2020 Hindsight — Thoughts at The Solstice

Well, there’s nothing like a deadline. I started several versions of this post over the past few months, but always got sidetracked or overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. Now with the winter solstice upon us (at 2:02 AM Pacific Time, 21 December, 2020) it’s time to get this done.

The winter solstice is when the sun starts coming back. The days start getting longer now. More bright, useful, sunny hours. This has always been cause for celebration in the equestrian community; it’s hard to ride after work when it gets dark so early. It’s a kind or horsepeople’s holiday. I’ve always felt it’s a more “real” kind of New Year’s Day. Things really do start changing for the better.

So I guess this is a kind of holiday letter – yes, one of those. What’s been happening with me, and what I see ahead. It’s personal stuff. No great tips about techniques here. It may bore you to tears, or bring you to tears. Maybe you can relate. It’s been a hard year for all of us. Maybe sharing ourselves can get us through this.

I should have seen 2020 coming when we had to cancel our New Year’s Eve plans, humble though they were, because I had a bad cold.

2019 was bad enough on its own. After starting out strong, in the best shape of my life, and having a blast training, things went a little sideways. I seemed to catch every cold or bug to come along, and ultimately developed what appears to be mild asthma. A neuroma on my left foot got progressively worse during summer and fall. That may or may not have led to a chronic (overuse?) injury in the opposite knee.

2019 had started out great! I participated in a five-day “marathon” format Aikido seminar, where I tied for the most hours on the mat. For the three longest days I trained 9 hours each day, and had a blast. I was exhausted, but it felt awesome to be able to push myself on that level.

But as the year went on, between the foot and knee pain, feeling winded half the time (and strangely fine at other times), and being sick way too often, I had to sit out most of all of four major seminars and retreats later in 2019, a bunch of classes, and many of our dojo’s dan (black belt) training and exams.

These things happen, but still …

It was no fun to drive two days to a retreat with a favorite teacher, come down with a respiratory bug, and have to turn around and drive two days home. Watching awesome seminars from the side of the mat, while babying my sore foot and knee wasn’t much better, although I did take lots of notes and cool photos. (Tip: You can tell when I’m benched by how many photos I share during a class or seminar.) But what really hurt was having to sit on the sidelines while the whole dojo was helping the dan candidates prepare and test. No fun. Not fair. Hmmph.

Enough. Something had to change.

In the fall of 2019 I scheduled a small surgery to remove the offending neuroma. A quick outpatient thing at the beginning of December, a few weeks of recovery, and I’d soon be good as new. I was so excited.

Meanwhile, off the mat …

My fitness business and my writing were going nowhere. I didn’t feel I could take on personal training clients or lead group classes when I was having to sit with my feet up. I didn’t even advertise.

I’d taken on a website client in 2016 on a short-term “just until we find someone permanent” basis. The relationship morphed into four-year part-time job. That client took way more attention and energy than the hours and income could justify. But hey, it was a steady gig, flexible hours, awesome people. Besides, what else was I going to do that would be any better?

I hate interruptions. I can’t even.

With the client work I never seemed to have time to write. Or maybe not time, exactly, but focus. I couldn’t count on any uninterrupted days to dig into a piece. I couldn’t get any traction. The true cost of being interrupted – as any writer, software engineer, or creative sort can tell you – goes far beyond the actual time taken. You have to wrap your mind around your work all over again. I’d start out, then get an urgent request for help. A few days later I’d try again, and get stopped again. After a while I give up trying.

Then, the most generous gift ever.

Out of the blue, somewhere around November, Michael asked how I’d feel about giving up website client gigs and just focusing on my writing and fitness work.

Seriously? O! M! G!

What a huge gift. The gift of time, support, and encouragement I’d be able to lock myself in my office and get to work – on my own work! I gave the client notice that I’d no longer be doing that kind of work. I gave two months’ notice – done on January 31st. That meant they and I wouldn’t be struggling to train a replacement over the holidays, and while I was recovering from the foot surgery.

