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Kindergarten was only a half-day, so I spent a lot of that year at a babysitter’s house. She had two children, both older than me. One day, the son had a big white cast covered in signatures, and explained that he had broken his arm.

At the time I thought having a broken arm meant it had been broken off, like a tree branch. Casts held the arm in place while it grew back together.

I asked how much it hurt.

“A lot.

“Did you cry?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Does it hurt now?”

“No, it’s just itchy.”

“When did it stop hurting?”

“I don’t remember.”

The sequence of events implied by his account blew my little mind. This guy fell off a jungle gym, looked around, and discovered his broken-off arm lying on the ground next to him. Then an ambulance came, and a team of doctors stuck it back on and encased it in plaster. It must have been a day of the purest pain and sadness, yet at some apparently forgettable moment, the horror went away, and now he’s joking around and it’s a normal day again.

I was then, and am still, fascinated by the way in which two incompatible experiences are still connected by time. You could be sad and despairing on a Monday morning, and be laughing that afternoon. In a matter of hours, the awfulness – real as it was – has somehow evaporated and been replaced by an entirely different experience.

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Ordering takeout is an act of community support, the pleasure-seeking part of my brain has been telling me.

Every time I deny the impulse to order pizza, this brain-region argues, a local restaurant comes closer to insolvency.

The other day I was chatting with a few friends, and it turned out each of us had gained a non-negligible number of pounds over the past four months.  

“It’s happening to a lot of people,” one friend said. “They’re calling it the ‘Covid Nineteen.’”

It’s only twelve for me, but the process is still unfolding.

Takeout isn’t the sole culprit, of course. It’s hard to remain as active these days. Fewer grocery sorties means less fresh produce in the diet. Also, general anxiety and uncertainty have a way of sending us wandering to the fridge, or worse.

I reached my enough-is-enough moment when I was notified that I’ve earned a free pizza from accumulating enough loyalty points. My plan is to halt the Covid Nineteen while it’s still a Covid Twelve, and give every bit of it back to nature.

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At some point in my house’s 112-year history, someone installed thick, white, nine-inch high baseboards that mostly act as highly visible shelves for dirt.

Whenever I try to clean these baseboards, I quickly get annoyed and discouraged. There are seemingly miles of them, running in and out of closets, behind furniture, and underneath power cords and dangling spider plants.

Unlike sweeping, vacuuming, or dishwashing, there’s no stable posture from which to clean baseboards. It’s always an act of ongoing contortion. Each obstacle interrupts the flow of what is already an awkward task.

The other day, however, I cleaned my office, including its baseboards, with none of the usual struggle. The difference was that this time I cleaned them without the entering the psychological state of trying to clean them. I skipped the whole idea of trying.

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Post image for One Way to Stay Centered in a Divided World

The eventful month of June 2020 seemed like the right time to add a new daily exercise to my mental health regimen: read an opinion piece that makes me uncomfortable.

I had noticed that in my online surfing, I was hunting for opinions with certain specific qualities. I would scan past headlines that struck me as too fawning, too reactive, too woke, or too conservative, until I found one that looked like it was “worth my time,” or “had something to say.”

It soon became clear that I was looking for the most palatable opinions, which of course are my own opinions.

Ideally, I would find my views expressed by a professional columnist with a kind of cutting wit I would like to have. When I found a piece that met these narrow standards, I would read, enjoy, and share it, then repeat the process.

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Post image for How to Feel Better When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong

Where I live, “How are you?” has traditionally been more of a greeting than a question. You’re supposed to say something like, “Good! You?” and then talk about whatever you were going to talk about.

In the last three months, it seems to have become a question again. People genuinely want to know how friends and neighbors are doing, so there’s often an added inflection to indicate that they are indeed asking: “So… how are you?”

This seems healthy. It also seems healthy that “I don’t know” has become a perfectly acceptable and relatable answer.

Like many people I’ve spoken to this spring, I don’t know how I’m doing, only that some things feel off. I’m not particularly anxious or worried, but getting ordinary things done has become inexplicably difficult.

I hope you’re doing okay in your corner of civilization. But in case you’re not, I want to share something that has helped me move through the murk, even though I don’t know what the murk is exactly.

