This is a story of a year of transformation.
I know that many of us have been eagerly awaiting an end to 2020. We want a do-over – a new start that matches more of the 2020-themed taglines about clarity and vision.
We want a year that does not claim hundreds of thousands of lives indiscriminately, or any lives at the hands of discrimination underpinned by systemic racism.
And yet, within this debacle of a year, each of us and each of our children has been on our own journey, learning our own insights about ourselves and our place in the world.
This year has brought me a surprising array of opportunities for growth and transformation. As it draws to a close, I want to honor the place I’m in right now and document what helped me get here.
I know that nothing lasts forever. But I’m feeling grateful for my present now and hopeful about my ability going forward to be in the present and keep my heart open.
A year ago, things felt dark and heavy. I was depressed and lonely, unable to count my blessings, even if I intellectually knew I had them.
I was overwhelmed by so much: my mom’s declining health and expected passing, the end/transition of a the Holistic Moms group I had created and poured my heart into for a number of years, the requirements necessary to finalize a divorce and move toward supporting myself as a single mom, and worries about my children’s health.
I questioned every choice I’d made, including what seemed like a supremely audacious and arrogant decision to believe that I could ever be up to the challenge of having and raising children.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, I cried myself to sleep at 8:30 p.m.
I’m happy to say that I feel significantly different a year later. I understand that things can change in an instant, and yet I’m able to enjoy each moment I’m in and look forward to what’s next.
How did this shift happen?
Here are some of the things that I think made a difference.
This year I have found my place in my body.
I’ve kept up my daily yoga practice at home and have attended a few lovely outdoor classes. I’ve also added in MNRI exercises that a physical therapist recommended for my teen. I think that these neurosensorimotor reflex integration movements have helped some synapses to finally connect!
But the biggest change is that I’m running, long and light.
As I wrote last spring, I started running for the first time nearly a decade after my husband and I separated in early 2019. I began slowly. By the end of that summer, I was able to run for about five miles, and in the fall, I ran a 5K with my youngest, my first race in ten and a half years.
This spring, as the pandemic kept us from going anywhere indoors, I took it farther on the trail. I increased my distance on my one long run each weekend, loving the stillness I found in my head as my feet moved along the pavement. I worked out plot elements in my novel, I drafted poems and essays, I moved forward in relationship issues and laid plans for parenting.
I’ve expanded where I run to going along the Potomac River and running a circuit I never would have thought possibly, now regularly doing a 10-mile run each weekend and a few times getting up to almost 12 when I’ve had good weather and no time constraints. I’m grateful for every step.
When I began solo-parenting during the week in early 2019, I began walking the dog in the woods after dropping my kids off at school. Oh the hours I’ve logged on those trails, taking in the beauty around me, thinking up stories, and talking with others and hearing theirs!
After schools closed in March 2020, my kids and I got out for more bike rides and then, once allergy season ended in May, we began taking hikes. Having previously been so fatigued with Lyme Disease, I’d never bec0me the outdoorsy mom I’d envisioned. This summer, we hiked more in three months than in the previous 10 years.
Vitamin N is incredibly healing.
As my mother’s her health declined and her mental acuity faded, I experienced years of anticipatory grief. She wasn’t much present in my kids’ lives, having visited us here in Virginia only a handful of times since I became a parent in 2006. We made the drive to Michigan to see her and other family every summer and winter, and I’d flown out alone twice to spend some kid-free time with my mom in the wake of reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which inspired me to share with my mom the novel I’d been working on while I still could.
After her quadruple bypass in 2015, I slept in her hospital room and helped her put together a vision board. She did make it out of the hospital, but she never got past a limited recovery that allowed her more than a few steps at a time. By 2017, her strength and lucidity were fading. I felt guilty for not helping more but also aware of my limitations and committed to showing up for my own children. I had been chronically fatigued for so many years, so I was nervous about backsliding and then had to deal with separating and moving and showing up for my kids as much as I could. It was important to me not to fall into negative patterns that my mom appeared to have gotten stuck in, especially toward the end of her life. I wanted to be supportive and loving, but I was also protective of my energy. Ambivalence was my primary emotion.
In December 2019, all my siblings and nieces and nephews gathered together. My children got to see how to be loving with a dying person.
