Neither Holding On nor Pushing Away, by Amber Foxx

A yoga teacher I studied with years ago gave this guidance for how to be with one’s thoughts during meditation: Neither holding on nor pushing away. It helps me now with writing in addition to meditation and life in general—neither holding on to my old normal nor pushing away the present. I’m experiencing writing now as a balancing act, both a remembering practice without holding on and a letting-go practice without pushing away.

My work in progress, book eight in the Mae Martin series, is pre-pandemic. My books are always set several years in the past because I want to get the context right. While I don’t write directly about current events, they exist in the background and have a realistic impact on my characters’ lives. Eventually, maybe in three to five years, I might set a book in the spring of 2020. It’s too soon to write fiction about what’s happening now, and too soon for anyone to want to read it.

I’m keeping notes, though, and making an archive of how we live through this in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, since my stories take place here. Maybe I’ll never write the book, but preparing as if I’m going to helps me process everything and stay focused. As well as saving copies of statewide public health orders and keeping track of the news, I’m writing down daily observations on life in our community during our present challenges.

I haven’t decided what the mystery in that distant future book will be. My books aren’t about murder, but other types of wrong-doing. I’ll have a better idea by the time I’m ready to write it, in whatever kind of world we live in then. Preparing the background for that book is part of releasing both worry and expectations. I record the full spectrum of events, and then I can let go of them for the day. I can’t plan the plot yet, because I can’t know what the future holds. Meanwhile, I’ve sketched out possible scenes with my characters in a state of not-knowing and uncertainty, of real loss and potential loss, as they struggle with the sudden change. So far, a lot of the dialogue in these quick drafts is humorous, as are many of my conversations—on the phone or six feet away—with my neighbors and friends. Dark humor at times, but it’s part of how we cope.

Meanwhile, my main creative focus is on a book in which people visit each other’s homes, go out dancing, meet for coffee, take aerobics classes and college classes in person, and share hugs. This is my remembering practice. Not clinging to what was normal once, but honoring it.

 

Butt in Chair?

As a yoga teacher and a retired professor of Health and Exercise Science, I tend to consider how everything I do affects my body. Following the adage to “write what you know,” I made my protagonist a fitness instructor and personal trainer. It’s easy for me to understand her work and her interests. And yet, I have to sit down to write those books, and sitting isn’t good for me. This holds true even though I get plenty of structured exercise.

Writers are often told to apply butt to chair to be productive, but getting one’s butt out of the chair is just as important. According to a number of studies, sitting slows our thinking. “When a person sits for more than ten minutes, the brain downshifts, and it becomes more difficult to pay attention … The brain is least productive when sitting.”*

Movement brings blood flow and nutrients to the brain. Most of us have brainstorms while doing active things, from walking and running to housework, but we need to sit at our computers to record those inspirations. Once we’re seated, we may lose some of our brilliance if we don’t get up often enough, so here are some quick tips for keeping your brain and body energized.

  • Make it necessary to move. I used to have a motion sensor light in my office when I was a professor, and I had to get up every twenty minutes to keep it on. Now I keep my tea or water on a table a few steps away from my desk, and I have to stand and walk a little to get a sip. It doesn’t inhibit productivity; it keeps it going. (And keeps me from spilling beverages on my keyboard.)
  • Set a timer for every ninety minutes to two hours to remind yourself to be active for at least two minutes. Walk up and down the stairs or around the room; put on some music and dance; or do some pushups, squats and lunges. Another option is to bookmark some short yoga videos on your computer, and use those for a movement break if you are already experienced in yoga.** (The shortest ones on the Yoga Journal site are five minutes, and the longest are twenty. My favorite teacher on the site is Jason Crandell.)

Yoga may feel especially good, because sitting can affect our muscles as well as our cognitive clarity. People who sit a lot often feel discomfort in their backs, necks and shoulders. If your chair makes you sit with your thighs higher than your hips, this position flattens the lumbar curve, and your back muscles may object. To correct the problem, pad the back of your chair seat with a firm blanket or pillow so your sitting bones are slightly higher than your thigh bones.  Another source of sitting discomfort is typing and reading with the head and shoulders in a forward position. The neck and upper back feel strained from hours of supporting the ten-to-twelve pound weight of the head. (Imagine holding ten-pound dumbbell a few inches in front of your body for several hours. Now you know why your neck is tired.) The following series of movements is designed to help you find true neutral again, and not let your desk posture become unhealthy.

Step one: Stand up. Lift your toes, not the balls of your feet, and notice how your femurs (thigh bones) shift into the back of your hip sockets. Many people stand with their femurs pushed forward, so this may feel odd, but just breathe yourself taller, floating your ribs off your hips to decompress any feeling of excessive backbend in your spine, then gently firm the lower belly without crunching the front of the body or restricting your breath. Don’t suck in or tuck under. Stand like a young, healthy, active child whose posture is as yet undistorted by desks and cars. Put your toes down and sustain this posture.

Step two: Roll your shoulders around, making big circles four or five times forward, then backward. Notice where they feel at home, and then slightly draw your shoulder blades together until you feel wider and more spacious across the chest. Breathe into the space between your shoulder blades without losing the strength there or the heart opening.

Step three: Gently, poke your head out like a turtle coming out of its shell, and then pull it in like turtle going into its shell. Find neutral. It may be further back than you think. From neutral, lift your chin just enough to feel the back of the neck shorten. Then, drop your chin enough to feel the back of the neck stretch. Again, let your head find neutral. Your ears should be aligned over shoulders, hips, and ankles, with your chin parallel to the floor. Holding neutral alignment, tip your right ear to right shoulder, pause, and then tuck your chin toward your collarbone. Go back to the neutral side-tilt and use your hand (not the muscles you just stretched) to put your head on straight. Repeat on the left. This is safer for your neck than rolling. Ahh. Just did it. My posture feels rejuvenated.

After doing these activities, sit again and see if you can maintain neutral posture, or at least return to it frequently.

Have fun, healthy desk-dwellers. Let me know if you have questions. And share your ways of staying alert and energized despite the butt-in-chair aspect of being a writer.

*Eckmann, T. The Smart Way to Move, IDEA Fitness Journal, Sept. 2017, pp. 44-51.

** Beginners in yoga should start with a qualified, attentive teacher, not a video. Most “beginner” videos aren’t suited to a real beginner, and having someone present to give you suggestions and feedback is important when you’re getting started.

*****

As well as being the author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mysteries, Amber Foxx is certified through the American Council on Exercise as a group fitness instructor, health coach, personal trainer, and Mind-Body Specialist.

Mae holds two certifications, group fitness and personal training, and tries to keep her psychic work separate from her fitness work—not always successfully. You can how she gets started in both lines of work and how those careers collide in The Calling, book one in the series.