Naturvetenskap 1

I am a storyteller and I have been my whole life. I carry them inside me, work on them, figure out the best way to share them. But sometimes the stories get heavy. Before I ever put anything on the page, the words and feelings chase each other around and around inside, making connections and trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. When I sit too long with the stories, they start to burn and I know it’s time to walk or go pull weeds. Somehow, being outside helps the sentences flow and combine in ways they can’t when I am indoors.

The stories of the last year and a half are heavier than many that have gone before, and I’m finding that walking takes on a new urgency for me and it also requires a focus I haven’t been forced to have before. These days, I have to walk farther away from home and immerse myself in places that are new and expansive in order to divorce myself from the circling thoughts and feelings. I have found an open space surrounded by trees where few people go and at least once a week I walk there and sit and untether the words from each other, and also from my head and heart. Sitting in this place just breathing helps to re-string it all in a way that offers clarity.

I am learning that there is a sort of chemical reaction taking place as I assimilate the stories and try to keep my heart and my head on the same level. Most days, the two are at war, fighting for supremacy, which sometimes means wild swings from sadness to anger. My brain can only witness so much grief before it burns it off with anger, like alcohol in a skillet. My heart is simultaneously relieved of its burden and seduced by the beautiful flames, but the anger is also expansive and  at some point I realize it is taking up too much space in my head. The sadness dissipated, but the stories are still there and they are all about other people. I imagine a large section of my brain colonized by the stories of others, the actions of others, the words of others, and I am impatient to evict them.

When I was in college, the days I spent in the Chemistry lab were some of my favorites. The cool, cave-like room with its expanse of concrete worktops and glass beakers and pipettes and orderly rhythms gave me a stillness and a focus. There were rules, a set of steps to be taken, and all that was asked of me was to do one thing at a time and remain curious – observe and report. Even if I knew what I was supposed to be creating, somehow the cascading chemical reactions along the way were always enchanting – sometimes it was a smell or a particular color flame that I hadn’t expected. Witnessing the magic kept me from getting caught up in the story or the sequence. I had my instructions. Observe and report. Remain curious.

 

I never know where inspiration will come from, but in general, it is spurred by conversations with people I don’t know as well as I thought I did. And for that, I am tremendously grateful.

I have been part of a book club for about four years that is composed of women who look an awful lot like me – upper middle class, white, most of us have children who are teenagers. Most are married (some for the second time), and about half work a traditional job. And yet, the disparate backgrounds and thought processes are interesting enough that we have some pretty deep conversations. I have to say, there have been some tense moments (for me, anyway, who is incapable of staying quiet when I think there is something privileged or provocative or unacknowledged), but they’ve generally been talked through, and all are sparked by books we’ve read.

Many of the books are ones I wouldn’t have picked up in the first place and I love that, too. There have been a few over the years that I couldn’t bring myself to finish (one that I didn’t even bother to start), but for the most part, I dive in with curiosity and look forward to the conversations we have. And nearly always, I am left with lots to think about in the ensuing days. Our last meeting was a week ago and I’m still chewing on one small exchange that happened around PTSD and when I think about something for that long, it usually means the only way I can process it is to write about it.

We read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah which contains themes of domestic violence and PTSD (albeit largely unacknowledged – only alluded to) throughout.  At one point during our discussion, I referenced this post from a few weeks ago in an effort to talk about the way my brain worked to prepare myself for potential catastrophe when I was a kid and one of the other women chimed in, “From who?”

I stopped talking and turned to look at her.

“From who? Who were you afraid of?”

In the moment, I answered truthfully and moved on to make my point, but it is that exchange that has been stuck in a crevice of my brain for nearly a week now and I feel the need to elaborate on my original answer.

Here’s what I know about PTSD (in my case – I won’t generalize to other people’s experiences): it’s not rational, and it doesn’t limit itself to one trigger. If, as a kid, I was afraid of one particular person, anytime I encountered another person who had similar characteristics, my nervous system went into overdrive and sent me to fight/flight. So while I may have started out worrying about one person harming me, as soon as I went out in to the wider world, I saw potential disaster in all sorts of places that other people wouldn’t normally see it. I was, quite literally, prepared to duck and run at any time. I saw danger everywhere for years. This is how PTSD compromised my ability to function in my daily life – by keeping me on a hair trigger whether it made sense to other people or not.