After my mom died in late February, felt like I could finally honor all my feelings. A friend told me about free grief counseling offered by Capital Caring. I had one in-person session before the pandemic and another on the phone after. They were powerful and healing, creating space for movement in positive directions and letting go of what didn’t serve me.
In the late summer, I was saddened to learn that someone who had been a major part of my early 2003s journey to heal my thyroid and regain my fertility had committed suicide a few months earlier. She made such a difference in so many people’s lives and left behind a daughter on the precicipe of adulthood. We’d not been in touch for a while, and I wished I’d known how profoundly she was suffering. This is the second woman who’s played a major role in my life who’s taken her life, the other being my hugely influential doula. It’s also how my brother died. This latest loss came at a time when I was feeling most distant from depression and it strenghthened my resolve to be uncompromising in my fight for my mental health and that of those I love.
Although I’d been discussing these issues in therapy for a long time, it was this year when I truly began to process my grief about the loss of these important people and of the relationship I would never have with my mom or with my longtime partner. If I was to thrive – and if my children were – I would have to let go of an obsolete vision of an intact family and not judge the new reality as wrong or inferior. I began developing a better relationship with uncertainty and creating something new, something with myself at the center.
When I’m feeling stuck or feel like one of my kids is stuck and journaling and talk therapy are not cutting it, I seek out energy work. I have a few gifted friends who have, following their own health journeys, become gifted healers. Consultations with them to clear blockages have led to powerful shifts with my kids and, I believe, have made a huge difference for me in the past several months. I also think that the passing of my mom led me to be more – or differently – open to receiving the benefits of energy work.
I had been getting craniosacral work near monthly before the pandemic hit, and I think that helped me find inner calm – to activate my parasympathetic nervous system and allow it to be the one that stays more active instead of my fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system that used to be activated nearly all the time. I’ve had only one treatment since restrictions went in place – and kids stopped going to school! – in March and am glad I prioritized getting it often while I could.
I came down with a fever the night before my mom died, which also happened to be the anniversary of my brother’s death back in 1987. I had a hunch I was getting sick when I went to bed on the night of February 23, and when I woke the next morning, I knew without taking my temperature that I was ill and I knew without listening to my voicemail that my mom had died. I spent the week in a sweaty, shivering stupor, sleeping most of the day after driving the kids to school and walking the dog in a slow shuffle. I talked to my siblings but didn’t join them at my parents’ house in Michigan. There was no way I could fly, even if I felt like I could leave my kids, who were grappling with their first experience of death.
At the end of the week, I tried to venture out for a book reading, but it completely exhausted me. I canceled plans to go to a writing conference with friends the following weekend – what I didn’t know would be the last time anyone would go anywhere – and I spent that first week of March (including my birthday) crying and wondering if my Lyme was triggered again and if I’d ever not feel ill.
I heeded the advice of my holistic health coach friend to take it easy and to add some supplements into my regime. Before long, I improved and, I think, emerged stronger than I’d been before the illness.
I believe in the healing powers of fevers. I also think it was a gift to be pushed to cocoon in the immediate wake of my mom’s death. That time of year was already the toughest for me. My illness gave me permission to really sink down and feel my grief so I could move out of it. It was scary and awful, but it was necessary.
Meaningful (paid) work
Although I want to emphasize all the healing aspects of my journey this year, I can’t underestimate the benefit I’ve received by being paid and appreciated for work. For many years, I poured energy into volunteer work and then into this site, to the detriment of my financial health. There were many benefits, but they didn’t pay the bills.
As my husband and I moved closer to divorce, I spent more time and energy looking for jobs and then being glad I hadn’t gotten one once my kids were home with me during the week. It was a surprise to be offered a job I hadn’t even really applied for. Through one email on a freelance group, I connected with a non-profit organization where my skills in editing and basic graphic design were in demand. The work came toward the end of the “school” year, was flexible and got me more connected to the political scene in a way that felt invigorating. Although it has been challenging to balance the needs of work and family, I am aware how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do meaningful paid work at a time when so many people do not have that option. The pandemic has shifted how I feel about now and future, about claiming what’s available when it’s there and not assuming there will always be a next time.
