Staying Sane and Healthy in a Pandemic

I am delighted to introduce my first-ever guest blogger, Jeanne Hoopes!  Here is a brief bio of Jeanne, whom I met via my book club and who is now a member of Avon Lake UCC.

Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (Ohio State)
Master of Science in Nursing – Psychiatric/Mental Health Clinical Specialty (Kent State)
Licensure in School Counseling (Cleveland State)
Worked as an RN in Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Treatment facilities.

Worked in Lakewood City Schools 1983 -2013
Prevention Counselor – Safe & Drug-Free Schools Federal Grant
Guidance Counselor at elementary, middle and high school level.
Facilitator – Lakewood High School Guidance Department

From her personal point of view, with this professional background, Jeanne shares these words of wisdom:IMG_2175

This is certainly not how I thought I would be spending the first week of April when we drove to the Seattle area in December to spend a few months close to our daughter and baby granddaughter. And I bet, none of you, in your wildest dreams anticipated your current circumstances either. All of a sudden, our lives have been put on hold, our future plans are all uncertain and we don’t know how this pandemic is going to evolve. The TV news is bleak and the neighborhood outside our doors is eerily quiet. Sometimes, it is something little that shakes me up like realizing I didn’t bring any warm weather clothes on this trip and it is going to be sunny and warm tomorrow. In another moment, I am worrying about when I will actually catch this virus and will I be one of the people lying in an emergency room hallway competing for a ventilator? We are all on edge.

As a former psychiatric nurse, then a high school guidance counselor and now a grandmother, I have always identified as a helper. My first job out of nursing school was in an Emergency Room; I thrived on the energy and intense work in that environment. I found my work to be meaningful. But now since I celebrated my 65th birthday this year, I am told by the experts and my own kids that I am in the high risk category and need to focus on self isolation. So I am inside our townhouse, quiet, waiting, wondering what I can do to help.

The rush of emotions can feel so overwhelming as we try to manage our lives and expectations as everything has suddenly changed. When we are used to being active and involved, it is so difficult to know how we can still feel useful when our main job is to “stay at home”. I believe that it is okay to acknowledge that we are all doing something very important by following the guidelines to stay home, socially distance and flatten the curve. We are doing something meaningful when we check in with friends and use FaceTime to connect with precious grandchildren. We are being good citizens when we support our health care providers and first responders. And we are being patriotic when we self isolate for the common good.

Here are some ways I am trying to practice self care for my mental health:

Embrace the emotions:  This is real life so my emotional reactions are authentic whether I am anxious, bored, depressed, angry or even silly. We and others are grieving the loss of our freedom to move about, the loss of a loved one’s job, the loss of financial security, the cancelling of an event or trip….it goes on and on. Acknowledging one’s feelings is the first step in coping. Talking with a friend or writing in a journal can provide an outlet.

Stay on a routine:  Structure helps us manage emotions and stress. It helps me to stay on a consistent sleep schedule, have a morning shower, and get dressed as if I will have visitors. I like to have a short “to do” list although the experts are saying that our goal should be to survive the crisis, not have a competition of productivity.

Daily exercise and social contact:  I have a goal of walking each day, rain or shine for an hour a day. Not only does this help counteract the extra meals I seem to be cooking but it clears my thoughts and invigorates me. As my life has slowed down, it seems like I am noticing and appreciating more details in my environment. Focusing on others lifts the spirits and is a known strategy for decreasing anxiety. Waving to strangers and checking on friends reminds us that we are all in this together. Since I am physically not in Ohio right now, I enjoy “passing the peace” by texting with the women I often share a pew with at ALUCC.

Limit media and focus on what we have control over:  I value information and staying up to date but it can be overwhelming and energy sapping. I limit my news watching to several programs that have balanced reporting and also include stories of courage and inspiration. It is helpful for me to think about what I can do here, where I am right now to help. That may just be staying home and writing notes or calling people who live alone but it helps me feel needed.

A sense of gratitude:  Before we were dealing with the Coronavirus, I saw my physician for a exam. I mentioned to the doctor that I felt so fortunate to be in good health and have positive opportunities in my life. He responded that research has shown that a sense of gratitude is positively correlated with a strong immune system. Who knew that just a few months later, how much we would be focusing on our immune systems. As I sit on my couch, I only need to think of the overworked nurses in NYC, the children or spouses living in abusive homes, the laid off workers, or the people grieving terrible losses to be able to have a perspective on what’s important.

