Tag Archives: radical self care!

the garden and the breadbowl as teachers

Good morning, good morning. I’ve got the decaf with soymilk this morning and nothing can stop me — look out. The birds are making their insistent songs under and around the morning serenade of the garbage trucks. Thanks to the folks who collect the garbage, the folks who take away what we have decided can no longer be used. Thanks to those carry the scent of our waste on their clothes, on their skin. Thanks for doing that part of our dirty work.

…If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops…
- from “Happiness,” by Paisley Rekdal

What are the things you do to come back into your body? What’s the work you do that brings you joy just in the very doing?

This morning I am sore, my back aches, my hands are rough and stained, and I am breathing more easily in my skin. I spent yesterday doing different work with my hands, and put my body out under the sun. I walked to the neighborhood natural foods store and bought the ingredients for detox teas and sprouts and bread, then came home and got my first batch of California sourdough bread rising. I’d got a starter going last week, and had refrigerated over the weekend — after bringing it back to room temperature, I pulled out a cup and used that for the dough. It took five hours for the first rise, but it rose! Beautiful. My last attempts at homemade sourdough (back in Maine) were so  pitiful that it has taken me ten years living here before I was willing to try again. (After the bread came out lovely, but not at all sour, I looked up some tips on the King Arthur flour website — they told me I ought to pitch that first cup of starter (give it away, use it to make something else), then feed the starter to get it working again, and use a cup of that starter for the bread. I’ll let you know what happens next time.)

When I wasn’t writing or working on an editing project or playing with bread dough, I was out in the garden, weeding. Not planting, not harvesting, but weeding. I cut back the pink ladies’ foliage so that other plants could breathe, and then I did some weeding in the raised beds, in the paths around the raised beds, around the newly-planted salvia and the just-beginning-to-spread mint shoots. (I know, I know, everyone warns me about the mint taking over, but in all the years I have been gardening, I’ve had sad and leggy mint plants that just sort of straggle around and look like they don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’d be beside myself to have a yard filled with mint.)  Weeding is one of my favorite things to do in the garden — so definitive and clear. This: out. The puppy follows me around with a ball in her mouth, monitoring my progress. I get to have the sun bake my shoulders and back, I get to listen to the bee song and the screams of the junior high kids from across the way, I get to smell the rich earth that reminds me what I’m made of.

Today I am supposed to be talking about writing groups as care for caregivers and partners of trauma survivors, and yet I am here in this place, caregiving myself. I am at a table covered with gardening books and making a list that already has 45+ plants on it that we want to get into the yard and garden this year (please note that this includes my sweetheart’s son’s requests for bacon flower and cocoa beans, however). Yesterday I took my hands off the keyboard and pushed them into dough, pushed them into the soil. My hands are stained with dirt that I can’t remove even after repeated scrubbings, my nails are torn and dirty: they look well-used and strong.

There is no use to tending this garden so diligently. We are in a rented place. Whatever money we put into the garden will ultimately go to waste, right? We’re developing someone else’s property. And yet, this weekend, we’ll go to to the neighborhood yard store and farmer’s market and find our new plantings. I’ll pull up the crabgrass and oxalis and bristly mallow and burweed and spotted spurge from around the stone path that someone else laid down in the lower part of the yard, and plant creeping thyme and corsican mint as groundcover there instead. I’ll plant hollyhock (for my mother and her mother) among someone else’s roses. I’ll plant daises and gerbers for my love. I’ll plant yarrow and echinacea and delphinium and calendula and globe amaranth for the butterflies and bees. And we’ll get the edibles in, too: watermelon (second try), onions, basil, tomato, cukes, bush beans, eggplants. Try it all again. When we move, none of this effort will be wasted. Every minute in the garden is a moment of phoenixing, of allowing something new to rise from fermentation and diligent, loving attention.

Yesterday I was writing about letting the new rhythm find me. Gardening and baking helps me to do this — they each have their own layers of rhythms, their own tides, their times of activity and their times of rest. They each will show you what they need if I learn to listen and pay close attention. So I am listening and paying close attention. I nurture the starter, I do a little weeding each day, I remember that what we tend to reveals what we love. What if we love ourselves enough to do what we love to do, even when that work seems (in the short term) to do no service to the greater social justice needs of the world? Tending the garden doesn’t change the world — though it does help my neighborhood, and it does bring beauty and goodness into the lives of those I love; kneading bread doesn’t undo rape culture — but it feeds a young man who is learning to navigate the complications of this world — and all of this work feeds this particular person who is finding a way toward some kind of new balance in this lifetime.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for doing the things you do that bring you joy, and that bring joy and beauty into the world.

 

Radical self care as upheaval (part 2) – finding the time, finding the words

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

As someone who has again allowed herself to get overly busy, where did I suddenly get the time to spend a full day or two in the south bay with family? Me, who rarely feels she has time to see friends, who is overwhelmed with all that’s involved in running a business alone, who can’t find the time to finish the books she’s been working on for years — suddenly there was time in my week to (want to!) run someone else’s errands, wash someone else’s dishes, clean someone else’s catbox. (Of course, it goes without saying that there was also time to hold someone else’s brand new baby — but everyone can understand that, right?)

It helped that almost none of my winter workshops filled to baseline capacity, and so most had to be cancelled — the financial panic that caused was mitigated by the fact that I had more time to spend with this family that has recently come to occupy actual, physical space in my everyday life.

