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Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.


1 Mical Lewis { 05.31.17 at 8:18 pm }

List of 10 Things that Keep Me Sane

1. Reading or Listening to Books: I grew up listening to stories and getting caught up in other worlds and learning life lessons from characters. I stopped reading fiction briefly at the beginning of Grad School and had a desperately hard time writing essays until I started again. They are connected and for me, the one informs and creates the other.
2. Writing: I’ve been writing just as long as I’ve been reading and my life always goes smoother and is more fun when I’m writing regularly.
3. Tea: Knowing that I get to drink a bowl of matcha or a few cups of high mountain oolong is sometimes what gets me up in the mornings. These days I don’t drink caffeine past noon, so tea is one of the things I use to convince myself to get up early; the earlier I get up, the more tea I can drink.
4. Knitting or Crocheting/Crafting: This is how I got through Grad School. It’s meditative and productive and gives you a set of problems you can solve, unlike so many of the ones life presents. Plus, you end up with a cool thing at the end of it that you can give as a gift or keep for yourself.
5. Cats: Erasmus is one of my best friends and knows how to make me laugh and calm me down. Plus he’s an excellent listener.
6. Flowers/Plants: I love plants and flowers of all kinds and though I don’t have a garden of my own at the moment, I keep track of several in my neighborhood on my (mostly) daily walks. I recently added succulents to my life and now have four desk-friends to keep me company.
7. Walking/Going Outside: I recently discovered that I need to go outside into the fresh air to survive. Go figure. 😉 But really, getting out of the confines of four walls and into the wind (I live in SF, so it’s a permanent state of weather) helps to “blow the stink off,” as my Dad used to say, not to mention that it means that I’m getting some real exercise (thanks to SF’s many hills).
8. Taking Baths: Hot water cures just about everything or at least makes just about everything better. Especially if there are bubbles and delightful fragrances involved. And you can read in the bath. And drink wine. Or tea.
9. Family/Partner: My fam/partner does drive me crazy, but they are also my touchstone and help me get back to my center and my Self when I lose my way. As I do every so often.
10. My Anti-Depressant: I am so grateful that science and medicine have advanced far enough so that the chemical imbalances in my brain that make me sad can be adjusted by taking a pill. It allows me to do my work in the world and enjoy myself while I’m at it. So this is one of the most important things I do for myself to keep me sane.

2 Lauren { 05.31.17 at 10:08 pm }

How similar our lists are, Mical: 1. 2. 5. 6 (overlaps). 7. 9.

3 Lisa Lednicer { 05.31.17 at 10:43 pm }

In no particular order:
1. Hot showers. Sometimes it’s truly the only way for me to relax.
2. Swimming, preferably outside, where the D.C. weather makes it practically mandatory. I am ALWAYS in a better mood when I leave the pool.
3. Chocolate. ‘Nuff said.
4. A walk through the woods. East Coast, Pacific Northwest, doesn’t matter. Trees, a swiftly running creek, the flash of a deer…
5. My husband. For the 20 years we’ve been married and the 30+ years I’ve known him, he has been my anchor in a sea of chaos.
6. Acts of kindness, in whatever form, done by me or to me by others.
7. Synagogue, and the rhythm of the Jewish calendar.
8. Loose tea, hot water, half ‘n half, no sugar. The antidote to any and all craziness.
9. Cooking for people I love.
10. Finding gratitude, especially for being in good physical condition.

4 Lauren { 06.01.17 at 12:40 am }

Yes, Lisa, yes. Such a good list. I can see this all happening during one beautiful day of ultimate sanity!

5 kim { 05.31.17 at 11:38 pm }

1. Really really good and smart friends (or singular) who listen and tell the truth and keep me grounded.
2. Chocolate, or promise of same in the future.
3. Weeding. It’s a control thing.
4. Dogs
5. Dogs
6. Dogs
7 . Dogs
8. Dogs
9. A really good book so I can escape to a better place/realize the place I”m in is not that bad
10. Dogs.

6 Lauren { 06.01.17 at 12:38 am }

Oh, okay, I GET it: Dogs. I’ll concede this point because I am a good and (sometimes) smart friend who listens and tells the truth. I did have you on my list, btw, but then remembered you were on my “these are a few of my favorite things” list of a while back, and I… well, I’m not sure… I didn’t want to seem too sappy.

