image of multiple lightning strikes against a dark sky with a city below

U.S. Air Force photo by Edward Aspera Jr., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I was talking to two new friends yesterday about my daughters, explaining that I feel so connected to them energetically – I mean, when they are joyful, my spine sings with energy and when they are overwhelmed and anxious, my skin crackles with angst – and I don’t often know how to contain it. I talked about how I’ve learned, over the years, to close my eyes and ask, is this mine? It is a way to get space, to begin to discern whether the weight I’m carrying, the clench of my jaw and the tightening of my tongue against my soft palate, is vicarious or coming from some deep place inside my brain or body.

Often, this question gives me some relief. A way to distance myself a bit from the physicality of the connection if I determine that the anxiety, the frustration, the overwhelm is not mine. But yesterday, as we talked, I began to question whether it matters or not. If what I want is to maintain that close, empathetic connection with my daughters, perhaps trying to find boundaries between what is “theirs” and what is “mine” is something I learned from colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy. A protective mechanism that assures me I am separate and, therefore, not responsible for someone else’s strong feelings. And while I am not sure I want to assume responsibility per se, I don’t wish to completely divorce myself from being able to stay in tune with what my beloveds are feeling, especially their deepest, most intense feelings.


This morning’s walk on the beach was an exercise in “I Don’t Know.” The dogs were pulling at their leashes back in the direction of the parking lot, there were none of the usual birds standing in the shallows, there was more beach glass tucked in among the rocks than ever before. I watched as my mind tried to go down different paths – looking for explanations and attempting to find answers – and noticed that when I do that, I become blind to what is around me. When I preface my observations with I don’t know, I am able to simply notice what is.

I don’t know why there is one amorphous patch of brilliant bougainvillea on the hillside tucked in among the shrubs.

I don’t know why one rock has so many enormous mussels on it and the one next to it has anemones only.

I don’t know where the birds are this morning.

I don’t know why some of the rocks have marbled streaks of white in them.

There are certainly answers to all of these things, but those answers are not important to me. On my wanderings in the morning, paying attention to what is takes my nervous system from jittery to still. Widening my gaze and finding a steady, rhythmic gait sets the foundation for a slow heartbeat.


Texting with my daughter this morning about her sore throat, I was reminded that I read somewhere that our nervous systems develop in the womb before we ever have skin or bones or hair. Before we have physical form, we have nerve cells that will receive information and translate it to all the parts of our eventual bodies.

I wonder what my mom was doing when my nervous system was developing. I know she was on bed rest for much of her pregnancy, but I also know that it was stressful, with a toddler running around. I doubt she felt very zen. I wonder what effect maternal emotions have on a developing fetus.

This is not about blame. It is about connection. It is a wondering about all of the ways we are connected, and have been for longer than we know. It is an acknowledgment that there are so many ways in which we are designed to be together, to grow and learn and be part of each others’ experiences. And it is a reminder that being energetically connected to my children is something that is normal, natural, and likely immutable. So from this point forward, when I feel a strong emotion that comes to me from one of my daughters, rather than asking whether it’s mine, I will affirm that it is ours. Together. And we will ride that wave in solidarity until we can breathe deeply and resist asking why, because sometimes it is a huge relief to start the sentence with “I don’t know”

What is it about having that breeds wanting?

Last week my oldest, who I hadn’t seen for nearly six months, managed to get four days off of work in a row and she flew out for a visit and a rest. Seeing her reunite with her sister and her best friend, waking up and walking out of my room to see her sound asleep in the guest room, having coffee with her in the morning – it was exquisite. And I found myself longing, thinking, more of this, please! I also found myself dreading the moment she got on a plane to return to her life thousands of miles away.

It is exhausting perching on the point of now, toes crammed together on the peak, looking at the down slope of what could be (and often, what I wish for) on one side and on the other, looking at the down slope of what has been and what might have been different. My mind races forward and back like a dog chasing seagulls on the beach, imagining, hoping, wishing, lamenting, preparing for the end of what is.

It is in those moments when I can dial back my perception to the now, imagine the tip of this present time flattening out, stretching to let my feet stand firm, toes spread wide, that I begin to find gratitude and let go of longing. I lose the fear of what could have been or what might be and practice – shaky but resolved – appreciating what is. In those times, I am able to remember to notice the joy of being with beloveds, pay attention to the laughter and the way the light falls and the smell of jasmine on our walk through the neighborhood. My mind tugs at me, wanting to find a way to prolong it, reproduce it, prevent it from ever stopping. It is surprising how insistent that impulse is, how quickly it can make me stand back up on tiptoe and lose my balance.

