How to Ground Yourself
When big things feel too heavy, focus on something small.
Red Poppy (1927) by Georgia O’Keeffe
Everything feels chaotic at the moment. People are trying to get back to normal life, but even normal life doesn’t feel quite right. The accumulated stress of months of isolation is lingering in the air like a bad fog. Even though it feels great to move through the world again, it’s also disconcerting.
A month ago, I drove across the country with my husband, two kids, and two dogs, one of which had become a basket case during the pandemic, rendering her unfit for social dog boarding. We spent a week at the beach and two weeks at the delightful house where I grew up in North Carolina, which not-so-delightfully lacks AC. Last week we drove back across the country.
The entire experience was amazing and also taxing. The dogs were surprisingly well-behaved and also sometimes obnoxious. The kids were remarkably cheerful and also sometimes grumpy and uncooperative. Bill was absurdly calm for the entire trip, but I think I’ve become a weird variety of basket case during the pandemic: I can drive for six hours straight without a break while making up dumb songs about every highway sign we pass, but I’m often unable to write or carry on a conversation or make even the smallest life decisions.
I’m just in a fog. One minute, I’m open to whatever comes next. The next minute I feel like I’m allergic to everything. I want to see all of my old friends and new friends and compare notes on what we’ve all been through for the past year and a half, but I also feel like canceling plans and hiding. The world still feels like it’s going haywire, and I just want to find ways to feel grounded.
I guess that’s why I was so happy to read this Buzzfeed story by Amber Jamieson about Prancer the Viral Nightmare Chihuahua and his new owner, Ariel Davis. Like so many of us, Prancer feels confused and fearful at the moment. He wants to know who he can trust. He wants to know where his real home is. He requires a lot of calm reassurance right now. Maybe most of us do.
Like so many charming neurotics who hate almost everything, Prancer is a little misunderstood. But he wasn’t born that way! For years, he had a comfortable life with a nice older mom who fed him eggs and bacon for breakfast and swathed him in cashmere when he was cold. Then she moved to an assisted living facility and he moved into a chaotic house with a bunch of other dogs.
PRANCER MISSED HIS MOM.
But then he met his new mom, who seems to have studied a lot of positive reinforcement dog training books, and has Prancer on a strict but still comfy regimen of soothing words, tasty treats, exercise, and the occasional egg and bacon breakfast. Ariel, Prancer’s new mom, seems less into cashmere and she’s very allergic to fame and social media. I mean, these things could change. But Ariel seems grounded — and she’s grounding herself by taking care of Prancer.
When the world feels chaotic, remembering what calms you down and sustains you can be really fucking hard. What I loved about this story was how, when things got more difficult, Ariel started to take on even more difficult challenges instead of hiding and doing less (not that that wouldn’t be understandable, too!). That doesn’t mean she was harder on herself or on Prancer. She just reached out more.
She got closer with her sponsor, attended more AA meetings, and connected more with the other women in rehab.
People who grew up in households where no one talked about their emotions tend to withdraw when things get tough. Even though Ariel seems to prefer a pretty low-key life, when she was facing criticism on social media, she did the hard thing and leaned on the people around her instead of hiding. That sort of reminded me of Prancer and also of our very neurotic dog, Fig, who started nipping other dogs right before we left town. I was worried that she’d get even more stressed out at a new boarding facility, but hoped that she might calm down if she were given a chance to see new places and do new things with her family there to reassure her the whole time.
And she did. After a few days of barking at everyone new in North Carolina, she settled in and became the passionate crab and rabbit and squirrel lover she was born to be.
The point is, we all need a lot of patience to get through this weird transitional time. Sometimes we need to reach out and connect with people we can trust, and other times we need something small to focus on and take care of. Sometimes we need to do hard work that we’ve been avoiding, and other times we need ten hours of open road and a very long, very bad improvised song about the town of Show Low, Arizona. Even though my head has been crowded with heavy thoughts lately about what comes next for me – how I want to live, what I want for my family, how I plan to manage the next chapter of my life – sometimes it’s the small things that ground me. That’s when I realize that my big plans and anxious narratives about who I am and where I’m headed don’t really matter as much as making a nervous dog feel safe, or talking a tired kid through her frustrations, or planting some zinnia seeds and keeping them alive and healthy for months without knowing if they’ll ever bloom.
When we got back to Los Angeles, our driveway was a sea of zinnia blossoms. I knew I’d overdone it a little, stuffing every available pot and planter with tiny plants for months. But it was so exciting to see everything blooming at once. I felt like Dorothy arriving in Munchkinland.
When you’re living inside your head and you feel a little lost, small things can ground you. Sometimes small things are the only things that make you feel relaxed and safe. So today, find something small that feels good and soothing to you. Be patient with yourself. Talk to yourself in a calm, kind voice when things get rough. Have a treat. Remember that you’re loved, and give your love to someone who needs it.
Hang in there, Prancers of the world! I know it feels like the universe is made of crashing pots and teetering lamps right now, but we’ll get through this. Courage! Navigating a gauntlet of clanging bells at the moment? Tell us about it in the comments, or write to askpolly at protonmail.com. Thanks for being here!