7 Paul Ybarra { 05.31.17 at 11:56 pm }

1.Music. Just the sound of hearing latin jazz from the 60’s is like a really nice martini for my soul. When I hear Cal Tjader’s vibraphone or Walter Wanderley’s organ noodling on the intro to a song, it’s like the sound of ice in martini shaker and I’m immediately soothed. Music like this does to me what that first hit off a bong does for some smoker-friends…I begin to breathe deeper, I feel lighter, and I know it’s going to feel great.

2. Ghost Stories. Any book, podcast, or documentary that revolves around ghosts, hauntings and paranormal activity. Since I was a little kid, ghost stories have brought me such comfort and in a sincere place of true focus that even I’m surprised at how much these things make me feel at home. The more mysterious, the more I find a layer of personal Zen that envelopes me like being in the center of a beautiful flower.
3. Gym. Weight training with free weights especially, help me not to act on my insecurities. Without the gym, I’ve been known to become highly defensive and sarcastic, bitchy and downright judgmental. I basically channel my Grandma at the height of her family tyranny in the 1980’s, and although it’s entertaining (friends have said it’s a spitting image of Bette Davis as “Madame Sin”), the gym becomes like therapy and I can work out my shortcomings and exhaust my inner-evil.
4. Singing. Being able to sing and perform or be in the studio is like tinkering in an art studio or pottery class with a really nice kiln. I get out of my own head and way and start to create things outside of my self, and can walk out of the studio with something to work on or something we’ve recorded that’s magical. Taking a great voice lesson is magical to me. To be able to improve and strengthen is like the gym for your voice. That makes me so happy to feel and hear progress.

5. Wooster The Cat. To have this giant, furry, purring therapist who despite all of my shortcomings still sticks around, follows me and willingly lets me pet his belly is a miracle. All pets are a blessing, but for me, cats are like little furry saints who patiently listen and are just there for us, physically and emotionally. Wooster is a senior cat who’s as weird and strange as I am, and we both accept each other’s spooky ways. I love that.
6. Walking. Getting out in nature and being in solitude or one with nature. Living in the heart of a busy city can make that tough, but I’ve discovered a sanctuary in cemeteries. I LOVE finding some out of the way, spooky cemetery and walking the grounds, reading the epitaphs and seeing the trees and flowers in bloom just make me feel grateful. The architecture and headstones that have been there the longest are particularly wonderful to me.
7. My boyfriend, who’s gentle and wise strength has saved me from making a complete fool of myself countless times to reminding me to “sleep on it” when I’ve written an angry email in haste and am ready to press the send button. To be able to just be myself,in beauty and in sad desperation, and to be seen. To be able to just BE without judgement or condition. To be loved and respected, even when I’ve sent that email I shouldn’t have.
8. Books. Thank God for reading books. Aside from ghost books, there’s nothing like reading anything from Truman Capotes’ “Other Rooms, Other Voices” to J. Randy Tarborelli’s tell-all “Call Her Miss Ross.” I also love the works of Florence Scovel Shinn, and I have a particularly strong love for teen etiquette books from the 60’s and early 70’s. And a little Nancy Drew is always good for the soul.

9. Fetish. Whatever your fetish happens to be, being able to participate, play and surround yourself in what gives you supreme pleasure is incredible. There’s nothing quite like being able to get lost in what you love. Again, you are in the moment and out of your own way.
10. Diners. Good old fashioned American diners, particularly if they haven’t updated their decor since the 60’s or 70’s. The atmosphere of mostly senior clientele reminds me of being around a bunch of hip, wise grandmas’ and grandpas. I LOVE it when I see a senior lady order a glass of wine with her club sandwich or stroganoff. I think that’s so cool, as the “Doll House Pink” Wet-N-Wild lipstick leaves a stain on the glass or coffee cup.

These things keep me sane…ish.

8 Lauren { 06.01.17 at 12:34 am }

How can you not be totally and completely and forever sane with a list like this, Paul? I can’t believe I did not put music on my own list. Ten minutes with Van Morrison is always always transformative.

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