Not fixed

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On a rainy Wednesday, tucked up in my third floor office, a client tells me she’s feeling better. Much better. She can recover from setbacks more quickly, she feels a vitality that’s been missing these past years. She’s caught herself laughing.

But.

She wants to know if she’s fixed now. If it’s this craniosacral work that’s made the difference. Or is it random. Or the dietary changes. Or just feeling less jangled by the world.

“Hm,” I say. “What a good question.”

It is a good question. So often, when we’re sick or depressed or feeling broken in some way, we want to be fixed. We want clear lines that explain neatly how we got here and then lead us, step by step, out of the discomfort.

But English is beautiful sometimes.

Because fixed has several meanings:
We can fix as in repair or mend. Our water line, the broken coffee mug, the ear of our child’s rabbit stuffie.
But fixed is also fastened in place. As in stuck. Unmoving.

In this sense, fixed is actually a very good description of what happens when we aren’t well. Whether we’re talking about a group of muscles or a sense of despair, in very real ways recovering our health means we need to become UNfixed.

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We are dynamic. Every part of us – every part – wants to move. And so our metaphors for health demand the same. What if we saw ourselves not as broken, but as stuck – fixed – in certain places, and then looked for movement? What if we supported the veins, tributaries and currents of health?  Doing so might take us a little further afield, to include in our conception of health all the ways we feel in flow. What we eat, how we sleep, who we share ourselves with, what we let go.

So is my dear client “fixed” now? I’m not sure. I can say that the life she’s describing  – more vital, quicker to recover – sounds a lot more buoyant.  And that seems like something to celebrate. IMG_6976

Comfortable with Chaos and 5 Other Lessons from the Garden

 

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A few years ago, a neighbor, surveying my “flower” garden of rambling lupine, Solomon’s seal, of swollen dandelion heads and raspy ferns, said evenly, “Hmm. It’s nice that you’re so comfortable with chaos.”

She was on to something. Not so much that I’m comfortable with chaos as in love with wildness. The garden brings me to the truth of growth and becoming in its haphazard, uneven beauty. If I want to enjoy it, there’s just no room for perfectionism.

And it happens that the garden is at its bloomingest right now: fireworks of allium, noble Siberian irises, unabashed peony. Each says something different. In amongst all that growth, the garden yields its richest and most instructive metaphors. Here are five lessons from my perfectly weedy, chaotic garden: 

1. Beauty matters. When I started gardening, I dismissed flowers as frivolous. “Only vegetables!” I declared. Later, I allowed that perennial flowers might have a place. Now I load up on annuals. Bring on the beauty! The time for flowering is now: in the soil, in that miraculous peony, and yes, in you. Let it bloom.

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2. Feed your soil. Imagine what might happen if you focused on the nourishment of your being – the mineral stuff that feeds you – rather than the products of your labor. Sleep, joy, food, solitude, connection. What might fruit when roots are tended to?

3. Dysfunction is information and invitation. Like the crick in your neck or the argument with your lover, weeds gesture to something amiss beneath the surface. All that purslane whispers: too much phosphorous. Inside the mess is information about what we need and an invitation to amend.

4. Building health works better than eradication. Weeds don’t go away. You can try to pull up all the quack grass, sure, or go after the volunteer tomatillos on your knees. But we cannot rid ourselves of dysfunction by excavation. Instead, we build into health over time: mulching, feeding, moving, listening, layering. Those weeds are never really gone, but they can be made quiet while the tomatoes sweeten and thrive.

5. Everything flowers. Not every year, not always obviously (and, yes botanists, we could split hairs on ferns and mosses…). But every plant possesses this gift. Who are we in our fullest expression? There’s more to say about this, but there’s no need, since Galway Kinnell says it most beautifully:

Saint Francis and the Sow

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

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Trashcans and hurricanes / explaining craniosacral therapy to an 8-year-old

IMG_5378If you are in my line of work, there is a thing that happens at parties and barbecues: Someone asks what you do and as soon as you say the words biodynamic craniosacral therapist, you’ve… lost them. Aren’t you, dear reader, losing a bit of interest even seeing that phrase? Biodynamic craniosacral. It’s such a mouthful that it buries itself.

And then, on the way to school, passing wild turkeys and frozen fields, my daughter asks a question from the backseat that gets to the heart of this problem.

“But what do you really do? When you work it looks like… nothing.”

