It has been a challenging time, with emotional ups and downs during this pandemic. However, lockdown and quarantine finally took a toll during the new year: I began experiencing cabin fever, bouts of never ending restlessness, moments of complete anhedonia, and many nights of insomnia. While examining what was happening to me, I decided I didn’t want these situations to keep “happening to me.” I wanted to take back control of my days, so I actively searched for things to do to bring me some much needed relief and consolation. I wanted to share these tips with you, in case you find yourself in the same boat as I am.
Walking long distances: I do my best thinking while I walk and walk and walk. I’m very lucky that I live near the beach, where I can take long walks while listening to the soft crash of the waves. I have also found that walking organizes my thoughts and even better, gets rid of the bouts of restlessness I’ve been experiencing in the new year.
Reading many books at the same time: Now is the time to read, because let’s face it, there’s only so much Netflix and Amazon Prime Video you can consume. Plus watching too much TV dulls the mind. I have begun reading many books at the same time. Right now I’m reading Alice Hoffman’s Magic Lessons, a prequel to Practical Magic, which was made into a movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I am also reading Sue Grafton’s W is for Wasted because I love the adventures of my favorite gumshoe Kinsey Millhone. Finally, I’m reading a bit of history, which I seldom do. This final book is titled The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis. It is fascinating. I didn’t know this but it turns out that Hitler stole the world’s finest purebreds during WW2 to breed an “equine master race.” I have also found that reading many books at the same time helps your creativity and helps you make connections between topics that at first look seemingly unconnected.
Taking an online class. Now is not only the time to read, it is also the time to learn. I’m taking an online class on world religions, focusing on angels from the Jewish, Christian, Islam, Sufi, and Zoroastrian traditions, and it is exhilarating. Did you know that Gabriel is the only angel mentioned in the Hebrew Bible? I had no idea! The class meets once a week for two hours in the late evenings and is serving as both a respite and an oasis from the grim landscape of the pandemic.
Re-learning a foreign language. I’m bilingual in Spanish and English and took French in high school. However, while I can still read French, I want to up my game in the language by re-learning how to write it and speak it. So I bought two books on Amazon. One is geared towards kids and is marvelous. It’s a vocabulary builder and it comes with pictures of seasons, weather, animals, furniture, utensils, and other fun stuff. The other book is for adults and is geared toward conversational French. Every night, I do a little bit of French before going to bed.
Learning how to knit. I have attempted to learn a new hobby and succeeded: knitting! I love it. It’s occupational therapy. I watched a few videos on YouTube, ordered yarn on Amazon and I’m well on my way to my first scarf. Knitting is like walking: I’ve found that it organizes my thoughts and gives my restlessness a repository in which to live.
Staying actively connected to friends. While I know that there are people out there who are going to restaurants and cafés to meet their friends, I’m taking lockdown pretty seriously. As a result, I am actively Zooming with friends from all around the world to stay in touch. I am actively keeping these friendships healthy and strong because we all need each other during this difficult time.
Meditation. I finally gave in and got a Calm.com subscription. I practice meditation every night. I suck at it, but I’m hoping I will get better with practice.
I hope these ideas are helpful to you during this pandemic. I had to do a lot of soul searching and look for things that were a balm to my soul while I worked remotely for a company based out of California. And of course, I now take things day by day. I try not to think too much about the future because I become overwhelmed with crippling anxiety. Each day is a blessing and if I get through it ok with my coping tools, I am doing ok. Blessings.
I had never been good at practicing mindfulness, or being mindful period, until I got a dog. Observing your breath, which has been extolled as the surefire way of becoming present, left me in such a deep state of hyperventilation I quickly needed a break from taking a break. I was also a person in constant, anxious movement, fretting about, starting projects but never finishing them, leaving things halfway done, forgetting items in places, moving from one thing to the next, in continuous apprehension.
But then I got George Lucas, a miniature schnauzer that was the doppelgänger of the Star Wars director down to the salt-and-pepper beard and pensive dark eyes. On our first walks I wanted to rush, but this was anathema to him. Things and objects needed to be smelled, taken in, mulled over, considered. Others needed to be thoroughly investigated for long stretches at a time, as if notes were being taken for a PhD thesis. I had to slow down, I was forced to slow down for the sake of my dog; otherwise, he wouldn’t enjoy his walks, and I couldn’t do that to him.
