Journey to Health, Lovely Living, On Writing, The Work of Becoming

how to start 2017: intentions for a new season

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I love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness, and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself, and the year that came was strange, disorganized, and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before Christmas, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (this language makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It helped in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking for myself instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

Bookshelf, Journey to Health, Lovely Living, Odds + Ends

life lately: getting back to the joy of it all

1115“Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully.” The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer

These past four or five months have not been bad months, but they’ve been busy months, and busy is hard for me. Each week has been stuffed with work commitments, and weekly appointments, and friends and family, and I-didn’t-know-that-was-coming, and I’ve looked up again and again and said “I need some rest.”

I prefer to move at a slower pace, keeping open wide swaths of time for the people and pursuits I love best. I’ve heard this called creating margin—opening up time and energy around the unshakable commitments of life to make room for more rest, more joy. While I hesitate to call these margins a “need,” because they’re a luxury afforded to me by age and life-stage and privilege, I do know I struggle when my margins disappear.

This spring wound me tight. So tight I began to fray at the edges. I made myself overworked and overtired and overstressed. I came to the end of my days, and I let myself collapse ointo a heap on the couch. I forwent cooking one meal, then another, then another, and I slowly traded a robust reading and writing rhythm for eleven and a half seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. (Y’all, this show has NO business being on its twelfth season). I isolated myself even more than I usually do until I was only seeing people at pre-appointed times. I filled up every blank minute with some form of distraction, because it feels so much easier to passively take than actively create.

I built up all these bad habits, and my body responded. Sleep deteriorated, and as my sugar and caffeine intakes rose, my body and mind both became sluggish. I was perpetually not sick, but not well. Then, a month ago, I began breaking out in hives and eczema, and last week, after a nerve-wracking (and expensive) trip to the ER, I learned that I have costochondritis and pericarditis—both painful, but non-threatening swellings inside my body.

I’m like a car badly in need of an oil change. Not broken, but I’ve gone just a little too long without taking proper care. I’m working on taking proper care now.

I use this space to document the “working through” of it all. The figuring it all out, as vague as that it. Now that work is promising to ease up a bit, and the temperatures are above freezing, I’m working my way through this little pile-up back to the joy of it all.

1113I’m doing that by getting back on top of my reading game. When I don’t read enough, I feel unbalanced, like I’ve left the house with only one shoe one. After a series of false starts and bad reads (who knew I would dislike The Sun Also Rises so much), I did what I haven’t done in months and had myself a little party trip to the book store. I picked up a few thrillers, and devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in days. I’m currently in the middle of the gorgeous Seating Arrangements. I’ve plunged back into my Granta Book of the American Short Story, and am trying to pick apart the genius of this hard, hard art form. I said last week that I understand the world through stories, and my goodness, it feel good to be back with them.

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Connected to the uptick in reading, I’m also going back to what inspires me so that I can make an easier time of my slow crawl back to a daily writing habit. For me, this means giving myself time to consume and time to think. I’m keeping the TV off, and as best I can, my phone away.

I reread this sad, strange, surreal story about a man who removed himself from the world for nearly thirty years. I’m pouring over the photographs from a visit to the Grand Canyon (more on that later—my soul has yet to settle). I’m doing what I heard another artist talk about, and using photographs as jumping off points for the stories I want to tell.

After the announcement of their 16 Tony nominations, I also gave Hamilton another go, and it all clicked together in a way it hasn’t before. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack over and over, not only because the music is good (it is) or the story is interesting (it is), but because Hamilton is an extraordinary example of what I find most phenomenal and worthy about artwork. At its core, art is the reworking and reimagining and retelling of our oldest stories so that the beautiful, radical, essential humanity of them is clear. Hamilton does this (and with history, no less!), and it’s blasted open the doors of my own shuttered creativity.

Side note: If you’re not already, start listening. It’s a dancing, rapping, race-bending bio-musical about the man who founded the National Treasury, was at the center of America’s first sex scandal, and was killed in a duel by the Vice President. If that doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure what will.

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I’m turning my attention to food, trying to both follow the Michal Pollan food rules (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants), and rediscover the joy of creating meals. In response to the skin irritations and the swelling, I spent hours pouring over cookbooks and food blogs, looking for recipes that were low in sugar and dairy and high in vegetables. I’m mixing up what I buy, and what I eat, and trying to reorient my perspective around food so I see it as a source of energy and a gift, but not as a bandage or a salve. My goal is to make and eat food that’s good, real, and energizing, not to create a rulebook around what I “should” or “shouldn’t” and “can” or “can’t” eat. A few recipes from my May meal plan: broccoli melts, oatmeal blueberry breakfast bars, spring fettuccine primavera, and artichoke ricotta flatbread (with goat cheese instead of ricotta, and homemade pizza dough).

