Autumn’s Short Reflection #1

Dear Readers,

I have blog post drafts that don’t seem appropriate in the context of this autumn, 2020.  I don’t know about you, but I can easily feel that I am a little boat tossed about in a wild sea.  There are few calm days; almost every day is filled with news of upcoming elections, of political ploys, Covid-19, wildfires, hurricanes, economic struggle, loneliness and isolation. (And that might be a short list!)  

While stories of hope, beauty, courage and community building may be more difficult to find, they’re present, like treasure in the bottom of the sea, and we may have to work a little harder to find them and allow them to balance out the blaring, often negative headlines.

I persist in believing that whatever happens this fall, and into the winter and beyond, we are more sturdy and resilient than we know. If we are feeling tossed about, we must go deeper to get anchored, must find and use all available internal and external resources to manage and maybe, at times, even do well in this season of chaos and uncertainty. 

So I’m going to post short, quickly written poems that reflect my own process and observations for the next while. I hope you can find something in here to relate to.

Today’s is about my little side garden, because nothing calms me more than watching life’s trustworthy cycles through the lens of tending to soil.

September 2020

Last days to comfortably sit
on porch or patio,
the breeze cool,
the angle of light slanting,
whispering “darker, colder, slower.”

The tomato plants are browning
the cucumbers have been pulled,
the beans are barely producing.

But the zinnias remain colorful and lush,
orange, magenta, pink and poppy-red.

And the snow peas are racing
up their trellis
as if fully planning to beat
the first frost
with sweet, plump pods.

The garden is clueless about Covid.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, September 2020

Transitions: Taking My “Baby” to College

In mid-July, my son receives his email from the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Office outlining their complicated and lengthy protocols to safely bring new and returning students to this university campus in August 2020.  

Suddenly it’s real. After four months of shutting down, staying home, washing hands, wearing masks and being really careful, my 18-year-old is preparing to move into a dorm and start college with thousands of other students.

My heart lurches in my chest – this is my baby – heading off to college in a pandemic.  He’s had enough disappointments this year – cancelled high school musical, cancelled Spanish trip to New York City, cancelled theater workshop, cancelled prom, cancelled typical high school graduation. He’s philosophical but also cynical, the cynicism protecting future potential disappointments, and he muses, “ Isn’t it likely that just as I settle down into college life, this too will be cancelled by sending students home?”

It’s a bet he’s taking, after considering a gap year, and his father and I respect his choice.  And since he’s planning on going, our task is to help him shop for college necessities, to enjoy these last weeks together as a family under one roof, and to hold sorrow and excitement in some simmering stew in my heart.

I remember my dad and mom driving me to college in 1980.  I was the last of three daughters to go and the college I chose was 350 miles from home.  I remember being irritated and embarrassed that my mother cried; what was the big deal?  Now of course, I understand.  Boy do I understand.  Already, tears well up at odd times – tears of pride that he’s an honors student and going to the school of his choice. (And only one hour away!) Tears of sadness and fear.  I know how much we’ll miss him.

Transitions are hard.  Many of us like routine, predictability, and stability;  when those are shaken, we get shook up.  Add the current pandemic, the racial protests, the erratic and unpredictable leadership from our elected officials, and this transition has the potential to really rock the boat.

Here’s what I’m doing, to the best of my ability, in this transition:

  • Maintaining the routines and practices that help sustain and ground me – still rising early for meditation, exercising and working in the garden, then getting enough rest and connecting with friends.
  • Doing my best to prepare for the transition while also knowing that I won’t think of everything.  There will be bumps, emotions will swell.  I’ll figure it out.
  • Soliciting support from family and friends; we’re all in this together when it comes to transitions.
  • Giving myself time to process emotions – to feel joy, excitement, sadness, fear. Allow them to be, knowing they will ebb and flow and eventually quiet down.

Someone turned the calendar on the side of the fridge to August.  Viscerally and immediately, more anxiety kicks in.  I know that underneath is grief, joy, worry, hope – the whole lovely mix of emotion.  I remember this when my daughter left for college. 

Most of the “stuff” on the “what to bring to college lists” has been purchased.  We’ve got a move-in day and time and by 2 pm in two Sundays we’ll be driving away, leaving our 18-year old in his dorm, ready as he can be to start school in a pandemic.

