In the summer of 2016, mysteriously and without warning, my body seemed to go on strike. Minor aches turned into chronic swelling and pain; even the smallest movement was agonizing. I felt sure I was dying. A few times, I wished I was dying. Twice, I prayed for death. Once, I thought about helping it along. But, remembering my son and the ever-present trauma of his having been emotionally and physically abandoned by his father, I thought better of that.
I went through a series of doctor visits and gave eight vials of blood to try and get to the bottom of this mystery illness. Finally, it was determined that Lyme Disease was the cause. The doctor wanted to know where and when I may have been exposed to ticks. Three possibilities came to mind:
The first seemed unlikely, however, I reported having had a tick embedded in the crack of my ass at age 16, likely a passenger I’d picked up while lying in the grass along the banks of the McKenzie River during my first sexual encounter; a date rape. Almost as traumatic as the rape itself was the office visit to have the tick removed, because my doctor was also a family friend. “That looks like a tick,” he’d remarked as he lifted the sheet to survey my swollen derrière. There was an awkward silence then, during which I chose not to reveal any additional details. I bit my lip hard as he lanced the wound and extracted the unwanted inhabitant. “You’ll be fine now,” he’d said before leaving the room, “And tell your folks I said hello.” I wasn’t fine, of course, but I couldn’t tell him that.
“That’s intense,” the doctor said, and I saw her type the words “emotional trauma” into her chart notes.
The next tick encounter may have occurred during a particularly tumultuous summer holiday in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1994, when my then-husband and I had travelled for a reunion with some of his musician pals from college. We had been married for five years and I’d become aware that I felt completely alone in the relationship. I’d thought I might leave him when we returned home, but a few months later I became pregnant with our son and decided to stay.
“Did you have a bullseye rash?” the doctor asked. No. She said it was possible the spirochete had been lying dormant in my body since then, which would upgrade me to the even more dire “Chronic Lyme” diagnosis. I saw her type the word “disappointment” into her notes.
I thought the most likely exposure had occurred just a couple of years before the symptoms surfaced, during an emotionally stressful month spent in upstate New York with my former partner, another narcissistic musician who related to me more like a mother than a lover. To acknowledge my part in that dysfunctional relationship, I had volunteered to help him sort through a house full of dusty memories as he prepared for his mother’s death. A few months later when I was seriously hurt in a car collision, my self-absorbed love chose to pass the evening with another woman rather than coming to my aid.
After typing the word “grief” into her notes, the doctor explained that the symptoms of her own Lyme disease had been triggered following the birth of her third child; she attributed the trauma of childbirth as an older woman, together with chronic exhaustion, as factors that weakened her system and allowed for the disease to take hold. “You’ve had quite a lot of physical and emotional trauma in your life,” she said, seeming to suggest that the accumulated effects of trauma, disappointment, and grief had played a significant role in the dramatic manifestation of my disease process.
She sent me home with a bag filled with prescriptions and remedies and pages of instructions, as well as this sober directive: in order for my body to fully heal and return to its natural vibrant state, it would be necessary for me to care for that body with the same sort of gentleness and love I had previously only offered to others. I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I promised to try.
In the past, I’d never been able to see the beauty beneath the accumulated weight in my belly or the cellulite on my thighs, or that disgusting fungus that once took up residence on my toenail. Not until I was chronically ill did I begin to put things in perspective. When the act of turning over and sitting upright requires the whole of one’s energy and attention, things like cellulite and greying hair and belly fat and nail fungus no longer matter the way they once did. They no longer matter much at all, actually. Most corpses probably have at least a few of those things, but that’s not what killed them.
So, along with several daily trips to the kitchen to down numerous medicines that promised to heal my Lyme disease, I began a practice of writing nice things about myself, to myself.
It felt quite foreign, but I did it anyway.
Day by day, energy and ease of movement began to return to my body. Gradually, I began to remember who I am beneath my physical imperfections and disease symptoms. Ever so slowly, the silent suffering of a broken heart began its transformation and reclamation. A new story emerged.
And so I’ve learned that, if one allows it, serious illness can give as much as it takes, rearranging priorities and bringing one instantly and fully into the one moment that is certain. From there, anything is possible.