I started studying craniosacral work in 2012, and just finished a two and a half year deep dive certification in this particular approach. Every day I see how powerful the work is, but I have not cracked this particular code: How to simply explain what it is.

Because an 8 year old? She doesn’t want to hear about the relational field and down regulation, she could care less about cerebrospinal fluid and the sphenobasilar junction. And if you can’t help a kid understand what you do in practical language, can you really explain what you do?

I take a breath. “Well…” How do I convey the idea of energy? 

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“Let’s say there’s a hurricane, and it blows over the trashcan. It just topples over and starts sliding across the street. What would happen if you walked out in the middle of the hurricane and stood it back up?”

“It would knock over again.”

“Right. And again, and again. As long as the hurricane’s blowing, the trashcan’s going over.” I check the rearview mirror to make sure she’s still with me. “But, what if you could talk directly to the hurricane? What if you could understand energy – forces that are everywhere and invisible, but not always as loud as a hurricane – and help the hurricane start to calm. Then what would happen to the trashcan?”

“It would just stay put.” We’re getting somewhere. Energy precedes matter is a fundamental principal of biodynamic. If we talk to the underlying patterns, we influence everything else, trashcans included.

“And what if we zoomed right in – on this steering wheel, or my bag here or your leg. What would we see?”

“Dust.” This is… so true. It’s February after all. I keep going.

“Yes. And if we zoomed in *even* further than that? Just kept zooming in and in?”

“Atoms.”

“Yes!” I’m trying not to get overly excited“Ok, and if we zoom in on the atoms, what do we see?”

“Electrons?”

“Right! We’ve got these electrons spinning round and round protons and neutrons. We’ve actually got – when we get right down to this atomic zoom level – we’ve actually got much more space than stuff. If we focus on the space, we influence the stuff.” We are more space than matter. In cranio, we’re less interested in the conditional adaptations than the health that underlies it all. We focus on what is well, on what organizes health. I think she’s getting this.

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“So, you speak the language of energy? Like, you know the words and sentences to talk to energy?” Kids are quick.

“Yes. But language is a lot about listening. You know how there are certain people you want to talk to and certain people you…don’t?” I parody an awkward adult to show what I mean, “‘Do you like school, little girl?‘ In cranio, we want to listen in a way that makes you comfortable enough to come out of your shell, so that we can have a real conversation, and maybe shift things together.” Establishing resonance. 

So there, in 5 minutes, is a beginner’s guide to Biodynamic Craniosacral therapy: trashcans, hurricanes, dust, listening. Easier to follow, right?

Maybe I’ll try that at the next barbecue.


Two upcoming Root Therapy events:

  • There are still a few available sessions for the lower cost clinic on March 30th (45-minute sessions for $40). Please be in touch if you’d like to schedule one.
  • We’re still buzzing from the wonderful Embodied Writing: Seasons series that wrapped up earlier this month. The next Embodied Writing: Seasons series will run in April – be sure to sign up for the newsletter if you’d like to know when registration opens!

The Sages in the Attic

IMG_4135The sound of giggling is loud, up in the attic. Today my daughter and her best friend have decided they are a band – Family Freeze Dance, they call themselves – and they are using an old cassette player to record their frenetic, squealing, strumming, yelling, talking “music.” A peek behind the door reveals a vision of summertime seven-year-olds: covered in bug bites and dirt, missing teeth, routinely distracted by fart jokes.

But there is another kind of magic happening up there too, one that we sometimes forget on our way to adulthood: Delight in communion. Resonant joy. No one is managing the other’s experience, worrying over how they are, or trying to help.

I’m thinking about this as I remember a conversation with a client on what it means to be responsible.  Many of us, many of us women in particular, have grown up with the sense that we need to track and manage the well being of everyone in our orbit. To take on what they’re feeling. To make it okay. Those expectations come early, with an insidious subtlety.

But follow that a little further, and we can end up coming to all kinds of bizzare-o conclusions: That things will fall apart without our help, that we need to catch anyone around us who falls. That if we aren’t care-taking, we’ll be left.

Our good intentions unwittingly say something else. Because if everyone needs helping, no one’s quite right as they are.IMG_3247Of course, we do need each other. Lots and lots. But if you’ll allow me a little semantic latitude, taking care of each other is different from care-taking each other. We want the people we care for to feel better, but we cannot do the feeling for them. We aren’t responsible for that (or entitled to it).

Back in the days when I was too sick to do much, I saw a lot of practitioners I wanted to lift me out of the pool of my own suffering. But the ones who did the most never bought into the story that I needed fixing; they let me hold my own power close, they trusted something deep and potent within me.