He continues to go about his summer routine:  moving lawns and working at a local pool.  Lounging in the living room recliner as he plays a game on his iPad while also listening to something on his phone.  Vacuuming the house every week, washing up the supper dishes every night. Hanging out with friends, socially distanced, of course, and ordering takeout.  Drawing some.

I find that I cannot fathom how quiet and different the house will be without him here.  How weird it will be.

Greg does a few final fun activities with friends, transfers his mowing jobs to his dad, and buys a few last things.  Then he begins a week-long required quarantine before arriving on campus next Sunday.  We plan a final family evening with a take-out meal of his choice.  I refrain from telling him things that are my anxiety, not his,  “Don’t let your laundry sit in the washer, don’t forget to order your books, are you sure you don’t want to take a fan?”

Sleep, or rather, the paucity of it, tells me I’m grieving.  I’m more than grieving.  I’m happy, sad, scared, excited.  We’ve been planning for this for a long time. 

Courtney Martin, who writes a terrific blog called the examined family, says this in a recent post about sending her 3-year old back to pre-school following months of quarantine and social distancing:  “We’re just like that, us humans. We can have more than one emotion at a time. In fact, as my daughter was reminding me, we mostly have more than one emotion at a time. Especially during times of transition and trauma. We are grateful to be free and weirdly miss our confinement. We are in love and filled with loathing. We are generous and selfish, independent and so needy, wise and dumb as a box of rocks. Growing and regressing, empowered and resentful, so brave and so scared. All at once.”

Yup.  Even though he’ll come home on breaks, and this year it’s possible he’ll come home even earlier, I know from sending my daughter off four years ago, that it’s never the same.

But for now, the reality of my last child, my 18-year old son, leaving for college and next steps in his promising life, are registering in my body, my emotions, my mind, and in the daily tick tick tick of days as we march toward move-in day.

And now…

I already miss him, his essence, his presence, the way he flops down on the recliner with his phone and iPad, his intensity in philosophical conversations, his smile, his willingness to do the dishes every night without complaining.

Move-in went fine – first stop a Covid19 test, and then a quick unload/make your bed/snap a photo – parents were only allowed a half hour in the dorm.  And then we were driving away and we all started a new phase of life.

The Monday after drop-off I woke early, early – unable to sleep any longer, so aware that he wasn’t here, so pleased he gets to start college, so full of mama-emotions and also relief that we are freer now to do the next things in life.  I’ll be sad for awhile; I remember this with my daughter.  And the sadness will hang out with acceptance, and joy and hope and a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure how to identify yet.

He did it, and we accompanied him.  (And yes, he does need a fan!) Nothing is certain, and it wouldn’t be even if Covid19 were eradicated, but the virus heightens the uncertainty.  He’s taking it one day at a time and so are we.  In the meantime, our home feels diminished, it’s quieter, muted, and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, August 2020

Sheryl Paul, on her website Conscious Transitions, writes terrific blog posts about transitions.  

HIT for the Covid-19 Era

My spouse and I take daily evening walks.  We meet neighbors also out strolling or porch sitting and ask, “How are you doing?”  And almost without fail, the answer is “Hanging in there.”  We often give the same response when asked.

We are hanging in there:  HIT.  That’s the truth.  (And I don’t mean HIIT: High-intensity Interval Training, although living through this precarious, uncertain, fluid and difficult time is like a workout. ) 

But I mean HIT.  And HIT is enough.

Before COVID19, “hanging in there” seemed an inferior space to be in, an acknowledgment that we were going through something temporarily difficult we didn’t want to talk about.

Now, increasingly, I understand HIT as strength, as a sign that we are distressed and we are getting through one day, sometimes one minute, at a time. And we all know exactly what we mean when we say we are “hanging in there.”

Because we can’t dismiss that we’re in a mess.  We’re getting frequently changing and mixed messages from our national leaders about how to conquer, or at least tame this virus. The response to Covid-19 looks like a torn crazy quilt across state and regional lines.

Here in New York, we’ve had firm, clear leadership from our governor. After first being an epicenter, our infection rate is low, but we know our borders are permeable, some citizens continue to buck the mandates, and colleges are soon opening. We wonder about the impact when students, who love to party and congregate en masse in our summer-quiet neighborhoods, return. 

