Tag Archives: radical self care!

Jen’s ten rules for writers (for today)

Sometimes things conspire to keep the body from pulling itself out of bed at 4:50am. Sometimes the dog has been awake at irregular intervals all night, snapping off sharp, surprising barks at the neighbors who had the audacity to have a gathering on their summer-vacation Monday night and into Tuesday morning. Sometimes she’s up at 1:48am, shaking and scratching and agitating so that her collar rings like poorly-tuned chimes, needing to go outside. Sometimes the body stands at the back door, falling back asleep while upright, waiting for the dog to finish exploring the night yard and ask to be let back in. Sometimes the work went late into the night and rest didn’t come early enough. Sometimes the leg spasms, dancing all by itself, and the rest of the body doesn’t want to stretch it — that road leads directly to charlie horse.

So sleep, such as it is, blows right through the 4:50 alarm, through the many snoozes, and continues on until almost 7. Sometimes the sweetheart’s arms are just too sweet to slip away from, and so it’s a whole lot better to cuddle back in under the covers after every snooze. And those precious early morning writing hours are spent in dreams. But the dreams will make their way into some character’s head, someday. That’s the hope.

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Today is a self-care day: body work, therapy, CoDA — not in that order. There’s much work to do — we have a beautiful group gathered for our summer online write whole session, and folks have already begun to share strong and gorgeous work there; our fundraising campaign for Sex Still Spoken Here (the Erotic Reading Circle anthology) is in the homestretch and needs a lot of attention in order to make our $5000 goal; Dive Deep‘s SummerFall 2014 Cohort is underway and manuscripts are arriving for response; Write Whole‘s in-person session begins next week, and I’ve got to prepare our syllabus and get the word out to any last-minute registrants — I’ve also got a syllabus to prepare for a master class for the National Poetry Slam at the beginning of next month and start getting the word out to local colleges about our 2014-2015 workshop offerings… so today’s practice will be to relax during the self-care time, and trust that the work will get done as it needs to get done. Whew.

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Last Thursday, In the first meeting of our Dive Deep SummerFall cohort, I asked us to write (in 10 minutes) our 10 rules for writers (I got the idea from Advice to Writers, which shares various writers’ lists of 10 rules now and again…). We got some great lists, and some interesting overlap among many of our lists. What would get included on your list of 10 “rules” for writers? What would you leave off your list of “rules”?

Here’s what my list looked like:

1) Start now.

2) Open a notebook. Get a fast-moving pen. Sit down at a corner table in a bustling cafe, next to a window, wearing headphones connected to a tape player blaring music you’ve listened to often enough that the sound simply permeates your brain, creating a barrier between the loud voices around you, the even louder and more hostile voices within you, and the words you can barely even allow yourself to know you want to write. Put the pen to the page. Write one word, then another, as fast as you can, faster than the eyes of your inner editors and censors can read. Keep going for 20 minutes, take a breath, then keep going for another 20 years.

3) Understand that anyone’s rules for writing are useless to you.

4) Move your body in ways that feel excellent to you and make you sweat at least as often as, and for as long as, you write.

5) Be around animals — they being you into the present moment better than anything else.

6) Read books you love. Read books you don’t love. Read in and out of the genre you want to write.

7) Write what you love — not what you think you ought to write. Forgive yourself for not always loving what you “ought” to write.

8) Remember that writing needs room to breathe — loafing, wandering, and lazing aimlessly are often deeply creative acts.

9) Take paid work that has nothing to do with writing, leaves you energy to write, and provides material for your writing.

10). Be easy with you. And keep going.

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.

 

they bite down hard and don’t let go easy

Good morning good morning. Outside my window right now it is still grey with morning clouds. I’ve got hot water with lemon and honey, and I am trying to remember how to breathe. I am trying to remember the point of this process. I am trying to remember how my limbs and lungs learned to function. I am trying to recalibrate after a deeply triggering experience and a week in the throes of — not flashback, exactly, but a deep and embodied re-memorying of what it was like to be a 22-year-old person trying to get away from a man who had brainwashed and abused her, and terrified for her life.

Last weekend, at the Survivorship conference, I had occasion to learn some new information about the man who sexually abused me, and in the aftermath, I have not been ok. I crashed. I have been sad and scared and triggered. I have been hopeless. (And yet, I want to say that the conference was, overall, a powerful and good experience for me, and I am so grateful to have been able to participate!)

Part of the crash was trigger, and part of the crash was a feeling of hopelessness, of sheer powerlessness to change any of the conditions that allow kids to continue to be harmed by the people who are supposed to care for and guide them. I don’t like to write here when I am in that place of hopelessness — I prefer to offer a sense of possibility and hope, even if it’s thin and fragile; I know how easy it can be to fall into despair, and I don’t want to be a part of that for anyone else. But this week, most of what I felt was despair: people do terrible things to children (and to other adults) and most of those who do will never be held accountable for their actions. Other adults will protect them. Our system of government will protect them. Even we who were abused will protect them — because we love them, because we forget, because we are afraid for our lives and the lives of others we love. This week it feels like violence and desecration are a part of the human constitution — how can we undo what people with the power  and money fight so violently and tenaciously to continue to have access to?