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Post image for How to Get Rich in the Kindness Economy

My friend said that wearing a mask added an unexpected challenge to her grocery shopping experience: nobody can see you smile.

She had always depended on a polite smile to smooth over shopping-cart traffic jams and accidental incursions of personal space, and now this versatile social tool was unavailable.

I discovered a similar problem on my first silent retreat. I had a habit of saying “Oh, sorry!” whenever I thought I might be in someone’s way, but we’d all taken a vow of silence, so I couldn’t. I felt like a wrecking ball.

In the end, my friend determined that it didn’t really matter, because people can somehow sense your attitude towards them, even without obvious visual cues like smiling. All that’s ever needed is genuine goodwill, even if it isn’t coming out of your face.

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When quarantine started, I imagined my day would remain more or less the same before 5pm, because I already worked from home.

To the logical part of my brain, this was a simple algebra equation. My nine-to-five life stays constant, and my social life and errand-running would be replaced by their awkward and sometimes challenging COVID-era versions.

Two months later, the after-work stuff is running smoothly. My social life is fulfilling enough, on a rich diet of phone calls, one-on-one walks, and Zoom gatherings. I’ve become far more efficient at grocery shopping. (Why did I go so often before?)

Achieving an ordinary workday, on the other hand, has become uncannily difficult. Whatever I’m trying to do – write a blog post, return an email, tackle a website bug – it feels like I’m moving through mental molasses.  

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Post image for How to Get Out of a Rut in About 20 Minutes

If naturalists were studying me in my home, they’d quickly recognize my natural migratory cycle. I’ll work in my home office for several months, until my desk accumulates a horseshoe-shaped wall of unfiled papers and half-read books. Then I’ll move my laptop to the kitchen table and stop going in my office at all.

In the kitchen, whatever good habits I had start to break down. I begin work later, get less done, and interrupt myself more often. Each time I attempt to get something done I can feel the encroaching undergrowth of every other unstarted or unfinished project. A certain psychic encumbrance descends on my mind. Everything I do feels like it’s not the thing I need to be doing.

This spiral worsens for a month or two. At some point, I get fed up with everything being such a slog. I spend a day clearing my virtual and actual desktops, and the cycle starts anew.

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Post image for How to Take a Break from Your Mind

Movies frequently scared me when I was a kid. Certain moments in Gremlins, The Secret of Nimh, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made my insides clench with fear. It was the worst of all feelings.

Most other kids seemed completely unperturbed by these movies, which created the additional pressure, in certain birthday party or sleepover situations, of having to pretend I was totally not scared and in fact was quite enjoying myself.

While I wasn’t brave, I was clever. At some point I discovered a wonderfully effective trick for becoming invulnerable to movie scariness without looking away or covering my eyes.

I would continue to look at the screen, but slightly cross my eyes, putting the screen out of focus.

This subtle move instantly broke any movie’s spell. Threatening gremlins and sword-wielding rats became soupy blurs, accompanied by disembodied sound effects. In an instant, I could dissolve the scary tale and turn it into moving shapes and sounds, freeing myself from the story’s emotional grip.

In reality, the movies were only shapes and sounds, but now I had a way of choosing whether my emotions were tied to the events depicted by them. Whenever I wanted to, I could exit the swirling sea of emotional tumult — or jump back in.

I had no idea I was doing something I’d later learn in meditation halls: deconstructing a narrative experience into a sensory one, and moving my attention between these two levels on purpose.

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Post image for Take The Long View

In 2011, on a tour of Mauna Kea’s summit, I looked at Saturn through a large reflecting telescope and it blew my mind.

When you’ve seen a thousand pictures of something, you feel like you’ve seen it before. What I saw through the eyepiece was entirely new. I expected another picture of Saturn, but instead I saw a real object—a small, grey-orange ball, fixed in the center of a perfect, razor-flat ring. I could even sense the empty, airless space around it. It looked impossible. But there it was.

In recent weeks I’ve found comfort in revisiting that image in my mind, and the feeling of vastness it gave me.

For me it’s a simple reminder of context. No matter what my current worries are, they ultimately concern a small part of my entire life, and my life is one of many billions of lives on Earth, each with its own concerns. And no matter what happens in any of those lives, Saturn is still out there, looking gorgeous, unconcerned with coronavirus, the S&P 500, and any of our grey hairs.

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