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Pockets of Joy

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, we should all agree on two things (besides the science of hygiene and vaccination, obviously): that this situation is truly awful, and that it has never been more important to cultivate little pockets of joy in our lives anywhere we can.

The light at the end of the tunnel is dim and seems to keep moving, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. Even the rollout of vaccines is being undermined by new virus variants that are riding the waves of spring fever to whip Michigan up into the country's hottest of hot spots for rising infections. Herd immunity feels like a pipe dream around here, especially because almost half the population still says they will refuse to get a vaccine. And children won't have a vaccine this year at all, so families with children won't be able to socialize safely with other families (without masks and social distancing) before the end of this year at least. My daughter already knows that she'll probably have another winter birthday without being able to invite her friends to celebrate. 

Children and parents everywhere just have to be sad and frustrated that large numbers of adults are still refusing to use public hygiene or get vaccinated, ensuring the rapid spread of increasingly deadly virus variants while spray-whining about their freedumbs. It is hard to maintain any kind of empathy for adults who think that getting drunk at bars and harassing waitstaff at chain restaurants are human rights, while children are somebody else's problem. (Is that how they were treated as kids? Is that why they are like this?)

The sad but undeniable truth is that America is not Australia (a country that also enjoys drinking at bars but sometimes thinks of the children too). American life will not return to a Before Times concept of normalcy anytime soon, if ever. All other civilized nations might get this thing under control, but only temporarily, until they let in American travelers. We are the undrainable cesspool of the world right now, and there is no easy way for an individual family to escape. No amount of denial or rebellion against facts will free us from this reality, so we need to find and to plant bitty little joys in every crevice that we can, to ride this thing out with our hearts and minds intact.

Over the past year, my husband and I have lost people to Covid, to despair and mental illness, and to reckless behavior. All survivors of the pandemic itself are also survivors of grief and trauma. And with many of our usual social supports gone and not returning, lost to death or to madness or to online cults or radicalized hate groups or conspiracy theories, the rest of us need to take more responsibility than ever for our own care and the care of our own families and closest loved ones.

We are collectively going through the Anniversary Effect, whether we are self-aware or not. It's very easy for me to look at disgusting public behavior and direct my rage and blame toward individuals, but I know that a lot of people are simply not strong enough to handle the overwhelming truth of what is happening. Rather than react in anger directly to delusional or pathologically selfish people, which isn't an effective way to help, I try to tap into my pity and disgust instead so that I can delete/hide/block and start forgetting they exist. I've dropped a lot of people out of my life, likely permanently, after witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly that this past year has brought out of different kinds of people. My family members and closest friends and I have moved into a defensive circle like bison protecting our most vulnerable ones inside, our horns out. Our children will survive, and they will not grow up weak and vile like all the apocalypse zombies who are ruining American life for everyone else right now.

At the same time, I have been inspired and touched and heartened by some people's actions, from a distance, and I look forward to making new friends and reaching out to certain acquaintances more than I did before--after it is finally safe for my daughter and her friends. After many weak connections have been cut, I think we'll have a chance to form a fresh network of care with proven strong people who we can truly trust, respect, and admire.

For another year, those of us with children and other dependents who cannot be vaccinated are still mostly on our own to manage our daily habits that support our mental and physical health. Here we go again, with or without the mass baking of banana bread and the showing-our-work on Zoom. We have tried a lot of new things over the past year, and it's time to assess what worked, what didn't, what we liked best, and what backfired.

The word "self-care" has been ruined by the marketing of self-indulgence luxuries, so I am pivoting to talking about "pockets of joy." Sometimes bad things happen, and we can't escape or fix them in the short term, but we can always focus on simple little joys to get us through. Sometimes that's the best we can do. And I believe that once the pandemic is over (and it will be, sometime), those of us who became experts at cultivating our joy-pockets (heh heh) will live the rest of our lives stronger and happier than ever, having become experts at the fine art of realistic optimism.

Healthline provides a list of ideas for little pockets of joy, and it should be noted that this is just an example, not a prescriptive list for every person. If any "self-care" tasks feel burdensome to you, they probably aren't a good fit. For example, Healthline suggests:

  1. Bake something yummy. 

    I love baking and cooking, but I hate dietary crazes, panic over product shortages, and wasting food. So I refused to prepare any recipe that was trending over the past year. I like to make a big batch of something and share via porch pickup, but if everyone is fighting over yeast and then baking so much bread that people are using the stale loaves for the bricks they still can't source, I'm going to make a big pot of soup instead.