I am trying to remember that our bodies can only ever be in the Now, while our minds are almost always in the past or the future. And while being in my body can sometimes feel incredibly scary, with its pockets of fear and unprocessed pain, in the present moment, more often than not, I am safe, and I can find a measure of joy.

But this empty-nester thing is for real. I am 49 years old and I have never lived alone. I went from living with my sister and mom to a college dorm with a roommate, to an apartment shared with my brother, to living with my future-husband. I was married for 23 years and even after the divorce, I had my girls with me most of the time. The occasional weekend when they were away at their dad’s house didn’t prepare me for the long stretches of time alone. I am continually shocked at how rarely I go to the grocery store, prepare a full meal, talk to another human being (I talk to the dogs a lot). Everything is brand new right now and it takes effort to flatten that pinpoint Now so that I can stand, feet flat on the Earth, in full connection with this moment and remember that, at least in this second, the future is none of my business.

Two young women sitting together in front of a fountain

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m thinking about my children. I woke up, having tucked my right hand firmly beneath my butt cheek to keep my arm from flopping off the side of the bed. This morning, it was because Marley (the dog) was pressed right up against my side – his bony spine as unyielding as a block of iron. But it was the memory – the muscle memory of tucking my hand underneath myself so that my arm didn’t dangle off the side and get cold and go numb – that made me smile. I developed this technique of sleeping comfortably on the very edge of the bed as a young mother.

Erin slept like Jesus on the cross – arms flung out to both sides – and for such a tiny thing, she took up an astonishing amount of room on our Queen size bed. She slept so lightly that the slightest move would wake her to angry tears. She wasn’t a cuddler, but she slept most soundly in bed with us, and it meant I could roll over to nurse her once or twice in the wee hours and we could both sink back into sleep without my feet ever hitting the cold floor. But she and Sean took up the majority of the bed and, as much as he hated that we let her share the bed, it was easier for me to avoid the conversation by fitting myself into the smallest slice of mattress I could by sleeping with one arm tucked beneath me, flat on my back, straight as a chopstick.

Lauren shared our bed as an infant, too, but she wanted to snuggle. Sean was sometimes more resigned to sharing the bed with her and other times more vocal in his resistance when he realized that with Erin, it hadn’t simply been my response to her difficulty sleeping and more of a parenting philosophy. I wanted my babies close. He wanted a bed for us and nobody else.

I encouraged Lauren to curl up against me instead of him, hoping that in his sleep, he could forget she was there. As long as she didn’t poke him or make him too hot, maybe he wouldn’t be reminded she was there if he rose up from a deep sleep to semi-consciousness in the middle of the night.

During those years, I often woke up with a stiff neck, legs contorted at odd angles, lying nearly diagonal across the bottom half of the bed to carve out some extra space, while Sean slept on his half and Lauren’s tiny frame curled into a Nautilus in the middle, her little fingers wrapped around my ear or tangled in my hair. When Sean traveled – which was a lot – he got the hotel bed to himself, and I invited Erin into our bed and slept in the center, stiff and straight, with her making her t-shape on one side and Lauren pushed up against me on the other. It was bliss.

I may have awoken stiff and sore, but I never woke up resentful. In those first quiet moments before anyone else opened their eyes to the day, I clearly remember lying there wondering at this beautiful life, smiling to myself at how amazing it was to be lying in bed next to one or both of my babies. My heart warms and tears swell in my throat at the memory, with deep gratitude that I experienced this – waking every day next to the warm little body of a person who called me “Momma.”

I’d tuck my hand under my butt and wake with a sore neck all over again for these two – these amazing humans that made me a mother. I am so incredibly blessed to have them in my life and so honored to have held them for the time I did. Happy Mother’s Day, girls. I adore you.

picture of a sandy beach with big rocks and a blue sky

I have been absent here for a long time, not because I don’t have things to write about, but because I have to wait for things to settle before I can write. In the last two months, I have completely turned my life upside-down, by selling my house in Seattle and moving closer to family in Southern California. During that time, I became an empty-nester for real – even spending a couple of intense weeks in LA helping my youngest and her boyfriend move into an airbnb and, later, an amazing apartment.