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There’s something slow and spectacular in keeping pace with only ourselves.

On Writing, The Work of Becoming

Work + Wonder: What I Want From My Twenties

Woman Under TreeLast week, I turned twenty-three, and I feel time, maybe for the first time, pressing itself against me.

When I was a child, time terrified me. I agonized about growing up, and in the dark, I wept, thinking that someday I’d be older. When I turned thirteen, I went with my family to a house party that my uncle and his band played at. He sang happy birthday for me, and I hid, because being thirteen meant I’d be a teenager, and being a teenager meant I was closer to a still unknown adulthood. Even though time was my specter, the hooded thief, I never felt comfortable in my years. I wanted the weight of experience without experiencing passed time.

I feel the weight of twenty-three lived years, and I feel how little this is, how light these years really are. My youngness, my inexperience, my newness and next to it, my experiences, failures, circumstances and decisions, the rawness of being alive.

As I move forward into my twenty-fourth year (it took a birthday card from my dad to correctly understand this math), I am thinking about this time in front of me, specifically thinking about my twenties. This decade is mythologized— at least it seems that way right now. There’s a massive literature this collective, cultural imagination, and according to about 90% of it, I think I’m doing it all wrong. I haven’t traveled much. I took a job that turned into a career three weeks after I graduated. Most of my clothing is from Target, and I still live in the same state in which I was born.

Instead of looking at what I want to do, I am looking at what I want to gain, what I want to invest in and take away from my twenties. (It’s a short list).

What I want is work and wonder.Work BikeWork, because I have a lot of it to do.

Recently, I listened to an episode of the Longform podcast that featured an interview with Cheryl Strayed. The ever-quotable writer said something that I stuck with me (and with every other writer who listened to the episode): “I didn’t just get lucky. I worked my fucking ass off. And then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky. You have to do the work. You always have to do the work.”

This is my work: The pouring of myself and the full force of my humanity into my writing.

The reality is, no matter how many hours I put in or how many pages I write, there’s a chance that my writing will never be seen, and it’s a near statistical guarantee that I’ll never get lucky (at least not 800,000 copies of my memoir sold + a Hollywood movie deal lucky). Coming to grips with that is a constant struggle— some days, all I care about is the writing, other days, the idea of never reaching publication makes my blood cold— but no matter how I’m feeling, I know that I want to work my ass off. I want to do the work, so that if I never get published, I’ll know it’s not for lack of trying, and if I do get published, I’ll know that I worked hard enough to be proud of it.

photo-1434145175661-472d90344c15The other thing I want to invest myself in, give my time and energy and love to, is wonder. I really believe that the ability to experience awe is one of the greatest gifts that humanity has been given. The ability to stand before reverence, and know that the world is big. That it’s beautiful, and it’s mysterious, and despite this you, small you, have been given the chance to see it, to feel it.

It’s easy to lose the wonder, and it’s just as easy to not see it when it’s there. When I was a girl, I loved dew in the morning, thought it was magic, thought each drop was placed there by fairies, thought it was a gift given straight to those who woke up early. I remember one morning in southeastern Minnesota, when my mother and I went for a walk just after the sun had spilled over the horizon. To our east was red and pink and purple, fire in the sky, and to the west was pearled dawn being chased away. I stopped at the top of the hill and watched as dew drops slid down the stem of prairie grasses, shimmying the whole plant and landing in a cup where the grass blade slip off from its stem. Inside every single dew drop, I saw the glory of the world, that sunrise coming up over us, over the mid-summer soybeans, over the undulating hills that glaciers hadn’t razed. It made me cry, and then, I couldn’t understand why, but now, I know that it was wonder, encompassing, enfolding awe at the smallness and largeness of incomprehensible beauty.

I need to feel that, feel the wonder. I need to have my breath taken away, and my notions of beauty laid flat, and I need to feel both small and big, bowled over by the world and yet beautifully apart of it. It makes me a better writer, and much more importantly, it makes me a better person.

I finished The Color Purple yesterday, and as I read the last few pages, I wept. Albert says to Celie, “I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.” 

And it makes me think about my own heart. The more I ask, the more I see, the more experience, the more I do, the bigger I grow, the smaller I get.

