Tag Archives: SAAM

survivors writing: happy writing ourselves whole month <3

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.  – Plato

April is both National Poetry Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. A few years ago I noticed that intersection and thought, That sounds like writing ourselves whole month. So, every April, I like to take a little time and reflect on these intersections that we who are trauma survivors who write walk within every day.

I have just returned from helping to facilitate a training of new AWA writing group facilitators. During the five days I spent with these folks — each of whom already knew how powerful it could be to write openly with others, taking risks with content and craft — I reflected on my own trainings, way back in 2001 and 2002.

I had never participated in anything like an Amherst Writers and Artists writing group when I showed up, shorn and ragged and scarred and scared, for my first facilitator’s training at Pat Schneider’s home back in the summer of 2001. I only knew that writing had saved my life, and I wanted to work with others for whom that might also be true. I’d taken one creative writing class in college, and one poetry workshop outside of school, and I’d never quite felt like I fit in any space that called itself “for writers.”

Pat’s method was a surprise and a revelation to me. This was a place where you could write whatever you wanted and no one could ask you if it really happened like that. No one could demand that you tell them more. No one could turn you away for your words. Your words would be welcomed and honored immediately. Continue reading

dreams and driving and springtime

We are far too busy
to be starkly simple in passion.
We will never dream the intense
wet spring lust of the toads.
– from “Toad dreams,” by Marge Piercy

In my dream, I am preparing for a workshop in an unfamiliar space — I’d been planning to move the group to another place, my office or something, but then I woke up from a nap and the group was meant to begin in under an hour, so I had no choice but to set up where I was — and anyway, that’s where the people were coming to; I’d never mentioned to anyway that I might move to another location; how would they know where to find the group if I moved? So I clean up, set up snacks, and put the poems and other handouts down on the writer’s chairs. Then I go downstairs to wait for folks to arrive — down into a warehouse space, filled with boxes. It’s a small group, only four or five people. One man arrives, and he says he’s changed his mind, thanks anyway, but he doesn’t think he’ll be joining the group. Someone else hears him and tags along out of the warehouse back into the night. I wonder if I’ll have enough people to write with, whether I’ll have to cancel the group after all.

The next Write Whole series begins this evening — I’m not surprised that I’m having this sort of anxiety dream. These are the concerns of facilitators: do we have the space set up right? Are folks going to join us? Will what we offer be enough to keep people in the room?

This morning the sky is a clear pastel baby blue and the birds are shouting their morning songs above and around the kids shouting in the playground a block away and the morning traffic rising like rush of tide. The dog fits herself into the splotches of sun on the deck. I put on a jacket over my pajamas and go out to write on the deck. This morning I am thinking about the choices I have made in my life to bring me to this place — a writing place, a life with space in it for percolation, growth, surprise, creative expansion, a life with room to stretch. I don’t have a career per se — no big paycheck, true, but also no big commitments: I have been told that the latter tends to follow the former pretty swiftly. This morning the garden is bright orange and red beneath me, the garden shoes lined up at the back door, the gloves dirty and cobwebbed (that’s how often I use them) hanging over the railing.

On Saturday I wrote with a beautiful group of folks at this month’s Writing the Flood — we gathered with sourdough sweet potato bread for words and sharing and more words. For our first prompt, I offered the poem “Renewal,” by Jeffry Harrison, a poem about the DMV, about driving and freedom, and about connecting with the people around you. Here was my response to the prompt:

I want to give you what I’ve got today. I can’t remember if this happened before or after she kissed me and I’d kissed her back, whether this ride was a part of our courting or the blossoming into desire that we let ourselves into after that, but I remember that it was summer in New Hampshire, so it must have been after. All the car windows were open in her godawful excellent Suburban, that tan and white behemoth she piloted through the streets of our tiny college town like a boat she was navigating through a no-wake zone — once we broke free of the city limits and hit the open back roads, she’d hit the gas like opening the throttle and we were free. The fields were all deep summer corn and queen anne’s lace, the sun that shallow bright, the sky an enormous blue, and I leaned my head out her window like a dog, my long hair flying all around my face.

I wasn’t supposed to be there with the smell of new cut grass and pastureland and musk coating my face. I wasn’t supposed to be with her, to be out of reach of the phone in my tiny single dorm room, be anywhere my stepfather couldn’t reach me. Later, when I went home the following quarter, I would admit to the affair, to my desire, and have it used against me like a knife — but I would tell no one about how we road in that giant truck like we mattered, listening to her worn-out Two Nice Girls tape, me without even my license yet, vibrating with hunger and terror — I can’t remember if I thought it was just a momentary escape from the true webbing of my reality or if I saw a glimmer of what my life could really be like if I could get away from him. But get away from him wasn’t a part of my vocabulary yet then. All car rides ended eventually, and led right back to his front door.