All of this has inspired grief, sadness, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, and fear – a lot of fear. I feel like I am a river that used to run clear and someone came in with a massive dredging machine and stirred up all the sediment at the bottom. The emotions are swirling and mixing and making the water cloudy and all I can do is notice and wait for it to settle so that I can have some clarity.

In the beginning of April, I was frustrated that my house wasn’t selling and that, although I had decided to move, I felt trapped in Seattle by circumstances. Several friends noted that I was not, in fact, trapped. I could go anytime I wanted to and leave the house empty – it would sell. It took a while, but I gradually began to believe them, over the protestations of my parents’ voices in my head

You can’t be irresponsible and just leave

You have obligations. What makes you think you can just drop everything and go?

You have to have another place to land all lined up before you leap from the foundation you’re on

I packed a huge suitcase, the rest of my daughter’s things, sold my little electric car, rented a van and took my two dogs and the pet tortoise on the road. I have never done a solo road trip before in my life. I was excited and also really really scared. As I sat in the driveway one last time, ready to drive away without knowing how long I’d be gone, I created a mantra that I hoped would calm my fears and ground me when I got panicky or unsure.

I am safe.

I am loved.

I have resources.

I deserve joy.

It worked. Every single time I started to freak out and worry, I put one hand on my heart and repeated those words to myself – sometimes over and over again until my breathing slowed and I felt calm again. Now, the simple act of speaking the first sentence settles me.

I am safe. This one reminds me to come back to my body. It helps me remember that I am not bleeding to death or in some mortal peril, no matter how scared I am. It zooms my vision out to the wider range of my life and lets me notice that my feet are touching the ground, I am breathing clean air, my vision is clear (well, with my glasses on), and in general, I am not in danger.

I am loved. This is a reminder that I am connected to something bigger. That there are people out there who are rooting for me, who are invested in my well-being, and who do really love me and consider me part of their family, chosen or otherwise. Often, conjuring up the image of just one of my beloveds is enough to make me smile spontaneously.

I have resources. If a tire goes flat, I have a cell phone to call for help. If I encounter horrible weather, I can pull over and wait it out inside the van. I have money for food and I know people along the route who I can call on for support. I have resources in the form of my life experience and wisdom. I know how to handle challenging situations and when to ask for assistance. I am not alone, no matter what my anxiety-spiraling brain tries to tell me.

I deserve joy. This one is key. It reminds me that this life is mine to live and if starting over in a different city will bring me joy, then I deserve to do that, no matter how hard it might be or how many years I spent in Seattle building a foundation. I deserve to pursue a life that feels expansive and purposeful and I don’t have to justify it (even to my dead parents in my head).

Oh, and the house? It sold the day after I packed up and left Seattle. I think it was the act of taking that leap of faith, of really committing to my own happiness and future that opened up the space in my old house for a new family to fall in love with it. The last month has been a whirlwind of packing and purging and moving and unpacking and as I write this, I am surrounded by half-emptied boxes of things and bubble wrap and a house with more dog beds than human beds, but I am planted in my new town and, more importantly, I have begun to really believe in my bones that I am safe, I am loved, I have resources, and I deserve joy.

You do, too.

XO,

Kari

Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5, 

and letting go.

Much of my personal work during the last four years of my life has followed the theme of letting go.

Watching my mother descend further and further into herself with Alzheimer’s, acknowledging that there wouldn’t be an opportunity to reconcile all of the questions I had and grieving as she stopped knowing who I was to her was a long, grueling process.

Mourning the end of my 23-year marriage and the loss of the person I’d considered my best friend for more than half of my life, moving to a new house and reimagining all of my plans for life after the girls moved out was unexpected and is still ongoing.

Moving my oldest daughter thousands of miles away to start college and beginning to understand that I don’t know most of what she does in any given day. Being prevented by the pandemic lockdown from helping her find her first apartment and her first car and from even traveling to share her 21st birthday with her was an exercise in equanimity and faith.

And now my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out to start their life and careers in Los Angeles and I’ve decided to uproot myself and leave Seattle. It has brought excitement and anticipation and many joyful hours as I dream of choosing just the right house in just the right neighborhood for me, slowly and deliberately filling it with things I love and that bring me peace, and strengthening my relationship with extended family who will live close by. But all of this letting go is also surfacing fear and anxiety and old thought patterns that can feel incredibly overwhelming.