It also helped that I stopped writing almost completely during the two weeks after the baby’s birth — that opened up a lot of time as well. I couldn’t even imagine sitting down in front of the notebook (not to mention this blog) and trying to find language for what I had experienced and witnessed, or what my sister had displayed — a capacity and resilience and determination that she pulled up from somewhere in the earth, drew into her body, and used to deliver this child. She had a coterie of supporters around her, a swaddle of women holding her as she pushed and rested, and a husband who kept himself in front of her eyes at every moment, reminding her that she could do this, carrying as much as he could with her, encouraging her to rest, to take it one step, one breath at a time. There were no words for what it meant that I could be a safe person for her there in this setting, that she trusted me to be there, given our history, given the history of our bodies, given what our bodies meant for and to each other.

At one point, midway through her laboring, when she was taking one of those sudden naps that laboring women are able to take — so exhausted from the work they do during the contractions that they are able to fall immediately to sleep when the pain subsides and they are given a reprieve — I burst into tears. I was sitting next to my sister, witnessing this majestic capacity, so grateful that she had been able to bring herself to this place in her healing and struggle that she could give herself this gift, this experience and life she’d always wanted: to have a child, to become a mother.

I was remembering who we used to be, I was remembering the girl who couldn’t see herself as worth any love, I was thinking about all the work she’d done over the previous decade to allow herself to get here. I was thinking about how grateful I was that she survived. I was in awe of what she was doing. I had all of our history in my body in that moment, and I couldn’t keep it in anymore and so I sobbed, as quietly as I could, sitting beside her, not at all sure how I could be of use to someone who had the ability to walk with the kind of pain she was enduring. The doula came over to be and comforted me. She thought I was sad about the pain my sister was enduring in this moment. She said, This is just what women can do — what our bodies are capable of. I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want the past to be voiced in that room. I could not say, I am crying because I am so grateful she lived long enough to get here — that we both did. I let the doula hug me, and was thankful for her generosity in that moment, even though she didn’t know everything that filled the room around and underneath us.

And I certainly couldn’t even begin to find words to describe what that new human looked like when he slid from my sister’s body, what he sounded like when he first made his cry to this side of the world, what his eyes did when they met air instead of fluid, what he looked like on my sister’s chest. so close to her face and her husband’s face, their looks of delight — these words don’t even come close to capturing the experience, offering it back to them, offering it back to you.

I had a journal I’d intended to keep for my nephew, writings from each day of the first months of his new life. I wrote in it before he was born, and haven’t returned to it. Instead of writing about this new life we were all circling around and inhabiting, I was living it. I didn’t want to pull away and examine what was going on. I wanted to be in the mix. I wanted to be there for every minute of his breathing, and I couldn’t be. I’m not his parent — I don’t live with him; I will never be the primary person in his life — but I could do as much as possible. I’ve put hundreds of miles on my odometer so that I can put myself in that room, with the sister who is my heartbeat, and this new child who now lives inside the breath that my sister and I share.

(In tomorrow’s post: navigating deep depression in the aftermath of a radical life change.)

Radical self care as upheaval (part 1) – revealing what’s falling apart, what’s falling open

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive, how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

Good morning, beautiful writers. It’s a thick sheet of wet outside my window today. How is the atmosphere percolating where you are? What has the morning brought you so far on this day?

This morning I am all ache and storm. I am exhaustion that has taken root behind my bones and deep inside my eyes. I am thick with all I’m not accomplishing right now, full of how my scattered attentions are disappointing everyone. I cannot do enough. I am not enough for anything that needs me right now. I run from appointment to appointment, keeping my face a mask of Yes, Everything’s Fine — How Can I Help You? A mask of showing up. A mask hiding this question: When will it be time for me to rest? When will it be time for me to fall apart?

This morning I have pushed over to the other side of panic and anxiety into something that looks, and even feels, like a kind of calm, but is actually resignation. Oh right: I only have this many hours in my day. I only have this much attention. I only have this much energy. I am not able to do everything on that to-do list. Maybe I could have when I was 25 — stayed up all night working, then awakened with the birds to write and play with the dog and keep everyone around me feeling tended to and keep all the other plates flying high on their spinning sticks. Sure. But not now. Now the body is asking for something more.

Now the body and soul are asking for something more.

This morning I am thinking about what it means for your life to undergo an upheaval. I am thinking about radical self care, especially for caregivers, especially for those walking close alongside someone else’s struggle who also carry their own struggles.

In a week, I’m supposed to go to a conference in Houston and present about the power and uses of writing in community for caregivers and partners of trauma survivors. And yet, over this last month, I have been so focused on caregiving for those around me (and keeping my own shit together, even marginally) that I haven’t had the time or capacity to even think about how I would talk about that work, not to even mention put a brand-new talk together. I had applied to offer a workshop, and instead the conference organizers decided to offer me a 20-minute presentation, which meant coming up with slides and handouts for a talk I had never given before. Only now, six days before I’m meant to give the talk, have I had any bandwidth at all to give to this thing — I’ve been too busy living the exact experience I’m meant to talk about.

A month ago, my sister had a baby. This, in an of itself, is an upheaval — isn’t it? What about for a woman who thought her body was only made for damage and struggle? What about for a woman who thought her body was only for creating pleasure for others? What about for a woman who thought her body was only about destruction?

I can’t find–yet–the poetry of the miracle that is that woman giving birth to, and now cradling with fierce love, her own child.