By the end of January I’d have nothing dragging me down. My foot would be better and my time would be my own.

Ending 2019 on a hopeful note.

My post-surgical left foot seemed to be recovering as hoped. While convalescing I purchased a 3-year subscription to AllTrails.com, and started browsing and bookmarking all the cool trails I planned to be hiking (or even running!) soon.

2020 was going to be amazing!

All I had to do was wrap up my client work (which meant documenting everything I knew, did, or thought), and on February 1st I could dive headlong into everything I’d ever wanted to work on, with nothing blocking my way. Writing, training, coaching people, traveling to seminars! This was going to be fantastic.

January got off to a rough start.

This year got started a little a little slow. I felt like I was coming down with something on New Year’s Eve. We canceled our plans to keep from sharing with friends.

“The Pain Flu”

I’d had my flu shot, but just the same… Uggh. Four days of fever, feeling wiped out, and only able to think hard enough to binge watch British baking shows. Not a lot a respiratory symptoms but everything hurt. My back and joints hurt. My wrists were swollen and painful. I had a nasty headache. Weirdest of all was that it hurt to move my eyeballs – a sudden, stabbing pain if I forgot and glanced to the side. [We’ve learned recently that Covid was going around as early as December 2019. I haven’t been tested for antibodies yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit it that was what I had. It was really different from anything else I’ve had, and I kept getting sick all over again each month for the next 4-5 months.]

Benched for the Bridge

After I’d recovered from the Pain Flu, mostly (except for the joint pain). I went to the San Diego Aikido Bridge Friendship seminar. Not a marathon format this year, but in any case I was off the mat for this one. I enjoyed it and got lots out of watching, at least. But what a contrast from one year to the next. All the classes, none of the classes.

It only hurts when I do stuff.

I started back to helping in the kids’ classes and training a little, being cautious of my tender foot, but it wasn’t nearly as pain-free as I’d hoped. Then it seemed to hit a plateau. It was way better than it was, which was a relief! It didn’t hurt when I was sitting around. I could be comfortable doing nothing. It only hurt when I walked or stood on it. So that was something. I figured it would heal eventually. Discouraging, but I’ve recovered from worse than the likes of a little toe surgery. Patience…

Finding a way to get moving.

Meanwhile, however, between months of decreased activity and tons of stress I’d managed to get pretty out of shape and put on a bunch of weight – and not the “muscle is dense so it weighs more” sort. I couldn’t go for walks, run, or use the elliptical. Late on Thursday, January 30th the YMCA hit me with a Procrastinator’s New Year’s Day special: A membership deal only available until the end of the month. Oh! I could swim! I signed us both up. Exciting!

February was focused, at first.

After a crappy January, and still gimpy-but-determined, I declared February 1st, a sunny Saturday, to be my own personal New Year’s Day. Woohoo! We visited the Y for the first time. I got my hair cut. We went out to dinner with a friend.

The YMCA near us is a beautiful facility, with two huge (Olympic-sized?) lap pools and a large hot spa. Joy! We felt like we’d joined a country club. As soon as we had the lay of the land we went shopping for gym bags, got locks for the lockers, and bought new swimsuits. We did the intake coaching, set goals, made plans, and hit the pool (and the spa)!

Did we really used to do all that stuff?

Looking back now it seems like another lifetime – a different reality. Things were amazing. We were doing laps (and soaks) every couple of days, often going out for sushi on our way home. I was plowing through my to-do list, getting neglected things handled so I’d be able to focus on writing. Things were finally on clicking along nicely. But it didn’t last.

That damned flu thing again.

Mid-month the joint pain came back again, especially in my knees. They really hurt! It was even challenging to swim. And just in time for our dojo’s Evolutionary Aikido 2020 seminar and a friend’s yon-don (fourth-degree black belt) exam. I could hardly get down on the mat to bow in and out. I mostly sat out and took photos – 1,899 of ’em.

