Cured from Within (Repost)

Pain—spiritual, emotional or physical—makes us vulnerable. And if we’ve lived with pain for years, our vulnerability urges us to seek out people and remedies who promise relief, comfort, or the Holy of Holies, a cure.

In the beginning of 1998 when I was 27, it was a lifetime of pain that finally drove me to try yoga. I found a yoga teacher in the phone book and called her. I explained that I suffered from scoliosis. She said with a confidence that exploded through the phone line, “Oh, yes!  I can cure you!”

“Cure? She can cure me?” I thought. “She can cure me!” I believed her to be a godsend. With her words, I finally saw an end to the grinding ache I wore in the muscles along my spine and the sharp pain lying deep in my tailbone, hips and pelvis. I imagined I would be able to sleep comfortably instead of waking up after a few hours and moving to the floor or to the bathtub because a hard surface occasionally relieved the pressure. I saw myself sitting straight in a chair without collapsing or constantly adjusting. I was sold.

I actually hated my first yoga class. My husband came with me and his naturally strong body easily shifted into poses that I could not hold. The soles of my feet and my palms sweated from embarrassment. My back pain was worse. Even though I knew I wouldn’t feel better immediately, I had been so hooked on the idea of a cure that I was disappointed not so much in the teacher or the class but in myself. I was a failure. I cried as soon as we got into the car to drive home.

But I went back to class the next week. It was a bit easier. So I continued, each class helping me to become more aware of my body and less conscious of how well or poorly I did in comparison to the other students. I was still in pain but it felt different. It felt like forward movement. As my body and mind started to shift, I became filled with such gratitude that for a few months, I owed all of my progress to my teacher. I hung on her every word. I thought she was really cool and I still believed she could cure me. I wanted more yoga, so I bought my own mat, strap, props and books. I practiced at home almost daily.

A strange thing happened: as I went deeper into my own practice, I began to see more clearly. I saw my yoga teacher for who she really was and not who I wanted her to be.

The classes began to devolve. I don’t know where they came from but a group of women and a few men who were at least 20 to 30 years older than I began to surround the yoga teacher. Like me just a few months earlier, they listened to her almost in a state of rapture. Surely, she had all the answers. Perhaps she had promised to cure them, too? I wasn’t sure. I just know that class became less about yoga and body awareness and more about pontification. With such a large group of disciples, and really that’s who these people became, the yoga teacher gave full reign to her ego. She’d make strange proclamations like, “Downward facing dog. I drove cross-country with a broken radio and that’s when I learned how to love country music.” The class would nod and ooh and aah and say things like, “Country music, you say? Where does one go to hear such country music?” Yoga class became ridiculous.

The teacher also revealed a mean streak. After a particularly fawning student would leave, she’d gossip about her to the students who hadn’t yet made it out the door. She’d tell people what was wrong with them mentally and what they needed to do about it. People would arrive with smiles, leave with frowns and yet, come back for more the next week. I began to question why the hell I was coming back. And then, my teacher injured herself and cancelled classes for a few months. The relief I felt was total.

During this time, I had also begun working with a massage therapist. She had shown up in class a few months after I did and the yoga teacher introduced her with “She is a WON-der-fullllll massage therapist!” To which the therapist calmly and honestly asked, “How could you possibly know that? I’ve never given you a massage.” The part of me that still bought my yoga teacher’s bullshit was slightly offended by this truth; but the part that was deepening smiled.

This massage therapist was to become very important. Her first words to me were, “I can help you.”

Help. Not cure. A distinction that changed both my healing and my outlook on life.

Once a week, I endured grueling deep-tissue massage therapy. During that first month, the day after the massage, the pain was so great, I could only sit ramrod straight. Layers of muscles and fascia that had been knotted and spasmed for years began to release. I learned that scoliosis had little to do with my bones and everything to do with my muscles. In the pain that came in waves, I learned to meditate. I traveled with the pain, discovering that where it resonated the loudest wasn’t necessarily its source. I was amazed by how connected I had become to my body and how I no longer had to be a slave to it. Illness and pain were a choice.