Here’s another thing I know about PTSD; repeated exposure to triggers won’t give me the sense that I’m safe. This is not like experiments scientists are doing with food allergies where small doses over long periods of time gradually help the immune system become accustomed to ingesting the item and end up being ok with it. Repeated exposure to triggers only made me develop more armor which I spent a lot of time and money with therapists trying to dismantle. The way I overcame most of my PTSD was to have small repeated exposure to safe spaces, to people who didn’t violate or harm or scare me. With a lot of effort and mindfulness, I was gradually able to change the narrative in my brain, but it didn’t just happen. It took work.

If you love someone who has PTSD, please don’t explain to them why they shouldn’t be scared or anticipate disaster. Please don’t trigger them and later say, “See? I didn’t hit you. I just yelled. You were over-reacting.” A trigger sets off a biochemical chain reaction that completely obliterates language. By the time I realize you haven’t hit me, I’ve already felt the fear in every corner of my brain and body and it’s too late for you to convince me that I shouldn’t be scared. I already was. It happened. And that’s one more example in my brain of why it’s not safe to be around you – whether you hit me or not.

I realize that PTSD is unfathomable to people who don’t have it but the more we can try to understand what triggers our loved ones with PTSD, the more we can avoid those incidents that send them in to a frenzy of survival mode behavior. Just because we can’t understand someone else’s reaction to something doesn’t make it unimportant or irrelevant or over-reaction. PTSD starts with one trigger but our brains are so good at generalizing and so worried about keeping us safe that we can expand the list of triggers to include things that others think are nuts. If you love someone with PTSD, the best thing you can do is learn what triggers them and avoid doing those things as you continually remind them that you are safe and loving.

(For the record, I was dismayed that the book we read didn’t explore the idea that one of the main characters was clearly struggling with PTSD. There was a missed opportunity there, in my opinion, to make him a much more 3-dimensional character. )

Two things: I don’t like the way anger feels in my body but I am discovering how to help it leave, and for me, nature is an integral part of that process.

When anger comes it is seductive and as a human being and a storyteller, my wont is to engage my mind and immediately begin to weave words around it and harness its power.

But that red hot ball burrows its way in to me and sometimes hunkers down to stay a while and it sends out tendrils, armies, missionaries. It burns.

So what I’ve learned is that anger has to reside in my body sometimes, but I don’t have to help it stay any longer. I don’t have to soften the space where it hangs out, change the sheets and offer fresh towels. I only have to acknowledge it, nod my head at it, and keep it from connecting with my stories. My stories are meant to heal, to illuminate, to open understanding, and anger sucks the life out of them and makes them hard and mean. Even if it feels powerful and purposeful. That is the seduction.

A wise friend once told me that it’s important to help move anger through my body – that movement makes it hard for the hot twist of resentment to stay. And so I walk in nature. I disconnect from my head and ground myself deep in my belly. I run a cord from my sacrum to the earth and I breathe and I move, and gradually I feel lighter. Noticing the trees and moss and meandering streams reminds me that movement and coexistence, community and cooperation, connection and distinction are my sweet spot. I cannot make my priorities anyone else’s priorities. I cannot predict or prescribe what will happen when I speak my truth. But I can invite the anger to leave and fill myself up with possibility and light and let the ripples move through me out into the world.

The thing about mindfulness for me is that it lets me have more access to my emotions. It’s not only that I give myself the opportunity to breathe when I feel something strongly and tune in to the stories I’m telling myself (either in an effort to quash the feelings or to turn them into something else). It’s that when I am really mindful, I let the emotions show up as they are, whenever they choose to show up. And as hard as it is to trust that they’ll come and then go (as long as I don’t spin tales about them that take me off into another place), they always do, and the more I practice that, the easier it becomes.

It’s not easy.
I said “easier.”

Because what I’m discovering is that all of this means that my emotions are much closer to the surface in any given day and sometimes that’s a little uncomfortable for people around me. Sometimes that means that without any notice at all, I get tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Sometimes it means that I dance through the kitchen at the mere sight of sun streaming through the windows on a Tuesday morning.