Time is still a friend to me. While I know it’s precious, I am young enough to still feel it as endless. Every new year, every new season, I feel its passing more acutely, can see it draping itself on those I love, can see wasting hours piling up. I have no interested in a checklist, in doing for the sake of doing, because I’m a certain age or because a certain blog says so. I want to do my two w’s, work and wonder. It’s these I want to throw myself, sink myself into, because time is passing me quickly, and while I have it, I want to use it well.

Journey to Health

Health and Wellness: Because My Body Needs My Care

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I’ve had it up to here with my body.

I don’t have health issues, per say, but my body is high maintenance. It has itself some issues.

If you’ve spend much time with me, you’ll know about all my food stuff. I’m lactose intolerant (enough so that it’s not worth it to eat that piece of pizza). I have acid reflux, which keeps me avoiding tomato, onion, spicy heat, excessive grease. I don’t handle hunger or a drop in blood sugar well (hangry is a familiar state, as are the “too hungry to talk to you,” “too hungry to see straight,” and “so hungry I feel nauseous) states. I’m frequently exhausted, and need lots of sleep. My sinus passages are narrow, and I’m prone to painful sinus infections. I did something to my low back years ago, and now the base of my spine throbs with pain if I’m certain positions, sit too long, stand too long. I waged a decade long war with severe acne, and still have sensitive skin (I’m writing this slathered in steroid cream).

See what I mean about high-maintenance?

My body has been revealing these glitches in the system for about five, six years, and in that time, my relationship to general health and wellness has been rocky. If we were a couple, we’d have broken up and come back together a thousand, obnoxious times.

I used to be an avid, almost obsessive, exerciser, but I lost the zeal and the dedication. All through college, I cycled through intense mental commitments to a workout routines and deep love affairs with my bed and my books (and, let’s be honest, Netflix). My eating habits, though never dreadful, slid steadily from lean proteins, fresh vegetables and monitored portions to granola bars and pasta kept ready in the fridge. The growing up of life brought higher levels of stress than I still don’t how to handle, and I’ve never been good at creating environments of health or peace for myself.

And it’s been a while since I’ve really, really cared. Healthy living has always been a priority. It’s always on my list, but it’s been lower on it than, say, re-watching Silicon Valley.

Until recently.

Now, I’m fed-up. Fed-up with not feeling well. Fed-up with eating and not feeling full, with constantly managing my body’s temper tantrums, with having rashes spread down my arms and up my legs, and fed-up with feeling so captive to a body that was designed to run better than this.

I’m fed-up with what comes from not being intentional about health and wellness.

My body is my home. It’s a house for my mind and for my soul and it’s the vessel that carries me through the world. It’s just been recently that I’ve come to really believe this, and it’s made me want to shake my own shoulders: Why don’t you give your body more of your energy? More of your love and your care?

The same goes with food. It’s fuel; it’s the means to my energy. Why do I eat junk that does the opposite of what food is supposed to do? (In an impulse of nostalgia, I bought myself one of those blue-raspberry ICEEs at the movie theater, remembering how often I’d beg my mom for one as a kid. I felt that sugar crash hard, and afterward thought to myself, how many more times will I do that before I really learn?)

So I’m setting myself out on a mission. A pursuit or an exploration or an adventure (I don’t want to call it a journey) into healthy living and general bodily wellness.

I don’t have the money or the time to see a dietitian or an allergist to help me decide what to eat, nor do I have the means to hire a personal trainer to teach me how to enjoy my workouts. I’m also not interested in any cult of “drink this powdered shake,” “take this miracle pill,” “chia seeds/acai berries/eating-like-a-cave-man will save your life.”

I do, however, have an arsenal of exercise options that don’t include a paid gym membership or running (hello, apartment complex workout center, goodbye hell on pavement), and I do have the ability to experiment with my foods. Already I’ve set a (pathetically small) workout goal for myself, and have begun tracking what foods create what effect within me. Already I’ve learned that lentil and avocados are a great combination for me, but the very best cheeseburger I’ve ever tanks my energy levels and turns me into jell-o with legs.

I don’t expect that I’ll widen my sinus passages or make my lactose intolerance go away through healthier eating. In fact, I have a feeling that if I dedicate myself to eating well for my body, I’ll actually become more discerning and have an even longer list of foods I’m not interested in eating.

I do expect that I’ll be able to raise my energy levels. I do expect that eating more thoughtfully will increase my productivity and creativity, and I do expect that working out will make me feel stronger in my body, feel more capable and more energized, and more awake to the world around me.

