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A Mermaid’s Guide to Surviving a Pandemic

Stop, drop and float! A mermaid in her element.

I would not have guessed that I would be thinking and writing about swimming during a global pandemic. But here we are. I write this on a Friday, at the end of my seventh week in isolation since COVID-19 swept into the United States and forced us to participate in a global timeout.

Unlike millions of Americans who find themselves unemployed because of this pandemic, I am still working. I’m grateful for that up to a point. There is a difference between working from home because you want to and working at home because you are forced to work. A big difference.

A fish very much out of water.

I’ve been working more or less from home since I rejoined the working world in February. For those that don’t know, I left my full-time gig as a daily journalist back at the end of May 2019. I left because burnout and grief are a powerful cocktail and I was standing at the corner of hope and despair pretending that it was all fine and it wasn’t. I’ve tried despair. It tastes like what I imagine a bleachtini with a shot of Fabuloso tastes like. (Don’t drink that.)

But back then, I promised myself that I would not simply push through my despair this time. I would heal it. I also promised myself that I would finally learn to swim. And that I wouldn’t just learn to swim for survival. I wanted to get in touch with my inner mermaid. I wanted to swim and love it.

Snorkeling, kayaking, standup paddle boarding…you name it!!!

I spent the entire summer going down to Sarasota, Fla. for a week at a time to do just that. When I wasn’t in Sarasota I was in the adult swim classes at LEAP, heading to the pool at Conte School, the Orange town pool, one trip to the pool at Hillhouse High School, and eventually finding a pool home at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.

I learned to swim through a program called Miracle Swimming for Adults. And a graduate of the program told me and my classmates in our beginner course that what we were learning would be useful to us in the pool and outside of it. I believed him then. And now that my pool is closed because of the pandemic I believe him even more.

Around self-isolation week three I started to ask myself: why are you so calm? 

Now listen, there are a million reasons why I should be calm. All my basics are covered. Food, shelter, water, clothes? Check. Heat, electricity, Internet access, and a safe environment? Check. Physically distant from my loved ones but still able to keep in touch? Check. 

But during a global pandemic, even the privileged get nervous. When there is no toilet paper or disinfectant on the shelves for weeks you get nervous. When you read stories about farmers plowing under their crops and businesses sacrificing their underpaid, under-protected employees, you get nervous. 

In the face of a silent killer that has struck the physically weakened and the strong, the young and the old, the rich and the poor — by no means in equal fashion — you get nervous. You get nervous because you know as the country dissolves into what seems like anarchy little-by-little, every day, all of these things could be happening more directly to you. Only time will tell.

But I really wanted to get to the root of why someone who started having panic attacks a year ago, who had been battling bouts of insomnia long before that was now experiencing an unprecedented (for her) level of calm.

And the answer floated to the surface: it’s the swimming. You are a mermaid.

Melon Dash, actual badass who swims with dolphins.

I became a mermaid through a system that teaches adults panic prevention in deep water. It is taught through a concept pioneered by Miracle Swimming founder Melon Dash called the 5 Circles Mindfulness Method

And much like near-drowning experiences, a global pandemic is built for panic. It is the deep end of the pool. It is the bottomless lake. A global pandemic is the vast ocean where you can’t put your feet down or cling to the perimeter.

Through the 5 Circles method, I learned the stages that lead to panic and how to prevent them. The short version is you want to remain in your first circle in most situations. You might be able to manage if you are in your second circle. But you don’t want to stay there because it can easily spin out to circles three through five and then PANIC!

I’ve been in what we in the swim program would call my first circle for much of the seven weeks. The first circle is your most comfortable, relaxed self. You’re in your body and feeling all the things. When we first got in the pool, for many of us, being in our first circle was standing with our feet firmly planted on the ground in the shallow end of a heated swimming pool.

Learning to swim in an outdoor, heated pool in Florida in the middle of summer might sound like madness. But there is a method. Fear can feel cold. Fear will make you shiver, even in a heated pool. Fear will make you feel cold when you consume too much news.

In these weeks of self-isolation, I realized that when I am over stimulated from consuming too much news (sorry, journalism friends) I actually tend to physically shiver. And what I was doing to compensate was putting on all my warm soft things and a heated blanket. When what I needed to do was all of that plus limit my consumption of news. 

As my swimming lessons progressed last year, being in my first circle was about my ritual for entering the swimming pool. That ritual includes entering the pool slowly. Having a nose clip and goggles. Wearing a rash guard or neoprene swim vest for warmth. Getting my face wet first. Spending some time submerged. Noticing where in my body I felt tension.

Floating comfortably in the very salty Gulf of Mexico.

Eventually, it became floating on my back with my hands behind my head, and my legs crossed.

During this pandemic, it looks like noticing my cold hands and feet AND the tightness I felt in my chest. The tightness that would cause me to look up the symptoms of COVID-19 and heart attack if I read the news for an hour. It looks like limiting my news intake to 30 minutes at the top of my day and returning to a land-based meditation and mindfulness practice because I can’t go for a relaxing float.

