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Practicing Presence in Poison

May it last into calmer times

Well, I’m at the voluntary book report phase of the pandemic.

I’ve read two books during Shelter-in-Place that have been excellent, poignant companions to the situation we’re in. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön and How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. It’s almost like the strangeness of these times allowed them to soak into the fabric of my being, changing me, freeing me.

If you’re feeling a sense of panic, dread or loss, I can’t recommend either of these highly enough. They are neither affirmations of positivity nor uplifting takes of hard times. Both of those genres sit on my shelf right now, but don’t feel quite right. This is not a blessing in disguise, the challenges we’re facing are profound. But an easy life without discomfort was never promised. I think there’s a lot to learn here.

Pema talks about the practice of letting thoughts and feelings arise without rejecting or indulging, just noticing and letting go. You want a practice for your psyche? Hoo boy, you got it. Can you witness your experience without avoiding it or letting it totally consume you? The current and future impact of this virus was fodder enough, but I also managed to get a bad case of poison oak two weeks ago. Legs, feet and one arm covered in excruciating itchy, oozing rashes that are at times so intense, I long to pass out. I know it’s temporary, and of course there are worse things to have. Entire pockets of society are buckling under reverberation from the pandemic. I could be alone on a ventilator in a deathbed. But in the moment, it’s damn near impossible to think of anything but this howling, screeching discomfort.

Can I witness it without indulging it? Without drama? Without judgment? I’m a full-grown adult and I want to scream and cry and scratch and faint. I won’t say I’m glad for it, but it’s been a powerful opportunity to practice presence with my reality.

I tend toward anxiety, and my process over the last couple of years for dealing with it every day was increasingly intense exercise. At least until two weeks ago. Poison oak becomes unbearable with exercise, so that was, quite suddenly, no longer an option. I’ve told myself before to recognize exertion as an impermanent solution — rigorous exercise depends on a certain level of health and I’m aware I will not always have it.

Well, here I am confronted with that. Pema says there’s no real escape, anyway, no real out. I have to just face it, somehow relax into it with some humor and appreciation. How I train in this moment prepares me for the next. Looking at it this way, the challenges are a sort of blessing. We aren’t prepared for anything if we don’t build resilience through hard times. This is the path, whatever this is.

I’ve spent a lot of the time at home reflecting on my path, my choices. It surprised me that so many choices I was making seemed rote, not very choice-like at all. But I am making them every day, we all are. Where I show up and how, the things I do with my time and energy and money. The break in my normal routine was incredibly freeing despite the anxiety. I was getting a chance to expand my horizon of options. And at the same time, the limits imposed on what I could do right now made for some really wonderful creations. If I can’t run off to meet with this friend, go to work, pick up a missing ingredient for this recipe… I am left with what is already here. My most interesting meals often came when the fridge and pantry were just about empty. My writing got better. My relationships more intimate. My sense of identity felt simultaneously expansive and focused, full of potential yet very much in the moment.

Jenny Odell wrote something that I keep going back to:

“Ultimately, I argue for a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shape-shifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.”

When I read this, it was an epiphany. I was revived — abruptly in my body and ecstatic. The future was not prescribed. I could contain messes and multitudes and magic. I wound down my virtual engagement with social media and the news and came into the material world. I started listening to birds and breezes and inspecting how animals made trees their home. I watched entranced as the branches swayed, very much alive. Slowly a whole hidden world started to emerge around me, layered right within our own buildings and blocks and telephone poles. How to Do Nothing gave me the ultimate stay-cation.

Actually, it’s Jenny’s fault that I got poison oak to begin with. She lives in Oakland, and wrote about the natural phenomenon of this area, from the solitary old growth redwood tree in Leona Park to restored Sausal Creek that forms the spine of the watershed I live in. (Side note: Did you know we all live in a watershed? Look up yours.)

On a beautiful April Saturday, I decided to visit to a walkable park that I’d never been to. I brought a blanket and When Things Fall Apart and an apple, prepared to relax for a few hours. On the way, I ran into a friend with her daughter on the street. When I told them where I was headed, they recommended I hike up Sausal Creek and gave me the markers to find the trailhead. I hadn’t realized this park WAS the creek Jenny Odell wrote about, raved about, really. I was thrilled at the coincidence.

My relaxing afternoon turned into a magical hike through towering trees and lush, spring green. I stretched it out for 7 miles, going all the way to the end through a sequoia grove and returning through impossibly wealthy Piedmont. Two of my most favorite things: nature and historic homes. It was a really special, unexpected adventure. See for yourself:

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I was so entranced I didn’t think to look at the little oak-shaped leaves brushing my ankles. I used to get poison ivy badly growing up in New York state, but I haven’t had poison oak since living here and I clomped through the brush breathlessly, recklessly.

As has become clear, I am no match for this powerful plant. I’ve been dutifully humbled by the evolving rashes, middle-of-the-night agonies, and inability to cope the way I normally do. There’s nowhere to escape from this. There’s no fix. I just have to ride it out.

And I guess there’s something to be said for building the stamina to ride out the unbearable. It’s a practice that will serve me in whatever comes next. It’s enhanced my empathy (the practice of tonglen — thinking particularly of kids who are dealing with poison plant rashes, like my younger self) and challenged my ability to relax into my life as it is. I’ve tried to remind myself to focus on what is working, like the arm that didn’t get any poison oak. The skin is smooth and unbothered. I keep trying to enjoy that one arm. It takes immense effort to stay on it as my mind races back to being miserable about the itchy spots.

And this may be extra uncomfortable, but there’s always something needling us, isn’t there? The blister, the chronic muscle strain, the landlord. There’s always the thought that once this thing is over or healed or handled, we’ll feel better. Then, it will all be okay. Or we check out of sensation entirely and plow through our lives distracted, not noticing our present realities at all.

I think that’s been a powerful reminder for the greater, common situation with the virus. It’s tempting to think that we’re all going to be happy and grateful and present once our busy lives ramp up again, once NBA games resume and Disneyland reopens, and this pandemic isn’t the dominant news story anymore.

But will we?

The last two weeks have been hard. The last two months have been hard. But these situations have helped rattle me awake. Being present may be excruciating, but I am realizing it’s still better than checking out. If I can be here with this anxiety and discomfort, I can be here with delight and joy. Yesterday I sat in a cheap chair on the roof and ate a burger on sliced bread while the sun beamed radiant around me.

The sky had never looked so blue. The breeze filled my lungs with newness and freshness, and I was there for it.

A thinking thot.

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