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.

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