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!

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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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Pine State Solitaire

“I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.” — Edward Abbey

IMG_0017When I was 19 years old I got a job as a kind of junior ranger at a tiny museum on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.  I unenrolled from university, crammed in hours waitressing, bought myself a little blue car, and drove west.

Until then, I had barely been west of Massachusetts. As a child, my family lived in a fourth floor walk up a few blocks from Boston Harbor surrounded by the smells and noise and lights that make a city, a city. Even when we moved to the suburbs, or visited relatives out in the country, there were always sisters, uncles, cousins, random visitors. My sense of space was peopled.

So it was strange, heading west as the country flattened out and then buckled up and broke open in unfamiliar colors and shapes, to discover uninhabited space.

My new home was a trailer park at the side of the canyon where coyotes gathered in large numbers. At night, I would call home from a pay phone out behind the dumpster, cupping my hand over the receiver to block the wind. How could I describe a landscape like this one? Infinite stars against a fathomlessly large sky. The smell of juniper, acid and blue, tinging the air. The voices on the other end sounded familiar, but mine seemed to disappear in my chest.

Out here, silence could be a choice. Spaciousness was a physical reality. Far from the crowded cities, I couldn’t help but encounter the one person I had brought along, someone whose company was quiet, and required little of me. It was new and surprising and strange.

I understood loneliness, but I had no vocabulary for solitude. And while I careened wildly between missing people desperately and enjoying having no one around, I also bumped into the solace I derived from being alone.

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A million internet tests will tell you if you are extroverted or introverted, but for me the designation is fluid and comes back to this: What nourishes you most of all, at this very moment?

Most of us cannot just throw our material goods in a car and head west (or east, or out). But sometimes, when we choose to turn off the noise and ride out whatever’s underneath, we discover that what we are actually missing is our selves, unhindered.

And when this feels like a true choice, we stumble on the grace of solitude. Without obligation, there’s a kind of freedom to roam the canyons and dry creek beds of our own inner world.

Making time for this unknown expanse ripens us for getting the joke. For discovering what makes us laugh deeply, open-mouthed and flare-nostriled. Or what moves us, invisibly, within.

To this day, I can’t really say what compelled me, against all better judgement, towards the unknown and unfamiliar.  Still, like all good mistakes, the decision brought me closer to who I actually was. Each day, after I’d walked tourists by mounds of rocks we described as ruins (particularly when there was snow, there was really nothing to see), I’d end with a quote from the writer Edward Abbey, himself a defender of solitaire desert living.  It was my secret and subversive salute to solitude.

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Please note: There are still spots left in the upcoming Embodied Writing workshop and series. Please contact me as soon as possible if you’d like to join!

 

Repurposing

IMG_6096.JPGThe line at the dump last week went all the way out to the road. Everyone, it seems, had the same idea with the turning of the calendar: Jettison all that old stuff. Clean out the debris. It’s 2016, after all.

And it’s true, many of us live with entirely too much clutter and stuff. I don’t mean just those extra salt and pepper shakers, but the unseen internal clutter that takes up its own space. Our old habits and beliefs have a way of crowding out new experiences. Perhaps we’ve always been the caretaker in our families, or the one who never seems to have it together, or the one who always does. We can get stuck believing that’s just How It Is.

We may try to shove those stories in the back of the closet, but they can be sticky. Not something we can leave at the curb.

Which brings me to this sweater. Or, more accurately, this pile of material that once  was a sweater. It lived in the drawer under the bed for years, daring me to toss it.

IMG_6100Perhaps you have some of these in your closet: hoodies, t-shirts, barely-held-together pants that violate every rule of clutter and cleaning. You don’t wear them, they aren’t beautiful. They take up space as odd, cotton-poly relics of a time or place you can’t quite shake.

This sweater was one of those unshakeable items; grey, holes in the elbows, it was wool but had gone through the wash and so didn’t quite fit right.

But 8 years ago, when I lived between the bathroom and the couch, slogging through a continuous flare of ulcerative colitis, I wore it all the time. And I wore it when I went into the hospital, and stayed for nearly a week. In the waiting area, seeing me hunched over and grimacing, a kind orderly asked if I needed a wheelchair. I was 30.