Today, I was struck by a wave of unexpected sadness and I watched as my brain struggled to turn it to anger almost immediately. I was driving Lola somewhere and part of my brain said, Stop it! Don’t let her see you cry. You don’t want to make her worry about you or feel bad. And my brain’s response was to start crafting reasons why this sadness was the fault of someone else, why I would be entirely justified in getting angry, and I even began imagining potential conversations to that end.

Wow.

For a split second, that worked. I felt anger rise in me and I no longer had the urge to cry. But when I realized what I was doing, I let go of the story and waited. It was remarkable to me that the sadness didn’t return right away – how easy it had been for me to push it away.

After I dropped Lola off at her destination, I spent the rest of the drive home experimenting. I played with conjuring up the sadness again (even though it had been unexpected, I was perfectly clear on why it came up when it did) and watching as my brain fought to make it go away with anger. It took effort to stick with the original emotion and let it flow.

What I’m discovering is that dropping the stories I am constantly telling myself about what I should do or be or think or say makes my life much simpler. I am more able to move through my days in the moment and experience whatever comes as it does. I have always been the kind of person who feels things deeply – who has very high highs and very low lows – but this is a different phenomenon. This feels cleaner somehow. My emotions are very close to the surface, very accessible, and they don’t hold as much sway over me as they once did. Without the stories weighing them down or the struggle to be allowed to show up (because I’m not trying to ignore them or make them come back later, when it’s more appropriate), they are simply there. It’s a lighter, easier feeling than I’ve ever had before and even if it means that I might start crying at the drop of a hat, I’m welcoming it.

The last year or so has been a challenging one. I am getting a divorce after 23 years and there is a lot to learn, and even more to un-learn; about the world, about myself, about relationships. I have been thinking a lot about “groundwork” and how I believed for a long time in a paradigm that said if I worked hard and diligently and laid a solid ground beneath my feet, at some point I could rest easy and revel in that. It’s that same story we hear in the West about getting to retirement or busting our asses in high school so that we can get in to a good college or killing ourselves in college so that we can land a good job and … rest.

I am un-learning.

I am reminded that people who embody their purpose and their passion, who trust their instincts and intuition and forge a path from that, centered in it, steeped in it, are the people who most inspire me. These people don’t lead with fear, they live with it, walk with it until it falls away. It is, at most, an occasional companion on their journey, not the engine that drives their motion.

I wanted, at some point, to stop living moment by moment, breathing deeply and re-centering myself. I wanted to have built a solid path already so that I wouldn’t have to keep laying one cobblestone at a time, breathing always, focused always. I wanted there to be some magical point in time when I would have laid enough “groundwork” that the path would simply be there, shining and solid before me, so that all I had to do was step out and follow it with ease.

As I say that out loud, I realize that the only way that can happen is if I go backwards. The path in front of me hasn’t been laid yet. It can only be laid by me.

Some days, I want to lie down on the path I’ve already made, at the place where the last cobblestone is set before dropping off into Earth, and rest. And I think that’s ok. Rest is ok. This is hard work, laying your own path, staying grounded in who you are and being true to your own deepest pull.

If I am to forge my own way, I have to keep building one stone at a time. I have to keep asking, ‘is this who I am?’ I have to believe that what lies behind me is only important because it is how I got here. It is not worth going back to.

So while I don’t know exactly where I am going, I know that I am getting there one brick at a time and I also know that each brick is laid with care and determination. The point is not to get “Somewhere” or to “Finish” or even to look back and show how far I’ve come. The work is the point. The daily inquiry – what is most important and true today? what is the highest and best expression of my Self? what is the next right step?

If I embody those things, the work is centering and grounding and I am grateful for it.

Suddenly, I have no more longing for a clear path ahead. I know that what I’m creating is its own purpose, and that gives me joy. And I know that all around me is an abundance of materials and support, reverence and love, and that if I can remember that I am part of something bigger that sustains me and to which I am responsible, in the moments when I falter, I am held firmly.

My latest for parents and teachers who work with teens is here. Once you know how to spot anxiety, the next trick is to figure out what’s triggering it.

Part One is here. 


This one’s for Birdie. 


Oh, Birdie. I don’t know you, but I know you. We’ve never met, but I hear you. 


