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.

blue background with image of light blue cartoon dog in profile sitting and holding it's head with an anxious expression on it's face

https://giphy.com/gifs/regret-oh-man-arrepentido-kD59Y2omlC44mOqS7v

I don’t know anyone who isn’t feeling at least a strong undercurrent of anxiety right now. Even if they can’t name it, there is a vibe, an energy going around. I’ve been asked by nearly everyone I come in contact with how I’m planning to handle Election Day – am I worried, will I watch the news, pay attention to social media, or steer clear and find some way to self-soothe.

I attended a group meditation on Sunday evening and one of the messages that came through in response to someone’s concerns about how to “show up” and respond this week, how to prepare for the unknown, was really profound. The meditation was led by Doctora Rosales Meza, an indigenous healer, and she said, “If you are waiting for something to happen in order to decide what to do, you’ve already given away your power.”

She’s right.

If, instead, we find a way to ground ourselves in what we know about who we are, if we set an intention to act from that place of love or compassion or what we feel about our own purpose, then there is no moment of decision. We show up the same way we show up every single day because that’s who we are.

We also talked about energy, and how destructive things feel right now, and how we can choose to only recognize destructive energy, or we can acknowledge that there is also an opportunity to create right now, to make something from the ashes, in the void that is left behind by those things that have broken apart. And I was reminded of something I teach adolescents as part of The SELF Project curriculum: namely that energy simply is. It cannot be created or destroyed, it can only move, and it moves in accordance with the environment it exists within. Meaning, that it has no preference, and it is us that assigns it “positive” or “negative” qualities, that push or pull, channel or shape it. We can stand squarely in its path or step out of its way, we can harness it to create something new or to dismantle or destroy something.

So what do I know about myself? What is important to me about me? How have I shown up, not only this year, but for most of my life? I value curiosity, courage, advocacy, listening, learning. I use my voice and my actions to make change in my immediate community wherever I can, with the intent of creating relationship. And it is in this, it seems, where my “marching orders” lie: I can continue to show up to support relationship, to remain open to new information and see where the barriers are to community. That is what I can offer, that is where my power lies, and I’m not giving that away for anything.

How are you choosing to show up? Where do you need support from others? How can I help?

From the time I was born, I was taught that my body was a tool to be manipulated, to be controlled by my mind, rather than a source of wisdom. I think that is a pretty Western, patriarchal, colonialist principle, to be honest, and I’m working hard to break free from it.

My body could be seen as a source of information, to be sure, but that is very different from being a source of wisdom. It could tell me when I was full enough, when I’d injured myself, if a pan was too hot to touch. But I was never taught that I could cultivate a two-way conversation between my mind and my body, that there is in fact no hierarchy, no ultimate authority of thought over sensation.

Many of us are taught that our bodies will betray us – calling for sugar or alcohol or drugs, ignoring the need for regular movement, and breaking down over time. Even though addiction manifests in both the mind and the body, we are taught that it is our mind’s job to control it, and if we can’t do so with our “willpower,” there are pharmaceuticals that can help us. We are taught that “willpower” is all we need to eat without gaining weight, to embark on a rigorous exercise routine, to quash our desire to lash out physically when we are frightened or angry.

Traditional healers use medicine to support the body as it heals itself, believing that body wisdom is vital to recover from disease. Western medicine increasingly circumvents body wisdom, overriding the symptoms which are designed to alert us to how our bodies are working to heal themselves. Fever reducing medications are designed to make us physically more comfortable, antibiotics are meant to supplant the body’s response to a bacterium rather than support the natural immune response our bodies have already mounted. Again, this affirms the belief that our bodies are unreliable and ineffective and require containment or manipulation.

But what if we recognized that our our bodies are sources of deep knowing, and when we ignore the messages in favor of our thoughts or beliefs, our bodies don’t just give up? We are energetic beings as well as cognitive ones. We receive energy all day every day from a multitude of sources, and when we don’t allow the conversation to happen between our bodies and our minds, that energy sits, pools in places where it can’t be utilized or transformed, and it can cause our bodies to amplify the messages in order to get us to pay attention.

We have been trained, however, that it is a good thing when our minds take over; that control is the goal, rather than listening. When I am traumatized, rather than sitting with the fear and sadness my body is experiencing, really paying attention to where that shows up in my body (does my gut tighten? Do I feel nauseous or a sharp pain somewhere?), I was taught to immediately discern whether the threat was imminent, whether it was something I could manage on my own, whether anyone else was experiencing it (and thus, could validate it -meaning that my own bodily response wasn’t valid without a witness), and how to calm the reaction in my body or eliminate it altogether. Often, that meant ignoring it as an attempt to stop the unpleasant feelings or minimizing it because I didn’t want to appear weak or “crazy.”