Just as important, my massage therapist and I worked together. She researched my condition. With my permission, she sought advice from one of her instructors. She explained everything she was doing, why she was doing it, and what could possibly be achieved. For my part, I showed up with trust and a willingness to try different modalities without expectation. In these massages, I learned that the cure is in the journey.

After nearly a year of intense work, my massage therapist released my psoas muscle. She accessed it through my abdomen; my breath caught as tears formed in my eyes and a sheen of sweat quickly covered my body. I think I joked that it would’ve been nice to have a leather belt to bite. But all of my practice with the massage and meditation finally allowed me to relax. When the therapist finished, my hips were symmetrical. For 15 years, my right hip had been higher than the left one. Now, I was symmetrical. Truly. It was amazing. My pants now hung beautifully instead of being hung up on one hip. We had achieved this together. I can honestly say that my scoliosis was cured.

Then, the yoga teacher came calling again, circling like a shark. Like a fool, I decided to go back to her class. She noticed the difference right away.

I said, “Yes, it’s amazing what massage can do.”

She huffed, “Your massage therapist didn’t do that! That’s from yoga!”

I corrected her, “No. This is from massage. A year of massage and a psoas release.” I went to my mat. She called out a pose. I lay on my back with my right leg pulled into me, gently cradling it. I felt my new back muscles and I rejoiced in the easiness of them. I closed my eyes.

The next thing I felt was a huge snapping weight on my right leg. The yoga teacher, envious perhaps that I hadn’t found my cure with her, forced her body down onto my leg when I was vulnerable. Pain flooded over me and I cried out. She stood up, looked down at me and smirked. In one hateful movement, she undid all of my hard work. I lay there like a broken animal unable to move, afraid to move. Finally, in pain familiar and complete and damning, I left and never returned.

My massage therapist and I could not believe what had happened—how ego, envy and competition had given my yoga teacher permission to physically hurt someone she had once promised to cure. And hurt me she did. My hips were no longer even. The psoas had recoiled. My pelvis was once again pushed forward. My massage therapist and I began again.

Without knowing it at the time, these two women greatly influenced how I interact with people—both as a student and a teacher.

I am highly suspicious of anyone who sets him or herself up as a guru with all of the answers: Do this! Buy this! Think this! Wear this! Feel this! And if you do, ALL of your problems will be solved! You’ll be happier, richer, healthier and sexier!

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t really good people doing really good work that truly helps others. There are. But I’ve also met many people who operate from a place of ego—they create a cult of personality and foster a continued independence on them as individuals. As long as their students please them, they promise a cure.

Because of my own experiences, these people scare me…but I’m even more afraid of becoming like them.

Which is why, I think, my workshop series is not more conventionally successful. I am simply not willing to tell people that I can cure them. I can’t. It’s not my job. It’s not my responsibility. And because I only give people some tools that could be helpful to them in their journeys, my workshops work only for people who are ready to do what I did and still do: to dig deep and find their own answers and truth.

That’s more than okay.

I’d rather be like my massage therapist helping one person at a time than my yoga teacher hurting many and calling it a “cure”.

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The World’s Second Worst Halloween Poem

I held a skull close to me
And asked, “Who am I…honestly?”
“I’ll show you.  Follow me,”
The skull said, telepathically.

It led me to an open door
Where bones lay scattered on the floor
And a raven let out a cackled roar
“You will be nevermore!”

“In case you haven’t heard,”
I yelled loudly at the lunatic bird
“I mean right now, you trifling nerd!”
But…the skull had the last word

“You are who you are
And you will always know!
This existential questioning
Has got to go!
Because you’ve forgotten
An important thing:
Today is today
And it’s Halloween!”

“It’s Halloween!” I shouted, running out the door.
“Dear skull, I have a question more important than before!”
“What is it?” the skull huffed, dramatically
“Who shall I be on this Hallowed Eve?”