Get ready, here it comes.

By the end of the month we’d stocked up on non-perishable foods, evicting the extra blankets and towels to turn the linen closet in the hall into a second pantry. Our county health department had warned us a weeks-long lockdown could be a possibility.

Writing is still quite possible during a lockdown, and we both worked from home anyway, so we weren’t too affected personally. But, as everyone has probably experienced, it’s very hard to concentrate when things are falling apart around you. My days were divided between tackling my to-do list and learning all I could about the impending pandemic.

Just when things were starting to go badly, they got worse.

I’m going to condense the rest of 2020 a lot. Bless you if you’ve read this far. You were there too, for what came next. You already know about the uncertainty of the developing pandemic, the shifting priorities, the doom-scrolling. And let’s not forget the political scene. Blecch. What a year!

Bowing out, and bailing on Sensei and the kids.

After suddenly getting sick on March 11th I stopped training in-person. After 8 years of consistent participation I also had to bow out of assisting in the children’s program. I hated to do it, but with whatever breathing problem I’d developed and a pattern of catching every bug to come along I couldn’t risk being around little kids – for their sake and mine. In any case, Sensei had to discontinue their classes shortly after.

Sick again, and again, and again.

In March, April, and May I got sick all over again. A little less each time, but still with joint pain, headaches, and that weird eye pain, plus now with attention-getting GI symptoms. I kept a symptom diary, but naturally at that point it wasn’t possible to get a test for SARS-CoV-2. When I was finally able to get tested, weeks after everything cleared up, it came back negative. (Duh.)

Dear old Dad gets a terrible diagnosis.

On top of all this, At the beginning of April my dad was diagnosed with cancer in his lower jaw. At 84 he was not enthusiastic about the brutal surgery proposed by the doctors, and the long, difficult recovery, in spite of their assurances it would “cure” him. He said nope, not doing it. Can’t blame him. But the alternative wasn’t going to be any easier. The prognosis wasn’t good.

My only sister had passed away years ago (another victim of OxyContin and its ilk). My parents live only about 40 minutes from me, thankfully. My mom is in great health, thank goodness. But still… I could feel the sand under my feet shifting again. The next year or two were likely going to be hard ones, managing appointments, care, shopping, and ultimately home hospice. Suddenly writing, training clients, and carefree evenings at the pool seemed far less likely – and far less important.

I will spare you the suspense and let you know that through his own persistent exploration of options, a few tenuous, helpful connections, and an unlikely miracle of modern medicine, Dad is doing well. Remarkably well. More on that in a minute.

Michael finds himself suddenly retired.

Toward the end of the year Michael’s employment situation unexpectedly changed. I’ll leave explaining the details to him, but the bottom line is that he is essentially retired. Or at least from that career. After some initial trauma he’s getting used to the idea, taking on projects that interest him, and figuring his way around this new idea. At least he’s enjoying catching up on sleep.

So about all that work I’d planned …

I saw the writing on the wall early, and realized that between the pandemic restrictions, my messed up foot and knee, getting sick often, not breathing well, and possibly having to care for my dad, I wasn’t going to be able to commit to working with fitness coaching clients for while. I posted a closed-for-now notice on my website and had the Fit Coach Linda branding graphics removed from my car.

Did I get any of my several in-progress books finished? No. Not even close. At the beginning of the year I wrote an article that was set to be published on a major Aikido site, but it became suddenly irrelevant when the pandemic hit. I wrote a few articles here, and started drafts or outlines of dozens more, but frankly it’s hard to get excited about writing for beginners when the future is so uncertain. Will we have beginners gain? What will they need? What might training be like then? I guess I should be glad it was only an article that was rendered pointless, and not a whole newly-published book.

Aikido is not a building. I keep telling myself that.

