Today I’m Grateful for…a Squirrel

In this trying time, I’m finding how important it is for my mental health to have something to distract my mind from the endless “what if” thoughts spiraling around my head. I lucked into my first “mental health project” of the day this morning, when I walked into the kitchen and my sleepy eyes caught movement in the yard.

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A mouthful of leaves and newspaper

Last fall I put down layers of newspaper to create some new beds in my native plant garden. This fox squirrel has discovered that the paper makes excellent nesting material, and she’s been grabbing mouthfuls of it and running up the neighbor’s oak tree to refurbish her nest. (It could be a male as well, but I’m just going to pretend it’s a female.) She’s also mixing leaves into these bundles, and I’m extra glad I didn’t rake all of my leaves last fall.

That’s the view of the big oak tree from my kitchen window, with the nest circled in red.  The nest has been up there for at least a year, and I’d never been able to get photos of the squirrel actually using it. I’ve seen blue jays go up there and poke around the underside for insects, but it’s so high that I can’t really get good close pics of anything.

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I watched her make several forays up the tree and back down to my yard, using the power lines and my fence as convenient highways. (There’s video below these photos.)

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Snowflakes were falling as the fence gecko tried to sneak up on the distracted squirrel. That colorful lizard was left by my home’s previous owners, and I quite enjoy having it there, especially in winter when it adds a pop of color to a mostly-gray scene.

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Halfway between the ground and the nest, aware that I’m watching her.

I wonder if this is the same squirrel I watched flipping over my freshly-filled bird feeder yesterday? I ran out of regular bird seed, and all I had left was something from Wild Birds Unlimited called Bark Butter Bits, in the pepper-laced variety that is supposed to be unpalatable to squirrels. The squirrel went from one feeder to the next, inspecting each container and finding the same nasty surprise in it. I think the flipping over of the feeder was an act of revenge on me for not serving up the food she wanted. If squirrels were the size of humans (or even of dogs), we’d be in such trouble!

If you have your sound turned on as you watch these two videos, you’ll hear robins chirping, and my resident cardinal singing. (And you might also hear my microwave beeping…oops.) In this first one, she tears the paper and then runs rapidly along the top of the fence.

This last video shows her running from the power lines to the tree and then up to the nest.  She ran too fast for me to keep the camera on her, but I tried.

I was thinking of ending my bird feeding for the season (I only feed in winter), but now that I’ll be at home most of the time, I think I’ll go get some more seed today, before they close the rest of the businesses here in Ohio.  (I assume that’s the next step in fighting the coronavirus.) I think watching my feeder birds is going to become an important “mental health project” for me in the coming weeks.

I hope you find some good projects to keep your mind busy through this period of isolation, and I’d love to hear about them.

A New World

It’s been more than a month since I’ve written here, and my gosh, how the world has changed in that time. Six weeks ago I could not have imagined the reality we’re living with today, as a frightening pandemic sweeps the globe. In just the past week, Ohio has ordered the closing of all schools (for at least three weeks), as well as all bars and restaurants (except for take-out orders). People have been hoarding supplies of toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, and bread, as they try to come to grips with an uncertain future.

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Fungus on tree trunk – maybe milk-white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus)?

We’re all scared and confused. We’re told we should stay at least six feet away from other people who don’t live with us. I began my own “social isolation” immediately after getting a haircut last Friday, and it’s already starting to drive me crazy. I usually love being single and living alone, but I’ve discovered that there’s a huge difference between choosing to be alone and being forced to do it. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to cope with a deep loneliness that’s settled over me. Today I finally started reaching out to friends, because I realized that many of them may be so absorbed in their own lives that they forget about those of us who don’t have a built-in support system in our homes. It’s going to be up to me to admit when I need someone to talk to, but that’s hard. I told a friend today that I feel a little bit of shame that I feel so lonely. But I’m determined to fight those feelings and get the support I need to get through this. And I swear, when this is all over, I’m going to organize my friends for the biggest group hug ever.

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Tunnels made by some type of boring insect

When the world was “normal,” my calendar overflowed with things like board meetings, field trips, lunch dates with friends, and yoga classes. Within about three days, all of that was wiped clean, as almost everything has been cancelled for at least the next two months. I feel adrift, unsure what to do with myself.  Right now my brain is too distracted to do much reading or writing, two of my favorite things to do.

I quickly realized that the solution for getting me to the other side of this crazy time is going to be, not surprisingly, the natural world. Nature is really and truly going to be my therapy for the foreseeable future. I’ve got to double down on my Big Bug Year, and use that to focus myself on something other than my fear. It’s still a bit early for much insect activity up here though, and so I’ll just go for walks and do some birding until the bugs are active again. The photos in this post were all taken on my walks over the past few days. Despite how it feels in the human world, the natural world is proceeding without regard to our problems. Plants are starting to send out new growth and birds are beginning courtship rituals.

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Dried seed heads of mint — I can’t resist crushing them and inhaling!

The other day, as I unloaded groceries in the sun-infused kitchen, I watched a squirrel at my bird feeders. He was performing his normal acrobatics to raid the bird feeder, and I found myself envying him his ignorance of the human world’s troubles.  While I look at my email filled with notifications of events being cancelled and businesses closing, the squirrel just keeps reaching into that feeder and basking in the sun.