Lifeline:  If you or someone you know is feeling unsafe, even during this national crisis, help is available. Asking for help when needed is the ultimate form of self-care. The National Suicide Prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233

For most of us, these are temporary turbulent waters and often it is the small acts of kindness or the impromptu calls or texts that will be the reassurance we need. The times when we are challenged are when we grow and develop as caring humans. We are learning important lessons on how we will want to live differently once this crisis subsides. I hope you stay well and take care of those around you.

Jeanne Hoopes
April 3, 2020

Noticing the Good, Even Now

My husband and I have taken four different walks around our neighborhood this past week – a different route each time. We love walking, but not usually in March in northeast Ohio. If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would have been at the gym, or at work, but instead, we walked outside. And on each of the four walks, we saw something new. First, hand-painted rocks on the side of the path, each with a positive greeting. Second, sidewalk chalk messages to neighbors. Third, “Happy Birthday” signs for a girl in the neighborhood who was celebrating her 7th birthday yesterday. And fourth — just more people than usual, certainly more people out for this time of the year, and they were all waving and giving one another understanding looks, glances that said (from a distance), “Yes, we’re all in this together.” I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 16 years, but this is — by far — the most “neighborly” it’s ever felt.

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I have spent hours over the past twelve days reading recommendations on how to cope during this time of crisis. We are all well-versed on what the medical experts advise for the good of public health. But what is it that will help us maintain a sense of emotional and spiritual well-being?

One important step is to be aware of our feelings and to accept them. We are grieving, we are disappointed, we are afraid, we are anxious, we are angry. Let yourself feel. Find healthy ways to express your feelings. Don’t try to deny them or suppress them.

That first step gives us a foundation on which to build. The second step is realizing that we still have choices.

Much has been taken away from us. We can’t move as freely in the world as we could two weeks ago. Meetings, sporting events, cultural activities, social engagements have cancelled. Work may have slowed. Trips have been postponed.

As a result, many of us have more choices now about how we will spend our time.

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And even more fundamental: we can choose what to focus on. And that choice can be life-changing. It can certainly affect our ability to cope well during times of crisis. Many neuroscientists who study both the brain and human behavior conclude that we can train our brains to help us cope with stress. Concentrating on positive emotions, deliberately focusing on feelings such as compassion, joy and gratitude cause our brains to inhibit disturbing fear-inducing messages.

Please note that “training our brains” is NOT the same as sticking our heads in the sand. Neither am I recommending that we wear rose-colored glasses. No, the second step (being aware of our ability to choose our focus) always comes after the first. In these days of corona crisis, job one is to be very aware of public health recommendations — and follow them — and then to be aware of and accept our feelings. THEN we begin to think more creatively about what we will choose to focus on.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being grateful for the good things that are emerging from this time. As author Winifred Gallagher puts it, “Just because something bad is happening doesn’t mean lots of good things aren’t also. They’re two very different phenomena. The joy and meaning you find in life and the current stressor…are separate concerns, and you can experience both.”

None of us would ever choose these current circumstances, and, of course, we pray fervently for those affected by the coronavirus and those on the front lines. At the same time, let’s notice what there is to appreciate about this unusual season, and what, in fact, we may want to try to keep.

Our eyes have been opened these past twelve days, and I’m sure we’ll continue to learn and observe more in the days and weeks to come. We’re realizing what a slower pace of life feels like. We’re discovering the joys of cooking at home and family dinners. We’re taking more walks, playing more games. People are making music, and art. There’s more time for reading. When we discover we miss our friends, we’re setting up online meetings, looking forward to them, and savoring each moment of laughter and conversation.

On a global level, the air is clearer, the water is cleaner.

We will all look forward to the day that this crisis is over, but in the meantime, what are the unexpected gifts of this season? What parts of this “new normal” might we want to retain?

My Oscars Go To…

In December, I took home communion to many members of the church who live in senior care facilities or who are homebound. I noticed several people who seem to sit all day with the companionship of cable news. I wondered what that constant bombardment of opinion and negativity (not to mention commercials) does to their minds, their spirits. If I’d visited a parishioner whose armchair was flanked by a large bag of potato chips and a twelve-pack of beer, I might have said to him, “Do you really think that’s good for you?” But when the junk intake is of a media variety, I keep my mouth shut…

One of my colleagues, who is usually quite upbeat, sighed to us in our Community of Practice group on Thursday, “It’s going to be a long year…every day there’s something new that seems worse than the day before. I can’t even get my head around how to react, much less lead.”

And just this morning, I noticed in my newsfeed two clergywomen describing how depressed they feel, overwhelmed by the news, aware of how difficult it is to know how to talk about those feelings, and with whom, given the intense polarization in most of our communities.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, this election year is going to be stressful.