Yesterday, I decided to steel myself and go down the rabbit hole.  I started by making a comprehensive list of all the things I am afraid of. A specific, honest, detailed list of the things that are rattling around in my head and sparking little fires I feel like I have to put out all day long.

The next sheet of paper was dedicated to exploring “what if.” What if those things do come to fruition? What if fear #1 actually happens? What do I do? How do I manage it? Taking the fears one by one allowed me to remember that I have resources, I have experience and wisdom, and I can make a plan to tackle each of the (highly unlikely) scenarios I am imagining in my head.

Then I pulled out a third piece of paper and made a list of my touchstones. I asked myself, what are the things that remain constant and supportive and solid in my life? Who are those people? What are the practices I can engage in? Where can I seek comfort that is real and available to me? Making that list was really wonderful and affirming, and reminded me that I have people in my life who love me and see me for who I am, and I know how to calm myself with nature, reading, yoga.

At the bottom of that same piece of paper, I made a list of “not-touchstones.” These are things that, at first glance, seem to be solid and real and supportive, but they’re transient. The first thing on that list is my house. The familiar surroundings feel safe and comforting. I know the sounds and how the light falls and which couch is most comfortable for watching tv. This house served a purpose, to be sure. It was everything the girls and I were looking for when we left our old home, where we lived with their father. We chose it together and we made it a place where their friends were welcomed with love and laughter. And we have squeezed all that we needed out of this lime. We used all the juice, and neither of my girls needs to be here anymore. They are off on their own grand adventures and so, while I might feel comfortable in this place because it is familiar, it will keep me small and feel incredibly lonely without them in it.

The next not-touchstone is wishing for my mom. Imagining what she would have said or done to support me isn’t helpful because even when she was alive, she couldn’t have done anything; she didn’t know who I was anymore. I can absolutely talk to her and feel her presence, but wishing that she was physically here and able to come help me pack and dream with me will only keep me stuck.


The third one is this city. I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years and it has been glorious. I know the suburbs and the city’s neighborhoods. I have favorite restaurants and grocery stores and places to walk. I can get around with ease and I understand the local politics. And yet, this lime is just a husk now, too. I have had a really wonderful life here in Seattle and also, there is nothing left for me here. Staying here because I know it, I understand it, and it’s safe would be the wrong choice.

Years ago, I created a meditation for my youngest daughter when it became clear that she really struggles with transitions and big change. This morning, I used it myself. I had asked her to imagine she is a hermit crab in a shell that is really tight and too small. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with that shell, she just outgrew it. The scary part about looking for a new shell when you’re a hermit crab, though, is that you have to leave the old one to go hunting for the new one, and that means your backside is all soft and vulnerable while you look. And being out in the world, exposed, feels really scary. It can also be sad to leave behind that old shell. You chose it for a reason – maybe it was really pretty or just the right shape, and you knew its every contour and swirl. But that doesn’t change the fact that it no longer fits you. It served its purpose, and it’s time to go find the next shell you can love. Saying goodbye to that old one is sad and frightening, but you know if you stay there, you’ll be uncomfortable and you won’t move like you can. Shell-hunting is a leap of faith. It requires trusting that the next one is out there and you’ll find it in time, and you’ll grow to love it just as much as you loved that old one you’re leaving behind.

I’m shell-hunting. And knowing that it’s time to leave this old lime husk behind (see, I told you I was mixing metaphors) doesn’t make it any less scary, but knowing there’s no more juice in it for me is helping me keep my eyes forward. Because the past is a not-touchstone, too. I can be grateful for it, for what I learned and the people and things that helped me along the way, and I can also know that part of the reason I love it so much is because it is the past. I have to believe that staying small is the wrong thing to do here. I have to take this leap of faith and trust and rely on my real touchstones.

So here’s the thing: I function really damn well until I don’t. And when I don’t, sometimes, it is so alien to me as an experience that it causes me to catastrophize. I mean, if I can’t manage my own life, there must be something seriously wrong, right?

What it really means is that I have a hard time understanding the context of everything that is going on in my life sometimes. I have a hard time really grasping that adding just one more thing might be too much. And that’s when my body steps in to kick me off the treadmill and shut that shit down.