Birdie left a comment on the previous post that I’ll excerpt. She wrote, in reference to seeking professional help to process the trauma she experienced as a child, “I can’t be helped and soul destroying because it means I am really messed up. I am so afraid of opening Pandora’s box and becoming unable to deal with what lies waiting. But I am tired. Tired of never being happy. Tired of always feeling anxious. Tired of always, always being afraid.”


Talk about ‘bringing the whole house down.’ That’s what compartmentalizing does to us. It makes us feel safe for the moment, but it ultimately destroys us from the inside out. Because when we hide those things away – either for later or for what we think is forever – we deprive ourselves of community and support. 


Human beings are social creatures. We are designed to live with each other. Our bodies respond on a molecular level to touch and interaction from each other – our adrenal glands activate, our neurological systems light up, we secrete hormones that make us feel safe and loved and happy when we let ourselves share experiences with other people (and animals – never underestimate the power of a soft, furry creature to snuggle up to). 


But when we wall of parts of our human experience, we relegate ourselves to holding what are often the most traumatic and painful things all by ourselves. It is akin to telling everyone that we would like their help carrying the 20lb. box of papers but that they can go home after that because we’ll figure out how to lug that 200lb. desk in the corner alone. Or not at all. There are so many reasons we do that – shame, denial, overwhelm. We hate that desk. Maybe we will just leave it there and never look at the corner where it sits, heavy and ugly. 

It is counterintuitive to expect ourselves to bear the heaviest weights alone. We can’t do it, no matter how much we want to or how hard we try. And we aren’t designed for it. But when we compartmentalize, that’s what we’re setting ourselves up for – isolation, solo work. 


So, Birdie, if you’re reading this, know that even as you wait for a therapist who is the right one to help you work through that pile of stuff you’ve hidden in the corner, you aren’t alone. While it’s important to find skilled counselors to help us dig through the deepest traumas, in the meantime, there are people out there who will help you support the weight of what you’ve got sitting there. Let them. Don’t worry about whether they’ll get something on their clothes. Don’t think about how it smells or what it looks like. Just know that, together, we can bear so much more weight than we think we can, and that there are people out there who care for you who would like nothing more than to hoist up a corner and take some of the pressure off of you. That’s how we’re designed. That’s what we do for each other. And while it takes some practice (often, years of practice), that feeling of relief that you get when others come along to help bear the load is the beginning of healing. 


Thank you for your courage.
You will get there from here. I know it. You won’t do it alone, but that’s the sweetest part of this. You’ll discover, along the way, which of your friends and family is really great at unpacking, cleaning up, and showing up. Let them. Don’t apologize. It’s how we’re designed. Embrace it and know that you were never supposed to hold all of this by yourself. 

By Creator:Giulio Bonasone – http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392735This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

It is just so tempting, and it’s also something many of us are conditioned to do from the time we’re little: set aside strong emotions or difficult thoughts until later.

I can’t deal with that right now.
I can’t think about that right now.
Let me just get through this.


Compartmentalization has its purpose, to be sure. When you’re physically occupied by something else – say, driving – you really need to focus on the task at hand. But all too often, when we seek to tuck something away “for later,” what we are really doing is hoping it will stay tucked away so that we don’t ever have to see it again. And unfortunately, the kinds of things we generally hope to never have to see again are usually the kinds of things that will end up demanding our attention in one way or another at some point.

I’ve had both extreme examples of this (repressing the memories of childhood sexual assault for decades) and moderate examples (putting aside my fears and grief at the serious illness my husband struggled with so that I could get through the day raising two toddlers), and both times it came back to bite me in the ass.  In the first case, I developed a severe anxiety disorder that made it hard for me to work and live the life I wanted to live for many years until I examined and explored the abuse, and in the second, I spent three years working with a therapist to overcome a depression that nearly drove me to suicide.

What I’ve learned is that while I may not have the luxury of expressing my emotions and really sitting with my grief every time it shows up, if I don’t acknowledge it to some degree in real-time, I will suffer the consequences.  Because here’s the thing: if I just keep tucking it away in some box labeled “Later,” what are the odds that I will ever voluntarily choose to go back and open that box of pain and look at it? Why wouldn’t I just keep it in the corner, always finding some other thing to keep me busy. Who in their right mind would want to set aside time and energy to reopen a container of sadness and grief?