The skull shook its head and began to moan,
You figure it out! Leave this bone alone!
Be a frog or a witch, a ghost or a spore
Just stop questioning me forever more!”

Happy Halloween!

 

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The Last Door: On Healing the Generation Gap

The generation of my parents kicked down the doors.

This group of idealistic kids looked at their parents, society, government and religious institutions, found them wanting, and said, “No more.”  No more degradation and marginalization—no more punishment, really—for those who happened to be born the “wrong” way: Black, Woman, Native American, Homosexual.  No more sending youth to fight a war with no good purpose.  No more conforming.  No more denial of the Self.  No more hiding.  No more bullshit.

What this generation did is truly amazing.  They definitely kicked down the doors…but after the dust cleared and their young heroes were assassinated and their idealism was tempered, they did not quite know how to walk through those doors to rebuild on the other side.  It was a new, terrifying, traumatic time, and many people simply became lost…even as they were giving birth to my generation.  I know very few people my age whose parents were always present.  Instead, our parents were never married, or they divorced, or our fathers and mothers walked away never to look back.  Or our parents went a bit crazy, or were strung out on drugs, or never received treatment for PTSD or the effects of Agent Orange when they returned from Vietnam.  Or they taught us how to be transitory and restless: we got used to living out of a bag, moving from place to place or staying with grandparents, relatives or even foster care for a while.  We grew up too fast, and many of us were preyed upon—physically, sexually and emotionally—by caregivers, relatives, strangers or even our parents themselves who carried with them oceans of pain that none of us could understand.

As a result, my generation has never felt safe.

And what we’ve done is overcompensate with our own children.  We are so filled with a great longing to rewrite the history of our childhoods into an ideal that we handicap our children.  We disallow imagination and play for its own sake and over-schedule our kids, running all of us ragged to the dance lessons or baseball games we never had.  We protect them religiously from any form of possible pain or discomfort: we douse them in hand sanitizer…we insist that no child be awarded a first-place trophy but that all children receive a participation ribbon…we threaten to sue a six-year old boy and his family for sexual harassment for tugging on our six-year old daughter’s braid…we don’t allow our children to speak for themselves and we certainly don’t allow them to speak up for themselves.  We love our children but the way we raise them is motivated not so much by that love but by our own deeply rooted fears of pain and lack.  And so, we coddle our children.  We give them everything that money can buy at earlier and earlier ages and expect little in return.  Too many of our children are technologically sophisticated but they don’t know how to wash dishes, read a map, clean a toilet, sew a button or cook food without using a microwave.  They are allowed to behave with entitlement.  We control our children to such an extreme that we don’t allow them to accept any age-appropriate responsibility.  We are cultivating a generation of divas and princelings…and we wonder why bullying is on the rise. 

But what is worse is what my generation of women is doing to itself.  In our need to create a perfect childhood environment, we have regressed.  We look at our mothers—those that broke the professional ceilings and became doctors, lawyers, business owners and politicians; those who are sweating it out at factories or driving trucks; or those who are still on the path to personal enlightenment—with disdain.  Sure, many of us went to college and we even went to work.  But once we got married and had our kids, we forgot about our individuality.  We took on the hardest job in the world and became the moms we always wanted but never had.  We became the perfect 1950’s housewife.  We’re more conservative than our parents.  We conform and keep up with the Joneses.  We dress alike.  And we live vicariously through the reality shows where women behave badly and dramatically, giving a much needed but unhealthy voice to the dissatisfaction we hold inside.  We hide, we rumble, we seethe, and because so many of us don’t honor who we are—those longings that tell us to paint or write or dance or ride horses—we are, in fact, sending the wrong messages to our children.  We’re showing them, day in and day out, that once their glory days of childhood are over, the women they will become or the women they will marry, must once again sacrifice needlessly for their families.  We, too, are damaging our children…but unlike our parents who tried so damn hard to celebrate equality and acknowledge the individual, we spend so much toxic energy pushing down our individual souls, terrified of revealing the truth of who we are to ourselves and to the world.  We are afraid that if we fulfill any of the ideals or promises made by our parents’ generation, we will also invite in those parts of our parents that put us in harm’s way.  We did not feel safe; and yet, ironically, we’ve created a world that for all of its controlled, neat, and pretty veneer feels more dangerous than our childhoods.  It feels like dying on the inside…and we wonder why zombies have resurged in popularity.