So this week I’ve had to go slow. I’ve been offline a lot, in the quiet, reading and thinking and remembering. My inclination during these triggered times is to hide deep in a hole, get as far away from everyone and everything as I can, which generally leaves me feeling lonely and isolated — and so, as I was able, I reached out, talked to beloveds, spent time around humans who I know are kind and generous and loving. I baked. I worked in the garden. I spent time cuddling a pup. Radical self care was hard work this week.

This is what I wrote on Monday, during our Write Whole group — the prompt I used at the beginning was a quote from Carson McCullers:

“All we can do is go around telling the truth.” I want that to be enough. Today I do not feel hopeful even though I feel that hope is meant to be my job, my vocation. Today I know that telling the truth can help an individual or damn her to confinement when she tells a story that people more powerful than her want squashed. We have to be inside out and sideways in our telling. This isn’t what I want to say. What I really want to say is that I am disheartened by humankind today. I know that people, that survivors, are resilient, that if we live through horror we usually are able to heal, if given the chance, and I also believe that in my lifetime, and for generations beyond my death, there will be no end to the destruction of children in the service of adult’s desires. I want to believe that there can be a change. I want to believe we can set aside our bloodthirst. I want to believe that we can be a different species— but children have been violated by adults since, it would seem, the beginning of time. What makes me think we could end such an entrenched practice and entitlement with just a few years’ outcry and naming?

I hear that President Obama wants to end rape on college campuses — how can that not be commendable? He forms a task force, and he names the issues in his speeches, and he encourages more study and research on the problem. Meanwhile, girls are still being assaulted at parties and in dorms by “friends” and classmates. Is it because boys need to be educated? Is it because we truly believe that the boys involved believe that their behavior isn’t wrong? How could we possibly believe that? It’s because they know their actions are normal and culturally acceptable — that this is part of what they get access to by virtue of being male. Mr. President, can we get a task force to undo that sense of entitlement? And while you’re at it, can we decommission the military and undo federal recognition for the catholic church while we task force the institutional sexual violence out of those sanatoria as well? Don’t you know that ending sexual violence on campus means changing the way that we as a culture make boys and make girls? That it means either arming the girls or actually training boys to be different kinds of people? How is your task force going to accomplish that,when it’s almost certain that there are persons on the very committee who will decry the heinous treatment of girls and promise to stop at nothing to root out this evil force veining its way through our campuses, and will then go home to a child bent over their homework, hiding in their room, crossing their fingers that tonight he won’t demand to give them “just a back-rub” that they know will end in something worse?

Today I am not optimistic, even though I do know that things can change. I know that men can change. I know that women can change. I know we are fighting a terrible battle when we attempt to take children’s bodies out from between the teeth of people who have been groomed to believe they are entitled to them — they bite down hard and don’t let go easy. I need some hope today. I need help from other eyes and minds, to be reminded what is possible.

Let’s be as easy with ourselves as possible today, ok? This work of recovery and lasting change is long and we need to sustain ourselves. Today I send you adoration and gratitude, and I take myself to the seaside for succor. Thank you for your breath and your stories. Thank you for your words.

These days I take what comes and do not push in

peacockThese Days

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

- Charles Olson

These days I sleep through my writing time. The words float up like dreams. These days, the stories I want to tell lie quiet at the bottom of a brook among the smooth river stones, rustling gently against one another in the current, the clear water burbling overhead, nothing churned up, nothing muddied or murky, nothing alarmed. These days, I sit by the side of the water, knees pulled up to my chest, watching the little minnows swim by. I listen to the electric sound of the forest songbirds high up in the pine trees. There are dogwoods and azalea in full springtime bloom. Somewhere into the deeper shadows, squirrels search for the acorns they planted last fall. Somewhere, the deer and bear dream their daytime dreams. Somewhere, the man who put his haunting into my chest when I was just a little girl does whatever men in prison do. The moss and loam and leaf mould makes a soft cushion. Somewhere, there’s other work to be done. Inside, there are major and minor tightnesses. Inside, the old drowse of loss pulls at the chains in my chest. Inside, I worry that I should be making something more of this life. I watch the water push over rocks and boulders. I watch the sheer persistence of the water carve out its place in this woods. I watch the dragonfly dip and dive, searching out mosquitoes and gnats. I watch the sunlight pulse in streams down through the fir boughs and the new spring green leaves. I do not stir the streambed with a stick. I do not churn up the stones, searching for what lies beneath. I accept this moment of clear and calm as long overdue. I understand that the work is not done. These days I take what comes and do not push in, do not dig and claw at the surface of things to find the underneath face. These days I accept that bird song, the morning sun on my bare toes, the small splashes that reach for my fingers as I hover them just over the water’s belly, breathing deep and releasing.

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!)