So these days, when I’m confronted with a particularly difficult situation, I do my best to fold it into my life. I cry while I’m walking the dogs or doing dishes. I call a friend during lunch and ask for support. I give myself permission to honor the struggle, even if it means I sob a little every day, because hoarding the feelings I don’t want to feel in some back room might be the thing that ultimately brings down the whole house. I know. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to do that again. Big piles of junk attract rats and disease. Dealing with the trash one day at a time means that I don’t have to dread what might jump out at me from that heap someday.

It feels surreal.

I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.

The fact that my mom doesn’t know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I’m there, it is as though I’ve been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.

The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I’m old enough for that? That she is?  Even though it feels like I’ve been a mother forever – it almost feels like I’ve never NOT been a mother –  it couldn’t possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.

I haven’t imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is. I haven’t sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can’t picture myself here, because I haven’t turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they’re real?

I don’t ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don’t really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn’t begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works – that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe “imagination” is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations – especially when what I’m presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn’t have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.

The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn’t beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don’t truly want to be there, so perhaps it’s a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.

There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the good fortune to do and I’m thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.

Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I’m out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.

The house I am staying in is on a spit of land with a westward view of a bay and another spit of land. All day long, I could sit on the deck and watch the birds – gulls, heron, eagles, ducks – fish and splash and swim in the shallow, sandy bay. And just beyond it, on that other long finger of land, cars and trucks come and go, with the occasional knot of bicyclists and the rare jogger. There are no homes (yet) on that slim finger that is just to the west of where I am, but this morning, I woke to the bones of a crane just forming through the fog, so I know it is only a matter of time.
            There are homes in the webbing of the finger, though, the crotch of land that connects that spit to this one, and they are huddled close together with some clusters of wind-sculpted evergreen trees. Sitting on the deck this morning, peering through the thick mist, I am pleased that I can see far enough in front of me to watch the gulls scoop up clams, fly 40 feet up into the sky, and drop them on the rocks beneath to reveal their soft insides. Breakfast. I squint to see the houses just to the west and wonder if, from their vantage point, it is as foggy and grey as it seems to me from here, or whether they, too, have a clear visual field in front of them and I just can’t tell. Optics. 

            I wonder if we all assume that our vantage point is the Right one. From here, I think those homes are cloaked in fog and mist. I imagine looking out the window of one of those homes to see nothing but grey. But maybe that’s not accurate. 
            This morning it is so quiet that I can hear the flapping of the gulls’ wings as they rise out of the water. It is the sound of effort, of forward motion, and it prompts me to tighten the muscles of my belly as though I, too, am rising, pulsing my arms to lift myself. I think about how satisfying it feels to be tensing muscles, using my own strength to move. If I could think this way all the time, I would be better at going to the gym. I would have less cellulite and more stamina. Maybe what I need is to live someplace with this view all the time – watching these animals work to live in a gorgeous place. All of their movements purposeful. I am the kind of person for whom going to the gym feels artificial and contrived and there is little that makes me more aggravated than falsehood.

            Often, this morning, the peace is punctuated by gunshots. The first one came solo and prompted me to think that some angry gardener was dispatching one of the rabbits that outnumber people on this island. Perhaps he finally got tired of sharing his bounty with the fat bunnies feasting on his labor and leaving droppings in every patch of grass available. Gunshots are nearly always associated with ‘he’ in my mind. I know that there are women who shoot guns. Women who garden and get annoyed. And it’s not unimaginable in this place where yesterday I saw packs of dirt-stained children wrestling in open areas, wandering up to strangers to talk and pet their dogs, women with three or four of their own tagging along – none of whom are old enough to go to school quite yet. It’s not beyond imagination to expect one of them to sit down and bare her breast to a child who is tall enough to stand next to her and feed. That is the kind of island this is – hippies, home-schoolers, people who want to live away from the city. These women can do anything. I can tell. But it is hard for me to reconcile the peaceniks with gunshots. I know that is my own limitation. I accept it. I don’t know if I’ll work to unravel it or not. Right now, I am more interested in why the gunshots are increasing – now coming in groups of three or four. Who is shooting? What are they shooting? Why? 

My real desire is for them to stop. I’d like to slip back in to the stillness where the only sound is the beating of the birds’ wings as they lift off of the water or the swoosh it makes when they skid into the bay and touch down.