Isolating Myself Through Difficult Times

Humans, in general, are pretty good at coming up with coping strategies for nearly any situation. Whether those coping strategies are healthy is another matter entirely. I noticed, recently, that one of my coping strategies for stress is so exactly the wrong thing, I will never understand how it became part of my tool kit at all.

When I am stressed, I am usually feeling intense overwhelm; my brain feels scattered, I fidget endlessly, and I make lists and lists and lists of things that must happen that instant (even though 95% of them don’t need to). One other thing I do is pull away from my friends. It’s not conscious, it’s not planned, but it does happen. I will feel so overwhelmed that I can’t answer a text, or I won’t pop into my favorite discords for a few days, or I will only react to friend’s messages instead of actually having a conversation.

On the surface, this tactic makes sense: if I have so much in my brain that a two-sentence text feels overwhelming, taking a step back from the text conversations seems logical. Taking a break from social media is sometimes the answer… but all of my favorite discord servers are small, contained places where my best friends from around the world are telling jokes and supporting each other 24/7–it’s not as if it’s the equivalent to falling into the Reels section of Instagram and never coming out (which, incidentally, is something I find myself doing when I’m overwhelmed… which is also not a great idea).

The fact of the matter is, if I texted my friends back and then took the time to tell them what was happening in my brain, they’d be the first to tell me that my big, long list of must dos” is actually only 1 or 2 tasks. Or they’d be there to commiserate and offer advice about whatever work issue is stressing me out. The same goes for my discord communities–the few dozen friends scattered around the world are awake at any moment of my 24-hour day (which means that birthday celebrations in our collective timezone last nearly 42 hours) and we’ve all helped each other through our worst times and celebrated each other in our best.

So why do I pull back? What makes me hide my struggles? I won’t go into the psychological reasons, but I do remember that I started picking up this coping strategy when I was a teenager. If I had too much homework to complete and felt at the end of my tether, I hid that from my friends and family. I would pretend everything was great, and then stay up until 3am in the harsh light of my closet, alternating between crashing into snatches of sleep and furious attempts at completing one more calculus problem or one more page of biology homework. I would tell my friends I couldn’t go to the movies, or I couldn’t go hang out on the community pier, but I’d sit at home and stress, and I wouldn’t touch my homework until the house had quieted and I could hide in my closet and try to hold myself together.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want to stop doing that. I don’t hide my struggles behind closed doors and the dark of the night anymore, but I do stop talking about them. I fade quietly away until I don’t post things to my Instagram stories, or I stop writing blog posts, or I neglect to answer a text message or seven. It’s not what I need anymore. It was never what I needed.

Are you hiding, too?

6 June 2022 mental-health

Creativity in Dungeons & Dragons

A little less than a year ago, I joined my first Dungeons and Dragons group. Up until that time, I’d never been interested, but some friends asked me to play, and I thought, why not, I can always stop if I don’t like it.

After setting up my first character, Nala, and getting hooked into my DMs fascinating world, things escalated quite quickly. I went from being in one play-by-post game (wherein the game is played in text form), to being in four. Then I created a fifth character for some one-shot style live games. He fell into some trouble, so I ended up with a sixth to play while he got out of a Dread Realm with his compatriots. I had the opportunity to DM and started building my own campaign in my own world; that got put on the back burner due to time constraints, but I still had the energy to say yes when a player-versus-player gladiator death-match game was proposed. Empyrean, my seventh character, didn’t win the match, but that’s okay, I have higher hopes for my eighth character–Lind–in the second round.

Needless to say, I clearly like it. In fact, I fell in love with it, and can safely say some of my favorite memories have already been created while playing. So why did it hook me? Besides the amazing friends, I truly think that I am addicted to the game because of one main thing: the creativity.

My usual creative outlets are single-person: knitting, sewing, writing, painting, even gardening. They rely on only what I can pull out of my own imagination. In Dungeons and Dragons, the world and the characters are built and explored collaboratively, with everyone pooling their imagination to come up with solutions to new problems the DM has thrown our way, or playing off of each other’s characters in a way you can’t recreate on your own. Add in the element of luck with the rolling of dice and you have a recipe for unexpected twists and turns, like, say, a bear-shifter proficient in athletics failing three times to climb over a waist high fence–I have never laughed so hard in my life about a damn fence.

It occurs to me that the last time I had any collaborative creative outlets, I was in middle school, working on a team project, or maybe it was playing games of imagination with my friends as we ran wild around our neighborhood in our younger years. Dungeons and Dragons let me experience that again, and I have to say, it makes me want more. I am soaking up the creative time with creative people, and in the back of my mind, a little voice is saying, now, how do we make this happen at other times.

I’ve got a couple ideas–collaborative writing exercises, or sending a free form art piece around to a group of friends–that I’m hoping to try, but I think the one I’m most excited for is returning to the world I was building to run my own campaign, and see where my players take me.

3 June 2022 dnd rpg games creativity

Above the Mess Episode 15: Exist for a While

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We talk about returning to abandoned systems, garden projects, careers vs callings, and hacking into ice-protected servers.