I recently celebrated my fifty-fifth trip around the sun. Things ache sometimes – my neck, back, and hips, especially when I get up in the morning – and my heart, for what I've lost and for what lies ahead. I’m forever taking my glasses off and putting them on again to accommodate the annoying vision changes that come with age, along with too much time in front of computer screens. And I notice I’m not as adept at multi-tasking as I once was. But, truthfully, I don’t resonate much with the idea of midlife as a crisis.
In fact, physiological “adjustments” notwithstanding, this metaphorical midpoint in life feels more like quiescence than crisis. I wouldn’t trade the hard-won awareness of today for a do-over or a trip backward. I believe I am the best version of myself I’ve ever been, even with the extra wrinkles and padding I’ve accumulated over the last few years.
With the sometimes painful process of learning how to soothe the fearful voice within, from within, has come a measure of calm certainty about my own deepest knowing. This awareness allows me to hold healthier boundaries and create deeper authenticity in my relationships. With my own mind and heart setting the course, I feel reasonably safe in the world.
As if testing my new level of awareness, the universe sent me a pop quiz a few weeks ago: I fainted at work and hit my head when my desk broke my fall. A blow to the head is both a literal and metaphorical wake-up call for me. The last time it happened, a car accident left me with both a serious concussion and an awareness that my well-being depended on my waking up and removing myself from an emotionally abusive relationship. What was I overlooking this time, I wondered?
At Urgent Care, the attending physician explained the results of my EKG and other diagnostics: my heart looked relatively stable, he said, and all my vitals were “within normal range.” Still, he sent me home with a long list of symptoms to be aware of, and a request to check blood pressure and heart rate often. I should go directly to ER if I noticed any of the symptoms or if my heart rate or blood pressure increased precipitously. If I was alone, I should call 911.
I live alone, so for the next several nights I slept with my phone. I asked a neighborhood friend to sleep with hers nearby, too. And before going to bed that first night, I posted medicine instructions for my cats and put a load of delicates in the washing machine. In case I croaked in the night I didn’t want my son or my friends to be stuck with dirty underwear or sick cats. These are the kinds of thoughts one has when reading and re-reading a long list of scary symptoms. And when one lives alone. And when one worries about heartbreak as an inherited trait.
The doctor focused his examination on my heart, and that was a big anxiety trigger for me: my father died of a broken heart, the gradual result of carrying the burden of long-held family secrets, of disappointment, of lack of service to himself as he devoted himself to the service of others; and, finally, of extreme loneliness after the death of my mother, the love of his life.
My father spoke to his God through prayer first thing every morning and last thing every night, and he counseled me to do the same. Did his God whisper anything back to him when he prayed? Dad didn’t believe in expressing your feelings in order to heal—he thought that was self-indulgent. Instead, he said, turn your troubles over to God, who alone can provide comfort. He prayed with deep gratitude for all he was given, but he did not believe he deserved any of it.
When the doctor told us that Dad’s heart was failing quickly and there was nothing more to be done, Dad said a prayer of gratitude for what he described as “a beautiful life” as I cried. And it was a beautiful life. But I wonder how his story might have ended differently if he had forgiven himself more, loved himself more, and allowed more of his feelings to flow freely in directions other than heavenward.
Since my workplace fainting and head-bump, I've been listening intently to the voices from beyond, including my dad's, who sometimes whispers in my ear in the twilight hours, asking me to take care of myself, to slow down, to learn from the lessons of his over-giving before my own gets the best of me. And I listen to the whisper of my own inner knowing around when to stop. To rest. To stretch. To dance. To speak kindness to myself. And to wrap my own arms around my heart.
The road to paradise is paved with self-sabotage. I know, because here I am 55 years into the journey and I’m still regularly tripping on the potholes and falling flat on my face.
When I say ‘paradise’ I’m referring to those impossible ideals of perfection: the notions of an eternally faithful and romantic relationship, the Zenlike spiritual life, the professional kudos, the financial portfolio bursting at the seams, and the clothes that aren't, because the body underneath them is whippet-thin and toned.
All of these notions are fraught for so very many of us, but when it comes to body image, the potholed road becomes a veritable minefield. I'm just learning how to parent my unhappy inner child, so when I set a recent goal of an overall improved lifestyle that would include recording what I eat, when and how I move, and what emotions come up as I bring greater awareness to my physical being, I might have expected the inevitable emotional crash.