I haven’t been on too many strict diets in my life; I was raised in a “moderation in all things” home. But I have put myself on a media diet, and I restrict the amount of time I engage in conversation about politics. I was once a news junkie, and election years were the most fun. For me, getting up in the morning to hear who won a primary was like following a favorite sports team. No more.

I began observing how I felt after a large intake of political talk. I began to monitor my mental/emotional/spiritual state, just like I monitor how food and drink intake affects my physical state. And I decided to cut back. I want to be informed. You bet I vote. But following barbs on Twitter? No thanks.

It’s not just saying “no” to political rancor, it’s also saying “yes” to other words and images…reading and watching and listening to that which makes me feel good about being a human being, connected to other people, inspired and motivated to do what I can to make a positive impact.

I love well-made films; I appreciate cinematography, and nothing is more fun than a movie that causes me to laugh really hard. I’m not a movie snob. But these days I intentionally look for those films that help inoculate me against bitterness and despair. I didn’t see all the films I wanted to but here are five of the 2019 movies I saw which were winners for me:

“Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

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“Dark Waters”

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“Harriet”

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“Just Mercy”

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“The Two Popes”

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“The Two Popes” veers the furthest away from fact, but I was moved by Pope Francis’ ability to treat Pope Benedict with civility and kindness even while articulating his quite alternative priorities…and I’ve been inspired again by seeing the news this week of the pope converting a former palace into a homeless shelter. He’s not perfect, of course — but if that is our standard, we won’t find any role models at all. I, for one, need them. I need examples of people who value justice and compassion and will pursue them with enthusiasm.

Six Days of Silence

IMG_3172The first week of January, I spent six days at a retreat center outside Tucson. In the three weeks since I’ve been home, I’ve been reflecting on the experience.

Here is a description (from their website) of The Desert House of Prayer: “We are rooted in contemplative Catholic traditions, but we welcome people of all faiths and denominations. Those seeking silence in order to encounter and respond to the Divine are at home here. People of all faiths have found Desert House of Prayer a place conducive to rest, reflection, and opening to God. Authors, artists, caregivers, counselors, teachers, and those in transition have found us a haven for reorientation and renewal.”

When one is on the premises, one maintains silence except for the dinner hours Saturday-Thursday (Fridays are always silent all day) and except for participation in worship (which is optional.)

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I have been on private retreats before, so I am comfortable with silence. But I have never been a part of a community that keeps silence. I discovered that silence can be companionable rather than awkward. Those of us using the communal kitchen for breakfast and lunch moved around one another almost as if choreographed. Most people sat at the large table and ate quietly. Some of us would bring reading material. One woman always sat where she could look out the window and watch the birds at the feeders.

After the dinner prayer, we were invited to be in conversation around the round dinner tables in the commons room. I’m a naturally curious person, so I was anxious to learn more about the people I’d been observing around the retreat center; I don’t think I was alone in my curiosity. There were normal questions: “Where are you from?” “Have you been here before?” “How long are you staying?” Yet it seemed to me that the conversations were richer than is usually the case when strangers meet; people would go to a deeper level more quickly. It was as if we knew that we only had 45-50 minutes to talk; we didn’t want to waste time on the weather.

The retreat center has wifi, but I had decided to try to spend less time on my phone during my retreat, and I did. In fact, I have maintained that practice since coming home. I had been in the habit of playing a couple of games on my phone – and, you know how it is – you think you’re just going to check your Words with Friends but then you decide to hop on to Facebook or Instagram, and there’s 30 minutes gone. I’d found myself doing that more and more. I relished the spaciousness of time I experienced while on retreat and wanted to see if I could maintain some of that peace when I returned to the busy-ness of “real life.” So far, I have. I don’t write this to be judgmental about other people’s habits; we all have to navigate the distractions of technology in our own way.

One of the books I read while on retreat was Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She writes this: “In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily…and yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers.”

It’s cliche, but true: silence clears out the clutter and helps you listen to yourself, to your own heart/mind/soul. Silence helps you pay attention to what God has been trying to say to you. I found the hours of silence deeply restorative. I found it therapeutic to walk in the fresh air, noticing the desert landscape and the mountain ranges which embrace Tucson.

