Tag Archives: trauma stewardship

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.)

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.)

tending to and releasing the stories we carry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what if we stop now (just for a minute)?

This morning it’s chilly in the apartment. I watch my fingers on the keyboard,  watch the candles, watch the steam rising up from the tea, watch the words emerge. The heat of the tea candles eddies the air, moving the prayer flags that hang above my writing space.

I feel scattered and sleepy. How do I gather all the pieces back in, find our new rhythm? This is the juggling time, and that’s why all my muscles are aching. I stop. Today there’s a deep quiet inside, someplace that wants to rest.

This is what I read last night, in my revisiting of women who run with the wolves:

“To lose focus means to lose energy. the absolute wrong thing to attempt when we’ve lost focus is to rush about struggling to pack it all back together again. Rushing is not the thing to do. As we see in the tale ["The Three Gold Hairs"], sitting and rocking is the thing to do. Patience, peace and rocking renew ideas. Just holding the idea and the patience to rock it are what someone women might call a luxury. Wild Woman says it is a necessity.” (p. 329)

Have you found yourself at this sort of place, where there’s too much to do and no time to do it in? There’s always too much to do and no time to do it in, but when my energy is waned or I am reached the over saturated place, suddenly time feels tighter. How can I rest at times like these? Continue reading

you listen

graffiti of a person talking, maybe shouting, hands around their mouth to magnify their wordsGood morning, all!

I’m a bit scattered today — the pup and I were up early, rushing around, getting ready for an appointment that it turns out wasn’t this morning, is scheduled for next Thursday. Now my energy is all twisted up, churned, and I’m trying to get back in focus. Do you ever have mornings like this?

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

Here’s a prompt and a write from last night’s Write Whole workshop. I borrowed a prompt that was offered at the AWA Facilitator’s Training a week or so ago: Write about how to fix something that’s broken. (We took 20 minutes last night; give yourself the time that works for your schedule today, when you write – 10 mins? 30?)

This is what I wrote in response to this prompt:

This is how you fix it: you listen.

You listen.

You listen.

You listen.

You listen.

Listen, then, to your own sharp intake of breath, feel the ache of advice burning your throat, and notice how you are not listening anymore at the moment you are coming up with solutions that no one asked you for, that she didn’t ask you for. Feel yourself swallow the advice, exhale the tension that built in your body when you couldn’t tell her immediately what she should be doing different. Notice, then, how you can relax. Oh, this isn’t my responsibility, you think. Let that fill you, douse your hot veins. Oh, she only asked me to listen.

Only.

Understand what kind of work listening is. Listening is not just not talking, listening is also not planning what you’re going to say as soon as she stops to take a breath. Listening isn’t interrupting with scatter clauses of Ok, here’s what you should– wait.

Listening is not making her tell you, again, I don’t want you to fix it. I can fix it. I want you to hear me. I want you to want to hear me.

Listening is more than not talking. Listening is letting all the weight of the words into you, is opening your hands to what’s unholdable, opening your lungs to what’s unbreathable (and yet she holds — yet, she breathes). Listening is a deep and welcoming silence, it’s more than camaraderie — this isn’t about misery loves company. This is work, goddamnit, this is intimate solidarity, this witnessing. This is you shutting up because there are no easy solutions and you offering one up just makes her feel stupid or angry or both —

What she has to offer you is unfixable. There is no fixing the tender brilliance of the story she wants you to hold with her, its claw marks still visible and strange, its head misshapen, chewed on, twisted, it is what it is and it lives in her, holds space behind her heart, between her ribs, under her arms, between her legs; this story is her body, her day, her mind, and you are going to tell her how to fix it? Who do you think you are? Who are you to blaspheme,to run your hard, tossed-off words over this as-yet-unformed thing she is offering?

This is how to listen: Close your mouth. Have no answers. Make eye contact, or don’t. Take deep breaths, especially if she is breathing shallowly. Let yourself be moved, frustrated, uncomfortable. Especially uncomfortable. Understand that there are no easy answers. Understand you can’t fix her. Understand she can. Appreciate this about her. Be overwhelmed by it. Find yourself at a loss for words when, or if, she finally asks what you think she should do. Meet her confusion with your confusion. Have nothing prepared. Be still with the story. Say, I don’t know. What do you think? Listen to how she already has answers — feel pride, amazement, humility, gratitude, and keep listening.

Thank you for your presence with others’ words yesterday, today, tomorrow. Thanks for letting others be present with your words, too.

I can only help you put on your mask after I have put on mine

stencil art of a woman dancing, head thrown back, one knee up, next to the words, "a poesie est un sport de l'extreme"

'poetry is an extreme sport' (I am loving this artist's work!)