This morning, I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one of those in 15 years or more, and I’ll be honest with you – I spent the first two hours trying to talk myself out of it and the next five hours getting an EKG, chest x-ray, blood and urine tests and talking to an array of absolutely lovely, caring, professional health care workers who confirmed for me that my heart is healthy and I am physically well and maybe I want to step back and look at what’s happening in my life and see where I can ask for help.

And my life is really wild right now. In the last three weeks, it has been moving at warp speed – my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out and leaving the state altogether, my oldest is feeling firmly settled in her life and has no plans to come back to the state to live,  I revised – well, really, mostly wrote – a new manuscript in the space of four days, and I am starting over – really starting over. I am selling my house and leaving Seattle – a town where I’ve lived for more than 25 years, selling my furniture and my car, and packing up to go find a house at the beach, closer to family. It’s a lot.

But here’s the kicker: my mom’s birthday is tomorrow. And it’s her first birthday since she died last June. And it’s really tearing me apart, but I don’t know how to explain it. To you or myself.

My mom had Alzheimer’s and, to be clear, I haven’t celebrated her birthday with her in five years at least. She didn’t know who I was or that it was her birthday. I couldn’t send her gifts because she didn’t read anymore, and clothes and slippers would just get stolen from her room in the memory care facility she lived in. Flowers made her sneeze. I would wake up, sing a quiet Happy Birthday to her in my room, light a candle for her, and tell her husband I was thinking of her, but I didn’t celebrate her birthday with her for years. And it’s not like I ever had any illusion I’d ever get the chance to again. But also, she died in June and I hadn’t seen her, held her hand or smiled at her or anything in over six months because of Covid restrictions. And tomorrow is her birthday.

I sat in the exam room this afternoon, hooked up to a heart monitor, stiff gown gapping open, practicing mindful breathing, wondering what the hell? I was pretty sure I’d had a panic attack, the stiffness and discomfort in my left shoulder blade laying there like a cast iron skillet, but why? I just finished writing a manuscript that the editor said he “can’t wait to publish.” My youngest and her boyfriend are launching their successful music careers after working their butts off in isolation in 2020. My oldest is happy and settled and has built a loving community for herself. I’m finally going to realize my dream of living at the beach. These are happy things!

But they are stressful. It is so easy for me to gloss over the reality that we’re doing all these things during a global pandemic, at a time when we’ve proven to our fellow citizens how little we really care about them when it comes down to choosing between ourselves and our money and our communities. Sitting with how much my heart hurts that we can’t manage to find ways to care for each other that are profound and meaningful and sustainable is something I do silently every day. It is the constant backdrop of every decision I make – how can I safely help the kids move? How can I make sure that the food we get at the food bank also gets distributed to mutual aid groups who need it? What happens if one of the kids gets Covid and I’m far away from them?

So here’s the thing: all of the situations and circumstances in my life are a lot without the events of the last year. They are overwhelming in and of themselves. But somehow, I fell prey to the notion that we all just need to keep going along to get along. That continuing to put one foot in front of the other is the thing to do, the only thing to do. But we have to stop and acknowledge the weight of it all, the grief and the loss and grapple with the unimaginable because the unimaginable is happening around us every single day, all day long. I’m not sure what that looks like, or how to build it in to my days, but after today, I know I have to figure something out.

And doing it on my mom’s birthday feels like a pretty fitting way to honor her.

 

image of a multicolored compass

Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some people begin their year with a specific word in mind that grounds them and serves as a compass of sorts. It’s not something I’ve ever done with any regularity, and I doubt I’d have been able to really intuit one in January that would have been accurate in any way, but now that we are nearly at the end of this year, I can look back and see that most everything I did and thought about and experienced this year boils down to relationship.

It seems odd, given that most of my time has been spent without the physical presence of loved ones and the work I have done is remote and facilitated by technology. Neither of those things seems particularly conducive to creating relationship, but I have learned more about the power of connection this year and focused on the qualities of relationship that are most impactful more than I ever have in my life. I have spent time deepening my relationship to myself and trying to rebalance the wisdom I receive from my head with the wisdom held in my body through meditation and a rage ritual. I have created connection with local communities to offer assistance and I have witnessed the awesome power of mutual aid groups. I have considered how so many of our public systems are failing us and begun to realize that the only way to counter those failings is through relationship.