During the intake session with the world's most gentle, kind and compassionate coach, I shared my journey of the last six years, of the grief of losing a handful of important loved ones, of an empty nest after 12 years of single parenting, of an emotionally abusive relationship, of a dire health diagnosis, of packing on 40 pounds of self-protective fat, of chronic, debilitating depression, and life and death questions.
Movement will help, she reminded me. And food consciousness will help. And the support of community will help. Connection will help! And for the first few days, these things shone like beacons of hope, inspiring me to make journal entries and explore anti-inflammatory foods and awaken early enough to do some yoga poses and meditation, to post positive comments and feely emoticons to the group facebook page so my new community would see I’m participating... in support of them and of me.
Then, on day four, a few extra stresses piled up at work; an unforeseen lab bill arrived and my credit card had a fraud alert; the university my son attended sent an invoice for several thousand dollars and nobody could explain why; and a few bits of fringe from my favorite black poncho somehow got pushed down into the receiving end of my seatbelt, rendering the belt useless and reducing me to tears. By the time I headed home from work, with my broken seat belt tucked under my leg in case of police contact, I felt unsteady and trembly.
I wish I had recognized that my inner child was firmly behind the wheel by then. If I had, I may even have pulled over so we could have a little dialogue. But I just didn't have it in me, and by the time I arrived home the corkscrew was in my hand before I even thought to question it.
I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person; I come from a lineage of strong, outspoken women. How does it happen, then, that I routinely sacrifice my highest and best intentions at the altar of self-sabotage? How is it that a few emotional traumas in an otherwise beautiful life can leave me scrambling to remember who I am?
In my world, even small traumas (is there such a thing?) inevitably lead to sadness and disappointment, which leads to depression, which leads to the abandonment of my inner child, which is a vicious cycle that feeds on itself and on those damned idealized notions. Throughout my five-plus decades, there has been a series of moments when, out of my desire to have something or someone I wanted or needed, I chose to sit quietly instead of speaking my mind, or to say yes when I really meant no, or to put my own comfort or safety aside in order to avoid facing someone else’s discomfort or, worse, my own anger and fear of abandonment.
The thing is, sad has been a constant thread in the tapestry of my life and I’m tired of trying to hide it. The journals of my youth were filled with badly written angst-laden poems and esoteric thoughts mostly surrounding my near-death experience, a date rape at the hands of the “good catholic boy” in high school, and the subsequent May-December romance with a much older man that rendered me utterly heartbroken. And I’m still writing about the ever-repeating themes of grief and loss, disappointment, and my struggle to remember who I am so that I can give my frightened inner child the healthy adult she’s always deserved.
Today is a new day. The depression and self-sabotage may come and go until I fully remember who I am, fully step into the role of my inner child's protector by turning away from dysfunctional relationships and perfectionist tendencies, and over-spending, over-drinking, and over-giving. When I learn to love the child within in the healthy ways I hope to be loved, and when I fully become the healthy adult, perhaps I’ll no longer choose to reenact the traumas of my earlier life.
I’ve always known that I carry within myself enough light to illuminate the darkest days, to love myself as fully as I love my child. But some days it's just so hard to remember.
I work in a school community where, together with a group of other dedicated adults, I am responsible for the safety of more than 200 children. I’ve lost a lot of sleep since the most recent school massacre.
Thirty years ago, when I became a Montessori teacher working with three-to-six-year olds, we regularly practiced what we called “Exit Drills”-- we taught the children to stop what they were doing anytime the bell or alarm sounded, to listen for direction from the adults, to make a calm line and follow silently to a designated space outside of the school building, where we would take attendance to be sure no one had been left behind. Some children, no matter how calmly we discussed it, would scream or cry at the sound of the bell or alarm. In that case, I might pick up the scared child and carry him outside. Always, I was holding at least two little hands who needed that extra bit of comfort during an unsettling situation.
Nowadays, we are also tasked with teaching children what to do in the event of an earthquake, and in case of something now known as a lockdown. Whether running from an inside threat or hiding from an outside threat, the adults job is to keep the children calm and help them to believe that they are safe.
But the truth is, they aren’t safe. None of us are safe. Living here in the United States of America, the so-called ‘land of the free,’ no one of us is safe. Because United States citizens are regularly gunned down at schools, in places of worship, at malls and in movie theaters. Not to mention the increasing violence that occurs behind closed doors in the form of domestic abuse.