 

being without a soundtrack

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

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

So there’s the garden and bread update.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our lives are forever greater than that

above all
I’ve cosmically transmuted the atmospheric bone
the dementia enveloped by protest
by turquoise weight
& somnific solar inclusion
singing by eclipse torrent
by waves of flame erupting from mirrors & dreams of post-
extinction
– from “Song in Barbarous Fumarole of the Japanese Crested Ibis,” by Will Alexander

Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
The obvious stole over us like awe,
That it was our own silhouette we saw,
Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
(Reaching for each other’s fingertips)
But sweeping like a wing across that stark
Alien surface at the speed of dark.
– from “Sublunary,” by A. E. Stallings

Last night my sweetheart woke up just long enough to see the earth’s shadow slip up onto the surface of the moon and take a bite, but we missed most of the libran lunar eclipse. This morning I sit in front of the low illumination of the computer screen, listening to the candleflame flickering in its glass containment, and imagine what magic was cast over our sleeping bodies when the whole of the earth passed between moon and sun. What new songs did the garden plants learn to sing from that shining halo of refracted light? What leftover glow will catch itself onto my fingers when I reach for those new leaves today?

Yesterday afternoon I weeded the garden just a little, and watered the new plants. I watched the honeybees in the orange tree, watched the black guard bee protect the blossoms — what an extraordinary task for such a small animal: make sure only the right bees get to this pollen. He flies around and around the tree, buzzing close to anyone who approaches, human or dog. He does not sit down for a coffee break. He does not rest. Later in the afternoon, on the phone with my sister — in which I live in the future and can look at a box in my hand and see both her and her new son in their home far away — a stellar’s jay drops into the middle raised bed; he perches on the wooden edging and pulls something up in his beak, shaking it hard. This is just where I’ve planted my little lettuces, and so I holler at him to leave the lettuce alone. He ignores me, because I am all the way up on the deck, and do not speak his language. He keeps shaking the thing in his beak a bit, then gets what he wanted, and flies over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. I suddenly picture him shaking a snail out of its shell, and the jay becomes my ally with his sharp raspy cry and his too-big feet. I want him to come back and get all the snails out of the garden, away from my lettuces. We will work together – me and the jay and the guardian bee and the eclipsed moon and the early morning songbirds.

I wonder how to make it clear that this writing is about survival, how this writing connects to the larger work of this blog: then I wonder if that’s necessary. This morning there is a new and quiet longing that’s lodged itself in my body, behind breastbone and breath. Its voice sounds like something more than the daily work of just making it, of pulling the ends together, of barely yanking the shamed body up into a sitting position before the night falls and we are left to do it all over again tomorrow. The voice of this new longing is for a place that is substantial and rooted, is for growth that doesn’t struggle to rise out of the desecrated ground of trauma. The point is that life is continuous and regenerative. The point is that bodies can recover. The point is that nothing is the same after we are harmed to the point of breaking open, but also that we can still open the blinds to look at the wonder of the simple movement of the sky’s body, that we can be more than the aftermath of one man’s madness. Our lives are forever greater than that.

 

Poem for a Friday – “if it’s not a secret”

My hands are covered with dirt, and my laptop is dusted with flour. These are good signs, I think.

A poem I love for this second Friday of WriOursWhoMo. Consider using that last line as a prompt…

Bodyweight
-Matthew Schwartz

My crutches felt heavier than I was.
They landed with a thick thud on the blacktop
each time I took a step. I had to watch how I walked

so I didn’t fall, like the other kids expected.
I liked to leave my crutches half-buried
behind the sandbox, where I couldn’t see them,

and creep up the uneven monkey bars
arced like the upper half of a globe.
I wanted to see the whole playground.

The rungs crowded too close together,
and none of them was shaped the same.
I lifted my feet slowly to keep my braces quiet

against the metal. At the top, I could still hear
the jump rope flying, my friend throwing
handfuls of sand. I slipped. I locked my arms

tighter around whatever bars I could reach, and my leg
tensed and shook and hit the rung too close to me
when I tried going down, and my foot shot

through the gap, and dangled there.
I thought I could maybe slide out.
I thought my body could fit like my foot did,

but I was stuck. Everyone could see me,
everyone could hear me asking myself
What do I do with my body if it’s

not a secret?

Let your body have some joy this weekend. Consider — just consider — letting that joy not be a secret. I’m going to consider it, too.

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 4) – slow walk with paradox

keep going(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.)

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark—
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!

This is what’s true: You can’t force a rhythm. When things are out of sync, you have to let them find their own way back into togetherness. Today I am going slow. I am listening to the birds outside, the spring birds, the ones just waking now, the birds hiding in the slowly-flowering apple tree, the ones that sit in the narrow pine at the back fence. I am listening to the candle flame flicker in its glass enclosure. I am listening to the puppy shudder in her morning dreams. I am listening for what wants to happen next.

