Dan Keusal's e-newsletter
Spring 2020 edition:
"Finding Meaning, Hope, and Help Amidst COVID-19"
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In my own attempt to offer meaning, help, and hope during this coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, this newsletter includes: 1) my latest essay 2) a special section with fresh takes on 10 self-care practices, and 3) "Resources For A Richer Life," including a pandemic "medley" by a local songwriter, an inspiring poem, a novel that imagines a post-pandemic world, and one of my photos. There's also news about a free online webinar I'll be offering soon.
If you would like even more support, call me about doing psychotherapy or astrology sessions by phone or video. I'm here to help.
Stay healthy, stay safe, be well.
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Reflections: “Finding Meaning, Help, and Hope Amidst COVID-19"
A week before orders to shelter in place were issued, I was sitting at my desk at home, talking with a colleague on the phone about the logistics and the clinical implications of seeing our clients remotely. I looked out the window to my left and saw, still and yet seemingly suspended in mid-air, a small bird. Perhaps because I’m not a “bird person,” this scene seized my attention. I looked more closely, and realized that the bird was, in fact, clinging to the screen on the outside of that window, the tiny toes of its passerine feet having managed to reach into the nearly equally tiny squares of the screen.
The bird stayed there for just a few moments, and then flew off, but the image lingered. I’ve lived in my home and looked out that window for more than 25 years and that had never happened before. It has continued to happen regularly since then. Such occurrences, characterized by the unusual, and by the viscerally resonant, are often the herald of synchronicity, of meaning, and meaning speaks in the language of metaphor and symbol. In the midst of this this virus, we can begin to experience our lives as suspended in mid-air. We can begin to feel fearful and vulnerable. And with good reason. There are very real threats to our health, our livelihoods, and our sense of connectedness. But take heart. There are experiences, people, and places that we can cling to, right now, right where we are, right in front of us—safe havens, tranquil places to land, even if only for a few moments. Pay attention. Stay open. If we take note of those moments, and allow them to linger, they can help sustain us in this uncertain time.
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, I notice myself and others trying to pay attention, and to respond, on at least three levels.
The first level is that of simple survival, of tending to our immediate and fundamental safety and security. Washing our hands. Staying physically distant and sheltering in place. Finding new ways to do school, or our jobs, or trying to navigate the bureaucratic maze of applying for unemployment. Trying to keep enough food and other essential supplies on hand.
This would be a challenge even if it were the only level, because our normal ways of going about things—the routines that anchor our daily lives—have been disrupted, and it takes more time, energy, and bandwidth to do the same tasks, or even less, than we used to. Grocery shopping, which used to be a “pop in to pick up a few things” task, may now involve waiting in a long line just to get into the store, and navigating the aisles while wearing a mask, and trying not to forget items on our list, which would leave us returning to this scene, or doing without. Such experiences, compounded over the course of a day or a week, can leave us feeling unusually spent.
The second level has to do with ways that the pandemic may be triggering us individually, personally, tugging at our issues, our histories, our unresolved traumas. One person may find that being laid off from her job evokes memories of growing up in a family that had constantly lived on the edge financially. Another whose partner had left her may find that her feelings of isolation and loneliness are amplified by social distancing and stay-at-home-decrees. A third, encountering stories in the news of dying patients unable to have bedside visitors, may recall his having arrived at the bedside of his beloved, dying uncle, just an hour after he had died—an uncle who had been a safe haven for him while growing up in the midst of a chaotic family.
Situations like these call for deep compassion and care, especially when the stresses of that first level, of simply trying to survive, leave us feeling that we’re already “out of gas” (an ironic image, given that many of us are using so much less actual gasoline these days). As one writer recently put it “Things are not normal; it’s OK to not be OK!” And yet…triggers like these can also be gateways, unique opportunities for healing and growth. Moving through them with consciousness, courage, and support (a trusted friend, or even a therapist) can, in a time of vulnerability and fear, leave us feeling lighter, unburdened, even empowered.
The third level has to do with the ways our collective wounding and shadow are being brought to light during this pandemic. Which brings us to toilet paper, cactus, dreams, and speeding ships and cars.
My clients have often heard me say “That which are unwilling to WORK out psychologically, we wind up ACTING out behaviorally.” The early days of the pandemic have been marked by, among other things, people stockpiling toilet paper. Unwilling to consciously work out the big collective messes that we’ve made—climate change, racism, economic disparity, misogyny, political corruption and power hoarding—are we now acting out by unconsciously obsessing over our capacity to clean up the smaller individual “messes” that we are making every day?