About a week ago, last Tuesday night, somebody stuck an icepick or other sharp object into the tires on the left side of our car. They also scratched or stabbed at a tire on the right side, and scratched up the body of the car. When I woke up Wednesday morning, it was to a car that was tilted over — I found myself standing outside my car, in the rain, unable to comprehend what I was seeing: why were both of the tires on the left side of my car flat?

Last night I was up for quite awhile around 1am, having heard a couple of loud popping noises outside our window: what was that? are they at the car again? I got up, looked out the window where it seemed (to the self that had just been asleep) the sounds had come from — and then I lay awake for a long time, listening, afraid — this is what hypervigilance looks like.

(In my dream, we found a huge group of kids outside the house that we lived in (which was not this house) — there were a couple of girls with this crew who didn’t especially want to be there, and I was trying, out the side of my mouth, to talk them into leaving and going somewhere safer.)

I am afraid because I don’t want my car to be further damaged, because I can’t afford to replace more tires, because there’s nothing I can do to figure out where this attack came from or whether it will come again. This is what random violence does — it creates and encourages this energy of both fear and anger. How to sit in peace, like in a place of hope for both/all of us: even the people who are actively trying to harm others instead of taking care of themselves — who feel that harming others is a kind of self care? (And yes, an attack on a car isn’t the same as an attack on a person — not being able to drive affects my ability to do some of my work, of course, and could be a harm to me if they do damage to the car that I don’t discover until I’m driving — and then there’re the attacks on property that are about creating damage that someone will have to pay for. Those tires are, let’s just put it honestly, gifts that I won’t be buying, bills I won’t be paying on time. There are the assumptions we make about those living in certain neighborhoods or with a certain look or certain kinds of work: who cares about destroying their shit? They’ll just buy more – yeah, no. That’s not so.)

This year of random violence to the workers of this country has meant that most of the people I wrote with had a hard time paying for the workshops — this year of yanking people around (saying, yes, we’ll protect you, and then undermining all support services, undermining unemployment benefits, undermining all of our security in the name of continuing wars that kill innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan, that kill the soldiers we send to fight them, and that harm or kill the people here who are losing food and housing to feed that war) has ended with so many of us feeling less secure, with less capacity to take good care of ourselves: because we are struggling to cover all the bills, because we are enervated, because we feel tugged on all sides by others who need our help.

Those with government contracts are maybe feeling more flush. Those at the heads of big corporations (who, after all, are human, too, according to our laws) are reaping the benefits. So many of the rest of us are feeling that hypervigilance: we are constantly on the lookout for the next shoe to drop. Every nerve in us is alert to the next bit of trouble — we expect it to come, because it has so often come before. We don’t trust those who mouth the words Protection and Security: they haven’t just failed us, they’ve fed us to those who would actively harm us. How do we take care of one another, ourselves, at a time like this — those of us, trauma survivors ourselves, who are walking around and actively engaged with communities being traumatized further, right now?

One small step at a time, I think — until we have reached a place that we defend fiercely, until we have reached that empowered sense of selfish that says, I can only help you put on your mask after I have put on mine. Many of my communities are under attack, need help: I’ve got to take care of myself anyway, or because of that fact. Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky talks about this in her important book, Trauma Stewardship. We cannot do our work (our unique work, our important work, our necessary work) sustainably unless we are attending to the parts in us that also need caring for. She writes, “If we are to contribute to the changes so desperately needed in our agencies, communities, and societies, we must first and foremost develop the capacity to be present with all that arises, stay centered throughout, and be skilled at maintaining an integrated self.”

I’ll be honest that I sometimes get angry when I read things like this — I think, how in the hell am I supposed to find time to maintain an integrated self?

Here’s what I’m finding out (so many of you know this already): I have to make time. I have to push other work out of the way and create the time. And even as I’m doing it, I’m afraid to do it — what happens if I get accustomed to taking care of myself? What if I get to the place where I can’t abuse myself so much anymore, where I can’t do all my work alone, where I need help all the time (god forbid)?

I’m about to find out, and I’ll keep sharing with you as I bump up against answers and more fears.

Thank you for the ways you allow yourself to be present to your needs, even as you’re present to others needs. Thank you, too, always, for your words.

in the direction of balance

boat on tomales bay, pushed onto shore, weathered and wornIt’s a Friday, and my phone voicemail has been turned off — I called the AT&T people to get their help because I coudn’t remember my vm password, and instead they reset the vm and told me I could get my voicemails as soon as I re-set up vm on my iphone. Oh, right on– thanks for that help.

