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

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

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

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

You can’t be irresponsible and just leave

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

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

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

I am safe.

I am loved.

I have resources.

I deserve joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do, too.

XO,

Kari

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

and letting go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

image of a multicolored compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture of a tall, slender, lit Christmas tree in a living room

This time of year always means I think about capitalism more than I normally do. And this year has been one where I have been more acutely aware of capitalism than ever in my life, so you might imagine that my brain is pretty full right now.

I love this time of year because I often spend it poking through local shops for hours, hoping to find fun, quirky little things to tuck inside my kids’ Christmas stockings. For some reason, over the years, stockings have become my ‘thing,’ and it often means that the contents spill outside of the knitted socks and have to be carried to the girls with two hands. As a kid, our stockings were filled with walnuts and hazelnuts (that we took great delight in using the nutcracker to shell and then discarded shortly afterward), mandarin oranges, and, on a good year, an entire book of Life Savers rolls. I have strayed far from that tradition, to be sure.

Whether it was designed cleverly or just worked out that way, there is a reason capitalism has deep hooks in us that take effort to remove. But for me, the first step in that unhooking is an honest evaluation of how capitalism is antithetical to health and well-being.

Screen shot of the Cliffhanger game on The Price is Right

As a system, capitalism was sold to us as something sustainable, and it is ridiculous that we believed it. There is no way anything can grow and grow without ever hitting a wall – it will either consume all of the resources around it or collapse on itself or both, which is what I think we are experiencing right now. We are led to believe that the stock market can keep hitting higher highs, that businesses can increase their profits year over year, and that we can make more money every year if we just work hard enough. Like any system, growth can happen to a point, but there is nothing that can grow forever, and human beings weren’t designed to grow and grow and grow without rest.

Capitalism is the opposite of health and well-being because it forces us to value things that are external – more shoes and clothes, a bigger paycheck, a new car every few years. But external values are things over which we have no control – we could get downsized or fired tomorrow, those things we buy can fall apart quickly, the housing market can explode so that we’re not able to afford our home anymore. Capitalism taps into our basic human need for security, but it doesn’t provide it – in fact, it keeps us constantly searching and believing that we will never truly be secure unless we are earning more and spending more. Capitalism also taps into our basic human need for autonomy, but that, too, is an illusion. Sure, we get to make choices about where we work and live and the things we buy, but only to a point, because under this system, we are never truly in charge of our own lives – not if the things we value are external.

Capitalism is also something that keeps us in fear. It relies on workers being expendable and interchangeable, which means that we as workers are always competing with each other ever so slightly more than we are cooperating. And because fear is a barrier to relationship, it means that we can’t ever hope to truly build strong, sustainable networks or communities under capitalism. Capitalism is threatened by unions (read: relationship), and relies on workers believing that they need to constantly fight to do better, be more visible, climb over their co-workers. It sells us the illusion that it’s possible to continually make more money, achieve more success, get a better position, but the slots at the top narrow so rapidly that it’s impossible for that to be reality.

Capitalism gave us disposability because it relies on it. Single-use items mean that we are constantly needing to purchase replacements. It’s not an accident that Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every single year, each with a slightly new set of features. That’s by design – businesses need us to want the newest thing in order to make their sales goals. Capitalism is just another one of the systems that has successfully adapted to center itself over time so that the most important thing is capitalism. It’s why we talk about “the economy” in every political debate, it’s why we fight to send our kids to a “good college” so they can get a “good job” that pays well enough for them to buy cars and homes and trips and clothes. It is why boards of directors are fearful of poor sales and offer dividends to shareholders. It is why wages are kept artificially low and we have no universal healthcare. Capitalism is so all-encompassing that non-profit organizations have bent to its rules, insurance companies are not in the business of taking care of people’s health but are vitally interested in their own profits, school systems have formed their curricula around the kinds of things that will ensure kids get into four-year colleges rather than focusing on learning skills and cultivating passions. There are many systems in this country that are powerful and broken, but capitalism is the one steering the ship, and we all just keep shoveling coal into the steam engine.