Listen to Episode 15

1 June 2022 above-the-mess podcast

Propagating Native Plants

For the last few months, I’ve been doing something that brings me great joy: removing invasive plants from my local woodland. It started small; I brought a pair of garden shears when I walked Jinx–she doesn’t require constant vigilance–and I snipped back an encroaching thorny bush at the edge of the walking path. I had no idea what the bush was, or I wouldn’t have bothered with just chopping branches; I would’ve gone whole hog and ripped the thing out of the ground. Little did I know I’d just pruned back a multiflora rose, one of the most invasive plants in North America.

Time passed, I started learning the names of plants, becoming fascinated by the native plants I saw–Philadelphia fleabane, Virginia creeper, willow oak, black cherries, greenbriar–and confused by the sheer number of plants that were not. Surely, I thought, a little untouched woodland shouldn’t be overflowing with kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, thorny olive, and Chinese privet? Of course the evidence otherwise was right in front of me.

Native CuttingsNative Cuttings

Japanese Cedar (non-native), Water Oak, Black CherryJapanese Cedar (non-native), Water Oak, Black Cherry Black Willow, Southern Waxberry, St. Andrew’s CrossBlack Willow, Southern Waxberry, St. Andrew’s Cross Black-Eyed SusansBlack-Eyed Susans

My work in removing the invasives led me to realize that if I was going to keep pulling plants out, I would need to put plants back in to cover the ground I’d just laid bare. Given that I’m doing this work in brief snatches of time before I log on to my day job, I decided that rather that go out shopping for seeds and plants, I could do something easier: I could take cuttings.

Willow Oak, Sugar Hackberry, MuscadineWillow Oak, Sugar Hackberry, Muscadine River Birch, Prunus variety (non-native), Milkweed, Garden PhloxRiver Birch, Prunus variety (non-native), Milkweed, Garden Phlox

Taking a cutting is exactly what it sounds like. I took a pair of snips to any plant I wanted to propagate, and cut off a small branch or two. I did this in the wilder parts of my backyard, in the woodland itself, and in my front garden. So far, I’ve amassed a collection. They’re sitting in a window of my office in jars of clean water, letting the sun drench their leaves, and working on growing roots. A few haven’t made it, but the rest are doing great, and when they put out enough roots, I’ll pot them up, get them used to the weather outside, and settle them in their new home, giving nature a helping hand.

If you want to do this yourself, I encourage you to start! I use an app called Seek by iNaturalist to identify the plants in my area, and before I take a cutting, I ask the plant in question if it wouldn’t mind. It might seem odd, but it’s something I learned from reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Consent, even from plants, is key. If a plant in your area is struggling, taking a cutting would be like kicking it when it’s down, but if it’s flourishing and sending out suckers or shoots every which way, it may be telling you that it can take it.

When I get home, I prepare the cutting for propagating by making sure I have a good-sized glass jar and some filtered water, remove the lower 2/3rds of the cuttings foliage or branches, and pop it right on in there. The plant community is divided on whether to give your cutting sunlight or not. I keep mine out of direct sunlight, but I don’t stuff it in a dark corner. Every few days, I check to see if any of the jars need a topping up or completely fresh water. Sometimes, a cutting will perish. That’s okay, it just wasn’t meant to be. Every plant will be different, believe me.

The rest is just patience. First there will be one root, then two, then a dozen. It’s around that time that I will remove the cutting from the jar, find a pot somewhere in the house (usually a plastic one from the nursery that I’m reusing for the umpteenth time), and pot the cutting up with either a seedling mix or a generic potting mix. I’ll then put it back, give it some water and a week or two, then wait for a cloudy day–so it’s not a billion degrees–and bring it outside to find it a home.

Try to find each plant a spot similar to its original location. For example, I took a cutting from a muscadine vine that was growing in the acidic soil beneath a dozen pine trees. I won’t plant that out in full sun in a spot that doesn’t get a healthy dose of pine needle mulch every year–it wouldn’t love it. The opposite would be true for the Black-eyed Susans; they are in a rich loamy soil right now, so I’ll be finding them the edge of a small prairie when they’re ready to go out.

I’m so excited to get these plants back in the ground, but for now, they’ll keep me company as I do my daily work.

30 May 2022 native-plants projects plants

Above the Mess Episode 14: Not Qualified to Talk About Any of It

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We talk about a world built for everyone, spider mites, and eating raw potatoes.

Listen to Episode 14

18 May 2022 above-the-mess podcast

Above the Mess Episode 13: It’s Not a Good Mess

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We talk about travel, global temperature change, water rodents, and body hacking.

Listen to Episode 13

4 May 2022 above-the-mess podcast

Above the Mess Episode 12: Do What You Can

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We talk about the end of the world, carbon footprints, and To Be Read lists.

Listen to Episode 12

20 April 2022 above-the-mess podcast

Above the Mess Episode 11: I Don’t Even Remember

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We talk about Magic: The Gathering, organization object permanence, the Shakers, and more journals.

Listen to Episode 11

7 April 2022 above-the-mess podcast

Above the Mess Episode 10: Middle Ground of Permanence

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We talk about sleep, ephemeral poetry, talking to ourselves, and the dang ducks.

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23 March 2022 above-the-mess podcast

Above the Mess Episode 09: My Big Sphinx of Quartz

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We talk about pocket monsters, Queen Elizabeth and unfinished fiction.

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9 March 2022 above-the-mess podcast