None of those reactions honors the wisdom in my body. None of those reactions allows the energy time or space to move and transform and ultimately, leave my body. If I am traumatized again in a similar fashion, generally, my physical reaction is the same – I feel the same kinds of things in the same places. Over time, the energy from these experiences continues to sit in my body, unmetabolized, and wreak havoc. (For more on this, read Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score). But if I can learn to cultivate a practice where I listen to that body wisdom and honor it without immediately jumping to control it with my mind, I can begin to alchemize those pockets of energy and use them to heal.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it simply moves and morphs. But it can be stored, and it is my belief that energy that is not moved or transformed remains trapped in our bodies, and that is both a waste and harmful. Even if you haven’t experienced significant trauma in your lifetime, you have likely absorbed energy from extraordinary events that lies unmetabolized within your body. We do the same thing with joy – often denying ourselves the full experience of it by explaining it away with survivor’s guilt (“I don’t deserve to be this happy while others are suffering”) or worrying that it will be followed up by disaster (“nothing can go this well for long – something bad is bound to happen now”) or by simply being modest and not celebrating our efforts.

Our bodies and brains are designed to work together – the intricate mechanisms of hormone secretion and neural connections bind our physical sensations and our thoughts together. It is meant to be a two-way conversation, a fluid, symbiotic relationship, and yet many of us are taught that our bodies are, at best, unreliable witnesses and, at worst, bent on betraying us. But if we look at the way children pay attention to their bodies before we indoctrinate them in to this kind of thinking, we can see the wisdom there. Children cry when they are overwhelmed, which releases excess cortisol and decreases stress. Often, they refuse to eat when they aren’t hungry and/or have aversions to specific foods that it turns out they have allergies to. Massage therapists who work with children know that when they ask a child to focus on a specific part of their body and relax or flex a muscle, they are much more able to do so than adults are. Children sleep when they are tired, run around and play when they have a burst of energy they need to move, and can articulate where they feel things in their bodies with much more clarity before we teach them that their bodies are wild things meant to be tamed, controlled, altered, or ignored.

It is this hierarchical view of mind over body that causes us to compound harm and mistrust the signals we get from our bodies. Western medicine has long dismissed all but the most obvious signs of distress, often to the detriment of patients. The notion that mental health and physical health are two completely discrete, separate things, with the emphasis placed on physical health as being more immediate and valid, keeps us in this paradigm and reinforces the separation of body wisdom and mind wisdom. It prevents us from being able to metabolize and harness the energy stored in our bodies that could be used to create art, music, connections between us and others. And attempting to to re-establish the relationship between our minds and bodies is often incredibly difficult because many of us have dissociated from our bodies and are unable to identify what we feel and where. But there are ways to work through that and access that energy. It takes time and practice, but the reward of processing old traumas, accessing stuck energy, and growing into someone who can fully feel as you make your way through life is enormous, both for us as individuals and for our relationships.

This is the basis for the workshop Thereza and I have created. The goal is to help you reconnect to your body wisdom, find pockets of energy, and use movement (in this case, yoga) to release and metabolize that energy to create. You don’t have to be an artist or a writer to do this – all human beings enjoy creation of one sort or another. You simply have to be willing to open yourself up to the idea that moving energy through your body and learning to listen to it will ultimately enable you to live with your mind and your body in harmony. Feel free to reach out with questions about the workshop or about this concept. We look forward to guiding you through this work.

 

 

small stream bordered by lush greenery and dappled sunlight

Every once in a while I have these moments of absolute clarity about how traumatized we all are. How unhealthy is it that we are all expected to just keep getting up, working, helping our kids learn online, networking on LinkedIn and pretending like things are ok? There are children in cages. There are women in ICE custody who are being sterilized without consent. There are entire towns burning to the ground, millions of people on unemployment, hundreds of thousands dead from a virus. There are more storms forming over the ocean right now than ever before, and some areas on the West Coast of the United States are going on week four of air that is unsafe to breathe.

And yet, farm workers are out picking crops, college students are diligently logging on to their Zoom classes, and we are posting about November 4 as though it will be some magical day that will bring about a sea-change. If the culmination of so much pain and loss and collective grief doesn’t get us to pause, what will? I’m not talking about a General Strike (although, I’d be all in favor of that as a way to manage this), I am talking about the natural, physiological reaction human beings have to grief and loss, which is to slow down, absorb, feel the feelings, set aside what is not important and basic. We aren’t doing that. We aren’t giving ourselves the space to process the waves of trauma.