As the year went on it became clear things would be bad for Aikido for a long while. Aikido is mostly person-to-person connection. There are no kata. We don’t punch heavy bags. We train with each other, hands on. That’s just not possible under these circumstances.

Sensei has been holding sticks classes in the park, and to Zoom. Thank goodness for Zoom – it’s the glue holding the world together right now. He’s even added a regular meditation session, which has been a blessing – I really need and enjoy it. Several senior students teach regularly, and I’ve even been allowed to run weekly Aikido Talks on a variety of topics.

Ultimately, over the summer, Sensei decided it didn’t make sense to keep the dojo facility. We are all very sad to have lost what was for most of us a second home for many years. But a dojo is like a church is this respect. A church is a building, but it’s also the people. A dojo, like a church, exists separate from the facility that houses it. Our dojo community lives on.

Not the best year, but there’s hope.

The dojo is closed. I can’t work with fitness clients in the way I’d planned, but I can refine my whole focus and make something work – maybe even better, for me and for others. My body has been troublesome, but is improving. Things will work out, one way or another.

The good stuff: High points and silver linings

Even as weird, messed up, and horrible this year has been, there’s been a tremendous amount of really good stuff. Fun events and productive projects. Opportunities for growth and connection. It sure hasn’t been boring.

First, Dad is doing OK!

My dad is doing remarkably well. He went off in search of a treatment option that didn’t involve a drastic surgery – and he found one!

Without going into too much personal detail, someone knew someone who’d dealt with the same cancer. That guy recommended a doctor/professor who works with immunotherapy treatments. You first have to have the appropriate kind of cancer. Check. Then it has to be a certain type for the treatment to even work. A biopsy showed that his was. After clearing both of those hurdles there’s only a 25% chance it could be effective. Amazingly, it’s been effective!

He’s doing great, feeling good, getting all the right answers on all the important tests. It’s flat-out amazing. On top of that, he’s experienced virtually no side effects.

My amazing nephew and his fiancée stayed at my parents’ house most of the year, while working remotely. They also renovated and sold a beautiful classic Craftsman home, and finally bought a home of their own. They just recently moved in there. So for most of the year my parents had abundant support for shopping, etc. So far they haven’t needed my in-person help. We’ve stopped by two or three times to say hello – outdoors and at a distance.

Things are pretty good, really.

Things seem almost normal at home, if we momentarily ignore everything happening in the world. Michael and I have worked from home for many years anyway. We often reflect how lucky we are. We can stay home. We know many cannot. The best we can do in this situation is to minimize their burden, and try not to become part of the problem. We celebrate that we like each other – we get along well. We’ve been having fun.

Our cats keep us amused, and are living the life. Minion is sleeping on my left foot as I type.

Downtime, Nadeau style.

Robert Nadeau Shihan, whose teaching has been tremendously useful to me in life, speaks of “downtime.” Life can’t be all activity – there also has to be rest, too. We can’t always be productive – sometimes we have to learn, get set up. Speaking constantly doesn’t work – we have to listen, too. This time of Covid has been a kind of society and personal downtime – looking inward, catching up, connecting.

We have been for drives in the country. We have been to the Cuyamaca mountains, out to the local high desert, up to the Laguna Mountains, along the Sunrise Highway, and even once up to Mount Palomar. The big telescope was closed, but it was a lovely drive. And there’s a beautiful county park where we sat under pine trees that smelled like vanilla.

On the way home from Palomar we discovered an amazing Mexican ice cream parlor, and have been back a couple of times, even though it’s about an hour from home.

We’ve been for a lot of hikes. People around here have been very good about keeping their distance and/or wearing face coverings. And the places we go have not been crowded. Right from the beginning we have made a point to get out in nature. As soon as it was permitted we were hiking in our local hills, and later in the Cuyamaca mountains and Lagunas.

I launched a Noon Zoom Workout that initially had a few participants, but it’s ultimately turned into me and Mom working out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s been a great way to hang out and stay in touch while staying strong.