It has looked like identifying what we learned in our swim classes as speeding. In class, that meant doing a skill so fast that you couldn’t remember how you did it or recall the steps. Or being so freaked out doing something that you scared yourself. 

In a drowning situation, most people can’t recall what happened. If they survive, they might tell you it happened so fast. And even if their terrified mind can recall the details they will not be able to recall if they could feel the buoyancy of their body or that their flailing arms were actually holding them underwater. Or even that they were far closer to the surface and the precious air their lungs craved than their scared mind could fathom. They had no awareness of all of that because their mind had completely left their body. That’s classic circle-five behavior. That’s panic.

Interestingly enough, the way that the novel coronavirus can attack and damage the lungs, closing off the ability of a person to breathe, sounds a lot like drowning to me. And when I imagine what it must feel like, and then read about what it actually feels like, I get scared. 

On land, speeding is probably most akin to busyness. Do you remember the mad dash of the first couple of weeks as everybody tried to pivot to a home-based operation? I certainly do. The flurry of meetings. All of the emails. And the beginnings of everything moving to Zoom. For this introvert, the first couple of weeks were mentally and emotionally exhausting. 

We probably realize now at week seven that we could have done a great many of those things a little slower. Many of us who don’t have frontline jobs — essential jobs that are saving lives — could have been untethered for a week to grapple with the fact that we don’t know when we will see our coworkers again without the mediation of our computers. When our kids will see their teachers. When we will see our loved ones in person again. 

We traded our emotions and acknowledging our fear for a semblance of normalcy and productivity. For we collectively believed that if we just keep moving it will all be OK. We were desperately treading water. 

Don’t beat yourself up. I did it too. But then I remembered that rushing around with my hair on fire, even from home, wasn’t going to save anyone’s life, not even my own. Collectively, we were all in circles three through five, panic shopping and working too much.

Our week-long swimming program was highly structured. We had dry land class time for at least an hour each day before we stepped foot in the pool. We also had home-fun (sounds nicer than homework) to complete after every class. The program also included deliberate downtime and rest so we could digest what we learned in class. Some days, our swimming courses were twice a day. That meant up to four hours in one day facing for many of us what was up until then our deepest fear — the fear of drowning.

And some days there were setbacks. A skill that you learned in the morning might fall apart during the afternoon class. And you’d be heartbroken because you knew you could do it. Everybody saw you do it. 

Our instructors would kindly and compassionately suggest to us not to practice frustration. They’d gently guide us to return to a skill we could do. That might look like practicing something so easy we could do it with our eyes closed or simply taking a moment to play a pool game. We called this changing the subject.

I have found during this practice of self-isolation that I have to change the subject often. Too often, everything we talk about is heavy with pandemic speak. But guess what? The ordinariness of life is still happening for better or worse. 

People are celebrating milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. Some people’s marriages are still falling apart. People are still having babies. People are still moving, taking on different jobs. People are still dying of things other than the novel coronavirus as I brutally found out this week when I learned of a former childhood neighbor’s tragic death in a car crash.

I also got the news that yet another former newspaper colleague was losing his job to budget cuts. These painful things hit me on the same day when I was personally having a very good quarantine week. People are still peopling.

But it has been the first circle rituals that I have established in these weeks that have kept me grounded when it feels like the wildfire is far too close to my house. Like the water is rising. I can tell you what those rituals are but my rituals don’t matter. Your rituals matter. What works for you matters.

Having an awareness that every day those rituals can change because the circumstances change matters. I’m doing more reading during the quarantine. Ironically, I was reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and it’s sequel Parable of the Talents when we went into collective self-isolation mode. 

And part of the way I am “shaping change” is by remembering again something I learned in swim class: every day at the pool, every day at the ocean, is a different day. Some days, you have the whole pool to yourself. Some days it is filled with rambunctious little kids, some days it’s teenagers trying to become lifeguards. Some days the Atlantic is calm and placid as a lake. Most any other day? Not so much. 

Every day of this pandemic will bring something different. How I choose to stay present for it all will determine if I meet it with some sense of calm or panic. Some level of grace.

And I’ll be honest, going to stores takes me out of my first circle. In fact, the first couple of times I did it was right around when we began voluntarily masking. Of course, it is the law now. But when I tell you it was a speedy, feral-eye darting from here to there, dodging those who were still browsing instead of being deliberate …whew. 

My heart rate speeds up just thinking about it. I left those stores feeling like a hot and sweaty, frustrated mess. So of course, my trips to the store are fairly limited and even more specific these days. When I stopped focusing on all the ways I felt people were doing it wrong and that I couldn’t control, I began focusing on what I could. 

I noticed that the CVS I frequent is almost always nearly people free during the times I am able to go. But I had to slow down to notice that. And I had to learn to breathe with my mask on even though breathing feels like one of the scariest things in the world right now. 

Somewhere far out in the deep of the Gulf of Mexico.

What I eventually learned as I progressed to where I am now — someone who can confidently say she can swim — is what my instructors told me then. The water in the shallow end and what you can do in it works the same way in the deep end or even the ocean. 