Before the baby was born, already I had begun traveling the 1.5-3 hours (round trip) to visit her at least once a week, twice when I could manage it. Toward the end of her pregnancy, it was hard for her to drive, so I drove her to doctor’s visits, then also did some shopping, helped to clean up, and spent time with her at home. We have begun to connect, to regather into each other’s hearts, in ways that neither of us could have predicted or imagined — we didn’t even know it was possible, I think.

I began to slowly relinquish what I need to do to take care of myself, to keep myself well: taking down time alone, exercising, eating regular meals, reading, freewriting. I ate meal-replacement bars in my car while sitting in south bay traffic. I stayed late into the night in the south bay, which meant I would drive home late and go to bed later, which then meant I couldn’t get up early for my morning writing time — that necessary time was traded for sleep. Certainly there was no time for exercise, unless I was walking with my sister. What freetime I had was spent catching up on the work I was neglecting; much correspondence went unanswered, most phone calls went unreturned. I tried to show up for my sweetheart and the struggles she is navigating right now, and of course saw how I was falling short there as well. I felt like the juggler watching all the eggs she had in the air falling — one, two, three, four — splat — right onto the cement.

How do we take care of ourselves when those around us need more care than (we believe) we do? What does it take for you to pull yourself back from triaging everyone else’s needs to attend, again, to your own — to remember that we can’t be of service to another when we are running on empty ourselves?

(In tomorrow’s post: how we make time for what needs us, and how we allow ourselves, too, to create space for what we need.)

extra:ordinary – “The fire of survival is the strongest heat within me”

(This week’s contribution to the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday surviving and resilience) comes from Ami Lovelace of San Francisco. In her piece, Ami vividly describes the reality for a young child living in an abusive household, and how she has found the capacity to continue living. Connect with Ami about her powerful story at her facebook page, or leave a comment below.)

Suicide is hard. Trust me. I know. It’s one of the few things in life I’ve actually failed at when I tried it.

I don’t think I ever identified with being a victim. I’ve been a survivor, always, even at 16 when I slid that ridiculously dull blade across both my wrists, tears streaming down my cheeks, but the cut just wouldn’t go deep enough to stream the blood. Being a survivor has never been a choice. It was a have to. It is a have to. Innate and involuntarily. The beatings, the rage, the alcohol reeking from his breath, the sheering and stripping of my emotions and spirit, it never registered to me as OK, as normal, as a matter of deserving it. It was always wrong. Somewhere, way deep down in the solar plexus, before I even knew what that was, in the body of a tiny little child, with big green eyes and light brown hair in pigtails, or curls, or some family chopped bowl haircut, his fists pummeling away at my flesh like his own boxing gym, or the knife cold and huge against my mother’s neck as I cried from under the kitchen table, while he swore he’d tear her throat open in front of me, I knew it was wrong, and I hated him for it. And hate, hate is a very powerful thing. Sometimes seemingly more powerful even than love. After all, isn’t the world now run by hate, when we wish really that it was shepherded by love. That seedling of hate, of wrong and resentment maybe sprouted from watching him with my brother. His real child, his real family, and sometimes with my mom. The softness in his hands as he held my little brother, the smile on his face and words filled not with malice, but pride, joy, tenderness. Maybe being a survivor was born somewhere in the mists of jealousy? Of needing to be good at something, to be better at this, getting through, rising above, breathing still, even in the thick of it, of getting attention, even if it was just the wrong kind, the kind that affronted and offended, that incited more beatings and more blood. Survival, before I even understood the concept, spewed from my mouth as a rebellious ten year old, sticking up for myself, defending myself against a man, a presumed man, four times my size, even as he lumbered over me, sharp edge of a clothes hanger lashing into my face, thrown and held against the kerosene heater until I could smell the back of my own thighs burning. The constant barrage of insults, the devolution from human to animal to creature to nothing, all through his words. An entire childhood lost to the obscure corners, too dark for even his cast shadows to reach.  But that was then. And even then, in my bloody rebellions, I did not want to cede power to him. I did not want to be eclipsed by him. I would not shrink away.

I remember moments of that last stand. The day I really tried to fight back. In the dark living room of our ranch style home, arms swinging, I charged, a battle cry whelp from my lungs, received wholly by a quick steel-toe carpenter boot to the face. Who was I defending then? Me? My mother? The only thing that I know for sure was that it wasn’t my brother. It was never my brother. Everything after that shrivels away into the recess of memories I cannot access anymore. That year after the piping hot potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil being flung at me from the doorstep as I stood on the curb unable to enter my own home, to stepping between his boots and Pepper, the puppy black lab, he let loose into the neighborhood, hoping she’d be hit by a car, and telling us exactly that (she found us anyway, smart thing, pawing at the sliding door of the kitchen of our neighbors house, two and half blocks down where my brother and I had relocated and listened through the open windows, still hearing his voice pummeling my mother while she still [tried] to leave the house), the multiple 911 calls and the police officers who showed up and did nothing, with some small town first responders brotherhood loyalty bullshit as their defense for ineptitude —he was a volunteer fireman, after all— sometime, after all that, and on a day I don’t remember well, my mother called my aunts, and we walked, each of us on our own legs, my brother looking over his shoulder, leaving for the last time.  I kissed a childhood I remember only now in brief flashes, goodbye.