Here is what those kids upstairs with their very, very loud “music” show us: We are here to remind each other of who we already are. To return to the creative, unhindered, healthy selves that have always been here. We may facilitate that process for each other, but in important ways, we don’t do anything except show up. Which is everything.

Quick note: There’s still time to join the Embodied Writing workshop on Saturday, September 30th. We’d love to see you there!

Learning to Float

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A friend asked me recently why I write, and I realized I had no idea.  Which is a funny thing to say, when you’ve been teaching writing workshops all over town.

The thing is, why can be such a small question when it bumps up against processes that are messy and close. Why seeks linearity, explanations. When I go to the page, I have no idea how things will go, what actually lurks beneath the scratchy thing that got me there in the first place. Writing is discovery, trash heap, breezy porch, silver thread. Writing is connection.

Which is how I find myself, with 12 other women, on yoga mats in front of the campus vending machines on a Saturday morning.

We are a sea of spandex and tight cotton, warming up our bodies to tap into our creativity for a short unit I’m teaching on Embodied Writing, a practice I’ve developed that combines movement and breath with writing and (optional) sharing.

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“So,” Claudette turns to me brightly, “Are we ready?” Claudette is one of the directors of In Her Presence, a group she co-founded to “help immigrant women grow their collective empowerment.” Each Saturday women gather in groups according to English language level, each in rich conversation on any number of topics: poetry, job applications, health, or U.S. history. I look out at the group.

“This isn’t school,” I say. “You don’t have to worry about grammar or spelling. We’ll give ourselves permission to play with writing, to see where we go.” Someone says the word “permission” in Arabic.  We talk about listening with reverence. A pause – does this word translate? Someone says in French, “Oui, just the same, révérence.”

We have time for one prompt today: I remember. The room goes quiet with the scribbling of pencils, all of us bent over our notebooks, remembering. When it’s time to share, Olivia (names changed), a grandmother from Iraq in a yellow scarf, declares, “Remember? What is this remember! We come here to FORGET.” Celine, from Burundi, is talking about the contents of her fridge while Aya writes about talking to her mother this morning, still in Damascus. We listen and laugh or nod or sometimes weep, each of us moved, each of us recognizing ourselves in each other’s stories.

IMG_2988There is a spark in these moments. Writing becomes a way of making ourselves known to ourselves and each other. We learn to do what we have always done: to be open and listening, to play and be curious, like children.

I have been doing these workshops all over town. At barns in Freeport and Flamenco Studios in Portland, with intellectually disabled adults at art centers, at yurts in Cumberland.

It doesn’t seem to matter who we are or where we come from or how we think or what we believe. The common denominator is our bodies that contain our stories, and the mercy and exultation of creativity and witness.

So perhaps this is why I write, because it is so much like learning to float.

The swimmer discovers her own buoyancy not by curling and compressing – that posture will sink her – but in opening and releasing. In this tenderest place, we float. The water holds us when we trust it at our backs.

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Activism & intimacy

icy-pondOh, friends. Each day seems to bring a wave of destructive news and I am finding myself – and those around me – teetering between fight, flight and freeze, our personal and collective nervous systems spun right out. For those of us looking for a way forward, there are beautiful words to help us digest and gear up and go.

But then you find a lump in your body that shouldn’t be there and everything goes both quiet and loud. And you discover something about activism that you really needed to learn.

I had one of those doctors appointments no one wants to have. We find something, we don’t know what it is, we’re scared. My mind became a rolodex of maladies, history and genetics, previous medicines and pre-existing conditions collapsing into only terrible possibilities.

Outside the snow was falling thick and fast, washing everything to grey white. So many layers to remove for my arrival – winter boots and coat, hat, gloves, sweaters, long underwear. Waiting there in the room with the thin gown felt like an added injury; this isn’t the season for naked vulnerability.

Between my body and spinning mind, I was well worked up by the time the nurse walked in. “So,” she said, “You’re having some pain.” And then came a tumble from me: “Yes, it started last week, it hurts so much, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m kind of freaking out.”

And here she did something radical. She paused, put down her clipboard, and turned her full attention to me. “Why don’t you tell me,” she said, “what you’re afraid of. Maybe then I can help and reassure you.”