Our unresolved, unconscious issues show up not just in our behaviors, but also in our dreams. And sometimes, especially in times of crisis, the dreams of individuals include images that reflect and shed light on our collective angst, holding up a mirror to what’s going on in the psyche of the wider culture. It’s as if the dream images of each individual are pieces in a larger puzzle, and if we gather those pieces together, we get a glimpse of the big picture. Over the last few months, I’ve seen this frequently in the dreams of my clients, but here I’ll share a dream of my own as an example.
The night before I was to make the transition to doing all my sessions remotely (via phone or video), to keep the container of therapy safe for me, my clients, and everyone else, I had a dream that included this:
I’m on a kind of a “cruise” ship, only in size it’s more like a ferry. At one point I walk out on deck, and see that although the ship is moving through a very narrow passage (there is perhaps 10 feet between the sides of the boat and the shoreline), it was being driven dangerously fast, more like a speedboat than a cruise ship or a ferry, leaving a destructive wake that was doing damage to the channel through which we were passing.
When I consulted a colleague about this dream, they said “That doesn’t sound like you, Dan. In life’s narrow passages, you go slowly, mindfully.” (I was grateful for their characterization of me; I hope I am living up to it). They speculated, then, that my dream may have been channeling some of the perspective of the collective unconscious about what’s going on in the wider world: the ship going too fast in my dream may be a reflection of the ways that our “captains” have been irresponsibly speeding along with their own agendas, heedless of the damage they are doing to everything and everyone around them.
It didn’t end there.
The next day, I drove to my office and gathered the things I would need to start working from home. As I began the drive home, a speeding car pulled up dangerously close to my rear bumper, darted into the left turn lane, raced around me, and sped on up the hill (I would speculate they were doing at least 50 mph in that 30 mph zone). I thought of my dream, and saw this young driver as yet another example of someone unconsciously acting out their anxiety, as if they could somehow “outrun” their fears about the virus. A few seconds later, as I approached the traffic light at the top of the hill, I pulled up behind that same car, stopped at the red light. In the end, they were no further ahead than if they had gone slowly and mindfully, and they had endangered themselves, me and everyone else on the road in the process (and most likely added to what was already an excessive amount of adrenaline in their system). The entire sequence of events struck me as synchronistic, as a “waking dream” that echoed the message of my nocturnal one.
So…where do we go from here? How do we slow down, and stay mindful, and present, in the midst of so much uncertainty?
I’m no more certain about that than anyone else. In the special section below I’ve shared some practices that I’ve found helpful. Here, I’ll close with a story that reminded me about the power of metaphor and symbol, even in a time like this of real, concrete needs…
Years ago, out of a desire to add some color and life to my bathroom, I bought a small bud vase, crafted by a local potter, and started buying each week, from the floral department at my local market, a fresh, single-stem flower: a red rose, a bright yellow button pom, a deep purple aster.
As the pandemic took hold, I walked into the market one day and saw that its entire stock of single-stem flowers…was gone. An employee told me that their suppliers had shut down. Determined to keep that symbol of life…alive…I asked if anything from the dwindling selection of potted plants might work. After I described the conditions in my bathroom, the employee showed me a particular variety of cactus: “It will do well even if there is very little light or water.”
At a time when it can seem that there is very little light (at least of the metaphoric variety; Seattle, at least, has enjoyed weeks of mostly brilliant, bright, sunny days), and very little life-giving “water,” may we find ways to reach deeper in the soil of our souls, and discover there ways to continue to live, and grow, and thrive.
Special Section: 10 Practices For Self-Care During COVID-19
One: “Wash.” Public health experts tell us that one thing we can do to stem the spread of this virus is to regularly and thoroughly wash our hands. Make those washings a slow, conscious, mindful meditation, one where the flow of water and soap wash away not just remnants of the coronavirus, but also of the fear, worry, and other contaminants that may have accumulated in your being. Let the way you wash your hands leave you feeling not just ‘cleansed’ of viral infection, but psychologically and spiritually renewed and refreshed.
Two: Be still. Take time each day (most days) to simply stop, to be still, to allow whatever it is that needs to rise up…rise up. As Rumi put it: “What you seek is seeking you.” Give “it” time and space to find you. “It” may be peace, or presence, or anger, or tears (a “good cry” can be deeply healing), or an idea, or joy.
Three: Move. Regular aerobic exercise is good for our bodies, and it’s also one of the most effective ways to manage “mood disorders”—depression, anxiety, stress. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: you don’t have to run a 5K, just take a 10-minute walk. Also, psyche loves a symbol, and literally, physically moving is also a fine, symbolic antidote to feeling emotionally stuck.
