Juggling six kids with a 17-year age range and non-stop personalities, my mom became an expert at deflecting disaster. One of her best tricks was simply redefining the situation to suit her purposes. Take the summer I was nine and her car kept breaking down, which in those pre-cellphone days meant long walks home or to the nearest telephone booth. About the fourth or fifth time it happened, she coasted to the side of the road, turned around, and said brightly, “OK, kids, everybody out. We’re going to have an adventure!” And I said, “Aw, Mom, how come every time we’re having fun we have to go and have an adventure?”
I feel a bit the same way now. Six months ago I was zipping along, leading my life, writing a travel book, hanging out with friends in Spanish cafés, having fun — and then, like everyone, I was plunged into the great, cataclysmic adventure of our times, the pandemic. Even my mom would have been hard pressed to put a positive spin on this one.
But if she were here now, no doubt Mom would be busy devising strategies for helping us get a grip on our courage, our perspective, and our sense of humor. Keeping our composure isn't easy when we’re all suffering from persistent anticipatory anxiety, which psychologists now call “pre-traumatic stress reactions.” Fun fact: this informal but commonly used diagnosis originated in a satirical article in The Onion about soldiers suffering from “Pre-PSD” on the eve of battle. Now the entire global population is afflicted, and symptoms flare up at the first glimpse of the morning’s grim headlines. As my reader Lynne wrote me in response to last week’s post, “I’m really struggling with it all, nothing makes sense and there’s an awful anticipation that there could be worse to come.” Sad but true for all of us, Lynne!
With the pandemic and other disasters (yes, California wildfires, I’m thinking of you) continuing remorselessly on, how can we hope to keep our mental equilibrium? Can we find ways to take a break from all the doom and gloom? Yes! Aside from the obvious — wine, chocolate, and yoga — here are the simplest, most effective, mind-clearing, soul-restoring strategies I know.
1.Schedule something to look forward to. While waiting around for the next disaster, why not add something to the agenda we can anticipate with pleasure? I’ve written before about how explorer Earnest Shackleton organized weekly entertainments to keep his crew sane during more than two years trapped in the Antarctic ice. Dogsled races and head shaving aren’t practical in my current circumstances, but Rich and I organize a date night every week or so, with a theme such as 1950s sci-fi, dive bar hopping, going to a drive-in movie, or having a picnic. This week we’re holding a Cary Grant marathon; so far we’ve watched Arsenic and Old Lace, His Girl Friday, and Charade. (Want to help us decide which of his other films to watch? Leave suggestions in the comments below.)
2. Eat well. I used to love dining out, but now the very thought of being unmasked around dozens of barefaced strangers makes me jittery. I know what happens to everyone’s caution (especially mine) after the second glass of wine! So I’m staying home and cooking comfort food — the kind with healthy, wholesome ingredients to satisfy the body and scrumptious flavor to gratify the soul. This being peach season, a few days ago I made Yogurt Peach Pie for the first time in ages, using a recipe given to me decades ago by my mom's sister, Beverly. Even before I served the last slice Rich made me promise to make another soon. Like immediately.
[Get Aunt Beverly's Yogurt and Peach Pie Recipe here.]
3. Organize projects. Rich is happiest when he’s deep into home improvements, so as soon as we returned from Spain in May, I suggested we finally renovate a long-ignored section of garden where an old fence was perilously close to collapsing onto the street. Over the past three months we’ve spent countless hours checking out neighbors’ landscaping and debating the finer points of gates, shrubbery, and brick vs. gravel. He loves the technical side, I love playing with the aesthetics. The heavy lifting has just been completed, and we have months more fun ahead doing the fiddly bits with flowers and lighting.
A carpenter we know made us a new garden gate from some old barn planks, and I let the paint bring out the fabulous scars and grain in the wood. The inset window is actually an old rusted floor vent; I ordered it online, and when it arrived I was delighted to discover the flaps still open and close.
4. Perform acts of kindness and connectivity. Boy Scouts are required to do a good deed every day, and if we all did, the world would be a better place. Social distancing eliminates many of the classics, like helping old ladies across the street. But we can reach out to friends, family, colleagues, and communities with emails, Zoom calls, and cheerful comments on social media. Each contact, however small, serves as a welcome reminder that at least we’re not facing this horror show alone.
Through the magic of Zoom, we've connected with Rich's old Navy buddies, attended a friend's poetry reading, participated in a town hall meeting for retrofitting the town's sidewalks for social distancing, and spent countless hours talking with friends and family about where this crazy situation is headed.
5. Learn something new. I recently watched a Netflix documentary on memory which demonstrated how poorly humans recall events and speculated about how such a faulty system could possibly offer any evolutionary advantage. Scientists showed how the parts of the brain that network to remember events are the same ones used to envision the future. Turns out memory’s value lies not in recording the past but in collecting data that enables us to piece together ideas about what’s likely to happen next. “Your mind is a time machine,” said the narrator. Viewed that way, “it looks like a superpower, the key to our success as a species.”
Right now, that’s one superpower most of us don’t want. Our brains are flooded with terrifying images of the present — the pandemic, teetering economy, rising sea levels, my home state in flames — that leave little room to hope for a secure future. But as Helen Keller pointed out, "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."
So I guess I finally have my answer to the question I asked Mom all those years ago. How come we keep having our fun interrupted by adventures? Because life happens outside our comfort zone. Right now our superpower — having our brains hardwired to ransack our memories for components with which to assemble images of probable futures — is giving us all nightmares. But in the long run, if it helps us get our heads around the shape of things to come and take action, it could boost our chances of survival exponentially. In the meantime, we can rely on useful and creative work, connecting with the people we love, and our own stout hearts to sustain us on the bumpy road into tomorrow.
Good luck out there! Let me know how you're holding up. And send me suggestions for Cary Grant classics to watch during this week's movie marathon. Up next: Humphrey Bogart.
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Lots more pandemic coping strategies and comfort food recipes to come.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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