So, as adults who work with children, we focus on the steps over which we do have some control. Our grounds are secure. Check. Our classrooms are equipped with doors that allow for a quick lockdown. Check. Our staff regularly revisit all the steps required of us, should a threat occur. Check.
And we do our best to feign confidence in our ability to protect the children, so that they have safe places to air their concerns, despite what we all secretly know is just a show. None among us possess actual confidence in our ability to protect them, for the reasons already stated.
And despite the myriad intense opinions expressed on social media and in the news - fake and otherwise - I haven’t heard anybody offering compelling reasons why the incidence of gun violence at the hands of white men has reached epidemic rates, or why nothing is being done about it.
A recent news headline (on Slate, I think) resonated deeply and I’ve been pondering it: Violence is not a result of mental illness. Violence is a result of anger. I agree, and I disagree. I would say, instead, that violence is the result of anger that has turned into aggression.
When we work with children, boys and girls alike, empowering them to express all their feelings, those feelings include anger. Anger, like all feelings, needs to flow in order to move through and out. Feeling and expressing anger in appropriate ways lets children learn how to set and hold healthy boundaries.
Suppression of anger is where things get problematic. When anger isn’t allowed to flow and be expressed in appropriate ways, it can lead to aggression. Aggression is the result of suppressed anger, and violence is an act of aggression.
And, it would appear, based upon rates of violent crime among white American men, that they are the group most susceptible to acting out aggressively in response to suppressed anger.
So, on Sunday, when I read my friend Jen’s Facebook post expressing the exact questions I’d been mulling, with a genuine sense of curiosity and deep respect for men who would be brave enough to respond, I asked her if I could share it with my own online community. I then re-posted her request to the white men I know and love, to answer any or all of these questions: What is one helpful insight you've had about the anger and violence within you? What is one productive way you've found, on your own or with others, to work with, heal, or transform the anger and violence within you? What's one thing you commit to doing this week, on your own or with others, to work with, heal your relationship with, or learn about the anger and violence within you?
These questions resonate as a meaningful starting place for dialogue because they are open-ended; they do not assume that all white men act violently or express anger in the same way, nor do they assume that violence does not also exist in women or in men of other races. They do, however, invite deep and introspective exploration of a particular concern about the unchecked, unexamined anger in white men which so often leads to aggression and violence.
Men were asked to focus on their own lived, embodied experience and intentions. I wrote that links to or sharing of analysis-based “solutions,” or comments denying male anger or framed around the “not all white men” argument would deleted, and they were. The first few responses from men who came across as defensive and, well, angry, took me by surprise. One directed me to look at my own anger as the root of my misguided generalizations about men; another accused me of gaslighting with the questions I posed.
At the same time, I was completely humbled and moved by the deep and thoughtful insights from many of the other men who responded.
They bravely acknowledged having carried or carrying anger caused by biology or something akin to an automatic response, early influences of family or conditioning, a perceived lack of control of their circumstances, fear.
With such authenticity they shared the ways in which they have learned to manage or work with or overcome their anger: through awakening to the anger and their relationship to it, to the choices they face; through movement, spiritualism, time in nature and experiencing the cycles of life; through releasing attachment to perceived needs and desires; through experiencing true love from others and of self.
With clarity and compassion, they shared the commitments they make on a daily basis to everything from conscious movement to the care and tending of others; to expressing their feelings with courage and truth.
I want to share in its entirety the response of one young man who I am honored to have first met when he was seven and who is now aged 22--one whose clarity and authenticity is perhaps reflective of the new generation of visionary young people who are leading us through this dark time of violence and into a brighter future:
“Anger is constricting but when you bring awareness to it, it can provide lots of energy that can be used to uplift and empower. It also teaches me what I need to take action on because it shows me what I have difficulty in accepting. (I) take time to be still and use meditation and exercise to be able to look at my anger without judgement. Anger stirs lots of thoughts and mental noise so when it's quieted it's easier to see it for what it is. Then I can take needed action with a clearer mind. I commit to facing it and using it to make decisions that don't create mental debris. This is timely because I was angry very recently and finally accepted it with the help of awareness to it and body movement, and I felt very happy and light with most of the anger transformed. Now I can make a clear decision and I'm not put off by the initial discomfort it takes to face this issue. It's nice to write all this down too!” (DF)
If you’re connected with me on Facebook, you can read the whole thread in a post on Sunday, February 18th. And, if you are so moved, your own responses to the questions are most welcome and encouraged.
