Tag Archives: listening to the body

Guest post: Practicing the love for our bodies

Good morning, good morning! It’s a beautiful, quiet February morning here, and I’ve just taken about an hour for reading and quiet and morning pages. How are the words finding you these days?

We have a guest post today from a good friend of Writing Ourselves Whole, Danielle Ragan, personal trainer, health coach, fitness instructor, teacher as well as writer and all-around generous being. She shares with us today her thoughts about body love in the aftermath of trauma, and offers from her practice an exercise that anyone can use to enter into a month of deeper self-acceptance and radical, embodied self love.

~~ ~~ ~~

A beggar had been sitting by the side of a road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. “Spare some change?” mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his old baseball cap. “I have nothing to give you,” said the stranger. Then he asked: “What’s that you are sitting on?” “Nothing,” replied the beggar. “Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.” “Ever looked inside?” asked the stranger. “No,” said the beggar. “What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.” “Have a look inside,” insisted the stranger. The beggar managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.

I am that stranger who has nothing to give you and who is telling you to look inside. Not inside any box, as in the parable, but somewhere even closer: inside yourself.

~Eckhart Tolle

Greetings! Who is this random guest blogger that Jen has writing in this week’s post, you may ask? I am but that stranger guiding you to look inside…inside yourself. I may be that stranger for you now, but the beauty about strangers is that all strangers are only companions whom we have not yet met.

My name is Danielle Ragan. And if work were to determine my being, by profession I am a personal trainer, health coach, fitness instructor, teacher, but in my true being I am simply a liver of life! Continue reading

not just a piece of broken and damaged baggage

And what about this morning — I wake up from snooze-dreams in which I’m at a health food store where they’re playing loud German industrial music over the sound system. There’s a video playing on a tv mounted high up on the wall in one of the rooms (this is a health food store I’ve visited in other dreams, a part of my dream home, I guess), and there’s the lead singer, a high-glam, big-haired femme man that someone calls Headwig — I realize this is who the play was based on. He’s wearing yellow leather tight-fitting pants and jacket, with long, thin, dyed blonde hair. The video is shot from the base of the front of the stage, looking up at him, as though the camera person is in the audience, and so Headwig is enormously towering and imposing as he stalks around the stage between verses. I don’t remember what I was buying at the store, or why I was there, but now I have in my head the 90’s German industrial song Du Hast, which I think I’ll have to listen to later.

There are so many thing I think I ought to write about here during the days — but I don’t make notes about any of them, so when I sit down with my eyes still bleary and my body aching and tired, my head is empty — what am I going to do with this time now that I’ve managed to drag my body out of bed? What I want is for this to be time when I don’t have to rush through my writing, when I can write slowly and without interruption. (Also, I am tired of writing the word ‘writing’ — I don’t want to be so self-conscious about my process anymore. I don’t want to tell you about what I want to be writing, how how I want to be writing, la la la. Let’s just be in the work instead.)

Yesterday I managed to actually make a call to a doctor’s office about what’s going on with my body — the constant tenseness in my piriformis muscle (apparently leftover from the spasm that laid me low for three months two years ago) has now caused the whole right side of my body to tense up and has started impacting my knee. My knee is recovering from whatever happened to make it pop when I was running earlier this week, but still I’m not exercising, and I feel like a failure — here I just finished this book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which left me motivated to dedicate myself more fully to both running/exercise and my writing practice, and now I feel like I’ve been thwarted in that space of inspiration. I’ve spent most of the last couple of days feeling nauseous because of the tenseness in my shoulder and glute and knee; my right calf spasms fairly constantly (it’s like I’ve got a fluttering bird inside my leg) when I’m sitting still, and then aches as though I’ve had a charlie horse. And yet I feel wholly stymied when I go to call someone to ask for help. What am I supposed to say?

In this case, I was calling a sports medicine department at a prominent hospital. I spent ten minutes or so looking at my phone after I entered in the number. Sports medicine? I’m not a sports person — how do I talk to these people? What I imagined is that my call would be answered by some rushed secretary who didn’t have time for me to be blubbering and stammering on, not knowing what I needed — I wanted to get clear about what I was going to say before I called. Well, my body hurts, and I need help. Isn’t that the base of things? I shamed myself for not knowing what to say — what kind of grown woman can’t call the doctor and articulate why she’s calling? And then I started spinning, on down this rabbit hole, embarrassed that I felt so frozen, in pain and in need of some help, desperately  wanting someone to be able to tell me what’s really going on with my body. Shouldn’t I know how to take care of myself by now?