That was all I needed. Permission to be human, and to be seen. Her gaze didn’t break through my sobbing. And her kind listening got me to the truth of my own predicament, less terrifying when it was named: When you’ve been chronically ill, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when you’re better. joshua-tree

A few days later (and thanks to the ACA), all the tests are fine. My health fears have been allayed, but my global fears have not. Still I can’t stop thinking about that moment when a stranger paused to listen, and offered a kind of intimacy that was deeply humanizing.

So much political violence is predicated on our distance. It asks that we stay far away, put humans in categories, categories in boxes, fear those boxes, check them off, move on.

No.

When we are willing to get in close, we align ourselves with each other’s humanity. We say: we’re in this together, you and me. The truth is, we’re not actually separate. Buddhists could tell you this, but so can microbiologists. This is no Kumbaya metaphor, but a description of how we’re constituted.

Ed Yong’s fascinating book, I Contain Multitudes, lays this out beautifully; even the idea of the individual is untenable at the level of cell and microbe. We are interlocking, same but different ecosystems, vast venn diagrams of bacteria, overlapping. It isn’t just that we’re dirty – we’re dirt. Teeming multitudes. We need to rethink the whole paradigm.

This is intimacy writ small: We aren’t so different. And if I can extrapolate a bit here, there is radical activism in taking this truth into our interactions, in getting close with those we don’t know and acknowledging that their struggle is also ours. The nurse did that for me, and now I move into the world looking for how I’ll do that too.

Here’s my start: I’ll be offering Embodied Writing workshops at the Cancer Community Center, Bomb Diggity Arts and for immigrant and refugee organizations in and around Portland. I’ll be dedicating one day a month to donate all proceeds to social, immigrant and environmental justice organizations (write me if you’d like to recommend one).

But let’s back up a bit. Why don’t you tell me what you’re afraid of. And then let’s see what we can do together.

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Movements.

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“Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.”
— Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

This election, this time. So many of us are surfing between despair and determination, navigating how to help, grieve, get out of the way, get in the way.

The ground shifts and the old tools seem small. Where writing has helped me make sense of things in the past, “making sense” now feels like the wrong frame. Instead, I’m thinking about movements. The kind we make with our bodies, and the ways we move as a collective, mobilizing towards change.

At my wedding, nearly ten years back, I watched my cousin – 20 years old, visiting from Sweden, lanky, towering and fine-boned – step onto a dance floor for the first time. She looked around at all the others, twisting and turning to the music, and… started jumping. Feet together, arms at her side, sailing above the crowd, great unstoppable pogo stick bounds. She danced like this for hours. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, both discovery and arrival. Her face beamed.

My cousin did not wait for instructions, wade into Facebook arguments, wring her hands on the side. I’m in danger of stretching this parable too far, but she was teaching something big: When the music compels you, just go.

If we are committed to movement, we need to move. And rarely are new movements graceful. They are bumbling and unfamiliar and create something we haven’t seen before. We don’t need to wait until we figure it out before we act.

img_1833If we’re stepping into the terrain of social movements, our missteps can be particularly uncomfortable. We’ll screw up in small and large ways and if we’re lucky these mistakes will be brought to our attention. And hopefully, we’ll listen. We’ll listen like children do, not holding the cloak of our egos against us for protection, but letting it in. Trying again. We have to get out on the floor.

What that floor looks like depends on who we are. I’m deeply inspired by what I see around me: healer friends offering sessions by donation, business owners offering profits to the ACLU, people organizing in kitchens and city halls, teachers standing up for the safety of their students.

I don’t know that it’s going to be okay.  But a few questions are helping guide me anyhow:

  • Where do I spend (and not spend) my money to align with what I value?
  • How and where will I gather with other bodies to organize, plot, subvert, protect, create?
  • How can I leverage my privilege in places where it matters?
  • How do I self-correct, learn, go deeper, and account for my mistakes?
  • How will I listen?
  • How will I keep myself resourced and grounded so I can keep doing this work?

There is so much good material out there on what we can do. For a start, I’ll be donating a portion of my December earnings toward the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and our local Planned Parenthood chapter. I’ll be walking, gathering, and listening, and then I’ll try something different.

Listening Beneath the To Do Lists

thistleI hadn’t noticed it at first. The lists seemed so innocent. “Once fall gets here,” they all began, and after that came a litany: I’ll exercise more, reach out to that friend I’ve been meaning to, do that thing and make that thing and clean that thing… Fall things, productive things. I was just waiting for the right timing.

