Lesson From My Backyard

Lessons From My Backyard


by: Dr. Stephanie Heck, Licensed Psychologist, Philadelphia, PA


Throughout quarantine, I have been standing, as I work, at a desk facing a tall bay window. I spend hours every day in teletherapy sessions, talking to patients who are struggling with nearly all imaginable aspects of COVID life: working from home with children, financial stress, housing displacement, faltering businesses, childcare uncertainty, sick or dying or dead relatives, quarantine marital strain, unfair division of household labor, lack of postpartum support, pressure to care for others, despite being depleted yourself…and, above all, the depression and anxiety that go hand-in-hand with social isolation. My work is tiring, yet deeply rewarding. And I am reminded daily, as I talk with my patients, of the critical importance of seeing and valuing what had previously been the “small things” in life…Which brings me back to my window.

My window overlooks a small backyard, where nature happens as I stand at my teletherapy screen. I take moments between sessions to notice it. Over the course of the past three seasons, I have watched it change…the grass has gone from brown to dark green to neon green…and then to its current patchwork of yellow, brown, and pale moss. The leaves have filled in and thinned out. The birds have bathed in my neighbor’s birdbath and lived a full social life in the tree by my window. Flowers and vegetables have filled the garden beds, been harvested, and then cleared out. Clothes have blown in spring and summer and fall breezes, going from wet to dry in regular cycles. All of this gives me perspective. Everything is temporary. Everything is vulnerable. Everything transforms. Growth and death are a part of living. And, like nature, we adapt to the seasons in ways that are simultaneously predictable and unpredictable.

Even though this is no big insight (after all, Eastern philosophers have been reminding us of these truths for centuries), it helps me. And, still better, it helps me help my patients. Through the view from my window, I’m reminded that it’s possible to step back from hard moments and engage with the world in new ways—to find a new vantage point on the world. Even when we feel bleak and gray inside, there is a complex, colorful beauty outside. We are not as stuck as we feel: we can move from one part of ourselves to another, from one mood to the next, from one psychic landscape to another. We, too, expand and contract, growing and withering and growing again. When times are hard, pain often feels permanent. We easily mistake our current state for “how the world is.” But nature reminds us that this is a false belief…our mental states change, evolution happens, there are complexities; nothing is simple (and yet everything is simple). Being alive means accepting change, uncertainty, and paradox.

As we move through the next year, with its uncertain certainties, I hope that you will see the balance and perspective that nature offers. Even in a tiny backyard, the world continually evolves in both knowable and unknowable ways. And so do we.

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