Your body works the same way. Your breath works the same way. All the skills you know for dealing with this moment work the same way. All those real self-care things we all know we need to do more of but don’t, work the same way. And these are the things that I remind myself as I stay safe at home.

This pandemic is the deep end of the pool. Be well and may the first circle be with you.


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Mindset Reset: Needs vs. Wants

We recently had a conversation about delineating the line between needs and wants and came to the conclusion that real needs — food, water, clothing, shelter and love — are just the basic, bare minimums that most any human must have to survive. Everything else is truly extra.

But the why and the how of  obtaining these basics is about more than surviving and strikes at the heart of what we value as really living.  You can choose to eat at home or eat out. You can choose to drink only bottled water or straight from the tap. You can choose to only shop at thrift stores, big box retailers or high end department stores. You can choose to share a space or live alone. All are choices that provide you varying levels of the four basic things that you need. The value in which choice you make  is completely personal and the only thing that truly matters is the honest truth of why you make the choices that you make.

Anyone who knows us knows that we like to eat out, spend time with our friends and travel near and far. We like to run races and we like to buy the latest thing that our heart desires. But when we embarked on Operation Do Better we discovered that what we really value above all the stuff that we might own or ultimately obtain  is experience. We also realized that we can’t have the kinds of experiences that we truly desire until we changed our mindsets about what what we truly need and want, and what we were willing to do to about both. We are constantly talking, grappling. wrestling with and pressing the evolution and transformation of our mindset. Here’s a cleaned up excerpt of a conversation we had about needs and wants.

The Conversation…

Ricks: We’ve been eating beans and anything else we have lots of every day, until its gone for 78 days. That means we’ve had to plan meals and make sure what we are cooking are things we like to eat regularly because we’re going to eat them  MULTIPLE times in a week, often times back to back. Because we’re good cooks, eating our own leftovers is not such a chore. But if we do get bored we cook something else and keep eating it until its GONE. If we want the social aspect of going out, we invite friends over. We have made these choices because there are things that we truly NEED to see happen in our lives if we’re ever going to know financial freedom in our lifetime. We have big dreams and sometimes those kinds of dreams come with just a little bit of self sacrifice.

Reese: As a person who used to say “I don’t like leftovers,” I came to a place where I realized that wasn’t the case. It’s just that I wasn’t that great of a cook and I didn’t like eating MY leftovers! LOL. Once I invested time and creativity into cooking, I started eating more leftovers. I think I’ve discovered that this whole process requires a level of honesty that overcomes the rationalizations we used to make for not cooking after a long day, or buying our lunch because we forgot our lunch or don’t want to eat the leftovers we brought. It really comes down to the mindset we decided we would have and how much we were willing to stretch to change our old “spend it now, spend it all” mindset.

Ricks:  If nothing more, this process has solidified my ability to identify what is a need and a want. If I’m not going to die without something it’s not a true need. If I believe that it’s something that adds to the value to my life, it’s still not a need, but a highly valued want. I’ve learned that if I’m going to indulge in a want, even a high value one, I need to call it what it is — it’s a want.  It’s not a need and I shouldn’t call it that. I have to say to myself, “I’m making a conscious decision to spend on this thing that I want. I know the consequence might mean extra money might not go where it should go. I can rationalize that buying this want makes my life easier, more fun, more beautiful and that might be true. But it is still a want and I’m OK with that.”  But I have to acknowledge that I made the decision to indulge in that want and not play mind games with myself about what are my true needs and what are my true wants.

I’ll freely admit that the fact that I have a credit card bill that is the living, breathing, life sucking embodiment of my WANTS,  means that whether to eat the same thing every day or not spend money eating out is not a trivial matter for me. It’s simply NOT an option because of something that I want more than another dinner that I didn’t cook.  I WANT to be free of this debt — like yesterday.

Reese: I personally try to steer clear of the phrase “I can’t.” I think putting out energy about what “you can’t do,” illustrates a mindset that says  1) other people can’t question me or hold me  accountable because I’ve said I can’t live without this thing, and 2) it’s OK to fall short of growth or goals because I’ve said I’m not able to do a certain thing. On top of all of that, I think there’s an implicit assumption that if I say what I can’t live without something then I’m honestly engaging in this process because I’m telling people what I can’t do. Maybe you are being honest, but maybe you are not. Maybe you want something bad and haven’t really thought deeply about what it means to let that desire go or to question  if you really need it.

A starting place…

We pretty much have conversations like this on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. After this conversation we thought about a helpful way to draw the line between needs and wants. Try making “I” statements like the ones that follow.

I need to live without fear…

I need to stop digging my own financial grave…

I need an emergency fund because it’s going to rain…

I need to break this generational curse over finances in my family…

I need to DO BETTER.

I want to be free of my debt more than I want to eat out…

I want the financial freedom to help my family and help myself…

I want to have options that allow me to make the best decision for my future rather than only being able to make the best decision for right now…

I want to DO BETTER.