Some of us are getting sick.  Some of us are bracing and planning for another disrupted school year.  Some of us are sending college students off to an uncertain semester.  Some of us continue to isolate because we’re older, have risk factors, or want to protect others. Some of us are juggling parenting and working from home.  Some of us are afraid of returning to the workplace or have no workplace to return to.  Some of us need to re-envision our careers or our daily lives in light of this pandemic. Some of us do not know how we are going to financially survive.  Some of us wanted to travel and chose not to, or can’t because so many borders are currently closed to us.  Some of us are worried for elderly family members and friends who are isolated.  Some of us are very tired, lonely and afraid.

And then there’s the reality that a significant number of Americans find this all a hoax, a “plandemic,”  or at the very least, way overblown. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion and yet, this further complicates any chance for a mostly unified response.

Along with all Covid-related uncertainty and pain is the persistent and important anti-racism movement, long overdue and with so many of us having so much to learn. 

Oh and did I mention a critical presidential election is scheduled to take place in three months? And who knows what else each of us is dealing with?

So it’s no wonder, that a lot of days, a lot of us are “hanging in there.”

And that’s a good thing; I’m glad we are.  Because in the midst of all this uncertainty, staying the course, doing our best, giving ourselves a break, and accepting that this time is hard – well if that’s hanging in there, then more power to us.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSWR   July 2020

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Watering Holes

My spouse, young adult children and I currently have two daily rituals together: late morning coffee and supper.

I’ve been thinking of those gatherings, along with other regular activities, as my watering holes; as brief, essential oases in this surreal landscape called COVID-19.

My kids laugh at this description of what we do together every day.  They didn’t grow up among the Amish, as I did, and see horses and cows at watering troughs.  They didn’t grow up in the country where ponds or springs were places animals found water.

I’m used to them rolling their eyes at me.  And they are two of my best mentors, insisting on our rituals as a place and time each day that grounds us, brings us together and allows us to process feelings and thoughts, tell jokes, and review the COVID-19 “numbers.”  We revisit and grieve our losses and, being together, acknowledge that we are fortunate.  We might even, once in a while, note that this time we have – with two young adults ready to launch – is precious. (Never mind that we also regularly get on each others’ nerves!)

I know this is not everyone’s experience and I am not sugarcoating how difficult this shelter-in-place is.  It’s really hard, devastating and destabilizing for many of our human brothers and sisters.  Every day I listen to stories that include worry, fear, uncertainty and pain.

That’s not the point of this essay.  The point is that YOU NEED WATERING HOLES to get through this crisis.

While the definition of a watering hole includes a place where animals drink or a place where people gather for socialization, to me a watering hole is anything that provides brief pause, and emotional, mental, physical or spiritual nourishment. 

You can come up with your own watering holes.  If they provide respite and nourishment, and aren’t harmful to anyone else in your sphere, they will work.

My watering holes, in addition to being with my family, include getting outside for both exercise and leisurely walks, early morning reading, texting friends and family members, meditation and yoga.  Every day if possible.  These rituals ground me, help me stay in my body, help me stay present and enrich telehealth sessions with clients.

Create Your Own

You can create a watering hole by doing whatever feels nourishing to you.  Or if you can’t do that, by remembering a time of security and safety, or a restorative place – a vacation spot, for example.  And if that doesn’t work, then right now, in the present moment, you can create, in your mind, a safe and lovely space and rest in that imagery even just briefly.

Here are some watering holes I’ve heard about from friends and clients:  breathing deeply, dancing, baking, planting seeds, getting out in the garden, exercise, streaming shows, journaling and  zooming friends.  Whatever you come up with, I suggest you visit and drink from your watering hole at a regular time each day or week.

Watering holes are a way to fill us up for what the rest of each day brings: remote study or work, applying for unemployment or loans, crunching numbers, potentially becoming ill, homeschooling kids, keeping food in the fridge and on the table, etc.

So, here’s the question for this week:  What are your watering holes?

Some resources for you:

Yoga:  I’m doing a 30-day yoga challenge with Do Yoga With Me.  They’re offering two months free during the COVID-19 crisis.  You just sign up, don’t need to give any payment information, and then enjoy all their website offers.  Click here for the link,

Podcast: Tami Simon from Sounds True interviewed poet/author Mark Nepo.  You can listen to “Resilience in Trying Times” here.