We are continuing to push forward, sometimes as a defense mechanism so that we don’t have to face the suffering, and other times because we know that the systems we have created will punish us for stopping to tend to ourselves as whole human beings. We have gotten so good at gaslighting ourselves – pretending as though what is most vital is to just keep going – that our bosses and landlords and parents don’t have to do it to us. We have swallowed the hook of capitalism that says that productivity will save us, that if we just put our heads down and keep working, “things will sort themselves out.”

I’m here to say that, even if things do sort themselves out, we will come out the other end of this traumatized and wounded and badly in need of rest and healing. What would it take for everything to stop for a bit – no school, no work that isn’t essential – so that we can nurture ourselves and our loved ones? What would it be like if we all took a week to just be in this overwhelm, to really settle in our minds and bodies around what is important, what our true basic needs are, and only focus on that?

What I know is that the thing that would feel best to me right now is to gather all of my beloveds in my home and cook for them. Play games and laugh and dance and nap. Walk the dogs and look at the trees turning color and sit around the table with a warm meal and the knowledge that we aren’t missing a damn thing out there in the world. That everyone else is doing the same thing with their beloveds, and if someone needs to cry, there are shoulders available. If someone needs a cuddle, there’s a sweet dog or little human there to sit with. And while that’s not possible on so many levels, even just imagining it calms my body and mind a bit.

What would it be like if we could all be honest with ourselves and each other about how damn hard this is, how scary and painful? What would it feel like to know that we are held in love by people we trust, and that whatever we feel is Real and True? That’s the world I want us to emerge in to. When the smoke clears and the rain and wind stop and the virus is vanquished, I want us to create a place where collective trauma is acknowledged and honored and rest is deemed more important than work.

Chop wood
Carry water

I heard that message in a meditation today and I’m doing my best. My nervous system is a wreck, a jangly mess of tangled wires and antennae picking up signals from everyone around me and bouncing them back and forth like a pinball machine. I spent most of yesterday in tears, and when I wasn’t crying, I was working in the yard, schlepping heavy pavers and bags of sand in an attempt to shunt some of that energy out of my body.

Make breakfast like a prayer

I heard that in my head this morning when I was walking the dogs, trying to stay present and remembering how damn hard it is to just do what I’m doing when I’m doing it with every fiber of my being. My brain wants to jump ahead to problem-solve and make lists and let my body navigate the daily dog walk. It’s a struggle to force myself to feel the ground beneath my feet, take in the cool breeze on my skin, smell the neighbor’s jasmine blooming, watch the crows hop from place to place on the wires above us.

Chop wood
Carry water

My friend Susan used to say that to me when I was a kid and I was freaking out. I don’t honestly remember if I ignored it, rebelled against it, rolled my eyes, or took it in, but somewhere it lodged itself in my body so it could come back out today when I needed reminding. And as hard as it is, the moment I start doing it, I can feel my nervous system calm down. Walking up the stairs to get a load of laundry, I repeat silently

chop wood

carry water

with the rhythm of my breath. When my mind starts to drift, I note that I am gathering laundry and I focus on how my leg muscles feel as I go down each stair, how the muscles in my forearm feels when I turn the doorknob to the laundry room, what my core feels like as I bend at the waist to push the clothes in the washing machine.

The hamster-wheel part of my brain is back there somewhere worrying that I am moving too slowly, that I won’t get everything done.

Make breakfast like a prayer

My friend Jen says that and I do my best. Slicing potatoes, cutting chunks of sausage, watching the egg yolk and white swirl together as I whip them. Sitting down, I focus on the taste of a perfectly crisp bite of potato and marvel at how often I shove food in without really experiencing it. The hamster squeaks at me that I’m being ridiculous and clichè.

But there is more air in my chest and belly. My jaw is relaxed. My limbs soft and comfortable. And by 10:30, I have walked the dogs, started two loads of laundry, eaten breakfast, helped my daughter navigate buying her parking permit with the city clerk, watered all the plants, cleaned and decluttered the kitchen countertop, and connected with three different dear ones via text.

It is enough.
The hamster is still spinning, but he is not yelling at me anymore. There are a lot of things left to do today, and I am reminded of something another strong, wise woman once said to me:

there will be enough time for all of the things that matter

She said this to me years ago, like Susan, and I wanted desperately to believe it then. I’ve heard it echo in my head often since then and she is right. It is amazing to me that I never believed that, or even considered that it could be true until she said it, but once she did, I began to trust it.