I joined with others across the globe every day at the same time for 30 minutes for 100 days in a row to say a lovingkindness meditation for all beings. I didn’t know the vast majority of the others at the beginning of the 100 days, but since then, we have formed virtual support groups to help each other with everything from motivation to get off the couch and shower to grieving the loss of loved ones with humor and grace. I joined a weekly Zoom meeting hosted by Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse that also gathers people from across the globe. Every Thursday we journal for a few minutes, have individual conversations about things like ritual, legacy, and what community means, and come together as a group to deepen our relationship to compassion and humanity. I have met people with whom I share text messages and emails and our connection is no less real and tangible because it was formed online.

The most recent conversation we had was around our own personal compass – what drives us, where are we headed. And while each of the individuals on the call had a different perspective and way of answering that question, we agreed in the end that the common thread for us all was connection of some sort. And because our conversations often delve into the philosophical, we also explored the notion of a compass. It occurred to me that it is important to note that a compass is useless in a vacuum – meaning that it only works within the context of the electromagnetic pull of something bigger, something grounding (in this case, the Earth). And so while each of us may have our own compass, the principle on which it exists is that we are all connected to something larger that helps guide us. We can, of course, choose to stick that compass in our pocket and go off on our own path, but the quality of guidance is always present and available to us. And because it is available to each and every one of us, we are necessarily connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say often that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Our biological systems work more efficiently when we are in trusted relationships and suffer in isolation. Students who have supportive relationships with their teachers learn better. Elders who are ill heal faster and have less pain when they are surrounded by loved ones. So while I mourn the lack of physical contact with my beloveds and desperately miss the coffee dates and hiking adventures with friends, I have also deepened my definition of what relationship is – relationship to myself and my physical body, relationship with my community, relationship with people I’ve never met in person – and come to understand the power of letting those connections evolve over time. I have explored what it means to have healthy boundaries that are temporary in order to repair harms and what it looks like to shift my definition of a mother-child relationship as my daughters become young adults and want a different kind of bond with me that is no less elemental or meaningful than it ever was – it’s just different.

While there is much to be sad about this year – the loss of my mother and the missed adventures I had planned and the cancelled book tour among them – I can look back on the last 12 months and see what I have gained in stretching my understanding of this most basic need for connection and community in my life. Like the grounding of the Earth to my compass, relationship and connection are always available to me so long as I recognize them as an elemental part of my existence. Here’s to unexpected lessons that help us all thrive. May 2021 bring more wisdom and insight to us all.

Glowing coals from a BBQ

Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen

“You are very grown up, aren’t you?”

“You are a very mature young lady!”

“You are wise beyond your years.”

These are just a few of the phrases I heard as a kid that served to reinforce my trauma response and help me build an identity around it. And as I built that identity, I got praised for it more and more, for thinking on my feet, for dashing in to fix things, for never letting ‘em see me sweat.

“That’ll toughen you up, kid.”

“Show ‘em your battle scars! Be proud of them!”

I think that’s part of the reason I’m such a good leader at the food bank. Every week is a new challenge – food deliveries don’t come at the last minute or what we thought we were getting turns out to be something else altogether. The weather turns awful and I have to figure out how to keep five volunteers dry outside while packing boxes in sideways rain and hail with just tarps and pallets. Years and years of hypervigilance and doom-planning are paying off. All the time I spent as a kid imagining alternate scenarios and planning for them, wondering what I could do if X happened and how I could manage if things turned sideways and Y happened instead.

You might be thinking, ok, so what? Your trauma is serving you well as an adult.

But you would be wrong.

It’s not your fault – up until this morning, I would have agreed with you.

But we were both wrong.

My trauma is re-traumatizing me as an adult.

I built an identity and a way of moving through the world that means I never let my guard down, that means I always expect to be on my own when the shit hits the fan and that I assume responsibility for managing crises and cleaning up after them without even being asked.

It’s who I am.

But this morning, I took the time to imagine what it would have been like if my 8-year old self had been told, instead, that it wasn’t her job to be “wiser than your years.” What would it have been like if she had felt safe and held within a community or family group that didn’t place adult responsibility on her shoulders? How would she have learned to calm her nervous system and ask for help when she felt overwhelmed? How could she have grown up not feeling as though she was the only one who could fix things, and that if she didn’t do it, nobody would?

What if someone had told her, instead, “I’m so sorry you have those scars. I wish I’d been there to keep that from happening”?