I speak in generalities, of course.  Some of us had phenomenal parents and some of us are excellent parents.  But, overall, it’s easy to step back and see the connections between the generations—and to see just where the bridge between them has collapsed.  How then does that bridge become rebuilt?  How do we stop punishing our parents for what they were not?  How do we stop punishing ourselves by accepting lives that are not fully lived?  How do we stop punishing our children with our fear?

Compassion.  It is not easy to be a parent.  Imagine then trying to be a parent in a time when the fabric of society itself changed so completely, yet the only role models our parents had were the very people they were rebelling against.  Parents make it up as they go along—our parents’ generation even more so.  Life was chaotic for them and we were raised in chaos.  And that’s okay.  It made so many of us stronger than we even know.  Strong enough to uncover the tiniest amount of compassion for our parents.  To admit that most of them probably did the best they could even if their best fell way short of what we needed. 

While we also need to be compassionate with ourselves, we need more to be honest.  To look at who we are and what our purpose is outside of our children.  We need to acknowledge the dark sides we all carry if only not to have them erupt in unexpected or violent ways.  We need to give ourselves permission to take the time we need to fill our souls—or even to just fill the bathtub, lock the door, and soak for an hour.  And we need to look at our motivations for why we treat our children the way we do.

And then, we need to look at our children honestly.  Are we raising brats?  Are we dysfunctionally over-protective?  Have we been handicapping our children in any way?  Maybe that little boy tugging on our daughter’s braid is a life lesson for her: maybe by learning how to stand up for herself at a young age will give her the confidence she needs later in life to not get involved in an abusive relationship, to protest unfair treatment at her job, or to run for President of the United States.  By all means, we need to protect our children…but it is in the disappointment, loss and yes, even pain, of life that teaches our children how to be strong, capable and well-rounded.  Besides, as much as we try—and we all know this—we cannot prolong childhood.  In the mind-numbing self-sacrifice fueled by our fear, are we really willing to turn our children out into the world so unprepared to actually be in the world?

Of course, it’s not easy.  Fear does not allow compassion to be easy.  Honesty is even more difficult.  But it is in the long, painful journey of compassion, honesty, and eventually forgiveness that we rebuild the bridge spanning these three generations.  Truth by truth, person by person, we can forgive and we can rebuild…and maybe together we can kick down that last door that blocks our way from having lives fulfilled, whole, equal and powerful.

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F*** You, Fifth Grade: On Fear, Death and Trying to Live in the Moment

I never told anyone this: in fifth grade, I passed out. 

Sitting at a table that served as my desk, a snake of release that managed to be too warm and too cold at the same time climbed from my abdomen to my face.  I felt separate from my body, not above it or to the side but no longer of it.  I had the distinct impression that I had been here—wherever here was—before.  My head slumped forward onto my arms and everything went black.  I was aware of the blackness, but I can’t be sure if that awareness was in the moment or only because within a minute or two, all of my parts had re-coalesced and I had returned to consciousness.  At the time, I was curious: what just happened?  Where did I go?  And then, an overwhelming sense of loneliness filled my core.  I had exited from the world, even momentarily, and no one had noticed.  No one had cared.  No one but me had touched the blackness.

As lonely as that experience was—as frightening to think of it as an adult—I believe I passed out because my little ten-year old body and mind were so stressed, my soul gave me a respite.  A taste of death without death.  And at that time, I thought mostly of death.  I lived every day simply and completely terrified of dying.