This writing was supposed to come on Monday, but it didn’t. After a very full weekend, the writing went quiet, and so I didn’t force it. I wrote in the notebook, things not meant for public display, and I found poems for this space. Today I’m going slow — I’ll write, work in the garden, bake sourdough bread, and, while the sourdough is working its rise, I’ll work on a copyediting gig I’m in the midst of.

Sourdough is a thing that needs time to do its work, even more so than conventional yeast-raised breads. Sourdough bread is old bread, original bread. It’s a fermented product, just like pickles and sauerkraut and yogurt and  kombucha — there are probiotics in these foods that our bodies need for digestion and better health. I’m going to use sprouted wheat flour for the bread, which is supposed to be even better for you.

(I’ve started to look at un-fermented breads the same way I look at candy: I go into the cafe and look at all the candy lined up on those pastry shelves. That’s exactly how my body reacts when I eat a conventional croissant or bagel, something made with processed, bleached, enriched white flour—it’s just like I’ve eaten a half-a-bagful of jellybeans.)

I have started listening differently to my body — again. After the terrible depression I struggled with last month, I am listening again. For about a week now, I’ve been taking a new set of supplements, and have cut back on my sugar and dairy and gluten; while I will be going to talk to some different practitioners about how I can best manage my hormones and take care of my body, I got started with the information on this webpage. Please note: I’m not initiating all of these supplements and herbs at the same time! I started with things I’ve done before — multivitamin, fish oil, nettle and dandelion tea — and added the vitex, evening primrose, probiotics, and b-12. I’m starting with low dosages, letting my body acclimate. This is the time of the month when I’d usually be deep into my difficult mood, the big depression, the hard pull down. I can feel it inside me: the spikes of anger are there, I can certainly feel the flares that say, oooh, girl, you’re premenstural. But I don’t wake up deep in despair. I am paying attention.

Have you seen a Möbius strip? It’s one of those things kids get shown when adults want to demonstrate the concept of infinity, and paradox. They take a long strip of construction paper between two hands, twist it once, and then tape the ends of the paper together so that you have a loop with a twist in it. Then they say, Now look: if you drop your pen at any point and start making a line along the length of the paper, you’ll end up drawing on both sides of the strip without lifting your pen — how is that possible?

I remember being delighted by Möbius strips when I first discovered them, and made bunches of them, amazed every time that the strip of recycled paper from my dad’s old dot matrix printer had a line that traversed the whole surface of the paper; I never had to pick up the pen to get to the other side — this two sided piece of paper had turned into a loop that appeared to only have one side. How was that possible?

Sometimes our new topologies just don’t make logical sense to our old eyes, our old ways of thinking. We have to meet the paradox with curiosity — at least, that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Wonder and delight aren’t always easy when the boundaries appear to have moved indefinitely and I’m walking and walking on this new path with no end in sight, and those footprints next to me on the sand look an awful lot like my own. How can I slow down when I’ve got so much to do? Haven’t I been here before, in this place of major transition? When will the ground get stable under my feet again? When will everything make sense?

My intention right now is to go more slowly — on all fronts. Less multitasking, more hands in dirt and dough and changing diapers and holding the pen. What if this got to be a good life? How do we go slowly enough to be able to listen to what the birds were trying to tell us, or to discover that the path that we think keeps changing is actually the same one we’ve been traveling all along?

(still on pause, but I found a great poem)

Another poem today, in honor of National Poetry Month — what do you (or your characters) know about survivor’s guilt? How do you respond to the final line of the piece? Consider using this as a prompt — take twenty minutes, and follow the words wherever they seem to want you to go.

Survivor’s Guilt
-Patricia Kirkpatrick

How I’ve changed may not be apparent.
I limp. Read and write, make tea at the stove
as I practiced in rehab. Sometimes, like fire,
a task overwhelms me. I cry for days, shriek
when the phone rings. Like a page pulled from flame,
I’m singed but intact: I don’t burn down the house.
Later, cleared to drive, I did outpatient rehab. Others
lost legs or clutched withered minds in their hands.
A man who can’t speak recognized me
and held up his finger. I knew he meant
One year since your surgery. Sixteen since his.
Guadalupe wishes daily to be the one before. Nobody
is that. Sometimes, like love, the neurons just cross fire.
You don’t get everything back.

Radical self care as upheaval (part 3) – negotiating depression and its aftermath

(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.)

(Just a heads-up: there’s some talk in this post about negotiating feelings of suicidality — be easy with yourselves and only read what you want to read, ok?)