So, I’m so sorry: if you’ve called, I have now lost that message and your number and everything. Getting a new phone today, and we’ll start all over.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This week’s workshops have been gorgeous: some painful, some laughter, lots of fierce writing.

(fierce/fi(ə)rs/Adjective: definition 2. (of a feeling, emotion, or action) Showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m in that quiet that comes in the eye of the hurricane — swirling around me is everything I’m not doing, all the work calling to me, the growth and the work that needs doing just to sustain what’s already happening: the phone calls, the outreach, the development, each piece, each voice pushing at me: This needs taking care of. Where are you?

Yes, there’s a house that needs cleaning. Yes, there’s a book that’s needed writing for 6 years: where am I?

My horoscope (we love rob brezny) for this week says:

You’re not exceptionally scared of the dark, Pisces, but sometimes you seem to be intimidated by the light. You can summon the spunky courage to go crawling on your hands and knees through dank tunnels and spooky caves in quest of treasure that’s covered in primordial goo, but you may play hard to get when you’re offered the chance to unburden yourself of your cares in wide-open spaces. What’s up with that? Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of your capacity to wrestle with the shadows in the land of the lost; I’m gratified by your willingness to work your karma to the bone. But I would also love you to get a share of rejuvenating rest and ease now and then. Do you think you could manage to have it both ways? I do.

again the weathered boat, but from a wider angle: there's the grass and the mountains and the bay, behindHow many ways does this resonate? I’ve become accustomed to the work of digging, of unearthing, of the difficult writing, of the walking with folks in their difficult story-tellings. It’s hard to stand still and let it all wash clean: there’s so much more that needs doing. There’s more that needs unearthing: we’re not done. And yet, when I don’t stop (I can’t/there’s no time/how could you possibly pause?), I get a little bit bone-crazy. The stopping still happens, but not intentionally. Instead it’s more like a freezing up, a numbing, a locking away from what’s important.

So the pausing has to become part of the ritual, part of my routine. The part where I get up and walk away from the computer even though there’s no time. The part where I watch a terrible movie and laugh or cry even though all the work is still waiting, even though the work is piling up. The part where I step back so I can take a deeper breath, take a wider view.

This, again, is the work of Trauma Stewardship (which I still encourage everyone to read/practice — I got to review it for the latest issue of make/shift, which I’d also encourage you to find and read and subscribe to and share with all your friends and lovers and colleagues and neighbors): know that if you don’t take care of yourself (Jen, I’m talking to you), the work you love can’t continue. You can’t sustain it. If you don’t make room for balance to happen, balance won’t happen.  If your routine is too rigid, you will fall over when something new arises — when you lose your phone, for example, and need to devote an afternoon to getting a new one instead of doing the email correspondence that you’d planned for that day.

Trauma Stewardship practice helps me develop and sustain my elasticity, my flow. Helps me remember how to bend in the wind and not break.

Of course, part of my self-care is also making solid time for my work, not disappearing entirely and letting everything, any balls I was juggling, fall to the ground (which was an important part of my survival strategy for many years).

So, this work of balance. Of course correction.

Want to take a few minutes and write/think about a small course correction you could make for yourself today? In the direction of the balance you’re striving for? Every small action adds up.

Thank you for your generosity, for the ways you quiet and the ways you shout: I’m grateful for you!

filling up, if not spilling over (and pup-love)

graffiti -- child releasing a red-heart balloonToday I am thinking about all the ways we replenish — or don’t.

Slept a little too much, and that only means that I didn’t get up early enough to do as much writing as I’d like to do.  It definitely doesn’t mean that I slept enough. Still tired, but in that bone-dread way, like I could never sleep enough.  That tells me that I’m empty somewhere, putting too much out and not filling back up enough, not replenishing the stores.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky talks about this in Trauma Stewardship, when we’re thinking about self-care — and remembering that self-care is community-care is care and commitment to the work and the struggle, since, when we burn out, we’re defeating our larger purpose. We can each, always, find even five minutes a day to recenter on wellness, take a break, meditate, breathe deep, laugh hard. These things, even as brief as they have to be sometimes, keep us in our skin.  Let me use I-statements: they keep me in my damn skin, keep me ok with being in here.

So what are the things I’d can do to take care of myself, even without endless time and resources?  Maybe I’ll actually take my lunch break today, take it away from my desk, go over to Borders and read a non-socially-conscious book for an hour.  Maybe I’ll ask for more help — I need it.  What else, Jen?  You can think of things.  Forget that this is a blog post.  What else can you do to save yourself?  You can walk along the water.  You can put your hair up so it doesn’t drive you crazy. You can make a list of everything you need to remember to do so that you don’t have to keep rehearsing what you’re forgetting.  You can write on the bus.  You can look out the window and listen to music on the bus and forget about writing.  You can wear just a little bit of essential oil, just because the scent makes you remember and smile.  You can take more breaks from the computer, from the keyboard. Maybe you can spend the morning at a cafe, with work-work, drafting out what needs to be typed later.  You can step away from Facebook, just for today — Facebook sometimes makes you crazy. You can listen to music that reminds you how much you love to dance.  You can wear clothes that you honestly feel good in. You can get a cup of coffee at the cafe.