The things I accomplish today are the things that will be important to accomplish. One step at a time.

this breath in
this breath out

So many wise, simple phrases from so many wise women in my life. And each one of them calms me, centers me, puts me squarely in the middle of a place that feels held in abundance, connected to an energy that fuels me. I am grateful. Nothing has changed outside of me – there is still pain and chaos and uncertainty and suffering. What has changed is that I know my work is to chop wood, carry water, make breakfast like a prayer, believe that there is always enough time for the things that matter.  This breath in. This breath out.

Cassandra.mllr / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

I don’t generally dream, or at least if I do, I don’t remember dreaming, for the most part. Occasionally, if I fall back asleep in the morning hours when I should be getting out of bed, I will have short, strange dreams that I can recall, but for the most part, I have no active dream life.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming about the food bank – specifically, how to configure boxes and pack them efficiently, what kinds of food we have left on the shelves that we can share, what supplies we need to order to bolster our pantry. I am usually a champion sleeper – falling fast asleep within minutes and sleeping soundly for 7-8 hours at a time. But in the last two weeks, my sleep has been restless, dreaming of squatting to pack cardboard boxes with dry goods furiously, sliding them across the concrete floor to stack higher and higher. I dream for a while, wake to acknowledge that it’s a dream, roll over and begin again. All night long. Strangely, I wake rested, but by 3:30pm I am exhausted and ready to nap on the couch with the dogs.

This morning when I stepped out of the shower, recalling last night’s dreams of scrolling Costco lists and counting the jars of peanut butter we have left in storage, I shook my head, remembering the other times in my life when I dreamt like this. I recalled my first job as a waitress, my sleep peppered with scenes of heavy trays of clam chowder and sourdough bread, refilling coffee cups and forgetting the creamer, sliding across the kitchen floor as I smeared my rubber-soled shoes through a spill someone had left behind. I dreamt like this again when I took a job managing the wait list for children’s inpatient psychiatric care, imagining spreadsheets and databases, sorting by county and age and number of days in foster care.

This is my brain’s way of working out how to master something new. It’s what I do, and even as it is repetitive and lasts for weeks, it is not something that feels distressing to me. I have come to appreciate it as a way my brain works while my body rests.

I volunteered for a while leading groups for parents of newborns. I spent 12 weeks with couples or just mothers with new babies, helping them build community, giving them a safe space to vent and find solidarity with others, and teaching them about the unique qualities and milestones their children would make their way through. I remembered those days of sleepless nights, not ever feeling like you were on solid footing, reinventing every single day anew. I didn’t dream during those times, mostly because I never slept long enough between feedings or rocking my babies at night to get to that stage of sleep.

But I do remember counseling new moms about their babies’ sleep patterns. I remember cautioning them that even when their babies did settle in to an overnight routine – sleeping 5 or more hours at a time – that every time they came to a new milestone, their sleep would be restless again for a while. A week before they figure out how to crawl, many babies will revert to old ways of waking over and over again in the night. They repeat this when they’re learning to walk, and talk, and when they start solid foods. I imagine it the same way my brain works to figure out something new, to master a new skill or task. And so while it is stressful and frustrating for parents to feel as though they have finally gotten their baby to sleep for a long stretch at night and then have to go backward, what their babies really need during this time is care and comfort. It is hard work creating those new neural pathways, but once created, they serve us well for most of the rest of our lives. In general, once we learn to crawl, we never forget how to do it. Same with walking and talking.

It is a reminder to me to nurture my own disrupted sleep as my brain toils to find a better solution, and to react to my teens with compassion as they stay up later and later or lie in bed for 12 hours and come down for coffee still looking like they haven’t slept much at all. We are all, in our own way, working out how to manage this time in a way that feels right and sustainable for us. Like I tell my newborn parents, the least we can do is be gentle with each other and know that even if we can’t see it happening, there is magic going on in our heads that takes time to work through.

Image Description: blue candle holder with lit candle sitting on a metal table top

I have been thinking a lot about rage lately. About how we hold it and offload it, about who ends up being the container for it and what it feels like and how much energy it possesses.

Rage is the product of anger and fear suppressed. It is borne of a feeling of powerlessness. In my own life, it has shown up as the result of childhood molestation, gaslighting, and a lack of agency or ability to change my circumstances. It multiplies in dark places, building on itself until it can no longer be contained, and it is this aspect of rage that I find the most compelling. It is also where I see the most possibility.

Men like Harvey Weinstein who have massive quantities of rage seek to dispel that energy at some point. No being can walk around and function while they hold that storm within them. And as women (or those with feminine qualities) are seen as the containers for emotion in our society, it follows that men like him would seek to literally insert their rage in to the women around them, the women they see as the perfect vessels to hold their rage. These kind of men tend to hold their rage as long as they can and then expel it outward in violent acts, often toward women.