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I have friends who diet and detox after the holidays, recognizing that many of us over-indulge. “Dry January” (no alcohol for a month) is a rapidly-growing trend. Fewer people talk about detoxing from social media, from noise, from all that bombards us and distracts us mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

On one of my first walks in the desert wash, something caught my eye; it gleamed a bit in the sunlight. I stopped to notice. It was a piece of an old amber-colored bottle (my first thought, as someone who lives by Lake Erie, was to call it “beach glass”:)). The word that was staring me in the face was “REFILL.”  (Sorry it doesn’t come across as clearly in the photo!)

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Retreat/renew/restore/refill…and then return. Returning to relationships, work, the pace of life is an art in itself. I am trying to remember the lessons of my six days in the desert silence. I am trying to be more present, more observant, and more patient with myself and others.

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The writer Rachel Naomi Remen writes this about silence: “Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence.”

The Sound of the Genuine

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I raised my children on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” We had videotapes and audiotapes and we played them constantly. I wanted my son and daughter to soak up as much of his goodness as possible.

So when I saw the movie last night, I realized I knew all of the words to songs like, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” and “You are special.” And I remember when Esquire magazine featured Mr. Fred Rogers on its cover, in an issue on heroism.

The story of the unlikely friendship between the hardened, skeptical journalist and the Presbyterian pastor whose parish was the Neighborhood of Make Believe was the perfect vehicle for the movie.   We are able to see the way Mr. Rogers related to people in a specific individual circumstance. The scenes between these two magnificent actors – Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys – are raw and vulnerable, so personal that I almost felt like averting my eyes.

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In one scene, Mr. Rogers tries to talk to the journalist (who’s given the fictional name Lloyd) by using his puppets. Lloyd is irritated and embarrassed and I’m sure many viewers felt the same way (I did.) But in the end, Mr. Rogers’ obvious caring wins Lloyd over and changes him profoundly. It would be very difficult to be unaffected by someone who looks you in the eye and speaks directly to you about the things that matter most.

We saw the movie with friends and then discussed it over dinner. We talked about Mr. Rogers’ sense of personal discipline; he devoted himself to relationships, to the piano, to swimming, to prayer and to his work. He paid careful attention to what he ate. In the television studio, he took time with each person, and no detail escaped his notice. What would it be like to be him, we wondered.   My friend said, “Was he that disciplined all the time, or did he ever sit down and eat junk food?” What it would be like to be his child? His spouse?

If Fred Rogers were just a rigid goody-two-shoes, he’d have been forgotten long ago. Instead, there is renewed interest in him because he was never trying to impress anyone. He knew himself and he behaved in a way that was true to himself.   He was completely authentic and lived with full integrity. That quality is rare and powerfully magnetic.

I am reminded of the commencement speech Howard Thurman gave at Spelman College entitled, “The Sound of the Genuine.” He challenges young students to find out who they are, to listen for God’s call in their lives, and to follow their purpose and passion. Here are a few quotes from that address:   “There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself—and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived… if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

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Mr. Fred Rogers was goofy. Some say weird. Certainly ripe for parody. But he was genuine, and his story encourages us to be, too.

 

Searching for Heroism

If you want to become physically healthier, one key is mindful eating. Nutritionists will tell you to be conscious of everything you put into your mouth, and to also pay attention to how that food or drink makes you feel. If mindful eating becomes an ingrained habit, you will most likely make better choices and your nutrition and health will improve.

We hear less about mindful consumption of media, but I would argue that the same principles apply. What we take into our minds while reading, while scrolling through our phones, or by channel-surfing affects our mental health and attitude. A non-stop diet of news (especially if it’s all from one source) can cause anxiety. Reading one doom-and-gloom article online after another can make you feel depressed and defeated. Even some TV shows that are meant to entertain can increase cynical and apathetic thoughts.

This is worth trying: stop yourself before you ingest the next bite of media, and ask, “How will this article/movie/program make me feel?” Will it inspire you or discourage you? Truly inform you or merely confirm the biases you already hold?

It’s also true that putting the right foods in your body can make you feel energetic and full of vitality, and that filling your mind with certain words and images and music can motivate you.

Last night I saw the film, “Harriet,” a film biography about Harriet Tubman, a woman who escaped from enslavement on a Maryland farm and became a leader in the Underground Railroad. I’d been looking forward to the movie and I was not disappointed. It’s not the best cinematography ever or the most imaginative film overall, but I was utterly captivated by Harriet’s story and she is portrayed with a fierce strength and determination by the actress Cynthia Erivo.