Fifth grade began in 1980, in the midst of the Cold War and on the cusp of the Reagan years.  My teacher, Mrs. K., seemed old before her time.  I remember a navy blue wool skirt and jacket, a ruffled collar, dried-out hair, lipstick that bled, and a smell of flowers—powdered, decaying and reminiscent not of nature but a laboratory.  Mrs. K. was awful.  Fatalistic.  And obsessed with nuclear annihilation.  She talked about bomb shelters.  About how life would be completely and utterly destroyed.  When we would leave school for the day, she would say things like, “See you tomorrow…that is if we make it through the night.”  I had nightmares about nuclear war and so did many of my classmates.  Parents called to complain.  Near the end of the school year, Mrs. K. suddenly left.  We kids joked that she had a butt rupture, which made us finally laugh as kids should.  And we were thrilled by the vibrant, young substitute; that is, until following Mrs. K.’s curriculum, she showed us a movie about a film crew making a movie about nuclear war.  At the end of the film, a siren rang out its warning.  The director yelled, “Cut!  I didn’t cue the siren yet.”  And a sickening realization filled the set: this siren was the real deal; nuclear war was imminent.  It was meant to be ironic and artistically macabre.  The last image I remember is a group of people waiting for the nuclear bombs that would end their lives.  The substitute teacher frowned and said, “Hmm.”  We didn’t discuss the movie and she no longer followed Mrs. K.’s lesson plans.  But the Fear had already been embedded.

The Fear was added to by my Catechism teacher that year.  I remember nothing about the Bible or Catholicism.  But I do remember horror stories of people being buried alive and coffins dug up with scratches on the inside of the lids.  Of fingernails ripped and bloody from the panic of trying to get out of a premature tomb.  Or stories of decay—of how that decay smelled and looked and what remained: putrid, green ooze.  Occasionally, a completely intact body would be dug up smelling of roses and that, according to my teacher, was the mark of a saint.  Of course, she saw no saints among me and my classmates.  No, our deaths would be the oozing, gross kind.

Around this time, my great-grandfather died.  At the cemetery, after the service, as the coffin was to be wheeled to its burial site for the comfort of sad eyes, my great-aunt threw herself across it and cried, “Daddy, don’t leave me!”  Although other family members mocked her, my great-aunt’s despair opened me completely to the pain of loss.  My great- grandfather’s death meant a hole was growing in the hearts of his loved ones.

John Lennon also died in the middle of fifth grade; which shouldn’t have meant much to a ten-year old girl save for the fact that he was my favorite Beatle.  Actually, he was my mom’s favorite; and since Mom was my favorite, I adopted her likes as my own.  And on December 8, 1980, when he was assassinated at the age of 40, my mom, sister and I prayed for him.  With tears in her eyes, my mom then said, “Just as he was starting to finally get his shit together, he was killed.”  My mother’s words, although innocent, cemented into a personal belief: once a person has success, once someone finally discovers her purpose in life and lives that life with a gratitude that transforms, then, what will happen is death.  It became a fear: the closer I get to who I truly am just means that I am closer to dying.

Extinction, the horror of physical decay, the loss of love, and the loss of self: an onslaught of death revealed in all its forms in one short, stressful year of my life.  Fifth grade influenced me in ways that still haunt to this day.

Once again, I find myself obsessing about death.  Living with death.  It’s the never-ending torment of 2012—of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Doomsday, solar flares, meteors, mini ice ages, global warming, implosions, explosions, alien invasions, biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare, economic panic, conspiracies, and terrorism—that infiltrates all media all of the goddamned time.  I go to bed with visions of annihilation.  I get knocked off my spiritual core; I forget my connection to the Divine because even if I turn off the television and radio and only check my e-mail, our planet’s destruction still forms the background noise of my life. I feel as if Mrs. K.—crazy, pessimistic Mrs. K.—is whispering in my ear all of the time telling me I won’t make it to the next day.

