Coping in the Time of Corona

Image: Person with head on arms, worrying. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I lived in Israel during the Second Intifada, Israelis had a word that contained all the horror and terror of that period: hamatzav. It means “the situation.” In typical Israeli fashion, it provided an innocuous shorthand for conversation: “No, you don’t want to go to the Damascus Gate – you know, hamatzav.” “Given hamatzav, I don’t recommend going to Machane Yehuda on Friday.” More often, it would be the only word spoken, combined with a shrug and a shake of the head: “Hamatzav.”

The word stood in for all the bad things that could happen if we were in the wrong place at the wrong time – or even a supposedly safe place, but an unlucky time. It stood in for exploded buses, and bodies reduced to scraps on the street. It stood in for death and horror and the worries of our families.

I find myself using it again, holed up here at Beit Adar, which I have only left once since March 11. “Given the situation” prefaces all sorts of conversations, as we try to figure out how to live our lives with as little exposure to other people as possible. As before, I don’t linger on the fears that come with “the situation” lest I become paralyzed.

I pray for the dear-as-a-son-to-me EMT, but I don’t let myself think too much about the details of his days. I pray for my niece the doctor in a big Southern medical center. I pray for the adopted cousin who checks receipts at the door of Costco. I pray for family members who work from home, and I pray that my infant grandson will make it through this with his family intact. I limit my consumption of the news. and I avoid the grisly details of COVID-19 because I don’t want the vortex of fear to suck me down.

Some days, the bad stuff gets to me anyway. Yesterday was like that. I could tell because I felt terminally cranky. I would love to punch the coronavirus in the nose, but it doesn’t work like that.

Today I found a gift, an article in the Washington Post: Anxiety is high because of coronavirus. Here’s how you can feel better. Some of their coronavirus coverage is not behind their usual paywall. In case you can’t get to the article, here’s a summary:

  1. Be intentional about social connections. We have to care for our physical health by isolating, but we also need to care for our emotional health, because it affects our immune functions. Be creative with whatever technology is available to you to stay connected to friends and family.
  2. Research shows that “counting our blessings” actually works. It is important to acknowledge anything good that comes our way. Writing down three things for which we are thankful every day is a valuable spiritual practice. (Rabbinical note: the Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day, or at any rate a LOT of blessings daily, fits right into this recommendation.) The point is, allow yourself to feel the gratitude, or if you can’t feel it, at least note that there are things or people in your life that make it better.
  3. Doing something nice for others will make us happier than doing something nice for ourselves. The idea is to move the focus outside ourselves. That can take lots of forms: reaching out to someone lonely, tipping extra for a delivery, writing a card or letter to send to someone. (Rabbinical note: Mitzvot!)
  4. A final bit of advice: “Give yourself and your family members more self-compassion and more of a benefit of the doubt than you usually would.”

This matzav, this situation, is truly awful: there’s no way to sugarcoat it. I found that those four suggestions gave me a road map that I needed to get back on track. I hope it is helpful to you, too.

What have you found that helps you cope right now?

Sheltering in Place, Feeling Lonely?

Image: Person sitting on a windowsill, looking out. (Pexels / Pixabay)

We are living through an unprecedented time. A pandemic is traveling around the globe, a very contagious disease that can cause, in some, a horrible death. Many of our scientists say our best hope for survival is to try to keep the rate of infection down by sheltering at home, to keep the disease from overwhelming our medical personnel and facilities.

Know that if you are sheltering in place, you are doing a mitzvah. You are one less vector of disease out on the street. You are saving lives.

If you are out and about because you are an “essential worker” (medical, infrastructure, law enforcement, first responder, etc.) you are also doing a mitzvah. You are literally saving lives and keeping the lights on. God bless you.

If you are out and about because someone needs groceries, or assistance, you are doing a mitzvah, as well. Just be sure that you do everything in your power to prevent infecting others and to keep yourself healthy.

Staying home – or going only to do essential work – can be boring. Most of us human beings have an inborn desire to be out and doing, to be social. However, if we are not extremely aggressive about distancing ourselves from others right now, we will endanger ourselves, our families, and countless others. So what are we social creatures to do?