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The word for her life is courage: courage which literally means, “from the heart.” She went back into enemy territory again and again because she was called to try to rescue the people she loved. One particularly impactful scene shows Harriet in a comfortable parlor in the north, almost a cocktail party environment. Abolitionist leaders are discussing the Civil War, concluding that it’s probably too dangerous to rescue slaves during wartime. Harriet delivers an impassioned speech about the necessity to not give up their work. As one of the few former slaves in the room, she tells the stories of slavery in the midst of this polite gathering: beatings, rape, children ripped from their mother’s arms. Her courageous risk-taking would continue.

Like many people in this country, for most of my life I assumed that we were on a steady uphill climb towards more justice for all. Once I realized how wrong and dangerous my assumption was, once I began to grasp the amount of hatred and bigotry that still thrive, I began seeking out inspiration. I began reading about the brave resistance to Nazism, and about how men and women who are wrongfully imprisoned today manage to survive with their spirits and integrity intact. I began seeking out stories of resistance and courage.

It may be an unusual spiritual practice, but I’ve found it essential. I have to pay attention to which stories become planted within me, which images are becoming imprinted, which words I sing, which tunes I hum.

Next on my media menu: Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers — I can’t wait to see kindness celebrated on the big screen…and then the film version of the impressive and memorable book, Just Mercy, about attorney Bryan Stevenson.  Stories that keep my soul alive.

Pilgrimage to the Plains

This trip was in the works for a year and a half, so I wondered if – after so many months of anticipation – we’d feel let down or disappointed. But one of the joys of traveling to lesser-known and smaller destinations is that the unknown charms of a place can be surprising.  IMG_2794 3

After lunch and dinner in Omaha’s Old Market district (a lively neighborhood), our first stop was our tour of the Tri-Faith Initiative. Thank you to Eric Elnes who spent three hours with us, showing us the Temple Israel, Countryside Community UCC, and then taking us to Friday Prayer at the mosque.  IMG_2817

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I would be lying if I said that I was entirely without envy as I toured the gorgeous state-of-the-art church, a $26 million project completely paid for. But what I mostly felt was awe. It is uplifting to witness the thoughtfulness that led to the building’s design: the beloved pieces of stained glass from the prior church building that found a new home in this facility, the attempts to make the building as environmentally friendly as possible, the architect’s question to the congregation – “What parts of your old church mean the most to you?” (The answer was, “the coffee shop!”)

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We worshiped at Countryside on Sunday morning – how beautiful is this statement of faith? “We are an inclusive, open and affirming family of faith, welcoming all to God’s table of love and acceptance. We are diverse, yet united by Christ’s example. We care for one another, support one another and challenge one another to become all that God creates us to be. We work together to nurture our community and to promote peace and justice in our conflicted world.”

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The guys spent the day in Lincoln for the OSU/Nebraska game. Linda and I explored Omaha: serendipity everywhere we turned.

As Avon Lake UCC members know, my long-time dream has been for the church to open a coffee shop – a “third space” where ALUCC members would work, where we could hold Bible studies and book discussions…Omaha’s Urban Abbey is that kind of place and more. For 8 years, the Urban Abbey has sold coffee, books, fair trade items, and holds worship three times on Sunday – it is a church community for people who have been wounded by prior experiences of church, people who would never feel comfortable in a traditional church setting.

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At the Durham museum we saw an exhibit on race, the first national exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural and historical points of view.

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The Joslyn Art Museum has a lovely collection of art…I may need to go back: opening this Saturday is an exhibit of the art of the St. John’s Bible.

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Tired and thirsty, we stopped for something to drink at a coffee shop that is also a bike shop — a non-profit that supports young adults who age out of the foster care system.

Sunday afternoon we toured the First Plymouth UCC in Lincoln where Jim Keck is the Senior Minister and Tom Trenney is the Minister of Music.

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Trenney directs a choral group called Sounding Light which is a near-perfect blend of voices. Hearing them perform in the acoustics of the First Plymouth sanctuary was breathtaking. One of the songs was set to these words from Meister Eckhart: “What keeps us alive, who allows us to endure? It is the hope of loving, of being loved…My soul has a purpose, it is to love.”

And then, the grand finale experience of the weekend: Jim Keck and Associate Minister Patrick Messer described every book of the Bible, in 40 minutes, in a packed bar!

I come home inspired – I was so grateful to see two of my ministerial colleagues and the thriving churches they help lead. Their personalities are very different, as are the two churches’ architecture and general style, but both are growing, healthy congregations – signs of hope for the mainline Protestant community.

I come home hopeful: that there are places like the Urban Abbey that are introducing the story of Jesus to people who would otherwise be turned off to it…hopeful that there are people imaginative enough to dream up a coffee shop that fixes bikes and cares for foster children…in unexpected ways and places, people are choosing hope.