And two whole new worlds opened up before me. Worlds I didn’t know existed because my anxiety had prevented me from discovering them. During those walks, I had to completely focus my attention and energy to Lucas’s methodical walking mode and to what he found curious. I became aware of what the Japanese haiku poet Basho called the “cricket musician” and to the coquís, the tiny tree frogs that are native to Puerto Rico and croak a high-pitched “coh-kee” sound to attract mates. I would quietly observe Lucas investigate fire hydrants and the helechos (ferns) for the perfect place to leave a peemail. These investigations took time, and they would make me focus even more on our surroundings: the snail gliding peacefully toward a leaf; the lonely ant dutifully carrying a breadcrumb back to his people; the scary buzzing of an escarabajo (scarab) flying slowly and clumsily towards an unclear destination, which always turned out to be my hair; the zorzal pardo (pearly-eyed thrasher) singing his question-like song; the neighbor’s rooster’s quiquiriquí anthem; the fire truck’s siren to which Lucas would join in enthusiastic harmony.
I had become aware and fully present to the worlds of Nature and the City. As a result of these walks, I became very attuned to my surroundings, particularly sights and sounds. I would view the world from Lucas’s perspective, discovering flowers that he found interesting and sounds that made his ears twitch independently of each other as he zeroed in like a radar on their source.
With these walks, my anxious state of being began to dissipate. Lucas’s systematic way of approaching life rubbed off on me, which was a good thing because I worked as a high school math teacher at the time. Instead of starting to grade a pile of exams and leaving it unfinished, I could now sit comfortably and grade them in one sitting. I would no longer leave things on at the stove to be burnt. I could start andfinish a book for pleasure. During my lunch hour at school, I would leave the school grounds and take myself out for a walk not only as a break from the fast-paced life of a high school teacher but also to enjoy the sights and sounds I knew Lucas would enjoy. I would also find myself paying attention to the ground like a red-tailed hawk, looking for any scrap of food or other unknown substance he might accidentally ingest. These walks were as if I were taking him out for a walk in spirit, and they were a balm for my soul.
But I became completely untethered from the worlds of Nature and City after the death of Lucas, which occurred two days before Hurricane Irma and seventeen days before Hurricane Maria. Since the electrical power grid was essentially destroyed by the two hurricanes, the City would be plunged into darkness and silence at night.
Suddenly I was very much alone, caught in an internal hurricane of grief I could not get out of, not even to fully absorb the physical devastation around me. Losing him to leptospirosis, a disease I too had contracted at the same time, felt like I had been uprooted—just like one of the thousands of trees around the island—and placed in a steel bubble where nothing but sorrow could touch me.
It was at night that I also became present to the silence of Nature. Since there was no power, so no light to read a book by, I would lie in bed straining to listen to the nature sounds I was so used to when I walked Lucas. But there were no coquís, no cricket musicians, no zorzal pardos, no roosters. Nature had become completely silent, and the silence was terrifyingly deafening. This drove me to crave other sounds, any sounds, and the only sounds were those of the neighbors’ power generators that ran on diesel, and the only smell was the stink of diesel. The fact that Nature was silent was a painful reminder that Lucas was gone. Every night, I would have to lie still in bed and strain to listen to something that wasn’t a generator but those sounds never came. Every night, I had to brace myself to my own internal hurricane.
The timing of his death and the hurricanes was too much, too fast, too soon. And yet ironically, my mourning shielded me from crumpling like so many people did after Hurricane Maria, and I became present to a new kind of presence: the presence of urgency. While others went into denial, I sprung into action, perhaps as a way of not dealing with the violent emotional landscape within me.
There was no gasoline? No problem. I would make a 6-hour line under the scorching sun with my car’s engine turned off until the gas station would open again. My whole left arm would get sunburned from sitting in the driver’s seat with the window down, but I didn’t care.
There was no food? No problem. I would make a 2-hour line at one of the two only restaurants that opened after the hurricane.
