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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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 the power of story to motivate and connect people, to convince and add color. But I am increasingly aware of how storytelling has become co-opted over time, bent and twisted to be used as a power tactic or a marketing tool.

Story is a tool – it used to be a tool to educate; elders would tell fables and parables to illustrate concepts. It is used to entertain, to take us out of ourselves, and it is an incredible way to build empathy. Telling our stories helps us release them from our bodies and, in the right setting, reminds us that we aren’t alone.

In the last several decades, story has also become a way to ask for validation, acceptance, consideration. And while that might not seem like a bad thing on its face, in the context of people without power telling their stories to people in power as a plea for empathy or understanding, it feels heavy in my gut. It feels more and more like justifying our existence, defending our choices, hoping to be considered equally human and deserving of care.

Many years ago, I began interviewing women about their stories. Specifically, their stories around being pregnant and having to choose whether or not to stay pregnant. I was increasingly frustrated that the political tug-of-war around abortion rights seemed never ending and I was certain that the conversation was all wrong. My hope was that centering the stories I wrote on the issue of choice would shift the spotlight a bit and add depth – open people’s eyes to the notion that the issue wasn’t two sides of the same coin, but far more complicated than that.

I had fully bought in to this new notion of what story was for. I was using these stories to not only educate people, but to convince them that these women deserved their consideration.

Sharing our stories is an enormous act of vulnerability. Opening ourselves up and shining a light on the parts of us that feel different, look different, are different is incredibly courageous, especially if the listener is not simply a vessel, but a judge. And while story is known for building empathy, it shouldn’t be the key that opens the gate to empathy. If, in telling our stories, we are hoping to gain acceptance and validation of our worth, and the listener is the one who gets to grant that (or not), story has become twisted and co-opted.

The notion of needing to tell our stories so that people in power will acknowledge us and tap us on the shoulder with their scepters, allowing us entry in to the world of Worthy Humans is abhorrent to me. We need to start with the belief that we are all worthy and cherished. People with disabilities, people of color, transgender or non-binary people, women, elders, childless folks, immigrants – nobody should have to tell their story in order to be regarded as worthy of respect. Nobody should have to show their scars and bare their souls so that they can be deemed worthy of care and honor.

Our stories are reminders that we are not alone. They teach us about the depth and the breadth of human experience, but they should not be a pre-requisite for civil rights, for love, for worthiness. The power of our stories is that they help us connect to others, and to use them as currency for equality and humane treatment is wrong.

I admit that when I started my interview project, it was with the intent to use the stories as political capital. I hoped that they would be published in a book that would reach the ears of people in power, that the stories would shift something inside them fundamentally and convince them once and for all that reproductive rights are vital, foundational, human rights. The women who spoke with me trusted me and, in some cases, had never told their story to anyone else but me. I was powerfully moved and believed that it would make a difference. These days, I resent the fact that I should have to tell my story in order to gain agency over my own body, in order to maintain or regain my civil rights and be seen worthy of that by people in power.

I believe in the power of story. When someone trusts me with their truest, deepest truth, it is a gift I do not take lightly. As receivers of story, we have an opportunity to be deliberate and generous with our listening, to recognize that we are being given a gift. I have felt the significant difference between telling my story to someone who is willing to hear it, contain it, hold it and reflect back to me that I am not alone in my difference, in my pain, in my perspective and telling my story to someone in an effort to get them to recognize my humanity. The first instance feels healing and fuels connection – the second feels defensive and frantic and defiant. Sharing something profound in an effort to find community is expansive. Sharing something profound as a way to justify my existence or worth or right to have agency over my body is like always being a step behind, and it reinforces the power differential between me and the receiver.

I appreciate the people who gather the courage to speak for themselves and others – the ones who testify in public hearings in support of accommodations or policy shifts or funding sources. I simultaneously lament that movements like #shoutyourabortion  or #youknowme have to exist, that we have been forced to use our stories as justification for our choices, to plead for help from those in power. It isn’t as though there is some tipping point, some critical number of stories that are told that will shift the narrative in favor of acceptance and compassion, in favor of the foundational belief that we are all human and, as such, equally deserving of the right to live freely, move through the world without obstacles in our way or a target on our back.

Until we can start at a baseline of humanity for all, equal rights, and acknowledgment of the historical systemic ways we oppress women and people of color and folks with disabilities and non-binary gender expression, etc. etc. we will not be able to truly hear the stories of our fellow humans. We will always be looking for the “hook,” the seminal difference, the spark that makes us say, “Oh, ok, you’re not like those other __________.” But in my heart, that’s not what story is about. Story is about bringing us together, reminding us of our connections, and reinforcing the power of being acknowledged.

I am writing my way in to my body. This is difficult, but not counterintuitive. In the last ten years or so, I’ve discovered that what I used to think was counterintuitive was simply fear. Instead of doing what I was told to do (don’t poke at that, don’t examine the pain, pretend it isn’t there or deny it or minimize it) for most of my life, I have learned that opening up, asking questions, and leading with curiosity is actually the most intuitive thing I can do.

So, while it has been a while since I sat down to write, I am agitated and hyped, uncomfortable and tense, and too far in my head. It is time to write my way in to my body.

The word agitated conjures up the washing machine of my youth – the golden colored 1970s top loading contraption that swirled clothes to clean them by violently twisting them back and forth. The one I had to stand on my tiptoes or levitate off the ground in order to reach that last sock or pair of underwear caught on one of the fins of the center agitator before tossing it all in to the dryer. Is this agitation getting things clean? Is it separating the dirt from the substance?

I am an extreme empath, especially when it comes to my daughters. When they are overwhelmed or upset, joyful or incredibly excited, I am too. I feel it in my core – like that washing machine agitator of old. I think sometimes I need that twisting motion, that constant shifting and moving inside me in order to parse out what is mine and what is theirs. Especially when the intensity is driven by fear.

It is my job as Mom and holder of space, purveyor of radical acceptance and unconditional love to operate from a place of calm and curiosity and centeredness. In order to do so, I have to filter out the fear.

It is Spring and I am eager to burst forth in to new growth and projects. Last fall I went to a plant sale and bought two tiny dogwoods and a lilac. They were in 1-gallon pots and at the time, they were simply sticks standing upright – not even impressive enough to be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was skeptical that they would grow at all, but even after the 15 inches of snow we got this winter (unheard of in Seattle), a week ago, they each sported one tiny leaf. Today, they are all decked out in green, leaves growing by the minute thanks to the rain and sun breaks we have had. I like to imagine that all winter they lay resting, knowing that the time would come for them to busily push forth new leaves, maybe even agitating deep inside as the Earth rotated and the days got longer, readying themselves for the burst of energy it takes to produce new growth.

I think I’m a few weeks behind, but I’m going to get there.