Four: Get outside. A few years ago, articles began to show up proposing a new mental health condition to be called “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Research is showing that time outside—in the woods, in the sun, by water, on a trail—is good for our mental health (many children, for example, whose classes include time out in nature, show reduced instances of Attention Deficit Disorder). Combine this with number three above—do your “moving” outside—and get a pandemic special: “two-for-the-price-of-one” (all the better that both are free).
Five: Reach out, connect. We need to combine physical distancing with social closeness and connection. The former is critically important right now as a means of “flattening the curve” on the spread of this virus. The latter is equally important for sustaining our emotional well-being. Send a text message, or an email. Make a call. Mail a card; you remember mail, right: paper, an envelope, a stamp? Imagine how you would feel if you went to your mailbox today and found an actual piece of mail from someone who was thinking of you, a card with a beautiful image or thoughtful quote on the cover, and a personal message inside. Reaching out to someone else will help you feel connected, and it will put something good out into the world. It may, as an added bonus, increase the chances…that someone else will reach back out to you. (Consider this as an experiment: mail a card…to yourself, one with the image and/or message you would most want to receive from a trusted friend who knows your heart).
Six: Laugh. A friend recently called my attention to a comic strip from the Sunday newspaper that spoke to him and brought a smile to his face. What is it that might bring a smile to your face, that might offer a moment’s respite from your worries, and lighten your heart? Yes, gravitas may be the order of the day during times like these, but seasoning that order with regular sprinklings of laughter will transform the taste of both.
Seven: Create. One way to transform all that is arising in the midst of this pandemic is the act of creation. Trust your own vision, imagination, gifts, and skills, and put them into making something new. Take a photo with your phone’s camera. Write a poem. Make a collage. I received an email from a professional weaver who is using her looms to combine two techniques previously thought to be disparate and incompatible in an attempt to “weave a new cloth of society.” But remember: your creation doesn’t have to be “high art.” Re-arrange the furniture in your living room, or the items in your kitchen, or a closet, or drawer. Try a new recipe (then take a photo and share it with friends). Hang a new piece of art on your wall. Add your own contribution…to all that is emerging in this new moment.
Eight: Serve others. These past few months, one heartening thing I’ve heard over and over again—from clients, friends, colleagues, family members—is their desire to do something for others. Richard Hendrick’s poem (see below) chronicles a woman who passed out flyers with her her name and phone number to the senior citizens in her neighborhood, so they’d have someone to talk to. One man told me he is donating the $1,200 pandemic stimulus check he received from the government to his local food bank. An act of service and generosity will both alleviate the suffering of others, and rekindle our own spark of humanity, reminding us that we are all in this together.
Nine: Give thanks. Each day, be looking for one thing for which you are grateful, and write it down at the end of each day. It could be a relationship, or something you saw, or read—something that comforted, or inspired, or moved you. Then, make a note in your calendar: at the end of each week, and each month, sit down and read through all your entries; give yourself the gift of being reminded of all of all the good there is in the world.
Ten: Be kind. In the course of our day, we may encounter people who are not at their best, stressed by the uncertainty, fear, and even the actual damage done by this disease. What if we made it a point to respond to those who are angry, tired, and stressed…by being kind. And since those “people” may include ourselves, let’s extend that kindness, that easing up, that spirit of understanding and forgiveness…to everyone, including the person we see looking back at us in the mirror.
A final thought: these practices aren’t just good ideas for this time of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. These are good practices for any time, for all time, for always. Perhaps these practices which we begin or renew as a response to this pandemic…will become part of the new normal that will continuously transform and sustain us in the months, years, and decades to come.
Resources For A Life Of Depth And Meaning:
(song): "The Pandemic Medley" (Lisa Koch). Seattle-based singer-songwriter Koch manages to infuse both humor and poignancy into her medley of pandemic-inspired revisions of classic songs. For more good music, visit Koch's web site. (poem): "Lockdown" (Richard Hendrick). A poem that honestly and directly acknowledges the sometimes grim realities of the pandemic while also shedding light on the beautiful new possibilities and realities emerging from it. (novel): Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel). I just re-read this 2014 National Book Award finalist, which envisions the perils, possibilities, and surprising interconnections of a post-pandemic world. Imaginative, honest, real, and beautifully written. (photo): "Sheltering in place: pink rhododendron." (Dan Keusal). There is nothing particularly unusual about a rhododendron. It is, after all, Washington's State Flower. But I chose this one for its ordinariness in an extraordinary time: I found it blossoming just a few steps from my home, as I headed out one recent morning for a walk. Finding inspiring beauty right where we are...seems more important than ever. Click on the photo below to view it on my web site, and download a copy for your own enjoyment.