Back into the fire: an update on working and life

It’s been some time since I’ve written about my return to work, about how I’ve been managing. For a while – a long while – I was managing so well I didn’t need to think about it. There was nothing really to say.

So I can’t tell you when I stopped feeling comfortable in my skin again. Sometime between February and now, while I was looking the other way, thinking about other things and just trying to keep up, I lost part of myself. The part that puts down markers and holds fast to boundaries and says “no more” without fearing the consequences, without giving in.

Without resorting to desperation.

Without succumbing to panic.

Now, again, I imagine the judgement of others – which is my judgement of myself. I jump at unexpected sounds. I am immobilized by the need to make decisions. I feel fragile.

I know it’s work that has worn me down – or at least I know I’ve let it. I love my job but not to the detriment of my sanity. Others surrounding me are running around trying to keep everything afloat as well. Perhaps they are struggling like me, perhaps not quite – not yet. But the mistake I’ve made is allowing that to keep me in the fire. I’ve turned to them for approval when I say no. I’ve pushed myself to perform in return for recognition, acknowledgement. That amounts to putting my sanity in their hands.

Thankfully, I still have all the lessons I learned while on stress leave. Thankfully, I can now recognize the signs of impending doom, and can mark the distance from here back to my boundaries. There is hope, a way back.

I don’t know how to catch hold of that nugget that is my strength, to catch hold and expand it. But I know I have to.

Maybe the knowing is step 1. Maybe I’m already on the right path.

Maybe it is already time to search for step 2.

From dark to light

This greening world, sweet and mild, soothes my knotted mind, silences the thoughts I’ve been worrying at all week. 

At 41, I remain amazed at my inability to control the direction of my thoughts, to turn off anxieties instead of following them down into the darkness, my inability to refocus on the light.

This week has been a trial, start to finish. I was hit with an awful cold but worse than that were the daily personality clashes and utter disrespect I suffered at work from someone I don’t usually work with but now have to report to. Thankfully it’s temporary; at the end of May, they move on. But it’s a shock to the system to go from being respected to being disregarded, my expert advice completely ignored, and for no real reason other than it is their personality to run roughshod over everyone without thinking. 

It’s not me, it’s them. But that doesn’t help. It still affects my work, and that affects my reputation. Returning home engulfed in righteous fury each night is unsustainable for a week, never mind a month.

But today it is the weekend. Mother’s Day weekend. My birthday weekend. The first truly Spring weekend. Fresh green leaves, snow-white magnolias and sunny daffodils have filled what was a dusty brown world only days ago. And I’m trying desperately to let all of that push thoughts of last week, and worries about the coming week, out of my mind.

My husband and I were up early yesterday morning planting roses in the front garden. It was warm, the birds were singing and the people who were out walking at that hour stopped to offer us kind encouragement. I enjoyed being out there, fingers in the dirt, fat earthworms winding their way in and out of he holes we dug, the elemental smell of nature surrounding us.

We took a midday break to meet friends for brunch down the street, then returned to the gardening for the rest of the afternoon. It was the best day I’ve had in a long time, full of earth and plants and far from work and screens. A soul-soothing day.

As I look into my thoughts now, with some distance from the problem, I am resolved to take action, to make changes, to seek a solution before the tide of frustration and anger carries me away. 

Because even if it’s them and not me, how I react still affects the situation. That’s all there is – my actions and someone else’s. And I can’t be as angry, as reactive, as I was last week for an entire month.

How not to lose it

Listen to your body
read the signs.
Take the time to stop
stop moving, stop thinking
stop clawing your way out;
it is ok to step away.
Rest your mind.
Focus on small things
objects of beauty
essences of peace.
Inspect the intricacies
of the world around you:
a flower’s petal folds.
Stare into the deep blue and
let it surround you
till there is nothing else
but you and blue.
Read a poem
hear its music.
Follow what makes your heart smile.
Disappear into a cup of tea
and wait, surrounded
by the mint-pepper-honey
its warmth spreading through.
Feel the ground beneath your feet
each step is yours
here, now.
Close your eyes
and just be
just be.


A how-to poem for how to stay sane in these busy, anxious days, for NaPoWriMo day 19

Nothing to Fear

I’m afraid of the lions. They’re out there and I know it because I saw them, just over the hill behind our tent. The tents, though sturdy, aren’t fenced in, aren’t protected from anything out there. Actually, there isn’t an out there. Or more accurately, everywhere is out there.

These were my thoughts as we sat (like sitting ducks, I fretted) one evening in the Kalahari on a hill overlooking a watering hole in the dry Auob river bed. The heat was overwhelming as the leaves of the nearby camel thorn tree rustled slightly, dispersing the tree’s distinctively sour odour. It would be a scent I would grow homesick for when we left it behind. 

The riverbed seemed to be holding its breath – the calm before the storm. Purple clouds gathered behind the red bush-studded hills on all sides. The 15 tents that comprise the camp seemed to hunch down into the sandy hill, alone, waiting. The storms of the previous three nights, unusual in their intensity, seemed set to roll in again. Thunder rumbled low and deep in the distance, sounding suspiciously similar to the roar of a great cat. I looked around nervously, ready to run inside and close the doors at the slightest hint of lightening or lion.