For most people, I imagine in these moments, this would be a straightforward and easy task — you call, you say what’s wrong, you ask your questions, etc etc. But I was already crying by the time I dialed the number. I guess I’ll just do my best, I said to myself. Why was this so hard? Certainly I felt like I’d failed, not taking care of myself, needing to ask for outside help in the first place. But then I felt ashamed for not knowing the language of the body. In calling a sports medicine place, I was suddenly entering into a realm of specialized knowledge where I didn’t know the jargon or lingo and I was going to be found out immediately as a dilettante and loser who doesn’t even know how to talk about her own bones and musculature. I have the idea that real athletes know how to talk about their bodies — they’ve had coaches and trainers, they have been indoctrinated into this world of the body, and the hurt body. Someone else would know what to do for themselves if they got hurt in this way.

(Yes, a voice inside me says, Jen, yes, they would know — they would know to call a doctor right when that spasm first hit them, instead of hobbling around for three months, then two years, trying to take care of it mostly on their own.)

Back when this first happened, I told myself I wanted to figure out what caused the spasm, psychologically — I figured it had something to do with  going out on my own (leaving my day job) to focus solely on my writing groups, and it also had something to do with my trauma history, because of where this muscle is located — it was my sciatic nerve that hurt so much, that made it difficult for me to walk. I thought if I cold just get to the root of things, my body would (magically) heal itself. This is how I was indoctrinated as a teenager: Every ailment is psychosomatic in origin. You don’t need a doctor — you need to get to the psychological root of the problem, and once you do that, everything will get better.

Somehow my sister didn’t internalize this message: she goes to the doctor. She manages to get help for her body when her body needs help. It’s amazing to me. I remember learning that she’d had the same dentist for 7 years or something, that she went regularly, during a period of time when I’d been without dental insurance and had to have emergency dental surgery to take care of a tooth I’d allowed to disintegrate in my mouth and had to take out a loan to get it done because the situation was now so expensive to deal with — how did she have it in her to take care of herself that way? Why were we so different here?

I am trying to channel her capacity now that I have to make another phone call to another doctor. What if I call the wrong kind of doctor? What I want is a kind of parent, who can listen to me talk about this ailment and who will be able to diagnose me (physically and mentally) on the spot — oh, it sounds like you need this. I would like to find a trauma aware doctor who knows about muscles and spasms and history locked up in skin who can tell me what I need to do now to take care of myself so that I can get back to moving the way I am just now learning to be comfortable with — I don’t want to have to be out of my body again. What I want is a doctor who is kind and understanding, who gets (intuitively!) why it might have been hard for me to call them, who congratulates me for even making the call: I know how hard and scary this must have been. Come on in and we’ll have some tea and you can tell me what’s been going on with your body and then together we can work to figure out what’s wrong and I can work with you to fix things up and get you moving again. Would that be so hard? Maybe if I didn’t need someone who’d also swipe my insurance card and take my paltry co-payment, sure. But we go with what we’ve got.

When I called the sports medicine center yesterday, the receptionist was in fact rushed — she interrupted me to ask if I’d been in to the clinic before, and then took what I’d begun to explain (back spasm — ok, you’re spasming…) and told me she could get me in to see someone that day. But it turned out that they were out of network for my Covered California insurance. After I hung up, I sat down outside in my little office (I mean there in the garden that I’m trying to nurture) and cried hard out of shame and embarrassment. Why is this so difficult for me? Why can’t I take care of myself better? I felt like a failed parent.

How do we learn, as adults, to advocate for the small selves we continue to carry within us? When do we stop being embarrassed for what we don’t know, what we didn’t learn, how we weren’t trained to self-advocate, how unfamiliar or even uncomfortable we are within our own skin , with the language of this body? No one working the phones at a clinic has time to listen to me hem and haw because I’m so astonished to be needing to call a sports medicine clinic in the first place — me, whose only sport for years was self-abuse and drinking, suddenly needs someone to tell me how to stretch right and take care of my body so that I can continue running? What? Also, I want to know the language that my body is speaking — what is she saying to me when my calf muscle is fluttering with little spasms, or when my knee pops like that (not a tear, my sweetheart tells me, but still something that was getting more and more tense that just released suddenly in a sharp way and there on Lakeshore I hopped up and didn’t run anymore — the joggers who passed by me in the immediate aftermath looking at me with worried eyes then glancing away quick, their blonde ponytails swinging behind them).