Death and all of its decay is on the news, TV, or in the road kill I see when I go for a walk or a drive.  Just last week, in trying to get out of my head, a walk of less than a mile brought with it two dead opossum hit together; a turtle on its back and drying out of its shell; the still feathered wing of a hawk attached to its skeleton.  I cried all the way home, unable to escape death. 

Death is still in the loss of loved ones: my grandparents, my great aunt, two great uncles and my cat.  This last decade, I’ve been saying goodbye to the touchstones of my life.  As my family, friends and I age, there’s this sick sense that my goodbyes aren’t over.  That they’ll never be over.

And finally, as I am becoming more of who I am—as I’m writing and teaching more, connecting with people and latching onto my purpose—I am scared that the other shoe will drop.  That like John Lennon, I will finally get my shit together and then, I will die.  It becomes a daily battle.  I so desperately want and need to be myself, to embrace my reason for being; and yet, sometimes, my fear is so great that I will lose my life, that in my worst moments, I stop.  I don’t self-sabotage, necessarily, but I stop.  My whole being feels as if it is held in stasis.

This is no way to live.  It’s one thing to be aware of death.  It’s completely detrimental to entertain it like a houseguest.  I am afraid of death.  Despite becoming very close twice in my life, I have not accepted that someday I will cease to exist.  That I will return to blackness.  I can no longer live like this, with this incessant fear.

Maybe fifth grade holds the key.  In all of that turmoil, I finally passed out…and perhaps passed into awareness.  Perhaps I died for only a moment to be assured that I am meant to live.  Without fear, I am meant to live.

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Smiling on the Outside: On the Body, Mind, and PTSD

Awareness arrived, innocently enough, with an e-mail.

Six years ago, I received a questionnaire from a friend asking about such things as my favorite foods, colors and movies.  Once I filled out my answers, I had to send it back to my friend and any others I wanted to give a deeper glimpse into my life.  While a bit self-absorbed, it was also fun.  And I thought nothing when I answered the question, “Do you prefer hugs or kisses?” with this answer: “Nothing beats a first kiss.  I don’t like to be hugged.  Whenever a man hugs me, I feel panicky.”  I hit the Send button.

Then I realized what I had written.  Suddenly very nervous, I called my husband and told him what I did.

“You wrote that?  Oh honey, why would you write that?  Aren’t those meant to be for fun?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled.  “Because…because it’s the truth.”

I felt bad immediately.  And to all of the males in my life I had sent the questionnaire to, I sent a follow-up e-mail about how I didn’t mean them.  That I was okay with hugging them.

I lied.

I hesitate to use the word hate but it is the closest thing that describes how I feel when I am hugged.  While there is a part of me that always craves to be held, for a very long time, I have hated to be hugged.  I can hug a child or a small woman but once I find myself hugged by a man, woman, or even a child who is bigger than I am in height or weight, it takes an incredible amount of focus to remain in place, to smile, and to say, Hello, Good-bye or I love you.  Because my body is reacting: my chest tenses, my lungs hurt, my breath is in danger, and my arms ache to push the other person away.  Even with my husband.  I trust him, but rather than submitting to him spooning me, I tuck in behind him and hold on for dear life.  That’s okay: I can connect with the man I love and feel safe at the same time.

