Last week, Georgia—like most of the United States—was in the first phase of a brutal heat wave.
It was ... not great. I walked fewer steps, spent less time outside, and suffered from an overall lack of inspiration. I felt anxious about rising temperatures in years to come, and spent a good portion of the week worrying about how the current heat—and heat ahead—would affect children and other vulnerable people.
Most of all, though, my brain felt slower than usual. Turns out, this is a common response to heat. As NPR reported, “heat stress can muddle our thinking.”
Which brings us to today’s newsletter. It’s a little more muddled than usual. And I’m okay with that.
As I’m writing this intro, we’re experiencing a brief respite from the heat (it’s early, and currently a glorious 70° Fahrenheit outside). My plan for the rest of the day is to take a long walk before settling down for several hours of work.
Hopefully, I’ll get some unmuddled thinking and working done before the heat ratchets back up again later this week. And then? I’ll muddle through. Sometimes, that’s the best we can do.
These years matter
The other day, a friend made an observation that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “I want to believe this all gets easier as our kids age,” she shared in a group chat with other new moms, “but at the end of the day, these years matter and we matter.”
She was offering this wisdom to a friend who was asking for advice getting through a rough patch, but all of us in that group chat needed to hear those words. These years matter. It’s the mantra I didn’t know I needed—one that extends far beyond parenthood.
It’s tempting to lose sight of ourselves and our needs when times are tough, but that’s perhaps when we most need some extra love. Our situations may be different, but right now, many of us are experiencing trying times. As much as we’d like to, we can’t fast-forward through this period or stop taking care of ourselves in the process. The best option is to embrace now for what it is—and maybe even find reasons to enjoy it. These years matter, and we matter.
Hope isn’t happiness
I highlighted approximately four dozen passages in Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book. It’s a quick, easy, pep-talk of a book, aimed to bring readers a little bit of hope in dark times. This is one of those quotes.
“Hope isn’t the same thing as happiness. You don’t need to be happy to be hopeful. You need instead to accept the unknowability of the future, and that there are versions of that future which could be better than the present. Hope, in its simplest form, is the acceptance of possibility.”
Letter of recommendation
Last week, I started sending out stickers to paid newsletter subscribers, and it was a true joy. Taking the time to (hand)write a little note, address an envelope, and place a pretty stamp in the corner truly felt like an act of love and care. Doing so reminded me of other things I wanted to send; I also mailed a birthday card and thank-you note to friends.
After Jamie died, I received an avalanche of letters and packages in the mail. Honestly, they saved me. I had a reason to go outside and check the mailbox every day. I felt the much-needed joy of being reminded that someone was thinking of me—and that they took the time to send me something in the mail. And, depending on what was written inside those notes, I often was given the opportunity for a good, cathartic cry.
Snail mail doesn’t cost much to send. And it’s a real treat to receive. I recommend sending a letter to a friend or relative this week. Just one. Slowing down and writing something by hand will likely be a good change of pace for you—and we all know that doing nice things for others is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.
It gets easier (a pep talk)
The adage is true: it does get easier. But then, sooner or later, it will get harder in some other way. That’s just how life works.
I don’t know how or when it will get easier and how or when it will get harder; none of us do. What I do know is that you will get through all of it.
Instead of waiting for life to get easier, try and accept this moment for what it is. After all, the hardest times often hold the sweetest lessons. If you keep your eyes and your heart open, you will find incredible beauty right in front of you.
The time it takes to adjust
The other day, partly out of curiosity and partly because of writer’s block, I decided to Google how long it takes to adapt to a series of life transitions that I’ve experienced over the past few years.
Thanks to a cursory glance at top-ranked Google results (read: not personally fact-checked nor vouched for), I learned that it takes at least three years to adapt to the death of a spouse; three to six months to get comfortable in a new job; a bizarrely specific four months and 23 days to adjust to becoming a parent; and up to six months to settle into a new place after moving.
As for the time it takes to adapt to a pandemic? The jury is still out.
According to this very cursory and non-scientific research, I have spent approximately four years, four months, and 23 days adapting to the quadruple whammy of losing a spouse, becoming a freelancer, having a baby, and moving states.
In other words, over the past five years and four months, I have enjoyed around 350 days of not adjusting to a major life change. (Although, to be fair, I’d guess a good portion of those days were spent trying to adapt to a global pandemic.)
It’s no wonder I often feel unsure of who I am.
An incomplete list of things that almost always help
Drinking water. Taking a deep breath. Asking for a hug. Calling a friend. Waving to a stranger. Going outside. Putting your phone away. Playing the Good Moments game. Petting a dog or cat or some other cuddly animal. Stretching. Dancing to a favorite song. Saying, “Hey, I love you,” to yourself.
One day away
Parenting can be a slog. Ditto for working at home, and working in general. It can also be a slog to just be a person in the world. Billy has been really feeling the pain of that slog lately. And so, we’ve been trying to brainstorm ways for him to take one day away—a tiny break from life’s ongoing grind.
Thinking about that one day (one measly day!) reminds me of these words from Maya Angelou, in her book of essays, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:
Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.
It’s just around the corner
There will be a moment—when everything feels bleak—that makes you laugh so hard you could cry with relief. There will be a day—when everything is going wrong—that you receive an unexpected compliment, a beaming smile, or a little hand that reaches for yours, and everything feels lighter. There will be a second—when you’re feeling exhausted and worn down—that you take the deepest, most reinvigorating breath and suddenly feel stronger than you felt before.
You can try something different
This is not my normal newsletter approach. Normally, I write an essay—roughly 1,000 words—that follows a coherent theme. My writing is consistent, reliable, and sometimes predictable. But, for some reason, the essay didn’t work this week. I tried to write it multiple times, multiple ways, and it never clicked.
Last week, I was featured on the Substack homepage. That honor brought me a couple hundred new readers, who may or may not be reading now. Because of these new readers, I felt an unspoken pressure to write an especially good essay this week. Which I did not do!
Instead, you have this: nine bits of wisdom and half-completed thoughts. It’s a mishmash, and it’s not the best example of what to expect from My Sweet Dumb Brain.
Then again, sometimes this is what my brain has to offer: bits of wisdom mashed between some random thoughts. Some weeks, my mind feels especially jumbled. And that’s okay. I’m happy to also make space for that.
Thanks for following along, friends. I hope it was fun to read something a little out of the ordinary this week. Maybe you’ll try something different this week, too.
Exactly what I needed this morning. Thank you.
I lost my first wife in April of 2004, after nearly three decades together. For more than a month it felt as though I had been torn in half. My normally very organized brain kept misfiring to the point that I was making so many mistakes while writing checks for household bills that I was barely able to write a valid check in two hours.
My company manufactured complex marine navigation programs, and I had been the primary programmer. As with writing checks, my gift for easily writing programming code was no better than my ability to write checks.
Many people do not understand the devastation of losing a well loved spouse and partner.
As a widower so many years ago, I can understand the widow issues you faced. As a man, it is not possible for me to fully understand the compounded issues you have dealt with.
But I am pleased to have chosen to subscribe to your "sweet dumb brain" and read this missive.
Seems to this old man that you are finding the grace and acceptance that leads to a bit of normal coming into your life.
As for me, as I approach my 78th birthday, I am so blessed to have met a woman who did not mind my occasionally calling her Anja rather than her given name of Mary.
We have been together for 16 wonderful years, warts and all. Mary is 15 years younger than me, but lovingly refers to me as a young looking old man, a phrase my intellect labels as an oxymoron, but my heart labels as love.
I look forward to reading more about your journey, young lady.