Hovering

hard, loud, early morning rain outside my open window
a long, crashing rumble of thunder;
be warm and dry and safe out there, dear child

and you, you heart-broken one,
frightened by the intensity of the grief,
the endless dark tunnel,
try to remember you will emerge
to see the sun again
and learn to live in the space between dark and light

the blue skies of childhood may not return
but blue skies will
the bounce in your hamstrings may sleep a long night
but what returns will be enough

the body remembers

it remembers both the joy and the horror
and it doesn’t know the difference
between the quiet imagined story
and the louder, more apparently real one;
it will respond to both

so tell yourself a story

and remember the hot summer sun,
being mesmerized by the iridescence of the dragonfly

poised and elegant, she hovers,
forward and backward,
upward and downward,
side to side
hovering, she sees past illusions
to the depths

The Mulching Machine

There’s a giant mulching machine parked outside my house, and the lovely smiling woman who operates it has invited me to bring the debris that has been clogging the air ducts of my home to her. She is beyond kind and understanding. You can leave it here, she tells me, we’ll mulch it, there is nothing that can’t be mulched, and you can use it to fill and cover that giant hole you keep falling into. And maybe with time, it’ll fill in enough to hold and nourish and keep moist some flowers and a nice little shade tree.

So I try it out, and little by little, the rooms of my house are being fed fresh air again. I’ve been building some new muscle too, carrying the debris out there.

Sometimes the short-term result of exposure to the pretty potent dust being stirred up has been deep, deep aching and swollen red eyes in the morning. Some of my dear friends have thought perhaps the debris, whatever its nature, better left in the ducts. But though it’s potent in the mulching process, it is all organic material, and perhaps not as potent as it might initially seem? Perhaps even less potent than left in the ducts? And besides, where would I live once all the fresh air has been cut off, and how will I ever have a party again without fresh air and heat flowing to all the rooms of my house?

When the ducts have been cleared and the mulching machine has moved on and the aching has receded I will water and enjoy the shade tree. I will enjoy the fresh air inside too, and perhaps have a party. And I will savour the image and words of the lovely woman who invited my offerings of ancient duct-blocking debris. She will remain forever etched in my memory as beautiful.

Invisible Loyalties

me babyThey took her baby, a beautiful, blue-eyed baby girl I’m told, to the infirmary for medical care. It appeared to be nothing serious at all though in the end, so she told them she thought her little girl was well enough to be with her, rather than in their care.

They told her to come back in the morning; they would discharge her then. She went back in the morning, and they told her that her infant had died in the night. They never did produce a body though. I can’t imagine the horror.

Many decades later, a Family Constellations therapist tells me my grandmother suffered the loss of a baby, possibly two, one of them definitely a girl. I resist the statement, argue a little with him, tell him he could have no way of knowing this. But afterwards, I call my cousin to find out.

He was right, and suddenly my grandmother’s life—the magnitude of her losses and their impact on her family, on all of us in her tribe—came into focus. She’d lost her firstborn too, to SIDS or childhood illness of some sort, and then years later, was taken into a prisoner of war camp and separated from more of her children, not knowing whether they were dead or alive, utterly helpless to protect them or feed them or reassure them in the ways mothers are desperate to do for their children.

The story explains the tidal wave of pain that landed in our home when my grandmother moved in to live with us for a number of years. It explains what split her in two, what kept much of her soul hidden beneath a brittle, impervious, irritable outer layer. Why she saw not so much the unique beauty of her grandchildren when she looked at us, but rather only loss.

The story explains why she wandered the hallway outside my bedroom in the night when I was a child, why she’d stand in the shadows to watch us sleep, and why she turned gruffly away when aware she’d been noticed. It explains why she accused me of stealing things from her bedroom, even though I was too afraid to go into it, and why she disliked me utterly, for nothing more than having a runny nose. It explains, at least in part, why I wanted so desperately, even back then, to protect my mother. Why I loved her fried potatoes, but disliked my grandmother’s.

It explains why my grandmother and I never bonded even though she lived with us, and why I never thought to go to her funeral at her passing when I was seventeen years old. It explains why it took almost four decades for me to experience her as a human being, to weep for her losses, and for the way they have continued to ripple out into the lives of those who have come after her.