It’s still important to do things mindfully and not say yes to things that are outside my scope. I learned – and am practicing! – how to put in place healthy boundaries to get my work done without dramatically compromising my children’s summer or my health. Feeling like a valued part of an organization and part of something greater than me has been very rewarding, as has feeling my earning power.
This year saw tremendous pain and loss of life, murders of people of color at the hands of law enforcement or those who deem themselves to be arbiters of justice. This was horrible, but I have been heartened by what may come out of this pain. I have been glad to hear and see so many more white people willing to engage in interrogating systemic racism and their role in it.
I left teaching in 2006 feeling saddened that I couldn’t get my colleagues to care about my research and advocacy about the skewed racial makeup of AP and honors classes or that I couldn’t manage to make my own classrooms the empowering places for youth of color that I envisioned. It was hard work, harder than the Intro to Women’s Studies classes I’d previously taught at the college level, where in 1999, we started off with readings about systemic racism and systems of oppression before we even began talking specifically about gender. I’ve felt despondent the past four years by so much, especially decisions like the one to not allow critical race theory into sensitivity trainings. So while I didn’t want it to have to take so much pain to open people’s eyes, I’m at least hopeful that this gigantic wound is something white people are no longer thinking can be covered with band-aids.
My children are witness to this shift and, I hope, will grow up with a keener awareness and commitment to justice than they might have if things persisted without the fever pitch of this year’s violence and the reactions to it. They’ve been part of vigils in-person and online and have a heightened sense of the importance of connection and intention to cause a shift. I hope we will hold one another accountable and make sure we are not complicit and are instead agents of change.
Mindfulness & Yoga
Yoga has been my daily companion for quite some time. Doing yoga regularly has allowed me to be able to run, which is my moving meditation. I’ve sat in stillness for some periods, but what I’ve done more consistently has been metta meditation.
I wish, first to myself, loving kindness, that I may be healthy and strong, that I may be peaceful and calm, that I love and be loved, and that my life unfolds with ease. The “be loved” part has been rough at times, but I’ve persisted without skipping over it.
I then move on to wish the same to someone I love unconditionally (usually my kids but sometimes extended family or a close friend), then someone I don’t know well, and then someone who’s felt challenging to me (sometimes people in power, sometimes my kid’s dad, sometimes a school official, sometimes just someone who hurt my feelings). And then I wish all this to all beings.
Doing this before I wake up – or sometimes when I wake in the night, or when I wind down to sleep – has contributed greatly to my ability to accept myself and others, which really, is everything.
Loss of FOMO & embrace of uncertainty
I wish it didn’t take the loss of thousands of lives to get me to let go of expectations, but I do think the pandemic has really assisted my non-attachment. Even if I’ve always known there’s no such thing as certainty or control, I really get that now.
I can only control how I show up. And for that, I need to contribute healthy ingredients for a healthy attitude: cultivating mindfulness, eating good food, getting exercise, etc. I may still have down times, but if I am on the regular doing things that support my body, mind and spirit, then I will be able to find my way to openness in the face of whatever arises.
The pandemic shook me loose from thinking I could know what was going to happen in a month or a year. It came just at the time that my husband and I were negotiating spousal support and looking at the years ahead, which got me realizing how little time left I have with my kids. One will graduate in 2024 and the other in 2028. That’s really not very far away. The confluence of being with them all the time and thinking about someday not being with them – at the moment that everyone’s sense of normalcy was in an upheaval – created a news space for a kind of calm I’d never known. Nothing was going to get better by me being anxious.
And although I was nervous about illness, I was finding myself less anxious overall because gone from my life was a sense that it would be better if only.
If only I had the money to travel or a partner who wanted to travel and take the kids places, or a partner who wanted me to write, and if only I had time to cook my kids the best food while also getting them outside and being a great teacher and sympathetic ear and simultaneously modeled for them being an active engaged citizen who does meaningful work….
I let that all go. Positioning myself as a victim had been my default setting. Amid the pandemic, that just fell off the dial.
I also lost the Fear of Missing Out that had gripped me since well before it was an acronym. I had FOMO about events I wished to attend (even if I hadn’t known about them until I scrolled through Facebook and saw other people there) or places I wished I could visit or foods I wished I could have at restaurants I wished I could afford, or fun times with people I wished wanted to be with me.