Innocent, right? Until I was on my way somewhere recently and noticed how tightly I was holding myself, how packed in I felt. All those lists, I realized, had created this quiet patina of self-scolding; there was so much to DO, after all, to get things in order. But rarely do kind statements begin with, “If only you’d…” No, their subtext is clear and sharp: Pull yourself together, girl. Fix the problem (which is you).

The truth is that for many of us, those to do lists ramp up right when the din of our actual discomfort gets too loud to bear. Instead of slowing down to notice what’s really happening – loneliness, exhaustion, overwhelm – we put window dressing on the tender spots, gloss them over with busy-ness. It’s comically bad timing: Just when we’re feeling less than together, we wag our fingers at ourselves to get it together.

But what if our discomfort isn’t wrong? What if we don’t fuel the myth that we need fixing? And what if getting low and close and comfortable with those vulnerable places is one of the greatest kindnesses we could extend to ourselves?img_1386This inner “I just need to…” is quietly habitual, a pattern we developed long ago, without thinking. It insists we only…need to… hold it…together and [fill in the blank] will be alright.

Friends, let’s just put down the lie that we’re holding anything together.

This doesn’t mean that we’re irresponsible with our loved ones, that we stop showing up for work or give up on showering. Just that we allow ourselves to be softly honest about what dwells inside.

The funny thing is, we know how to do this… when it comes to other people. If you’ve sat with a friend when she’s in distress, or a child who is twisting himself in strange contortions because something is amiss, you know: First, you listen. You just show up. When we offer permission instead of “solutions,” there’s more space for things to grow – not by coercing and cajoling, but tending and trusting. 

Brené Brown writes beautifully on this topic (and if you have 2:54, please watch this sweetest bit of animation from her, also linked at the end of this post), which she frames as the difference between feeling with someone (empathy) and trying to “help” them (sympathy). If we really want to make something better, says Brown, what we say matters so much less than the quality of our connection.

True, it’s often easier to see how to do this for someone else.  But maybe we could practice pausing at those “if only you’ds,” listening for what lies beneath them, and offering empathy to ourselves. That’s a punch list I could actually get behind.Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 4.48.35 PM

 

The solace of no solace

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This one is hard.

I heard the poet David Whyte say recently that a good elegy is a conversation between grief and celebration.

And, so. Here we are. It’s 12 days since we lost our soul companion and guardian, our 10-year-old giant of a dog, Charlie.

I’ve written about him here before, a big Collie Shepherd mix with a coat like marshes in winter: faded brown, tinges of red and beige. He had ludicrously white legs, as though he had put on bleached knee highs. He wasn’t cuddly. He did not lick. If you tried to snuggle him while he lay, he would get up, irritated, shaking himself off.  His preference was to lean his whole body in to you, or to wait, just off to the side, working the perimeter. He was steady and constant and heartbreakingly gentle.

But really, how do you write about your own breath? How do you write about the tragedy of loud silence? We talk instead about what he would have wanted: To go to the pond.

To see Charlie walk in his woods was to see a being utterly alive in himself. He would tilt his head at the word “pond,” pick up pace, bounce like a deer.

He could fly in praise of love and the arrival of someone he was happy to see, a whirling blur, impossibly fast, leaping and sailing in circles around the cars. His whole body cried: Yes! Yes! Here we are! Let us move! And off he took, sometimes crashingly.

IMG_0266.JPGGrief does funny things. It seems to slice through what is unimportant, gracelessly. It clarifies. It becomes obvious who can sit with you in the sadness, and who squirms in the face of it, or tries to fix it. It reminds you of times when you may have squirmed or tried to fix someone else’s grief, and softens you. It has a raw and merciless physicality – like a rope burn or an ache or a stone. And when that physicality dims – normalcy washing up on the shore of your days – that has its own grief, because it carries you further away from the time your loved one was here. A living body.

When we got Charlie from a shelter up the coast, he had been abandoned twice already. He was wild, skittish. 6 months old, with big feet and a body that would soon double in size, he would whine and jump and throw himself. His movement was careening, without regard for objects or people (or their bad knees) that might be in the way.

But we stuck together, and in that permission, he came home to himself. Grew into the gentle watching giant he was. Animals can do the same for us; their touch and constancy melting us into who we were to begin with. Until we are irrevocably marked by love.

In the end, as the cancer grew, his body diminished. But not his light. Charlie is buried out beneath the apple tree on the edge of the field, and the world seems to echo with him, in grief and celebration.

And oh, how we miss him.

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