Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Trying to keep normal in coronavirus times...

In this time of coronavirus, we can have moments of "silver linings": conversations we would have never uttered, games we would not have played, new skills learned, and projects we would have not attempted. It has the potential and opportunity to be a time of enriched relationships--to pause, meditate, and pray. We can become through this time stronger and more resilient people because we have been given more time at home.                              
                                                --Dr. Joseph Shumway

When I despair in the world, and it grows in me, 
and I wake in the night at the least sound
of fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, 
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. 
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
                      --Wendell Berry, a favorite poet

We saw some happy children the other day on the river. As I spotted the twinkle in their eyes as they flew their kites, it made me so happy. They were free from their troubles for a while on the river. These are moments and outlets we need under times of stress and crisis.
Being here in China, I have heard countless times how to wash your hands, properly wear a mask, and clean my house--even to keep the water traps of our pipes and plumbing filled with water so no coronavirus seeps out. I get tracked with my iPhone and my temperature is taken many times a day. I have a special pass to get into my compound--no one else is allowed to come in who does not live here.

But, the one thing that people are not talking about much is our mental health during a pandemic. I live in Tianjin, China, about 700 miles from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus. In the last six weeks, we have seen an extremely small number of people here who have contracted the virus. However, with the small numbers of people actually sick with the virus, I have seen great anxiety and extraordinary disruption. We are not used to having our world turn upside down. Feelings of powerlessness and even panic are some people's "new normal." Even if we are out of harm's way and trying to keep some normalcy, these days require some coping skills.  

It has caused me to think about how to screen information in our brains and control the scripts playing in our heads. I have the power to "hear peace." (a blog I wrote a year ago) when "pieces" of disorder and disruption bring uncertainty and fear. Basically, I can put on a calm face mask, but still be in a complete state of panic and even depression. When I look out through my face mask at other's eyes--seeing only part of their face--I wonder what emotions are going on in there--especially the children.

Last weekend my husband who is the CMO of a hospital here was asked to give a talk titled “Keeping Psychologically Safe in Times of Crisis” to the Volkswagon employees here in China. He asked me to help him present it to our invisible audience through video conference. So for an hour we talked and shared about tools to combat feelings of uncertainty, disorder, crisis, and feelings of hopelessness those circumstances can inject into our lives. What can we do to not panic so we can maintain a sense of calmness and even sense of fun to the people who are living with us--especially if we are in quarantined or semi-quarantined conditions?

Being at home during coronavirus times means our home is a refuge--probably like never before. We are enclosed with some of the people we love the most in the world. If we live alone, it means we reach out to others to gather a community of support--oftentimes on the phone. As we have been in a semi-quarantine state (we can go to some markets) for the last six weeks, I just wanted to share a few lessons we have learned:

1) Examine your life, and talk about some of the things you want to accomplish individually and as a family--especially if it means you will be home together for an extended and indefinite time together. Make some goals, like learning a new skill, getting better at something that has been on the back burner for a while. My son with autism and I have written a children's book, and I am going through my favorite Moosewood cookbooks making delectable healthy food. Also, we made a goal to "March into March" and we are going to walk 150 miles. I think I should get up it to 200 because we have already walked 22- 25 miles and it is only March 4. Ha!

Pick a book you have been meaning to read.

2) Reach out to some friends and check in on them. Right now we have a young couple who are about to have a baby living with us for the last month. They live in a sixth-floor walk-up so their baby kept threatening to come prematurely. We invited them to come and be with us during this coronavirus time. It has definitely been less isolating to have others within our four walls. We have had lots of laughs and insightful conversations that we normally would not have had in these coronavirus days. Another friend made us some loaves of bread because she knows our oven had not arrived yet. It helps to be thinking outward, and not just about what is going inside our four walls or in our heads.

I am reminded of stories my grandmother told me about my Icelandic great-grandma, Gudrun Vatnsdal, during the time of the 1918 influenza when 10-20% of those infected died. I remember my grandma saying that her mother would go around in her wagon in Saskatchewan, Canada with soup, bread, and milk for those who were sick. She would just leave it on their porches. She kept many of her neighbors alive. I am grateful a great-grandma I never knew did that. Her efforts, one hundred years later, have not been lost on me. Remembering we live in a community and reaching out makes fears dissipate. It helps us remember we are all in this together--important feelings for our mental health.

On Chinese Lantern Day we delivered "over the fence" some dumplings to a friend. A few days earlier she had delivered us her delicious bread over our fence.

3) Watch the news for a short amount of time, but if you know it brings some panic, do not linger near the screen. Limit the news time so you don't feel like you get every wave of news all day long. Of course, it is important to keep informed, but fuse your life with some fun times.

4) Get out in nature.  We have a certain spot near "our lake." I love to hear the water lap up on the banks and watch the ripples in every light. Honestly, this ordinary and perhaps nondescript lake in Tianjin, China has kept me more sane and joyous in coronavirus times. In a city of 17,000,000 people, I can go to a special place for me that speaks peace to my heart. I know that hearing water makes me happy so I go there. Exercise, move and breathe outside the fresh air. It invigorates mind and body.

Taking a walk near "our lake."

A grandma and grandpa taking their grandson out for a walk near the Haihe River.

5) Make tasty, nutritious food. Go through some recipes you have been meaning to try for a while. Good food makes everyone a little happier.

I made this carmelized onion pie--one I have meantng to make for years...

A sweet potato salad that was delectable.

6) Have fun! We have danced to music, played games, told jokes and stories, and planned (very short term) activities because we do not know much more than a day or two ahead.

7) You are not alone. Do what you can to not feel isolated. Since I see very few people face to face--especially without their masks, we call people. I have talked to people I have not talked to for a while. Keeping in contact with others, and making some communities is very important. Tell others about your projects and goals. One Chinese woman told me she is having conversations she never thought possible with her mother.

I keep telling myself this is a "cocoon of time" that I am going to fly out of stronger--a few more conversations and connections shared, more laughs, projects that I have been meaning to get to, and lots of walking around "our lake."


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