There are so many podcasts, articles and resources out there to help just about anyone with any kind of challenge during this time.  Take advantage of them, don’t get overwhelmed…and stick to one or two as your watering holes.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R, April 2020

Photo credit: Phillip Cordts, Unsplash

What Has Hit Us? Coping Through COVID-19

Making a list of what I want to accomplish and pay attention to is one of my daily routines.  When stress increases, as it has with the COVID-19 pandemic, I write more lists than usual, including lists of ways to take care of myself and others during this crazy time. I need a constant reminder of what is most vital now to help me prioritize and focus. After two weeks since life as we knew it halted, I have a pile of 3×5 index cards with various and repeating “to-dos.” 

Perhaps these compiled lists (with a bit of extrapolation) will be helpful for you.

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  • Stick to routines as much as possible. Create new ones if, for the time being, old ones have vanished.
  • Stop surfing the news channels over and over.
  • Get outside. Walk.
  • Do yoga.
  • Meditate.
  • Volunteer/serve.
  • Stay off the news sites.
  • Allow feelings – if angry, feel anger.  If scared, feel fear. If sad, feel sad. If hopeful, feel hope.
  • Allow grief: I am so sad so many people are suffering. I am so sad my children’s school is on hiatus.  I am so sad some of my friends, family members and clients are out of work.  I am so sad my daughter’s senior college year is ending this way.  I am sad I can’t see clients in my office right now.
  • …and then also gratitude: My family is together.  We can still get outside.  We have food to eat.  Our home is warm. The peonies are poking through the soil.
  • Plan for 15-30 minutes of worry time a day – really have at your worries during that scheduled time, then end the worry time with a little meditation, movement or shifting into something totally different.  (Planned worry time is a tool from cognitive-behavioral therapy.)
  • Surrender and work to trust in whatever name you give the mystery greater than yourself.
  • Be open to opportunities – the opportunity for increased connection, new ways of doing business, for rest, and for sorting through files and rooms that need decluttering.
  • Stay connected to important others – extended family, friends, and clients. Really listen, it’s your best gift.
  • Remember you are not alone; we are in this together.
  • Remember, the children are watching you.
  • Slow down.
  • Surrender to what’s out of your control.
  • Breathe.
  • Remember, good decisions come best from a place of grounding, stillness and calm.
  • Ask:  What do I have control of?  And what don’t I?  Work to manage that which is within my control (my attitude, what I say, and what I do, including washing hands and practicing social distancing) and let go of what isn’t (the spread of the virus, orders from national, state and local officials, knowledge of how long this is going to continue).
  • Limit news sites scrolls.
  • Breathe.
  • Believe in your resiliency through this very tough time.
  • Take all health precautions.
  • Practice exquisite self-care.
  • Remember this is going to end some unknown day; how do you want to spend TODAY?
  • Limit time reading the news.
  • Breathe.

As you can see, staying off the news sites, surrender and breathing are constants repeats on my lists!  I feel my body’s sympathetic nervous system going into overdrive every time I log onto a news site. While we benefit from being informed, we hurt our capacity to stay relatively calm and grounded when we overload ourselves with alarming information.

What’s your list? What helps you during this time?  What doesn’t? What will support you to follow your own best advice? What opportunities might come from this? What’s just plain hard, awful, sad?

Recommended for you:  

CALM is sharing, for free, some of its meditations and practices.  They are really good.  I fell asleep during the one called Softening Fear, and that’s sayin’ something!   You can access the link here.

There’s a website dedicated to all kinds of resources for those of us feeling more anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis. You can find it here.

Tara Brach, a well known leader in the mindfulness/meditation field and author of several books on the subject, has recently posted a page of resources, you can access it here.

And one of my favorite bloggers, Heather Plett, just posted “Holding Space For Yourself in a Time of Isolation and Liminal Space.” It’s worth reading and you can do so here.

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Update:  I’m only doing video and sometimes phone sessions, within New York state, until further notice.  I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the technology works and thankful I can continue to serve current and new clients.  Most health insurances are covering video and phone sessions during this COVID-19 crisis.  Please call me at 315-870-0154 if you are a potential new client interested in starting therapy.