Once no one could go anywhere or spend time together, all that FOMO was gone. People are doing more things now, months later, but the idea of choosing what to do on your own terms now does not feel like settling. It feels like choice.
I don’t really care what other people are doing so much anymore. I’ll still take ideas from people about places to hike or things to try, but I’m just not a sucker for envy anymore.
For a long time, I felt like I was too weak to get to do all the things I’d like to do. I even wished for less years of life so I’d have less time for regret.
Now I feel like life is pretty short. No one gets to do everything. When it is possible to do more – to travel and to be with people – I will totally do a lot more, not out of fear of missing out but out of a desire to cultivate joy. And out of curiosity.
Speaking of which…
Travel and hands-on experiences are not the only ways of the curious. Reading is a wonderful way to learn and engage. I’ve found I’m much happier when I am reading a novel or work of short fiction. I’ve also gotten a lot out of reading memoirs and self-help books, the most notable of which this year was Untamed by Glennon Doyle.
(That book deserves its own reflective essay. Maybe someday. For now, it’s got a lot of sticky notes).
I first heard about Glennon’s book from a terrific Weekend Edition interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro. I cannot fail to note the great extent to which listening to NPR has taught me and made me want to be curious about the world and engaged with it.
I attribute much personal growth to listening to the music variety show Live From Here and attending a show in person, by myself, in June 2019. I would have attended again on March 14, 2020, but that obviously got canceled.
In the first few months of the pandemic, I enjoyed my solo Saturday nights going grocery shopping and listening to Live From Here, followed by Live Wire. It was a sad day in June when I learned that Live From Here would be canceled, and another sad day in September when my local NPR station changed its Saturday programming to stop playing both shows.
(See this post I wrote on Medium for more on the cancellation.)
But this shift was also a reminder that everything has its time.
(See my forthcoming post for more on endings and beginnings!)
My intellectual and spiritual growth have also been influenced by the Unitarian Universalist church we started attending regularly four years ago. Attendance at church has helped me to feel open to more learning and to more curiosity. I enjoyed the services we attended in person, but, before my marital separation, I also frequently cried much of the way through them, especially if then-musical-artist-in-residence Maya Rogers was performing. (Her voice!)
One time we had to share what we had an “abundance” of, and I happened to be sitting next to Maya, who said, “I have an abundance of love.” I gulped, realizing how stuck I was in a paradigm of lack. I knew this was a story and not a truth, but I also couldn’t manage to get out of the fiction.
Four years of music and sermons – in person and online – have helped – given me insights, reminded me what I’d forgotten, and connected me to something greater than myself. The church has been in transition, having lost its senior minister unexpectedly and then undergone a search for self and a way forward through two interim ministers. This has been messy and unsettling for those who were deeply connected to the church as it was, but for me coming in just head of this transition, watching the process was instructive and inspiring. I got to see people muddling through and holding onto a belief in their ability to create something new.
Intention & Awareness
I’ve spent many of the past ten years needing to be incredibly intentional about what I eat, almost to the point of it nearly consuming me as a project, so to speak. I had such a hard time digesting my food, absorbing its minerals; constantly taking care of someone else and attending to their needs made that even harder. It’s a joke but also true that I sent my youngest child to full-time preschool at age three partly so that I could eat lunch alone. This may seem selfish and ridiculous, but it was absolutely necessary, and it was one of the many steps that led me to being better today.
I’m thrilled to now have more flexibility with food, to have fewer and lesser immediate and delayed food reactions. A happier GI tract means a happier brain, or one more capable of appropriately circulating the neurotransmitters one needs to sustain a sense of peace and contentment. I have more latitude, but I am not immune to hiccups and backslides.
I remain intentional and serious about my food choices and the way I approach food. I eat what I love with a full heart, I cook with joy (usually), I avoid things I know are triggers, I try to always eat sitting down, I observe a full 12-hour fast between dinner and breakfast, and I rarely snack. I used to turn down most social eating opportunities. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee. This is what works for me.