We have even, in many cases, normalized that response. The Australian ex-rugby player who killed his wife and children last week prompted an outpouring of grief and shock, but also comments from men like “he must have been pushed over the edge” or “she took his children away from him” as though it was somehow understandable that a man would discharge his feelings in a way that destroys the lives of people he purported to love.

If I think about the archetypal feminine and masculine (not gender, but the qualities we have ascribed to the Feminine and the Masculine), so much of how we address our rage is in line with those energies. Masculine energy is associated with linear thinking, decisive action, control and competition. Feminine energy is about nurturing, creativity, emotions and collaboration. Our culture has embraced those notions along gender lines and it is killing us.

The problem with rage (and energy, in general) is that you can’t let it go or give it over to someone else entirely. If you don’t transform it in some way, the seeds of it will continue to live within you and grow again. It is why men who assault others don’t often stop – the issue hasn’t resolved itself. It is why some men choose suicide – often after they’ve killed others. It is why most men choose methods of suicide that are loud and outrageous. These men have embraced the notion that transforming their rage by processing it, feeling it, talking about it, examining it is unacceptable, not masculine. And if you don’t know how to morph it in to something else, but you don’t want to feel it anymore, you have to try and get rid of it. And if our culture has told us that it is acceptable for men to be outwardly expressive and show their anger, and that women are the nurturers, the carers, the containers, it somehow feels ok for men to offload their rage on to women.

The human body is not designed to hold emotion or energy. If it were, we wouldn’t have to continue breathing or eating to sustain ourselves. We wouldn’t have to find a bathroom every few hours in order to eliminate the things that aren’t necessary. When we hold on to rage, trying to contain its energy within us is destructive. It continues to ping around in our bodies and brains, wreaking havoc. Even if we think we can wall it off, it sits inside us like a coiled cobra, muscles quivering, senses alert, ready to strike.

Rage makes us hyper-focus on control – the masculine energy seeks to control others, and the feminine energy seeks to control itself. Female rage often turns to depression, anxiety, dissociation. Male rage often turns to violence. And when that energy is offloaded, it multiplies like one candle lighting another. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But it can be transformed, and until we begin recognizing the rage we carry and learn how to transform it, we will all continue to swim in it. It is and will continue to be the legacy of toxic masculinity, perpetuating physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, shame and isolation. Excavating rage, examining it, owning it, and alchemizing it in to something that can be used to build rather than destroy is freeing. When I have taken the time and done the hard work it takes, I feel free, light, strong. The space that rage used to inhabit becomes a place for hope and optimism, and the energy builds connections that end up serving the collective. It is on each of us to do our own work, but we can create a culture where the work is important and necessary and normalized for all of us if we begin to recognize the power of rage and just how much of it we are all carrying.

I have orchids in my kitchen window – five medium-sized plants that I’ve been gifted over the years that I coax in to blooming about once a year. I’m always surprised and rather pleased when the stems begin poking out from the folds of the thick, dark green leaves and I’ve somehow managed to keep them alive enough to show their gorgeous flowers at least one more time.

Someone asked me once how I do it – what’s the secret. She had never been able to get an orchid to bloom again and she was keen to understand.

Benign neglect, I said. Honestly. I keep them in the kitchen window not only so the cat and dogs won’t devour the leaves and unruly air shoots, but also so I remember to give them water every few weeks.

**

Today is my mother’s birthday and it is the second birthday in a row when I won’t see her in person or give her a hug. The second birthday in a row that she has lived in a memory care facility and been wholly unaware of her birthday. The second birthday in a row that I haven’t sent her a card or flowers because she doesn’t know who I am and she wouldn’t understand getting a gift and she doesn’t even know it’s her birthday unless someone tells her and then she promptly forgets.

The last time I saw Mom, I sat with her in the dining area and fed her soup and while I was terribly happy to be with her, I may as well have been one of the staff who feeds her. I focused on making sure I didn’t rush her, that she was eating enough, that the soup didn’t go cold and feel awful in her mouth. I talked to her in a constant stream of consciousness banter, much like I had with my children when they were little, sitting in a high chair, opening wide when they saw the spoon coming in. The woman who sat across from us fed herself and tucked napkins and plastic cups and other people’s spoons in to her bra and when we made eye contact she said, “you know she doesn’t understand you. She doesn’t know who you are.”

**

In the months when the orchids aren’t blooming, I wonder if this is the year they just won’t throw up those showy flowers. I fret about the roots that stick out like bedhead, but I know I can’t trim them or tuck them inside the pot. I have to let them reach out and take the moisture from the air, but they encroach on the dish drainer and bump in to the windowpane and I brush against them when I turn the faucet to hot.