  1. Use the phone and video to connect with family and friends. I talk every day to my sons and their partners, and to my grandson. It breaks my heart not to see and touch them, but having some contact keeps it bearable. You may even want to set aside a time when you always talk – routine can be very comforting. Unless you really need to talk about something difficult, avoid arguments. Focus on sharing love.
  2. Use social media wisely. Use social media to connect with friends, and to learn about online events and resources that will sustain you. Do not repeat rumors, speculate, or seek out conspiracy theories, even for “fun.”
  3. Learn and/or pray and/or play with others online. Look for learning opportunities, prayer opportunities, and play opportunities online. I will list a few I know about in my next post.
  4. Revive the art of letter writing. You can email someone without any physical contact at all. You can write a letter to a friend — there is something special about a card or a handwritten letter. If someone in your circle dies, you can write the mourners with your memories of that person.
  5. If you know someone at home with children right now, contact them and ask if you can help via video, reading a story aloud or doing a “show and tell.” If they say “no, thank you” respect that, but it might be a real gift to a parent trying to work from home while juggling children as well. Teens don’t want someone to “read them a story” but they may still enjoy a chance for an audience that isn’t parental. With them, listening is the most important thing: they need adults to listen to how this situation feels to them.
  6. If you have a skill that might entertain others, share it! You can do that by making a YouTube video, or a tutorial posted to Facebook, or via a video chat.
  7. Reconnect: what about using social media to reach out to old high school classmates, friends from some previous time, to touch base?
  8. Exercise. I find that when I’m feeling irritable and lonely, working up a good sweat can lift my spirits. What you do exactly will depend on your ability and your fitness, but be creative. Also there are some great resources online for free exercise videos, etc.
  9. Take political action: Write or call your elected officials and tell them what you think of the job they are doing right now.
  10. Take social justice action: Donate or raise funds for local organizations that care for people in need. The income gap in our economy means that this is a time of severe injustices: homelessness was bad before, but now it puts people at high risk for COVID-19. Hunger was bad before, but now it weakens the immune systems of young and old alike. If you have any extra funds, share what you can. If you don’t have extra funds, you can still help by “signal boosting” on social media – share opportunities for others to do good.

If you have other ideas about dealing with loneliness, I hope you will share them in the comments.

While We are Home, Things We Can Do to Help

Image: Cat stares at a door, wanting out. (Krystyna Kaleniewicz / Pixabay)

I’m 65, with significant risk factors relative to COVID-19. My wife is 71, and has even more risk factors. We are doing our best to isolate as completely as we can. I am aware that I am a happier person when I feel useful, which is why I’m teaching more free classes. (See Growing Jewishly in a Challenging Year: Options for Study Online.)

Today the SF Bay Area county health departments asked everyone to shelter in place at home for three weeks beginning midnight on March 17 (tonight.)

Isolating is not a selfish or cowardly act. We are saving lives by staying home, washing hands, not touching our faces, not overloading the hospitals, and doing all the things the health professionals say. The example of Italy should be all the warning we require as we try to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.

Here are some ideas for ways to spend our time and improve our lives and the lives of others while we are doing our part to flatten the curve:

  • Continue being careful at home – when were your doorknob and doorbell last cleaned with disinfectant?
  • Go through they rolodex or the directory on my phone – who do I know who may be feeling very lonely and scared? Give them a call and listen more than talk. Listening is helping right now. Reach out via email, if phones aren’t the best option.
  • On social media, I watch who spreads reliable news, and who spreads titillating rumors. I follow the reliable news spreaders, and unfollow the rumor mongers. I refuse to let their garbage work on my head.
  • Now is a great time to revive our spiritual practices, or to develop one: meditate, or pray, or exercise with spiritual intent.
  • Now is a great time to learn! Take an online class, use software to learn a foreign language, read, read, read! YouTube and other online resources can have you exchanging greetings in Hebrew in no time.
  • Public libraries often offer access to e-books.
  • Eat as healthfully as we can.
  • Get enough sleep! Sleep boosts our immune systems, and too many people are on a sleep deficit.
  • Exercise is important. Stretch, lift weights (books?), do a little cardio. I do 20 minutes of exercise every day. If you are in an apartment, call or leave a note to the people downstairs asking when the best time for you to make noise.
  • Tzedakah: for those of us financially secure enough to do so, this is a great time to give to charities that care for people with food or housing insecurity.
  • Do you have fantasies about writing a book? This is a great time to keep a diary: we are living through history.
  • We need to care for our pets. Appreciate their company. It isn’t a great time for cats or dogs to run around outside, though: if they get lost, we cannot go look for them.
  • Passover is coming! We each need to prepare according to our observance and our situation. (See Passover Prep: Begin in Egypt.) (More about Passover in a future post.)
  • Be kind to other members of our households. This is a stressful time, and it’s easy to get cranky. It’s a good time to practice appreciation and to let criticism go.
  • Find a synagogue that streams services online. Start with your local community but I will see about posting a list of streaming services in a later post.
  • Count our blessings, beginning with life and breath.
  • Be aware that there are some who are in difficult situations, with unpleasant or abusive housemates. Hold them in our hearts.

Ideas for those home with children:

  • Make and decorate cards and send them to loved ones (or save for later delivery.) Index cards or folded printer paper make great cards. “Junk mail” can make collages.
  • Reading to kids and letting them read to us – and to each other! – is a wonderful activity.
  • Beware too much scary news on TV.
  • Make puppets out of old socks, and rehearse a show for the adults to watch when they take a break from home-work!
  • Put music on – everyone dance!
  • This is a great opportunity to teach age-appropriate household skills to kids. Even little ones can “dust” with a cloth.
  • Set up phone and video chats for the kids with their friends and with family they can’t visit right now.
  • For older kids, this might be a great time to learn a craft. YouTube has lots of great videos, and both knitting and crochet can be learned with any string, if you have needles or a hook.
  • Use YouTube to learn Jewish songs, and songs from your family’s heritage.

