Your Love is an Ocean

me and dadShe radiated energy and baptized us in joy. With her voice and her smile, her dancing and drumming, and all the rest. I couldn’t stop smiling. Thank you, Serena Ryder.

In the wake of all this loveliness and joy I had a vision, a memory of one of the many stories that comprise my experience of the world: A beautiful, young, dark-haired man on a bike, riding through European countryside towards the spot where his mother’s body lay buried. He lays his bike down on the ground, and then his body, to spend the night sleeping on her grave.

The man is my father, and today, within the echoes of all that stunning joy such a short time ago, I felt the echoes of his grief. Intensely. I wept for him on that night, and on those countless other nights where he bore the horror of his war-torn country and the uncertainty of his future on a frame reduced to the bare minimum of thin muscle and skin on bone, on a stomach empty but for potato peels found in the garbage. I wept for him, and for my mother, and for their parents, and my aunts and uncles and cousins—an entire tribe that in some ways still remembers and carries the pain and injury and horror of that time.

Many years later, when medical tests showed the record of those lean years in the form of much scar tissue in his stomach, my father simply said it’s a good reminder not to be wasteful or ungrateful for daily bread. It’s a hard reminder. But I am conscious again of how gratitude and pain are so often braided together, and of how these lumpy multi-textured braids make up the fabric of our experience.

I’m also conscious of how, if we are open to the undercurrents of our lives, these braids carry the potential to expand and enrich and strengthen our being. Running headlong into my mortality two years ago altered me, yes, in ways potentially wonderful, but in darker ways also. It has given me a heightened sensitivity to life and love and joy (it sounds trite, but I have never loved my husband more), but the heightened sensitivity is bittersweet, and includes sorrow, fear, and anger in doses I was not conscious of before.

You may at times want to shy away from my honesty about this place I’m in, and that’s fine, shy away if you’re not comfortable. But just as we all needed to talk about the heartbreak of young love many years ago, or the rigorous and relentless challenges of our sleepless babies and, later, our adolescents determined to find their own way in the world, I need words now also, to help me navigate this place of heightened awareness I am in some ways mostly alone with.

As the voice and drums and lyrics of a few short nights ago continue to echo in my body, I am conscious of the anchor writing is for me.  And you, my family and friends and readers, are the ocean into which I throw this anchor, because, as Serena Ryder so beautifully puts it, “Your love is like an ocean that always takes me home; whispering wind is blowing, telling me I’m not alone…I know that I’ll never drown.”

Your love is an ocean, it truly is.

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What the Body Remembers

heartDo we really record traumatizing injury in our muscles and fascia and hearts and stomachs? This question has been on my mind a lot lately. If it’s true, then holistic therapists of all kinds are potential healers in the truest sense of the word, and the work done by massage therapists and herbalists and acupuncturists is every bit as important as that done by psychotherapists and medical doctors and others more commonly accepted as vital to our health.

I was on the receiving end of a deep tissue massage last week—torture of the sweetest kind, I told her. (I love you, I love you, all you beautiful and patient therapists!) In the wake of this though, less than 24 hours later, came a wave of intense emotion, which, while inconvenient, seems in retrospect to have been instructive and enriching.

Can these experiences be our teachers, our guides, our medicines? I know there are no guaranteed results for treatments or medicines of any kind, and that acceptance to reality is essential. But I also know that healing takes many forms, and that movement of all kinds—physical, emotional, energetic—is better than stagnation.

We’d been invited to dinner on the heels of all this intensity, and though I’d resolved not to talk about the experience, it was inevitable that it surfaced. My friend, not the one who’d delivered the massage but also a massage therapist, offered, along with her love, some illuminating and hopeful insights into my personality and some potential reasons for the circuitous path my recovery has been taking.

But this idea of chemical or psychological injury being recorded in our tissues—is it supported by science? It’s easy enough to see how physical injury can damage tissues and result in impaired range of motion, reduced lymph flow, and chronic pain. It seems a little less logical that chemical or psychic injury might leave physical footprints, but I do know this: my muscles and fascia and joints do not behave as they once did, nor do they feel normal to the trained hands of a massage therapist.

There’s a bit of distance between theory and what we accept as fact, I know. But what we do know seems reason enough for me to continue to pursue the direction I’ve chosen. Neurobiologists, my therapist reminded me a couple of weeks ago, are discovering that our hearts and stomachs have nervous tissue identical to that found in the brain. They contain millions of nerve cells that register stress and possess the characteristics and biochemical reactions of brain cells, and have an intelligence that can actually lead our brains in how we interpret the world. (Gut reactions.) We also know that neural-like muscle cells are being considered for the purpose of treating brain and spinal cord injuries.

It doesn’t seem all that large a leap to me then, from cerebral memory to the idea that our bodies might remember also.

I know this—injury, whether emotional, physical or chemical, involves the release of enormous levels of stress hormones, hormones that have all kinds of adverse physical effects when they remain high, which is exactly what occurs with trauma.

