I sat down to write, opening my Pages program and automatically formatting the first page to center the words…”off center.” The words looked back at me, perfectly aligned, and I chuckled to myself. “How is this like my life?” We used to ask each other that question in a women’s group, and it often sparked an “aha” moment. So here I am, in the middle of a pandemic, two months into sheltering in place. And I am centering the title “Off Center.” How is that like my life?
When things feel off center there is a “default” that happens. A trauma-informed lens invites me to take a deep breath, and sit with this question. I read the other day that for a child living through this time of COVID 19, it will count for an additional ACE score of one on the scale of adverse childhood experiences. I sat in a conference once and counted up my ACE score. Not a good plan…
So when I feel like my world is not safe, what do I do? I center the title on my page. I just answered my own question. That’s what I do. I return to the things I know; I get up at the same time, I brush my teeth, I get dressed, I eat, I sit down and study, I take a walk.
It’s not so different from my three teens, really. Or the little people on my street.
Rhythms make us feel safer. They don’t create safety, not the true kind. But they give us edges. They anchor us.
On a physiologic level, they engage the parasympathetic nervous system, changing the cocktail of chemicals the brain produces. The heart rate slows, the body shifts out of the fight-flight-freeze mode, breaths become deeper, racing thoughts still.
This is not my first experience with a world that feels unsafe. As a child, I developed rituals to anchor my world. One of them was showing up as a good girl. I centered the page, I typed the paper, I got the “A.” And it felt, for just a moment, like the world was okay. And so it makes sense, in a humorous way, that I still do that today. I find solace in opening my planner and diving deeply into my grad classes. Advanced Physical Assessment beckons, and the syllabus is clear; do this work, get an “A.”
Only I am not 5 or 15 anymore. And in my world, there are precious humans in my care; people who deserve a clear eye, a calm presence, ears that are ready to listen. Because maybe, just maybe, their world feels off center too. Their teachers contradict themselves on Google Classroom, and expectations shift every Monday. But if each week starts with spaghetti, maybe the world will right itself again. If each week ends with carne asada, maybe we will emerge into new normals and find our way again.
I am taking care of my small self too in this. I choose to do the things that help me feel grounded; the studying, the walks, the nourishing food, the herbal tea with honey. But I am also stopping. Stopping to look, to notice my neighbors. Stopping to leave flowers on a new neighbor’s porch, or to craft an “herbal tea for a pandemic” and drop it for a grown up birthday girl. To play monopoly, the air thick with teenage insults; noticing my internal impulse to neaten up the row of money in front of me. Pulling weeds in my garden, reminding myself that just what is needed will be provided in its time.
I listen for Spirit. Is there someone who needs a call or a text? I am so aware that if I was a kid right now, I would have been quarantined in a home that was not a safe space. Who around me needs eyes to see? In our old community, we have lost kids already to this quarantine, and not from the virus. Homes that are not safe can feel too much to bear for an unknown amount of time. I challenge my kids to reach out. Not to the kid who is cool on the team, but to the one who rides his bike to practice, the one whose parent isn’t there.
I need this too. It is a gift when someone reaches out, by text or phone or zoom. When they offer their eyes, I find tears burning in mine. Something is unwinding in me that is unexpected. I notice an invitation in the too many hours without distraction. An invitation to go deeper, to sit with some things in my story I have been afraid to have as my guest.
So I roll out my yoga mat and join others in virtual space to practice. I pull out the collage box and start tearing pictures, letting them tell me the story underneath the words in my head. The real story, that shows itself in image and form and words and color. I reach out, past my preconceived ideas about counseling in virtual space, and ask for an appointment.
I open my window and listen for frogs. I take my camera and look for flowers. I make grain-free tortillas and layer them with goodness. And the sympathetic begins to slow, the parasympathetic kicks in, and I breathe. And in the breath, there is Spirit. Not the complicated God of my childhood, with a 66 book syllabus of how to get an “A.” But one who pursues me with tenderness and broadsides me with goodness; in the middle of a pandemic.
And so I center the title, and begin to write…
Joanna Wilder is a lover of truth. She is a birthkeeper and a professor. She is a mom of six, and married to one bold man. She is a desert girl transplanted to the Pacific Northwest for a season of change.