Abuse Survivors: Surviving the News

Image: Person sitting on a bench. (Ryan McGuire from Pixabay )

Whenever there is a high profile case of sexual crime in the news, those of us subject to bad memories may have a rough time of it. Even if the news is good (justice is done) our reactions may pose a challenge, bringing up a round of anger, distraction, anxiety, or numbness.

I try to remind myself that I’m having a normal reaction to an abnormal set of experiences. In other words, my emotions are not some sort of failure on my part. They are the same emotions that kept me alive and that brought me to this day, and as such, I respect them. Any fault lies with the person or people who caused my injuries, not with me.

It’s up to me to cope with the situation in the present. Here are some strategies for dealing with a survivor’s responses to sex crimes in the news:

  1. Turn off the TV, the radio, and social media. We are not required to be 100% informed about every aspect of the news. There is no quiz coming. It is healthy to turn off the news when it is upsetting. Much of it is framed in a way to keep us tuned in (“After the commerical, we’ll interview so-and-so” ) but you already have the basic information, so turn it off.
  2. Make use of the comforts that work for you. Hug your pet. Curl up with a favorite blanket. Watch reruns of shows you find comforting. Exercise. Go outdoors. Walk the dog. Pray. Focus on work. Play empowering music. Do the things that have comforted or strengthened you in the past.
  3. Reach out. If you have a therapist, check in with them. Tell your spouse or partner what’s going on with you. Tell a good friend you are having a rough time.
  4. If you want advice, ask for it. If you don’t want advice, say so. The people who love us cannot read our minds. Speaking up about advice – either way! – is a way of taking control of our lives, and of being responsible for our emotions.
  5. Express your feelings. Write, make art, make music, dance, exercise, put those feelings out there in the world, instead of leaving them to fester inside. Don’t worry about grammar or making art for the ages, just express yourself. If a masterpiece accidentally results, wonderful, but right now just focus on getting what is inside OUT.
  6. Be wary of self-medication. Some things masquerade as “comforts” but don’t serve us very well. Be aware that alcohol is a depressant drug, and some cannabis can evoke paranoia. Many prescription drugs can be useful if used according to directions, but they are harmful if misused
  7. For spiritual resources, see Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors. For many of us, the damage is spiritual as well as physical or emotional, so spiritual healing is part of the larger process of recovery.
  8. Finally, if you feel an urge to self-harm of any sort, REACH OUT. Call a therapist, or call the National Sex Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

There is a Jewish saying for times like these: Gam zeh ya’avor – “This too shall pass.” The news will change, the world will go on, the past will keep receding into the past, and with effort and support, healing can take place. Today is not forever.

Prayer in a Time of Uncertainty

Image: A narcissus flower. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Oh Holy One, I do not know what is going to happen next.

Too much of life seems uncertain to me, and the future is unknown.

I am surrounded by foolish voices: are they foolish, or am I? I fear the worst, and I cannot even imagine what it is.

Help me to discern those things that I can control. Help me to release the rest.

Guide me to mitzvot that I can do. Show me how I can be helpful to others and increase the good in the world.

May I mirror those who do me a kindness, and may I be untroubled by those who wish to do me harm.

Sim shalom, oh Holy One, make peace among us, now and in the coming days.

Amen.

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

Image: Two hands knitting. One stitch leads to another, just as one mitzvah leads to another.

It’s one of those weeks. I am battling through a round of depression. The blog has suffered, I know.

I will be back soon, I promise. In the meantime, I suggest you join me on the path I’m taking: mitzvah goreret mitzvah, let one mitzvah lead you to another mitzvah. If we follow that path, we will find our way through the dark.

Feeling Scared? Try This.

Image: “Be kind” written on a sidewalk in chalk. (reneebigelow / Pixabay)

Have you noticed how angry many people seem to be right now? Linda and I noticed it driving home from Oakland on a pleasant Sunday morning. People drove their cars as if the cars were weapons and it was war.

Whatever their politics, a lot of people feel the strain of uncertainty, and often they express their fear with anger. Politics is one big angry fight. Here in California we’re feeling climate change very strongly, and people are worried, some are downright frightened. Things we used to depend on seem undependable.

In such times, I keep myself calm with the first line of the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

Much as I’d like to, by myself I can’t fix the climate. I can’t fix Pacific Gas & Electric. I can’t fix Washington. It may be that by voting, in cooperation with others, I may be able to help with those things, but it isn’t Election Day yet. So I have to put those things, for now, on the “accept” list. I don’t like them, but that’s reality.

What do I have the power to change? I can choose to be one tranquil person, one kind person, out there on the road and in the world generally. I can choose that each person with whom I interact leaves our conversation at least no more upset than they were when we began.

  • I can say “no” kindly, when I have to say no.
  • I can say “yes” with grace, when I can say yes.
  • I can maintain a calm and kind presence.
  • I can be a careful driver, neither in a hurry nor too slow.
  • I can focus on the Jewish value of kindness, chesed, and try to bring it to every interaction.

More thoughts about kindness:

The world rests upon three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in From Optimism to Hope

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally.

– Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “Loving Kindness in the Torah

My own behavior is one thing I can control. Kindness is what each of us can bring to the world in times of trouble.