About once a month I carefully lift each plant and place it in the deep kitchen sink. I dissolve the sky-blue crystalline orchid food in a gallon jug of warm water and drench each one in turn. The bark soaks up the water and I think about how orchids cling to trees in the tropics, absorb nutrients from rocks and soil and exist in nearly every corner of the planet. They are both delicate and ubiquitous. They need me and they don’t. Benign neglect.

**

Mom stopped knowing who I was nearly four years ago. Before that, we spoke several times a week on the phone about whatever was easy for her. The weather, mostly, because all you have to do is look outside to talk about that. There is no need to try and remember details or conjure up names, and even when she couldn’t think of the word for rain, she could still say “water falling from the sky.” I saved the last voice mail she ever left me, not really knowing it was the last one, but when I dropped my phone in a parking lot at the grocery store a year ago, it disappeared. I can’t tell you how sad that makes me.

I have a microcassette sitting in my closet that I know has her voice on it, but I haven’t listened to it yet. I found it last year when I cleaned out her bedroom, sorting through shoes and piles of old bills and cancelled checks and the cough drops she hoarded in every pocket, bin, and drawer she had. I don’t have a micro cassette player, but I took the tape so that I can one day hear her voice again. I can’t imagine what she was recording, but it doesn’t really matter.

**

A leaf on one of the orchids has gone yellow. They do that sometimes and it always makes me worry, but after a week or so, I carefully cut it away and just keep with the program. I wonder how they know to re-direct their energy toward the rest of the plant and let this one leaf wither away. I wonder if I’m making it worse by surgically removing the dying leaf or if I’m giving it a leg up. I like to imagine I’m helping.

I wonder if it’s silly to think of mourning that part of you that is no longer needed. Being sentimental about one path when what you really need to do is refocus your efforts in another direction might be a waste of time. If cutting this withering leaf off means that the plant can use that energy to bloom again, maybe it’s the right thing to do. I suspect plants don’t exist in terms of Right and Wrong and it’s only human beings that try to make meaning where there is none. This is just the way life works.

**

I like to think that Mom is beloved. The last time I visited her, one of the caregivers remarked to me that she really enjoyed being around my mom, that she was very sweet. I don’t know if she says that to all the families or not, but it made me feel good. Mom was always fiercely independent and hated asking for help, so when she first moved in to the care facility, even though she didn’t have the words to fight, she fought in other ways. It was hard for her to be taken care of, and I worried that it meant she would be a difficult patient.

I feel guilty that I’m not the one taking care of her, but I also know that she would be furious if she knew I were the one taking care of her. She hated asking me for help more than anyone, so I suppose it’s for the best that when I do go visit and sit with her, spooning soup in to her mouth, she doesn’t know it’s me.

We know about biorhythms – the idea that human beings have certain cycles they go through that affect wellness and health. Circadian rhythms dictate when our bodies release hormones to help us sleep (melatonin) and wake up (cortisol). Other cycles include menstrual cycles and control fertility and reproduction. We know that our biology and physiology are affected by the rhythms of nature as well – mood and energy are affected by the number of hours of sunlight in the day, and for people who live in the extreme parts of the planet where there are endless days of light and then later, endless days of darkness, it is well-documented how their moods and productivity are affected. Similarly, people who work the “night shift” or graveyard shifts often have a difficult time synchronizing their sleep/wake patterns and can suffer from depression or anxiety and develop sleep disorders.

School-aged children have rhythms for their school “year,” at least in the United States, where they can expect to be in classes nine months of the year and then have summers off. We have decided that a work week ought to be five days on, two days off (if you’re lucky – many people with more than one job or who are engaging in work that requires overnight or weekend shifts don’t often get that cycle). In the case of summer, it is widely acknowledged that this began because of the agrarian cycle – that is, that families needed children home during the biggest growth and harvesting time of the year so that they could pitch in and get the work done. Now that our society is increasingly not driven by agriculture, there is a push to eliminate this and have school run throughout the year, and I have to say, conceptually, that seems to make sense, but when I think about cycles and rhythms and nature, I wonder if it’s a really bad idea.

If human beings have biological cycles that are influenced by the natural world, such as circadian rhythms, and if when we push past or ignore those influences we tend to struggle, I think it makes sense that there are additional, natural cycles that make sense to adhere to as well.