Two people walking together on a cobblestone path

Like all systems, I am reminded that the antidote to capitalism is relationship. When we can fight the urge to live in fear and build strong, connected communities, we can begin to release ourselves from the grip of capitalism. Capitalism is the reason so many people in the US are going hungry, and new systems (food banks) won’t fix it. If they could, they would have done so already. But relationship helps. The dozens of small, community-based mutual aid groups in my area alone that have mobilized to cook meals, deliver food, raise cash, and source items for people in need are combating food insecurity better and faster than bureaucracy ever could (even as they fight bureaucracy in order to do the work they do).

Building authentic relationships rooted in trust and love takes time, to be certain. It takes effort and a willingness to examine our fears and biases and tendency to see other people as competitors. We have to be willing to be a little bit afraid or at least a little uncomfortable, and forge ahead, knowing that relationship and community are what truly meet our basic human needs for safety, security, feeling valued, and having an impact. When we build communities whose values are intrinsic, we are necessarily reinforcing the belief that all of us are important, none of us is disposable, and that there is enough to go around so long as we cooperate. Living under capitalism means that millions of people go hungry while billions of pounds of food goes to waste. It means that business executives make and hoard more money than they could ever use while other people live on pennies a day. It means that workers spend dozens of hours a week doing jobs they hate because it is the only way they can feed their families and keep their health insurance.

Unions don’t threaten the health and well-being of companies or executives, they threaten to upset the imbalance of wealth between workers and executives. When the biggest argument against any sort of pay increase or new benefit for people is that it “costs too much,” we have become far too focused on money. If we are more concerned with the stock market rising or falling than we are about people living on the streets in cardboard boxes and the hours’ long lines at food banks, we have succumbed to the lure of capitalism to our detriment. It is true that money is necessary to survive, but only because we made it that way. It is possible to do things differently.

When we are in relationship with one another and really rooted in the values of community, dignity, respect, and safety for all of us, the values of capitalism begin to fall away. I don’t have to fear you or be in competition with you if I trust that our connection is about both of us being well and cared for. Systems like capitalism rely on hierarchies – someone has to be “in charge” and then there are layers of folks beneath that, all with an assigned ‘worth’ in the form of pay. Relationships suffer under hierarchies. If I think that I am more important or worthy than you, we will never have an equal, honest, loving relationship. But when we can build communities that acknowledge that we all have things to offer the group and that we all deserve to ask for support where and when we need it, there is no scarcity, there is trust, and there is safety.

Capitalism falls apart when we aren’t competing with each other for jobs, for goods and services. Capitalism falls apart when we acknowledge abundance. Communities thrive with a belief in abundance. The truth is, there is enough to go around, but we have built a world view that doesn’t acknowledge that. We have built economies that rely on scarcity to drive up the cost of goods so that those at the top of the hierarchy benefit, and when the cultural values are about having an abundance for yourself, the notion that any one of us could find ourselves rolling in piles of money or sitting in a house whose garage is full of more cars than we can drive is seductive. Even though the vast majority of us will never attain that, because we’ve been taught that that ideal is achievable if we just work hard enough, we hold out hope. But we all know people who work hard every day and are nowhere near owning their own home.

Capitalism is rooted in individualism, which means not only that we have to compete with each other, but that we feel as though our failures are our own and not the way the system is designed. We blame ourselves for not working hard enough, for not finding the right mentor, for not having the right college degree. We resolve to try harder, get more financially literate, get more connections on LinkedIn.

Ultimately, it is only in relationship where our most basic psychological needs are met. And in a world where the material goods are plenty, it is relationship that threatens capitalism the most. Talking to each other about our respective rates of pay, our experiences with toxic workplace culture, and our ideas for how to band together to create more support for all workers begins to erode the scarcity mentality. When we come together in relationship and our psychosocial needs are met, we might discover that buying more things isn’t really all that soothing after all. We might discover that the system is set up for the sake of the system and that it doesn’t really care about us or the environment. We begin to acknowledge that capitalism is designed to make us believe that there will never be enough, and we begin to realize that human beings can’t thrive in a system where we are forced to always strive for more and compete with each other more than we cooperate.