I swore Then, never again. And never has it been that a man has laid an unwanted hand on me. And rue the day any man tries. The fire of survival is the strongest heat within me, smoldering still now, just under my ribcage, ready to leap up, and flame into uncontrollable inferno, engulfing anyone in its path, if ever again it’s needed.

I thought about writing a book, a memoir, about the abuse, about growing up somewhere between love and bruises, scars and smiles. Years ago I wrote down that first chapter. Ten Days in the Gray, that what I had thought it was going to be. That it was going to chronicle the story of Then, and the 10 days post the miserable attempt at suicide, hospitalized in the psych ward. Because I had wanted to be. I had chosen to be. I had asked to be.  But then I told myself, who wants to read about that? Who wants to read my story, as a child, in a shitty situation who grew into a teenager with emotional issues hidden beneath the surface of the faded scars and disappeared bruises? I didn’t want to dwell on Then. I never want to dwell on Then. Besides, it’s not about the Then. For me, it’s been way past the story of Then, since Then. It’s about the now. It’s about the me in this moment, the me that I am, and the me that I want to be. It’s about the remembering to wake up each day, every morning, and tell myself I am valuable. I am important. I matter.  And some days, I forget.

The struggle now is not in the defense or the physicality, it is the worth and desire. A desire to live, each and every day, with my face to the sun. And to remember that I am worth that feeling of the rays on my face, warm and perfect in the moment. That my breath, as I take it, matters. Each one. To someone else, to the world, and above all, to myself. And that to think differently, even in a fleeting moment, is to pass off that power that as a child I clutched so dearly to, back to him. And to remember that there is strength in me, worth in me, that no other person has, through each memory, each scar, each tear.  I am not grateful for having gone through it, for experiencing any of it, but I am ever thankful, and grateful for how I have come out of it. For myself, for that little girl me, who even before she could intellectualize what she felt and what it meant for her, with no thought to danger, since it was already so present in her life, fought anyway, and fought hard through bared and gritted teeth, for the inner desire to live, to be, to more than just exist, that still today, on off days, I sometimes forget I have.

(Thank you for that remembering, for this honesty, and for your fierce creative power, Ami. Thank you for sharing your story with us.)

“the conditions are always impossible”

Good morning this morning. Did you see that moon last night? Are you readying for the solstice?

This morning I am thinking about how we get out of our own way.

What is it that keeps me from doing my writing? I have escaped my stepfather, I have no one in my life actually telling me not to write, or that if I write something they will harm me or leave me. There is no one demanding that I abandon my writing to prove that I love them. I don’t even have a day job to blame for my lack of words or lack of time. The onus is entirely on me at this point. I am the only one rehearsing, repeating the messages that say I can’t or should not write. I am the only thing standing in my own way.

We were discussing this last night at the final Write Whole meeting of 2013: self-sabotage. There are books — whole libraries, more like — written about self-sabotage: why we as artists would rather clean the house or update Facebook or watch our twitter stream or read a book about self-sabotage rather than simply give ourselves over to our desired work. For you, spending time with this blog post might be self-sabotage, a way to procrastinate instead of doing the writing you really want most to do. Maybe you have twenty minutes a day for yourself, and you’re reading this or checking up on FB friends instead of doing your morning pages.

I could invite us to consider — to write into — the causes of our self-sabotage, to add to the piles of words about how we are trained to do the work of our augers and oppressors on their behalf so that they don’t have to exert the effort anymore. But unless that writing feels fertile and creative to you — and for me it so rarely does these days — I want you to forget it. Me, I don’t care anymore why I’m not doing my work. I’m so tired of all of my excuses. Yes, I’m scared. Yes, I’m afraid of what might happen if I step into my power. Yes, I’m sad it took me this long to do it. Yes, the words are difficult sometimes and rarely appear on the page as beautifully as they did in my head. Yes, I hear my stepfather arguing with me about whether I’ve gotten that part of the story right. Yes, I hear my inner community organizer telling me that I shouldn’t be spending time on this writing but should be instead writing a grant so that I can offer more writing workshops to more people so that their words can get onto the page because after all their words are more important.

Who cares why we self-sabotage? Yes, the reasons are important, and yet we don’t have to rehearse them anymore. There is always a really good reason — not even an excuse, but an honestly good reason — that we can’t get our work done: We had to go to our day jobs, we’re exhausted from working multiple jobs and being the primary caretaker for our kids, our back is acting up, there’s been a new act of violence against our community that we need to organize around, someone told us that we weren’t a good writer, our kids need us to make their lunch we’re out of paper and our printer is out of ink or our pen is out of ink or our cat won’t leave us alone or we’re afraid we won’t be able to say what we meant to say or we have finals due or we don’t write the way other people think we should write or there are bills due that we can’t pay and we don’t know where the money is going to come from and we know we should be doing some real work instead of wasting time on the page.

Here is one more for me: I am sure that if I really let myself into the kind of writing I really want to do, then I will be free. And then what?

There is always a truly good reason that you can’t do your creative work. The work will never get done if you are waiting for that day when your life to opens up and invite you with a cup of hot tea and a cozy cottage in the woods and a month alone in the wilderness for just you and your words, when all the other tasks are done, when no one is wanting anything else from you. And trust me that you would still struggle with self-sabotage, that the inner critics would still come knocking even all the way out in the wilderness. At least, this is true for me — maybe you are different, or have found your way out of this internalized, crazy-making maze, and if so, then I applaud you. Maybe you have found your way to a place of equanimity with those voices that say everything else in your life is more important than generating the words that will not exist anymore in the world unless you write them. Maybe you have discovered a way to step around the work of the inner saboteur, the way you learn to step around a tantruming child or a raging batterer, those narcissists that only ever want your attention on them.