The idea of our tissues recording the events of our lives is perhaps less foreign when we consider how our immune systems maintain information about past infections to offer immunity. Or when we consider that genetic and epigenetic research tells us that our genes store all kinds of complex information, and that the famine or death camp our grandmothers survived shows up in our genes today.

In light of all this, it ought not be surprising then that the after-effects of myofascial bodywork, or of herbs known to address stagnation, might include emotional responses. And the theory that this stirring of the waters might in the end permit us to more fully process overwhelming experience and perhaps leave us a tiny bit less scarred is extremely hopeful to my mind. But then, I’ve always been determinedly optimistic.

To my psycho- or massage-therapist friends who might happen to read these thoughts—if I’ve understood this incorrectly or left out key elements, please do fill me in!

Tell the Truth, and Chase Happiness

chasing happinessYou tell me that your nights are cold and dark and long, and that words of beauty and love and hope ring hollow; I believe you.

Friends speak to you of the warmth they feel in the wind; you feel only the chill. They speak to you of birdsong, but though the birds sing and all around you it is spring, it registers only distantly with you, like church bells a thousand miles away meant to call only others to comfort.

Others still speak to you of the blessings that come with your loss; you feel only the loss. They speak of silver linings and positive attitudes. You’ve tried to see and wear these, but it only makes you feel more alone. Your rose-colored glasses have been shattered along with your world, and you feel no strength with which to face it.

Pain is a lonely place. This is true, whether it is your body or your parents or your children or your lover or your best friend or your government that has betrayed you. Those on safe perches and still in possession of rose-colored glasses have no right to hold out to you shiny words.

We’re built for happiness, not for platitudes, and happiness is not something that comes through another’s pink glasses. We must chase our own bliss, and we must chase it with every ounce of energy we can muster, because without it at least on the horizon, we will despair, and quit.

Chasing it is hard work though, and requires, literally, strength. So if you have no bed where sleep might restore an ounce of strength, and have lost the ability to come in possession of one through the ways you once knew: beg, borrow or steal one. If you have no pretty words, find a safe place for the words you do have. If you have no balm for your loneliness or pain, look someplace you haven’t yet looked.

You have a right to want to be here, to feel a smile from deep within.

And even if you fear your time here will expire long before you want it to, as some of my fellow cancer bloggers are, you have a right to want to be here, and to speak your truth about your rage, however uncomfortable this might be for others. You have a right to the clear-eyed vision you are now in possession of, and a right to tell those trying to persuade you to look at the bright side to please stop. You have a right to chase whatever it is that just might have the power to comfort you, and to make you smile now and then through your pain and tears.

Spring

spring 3I’ve been reminded, not just cerebrally, but in the shape of deeper knowing and experience, that spring is a most glorious gift. And that it often comes on the heels of deep, deep sleep.

And sleep, another of those most glorious of gifts, comes on the heels of a decreased stress response, on the heels of the hard, hard work that facilitates how we respond to injury. It comes on the heels of acceptance and peace, and a rise in anti-stress hormones.

To wake in the morning deliciously and deeply relaxed, to feel at one with your bed, to stir with gratitude and gentle anticipation of the new day, these are not things to be taken for granted. They’re truly not, though we tend to, until they’ve become elusive for one reason or another.

What just may have the potential to bring spring, that return to the budding of new life, can be many things, but it often involves persevering through something that is utterly exhausting. It involves a stanching of the bleeding or weeping that has long been sapping our energy, leaving us depleted and anxious and paralyzed.

There are many levels to this, in my experience: Insight into the origin of the wound beneath the weeping, yes, but insight that must finally translate into wisdom, a deeper knowing, right down to the DNA of our cells.

How this takes place is a little mysterious to me, but I do know there are many avenues to this transformation, and many key ingredients.

Key ingredients include courage, patience, resolve. The willingness to take risks. Investigation into the reasons we have lost our resilience, or voice, or ability to take action. It involves refusing defeat. It involves accepting that which cannot be changed at this particular moment, but determinedly pursuing happiness nonetheless. It involves knowing our essence is indestructible, no matter how injured or fatigued our body and psyche may at times become.

Change of this sort ends up changing us chemically also, at the level of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones, and physically, in the new paths our neurons forge. And I believe the reverse is also true—the raw materials of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones must be present to work synergistically with the psychic ingredients to facilitate the process of healing and deep change.

Once we’ve persevered through this process, and not given in to fatigue or the temptation to take the easier path, we begin to see more clearly. We become less vulnerable to further injury. We become less naïve, stronger, more creative and resilient. We remember again how to nurture and affirm ourselves. We counter negative messages with messages that though we are imperfect, we’ve been devoted and given our best. We take back much of what has been lost. We are no longer caught off-guard by the thieves within our own psyches, nor by those events and people around us bent on putting our lights out. We begin to register their presence early enough to take a different path, one bordered by tiny buds of promising new growth.

I’m so honored and happy to have been given much love through the winter, and to welcome spring again, and to be on this path with a small but brilliantly shining tribe of human beings.