So while I will continue to carefully select gifts for my beloveds this time of year (and probably spend more money than I ought to), I will also do my part to build community, to strengthen relationships, and to help those around me acknowledge their worth outside of their employment or the size of their paycheck. I will fight against the tendency to value things that the system tells me I should value and I will put my energy toward dismantling this broken system that holds so many hostage and erodes our connections to each other.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

My last post pointed you to my friend Jen and her work that helped me set a new tone for my life. I have several pages of notes from a day I spent with her last year in a tiny little cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest and every now and then when I’m feeling a bit lost, I revisit them and find new nuggets of wisdom.

Last week, I unearthed the notebook again and found a loose sheet of paper I’d tucked inside. It features just eight words, spaced out and written in sky blue pen. I don’t remember when I wrote them, but I vaguely recall sitting down one morning with my coffee, lighting a candle, and doing metta meditation to start my day. When I finished the meditation, I reached for a sheet of paper and wrote what came to me. I do this often, and it doesn’t always make sense in the moment, but capturing them for later has proven to be powerful.

Sometimes, I have epiphanies or sudden shifts in thinking that have profound effects. It’s a little like an earthquake that suddenly and irrevocably changes the landscape of my mind and heart and life. But more often, I’m learning that making substantive changes takes intent and practice. I have to embed and embody new ways of being in to my life so that they become habits, and these seven words are emblematic of that hard work.

Patience

Being patient requires me to trust in the abundance of the universe, the kindness of people, the rhythms of life. Like a surfer whose timing is off and has to watch a perfect wave pass by without begin able to ride it, I have to wait and know that it’s only a matter of time before the next good one comes by and lifts me. Once-in-a-lifetime stories are romantic and cinematic, but not really an accurate reflection of the way life works.

Perseverance

This also asks that I trust – in my own ability to keep moving, in the fact that one step will lead to another. It doesn’t mean that I have to know what all the steps are, or where the ultimate destination is, just that the next step will come and then the next and the next. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t rest, only that I listen closely so that when I’m called to start moving again, I hear it.

Passion

This word is sometimes over-used, but it is also under-rated. Being able to tap in to the things that drive me, that motivate me, that stir that feeling in my belly that excites me and makes me smile is a skill, if only because it asks that I acknowledge that those things are intrinsically worthy, that they are enough, important, valid (whether or not they lead to monetary success). I’ve been in relationships where my passions were trivialized and called “cute” or “sweet” and I learned to doubt myself, but I’m (re)learning.

People

We are designed to live in community, and many of us enjoy it, but we aren’t taught to be comfortable resting in it, being held by it, surrendering to the give and take. We cannot accomplish the things we want to do without other people, and celebrating our victories is not nearly as sweet when we do it alone. A willingness to be seen and heard and see and hear others is vital in my journey to a better life.

Paths

Not path. Paths. Plural. There is no one path, there are many, and they connect to each other. It is ok to head down one path, change my mind and veer left or right or even make a u-turn and head right back to the last fork in the road. It is perfectly acceptable to travel for a long time down one path, decide that I’ve learned all I can from it, and hop off or run as fast as I can to a different one.

Plans

Gloria Steinem said, “Hope is a form of planning.” This P brings together passion and perseverance and bathes them in hope. It gives me a place to start and a goal to strive for, even if things ultimately go sideways. As long as I remember that a plan is simply a blueprint and I get to decorate the walls however I damn well please, I can see opportunity in it rather than feeling limited by it.

Presence

This is often the hardest P for me. It requires a willingness to pay attention to what is happening, even when it’s scary or uncomfortable, and especially when life is joyful. Having learned to be dismissive of my own successes (‘humility is sexy,’ I was once told), I have to practice being intentional about noticing when I feel joy and imprinting it on my brain and my heart. Paying attention to my instinct to minimize my own efforts or hedge against jinxing myself and correcting it to bask in the feeling of happiness is a lot of work. Noting my reaction to fear or sadness and counteracting the shrinking by opening up further has only gotten easier the more I am present.
When I remember these pillars (ha! another P), I am rewarded with a sense of peace. When I slow down, envision them, act with intention to give them a place in my life, and embody them, I begin to transform the way my brain reacts to the world so that the old lessons of scarcity and bootstrapping and fear fall away.