image credit: Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos via The Atlantic
By Anne Muhlethaler @annvi
My friend Lucie sent me an article from the Atlantic last night, which appealed to me a great deal even before I read it. I could have written the title you see: “I’m not scared to reenter society, I’m just not sure I want to.”
It turns out, I can relate to that. So maybe that’s why I have been asking myself about energy for the last few weeks.
Now I see that my interrogations weren’t only addressing what kind of magic happens, or not, on a Zoom call or other productivity-led concerns. No, it was more a slow recognition that this forced hibernation we’ve experienced had turned me into a new me. For a long time, my brother and I have been joking that the men in my family turn into hibernating bear-like beings as they age. Perhaps it's not just the men then?
Until recently, I’d never paid much thought to what I’d be like in a few years. Earlier on, I figured ‘older me’ would be accomplished, light, wiser, loved. Many other attributes come to mind, like a wish list for ‘tomorrow me’.
When I joined the Bento Society last June, they invited me to think about Now Me, Now Us, Future Me and Future Us. That took a little getting used to, but over time, I got a pretty clear vision of what Future Me is like. Definitely someone I am looking up to, actually, like an Inner Mentor, as Tara Morh invites us to imagine.
There are specifics to Future Me: she welcomes me wearing a white linen shirt and my favourite high-waisted, wide-legged jeans. Her hair is long and loose, blonde-grey. She hosts me in the airy and cool living room of a beautiful old stone-house, and she is sitting on a chic and comfortable chartreuse sofa. Somehow I know that this home exists under the Tuscan sun somewhere. She hosts friends and family in the garden and offers me rose tea and chocolate brownies when I come and visit. Her partner often leans over and says hi.
So, all that to say: a hibernating large mammal she is not. So how do I move towards my ‘future me’ vision?
I laughed when I finally read the Atlantic article. I love this passage, so I share it here:
‘Before the pandemic shattered my attention span, I was about halfway through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which would’ve made uncannily apt quarantine reading. It’s a novel about a young man, just graduated from college and about to commence his career, who goes to visit a cousin who has tuberculosis in a sanatorium in the Alps for a couple of weeks. He ends up staying for seven years. (We learn this in the opening pages, so this is not a spoiler, Mannboys.) One reason he stays is that he prefers life at the sanatorium to life “down below”; it is, as the title suggests, an otherworldly realm, outside of normal time.’
It so happens that I am writing this post from my balcony, from which I dominate the outside life. A beautiful, tower-like three room long space, adorned by an ornate green railing, which I am trying to transform into a suspended garden, My ‘Magic Mountain’ so to speak. There is a school, a park, a nice market twice a week, and on good days like today, I can catch a glimpse of the still relatively white peaks of the Alps - and even a bit of the Mont Blanc because it finally stopped raining. I can actually see the mountain ranges which were hidden under a dark grey cloak for what felt like the entire Spring.
From this venture point, I feel like I am in the world but in reality I am inside my own cocoon, safe. With all mod/cons at hand, my rituals, it’s comfortable here now. I am used to this. I was always very talented at cocooning so I’ve been playing to my strengths here.
I notice the world ‘down below’ is really noisy and loud. I’m not used to that anymore. It feels really unappealing. I’ve got the means to shut it out, thanks to AirPods.
Let’s say it out loud: staying in is a perfectly understandable and valid self-protection mechanism.
What now, then?
I’m strategising. Future Me seems at ease amongst other humans, so I need to consider reentering society in stages, in tiny microdoses.
When I did my Bento this past Sunday, ‘Future Me’ was quite direct and she told me that this week I needed sweetness, softness and... chocolate brownies. Awfully specific, which is how you know it’s not ‘Now Me’ talking: ‘Now Me’ rarely speaks in riddles. I’ve been off chocolate for a while, to get back into aforementioned favorite jeans which feel a bit tight over the winter.
If you are like me, feeling conflicted about even making a plan, then welcome to the conversation. We are brothers and sisters in this complex soup that makes life in June 2021 and we need to support each other to emerge as the Future Us we deserve to be.
WHY THE STUCKNESS?
A friend told me the other day that she had gone out to dinner with two others only to realise that it had felt a little overwhelming. A two-hour dinner feels like a big commitment. This brings me back to energy.
Many of us have had difficulties balancing our energy levels in the past 15 months, so in essence, this protection mode is also a way to sustain our vital force.