And feeling safe is really what is at the heart of not wanting to be hugged.  Actually, it is at the heart of everything.  I’ve realized this lately: my need for safety commandeers my thoughts, my behavior and even my sleep.  Vigilant to an extreme, whether I’m driving or walking, I plan my route.  I keep a list with me not because I’m anal but because to not do so allows in distraction.  When I’m at the supermarket and discover something I normally buy has been moved, I am beyond annoyed: too much time wandering around looking has me feeling like a target.  Yet, I appear to be the friendliest person at the market: I walk with my head high, I make eye contact and I smile.  I say, Excuse me, sir, or Ma’am where can I find such-and-such? and behind the polite smile, is awareness.  I’m noticing how people are walking and carrying their bodies, how they’re talking to their children or spouse, who is an obstacle, who needs help, who needs to be left alone, what can be used as a weapon, and what aisle is overcrowded.  I’m noticing the women who are so distracted, they walk away from their carts, leaving their purses and children unattended; and I’m noticing who is looking at those abandoned purses and children.  I’m willing to stand in a long line if that means no one else will slide in behind me, boxing me in.  In the parking lot, I’m willing to park farther away from the store if it means my truck is not surrounded by others.  I never walk between cars, especially vans or trucks.  I load my groceries into the passenger seat because it means my back is turned for a few seconds less than if I had to arch over the backseat.  I visually inspect the space under my truck and how the tonneau cover lays on the bed: does it appear that someone is hiding?  I do not go shopping at night.  When I drive by myself, even if it’s for hundreds of miles, I will play one CD over and over again, meditating into its familiarity, or drive in silence because the varied music and commercials of radio stations can be too jarring.  At a restaurant, I never sit with my back facing the door; unless I’m with my husband, who is both military-trained and holds a black belt in karate.  At home, when I was a teenager and then a young adult living on my own, I slept with a chair propped under the door handle.  Now, it takes everything not to return to that behavior.  My house is surrounded by woods that at one time I would have felt very comfortable in, but I don’t venture very far into them alone.  At my worse moments, I scan the forest wondering if anyone is looking in.  And yet, I prefer to be in this rural area: at night, my eyes acclimate well to the darkness; in the city, streetlights cast shadows.  Danger can hide in shadows.  And overall, I don’t sleep well.  My mind searches for noises familiar and not: the water filter turning on, the truck without a muffler that leaves for work two hours before sunrise, the sound of the cat scratching his post.  I sleep on average four hours a night; until finally exhausted, I sleep for ten, waking up both refreshed and self-condemnatory that I spent a night sleeping rather than keeping watch.

Tedious, isn’t it?  I seem a bit crazy, don’t I?

But I’m not.

I’ve been working on an article about alternative therapies helping veterans overcome missing limbs and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  I interviewed an occupational therapist who works with patients who have suffered trauma from war, car accidents and sexual abuse.  According to her, PTSD is not truly a psychological disorder but a physical one.  The memory of the trauma suffered is the most powerful memory in the brain, and everything in both the brain and the body reacts according to that memory.  Already in a state of hyper-vigilance, the brain and body react to outside stimulus as if they were lost in the original trauma.  The body floods with adrenalin which triggers a release of glycogen.  The glycogen converts to glucose.  Glucose feeds the brain but in this case, glucose floods the brain causing the pancreas to overreact and dump insulin.  Blood sugar drops, the brain feels it is going to starve, and the result is an overwhelming sense of fear.  Hyper-vigilance exacerbated by fear caused by trauma and the chemical processes of the body.

As the occupational therapist explained this, asking every so often if she was making sense, I wanted to take myself out of the interview and cry.  Yes, she was making sense.  She was validating my growing awareness about how I’ve been navigating my life for the last 26 years…and how, despite healing emotionally from being raped when I was 15, from truly putting it behind me as if it were another woman’s life, my body remembers.  My body reacts.  Constantly.  Without getting into specifics, when it happened, I weighed not much more than 100 pounds…and I was held down.  Across my chest, into my sternum, I was held down.  I couldn’t breathe.  My mind floated elsewhere as my lungs compressed.  Being forced down, not being able to breathe was actually worse than anything else.  And it is this sensation that remains with me to this day.  My body remembers so strongly that without even being aware of it for decades, I have tailored my life so I never relive that sensation, so that I never find myself held down, searching for breath, searching for safety.  Ironically, what should feel the safest—being hugged by a loved one—doesn’t.  Hugs hold me down, they compress my lungs, they leave me searching for breath.

