I turned 52 on Wednesday. My birthday always falls in the greyest of weeks, where even people who are close to me sometimes lose track of the date (one year, my mother called me the day AFTER my birthday, certain that it was the right day). My birthday always prompts a lot of reflection and exploration of where I am right now in my life — in some ways, most years, the greyness helps me focus.
This year, the usual February greyness has deeper clenching fingertips, with the sense of global political chaos and uncertainty, and a thin overlay of anxiety and fear for many people. Susan wrote last week about running as an antidote to despair. Tracy wrote about how odd it feels to be thinking about “frivolous” things like eyelashes when the world feels so uncertain. A lot of people I know are feeling very personally off balance, worried that what they have taken for granted around “progress” has been a bit of an illusion. One of my friends said the other day, “I don’t think feeling this much hate can be good for me!”
I think she’s right. This birthday, I spent a lot of time pondering my own sense of balance, what kind of self-care I’m practicing, and the effect that’s having. I actually started a few new practices on January 1st, all of which were about adding mindfulness and fitness space to my day to day life. My hope was that it would get me through the grey winter; I’m finding these things are actually really helpful scaffolds through uncertainty, and they help keep catastrophizing at bay. In no particular order, here are eight practices keeping me relatively balanced right now.
#1: Looking at the world with a photographer’s eye
Since January 1st, I’ve been taking at least one photo a day that requires me to notice something and find a perspective that might be worth sharing. I did the 365 photo project a few years ago, and found that I looked at the world differently when I had a more contemplative photographer’s eye open in my day to day life. Not all photos are brilliant, but this practice does make me scan for a beautiful sunrise or sunset or shaft of light or angle of a staircase, and it makes me pause. And there I am, deeply present in a moment.
#2: Mindfully connecting with my cat
My second daily mindful thing is to spend intentional time playing with my cat. Usually, I give her half-assed attention, petting her on my lap while I work or bending down for a minute or so when she bunny-stretches for me when I get home. Giving her focused attention, often just before bed, calms us both. We play fish stick and jingle mouse and I do nothing but pet her. Sometimes she’s even the beautiful thing I photograph (though she actually tries to knock the phone out of my hand if she thinks I’m texting when I should be paying attention to her).
#3: Writing one page every night in a small gratitude journal
It seems hokey, but like playing with Emmylou, gratitude journaling reframes me before I try to sleep. Sometimes my notes are big things about people, or how grateful I am to do significant work — and sometimes they’re tiny things I am really noticing for the first time — like the comforting noise of the furnace in my cosy apartment, or the way it feels to crawl into clean sheets. This is less about looking “on the bright side” and more about really noticing the things around me that make up the life I most want, the things (not always easy or pleasurable) that help me be the person I most want to be.
Since I started doing this regularly, I’ve noticed that when I omit it, I’m much more likely to churn through anxieties as I fall asleep. Apparently, it actually rechannels my neural pathways in a good way.
#4. 217 Workouts in 2017
Sam posted about this “217 workouts in 2017” thing she and I are doing, along with our friend Joh and a bunch of other people. Really, it’s just a public commitment to working out 217 times this year, with a facebook group where we post our workouts. Simple accountability — but like my photo project and gratitude journal, I can actually see whether or not I’ve done the thing. If I haven’t posted in the group for a couple of days, I do some kind of workout. Simple motivator, and it genuinely does force me to do things like haul myself out of bed for a quick 630 am run on a busy day, walk when I might otherwise drive, or hit a spinning class at an “inconvenient” time if I means I can see Sam and Joh.
#5: Making Friends with the Gym
At this time of year, committing to working out means I have to make friends with the gym. The gym and I have a pretty contested relationship generally. I mostly belong to gyms to have access to treadmills and spinning bikes when I can’t easily get outside. For years I had small gyms in my condo buildings, but my current building doesn’t. For a while I belonged to a scruffy gym right across the street, but I didn’t like being there. I made the decision to join the Y a few months ago, and in some ways it’s a gym-y as it gets — but I can go to any location, which is good for squeezing in a workout between meetings, and there are classes for when I’m totally unmotivated, and I actually like being among a lot of people all sweating and jumping. In this gym incarnation, I do stuff I wouldn’t normally do. And that is a good thing.
(Except for bootcamp. Don’t do that. It’s everything you ever hated about gym class, but with people 25 years younger than you. And you won’t be able to go down stairs without wincing for three days. I’m just sayin’).
#6 Leaning into community and connections that matter
I’ve been making an effort to spend time with people who make me feel like the version of me I most like. I spent the weekend of the Women’s March with my family in Ottawa, and was happy to have my sister and nieces with me for what felt like history. And my other sister has a brand new baby, and well, there’s nothing better.
#7: Self- and other-nourishment
Woven into the people connections is attention to food. Las weekend, Catherine wrote about self-nourishment as a huge part of fitness. And in February, in a grey time, it’s even more important. I bought cupcakes for people for my birthday week, I had dinner with three women I’ve been having dinner with once a year for 24 years, my cousin flew in a day early for a business trip so she could have a birthday dinner with me, and I have made many friend-and-loved-ones dining plans to stretch through February. Connection and shared self-nourishment.
#8. Choosing joy, extending gratitude
All of this is similar to what Chloe wrote about last week — do things that give you joy. My business partner (and good friend) turned 50 recently, and had a birthday party shaped around what gives him joy. He had an early, kid-friendly party (he has a 7 year old), we all ate lasagne and cake, and we sang songs that make him happy. Singing — and his delight in singing — made us all joyful.
On my 50th birthday, two years ago, he made me a little jar filled with 50 slips of paper, each of which named something that he appreciated about me. I did the same thing for his 50th, plus brought an empty jar and a few stacks of post it notes to his party. By the end of the night, the second jar was also full, and I even had four notes in my own pocket from a sweet mutual friend. And I’ve noticed that since I spent the time writing out all the notes — I actually had more than 50 — I keep noticing the things he does that I appreciate, that make me feel more able to me the person I want to be, do our work well. I am reminded every day how lucky I am to have a work partner I can be so creative and authentic with, and who I can depend on.
My little set of balancing practices isn’t prescriptive. People need to do what works for them to find balance – whether it’s creating a peaceful ring around a mosque, meditation, hosting a pizza and protest session, ski-racing down a hill, taking political stances, taking a media hiatus, building a blankie fort, going dancing, or making contributions to the ACLU. But I know that for me, the types of practices that things that make me slow down and notice what grounds me, what comforts me, what connects me — these things build my resilience, balance me. And that means I can step back and write thoughtful posts, call the Prime Minister’s Office, be present for my clients and the people around me, try to find a clear throughline that makes sense of a shifting world.