As we are in Fall in the Northern Hemisphere right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to watch the plant life around me ready itself for a hibernation of sorts. I remember learning in my Plant Systematics class in college that it’s best to plant new trees in the early fall so that they will take root and then rest during the winter before “waking up” again in the Spring and starting to grow. It seemed counterintuitive to me, given that soon after planting, the leaves would fall away and the ground would become hard and cold. Wouldn’t it make more sense to plant them in the Spring when they are beginning to really burst forth with new growth? My professor said no way. Fall is the time when trees focus their energy on developing roots – just because we can’t see it happening doesn’t mean it isn’t. In the Spring, the tree’s energy is directed toward flowers and leaves and new branch growth, which doesn’t leave much for roots, and since roots are what the tree really needs to thrive, Fall is the time.

Several years ago, I became aware of a similar phenomenon in my own life. I have the privilege to work on my own schedule, and I noticed that there were distinct times when I would become less productive as a writer. I do much of my “writing” in my head, and that part was definitely still happening, the deep thinking and rumination, but as far as putting actual words on paper that resulted in coherent essays or book chapters, it wasn’t showing up. I got frustrated with myself and tried to disrupt my normal practices, forcing myself to sit in a chair and type words, figuring that I was being “lazy” or just not trying hard enough. Everything I wrote during those times was garbage.

Generally, about halfway through February, I found myself on fire with ideas – writing writing writing and producing pitches and essays and making headway on manuscripts. Whew! I was back. Until about October – when things died again. It took me a few cycles to figure this out – I wasn’t *not* working during this time, I was simply not producing visible results. Everything I thought about, scribbled little notes about, chewed on in my mind, during this fallow time somehow made its way in to my finished products in the late winter or following spring, like buds on a tree. Beating myself up during the time when I was working on roots wouldn’t change anything about the end result.

Our culture is so obsessed with progress. Goals. Continual growth. But the truth is, there is no such thing as constant growth where you surpass old milestones over and over again. Yes, trees get larger and larger, but they do that with a built-in fallow period, where they rest. We know that much of brain growth in humans occurs during sleep. To expect ourselves to be continually setting goals, working toward them, setting new ones, working toward those, setting more, working toward those, and only expect rest to happen at the end of our lives (retirement, for the folks lucky enough to afford it) is making us sick. The natural world knows that we need rest on a regular basis – that there are times when resting is actually in our own best interest if we want to stay healthy and keep growing. Education researchers know that giving kids time to sit with new ideas and incorporate them on their own after they’re introduced is important. Instead of packing class time full of content from beginning to end, kids process information better if they’re given opportunities to ruminate on new content, turn it over with classmates in discussion, let it rest.

All the signs point to the importance of rest and fallow states, both for physical and mental health, but our culture isn’t set up for that. We revere the folks who can survive on four hours of sleep, praise the kid who goes to school, plays sports, and has a part time job, and expect parents to work full time and then come home and help kids with homework, prepare meals, do laundry, drive to extracurricular activities, and volunteer for the PTA. The failure has come for us humans because we’ve centered the system and not the collective good. Centering the system is what leads us to ask questions about where we can impact “the economy” or why it’s dangerous to let our kids have the summer to play instead of looking for jobs that will look good on a college application or going abroad on a service trip (that will also look good on a college application). It means that the families who see their kids burning out and falling to pieces feel as though they have to find a way to help their kid do the “personal work” of assimilating to the system as opposed to listening to their own inner guidance that will tell them what they need (often, rest and a recalibration of their energy toward their passions and values).

But this centering of the system, where has it gotten us? Centering the system is also centering those who benefit from the system (often, white, male, capitalist, Western-ideals, individualism-as-paramount) and sacrificing the rest of the people to that system. This is how we end up with an increased suicide rate among adolescents, college sophomores declaring majors because they have to, not because they actually have spent the time cultivating their own ideas about what is important to them and what their true passions are. This is how we end up with mid-life crises where people who believed in and followed the system suddenly come to realize that their own satisfaction and well-being are not important in this schema.

So why center the system? Why buy in to it? Because we’ve been told that it will keep us safe. But we’re learning on a large scale that that was nonsense. Actively disrupting our own biological rhythms and imperatives, cycles of work and rest, the phenomenon of belonging and cooperation, has meant that we are divided and miserable, and burning our own planet. Our blind faith in the system (or desperate clinging to it as a life raft in the middle of a burning sea) leads us to ask questions like “how will we pay for universal health care” (centering the system) instead of asking ourselves whether or not we truly believe that each and every person deserves to be cared for (centering the collective).

When we as parents and educators of kids shut down conversations about disrupting the public education system for the good of all by saying “it’s too expensive” or “that is too hard” we are acknowledging our allegiance to the system and not to our children. Many of my personal heroes have been people who didn’t follow the “traditional” pathways, but who recognized their own worth and the value of connection to others and forged ahead. Those who followed them often did so because that message stirred something inside them – a longing to be like that, to find themselves rooted in and cared for by the community, not isolated by a competitive, capitalist, lone wolf system.