That we live in a culture that broadly fails to acknowledge white men as the most common perpetrators of gun violence is a problem. That there are mature, thoughtful men in the world, like these men, who are willing to acknowledge some of the reasons for anger among men and offer some ways of working with it, is indeed hopeful. My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of knowing these men and, in particular, for the insight and wisdom they so generously share with me and with the world.
Let’s keep the dialogue going — that we may do better, as we know better.
photo credit: Annie Spratt on UnSplash
The quiver of a dancing leaf;
where your breath ends, mine begins.
The silver thread of spider's web;
as I squint my eyes, you tilt your head.
The shadow of a waning moon;
masks a moment gone too soon.
Leaf and web and moon remain,
but only memory brings us back again.
Today's sacred capture: Ivy, the beautiful plant that is often called "weed" because of her aggressive, binding nature. Her delicate cordate blooms grow into a new form and wander anywhere they wish, sometimes attaching so firmly that the host dies a death of neglect.
Her lesson is one of caution; beware of beauty's entanglement. She speaks of possibility, and of the path that is revealed as the vines are woven.
Yesterday I walked out into the yard to discover my favorite rose bush awash in crimson. Her name is Pumpkin Patch, and she has a story to tell.
In early October 2011, less than a week before she died, my mother stood at the bedroom window staring out at her beloved rose bushes. They were planted in whiskey barrels and, even so late in the season, were covered with blooms.
I wondered if the faraway look in her eyes belied sadness, or if she was lost in the mental fog caused by the cancer pressing on her brain. "What are you thinking, Ma?" I inquired. "We need a rose for that empty barrel, don't you think?" She said, pointing to one that had stood empty for many months; an indication of her decline.
By this time Mom was incredibly weak and unstable on her feet, even with the walker, so I was surprised when she yelled to my dad who was resting nearby in his easy chair, "Ole, get up! We're taking Sis to the nursery to pick out a rose!"
Dad and I tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't be dissuaded. Dad drove and I sat in the back with Mom, whose eyes scanned the landscape along her favorite county road. "Remember that nice farm stand, Deed?" I nodded, recalling many times we traveled that road together in search of an estate sale, or explore the antique stores in Coburg, or walk through the pioneer cemetery. I squeezed her hand as the memories washed over me, hoping she didn't notice my tears.
At the first nursery they told us their rose crop had been wiped out by a pest. Dad and I exchanged worried glances through the rear-view mirror. "Drive to Bloomers, they'll have what we want!" Mom directed. Dad had barely stopped the car in front of Bloomers Nursery when Mom flung her door open, heaved herself out of the car, and began pushing her walker across the gravel driveway. I ran ahead to clear a path. Dad followed behind, anxiously pushing his own walker over the unsteady ground and yelling, "Sis, stop her before she falls!"
But there was no stopping her. In what would be a final burst of energy my mother, with her signature tenacity, hoisted her walker over a railroad tie and came to a stop in front of a bush covered in gorgeous deep orange blooms. "This is it, don't you think?" she said, grinning and glancing at me for approval.
She appeared to sleep on the ride home, but as soon as Dad pulled into the driveway Mom sprung back into action, barking orders from her perch on a rickety bench: "get my trowel from the wheelbarrow; bring that bag of garden mulch and there's a box of bone meal in the shed; be careful as you remove her from the container, her roots are fragile; fill the hole with water and fertilizer before you put her in; take your time, don't hurry, give her roots time to settle."
Everything I know about roses, I learned from my mother. She'd walked me through the steps of planting, transplanting, pruning and feeding many times before. This time she recited every detail as it if were the first time, though I imagine she took such care because she knew it would be the last.
Later, I came into the bedroom to find my mother once again standing at the window, peering out at the patio. "She's a beauty, isn't she?" she said, motioning to Pumpkin Patch. "She's just perfect," I replied.
"Afterwards" she said, "you'll take her home with you, okay?"
And every time she blooms I'll think of you, Mom.