My grandmother was one of thousands who suffered this, I’ve learned—12,000 perfect babies were taken from their mothers during this time, to further the supposedly superior Aryan race. Many thousands of families on all sides were torn apart in a million ways during that horrible war. The aftershocks that have continued to impact so many are difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

But somehow the psychological legacy left by these experiences now makes perfect sense to me. It explains my inordinately powerful desire to protect children, parents, anyone that seems vulnerable. It explains invisible loyalties to vague but powerful feelings of guilt and failure. It explains my terror of being charged with negligence somehow, and potentially having to live with an unbearable sense of shame and self-recrimination. It explains the ever-ready flight-or-fight response so common in the family, the energy that goes into avoiding pain and conflict, my resistance to systems that claim authority and demand allegiance.

They say, in the simplest of epigenetic explanations, that our genes literally show the famines our grandmothers suffered. Do these tendencies then, present in so many variations in so many of us in the extended family, not make perfect sense in light of the fact that my grandmother was utterly impotent in the face of the thieves that tore apart her family and life?

In the weeks since my family’s story has come to my awareness, I’ve felt sorrow, but I’ve ironically also been basking in a warm glow of something I can’t quite find words for. It involves, of course, admiration and gratitude and love for my parents, for the courage, determination and resilience they have so tenaciously clung to.

But it is also a warm glow of gratitude and affection for the woman who has lent her professional skills to help me unravel some of the knots of my life, my family’s life, and who has held out hope that no matter how many and large the knots, no matter how strong the hold of the reflexes that have carried us, there is a way to undo them. I understand the term transference, and though she’s not mentioned it, I’m sure it’s apt for how I feel right now. But I also don’t know anything more appropriate than gratitude and affection in response to the depth of my experience with her.

Being deeply understood by another is profoundly moving and hopeful. And the experience of having my story move her—though it is one of countless many she has heard—is equally profound. How can I feel anything but gratitude and affection?

Rain, New Life

new growth 2I saw it in her face the second I saw her today—heartbreak. I remember a day exactly a month ago when she’d been on my mind all day. I remember staring out my sixth floor window that day, past the large building that obstructs much of my view of the street below, through the space between buildings, at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre below.

We were one day away from May then, and it was snowing. I was warm and comfortable in my little cave, but imagining those lying in the beds across the street, those in need of palliative or hospice care, those whose bodies have in some way betrayed them, I was uncomfortable too—my friend was at another hospital that morning, the Cross Cancer Institute, for yet another follow-up scan. I’d offered to accompany her, but like me, she mostly prefers to make these trips alone.

Images of my sojourn at the Cross two years ago made their inevitable march through my mind: Beautiful young women with full heads of hair just beginning their foray into the terrifying world of treatment. Young children with not a strand left on their heads. Pale and frail and thin men, women and children who had been all but defeated, and who looked resigned to feeling betrayed.

The mere thought of the place lands in my consciousness like a meteor, always. We are, in part as a result of modern medicine’s promise to keep death at bay indefinitely, a death-phobic culture, true. But it is more than that. Wanting to live is a fact of being human. Wanting to remain present in the body to those we love is powerful. So is the desire to live well. But the amazing new interventions that we gratefully chase in our desperation to buy some grace and time, can, little by little over time, should our cancers return, take from us our autonomy, vitality, comfort, dignity.

These are the things we think about sometimes, those of us who have been inducted into the world of cancer. We work, and we play, and we eat and laugh and dance with gratitude, but we are also very aware that sweetness is ephemeral.

We know that it is more important to live well than to live forever, but we fear we may not always be able to live well, and that we may be nowhere near ready to say good-bye when our bodies determine we must. We notice life everywhere, babies and vibrantly bright green poking through where months and months of snow and ice have finally melted. And this heightened awareness of life’s sweetness comes with a heightened awareness of the grim reaper hiding in the shadows.

We think about these things not because we’re guilty of choosing negative thinking over positive, but because we must, because the scare we got was enormous, because our cancer or chemo-rattled mitochondria remind us as often as our inboxes alert us to new email that we have been altered. This can be a very deep hole to climb out of, and it can leave us a little vulnerable in other areas of our lives.

