“Mommmmm!” Alice exclaims giggling. “What are you doing?!”
Eyes wide, with a huge smile plastered onto her face, Alice watches me in wonder. Her expression is caught between utter surprise and jubilation. Uninhibited and undeterred by Alice’s giggling protests, I shimmy across the hardwood floor, my sheepskin slippers moonwalking, twirling and prancing around the kitchen island in ridiculous imitations of the Funky Chicken and the Camel Walk. James Brown blasts from the speaker as my hips sway side-to-side to the beat. Just like my Dad, (nicknamed the Duke in his young life for his musical and dance-floor moves) who used to embarrass us as kids to no end with his guitar renditions of the Dukie Blues combined with his enthusiastic dance moves, I raise my spatula microphone to my lips and let out exuberant “Ohhh’s!” and “Yeah’s” while pointing to my audience of one. Alice responds in peels of laughter, unable to contain herself in witnessing the apparent unravelling of her mother. I laugh too, out of breath from my funk-induced impromptu dance routine. It’s a simple moment, unmentionable and insignificant to the casual passerby but means everything to me.
In this moment, I am wholeheartedly and completely present. Only a single thought surfaces into my brain: “I feel so happy!” It’s a curious thought in its rarity. I see it, feel it and turn it over in my mind with wonder. What is this thing that Alice and I are doing that has caused such joy?!
For those who know me, you know that I am often inspired, moved and challenged by the work of Dr. Brene Brown. Recently, I have been following her new podcast entitled, Unlocking Us and last month, Dr. Brown discussed a smattering of relevant and timely topics. As we all grind past the six (now seventh!) month mark of this ongoing pandemic, I don’t believe that I am alone in feeling COVID burnout. I couldn’t quite name it or put my finger on it, but certainly the past two months have felt like a slog to beat all slogs. Brown, however, nails it on the head with a gentle reminder of the concept of surge capacity.
In the world of medicine, surge capacity refers to the measured ability to provide care for a rapid influx of patients. Pre-COVID, this was a recurrent aspect of our practice. With far greater patients than hospital beds or other finite resources, as health care workers, we often have to find creative and innovative ways to not only create space but to continue to stretch resources to ensure care provision for the duration of the surge, be that until the end of your ER shift or the end of a multi-casualty trauma.
When we think of own lives, without a doubt, this idea must similarly resonate. You bring home a newborn into the fray of life with an already needy toddler and a busy kindergartner. A co-worker leaves unexpectedly and their portfolio lands in your lap without warning. You get sick, but the day-to-day running of the household remains on your shoulders. Demands outweigh resources time and time again. Often, though, this is temporary. You hire a housecleaner or a babysitter to lighten the load. You delegate tasks at work. You lean on friends and family for support. Balance eventually is restored again.
Brown reminds us that, “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems, mental and physical, that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations such as natural disasters.” What is strikingly different when we consider the pandemic is that our natural coping mechanisms, such as social connections and the usual rhythms of day-to-day life which anchor us, have been unmercifully and abruptly eliminated. As Brown describes, “It is like as someone who lives on the Gulf Coast and has been through my share of hurricanes, it’s like the wind is breaking the windows and we’re in clean up at the same time. It’s too much to ask some days. So, our surge capacity is maxed out and we need to find a new source of energy.”
Our surge capacity is maxed out.
Over this past half-year, we have all grieved, then rallied and have mustered the energy to cling to resilience. But now, we face a six-month wall. How can we cope? How can we continue forward? For how long? How can we find light in the looming winter months?
Not to spiral here, but I struggle personally when widening my perspective. When grappling with major issues such as climate change, the political scene south of the border, decades-long boil water advisories in Indigenous communities in our Region, not to mention the current pandemic, it can just be too much.
While I am not advocating for anyone to put their head in the sand (although, I have to be honest, many days I wish I could), we absolutely need new ways to cope in order to continue to fight injustice, to advocate for others or to simply get out of bed in the morning.
Brene Brown’s suggestion is simple. Play.
