On managing

Our town is wonderful for many reasons, not least of which is it being just east of the Continental Divide and right amongst the westernmost tendrils of the prairie. Proper contiguous mountains, with mountain snowpack, is right beyond the horizon, while our valley winter is often clear, brisk, and low snow. Sun has been more prominent than usual the past month, bleeding the sage and ponderosa forests dry and creating unusual conditions. I have one route further east, which I’ve been pondering for eight years or so, and the current hard and dry, cool but not cold conditions got me looking at maps last week and, as they often do, things fell together after hours of looking at the maps, and the clean, logical, and stylish way to go through that area was obvious. Some rushed gear prep, and I was ready to go, until the day before, when I woke with fatigue that didn’t dissipate through the morning, and for the past few days have been home with a cold, rather than out sleeping under the odd juniper or cottonwood.

It has been a long time since I’ve been sick; close to if not over a year. In light of the volume, sustained nature, and overall magnitude of the past year’s stress this is simply astounding. Writing it, now, sitting upstairs, looking out at snow tinkling down and recalling the toilet paper rush, stay at home order, learning to do my job all over again, and then the cascading case numbers, election and attempted coup, I wonder that I survived at all. Then I recall that humans generally survive things because they have no other palatable, actionable alternative, and that over the past year I have done a lot of things right.

The first thing I did back in the third week of March was jettison my morning workout schedule. All winter I had woken an hour before everyone else to carry a weighted pack around the neighborhood in the dark. More sleep, and more time with M after the kids had gone to bed, were both more important for stress management, and almost immediately I had enough spare time to ski and build stone walls in the yard, so physical exertion and time outside were not in shortcoming. This has remained the schedule to this day. Not good for the consistency of my aerobic fitness (something which, frankly, bugs my ego far more than it prevents me from doing things I would like to do), but very good for my head and our family integrity. M and I celebrated our 17th anniversary while in Utah this past October. We’ve always been good at experiencing intimacy and contentment while doing not much at all, something that has been invaluable during the many blank evenings this winter, when the weight of the heaving world had us capable of little but sitting and weighting for disparate parts of ourselves to catch up and stick themselves back on.

Another thing that was quickly cast off the essentials list was a few layers of essential daily order. Those who have been guests over the years know that we are not tidy people, and that has increased to an extent that would be appalling were the benefits of simpler headspace not so indispensable. In years past I’ve been fanatical about unpacking, organizing and maintenance, precisely because one can never predict when those perfect conditions just snap into place, and tweaking a modified bike drivetrain or regluing skins 48 hours before departure is far less than ideal. But, one of things I’ll carry out of 2020 is that things being less than ideal do not prevent just going and still thriving. A week before we put on the Salmon this May my drysuit had the same torn ankle gasket it had had for 18 months, and the latex booties I glued on worked well and proved an essential addition (until the seam tape inside the legs started delaminating after the third hot spring soak; those who have seen my old drysuit will not find that surprising).

My current fatigue is the logical outgrowth of 10 months running close to empty, something pushed over by the horror of January 6th. Stress and its children, anxiety and depression, are logical entities, but they do not work in a linear fashion, and their timeline is usually one that does not easily accommodate human impatience and apprehension. Indeed, this aspect of mental health is the first which comes to mind when I look for an example of how our self-referential, solipsistic quest to achieve definitive self-understanding through genetics will always come up short. There are no backwards facing answers to managing anxiety and depression. Managing symptoms day to day creates space, longer term, for both new habits and for resolution with the past. Sometimes that resolution comes through understanding, and sometimes it amounts to nothing more specific than a vague assurance that this uncomfortable part of ones personhood will remain in the shadows, a source of fear and pain, but at least predictable.

As a nation and a world we’re on the cusp of a dangerous time, with the vaccine campaign and departure of President Trump likely to provide a painful reminder that even the most momentous and deservedly anticipated events are, in moments of heightened need, all but guaranteed to fall short. No switch will click and tell us when things have returned to normal (emotionally an impossibility), or when to start seeking out old comforts and putting them back in to new lives. Perhaps proper leadership will create spaces for community spirit, that will in turn make moving on in life less defensive, more supported, and thus more likely to be properly deliberative (the denial embodied in knee-jerk “reopenings” early this summer would be an example of the exact opposite). But, in the US at least we have a pile of bad habits to undo, something that will not happen easily.

For my own part, looking down into the backyard as snow accumulation just starts to become visible, I have embodied evidence of both extremes. April was a good month for yard projects, as M and I appropriately sought grounding in one of the most direct and literal things we could control. I added lines to my hands in the process of that chainsawing, digging, and rock carrying, and both on me and on the ground the results should endure for a lifetime. I can also look out and see the mess which has accumulated through more recent inaction, and it is difficult in that mess to not see impatience for moving on. Things left undone are both evidence of a world pulled apart, as well as how well we did to hold it together under extraordinary circumstances. The most important thing is not loose either in the rush towards a more congenial future.

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