I spent so many years of my life searching for the Right way to get through painful, scary times – knowing with absolute certainty that if things got worse, it was because I hadn’t been smart enough, prepared enough, savvy enough to plan for the right contingency. It made me even more determined to explore every avenue. And I got really good at it. If there was a way to put it on my resumé, I would have.

But in my body, it meant I was alone, always. It meant that even when I was married, I didn’t think to trust my husband to solve really big problems, really scary ones, because I had learned that people without trauma didn’t think like I did – they couldn’t always accurately assess the potential dangers that lie ahead and plan for them. Those people were naïve. Lovely, and loving, but naïve. I couldn’t rely on them in a crisis.

It also means that, in my body, there are embers that flare when someone close to me is suffering and the flares are often disproportionate to the situation. I suppose that’s really the basis of PTSD, but it’s surprising to me to realize how much of that is applauded and reinforced in our society. The idea that hypervigilance is a muscle we want to build is so backward to me, but my entire life, I’ve been praised for it, and it is causing harm. Those embers that flare when someone close to me is in crisis give me a momentary ability to get clear and start the process of contingency planning, but they also cut my head off from my body because the sensations I feel in my body are too painful and frightening to feel in those moments. That severance is really seductive – feeling competent and clear and able to swoop in and offer my support to a loved one is a powerful drug. Why would I want to check in with my body? Just to feel fear? To experience the little zaps of grief and overwhelm that rise up and make me remember all the times I’ve felt that way before? Not likely.

But I have learned that disconnecting my mind from my body has consequences. Namely, my brain experiences a power trip and it also starts spiraling into scary places, imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios just so I can build a strategy in case they come true. And as much as I try to divorce myself from my physical self, all I’ve really done is cut off communication from my body to my brain, not the other way around. My body is still absorbing energy, still taking in information (much of it from my spiraling thoughts that are generally wholly inaccurate), and lighting little fires everywhere. Eventually, I freeze in overwhelm and panic. I burst into tears, lie on the couch and stare, shake uncontrollably. So far, this generally only happens once the crisis is over and I know I’m safe (or my loved-one is safe), but those fires just keep getting bigger.

Today, I’m starting the work to put out the embers; to go back and find every spot in my body where younger me was put in situations she didn’t belong in and relieve her of those burdens. I’m asking her what it might feel like to imagine that she was held and safe and free to be eight or ten or 14, instead of collecting battle scars and proving herself more adult than her age. It is my deep hope that in doing so, I will be able to face the next really scary situation without a fire flaring inside me. I would like to stay connected to my body and show up for my loved ones as my whole self, un-triggered and loving, secure in the knowledge that we are in this together and I can ask for help if I need it. I want to have healed those parts of me that were taught it is a good thing to tackle big challenges by myself, no matter what it costs, because those scars are something to be proud of. I want to come clear-headed and with a calm body responding out of love and not fear. The idea that I can put my energy toward helping hold what is rather than exhausting myself imagining what might be will hopefully be more seductive than thinking I can single-handedly save the day.

KennyRogers.jpg
By John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – KennyRogers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75141455

Kenny Rogers died last night. He was my mom’s absolute, first-line celebrity crush. She used to joke that she would marry him in a second if he showed up at her door. Every time we got in the car to head out to cross-country ski, we would settle in to our prescribed places in her baby blue Volkswagen square back and she’d pop in a cassette and crank the volume. If it was a sunny day, we’d roll the windows down and sing along, she and I, while Katy stared out the window trying not to get carsick and Chris cranked up the sound on his Walkman to drown us out.

I don’t know that I was a massive fan of Kenny Rogers, but I loved the effect his music had on Mom. Before she and Dad divorced, he was pretty much in charge of the music for road trips – Doobie Brothers, Little River Band, those were his choices and I never really thought about whether or not Mom would have chosen them. But after the divorce, it was Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray in Mom’s car, belted out with feeling. I think I get it more now. After my divorce I had the sensation that there was more room in the world for my choices, that while I hadn’t disliked the music or trips my ex chose, I hadn’t ever felt fully free to stretch my limbs out in to space and freely choose what I would have preferred.

