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.

Like a Shovel Hitting Stone

photo 1 (7)There are times when, by habit or determination, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel (pick your back-breaking metaphor!), we are plugging along in our lives, and then, with a sudden thwack, we hit upon a truth we wish we’d never seen. Or maybe (if we are being honest) we’d been trying to avoid all along.

The first time this happened to me I remember the exact feeling: Like I had put my shovel down in the dirt and hit a giant stone. Gardeners out there know this particular kind of bodily reverberation – you’re moving with the momentum of the swing and then, with a clang and a jarring stop, you can’t go further. The stone is there, perhaps movable, perhaps not, staring you back with its own simple truth: This won’t work for you.

What had actually happened was this: I had taken a job in a southern state and – it wasn’t working. My schedule had me on the clock sometimes 80 hours a week, my boss undermined our team’s efforts, I felt cut off from my creative self. And my body had begun to mutiny, leaving me weaker and more desperate by the day.

But it didn’t occur to me that it could be otherwise. The job was coveted and at a prestigious institution, and furthermore, I had committed. When I beat out all those other applicants I had said yes, I certainly did anticipate being there at least 3-5 years.

Until one day, when I realized I could leave. And the truth hit my body with that jarring clang. Oh no! I thought. I cannot do this. It can’t be true! I promised! I’m not a quitter!

But of course, what I had been quitting was myself. The sine qua non of my life. And there was that big rock in the garden, just not budging. A clear, solid stop.

photo 2 (7)Those rocks can be different sizes, of course. Sometimes, they can be unearthed to make space for us to go deeper. Sometimes, they are just the right size to make the struggle meaningful. But they don’t steer us wrong. And when we honor those stopping places, we include more of ourselves in our lives.

Not that this feels like a party.

This summer I’ve come across another frustrating stone. Many of my clients know that issues in my hands have led me to take a pause in my practice. I tried working through these for some time until I realized the folly in the incongruence – I can’t ask clients to take care of themselves if I’m clearly not! And I can’t insist that the body’s pace demands respect if I don’t stop to actually listen to what my body is saying.

I miss my wonderful clients, but know that this rest imbues my practice with new energy and direction, and allows me to go deeper, to consider what tools to bring forward and what kinds of work strengthen me (and, of course, you!).

I’m looking forward to returning, and in the meanwhile have been leaning into this bit of wisdom from Anne Lamott:

“Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.” 
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Dropping the can’ts, a love letter to a dog.

If you have ever skinned your knee or torn your ACL or woken up with a crick in your neck – that is, if you are human – you know pain. But something funny happens on the way to our brains. Instead of punctuation, pain can begin to feel like a sentence: something we will always have, a nagging reminder of ways we can’t.

I see this in my clients (as well as myself and everyone I know) – how body discomfort narrows the horizon of possibility, and spins us into an irrefutable list of broken: We’re injured, out of shape, pushing 40 (30, 70), we don’t move this or that particular way, our bank account is low. For very good reasons, we feel circumscribed by what we see as the limitations of our bodies.

And then, I take my dog for a walk in the woods, and the whole lie is revealed.

More accurately, I take him on a little cross country ski expedition on the trails behind the dump in our small town and watch him transform into a fluid, joyful form.

Charlie is not a small dog. Or a young dog. He is a long-nosed, constantly shedding, 90 pound, Shepherd Collie mix. Nearly a decade into his life, his muzzle is graying, and when he lumbers across the yard, you can almost hear his joints creaking. Like most of us, he has spent the last few months curled up in a ball by the wood stove, waiting for spring.noname

But once in the woods, there is no lumbering. Charlie careens like a puppy.  He is a streaking blur of movement and limbs. We encounter two other skiers, each with their own off leash dogs. One exclaims, “He’s so big but…so playful!”

We marvel at him together.

He has a beautiful disregard for his size, his age, for mortality or limitation. He is himself – skimming along – a wordless, embodied creature.

… but not a linear one. At night, Charlie circles a million times before he comes to a flop in a big, graceless exhale. He isn’t consistent either – barking wildly at the plastic bag that has blown across the lawn, but oblivious to the scratch scratch scratching of the mouse that wakes me in the night the one time I would like him to bark, to make some kind of exhortation and startle this vermin away and he… sleeps on.

When my daughter was 3 we ended up in the emergency room to treat her small, dislocated elbow. It was an excruciating experience, not being able to take away the pain she felt. But the doctor performed a quick osteopathic maneuver and – within minutes – she was laughing and playing with toys in the waiting room. Over it. The doctor said to me, “Children and animals aren’t stupid like grown ups. They hurt when they hurt and then they don’t when they don’t. None of this trying to be better business, none of this worrying or pretending.”

I remember this as I watch Charlie fly through the woods. There is something in that unpredictable, take-it-as-it comes careen that is a revelation. Given the chance to be outside, to be moving, to be with his people – the dog almost visibly hums with the joy of it all. True, the other 98% of the time he’s laid out on his side by the fire, showing age in the way he moves. But he seems to say something else: Yes, I am achey and older, but also resilient. Perhaps this is the trick to health: to drop so fully into the present that the can’t stories fall away.

Now if I could just get him to scare off that mouse.

The Foundational Extras


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Recently, a friend asked me if I had any new hobbies. “Hobbies?” I stammered.

“Yes,” he said, “like macrame or jigsaw puzzles or beading. Hobbies.” I was stumped – was he joking? Making funny small talk?

But he was serious – and strategizing. This summer, he explained, he played baseball.  And it was amazing. Every week, he saw friends, got outside, skinned his knees. There was so much good that came from that weekly routine. And with summer over, he was  looking for something to fill the gap. “I’m thinking of taking up sewing,” he said.

Which got me thinking. There are those activities that, from the outside, look like extras. Whether it’s baseball or dance, writing or running, these things might seem superfluous. When we say “hobby,” we’re not usually talking about Something Important. But it is often these activities that are the foundation of our balance. They are competitive or playful or sweat-inducing or relaxing, and they bring us back to simply doing what we’re doing: no long term goal, no need-to-complete, just a bit of ease and focus.

Call them hobbies, or practice, or lifelines, we commit to these activities because it’s time that feeds us. Even when we’re tired. Even when there are other more important things to do. Consider how you feel at the end of the run/massage/writing/bowling game. You might even catch yourself smiling.

In my work as a massage therapist, I get to witness how those clients that have committed to regular massage sessions reap profound benefits simply by showing up, consistently and intentionally.  They’ve found one activity in which practice helps them feel balance. But there are so many different kinds of hobby commitment.

You may have noticed this too: During the busiest times, we drop the “extras.”  When it doesn’t feel like there’s enough to go around, and it’s more important to get the [thing designated important] done, we simply don’t show up.  We skip class or practice or don’t make time. And in the absence of those things that bring us real joy or play or release, the needle spikes into that intolerable place we know as overwhelm.

It’s something I find often with my clients (and, ahem, myself). Those things that seem extraneous often reveal themselves to be the golden thread that’s actually holding it all together.  

So, as summer turns to fall, I wonder, what’s your hobby? I’m ready to commit to some new ones.

Maybe I’ll take up macrame.

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