Doris Lessing said, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

I am tired of listening to myself explain to myself why I didn’t get my work done yesterday. Yesterday is over. I have been lucky enough to get another day to try again. Take twenty minutes or an hour or three hours for your creative work today. Give yourself the opportunity to feel what it’s like not to do the critics’ or abusers’ work for them. Feel the feelings of discomfort, if they arise, and do it anyway.

And thank you for those good, good words.

extra:ordinary – creating safe haven

(So many thanks to Crystal Loya for our next extra:ordinary project story (stories from our community of our recovery, resistance and resilience). Find out more about Crystal’s work at https://www.facebook.com/theladieswiththe.scars)

I myself being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a family member experienced first hand what life would be with no support in recovery after a traumatic situation. As a child at the age of eight as I lay in my bed sleeping before the following day of school I was awoken to a hand touching my body. Not being close to my mother and experiencing emotional abuse from her I had no were to turn. As the abuse progressed I was so scared as a child to speak out about the sexual abuse I kept to myself in fear of what else would be done to me. One day after coming out to my mother about the sexual abuse that was tacking place by an older sibling, the whole situation tore the family completely apart. There were no more family events, no talks about how to deal and the abuse had no fix, then come to find out other family members had been sexually abused by the same person. There was no help in our family home, and due to the lack of communication there was no healing as a family. At the age of fourteen I left home began employment and began to cross obstacles and the healing process alone, I never looked for comfort in my family nor did I ever see my violator again.. Being so young I had no clue how to even get help once I got older. At the age of seventeen I vowed to open a non profit one day to help survivors and children of sexual abuse. The safe haven would make individuals more aware of the American Statistical Association by the U.S department of justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. I will follow out the plan for the five year goal that includes a safe haven for women and in the future an opening for male survivors. Childhood victims increase every year I will use my degree to pursue the safe haven and child sexual abuse.

(Want to share your story of resilience and resistance? See the call for contributions here!)

grounded just before liftoff

Ouch.

Good morning out there. How is this dark morning treating you? Are you enjoying the fall back into standard time — the light that comes earlier in the morning and dissipates sooner at night?

Today I am nursing a tender, aching back. A year ago, almost to the exact day, I woke up in shock, the muscles in my lower back so tensed up and spasmed that I could hardly walk. I’d never experienced anything like that before and was terrified: had something changed irrevocably in me? Would I ever be able to walk with ease again? I had just left my day job (as in, my last day had been three days before the spasm) — and with it, my insurance — so I made do with visits to community acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care, all followed by a great deal of ibuprofen and frustrated tears. I wrote a lot while dealing with that pain: what I learned about the wisdom held in the lower back and butt, and about how the body communicates in so many different ways. It took nearly three months for me to feel like myself again, to feel some ease with my body — and even then, when I could run again without fear, when I bounded up the stairs instead of crawling, something in me remained vigilant, newly alert, watching for signs of flare-up. And one small muscle, deep inside my body, remained tensed, keeping the outside edge of one leg and foot numb unless I was really, actively working to relax — and even then, I was left with tingling rather than complete release.

Over this last year, I’ve done more to care for this body’s physical needs than ever before in my life. We’ve had to learn to get over our terror of bodywork, to move through that trauma-aftermath panic that left me sure that any person’s hands on me could potentially be harmful. Of course, more deep was the certainty that this body didn’t deserve kindness, didn’t deserve to feel relaxed and well. And then there’s the fact that to be relaxed was to allow my body to step out of its armoring — was to allow myself to be exposed. It’s been scary and sad and painful and gorgeous to step right up to those fears, take their hand, and invite them to walk through the fire with me.

In this past year, my body and me, we’ve had massages and hot tub soaks and saunas and mani-pedis and acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments and hours spent sleeping on sun-drenched sand near the ocean. We’ve adjusted our working sites so that they’re more ergonomically friendly. We’ve tottered less often in bad high heels. We’ve run and swum and danced and loved. And though that tell-tale tingling remained, the spasm hadn’t. Until today, in a much less-intense form than last year’s.

So why this new spasm now? What can I tell you about this today? I’ve slipped back into some bad old habits — carrying too much weight in my shoulderbag, exercising less frequently, spending more time sitting in front of a screen — but more than that, I think, my body seems to be reacting to big changes in my life, changes that are tied to leaps of longing and the possibility of ease and flight — it’s exactly my wing muscles that have tightened. We are scared of this leaping, me and the body — scared of stretching out our wings, scared of falling, maybe even more afraid of lifting into the wind and finding our soar. We — the body and me — are now a year into having Writing Ourselves Whole as our sole work-focus and sole source of income. Instead of tightening up, body, I think we need to celebrate. We have made it, and we are growing.

So as I stretch and alternate hot and cold on those back muscles, I talk to the protective stuff inside me, the parts that just want us to be safe, those parts that understand safe to mean quiet, hidden, unseen, invisible. I listen to what we are afraid of and I write it down, I breathe into and acknowledge it. We have every reason to be afraid. We also have every reason to keep moving forward.