I have tried my hand at a couple of fun things I’ve been meaning to learn. Basic origami, whittling with a pocket knife. I’m nowhere near proficient at either.

We don’t usually watch a lot of television, but during this mess we have. We usually make dinner and eat while watching something together. Two complete Star Trek seasons, tons of great programming on NHK television (English language programming from Japan), and bunches of old movies on Amazon Prime. I binge-watched a couple seasons of Alone, which I highly recommend.

We’ve watched all the Grand Sumo tournaments. During the first one there was no audience, which was very strange. During the more recent one, the arena was about 25% full, so each little box seating area that would normally have four people had only one person. And no cheering or yelling was permitted. Only applause. Very smart.

In March I did a ton of gardening, especially a few months ago when we got a notification that we either needed to clean up our front yard or the fire department’s contractor was going to do it for us! That was a lot of hard work, but it beat the heck out of sitting around the house. I’m glad that was before it got so hot. The yard does not look amazing, but it is dangerous. More of a blank slate for future landscaping right now. When we are past the worst of the summer heat I will be planting two kinds of clover as a cover crop/green manure for the fall and winter.

In April I did a deep cleaning of my office and den. There are some kinds of organization that require making a bigger mess before things get better, and this was that. I cleaned out drawers. Cleaned out shelves. Got rid of things that didn’t deserve the space they were taking up. My space is a lot more pleasant and productive now.

In June I got a new computer and additional monitors. I plan to be working from home forever, and wanted to set myself up for success. Now my tiny office looks like some kind of control center — or as a cartoon recently showed, an evil lair.

The Aikido world has really pulled together online! I’ve participated in several multi-day seminars. Every Thursday for many months Quentin Cooke Sensei leads a presentation/discussion with participants from around the world. And this past week was Nadeau Shihan’s 40th Friday night class. I usually get to see Nadeau Sensei one a year – twice if I’m very lucky. Forty classes in one year? What a privilege! I didn’t even have to drive to Northern California.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time learning about family history. We interviewed Michael’s dad about his family — who’s who, their stories, etc. when I opened ancestry.com (for the first time in at least a year or two) to enter a few bits of information I got sucked in. Family history research is an enormous puzzle. Lots of fun, and hard to drop once you get started.

I need to earn Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) to keep my fitness certifications current. This time around I’m doing the Behavior Change Specialist course. This focuses on coaching people. It will be something I can do remotely, and can really made a difference in people’s lives.

So, now what?

My working assumption for now is that life will not “get back to normal” in 2021. I am putting all my efforts toward writing, learning, and remote coaching.

I’ll be staying connected with friends and family online or outdoors at a distance. No seminars or retreats. No closer-than-6′ training, even with masks. No indoor gatherings, period. Between my age, weight, asthma (with inhaled steroids), and supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), I’ve got five strikes against me in terms of Covid risk factors. Plus I could be called on to help my parents. That adds up to a lot of reasons to play it very safe.

Having settled on all that, I’m finding a lot of freedom to move forward. The uncertainty of not knowing what to expect next month (or next week) was toxic. I’m looking forward to finally getting some work done – both fitness coaching and writing. Even some writing about fitness.

I hope to get my body working well again. My knee has been improving with physical therapy, and I’m continuing to work on that. Getting my weight down could help a lot of things, too. I have a lot of knowledge and resources at my disposal. I just need to concentrate my efforts on what I can do, rather than what I can’t.

I’m consciously working on building some new habits, including a regular meditation practice, affirmations, visualizing, etc.

I’m creating what I’m calling a self-directed Aikido practice in addition to participating in classes. I hope to be able to put into practice a lot of the Aikido lessons I’ve been taking in. It’s nice to learn about new ideas and ways of being, but another thing altogether to make those things a part of one’s life. Moving from cognitive/thinking mind to embodied experience.

There’s a lot to look forward to. Bring on those longer days; I’m ready to get to work.