This is what I saw in my friend’s face today—her vulnerability, but with some kind of new crushing blow clearly added to it. When she was diagnosed they’d told her it was too late for chemo, it was metastatic and too far gone, to which she responded by taking matters into her own hands, which is another story for another day.

But two weeks ago when the results of her scan returned, she learned she has no active cancer sites left in her body. All’s well that ends well, right? Not always as quickly as that, not from what I’ve observed and experienced. For my friend, the emotional punch of being told it was hopeless remains active, and the million receptors for hormones that once empowered and energized her remain hungry. And now, a new layer of grief: her engagement has ended. She knows it was probably inevitable, but still—saying good-bye to a best friend from this vulnerable place is almost impossible for me to imagine.

We walked out into a spring downpour after our visit, no jackets, our bare feet in bare little summer shoes, but the sound and smell of the rain was beautiful and soothing to me somehow, and carried a little hope that it might, with a little time, wash away some of what has died in my friend and feed new life again. I’m not sure she felt it just yet, but she will, I know she will. There are many ways to be loved, and many ways to regain strength.

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.

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!

Knocked Down, But Not For Long

beach 2You, my friend, have been knocked down by a giant wave, a hard and cold one that stole much, but you can start moving again. I know this, even if it’s only a crawl for now, and the second you begin, you will feel stronger and more optimistic. You’ve only temporarily forgotten that it’s okay to take risks, but you have, deep within, a healer that remembers. Moving and tasting new experiences aren’t things we ever forget how to do, not fully. Trying and failing is in our genes; it’s how we learn everything.

And while sitting on the shoreline taking stock and getting your bearings for a while serves a purpose, there is no point in thinking too long and hard about which single action will be safest and most sure to fix that something you desperately want fixed. We find our way and strength again by roving, tasting, trying, and failing. There is no other way to make it to the burial ground we need to find, no other way to gather the ingredients we’ll need to nourish a new plot of soil in which to grow new dreams.

What we sometimes temporarily forget is this: trying new things doesn’t have to translate into a permanent new hobby. Creative work doesn’t have to be marketable to be therapeutic. Work doesn’t have to come with a big paycheck to be meaningful and valuable. Courses don’t have to lead to certification to be beneficial. Meeting new people doesn’t have to replace old friends. Movement doesn’t have to be pain-free to bring strength. All of these however, enrich and expand life. There is joy and strength to be found in a million things, even in the face of great loss.

There’s a reason they get us out of bed quickly after surgery: despite the accompanying pain, it gets blood and energy flowing again. Neither psychic nor physical muscle can develop the strength it needs to withstand the next wave while we lie there with the old injury.

So cry, yes, but don’t forget to keep moving. Swim in some really great music. Sing along or dance if you can. Create something. Hold a baby. Cook, write, paint, plant some seeds. Play a game. Watch things that make you laugh. Meditate. Go for a walk or to a yoga class. Love somebody. Lose yourself in a great story. Volunteer to help someone. Try something completely new. Take the first step toward something, anything. Feel your pain, but don’t spend too much thinking about the how and why, just embrace it, and begin moving. All of these actions have at various times in the past effectively brought me back to health and balance. They will work for you too.

Anything and everything that can bring us out of our heads—out of the past and regret, out of the future and magical thinking—and rather into the present, is of inestimable value. Being present to the moment involves seeing, noticing, listening, paying close attention to things outside our heads. The color of another’s eyes, the fatigue in her voice, the changes in the room, the air, the crowd, what tastes good right now, what gives us energy, all of it. It involves paying close attention to what is, both that for which we’re grateful, and that which we need to mourn. Gratitude and mourning are not, by the way, mutually exclusive. Both are the antidote to fear.

We have, since the advent of pharmaceutical medicine, been conditioned to believe in magic bullet fixes for all that ails us, but there are no quick fixes for real healing, only the hard work of acceptance and remaining present to all of life. Nor are healing and strength and joy something we arrive at permanently. There’s always another wave, and balance is fluid, and requires muscle.

So stay at the shoreline for a short while, yes, but begin to ask yourself what small thing you can do today that will nurture and fortify you right now for the tasks of laying to rest dreams that have died, and of cultivating soil that will grow new ones. And then move, even if it’s only a couple of inches. It is, after all, spring.