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Seed pod of a wild cucumber

Each morning as I drink my coffee, I’m serenaded by the boisterous songs of the male cardinal in my yard, with backup from the muted cooing of the mourning doves. The beginning of spring bird activity is always a welcome sign at this time of year, but it’s especially important this year. To me, it’s a reminder that life will go on. It may seem that chaos reigns everywhere right now, but when I pay attention to what’s happening in nature, it calms me. When I’m focused on the natural world, my breathing slows and I know my blood pressure probably goes lower as well.

Lately I’ve been enjoying the loud performances of chorus frogs in vernal pools. Sometimes they’re so loud it sounds like there could be thousands of them. And yet I can’t find a single frog! Here’s a short video of one of their performances:

I hope you’re able to get out in nature often in the coming weeks as we settle into a new normal of reduced human contact. If you’re on Facebook, I would love it if you would share your nature experiences on my blog’s Facebook page.

Be safe out there, and be kind to one another.  It’s going to be okay.

 

Walking Naked Down the Road

Rochester Municipal Park bench and creek w sigI find myself feeling ambivalent lately about how I live with my high sensory processing trait, my HSP-ness, so to speak. Fifteen years ago, when I first read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly-Sensitive Person, it was comforting to discover a label for what I’d experienced my entire life, and it opened my eyes to some ways to adjust my life for the better. I found other HSPs to talk with, signed up for HSP newsletters, and generally spent a lot of time pondering this newly-understood aspect of myself. In recent years, I even made it a big focus of my blog, which drew me into conversations with people who told me they were grateful I’d written about it because it helped them understand themselves or someone they loved. (If you want to read more about what it means to be an HSP, just click that link in the first sentence above.)

With my new knowledge came a boost in my self-confidence. I became more likely to stand up for my needs at home and in social situations, and felt better knowing there are other people in the world who experience life the way I do. I wasn’t alone anymore! For a while it was empowering to embrace the label.

Rural road in Lapeer county with fall foliage w sigBut now I’m struggling with the idea that, perhaps, by spending so much energy reading and writing about high sensitivity I’m actually enabling myself to be more sensitive. If I wear a label on my forehead that says “Hi, I’m an HSP,” that sort of gives me permission to withdraw from social interactions because, well, “everyone knows I’m so sensitive,” so they’ll understand. They won’t question why I rarely join in the birding field trips. They’ll forgive me for skipping the party at the loud restaurant because, you know, “she’s sensitive.”

But sometimes I also think to myself, “Oh, I’m so sick of talking and writing about my sensitivities!” I get occasional glimpses of how I imagine other people see me and I suddenly wish I’d never started writing publicly about such an intimate part of my life. Because putting my heart out here in the world like this has made me incredibly vulnerable. Some days it feels like I’m walking down the road naked, just asking for people to throw (literal and figurative) rocks at me. And, frankly, some people are more than happy to do that.

Leaves floating on water with dappled sunlight and rocksSo how do I draw the line between too much focus on this trait and too little? I can’t deny or ignore such an important part of myself. It impacts every moment of every day, and every interaction I have with another human being. It enriches my life in many ways, but it also means that I feel everything more intensely than most other people do, and therefore I experience more emotional ups and downs during each day than 80% of the population does. Honestly, it’s exhausting just trying to maintain the “invisible shield” that helps protect me from being overwhelmed by the intensity of all the things I see, hear, smell, or feel during each day.

I think all of this internal conflict has resurfaced because of my recent relocation and re-entry into the workforce. I no longer have the luxury of “hiding out” for a few days when I need extra down time, because now I have more responsibilities to other people. And I’m struggling to adjust to lots of things that I thought I’d never have to deal with again, like working in an office with ringing phones and people coming in and out all day long.

So I’m often being pushed beyond my tolerance levels and finding myself unable to get away fast enough. More than once I’ve found myself crying on my drive home just because of the pent-up emotion from a chaotic day. But I’m getting better at it. Lately I’ve been taking short breaks to walk on the nature trail behind our office, and that seems to make a big difference in my ability to cope when things are stressful.

So why am I writing this now? Well, for one thing, writing helps me think things through. But also because, like everyone, one of my deepest longings is for people to see me for who I really am, and to understand me, and to accept me.  I know it’s not realistic to hope that everyone will like me (because I don’t like everyone I meet either), but I think it’s human nature to reach out and try to form meaningful connections with other people. And as difficult as that is for me, I can’t give up trying. It’s essential for my own well-being, and I also feel I owe it to other HSPs to continue my efforts to help our society begin to understand us better. We’re only 20% of the population, but we deserve to be accepted just like any other minority. And we won’t be fully accepted until we’re more widely understood.

And because we HSPs can play a valuable role in the world if we are nurtured rather than scorned, if we are appreciated for our insight and our ability to see things that go unnoticed by a less-attentive majority in this loud-and-busy culture. Did you know that some of the most celebrated leaders in the world were highly-sensitive people? And artists and creative people are often HSPs too. All of these people are or were thought to be highly-sensitive: the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, Alanis Morissette, Barbra Streisand, and, for you Star Wars fans, even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

If I’m even partially like those amazing people, that’s pretty darn good. I feel better now. Even if I am walking naked down the road. 🙂