What a time to dust off a blog, right?

When this thing started, I had grand hopes that I would write and otherwise creatively engage during lockdown. Sadly, this plan wildly overestimated my access to the mental and emotional states that I typically need to function in that realm. These are the days that as I emerge from sleep, I try to check – quickly before my eyes open – which me has shown up for the day. Is it the stubborn, resilient one who refuses to be beaten, or is it the FUCK EVERYTHING version of me, who needs two or three naps to make it to the next day? Some days both show up and fight it out before I ever leave the bed.

Anyway, after two months of lockdown, I can finally report that I’ve seen some patterns emerging.

The Covid era offers many flavors of difficulty and hardship, and of course, they lie on a spectrum. People who have lost loved ones who died alone have been traumatized. But even the middle-schooler who is confined away from the world she’s just begun to grow for herself is still struggling.

I can only speak personally to the flavors in my own cake. My husband’s job is good – great even, a discordant reminder that the need for mental health treatment is higher than ever right now. He is working 12-14 hour days trying to conduct therapy sessions over video, a medium he says is far more taxing than in-person sessions. There’s a difficulty in seeing body language and other nonverbal cues, and also, research suggests that it’s more tiring generally because it requires constant mental focus. All of his emotional and mental energy is spent on this, and he can’t dial back because – and here is where we get to me – my career is at a dead halt and I am contributing almost nothing right now.

I’ve noticed similarities in my own experience and with others my age whose careers have been torpedoed: Every past loss, every past grief that still has any hold on you in the current moment may come roaring back, bigger this time. You may not even know which boogeyman is on your doorstep, because it may come in different disguises, and it may not confront you openly until you find yourself on your riding lawnmower one sunny afternoon (because that is one of the things you can still do.) “Oh,” you may think to yourself as you are rounding the curve around the oak tree, “this is really about [X thing]. Ouch, that feels terrible, but somehow better now that I know what it really is.”

The risk of hitting hard walls is very real right now, and there are few avenues to soften the blow. This current moment seems to challenge my most difficult mental spots, as if all the things in my psyche I try carefully to manage have landed on my feet at once, forming an alarming pile.

This isn’t all bad. I’ve learned some things, and a lot of them are good things, if I can remember them and continue to apply them.

First up: Self-blame and self-recrimination are heavy, heavy loads, and they need to be dropped. Yes, we all suck in some ways. We’re better off forgiving ourselves for that, though, recognizing that we’ve been working from the beginning with a set of cards we didn’t deal. A lot of the usual discussion around feelings of inferiority suggests that you’re wrong to feel inferior. I’m starting to feel differently about it now. Yes, some of the things I fear about myself are in fact true, but I’m going to forgive myself for them anyway. It’s okay to be “inferior” in all the ways you suspect you are, whatever that means. You’ll continue to fall short in the future. Forgive yourself for that too.*

Second: I never knew precisely why I was a wonder junkie – just that I was one – until I read Michael Pollan’s How to Change your Mind, about the history and neuropsychology of psychedelics. I have a history of and tendency toward depression. The neuro-folk think a part of your brain called the Default Mode Network runs this whole thing, and most depression, addiction, and so forth is a result of an overactive DMN, a brain that gets stuck in a cud-chewing, self-ruminating rut. Turns out psychedelics, as well as your garden variety sense of wonder, derail the DMN and help the brain jump its depression track.**

When I woke Saturday, I was in the beginning stages of a blossoming depression. It was our fifth anniversary, though, and we’d been planning on a kayaking trip for a week. I’ll write more about this later, but the slowed-down moments I experience on a river or creek are the opposite of depression. They are just two totally incompatible states; they cannot exist at the same time. Those moments re-align my brain, and help it jump out of the rut. I’m still reaping the benefits of that afternoon on Eagle Creek.

The fact that you’re reading this, and that I have anything at all to say on the subject, is entirely due to the cliff swallow that came flying toward me, wings beating in slow motion as I was about to paddle over a mini-rapid glistening with sunsplash, and flew directly over my head. And also to the two owls I saw last evening sitting on a branch together, silhouetted in the sunset. And the baby squirrel leaning out of its hole twenty feet up a tree, taking in the fading light of evening, just as I was.

Anti-depressant squirrel.

There is no space to concern myself with my failures when there are two barred owls having a chat on a branch in front of me, or a baby squirrel on its front porch.

So that’s where my nature thing comes from. It’s an anti-depressant, apparently.

I don’t mean to suggest that all anyone needs to do is go outside and their pandemic depression will lift. Conferencing owls and porch-sitting squirrels are my anti-depressant; they may not be yours. So if you are cut off from your sources of awe right now, please revisit my first point above, and be very gentle and solicitous with yourself. You’re in a serious place, and this is no time to carry any extra bullshit. Being depressive is not a character flaw, and even if it were, so what? You are entitled to some character flaws. They are expected.

Anyway, that’s it so far. We’ll see how far the owls take me.


*This is the one I’ll have trouble remembering.

**Read this book. It’s very interesting.

13 thoughts on “Anti-depressant squirrels of the 2020 pandemic

  1. Nature does have restorative properties when we are open to it… My mother has been posting random squirrel photos and videos. She has become fixated on the antics of the squirrels. I think it is helping her stay a little more grounded (since she can laugh and remember that some things continue despite difficulties). I hope you are able to hold onto the awe and the whimsy!!

    1. Squirrels are really excellent candidates for that sort of thing. They’re plentiful, willing to get close, and funny! Is she on Instagram? If so she would probably enjoy the Squirrels at IU account!

  2. Thanks for sharing your feelings. I still haven’t figured out my emotions, they are still in a wild dance of anger, concern, near catatonic. Throw in a healthy dash of guilt for considering going for a hike. I finally kicked that one on its ass and headed out. I knew I just needed to do that and also knew that I’d be in a safe and familiar place with limited exposure to others. My anti-depressant is wildflowers and seeing the continuation of my own world through nature’s cycles.

    Like you, I found myself in a headspace where I simply could not write or even effectively process my photos. I could not understand this phenomenon, but you seem to have nailed it. Thank you so much for this.

    1. It seems to me that hiking and paddling are good outdoor quarantine activities because social distancing is sort of built into the equation. I know different states have different rules, though.

      As for the creative constipation issue, it’s happened to me a couple of times before, and it’s so hard. Grief will do a number on it, and I think we’re all in a grief process of one sort or another. I’m glad you went hiking and I hope there are many wildflowers in your present and future.

  3. Thanks for writing Jennifer, I always look forward to your posts. Your blog is one of very few I read every essay on, because they’re always worthwhile.
    I’m a nature lover too, I’ve written posts in the past at how restorative a wander in the woods – with or without a camera – can be.
    The birdsong around our way has been amazing in recent weeks, I’m sure it must be due to less traffic (road and air) and less pollution. As if nature is saying thank you, I can breathe again!

    1. Hi Dan! Thank you for your kind words. And I think you’re onto something with the birdsong. We were out in the woods yesterday on a futile morel-hunting expedition, and it was so loud and beautiful.

  4. Well, I’m late to your post, but it’s a good one! Well written, thoughtful and cute photo to boot! I hope the rest of your May was good or at least OK and that you got outside as often as possible. I’m missing some of my regular parks that have become overrun with people all out there when they’d normally be at work. Being retired I used to wait for mid-week to go..but now all the days look like Sunday afternoons. Ah well…this will pass and they will go back to work (I hope, for everyone’s sake) and I will have my woods back. I hope YOUR employment situation resolves itself into something that is acceptable to you. And that you have some peace about the whole thing once you look back at it. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

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