  2. Catch up on your watch list.

    Binging a favorite show or watching an awe-inspiring film is nice, but I refuse to watch anything that feels like a chore, and I prefer not to potato out on the couch too much.

  3. Brighten your space.

    If buying yourself cut flowers sincerely brings you joy, have at it. If buying unnecessary decorative items in a global crisis horrifies you, I feel that. I'm keeping my house clean and comfy, and sometimes I like to reorganize something or switch around objects I already have, but I'm enjoying this total break from entertaining others. It will be fun to have friends over again one day, but this is my time to truly not care about whether my decorative pillows are on trend or whether the kitchen smells like hot roasted garlic. At this time, it feels more relaxing for me to discard things and simplify my possessions than to shop for more.

    That said, I'm looking forward to using my sweet stimulus money to make long-needed home repairs and renovations that will make it bearable to go another year without travel or getting out of the house much.

  4. Get moving.

    Exercise is 100% essential, and there are so many different ways to vigorously move your body that you never have to do anything you hate (unless it's physical therapy, I guess). If it hurts or you've gotten bored with what you're doing, try something else. You can run in the woods, stretch in the living room, dance in the kitchen, climb the walls, whatever. I walk my daughter to and from school, do chores every day, and garden, and we take family bike rides when the weather is nice. I have a natural baseline of moderate activity, so any formal exercise I do is extra rather than something I must add to a to-do list.

    I've learned to be good at quitting when a physical activity or exercise regimen no longer sparks joy, and that too is healthy. I think of quitting as a chance to try out something new.

  5. Get some R&R.

    Sometimes mindset is everything. If you can let go of the urge to hustle or the guilt over taking a break, you're already winning quarantine. The quality of your rest time is as important as whatever quantity you can manage.

  6. Enjoy silence.

    Or nature sounds. Just skip any meditation practice that makes you feel more tense, not less. There is no one right way to do it. Sometimes getting into the flow of a run or a creative activity induces more relaxation than sitting with your dread and the echoes of your inner screams, and that's okay. The only wrong way to meditate is to continue forcing a routine on yourself that doesn't work.

  7. Get lost in a good story.

    Reading fiction is undeniably good for the mind and spirit, but make sure you read the books you truly want to read, not someone else's list. You don't have to share with others what you're reading, but you can easily find a Zoom book club if you'd like that. If you join a book club, just make sure it's real and not a lame, jokey cover for mutual alcoholism. Novels are a healthier escape than turning into a soggy, middle-aged whino mom stereotype. Not that I'm judging. Just kidding. Reading literary fiction builds both empathy and sound judgment, which are both good things. You can have compassion for Doris the Drunk and also take pride in doing better than that.

  8. Run yourself a hot bath.

    Or a long, indulgent shower. No flower petals or stinky candles are necessary. But cleanliness and immersion in water or steam are wonderfully therapeutic, and everyone deserves a routine ritual of hygiene and renewal.

  9. Play dress up.

    Or don't! Wear whatever you feel like. One day I put on an apron and high heels to cook dinner to give my husband a thrill when he came home from work. Most days, I practice gratitude for my small-chested freedom from having to wear a bra. I have nearly forgotten what it feels like to wear uncomfortable pants or real shoes, and I'm honestly not that nostalgic about it.

  10. Be creative.

    Knitting, sewing, and needlework are not for me. I have zero patience for nailing picture-perfect pastries. I don't want to invest in oil paints. I've written two big novels that I'm proud of, and I don't feel like writing another right now. So I write this silly blog and cook ugly, delicious dinners and draw up home renovation sketches and dystopian-chic garden plans, and these activities please me. Find whatever gets you into a flow state, whether that's playing music or writing Italian poetry or power-washing your siding, and allow yourself to revel in it.


Speaking of this blog, I am starting a new series! Every Thursday beginning this week, I will highlight a Pocket of Joy that isn't as obvious as the self-care practices listed above. As you can tell, I'm no Susie Sunshine, but I refuse to be a Debbie Downer. I will continue to dig up dirt in all of the dark corners of life, but I'm also going to add a little compost and plant some happy little flower seeds. Why waste all the wonderful muck of life? If you're into that sort of thing, come back and give the Magic Nutshell a crack every Thursday for a gorgeous baby moment of joy found in an unexpected place.


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