And then I slid into a pretty serious depression. I don’t know how much I want to say about that here, except that it was both hormonal and historical — it grew out of the long grief I held about my own loss of motherhood, it grew out of shame I felt around my failures as a writer and facilitator and woman, it grew out of sorrow at how long it took for either my sister or I to become parents — all the work we had to do just to survive long enough for our soul’s to heal enough that we could imagine cradling another’s spirit with any determination or self-assurance, how unfair what our stepfather did was. It seems an understatement: unfair. Of course it is. And it’s true.

And then, too, I was dealing with hormonal shifts, a depression that I fall into for about two weeks a month, every month. I cried and cried, every day, for two weeks. I fell deeper and deeper into this depression, so far in that I started to get scared — what was the point of anything, anyway? What difference would it really make if my nephew didn’t have this aunt? It’s not like he would remember me — and I didn’t have anything really to pass on to him anyway, did I? Wasn’t everyone showing me that — the fact that I couldn’t get anyone to sign up for my writing groups meant that I didn’t really have anything to share. (I offer these as examples of what’s going on for me when I’m thick in the throes of depression — not because I really believe that they’re true or because I need them to be negated here.) The scary voice in me that sounds like despair and loss and nihilism took over; I couldn’t self-talk my way out of its arguments, I wasn’t telling anyone what I was going through, and I wasn’t doing the sort of writing that will often help me notice and shift this sort of struggle.

I didn’t see how it could ever be possible for me to live the sort of life I’d always imagined sharing with a child in some way: a life that looked an awful lot like the one I had as a very little girl living in the country in Nebraska (and that I tried to recreate in Maine) — a small life in a house with a big garden; bread rising in the kitchen; sprouts growing on the kitchen window; herbs drying from the rafters; pantry filled with jars of flours, seeds, nuts, spices; long walks through the garden and the surrounding fields or woods, talking about the plants that grew and what work they did in the earth, what work they did in our bodies;  hours every day spent in physical labor; hours spent writing; hours spent walking and reading — I imagined being an adult who knew about the earth, about our environment, and getting to pass on that learning to the child/ren in my life. And then that all fell apart, and I came to the city, and I would never have a child anyway, so what difference would it make if I never learned the names or the gifts of the plants that grew in this new place I now inhabited? What difference would it make if I never lived that long-held dream? I thought about how I wouldn’t ever really be free from what I’d been through, how it would always be with me, and how I couldn’t protect this new child from all the evils this world has to offer.

I knew that the depression was hormonal, but that knowing doesn’t really help — you can’t think your way out of depression, can you? In fact, knowing sometimes makes it worse; I’m thinking to myself, Jesus, pull it together, this is just hormones. And then, because I still feed bad, I become further depressed that I can’t talk my way, can’t rationalize my way, out of this feeling, can’t (at least, all alone) cognitively-behaviorize my way back to wellness.

I put on as good a face as I could for those around me, even when I talked, finally, about how sad and low I was feeling. And when I began to bleed, and the depression abated, I felt relief — and I felt really scared. What if that low came back? I thought about folks who survive horrors, who live a long time with the aftermath, and then kill themselves after twenty or so years after, who looked like they made it, and then suddenly got taken down by history, or by the long and awful work of living in the aftermath of what they’d survived.

I’m talking about this here for a reason: because so many of us struggle with depression, with these voices inside telling us that we’re worthless and that nothing will ever get better, and yet we feel profoundly isolated when we’re in the grip of this feeling. It seems like no one will understand us, no one will want to hear what we’re feeling, no one else has felt as bad as we are feeling. I want to undermine this experience of isolation. I want you to know you’re not alone in feeling these things, just as I’m reminded that I’m not alone whenever I talk to anyone else about depression.

I didn’t bounce into buoyancy, as I often do when the hormones shift. I felt better, but I also felt subdued — I needed help. I didn’t want the depression to fall on me like that again. Because I can’t really afford to go to an herbalist or a physician right now, I went to the internet, and found some ideas for dietary changes and supplements that folks use to mitigate the intensity of PMS or PMDD, and I am trying those now. Suddenly, I’m one of those people with a handful of pills they swallow every morning (thanks to an amazon gift certificate I got for my birthday). Suddenly I am thinking again (link here) about how to prioritize my own wellness. Suddenly I am wondering what it would look like to really take care of myself first, to put my health and wellness at the top of my priority list. Suddenly I am looking at food differently — as something that can support not just my physical but also my mental wellness, or something that can cause me mental and psychic harm.

The truth is, I don’t want to die. The truth is, I still have a lot of living and healing I want to do. The truth is, I am scared enough by how I felt last month — at a time when I should have been as happy as I have ever been in my whole life — to make some radical changes in my living.

Why does it have to hit me so hard before I decide it’s acceptable to concentrate on my own wellness, that I deserve help as much as those around me do?

(Tomorrow’s post: Walking along the Möbius of  major life transitions, and allowing ourselves to feel turned inside out as we do so.)

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.)