Our world is literally burning and flooding right now because we’ve centered the system (and the folks who benefit from it in the short term). We have some choices to make and I, for one, feel like listening to the kids. If we haven’t completely crushed their sense of wonder and curiosity and passion and desire to belong to something bigger than themselves, they will lead us.

Hey  –
The Fixx are playing in Seattle on Aug 28th –  if you don’t have plans for that night, you should really take L to see them.   They’re in Portland the night before and I just got tickets for that show . . . 


My brother emailed me sometime in June to give me a heads up about this show. I’m incredibly grateful because there’s no way I would have found my way to it without his suggestion. I am notoriously horrible about names – band names, song names, celebrity’s names. In the moment, I couldn’t conjure up even one song The Fixx was known for, but I knew if my brother was cueing me, I’d know them when I heard them. 

I bought tickets that day. 

As a junior-high kid (we didn’t call it middle school in the 70s and early 80s), I went to a lot of concerts – most of them with my big brother. Mom went to a few with us, but eventually, I think she burned out and decided that if I tagged along with C, there would be no hijinks, even though the nearest big city for concerts was Portland, which was a two-hour drive from home. I was the happy recipient of that policy, although C has pretty eclectic taste in music. We went to see Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, as well as REO Speedwagon, ZZ Top, Metallica, and Judas Priest. He knew all the songs – A and B sides – and which albums they were featured on. He sang along with them all, knew when the drum solo or guitar solo would come, knew the names of each band member and which other bands they’d been in. He still does. He’s a walking encyclopedia of music, and I trust his taste. Every year he sends me a CD for my birthday and while sometimes it’s a performer or band I know (Tom Petty, Steely Dan), other times it is an entirely novel act, but I always love it. He knows what I’ll like and respond to. 

As a kid, I used to listen to the album for whichever band we were going to see next obsessively, reacquainting myself with the lyrics and the rhythms. I could remember songs really well, but I never knew their names or which album they were on or who was playing which instrument. I never really felt the need to catalog that or keep it in my brain. 

My big brother is 50 now and I can’t even begin to imagine the number of concerts he’s been to in his life. He goes to about two a month, at big venues and small, and he always has recommendations for me. On the day of The Fixx concert in Seattle, I woke up to a series of text messages from him, complete with photos of the show he’d just seen and a review of how great it was, which albums they played music off of, and which songs were the best. I smiled and got excited for my own experience. But unlike when I was younger, I didn’t seek out any of the music to refresh my memory. I went in cold, as did my daughter. She was definitely the youngest person in the crowd, but as a musician herself, she’s usually up for a concert (especially if I’m paying).

As the early strains of “Are We Ourselves” began to play, I felt a warmth in my belly. When the lead singer pointed his microphone out toward the audience, I knew exactly where to come in and what the tune was. It happened again with “Saved by Zero,” “Red Skies,” “Stand or Fall.” At one point, I leaned over to speak into L’s ear and tell her that I was reminded of sitting on C’s bedroom floor, playing cards and listening to music – these very songs. Had we not gone to this concert, I’m not sure I would have ever thought about The Fixx or been prompted to seek out their music. I simply hadn’t remembered they existed. 

There is a lot that I don’t remember about my childhood, a lot I dissociated from as I tried to find a way to survive emotionally in the firestorm of days after my brother disappeared and my parents divorced. I’ve been researching polyvagal theory lately as part of my work with adolescents and trauma and trying to understand how our bodies protect us by disconnecting from so much of what is going on around us. As I listened to the band play and felt the comforting memories of hanging out with C, listening to music, I wondered, is music the way in to those memories I want to have?

As I let my mind play with that thought, I realized that I was feeling calm and peaceful, that I was recalling the safety of being my big brother’s little sister, remembering a mundane, “normal” childhood activity that must have happened dozens of times in those frightening, sad days. I’m not so sure anymore that what I want is to use these memories to push my way in to other ones. For now, I’m simply basking in the reminder that my brother and I shared a connection through music, that it was his way of being in relationship with me and showing me the ropes, leading with his passion and inviting me in to share it. What a beautiful gesture, what an amazing, seemingly simple way to be part of each others’ lives, even though we haven’t gone to a concert together in decades. 

I’m so grateful to have these kinds of memories come back to me as I get older, to remind me that there are myriad ways to connect with others, and that the ones that come most easily, most naturally, are often the ones that endure. I hope that someday my big brother and I can go to another concert together, but in the meantime, I’m definitely listening for his advice on which ones I should buy tickets to myself.