It is scary to need help and not know how to ask for it, to put myself in the hands of an authority figure knowing how they could mistreat or mishandle me. (I keep reading the missives from my dear friend just in the hospital who has had to learn self advocacy the very hard way after endless horrible encounters with medical professionals who just an her to sit nice and quiet and take her medicine, even when they are trying to give her medicine that would kill her, or when they want to mishandle her body or when they want to dismiss her worries.) I have plenty of reason to be nervous as I enter into the realm of the medical. The only physician I went to see as an adolescent was my stepfather’s doctor, who filled me with shots so they could understand what I was allergic to all of a sudden — no one tested me with his dander, to see if maybe I was allergic to incest. I had to figure that one out on my own.

So today I am thinking about self care, self parenting, and about when self care looks like something other than encouraging myself to rest or play — sometimes it looks like pushing myself to do something hard and scary like picking a doctor out of the blue and hoping that they don’t fuck me up. I wish that it didn’t have to get so bad before I took care of my body. This inner kid has to get pretty sore before the parent in me will look past her own discomfort and dis-ease and take the kid’s hand and say, ok, let’s go take care of this. And mostly that “taking care of” looks like something made up — let’s try out this yoga routine that we pulled from drawings we saw in a book once (was it Our Bodies, Ourselves?) and have never figured out even if were doing the positions right from anyone who actually knows anything about yoga. It’s like we still live in a cage, and the only ones who can help us are ourselves. I have a vision of the characters in Room, Emma Donoghue’s brilliant novel, who are held captive, mother and child, so if the child has anything wrong with him the mother has to do with what they have in that room — she has to play games with him to help him get better from ay injury or sickness — there’s no way to go out and get help. And in these cases, it’s usually the child who will be the one who has to break free — it’s the child inside, the one that’s hurting, that will be the one to actually push me to make some change, to take this step, to take care of this body that I’ve acted for so long like is just a piece of broken and damaged baggage I have to carry around with me from place to place, the thing that makes it possible for me to write but just barely, the thing that I value for its ability to keep going with no maintenance, no oil, barely enough fuel to keep it running (and bad fuel, too, low octane, high waste product). I’ve treated my body like a car I never have to get tuned up, and then I’m surprised when the care stops dead by the side of the road one day and just won’t go anymore — what’s the matter, car? I push the gas pedal, I put the clutch into first, but the gears just grind hard against each other (are there even gears in cars anymore?) and the wheels roll off and away in all four directions.

Turns out I can’t figure out everything all my myself from books; I need some expert guidance, someone who knows about cars to come up to me and out their hand on my shoulder and say, kindly and without judgement, Honey, you gotta add some oil once in awhile. Here’s how to do that — and here’s what happens when you don’t. This is what deep self-maintenance looks like, and this is part of what happens when you don’t pay attention to your body for a couple of decades. So today I’ll make another phone call, and take one more step toward being a better parent to this hurting self inside.

Now the song in my head has shifted. Be easy with you today, and I’ll try to do the same here.


being without a soundtrack

Good morning, good morning. It’s a Saturday and I let myself rise without an alarm. In my dreams — I can’t remember my dreams, actually. Maybe they will come back as I write. My hands are dry and rough from gardening last night, and my body is a good kind of sore, the sort of sore that says I’ve been working in it. Yesterday I found pea and clover sprouts when I went down to water the garden — and the zucchini’s already putting out flowers — things are happening down in that good dark. I dug up a patch of hard-packed yard out in front of the house, added some planting soil to the clods that I broke up by hand, and then planted poppies, zinnia, and the native gardenia that I got from my friend Alex and have moved now three or four times. I clipped some pieces of salvia, lavender, and mint from the backyard and have put them in jars in the kitchen window to see if they will sprout. Once they’re ready, I’ll add them to this little garden coming together out front.