This morning I have work to do: there’re two book projects calling for my attention. In-between sessions at the computer, I’ll lie down, or put my back into the sun, or take a bath or do some stretching. Time to re-situate into a self-care rhythm as we ease these wings out for flight.

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Is there pain in your (or your character’s) body that’s trying to tell you something? Give yourself and that good body some time on the page today — what are the contours and dimensions of this pain? Is it new, or similar to pain you’ve had recently? What might this pain be trying to communicate to  you? Take twenty minutes — follow your good words wherever they seem to want you to go.

Then rest. Be easy with you today. Thank you for what love and spaciousness you bring into the world.

extra:ordinary – Able to Breathe

(Our first submission for the extra:ordinary project (community stories of recovery, resistance and resilience) is from Neil in Canada — so grateful for his willingness to share this story about grace and the ways we keep ourselves alive. Thank you, Neil, for these good words.)

Able to Breathe

For me one of the hardest things was the aftermath. I was sexually touched as a five year old, sexually photographed at six. From seven to twelve I was mercilessly terrorized by a group of school yard bullies. All of these people were known to me. Most lingered in my life for a long while.

One of the strategies I developed to cope with these was the ‘face’ I offered the world: hard working, responsible, never complains, laid back. It got me through to some extent, allowed me to make it to the point where I could look back and start to embrace the hurt and fear and rage and hate. It kept me alive long enough that I could finally heal.

But oh what a cost.

There are few air holes in a mask such as this, not much that lets light in to touch the skin. It’s lonely and distant and, after a while, I came to believe this was how I had to be in order to be loved, valued, accepted. So often, though the most obvious abuse was decades behind me, I felt like I was dying. There were even times when I believed myself already dead.

But I’m not dead – and there’s resilience for you. Here I am, up way too late, letting a reply to Jen’s stunning offer unfold. Here I am writing a bit about what I’ve been through and where I am now. How did this happen? How did I come to a place – after years and years of silence – where I could do this? A lot of hard work and no small amount of grace.

Grace. Let me tell you about grace as I have known it.

Another coping strategy for me has been sex addiction. This has taken me into Twelve Step rooms, where I have sat for many hours listening to “Hi my name is _____ and I’m a sex addict.”

Only recently did I begin to speak in these places of the abuse I endured as a child. One day, after sharing my experience being photographed, another member approached in tears. He had collected such images, it seems, and done jail time for this offense. He now wanted to apologize for what I had gone through. “And if there is ever anything I can do,” he then offered.

It took me months to take up this offer. I eventually called, though, and asked if we could talk. And talk we have: one afternoon a week for the last six months. Both of us sometimes look at one another and wonder what the heck the two of us are doing speaking like this. Both of us are oftimes so exhausted by our interactions that we turn off our alarms the following morning, Both of us have been deeply affected by this experience. Healed in way we could not have imagined.

I have, in many ways, had a tough life. Things have happened to me that no person should have to endure. Sometimes I feel I will never find my way wholly free from this history. Other times, I can feel the shackles loosening bit by bit, day by day. That there is still a life force in me that desperately wants to dance, this does at times shock me. That I can experience the grace of an usual friendship with another who knows very well what I have gone through – well, this makes me thankful and gives me hope.

None of this shows up in any media I am aware of. Yet it is headline news to me. When I find myself able to say a bit more about my past, be a bit more in my present, open a bit wider to those around me – trust! – these unreported occurrences are life changers for me. When I find myself able to breathe or to feel the gentle caress of sunlight on one cheek, these are life givers. Life givers.

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If you want to contribute to the extra:ordinary project, check out the call for stories here.

tending to and releasing the stories we carry

Good morning and good morning — it’s been a little while since I wrote a blog post in the dark. Last week, I had a visit from my father last week, followed by a short vacation with my sweetheart to a place where I spent about 24 hours on a beach (not consecutive, but still!)

My shoulders ache this morning and you’d think I didn’t just spend a bunch of time in warm ocean water, floating and floating, staring up at the sky. There was a day when most of what I did was to drift at the shoreline, just where water meets sand, and let the small schools of fish gather around and nibble at my legs. I felt so grateful to be gathered around by these my Pisces kindred, by these little minnow-y fish with their big yellow-stained eyes. I felt welcomed. I stood or drifted in the water and they circled and circled around my body, like I was something to be contained, or investigated. One or two of the fish would break away from the school and point themselves toward my face, as though they were looking right at me. I looked back, smiling, absolutely aware that they can’t read my expressions. Still, it felt like visitation. They took little nibbles and bites out of the backs of my calves and thighs, sometimes using their teeth enough that I yelped and squirmed away.

I let the salt water hold me. I let the waves crashing over the barrier wall effervesce the water that I floated through, bubbling all over my skin. I got doused and dunked. I swam toward nothing. Now and again, I imagined dropping all our stories into this good and blue water — all these stories of loss and despair and fury, the stories I have been listening to since the mid-90s, the stories of very precise and particular violences. Intimate violence is always precise and particular — intimate. I let the water scour the tender belly where the stories live. I let the water lift the stories up. I let the water take them.

