Op/Ed

Lessons in listening: Balancing adversity with joy

Knowing someone well inevitably means intimately knowing their habits as well. Each morning, my partner pours his coffee up to the very edge of his cup’s rim. Next he does a half forward bend, extending his body into much of our small kitchen’s width. Finally, he slurps. Loudly. Regardless of the knowledge of the certainty of this daily performance, my daughter and I continue to watch and relentlessly express dismay. So begins a morning on King Street.
As would be expected, we have recently had the opportunity to observe each other’s habits in great detail. Some habits, such as the morning slurp, have sustained the upheaval of the previous life routine whereas other habits, such as donning regular pants, have proved less useful of late and therefore have simply faded away. 
In speaking with many patients and clients on phone and video calls recently, this form of adaptation has been a vital component of self care for them as well. If it works, they keep it. If it doesn’t, they let it go. If yesterday’s wisdom doesn’t work today, they reassess and pivot. Holding lightly to our world of expectations and hope has become an essential practice these days. As we all bring various approaches to meeting life’s challenges, I have been curious as to how others have shifted their patterns and made sense of the continued changing circumstances. Here are the common themes my inquiry has revealed.
We are acknowledging loss. 
This isn’t the life that many of us would have chosen and a normal response to loss is grief, with all it’s necessary stages. One older patient I spoke with discussed her anger. She wasn’t feeling grateful for her safe home or full pantry of supplies, she was angry and grieving the loss of self-determination and her connection with others. She didn’t want to make lemons out of lemonade, she wanted to smash her windows with those darn lemons. So, she let her anger be present — she talked about it, she wrote about it, and stomped around about it. 
As with any emotion, when it is fully experienced, it has a shelf life. With time, she started to note a shift. In the anger there were also other emotions — fear and loneliness — and she let those be there too. Another woman I know created a visual way for her family to express loss. They drew coffins and then wrote in each one what made them sad. One child was grieving not seeing his friends. Another child was missing playing on the school playground. The mother was grieving not being able to be with her parent who has a terminal illness. The appropriate response to all of these circumstances was to feel loss and allow themselves the opportunity to experience their feelings. In turn, this gave more space for both letting go and letting be.
We are accepting “good enough.” 
In my home, each day begins with a piece of blank white paper. We then forage through Ellie’s big basket of colorful markers and create our individual lists for the day. The content of the lists varies by family member, but usually includes activities such as taking a walk, raking, playing ukulele, folding laundry and, on a lucky day, showering. In addition, the lists have drawings — most recently of flowers, mandalas and vegetables. The lists are less about accomplishment and more about intention. How do we want to live today? What activities can we engage in that will add meaning to our lives? At the end of the day the lists are recycled, regardless of what has or hasn’t been crossed off. The following day we start with a new piece of blank white paper, open to a new day and new possibility.
The familiar conversation I have had with my patients echoes this sentiment — this time doesn’t have to be perfect or graceful. In actuality, life never did have to be either of these and rarely was, and thankfully many are giving themselves the freedom to be real about that fact.
We are creating meaning.
Not surprisingly, Vermonters are overwhelmingly finding meaning in the outside world and fortuitously the emergence of spring in our rural state supports our capacity to be outdoors. Our yards are no doubt going to be Home & Garden worthy by high summer and my medical partner and I joke that we no longer need to write scripts for our patients to exercise daily. The local trails and state parks provide enough space for families to walk at safe distances from one another and just put one foot in front of the other and breath. Our immediate lives may look unfamiliar, but the sun is still shining on our flowing rivers and the understated trillium is quietly making its yearly spring appearance. We can find comfort as we bear witness to these cycles of growth and change.
We are also finding meaning in art, music, writing and general creative expression. In our home, this time’s song track will forever be marked by an unexpected oldie by the Drifters. My daughter has been soulfully belting out “Under The Boardwalk” while strumming the ukulele for weeks now. Another friend’s daughter has been expressing herself in the kitchen. Their family may have had to consume some half-raw baking experiments, but they are making memories nonetheless. 
Of particular interest to me, is that I’m hearing folks getting a little more comfortable with just not doing anything. One gentleman remarked that a new routine for his wife and him is to just sit and talk with each other in the late afternoons. The conversations are without agenda and he has noticed a shared sense of peace and connection. He inspired me to pull one of my Willem Lange short story collections off the shelf with the possibility of an evening family read. 
We are finding ways to balance adversity with joy, and noticing the sweetness of simplicity. This isn’t easy, but we are finding a way forward individually and collectively. Thank you for being my community, people. 
Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Health Coach at her new practice, Village Health. Learn more about Village Health at villagehealthvt.com.

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