentally-friendly plants than the swaths of uniformly green grass we have now.

Moving on to the personal, I have been pondering how easy it is to let your life shrink. I grapple with anxiety a lot and I’ve discovered that with all the not going out except to work and the grocery store has inculcated in me a whole new level of dread around things that used to be fun or at least neutral. I’ve been hunkering down in my ruts because they’re familiar and feel safe and predictable, which is okay some of the time as a way to recharge. But it’s also a way to wither. So I’m going to spend 2022 trying to do and learn new things, to experience more firsts.

The great thing about this as a goal is that it’s really pretty easy. For instance, there are a lot of great walking and biking trails in my area. I’m going to explore a bunch of them this year. A new experience can be as simple as cooking and/or eating a food I haven’t tried before. It can be listening to a musician recommended by a friend. It can mean identifying a bug I see in my yard and learning about it. Or trying a simple craft project. There’s a whole universe of firsts always waiting, no matter how old I get.

I’m hoping to hold myself accountable by posting here at least once a month about what new things I’ve tried, even if I’m the only one who reads it later. I hope I have something fun and interesting to report. Talk to you again after I’ve gone and done some stuff.

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