I want to tell the the survivors I’ve worked with over these years — I remember you. I remember what you said. I remember what you told me about how he held you, how he stalked you, how he spoke to your children, how he threatened to have your green card revoked, how you went to the police but they said what he’s doing isn’t a crime. I remember the endless phone calls, the pages of vitriolic text messages, the way he showed up at work to threaten you. I remember your embarrassment at having to tell your boss about the restraining order. I remember you losing your job. I remember wondering where he found the time to devote to harassing you — why didn’t he have to work? I remember what you told me about how she belittled you, how she shamed you, the exact ways you described them putting their hands in violence on your body. I remember what you said you were wearing. I remember the tears you shed when you spoke these words. I remember your rage and your feelings of impotence, your isolation, your disappointment in friends and family when they continued relationships with the people who had hurt you and your children. I remember how your friends wanted to tell you what to do, and got mad when you didn’t do what they said. I remember how the people in your life didn’t believe you, because the person hurting you was so different when you were out in public with them. I remember how scared your kids were. I remember how much you adored your children. I remember how you parented poorly. I remember how you couldn’t look at anyone else in the room, how you bent over a cigarette, how you were surprised that someone else understood what you were going through. I remember how you asked for money. I remember what you said was done to you. I remember the fathers, brothers, mothers, boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends who assaulted you. I remember your descriptions of ritual violence, the creativity of your perpetrators to find innovative ways to terrorize and brainwash you. I remember how much you loved the person who was hurting you. I remember you going back. I remember you leaving again. I remember you not being able to leave. I remember you walking out of the office or a writing group and never seeing you again. I remember my fear for you. I remember the damage and harm done to your children. I remember your children’s faces as you told the stories; I remember you asking your children to back you up. I remember your children used as interpreters by cops or doctors, having to say the most awful words. I remember the shitty, stupid things the cops said. I remember watching a policeman cry, feeling so ineffective, wanting to help you more. I remember not understanding you. I remember identifying with you. I remember being angry with you, and being scared for you, and being hopeful. I remember thinking I was doing some good. I remember wondering what good any of this listening could possibly do for you, or for the world.

I remember wanting to be able to do more — I wanted, and want, to do more for you, for all of us. I remember feeling despair about ever being able to make it stop — wondering what we could possibly do to stem the tide of this flood of stories, to effect enough change in society that the flow these stories would begin to dry up: what will make people stop treating other people with violence and

I don’t tell anyone these stories, because you revealed them to me in confidence. I helped you find the words to put them into a statement for a protection order, or I wrote the stories as you told them into your file, or I listened to the stories as you shared them in a community support group, or you spoke to me after a reading or talk and shared the details of your story, or you emailed me to tell someone what was done to you, or I heard them when you shared what you wrote during a writing group, and I responded to that story as if it were fiction, because that’s what we do.

So this weekend I floated in seawater and let some of those stories float away — let the sun catch them into mist and cloud cover, let the fish nibble them off my skin. This releasing doesn’t mean I forget you. How can I forget you? It means I let loose some of the tension in my muscles where the stories caught and held, so that I can be more present with the stories to come.

We have to let the stories move through us. Some of us mediate, some of us write about them, some of us dance the stories or weep them or box them or yoga them. We sometimes booze them or smoke them or television them. Sometimes we float them, and we let the big and aching ocean float the stories — our own and others’ — around and out of us.

How do you want to move the stories through you today? How do you want to honor and nurture the stories? What if you could treat the stories as kindly as possible? What would that look like? Can you give yourself ten minutes or so to write that today?

Be easy with your good self on this Tuesday, ok? Thank you for your spaciousness with others’ words. Thank you for the care you take with the stories you have been entrusted with. Thank you for your words.

the radical act of putting our oxygen mask on first

In my community, a lot of folks are talking about radical self care – not just self care, but radical self care. But what makes taking a vacation or a bubble bath or watching Pretty in Pink or your favorite guilty pleasure movies with a pint of chocolate Coconut Dream and a package of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies radical?

I think you have an idea why. I think your deep heart knows. Your deep heart isn’t the questioning your real need for a break. It’s the other voices questioning you– the inner critic, the internalized perpetrator, your inner radical activist wanting to know how you can possibly justify an hour for a walk around the lake at the heart of your town or – holy shit – several days’ vacation when the revolution is nowhere near at hand and people are starving and beaten and suffering while you decide you’re just gonna take a little down time. Really? Who do you think you are? ask all the voices in unison.

Writing has been the place where I learned the power of a regular self care practice. I’ve had few other consistent self-care practices, save going for long walks. Writing has been my meditation, my grounding, my chance to be more fully in my skin for at least 15-30 minutes a day. On the days I don’t write, I am a less pleasant version of myself: cranky, crotchety, crabby – still disassembled. The days I write I find I breathe more easily. I feel more human. And still I’ve had stretches of days or weeks during which I told myself I didn’t have time to write – the voices of self-denial and abnegation are strong; they’re embedded in our very flesh.

We are not supposed to take care of ourselves. We know we’re not worth taking care of: those meant to care for and protect us didn’t, so who are we to do otherwise?

We live in a culture that trains us in dissatisfaction with our bodies and lives. We live in a culture that routinely disregards the lives and needs of those who have less power, and so we are left to struggle and battle for better living conditions for all. If we are activists, we inhabit a culture of overwork, in which direct and secondary trauma impacts everyone around us. We see our comrades doing too much for too little (if any) pay. We see frontline activists, direct action workers, burn out; we see long-timers harden into a professionalized cynical mindset that helps protect them from the pain and stress they see every day. It’s awful, but it’s par for the course. This is what you sign on for if you want to change anything in society. Right?

We are asked, during our job interviews for these jobs, how we take care of ourselves; we understand that we have to have an answer to this question. We also understand that our self care is never supposed to take priority over the work. The work.