Wait, they only accepted cash because there was no Internet connection for the credit card system? No problem. I would make the 2-hour line at the only functioning ATM in my vicinity and pray I was lucky there was any cash left when my turn came up.
There was no propane gas for my mother’s generator? No problem. I would stand guard with her in front of her house, waiting for a San Juan Gas truck to ride by. At one point I ran behind one, but the driver ignored me.
These tasks kept me alive because they kept me busy and most importantly, not present to the uprooted ceibatrees, the defrockedamapolatrees, the cars’ windshields strewn over sidewalks, an apartment’s entire parquetflooring hanging from my mother’s patio wall, and the lampposts that had flown like projectiles now lying everywhere.
I couldn’t help but think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Hurricane,” wherein she writes:
the trees bow and their leaves fall
and crawl back into the earth.
As though, that was that.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
My own leaves had given up and fallen, leaving me naked with grief. I thought of Lucas and his final moment, when I had to say goodbye. And the first thing that popped into my mind to tell him was that in the grand history of the universe, a human life is very short. I remembered reading in David Christian’s “Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History” that the Universe is about 14 billion years old, the Earth 4.5 billion years old, the scale of human evolution about 7 million years old, the measure of human history 200,000 years old, the history of agrarian societies and urban civilizations 5,000 years old, and the chronicle of modernity a meager 1,000 years old. I also remembered reading The Dragons of Eden, wherein Carl Sagan popularized the concept of the Cosmic Calendar, in which he condensed the history of the Universe and the Earth into a 12-month calendar. We come into existence only near midnight on December 31st, when developments such as Stone Age tools and the Pyramids begin to appear. It is in the last second before the clock strikes midnight that the world becomes what it is and we know of today.
Keeping all of this in mind, our lives are then minuscule things when compared to everything that came before us. And the life of a dog even more infinitesimal but infinitely more precious.
I told Lucas that my life, in astronomical terms, would be short too, just like his, and that we would meet again. Because of the shortness of my own life, our approaching “separation” would be brief too and therefore he needn’t worry about not seeing me ever again. Because in the grand scale of astronomical time, we would meet again very, very soon. And in the same breath, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I would never see him again, but that when I did, it wouldn’t be for long. I thanked him for giving me the honor of being his human for almost 12 years, a number I still wrestle with as being so unfairly short. I hope, and I think he understood what I was saying.
It’s been two years since Lucas has gone, but my world has completely changed. I have not healed completely, and the clichéd adage that “Time heals all wounds” is not true. Some wounds never heal. One must accommodate one’s soul around them. While the grief is still there, I am reminded of a Robert Webb quote sent to me by a friend shortly after Lucas’s passing: “The sadness that we feel now, we can afford to hold close; safe as we are in the knowledge that grief is love’s echo. We only have to listen and it’s there. Today is a heavy day, but this is just an aftershock. The earthquake, the main event, as usual, was love.”
When I walk now, I look up at the trees and notice the birds singing. Every time I hear a fire truck, I smile. Smells, both good and bad, are quickly detected by my nose. The tinkle of a dog’s tags immediately makes my ears prick, just like it did with Lucas’s, and I happily look around to see where the dog is. Things that used to scare me, like the sound of a scarab’s wings near my face, no longer do.
I have been broken but made more present to other people’s suffering, especially the one that you cannot see, the one that is unspoken. When I talk to people now, I listen attentively instead of interrupting. I watch and consider their body language. I no longer think of what I’m going to say next in the conversation while impatiently waiting for the other person to stop talking. I think before I comment, instead of impulsively saying whatever’s on my mind. This has made my conversations full of thoughtful pauses and silences, with which I am now, for the first time in my life, comfortable. I can read the mood in a room when I first walk in because I walk thoughtfully now.
In the evenings, I take myself out for a walk and have taken up the hobby of taking photographs in the blue hour. I listen to the song of evening birds. I notice ant marches and moth dances. I use an app to see what constellations and planets lay above me, like spilt blue glitter in an art classroom. And when I return home, it feels like I have just returned home with Lucas. His presence in my life has made me become more present in my own, and for that and a million other things, I will be forever grateful.