There’s always room for improvement. I’d still love to widen my recipe repertoire – to actually consult some of the many cookbooks I own – and to get my kids more regularly involved in meals and to get back to making broth and some other staples more often. But I’m currently okay with the shortcuts I take. They are intentional and serve a purpose.
Other areas of intention include regularly taking my supplements and reviewing them with practitioners, getting bodywork (when it feels safe), doing core exercises and yoga daily – and running at least once a week – and using essential oils in targeted ways. The main area I’m struggling with right now is sleep, so I did the DUTCH test to understand what’s up with my hormones and adjusting supplements accordingly. I’ve also scheduled acupuncture and craniosacral appointments.
I feel most alive when I’m writing. Whether I’m writing fiction, essays or poetry, the act is transformative. So too, is the act of reading. Every word I read makes me a better writer.
I love that when asked what my most recent vision board “said,” my youngest replied: “Alive.” This is what I want to feel and what I want to convey.
Although only a small amount of writing has yet made its way to journals’ submission boxes, a lot has gotten onto the page. And much of it has been shared – workshopped and commented on by others. In addition to seeking feedback from friends and colleagues, I have loved participating in critique groups and in workshops this year.
A surprising bonus to the shutdown of in-person life has meant much more has gone online. Because of my early-March illness, I missed one of the four in-person writing conferences I’d signed up for this year, but I had the opportunity to participate in so many more – conferences, talks, workshops, and readings – because things went virtual. I was even quoted in the City Paper about taking advantage of the virtual literary and storytelling scene in D.C.!
Some of these opportunities offered insights that I put into practice immediately. Others were simply enlivening and entertaining. Many provided information I know I’ll turn back to at the right time. All were meaningful connections.
Being equally an introvert and extrovert, it’s worked out for me to connect with family and friends online and by phone and occasionally outdoors, on walks or while our kids are playing. Happy hours were never my thing, and it felt hard to get out to readings on a school night when my kids were home with me as the solo parent.
It’s not ideal to tune my kids out right after dinner, but once in a while, it’s a saving grace.
For almost two years now, I’ve had Friday nights and Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings alone.
Before separating from my husband, I’d had only about a dozen nights away from my kids – to visit my mom, to attend conferences and to focus on my novel.
Once we split into two homes, I had a lot more. He’s had the kids from after school each Friday through going to school on Monday. However, I’ve rarely spent a whole weekend away from my kids. Pre-pandemic I helped take one to an activity while the other did something else most Saturdays, and we met at church on Sundays. Now, we often get together for dinner and maybe a movie or TV at least one night during most weekends.
Still, it’s been very helpful to have three mornings when I can do yoga and listen to NPR and clean and write and now, also, to work, while no one needs anything or pulls me out of my reverie. I get to retreat to my own space to journal and read before bed. It’s not like it was impossible for me establish healthy boundaries without moving out, but it felt like it was.
Regular journaling should probably get its own category. I started a few years ago with a guided journal called The Best Part of My Day: A Healing Journal for Chronically Ill Patients and then made a guided journal for myself. Now I have one journal where I jot quick notes about exercise, sleep and self care each and every day and another where I write more long form reflections.
I’ve grown and reflected and learned a lot during this time.
Documenting this year – this portion of my journey – felt important. I have always tried to approach what I share with a glimpse at hope, but sometimes it’s been hard. I’m sure that’s probably come through in my writing and also how I’ve shown up as a friend or colleague. I know it’s affected how I’ve shown up as a parent. It was always a goal to be open about the messiness of life and the process, but I fear that my stuck-ness might have sounded a stronger note than I desired. It was in my heart.
I want for my kids – and for my future self – to know where I was at the end of this tumultuous year. We all go through phases, I know, but it feels that I’ve entered a very different one.
I can’t predict the future, but I’m finally honestly really looking forward to it.
And I wanted to make that known.
All images copyright 2020 Jessica Claire Haney. May not be reproduced without permission.
Jessica Claire Haney is a writer and the founder of Mindful Healthy Life. A former English teacher, she works as a freelance editor and tutor. Learn more at JessicaClaireHaney.com. Follow Jessica on Instagram at @jessicaclairehaney and @mindfulhealthy, on Facebook at CrunchyChewyMama and MindfulHealthyLife, and on Twitter @CrunchyChewy and @MindfulHealthy.