I don’t believe this anymore. I used to, but after hitting a massive burnout in 2008 and then continuing to overwork myself for 2-3 more years, I have finally opened my eyes to the idea that there might be other, maybe even more effective, ways of engaging in a longterm and sustainable relationship with trauma and social change work.

Our self care is radical because we have been trained from birth to look to others’ needs first. Our self care is radical because it sustains us for the journey, it keeps us in the game, it makes our work more effective, it opens our hearts, it brings self-love back to the table as a necessary goal and practice.

We have to ask what kind of world we’re working for. Don’t we want — for all people — lives that have more life in them?

I know, you say. I’ll get there. I just have to finish this grant, do my shift at the co-op, organize tonight’s transformative justice roundtable, answer these 27 emails and cover the hotline…

Then I’ll take care of myself.

There’s no good time. There’s always going to be more work for we who are activists or other sorts of creative beings engaged in work that doesn’t get done. To do lists are only marginally useful when they include items like “upend patriarchy,” “write healing book,” “undo white supremacy,” “end sexual abuse.” I don’t know about you but I’ve had to do lists like that. The work seems endless – we’re a part of an enormous transformation. For us to be able to show up consistently and reliably in this work that we love, for the people and communities and world we believe in, we have to take care of our hearts and bodies and souls/ This is how we sustain ourselves in the world.

This decision, to sustain ourselves, is radical – especially for those of us whom society deems not at all worth saving. Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care is radical when it directly contradicts the messages living in us, telling us we deserve to die.

Self care is uncomfortable for many of us: we fear judgment from our friends and communities, our comrades, our families, those around us who are not taking care of themselves. Of course it’s uncomfortable at first — and maybe for awhile: it’s discomfiting to act in direct opposition to the voices of those who say we don’t deserve to live, much less have joy, comfort, ease, pleasure and celebration in our lives.

Radical self care looks like acting with intention, looks like small daily or regular centering practices, looks like creative intervention in a way of life designed to sap all of your energy into the daily grind and away from love, intimacy, and cultural change.

Radical self care looks like leaving work on time instead of staying an extra two or three unpaid hours to finish “just one more thing.” It looks like learning to listen to your body.

Radical self care looks like saying Yes when someone I trust asks to give me a massage, rather than reflexively saying no out of some guilt that I hadn’t asked them first and wasn’t already giving them a massage. It means understanding what being an introvert means. It means listening to my energy patterns, my hungers, my curiosities.

Radical self care means being easy with myself, and it means pushing sometimes, too. It means releasing myself from the pressure to be like everyone else – either in mainstream culture or in my various alternative subcultures.

Radical self care means knowing that what works for me today might not work tomorrow – and what I think today is ridiculous, indulgent, woo-woo or way too Berkeley (body work? Ecstatic dance? Writing retreats? Somatic energy healing?) may very well be just the thing that works best for me tomorrow – so if I can ease off on my judgment of others, I’m likely to move more smoothly through my own healing process.

Radical self care means opening space in my life – means holding open room to move around. Down time. Breathing room. Means making sure that all these muscles I’m building and stretching have time to recuperate and strengthen – the resting is as important a part of the exercise as the contracting, after all.

What else is radical self care? Consent. Sobriety. Quitting the day job. Therapy. Going back to school. Quitting school. Media breaks. A movie marathon. Masturbation. A month of celibacy. A sex party. Tending a garden. Adopting a cat. Planning a vacation. Finding a different job. Leaving activist work. Returning to activist work. A cup of tea. Meditation. Making yourself a delicious lunch. Grieving. Watching movies that make you laugh and cry. What’s your list?

I think one of the reasons we call our self care radical is that we want to assert its importance. No, really, this matters: it’s radical. Things that are edgy, dangerous, and transformative are radical. Radical is about roots, is about shifting the core of a thing: of ourselves.

So, sleep is radical for those of us raised on exhaustion. A long talk with our best friend is radical for those of us isolated away from community. Deep, prolonged belly laughter is radical for those of us fed despair. These are transformative practices. Radical acts.

For me, it meant writing every day (and then reaching beyond a writing practice into other healing modalities, once I found the limits of what writing could do for me). Writing practice has helped me discover when I needed a break, has also helped me understand what I might need to do to take care of myself or make a change in my life. The writing itself, of course, is also a healing and self care practice. When I take the time to go back through the notebooks, to meet myself and my mind, as Natalie Goldberg encourages, I am confronted with clear information about where I’m out of balance. What am I complaining about regularly? What am I refusing to write? Where am I putting most of my energy? Is there a part of my body bothering me? Do I need a massage or a steam or a run or a hot bat or a nap or a swim or a movie or some play time? Am I in procrastination or avoidance mode and do I need to take some action? Am I lonely or people-overloaded? When I take the time to be in reflection (itself a practice of radical self care), then I can respond to what my body and life are asking for. In the end, this is about crafting a life that is sustainable and consistently nourishing me so that I can engage in work that nourishes others, so that I can be of use in the ways I am meant to be of use.

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What self care practices feel radical to you right now? What do you do to take care of yourself today that a younger self would not have been able to imagine? How would you like to be able to care for yourself? Can you give those ideas and imaginings 10-15 minutes on the page today? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for your generosity and spaciousness with yourself, the way you model powerful self care practices for others. Thank you for your writing today, and thank you for your words.