The Traditional Chinese doctor, who I am seeing regularly, was telling me the other day that according to TCM, the energy stored in the summer and fall are meant to sustain us through winter, but by spring, this energy is depleted. That’s why we need sun, air, space and light. So we can replenish. But if we expose ourselves in the wrong conditions before our levels are back up, we are likely to fall ill, due to this imbalance.
Relative hibernation seems like the right choice then? I suggest a slow, mindful reentering into the world. And to take it easy wherever possible. Like Future Me was saying: find sweetness. We’ve gone through a lot lately.
There is another solution at hand to support though.
MOVEMENT IS LIFE
I’ve noticed that both my brain and my body function better after I move. I’ve had plenty of time to observe my optimal set up, perhaps you’ve done the same.
For some of you, it may feel counterintuitive but hear me out. The idea is simple: we need to get the sluggish energy to move. Mindful movement that is. Not throwing myself into shapes.
Movement helps us strengthen, making us feel connected to ourselves, and maintains muscle and bone health. And you may already be aware that many researchers have also proven that movement helps with our mental health as well. I am saying this under the assumption that this will be a useful reminder. After all, every title under the sun has been writing about wellness ad nauseam. The thing is, it’s really important right now. As written in HBR recently, in this article aptly named ‘How simply moving benefits your mental health’:
‘Your mind and body are intimately connected. And while your brain is the master control system for your body’s movement, the way you move can also affect the way you think and feel.
[...] When you are too exhausted to use thought control strategies such as focusing on the positive, or looking at the situation from another angle, movement can come to the rescue.
By working out, going on a meditative walk by yourself, or going for a synchronized walk with someone, you may gain access to a “back door” to the mental changes that you desire without having to “psych yourself” into feeling better.’
Like the journalist from the Atlantic, part of the reason I am so happy to stay in, or stay closed off, is because there is underlying anxiety (in my case, in his case mild depression) about what the future, or the outside holds. Which begs the question: is outside the future?
In the famed book ‘The Artist’s Way’, writer Julia Cameron comes at movement from another angle. I was shocked how much I related to her words, though the HBR scientific was useful, this spoke to me more directly:
‘Exercise is often the going that moves us from stagnation to inspiration, from problem to solution, from self-pity to self-respect. We do learn by going. We learn we are stronger than we thought, we learn to look at things with a new perspective. Seemingly without effort, our answers come while we swim or stride or ride or run. By definition, this is one of the fruits of exercise.’ Exercise: the act of bringing into play or realising in action (Webster’s Ninth).’
NO TO BACK TO NORMAL
Moving from hibernation to social life may not happen in one fail swoop. The beauty and wonderful energy that exist in the best human interactions is worth pursuing but being removed from others for an extended period of time also offers us a chance to check in and decide how we want our interactions to look like going forward.
From the same article, Mr Kreider points out the obvious:
‘[...] After a year in isolation, I, at least, have gotten acclimated to a different existence—quieter, calmer, and almost entirely devoid of bullshit.’ And “For the last year,” a friend recently wrote to me, “a lot of us have been enjoying unaccustomed courtesy and understanding from the world.”
I’m not going to advocate for a return to the office as normal, from the ‘purgatorial commutes, to the fluorescent lights and dress codes and middle-school politics of the office.’
While I recognise that we need to make some room to get back into rooms together, we can be intentional about what these rooms feel like and our interactions. Here are some starter thoughts for you; I highly encourage you to use them with others near you to see what resonates, to start the conversation. Let’s co-create Future Us!
Create intentional exchanges: let yourself be inspired by The Four Agreements by The Four Agreements Don Miguel Ruiz or Brené Brown's Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto. Intention helps bring vision to life.
Let's take what was good in the Zoom 'daily check ins': let's continue to ask each other 'how are you?' and meant it when we ask. And listen to the answer.
Name what's in the room. Nervous, confused, pleased, or unsure? Try naming it, whether you are leading the meeting or not. That's one of the greatest things I was taught by teacher Jack Kornfield.
Watch out for others; with anxiety at record high, whether it's at hom or at work, old or young, make sure to reach out and/or speak out/to if you feel someone is struggling. It's really worth it. I was able to support at least two people in my immediate sphere by pointing out to them they were in unsafe/burnout territory. And that was pre-COVID.
Talk to your boss/colleagues/loved ones about any challenges or successes coming up for you. We need to normalise the multitude of ways in which we experience our new mode of living/working.
I’ll leave you with this: consider what brings you good energy. And do more of that.
Right. Time to get back out there, get down from my magic mountain: baby steps towards IRL, I’m making plans for a holiday, easing myself back in like Future Me was telling me to with sweetness and softness. And possibly some chocolaty treats.