My ex and I had similar taste in music – we both grew up with Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, The Cars, The Rolling Stones, Mötley Crüe. But I also loved REM, 10,000 Maniacs, Depeche Mode, and The Thompson Twins. As young adults, he drifted toward Green Day and The Killers, which I liked, but I stockpiled Indigo Girls and Annie Lennox and Pink as well, which he jokingly called “chick music.” It was really a seamless, unspoken understanding that when he was in the car, we’d listen to his preferences and when he wasn’t the girls and I could indulge ourselves with our girly stuff.

Right now, as mom is sequestered inside her assisted living facility, safely taken care of but also on hospice, I am resisting pulling up the audio of “If I Ever Fall in Love Again” because I know it will push me over the edge of this lump in my throat in to a crying jag and I’m not ready. I’m reserving it because I cry at least once a day now, and I find a sweet release, but this cry will be different. It will be the tears I shed for the loss of my mom’s voice. The only place I can hear it now is in my own head and I don’t want to waste it or erase it or cover it up with Kenny and Anne singing to each other. It will be the tears I shed on behalf of mom because she won’t know that he’s gone and couldn’t grieve for him. It will be the tears I shed for the idea that I might not see Mom again if she dies before they lift the ban on visitors. I want to sit with her and hold her hand one more time, maybe sing some lines from The Gambler to her and dig deep in to her reserves one time to see if her spirit can conjure up that feeling of freedom, wheeling along the highway, windows down, one hand surfing the waves of air as we laugh and harmonize on our way to play in the snow together.

“You got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run…”

Image Description: a spiral tattoo with the words “You are here” pointing to a specific spot on the spiral

I don’t know about anyone else, but in my life, when the Universe decides I need to make a big leap to the next phase of my personal evolution, it tends to pile on. As in, give me many instances of the same kind of bullshit over and over again until I start to pay attention and recognize it for what it is.

Thus, the last two weeks or so have been a lot. To say the least. A whole lot.

I won’t go in to the details, but I finally figured out this morning that this particular lesson is about making choices, pretty consequential choices. And that’s something I can have a hard time with because I am not one of those “trust your gut” kind of people. My gut is either not particularly loud, or I have an overdeveloped connection between my gut and my brain such that my brain is always always always weighing in, considering options, looking at potential outcomes and thinking of unintended consequences.

When this happens, I spin. The part of my brain that makes decisions goes very quiet and offline, and the part of my brain that convinces me that this particular decision is incredibly monumental and I’d better not fuck it up rules the day.

So, yeah.

At least three times in the last two weeks, I’ve faced decisions that I considered, second-guessed, made lists about, considered again, tried to divorce myself from, and then ultimately made. And guess what? The world didn’t stop turning.

I know I’m not the only one who worries about making the “Right” choice, but I think I’m learning that what I need to pay attention to more is the right reasons. Meaning, it’s more important to get really clear on my own values and needs and use those as the basis for examining why I’m conflicted. Figure out who or what is being centered in my deliberations.

In this time of crisis, I am reminded that we are all entrusted with caring for each other. that there is nothing more profound or elemental than that.

Today, my youngest daughter got up and went to work, nannying two precious boys she has taken care of for a year – 18-month old twins whose faces spread into grins when they see her, whose arms reach for her, who giggle when she makes silly noises. Who trust her.

I am holed up in my bathroom with a tortoise, having just filled a tub with warm water for him to bathe in, put together a pile of fresh greens for him to munch on, and cranked up the heat so he can roam and explore comfortably.

My pups are fed and walked. I’ve checked in with my oldest daughter who is far away and having to scramble to pack up and move out of her dorm. She and her friends are collaborating, pooling resources, opening up couches and offering rides to each other to ease the stress.

I just got off the phone with my mother’s caretaker, having learned that she is being placed on hospice care as of today, and the facility isn’t open to visitors. “She is so pleasant and lovely,” he says, detailing to me how they are caring for her at this time and encouraging me to call and get updates as often as I want to.

Someone posted in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group an offer to shop for anyone who is afraid to leave home. “How can I help you?” she asked.

Funds are being created for small businesses who are hit hard by the lack of mobility in Seattle.

We are entrusted to each other’s care.

Our strength is in our compassion, not our fear. Care comes in so many forms: a text message or DM, a Twitter post asking if others are ok, feeding our pets or tending the garden, offering thanks and gratitude to those who are working hard to make policy and heal the sick.

We’ve got each other.
We’ve got this.
It’s all we’ve got, and it is a lot.
Let’s take care of each other.