Earlier that day, we had come upon three lions lazing in the shade of a tree right in the middle of the dirt road. A number of other 4x4s had already stopped to sit and watch them, and take pictures. Sensing that the lions were too hot and too relaxed to pounce, some people had rolled their windows down. All the better to get a good photo. Eventually, even I did the same. 

But that was in the heat. In the cool of the evening as first a herd of springbok accompanied by a pack of jackals, then wildebeest, gemsbok and even four stately giraffes all made their way to the watering hole, it seemed only a matter of time before the lions crept past and prepared to pounce. 

And why would they bother with something that might actually get away, something that would require stealth, hunting, effort? Why not just pluck us from our tent? It didn’t help that the park ranger had mentioned during his rounds that evening that the lions had passed by our tent a few evenings earlier, or that they had apparently laid down just under the tree in front of our window.

“What time should we go inside, then?” I asked, trying to determine the level of danger without appearing ridiculously “city.”

“You can stay out here,” was the answer, “unless they do appear. Then you should go inside until they pass by.”

I began this trip convinced I’d be eaten by a hyena that would, I imagined, rip though the tent. I also had quite vibrant fears related to poisonous snakes. There were many times during the trip that I was sure our vehicle wouldn’t make it through the backcountry gravel – and often washed out – roads. But I saw neither snake nor hyena on the entire 11 day 4000km trip through four national and transfrontier (crossing borders with Botswana and Namibia) parks.

The most danger we ever actually faced was on the last day when our SUV did get stuck in seven feet of sand where a river had washed out a section of the Augrabies Park road. With no phone reception to call the ranger for help, my husband and I tried everything, digging the wheels out with our hands and building ramps from river stones and branches. Finally, in the midday desert heat, my husband set off on foot towards the rest camp 25 km away, leaving my son and I to wait with the vehicle. Though I imagined everything from strangers kidnapping us  for trafficking purposes to the car overheating, I managed to keep these thoughts to myself. After an hour, my husband and a ranger truck appeared and we were pulled out of the sand. In other words, nothing really happened. 

It’s probably asking for trouble to take someone who suffers from anxiety into the place where humans developed the fight-or-flight response. Foolish, or wise. Perhaps my husband thought it would cure me. 

It didn’t.

But I did survive and my memories are of the stunning beauty, the distinctive scents and the amazing animals, not the fear. So I guess that’s something. 

Climb every mountain – at a reasonable pace


I was on a lunchtime run, pounding up a hill about halfway through my fourth kilometer, when I recognized my fatal flaw. I probably have more than one, but this is a big one. (That’s one of the beauties of running – it leads you to insights that are so deep they’re able to knock the breath right out of you.)

Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to make things harder on myself than I need to. But as I forced myself up that hill — faster, faster — the voice from my phone’s running app cut through my thoughts and the driving bass to inform me I had just sped up that hill faster than I had run the flats, faster than I usually run when I go much further but avoid hills altogether.

I realized that I was forcing myself up the hill as fast as possible, putting myself under strain just to get it over with, instead of settling into a reasonable, steady pace. Interestingly, I never run down hills because I’m always too busy enjoying the view.

And that’s when it hit me. I do exactly the same thing for any challenge I face. I try to fly through it, rush, get it over with, get to the easy part, or the end. It’s like a panic response – get to the end, fast.

I do it in conflicts at home, and it just inflames the situation.

I do it at work when I have a big deliverable looming, and instead of getting through things calmly, I thoroughly stress myself thinking that I have to do it all “now” when, for the most part, it will take several weeks of methodical work.

I even do it when I have a to-do list. I can’t handle to-do lists. I have to fly through them, check off all the little boxes, leave nothing hanging over my head. Get to the end.

All this rushing through things leaves me feeling overwhelmed, drained and as though I never have time to do what I want. It never seems I will get to the end of anything I have to do because, let’s be honest, life is just one big to-do list. It’s impossible to rush to the end of it. Instead, it’s better to keep a steady pace and grab the odd moment to breathe, to look around, to stop and take in the view, to remember that there are pleasant aspects to whatever it is you’re in the middle of, and to even sometimes take a break partway through and do something else.

It was a beautiful day for running. I was able to appreciate that once I slowed my pace and stopped pushing myself as fast as possible every time there was a hill. The sun was shining on the last of the season’s golden leaves while purple-grey clouds created a dramatic backdrop over the river and the Parliament buildings. People were out walking and running, chatting and laughing – enjoying the mild fall day. As I came to the top of the final hill – Parliament Hill, as it turned out – I paused, looked up at the Canadian flag waving on the Peace Tower and smiled.

Life is really very good, I thought.

I know there’s a valuable lesson in all this, but I may just need the equivalent of that running app’s voice to cut through my thoughts and remind me every now and then that I don’t have to rush past where I am to get to the end.