When I fell asleep last night, the house smelled of actually-sour sourdough bread — I made a couple of whole-wheat oat loaves yesterday, and though they didn’t rise as much as the white-flour loaves have (and are still nothing close to the chewy, holey sourdough that I get in restaurants or from the market), they have a tight crumb and taste fantastic. I will admit that when I opened the oven door to peek at them toward the end of the baking time, my heart fell — they looked like the sad, dense (and inedible) loaves I always got when I tried to bake sourdough in Maine. But these turned out to be actually tasty — they just weren’t terribly fluffy. I guess that’s not surprising with whole wheat.

So there’s the garden and bread update.

This morning I woke up thinking about presence. I’ve had a few days of quiet alone time, and have spent these days mostly un-accompanied by a soundtrack. This is unusual for me. I’m the sort of girl who likes to have the radio on — all the time. I got a my first portable walkman when I was twelve or thirteen, and I’ve been walking around with music plugging up my ears ever since. The music has been a part of my survival, helping me to get away from the spinning, crowded voices in my head, to get away from my difficult and immediate present. But it seems that something has changed.

I’ve used music consistently when I write — both out at cafes and alone at home, listening to something while I’m writing helps me to ignore the distractions around me and focus in more fully on the words. Having some sort of sound on helped, too, with my overly-developed startle response; when there was some sort of noise filling the gap between my imaginings and the outside world around me, then I was less alarmed when I got surprised by the dog’s bark or someone entering the room – I’ve used the music, the voices and stories, to help cloak me, to help me be able at all to move around in the world. I was so overly sensitive and easily startled that the music could provide a buffer. The sound was like a cocoon I stepped into — a private room out in the world; underneath and inside the sound, I could think and imagine and survive.

Plus, you know, I like listening to music — it’s not all trauma aftermath. Who doesn’t like to push a trowel into some freshly-churned soil while Janet Jackson promises anytime, anyplace?

The last couple of days, I’ve gone running around my sweetheart’s neighborhood in the afternoon. I have a new phone for which I haven’t yet acquired a protective case — I can drop it while just standing still, so I certainly don’t want to take it with me when I go out to run, trying to keep a hold on it while my hands get all sweaty. So I ran without music or voices — no Harry Shearer’s Le Show, no “Dog Days Are Over,” my usual go-to jogging soundtracks. Instead, I’ve been accompanied by the sound of my breath and feet, and the sounds of the neighborhood. I’m able (and even willing) to be inside my body without distraction, noticing what’s aching, what’s loose, what’s feeling good. I notice the gardens I’m running past (there’s lots of time to notice them, as I’m not running all that fast), I notice the animals, I say hello to neighbors. The other day, I saw a stellar’s jay and a salamander in mortal combat — the jay was trying to catch the salamander for lunch, but the salamander wasn’t having any of it, and kept snapping back. The bird hopped up, tried to snatch the reptile in his beak, then got scared away. I stopped to watch, but the jay flew some feet away from his retreating prey — he didn’t want to be observed. I get it: I’m like that, too. So I ran on, no music to distract me, feeling the warm sun, the cool breeze, the douse of my sweat and the spread of warmth across and through my back as all those tight muscles got jogged loose.

It’s still new — this ability to write without music playing, to run without distractions (to run, period, let’s be honest), to fall asleep alone without music on, to be in the world without constantly needing soundtrack or noise to keep me from hearing the things I’m afraid of hearing — that I’m surprised by it, surprised that I want to be in the quiet, surprised that I can concentrate without the noise. It wasn’t, as I often told people, that I simply preferred to write in a noisy cafe with the music pushing into my ears over and above the sounds of the cafe sound system and all the conversations; it was that I couldn’t focus when I was in silence — I was too scared to be alone and quiet in my own head.

Now, as coping mechanisms go, listening to music isn’t all that terrible — and I’ve certainly not stopped listening to music at all while I do other things in my life. But what I’m finding is my instinct telling me one more time, it‘s ok to let this go for now; you’re safe enough now to loosen your hold on this way of protecting yourself — like it did with smoking and drinking and butchness and workaholism and too much tv and overeating, all those different ways I’ve found to put space between my consciousness and the world around me, all those ways I found to armor up and keep myself alive. I am grateful to each of these practices, and just as grateful when one more starts to loosen its hold, giving me one more opportunity to just be in and a part of the world I’m inhabiting, grateful to have lived and healed enough to be here now.