I also expect this to be really hard. I expect to skip workouts and hate the ones I complete, and I very much expect to find myself shoveling spoonfuls of chocolate chips and peanut butter into my mouth for no other reason that I really, really wanted to. I expect to cook food that tastes terrible, and to be cranky about saying no to things that won’t serve me well.

But I have to start somewhere, right? I can’t start out with all the answers.

My body needs to be precious to me. Not for vanity or pride (though I won’t say no to a dropping a few pounds if it happens), but for durability, and for strength. For knowing that my soul, to which I’ve always given infinitely more care and concern, is housed in a vessel that will sustain my life.

 

P.S. To anyone who has already figured out this lesson, who knows which foods give the best fuel and who get excited for Saturday morning workouts, help me! I’ll take any advice, recipes, food recommendations, workout tips you want to share.

Overcoming, The Anxiety Files

The Anxiety Files: This Land is Mine and I Can Choose What to Let In

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For the last couple weeks, I’ve been moving at a velocity that frightens me.

Most of this activity has been necessary—work demands, groceries need restocking, and friends have birthdays that need celebration—which made it okay for a while. But then, this miniature season of vibrating stress started to feel more like a state of being, and all my protective walls began to draw themselves up.

At some point in the last few days the strong current of life-moving-a-little-too-fast intensified into a flood. I could feel it in my body. The stress took on a dangerous physicality. My heart beat had become a bang, even when I was still, and inside my rib cage, my lungs snagged on rib bones, sharp, painful breath. My fingers fluttered. A tight, heavy ache had set into my shoulders, and my pupils were constantly dilating. Stress had hijacked my body, and, to extend the metaphor, was about to hand the controls over to my illness.

Anxiety is a darkness that lives inside of me. It feeds on stress. It delights in my fraying. It is chemical and inhuman, and it is intent upon my undoing. I know this, because I’ve been undone by my anxiety, been ripped apart and left hollow by onrushing adrenaline and unchecked cortisol in my bloodstream. I’ve been left bared and scared and sobbing in a downtown transit station by the toxic chemical imbalances that do deadly things me.

When I was first diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I had no tools. I was given a vocabulary and a set of breathing exercises and a prescription for Zoloft. For a long time, that was enough. That was a compounding miracle, actually. That alone helped me. The medication steadied the neurological reactions that I still don’t fully understand. It allowed my body to become healthy again. It gave me the time to seek out the rescue I needed, and then, after I’d come back to the land of the living and the laughing, it gave me the safety to experiment with other weapons against my anxiety.

There are some tricks I’ve learned—apples and chamomile tea helps, as does deep pressure on the tops and sides of my shoulders—and some powerful coping mechanisms—deep breathing can reset the nervous system, and loud music distracts my thinking. There are a handful of other weapons I’ve gathered, that do more than just beat back the anxiety, but actually serve to feed my humanity. A phone call to a friend or to a parent can stop a panic attack in its tracks. And very little can stand up against Isaiah 43:2, because “when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

More than all of these things, though, I think I’m learning how important making choices—before I hit the point of panic—really are. I say “I think,” because this is such a new revelation (a baby of a thought), because maybe I’m totally full of shit. But maybe I’m not.

At least for me, panic and anxiety operate entirely outside of choice. If I slips into the really heart of anxiety or panic—that tenting of vague, oppressive, overwhelming fear and danger—I’m usually past the point of choice. I’m in survival mode, and I am hanging onto whatever edges of reality I can, hoping that when I emerge, the damage won’t be permanent. (I have to believe it never will be).

But that period beforehand—that time that I was in this week, where I could feel the flood of life intersecting dangerously with anxiety, but before I was caught up and swept away in it—I am still autonomous.

This life I have, this body that I’m in, this soul—they’re mine. They’re mine to be the gatekeepers for, and they’re mine to protect from the threats within and threats without.  (Those of you who are wiser, more experienced, less blind are saying what did you think they were, Torrie.)

This land is mine to let in and let out, and if I am healthy enough, cognizant enough, tuned-in enough, I can chose to pull up my walls against the external factors that trigger my internal illness. This weekend, I took Friday off. I sat in a coffee shop, and I read. I wrote. I edited my novel manuscript. I stared out the window at passing cars. I watched individual leaves shake and stir in the wind. I had lunch with my dad, and I drove with a friend on errands errands. I moved slowly, and I breathed deeply, and I weighed every decision by the questions what will this let in? and what will this keep out?

And you know what? I feel like a whole person again.

My fraying edges have been bound up, and the internal shaking has been stilled. My anxiety has been beat back down, and for a little while at least, it should stay there.