Things at the time were so threadbare that the sweater became a perfect uniform for the way I felt inside. Dusty, unfixable, fraying. As the years passed, and my health returned, I confess I felt oddly loyal to that sweater. We had been through so much together.

Our old patterns are like this. Yes, we’re totally sick of them, ready to not need or hurt or bend in the way we have. But, then… they were so useful once. They did serve a purpose.

Still, what if we could repurpose those old habits and put them in the service of new choices?  We may have learned that to get by we needed to take care of everyone else. And now, maybe we take our strong empathy and listen to ourselves also. It’s a different kind of space-clearing, one that doesn’t reject any part of us.

Over the holidays, thinking that I wanted to make something for friends and family, I stumbled on the idea of potholders. So practical! So easy! Who doesn’t need them?

Now, potholders have one job: To protect our hands from burning. Without some thick stuffing, they’re just closed up pockets.

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Which is when I remembered that sweater. There was something sublime in cutting it to pieces, in giving it a new job. In saying goodbye to all that.

Florida Scott-Maxwell writes, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.” I love this notion that part of becoming fierce in our lives is to claim the entirety of ourselves.  Even the broken bits.

I have more dump runs in my future. The house is in real need of de-cluttering. But on the inside, I’m curious what those old habits have to offer when they’re not running the show.

 

The Path Less Traveled

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A few months ago, I wrote here about issues I was having in my hands that necessitated a pause in my massage practice. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this, but the hiatus gifted me the space to ask important questions: What kind of healing work really resonates? What supports meaningful change and health? How is the work sustainable?

I didn’t go looking for these questions, but my hands (ba dum bum) were forced. Turns out, the body doesn’t traffic in subtle metaphors.

The view from my sweet new office.

The view from my sweet new office.

But the body also has its own wisdom. Those questions led me to a more expansive and nourishing approach to practice, and what’s emerging feels rich and deeply exciting. While my core focus is the same, I’m calling on a wider set of tools:

  • Neuromuscular therapy to help with areas of muscular discomfort
  • Zero Balancing to open foundational joints with gentle traction
  • Craniosacral work to amplify overall health and ground the nervous system

Because I’m listening for what kind of approach will be most supportive, no session looks quite the same. What is consistent, however, is what clients take with them: more ease, movement, and new choices. It’s a bit like massage, only fully clothed and with longer-lasting effects.

I was unsure of what to expect from my first [Root Therapy] session with Jones. Ultimately, I left the session feeling deeply empowered as an active participant in my experience on the table. Jones’ presence is supportive and wise; in her hands I could feel my body opening to it’s fullest potential of wellness. I experienced great relief of two specific injuries, and continue to enjoy a lingering sense of integrated, aligned embodiment.” K.W., Portland

IMG_5724Who is this work for? Most everyone! But it may speak especially to those who:

  • experience muscular pain and seek relief
  • are flummoxed by Big Questions and want support to feel at ease
  • crave nourishment and clearer purpose
  • need resources to help manage anxiety and stress
  • want a greater sense of their own bodies

My sessions still address tissue (sometimes the shoulders do need massage!), but we lean into a larger vocabulary – wider and more subtle – for meeting the body and offering support. Because we treat both energy and physical structure, a different depth of healing becomes available.

“I came into my session with Jones in a real state of sorrow, feeling very unsettled and vulnerable. She held space for all of my feelings and my story with such non-judgement and compassion that it felt like anything was permissible in the session. We talked, and then on the table, with her gentle energy guiding me, my body let go into acceptance of the void and the rawness. I left the session feeling considerably grounded and fully witnessed. Jones is a gifted healer who creates deeply safe space just by her presence.” — C.M., Portland

I hope that I’ll be able to offer full massage again soon, and I’m excited to share these modalities as a powerful alternative.

And speaking of exciting changes! A few more updates to share:

  • I’m offering $50 discounted introductory sessions (normally $70), so you can come in and see if the work resonates for you. Please feel free to contact me to schedule.
  • I have a new cozy office that is bright and peaceful and right downtown with easy parking. I’ve also expanded my hours to accommodate more schedules.
  • I’m returning to some of my teaching roots by offering workshops in embodied writing. The first workshop is full, but I’ll be scheduling more in January!

Yours in health, joy, and the path less travelled,

Jones

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