Ok, stick with me here. If you’re like me, this is the part where I started to tune out. Play? Who’s got time for that. Sorry, I’m busy over here adulting. In Brene Brown’s podcast, she reminds us that play is defined as “time spent without purpose”. Time spent without purpose?! Are you kidding me?! Honestly, when I listened to this, I had a whole body cringe. It’s like the time Blake recently challenged me to sit on the couch and ‘do nothing’ for 20 minutes. He stood up, set a timer then watched me squirm for 20 full, uncomfortable minutes.
‘Doing Nothing’ is not a forte of mine. When Henry calls me to his room to play LEGO, after a mere 30 seconds of sitting on the floor, surrounded by blocks spilled in all directions, I often find myself sorting and tidying those millions of pieces rather than just creating. Watching Henry with his LEGOs, play comes so naturally; creating, spending time with no mind to the clock, uninhibited, just doing what he loves. I also remember a time in my childhood, when similarly, I would lose hours reading through stacks of books or endlessly painting abstract watercolours on rolls of newsprint. Where along the way did this childlike way of being slip away?
Recently, during a couples therapy session, Blake and I were circling a familiar conversation. Blake couldn’t understand why, after a full day of stressful work, I come home and start cleaning the house instead of falling onto the couch as he would do. In retaliation, I balked at the idea of letting the to-do list go – it would just be there for me to do in the morning! I turned to our therapist for support with a look that said, ‘Can you even believe this? Don’t you agree?!’ I was taken aback when he responded with a question; “Celia, I agree. It is hard to let some of these seemingly important things go. But I’m curious, what kind of a feeling in your home do you want to cultivate? For you? For your kids? For Blake?”
I thought back to a recent ER shift where a resident had been observing me in an encounter with a young, medically complex woman reeling from the sequale of advanced liver disease. It was a complicated case and her prognosis was poor. I had spoken to multiple specialties in trying to figure out the best possible medical management that I could offer her and had spent a great deal of time correcting the many imbalances of her breathing, her failing kidneys and strained heart. At the end of our encounter, I had ensured that she had felt comfortable, took a few extra minutes to tuck a warm blanket around her atrophied legs and collected an armful of snacks for her support person who had been by her side for hours. As I swished the curtain of her ER bay closed behind me, I turned to the resident. “You know, in medicine, it’s never what you did for the patient, but it’s how you made them feel. She will never know if I corrected her potassium appropriately or adjusted her meds as best as I could, but what she will remember was how I made her feel – hopefully, she felt heard, safe and cared for. It’s the most important thing that you can do.”
Shifting my focus back to our therapist, I began to understand what he was pushing me to realize. Of course we cannot shy away from the mountain of life’s responsibilities or the crushing realities weighing on our current global community, but when my children recall their childhood memories, like my ER patient, they will never recall if the counters were clean or if their LEGOs were sorted by size, but they will remember how they felt. Like all parents, all I want for them is to feel safe, happy and loved.
So, as we move into this next season with our collective surge capacity at its max, I have made myself a ‘play’ list – activities in which I can lose myself in, create a feeling of joy in our home and draw from for a new source of energy to get through this massive wall that I feel up against.
I’ll finish this post off with a quote from Brown, because she summarizes so eloquently the need for play for all of us right now:
“Play is this incredible source of energy that’s easy to forget about. And let me share something with you that’s really important for me, and we can have different opinions on this, we can… There can be dissent as long as it’s future thinking and playful. Some people might say right now, ‘This is no time for play. Our democracy is on the line. The world is falling apart. We’ve got work to do.’ Hell yes, I agree on all accounts, but… And I wrote about this in Braving the Wilderness, but our hearts are expansive and big, and as the poem goes, contain multitudes. We can’t fight on no energy, we can’t fight for love unless we’re experiencing it, we can’t fight for joy unless we know joy. And so I’m not saying back away from the revolution or the fight, because I don’t plan to do that, but I do need an energy source, not only for the fight, but just to get me through my day and keep me in loving relationship with the people I care about.”
Play on, my friends.