Maybe, on the bus home from work, you can write more of this list in the back of your notebook — more easy things you can do to take care of yourself, to fill back up, so you don’t get to where you feel like an empty husk walking around, offering only shadows of smiles.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s something that always fills me up (no, really): the Erotic Reading Circle is this Wednesday — tomorrow, 7:30-9:30!  We meet every fourth Wednesday at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1519 Mission St (between 11th and So Van Ness). Carol Queen and I will be there, with a group of gifted and surprising writers sharing their words for everyone’s enjoyment and feedback. Will you be there? We have memoir, fiction, poetry and sci-fi — whatever erotic work you’re writing, whether explicitly carnal or not, we’d love to hear it.

And I really do feel filled up after: I feel so excited and grateful that folks are willing to gather to share these stories of desire, lust, longing, loss — of body, of fantasy, of remembering —  I’m always so fucking inspired to be more brave.  That’s what it is.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s a prompt for today — I may have offered this one before.  It’s one I use at the beginning of a workshop, as an intro exercise (and thanks to Chris DeLorenzo for offering this one the first time, at least to me): write about an animal you’ve had a strong relationship with, whether positive or negative (doesn’t have to be a pet).

I brought this one to the July Writing the Flood, and of course the writing in response was strong, emotional, inventive.  Here’s what I wrote:

This was the longest escape hatch, walking slow and deliberate out the stony front door with my black dog on a short leather leash (I can’t really remember if the leash was leather or not but I have to move on from here) and every day we jumped into a new step of being away, we ran aground of the sinking ship of home, she and I were the one true pair of escapees, solitary explorers in the wilds of midtown Omaha, quiet and concrete bound, we stalked the lush tree-lined streets looking for echoes of some possible future. She was really just looking for the now, I was looking for a way out, and of course, all roads lead to home, led back to that fat grey house with the fat grey man inside, the one who hunched with anger like a caricature of himself, and me and my dog, twice a day, we were free of all our tenements, the concrete horror bled from our veins,  from our ears, she as my one true way to be free.

Stewardship: a whole new possibility

this is a bit from my Writing Ourselves Whole newsletter for November:

Trauma Stewardship book coverLast month, I attended a day-long training on Trauma Stewardship, with Laura van Dernoot Lipsky (this training was hosted by the Domestic Violence Coalition, CUAV and the Asian Women’s Shelter — thank you so much!). Here’s what I want to tell you: there’s not anyone I know who wouldn’t benefit from the ideas and the possibility that Laura (and her coauthor Connie Burke) offer in this training, and the corresponding book. Although it’s written primarily with those who work with survivors of trauma in mind, what I know is that all of the communities I participate in are traumatized right now, and so nearly all of us are going to experience trauma exposure response — which means we could be doing trauma stewardship.

As someone who has come up with every reason there is not to take care of myself (too busy, too guilty, too tired, not as bad off as others, etc — you know these, don’t you?), I’ve been in need of a change for at least a year (some might say longer), and couldn’t figure out how to make space in my life for self-care. And often, I couldn’t honestly believe that I deserved it.

In her introduction, Laura says this about the book (Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others), and about the ideas of trauma Stewardship as a different way to walk with the work we’re doing in this world:

“This book is a navigational tool for remembering that we have choices at every step of our lives; we are choosing our own path. We can make a difference without suffering; we can do meaningful work in a way that works for us and for those we serve. We can enjoy the world and set it straight. Taking care of ourselves while taking care of others allows us to contribute to our societies with such impact that we will leave a legacy informed by our deepest wisdom and greatest gifts instead of burdened with our struggles and despair.”

Laura’s concept of Trauma Stewardship has turned a lot around for me. With deep and loving kindness, and fierce compassion, she called all of us out in that room at the Women’s Building: if your work in the world isn’t including time to replenish, and if you are not coming to the work from a place of powerful and rooted centeredness and choice, then your work is going to be unsustainable, and you’re going to end up not recognizing yourself in the mirror.

I want to write more about what’s happened for me, the changes I have started making in and for my life and work since this training, but for now, I absolutely encourage you to visit her website and buy this book — share it with your organizations and communities and friends. We are all stewards for one another right now, and we need to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be during this strong and gorgeous and difficult life.