At least I know.  I’m not crazy.  I’m finally aware.  And because I’m aware, as uncomfortable as it is for me, I am the one who now initiates hugs.  I hug everybody.  I still hate it…but what I hate even more is that something that happened to me a lifetime ago tries to claim this life.  So, I hug.  I smile.  Whenever the panic threatens or the vigilance reveals itself to be extreme even to me, I remember that beyond any need to search for my breath, is that in fact, I have my breath.  I have my life.  And I need to be engaged in it: memories be damned and hugs included.

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The Worst Halloween Poem Ever

Bones rattle in their crypts.

Pumpkins grin without lips.

Vampires take large sips.

Mummies peel decayed strips.

Witches fly high like blips.

Aliens probe in ships.

Monsters scratch with long tips.

I write really bad quips.

Which can mean only this:

It’s Halloween!

Yeah!

 

Photo ©2007 by Sandra Payne

 

 

 

 

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Taking a Stand on a Bed of Marbles

Unaware of its origin, all I know is that one day when I was little, an antique crate of marbles appeared in our home.  I loved those marbles.  Such a simple plaything; yet each marble was its own world of swirling green, blue or orange glass.  Steelies, vicious little warmongers in their own right, added balance to the colorful box.  My most favorite marbles were the chipped ones: those that had been sheared against a rock, a steelie, or even the hammer of a curious child.  Like jawbreakers bitten in half, these imperfect marbles revealed the source of their magic.  I loved marbles so much I coveted them.  When an opportunity came to add another to my collection, I ensured it would be mine: I cheated.

My second grade teacher, a kindly woman who’d be horrified to learn I thought of her as Mrs. Claus, tested the class weekly in spelling.  Whoever received a perfect score also won a little gift, such as a sticker or sucker.  I became very used to those little gifts.  But the week she offered a marble as a prize, there was a word that had stumped me for days.  The night before the test, on the smallest piece of paper my overly large childish scrawl would allow, I wrote the spelling words.  When the test arrived, I lay the paper on my lap and glanced down when my teacher said the difficult word.  Confident I aced the test, I passed my paper forward and quietly folded the cheat sheet and tucked it into my sleeve.  Sent out to recess then, I passed the bowl of marbles on the teacher’s desk.  I knew which one would be mine: deep reddish orange with a few brown flecks, it looked like autumn compressed into a perfect sphere.  It wasn’t the largest but it was the most intriguing.

Recess was a formality.  I returned to my seat and my teacher handed me my test.  Written in a red circle was -1.  Minus one?  How could this be?  There it was: my nemesis with a red line drawn through it.  Even using a cheat sheet, I spelled the word incorrectly…probably because I misspelled it on the cheat sheet itself.  I can’t remember the word that gave me so much trouble, but it should have been Karma.  It was instant.  Filled with pain, shame and a mist of cold fear, I watched as a classmate chose my marble.  Okay, his marble.

That lesson was swift.  While I never cheated on schoolwork or a test again, I did steal:

When I was about five years old and at the grocery store with my mother, I saw a beautiful bunch of green grapes.  I reached out and grabbed one without thinking.  I popped it into my mouth only to have my mom’s scolding immediately sour the sweetness.

When I was nineteen years old and in a relationship with a man who used my self-esteem to scrape his muddy boots, I bought him a sweater for Christmas.  When I returned home, I discovered that instead of the receipt, the cashier put the check I had written into the bag.  I told my boyfriend what happened.  Because I intended to return the money, I welcomed in a barrage of abusive words.  “If you have such a problem with keeping the money,” he snidely said, “I’ll take it off your hands.”  Then he pointed out the stickiness of the situation: if I revealed the cashier’s mistake, I would probably get her fired.  Could I live with myself then?  I still wanted to return the money.  I remember putting the check into an envelope, but I don’t remember mailing it.  Despite knowing better, I allowed the pain I was enduring to trump the honorable course of action.

Age twenty-four brought me a stolen stapler.  This truly was an accident.  My boss sent me to Europe and gave me the stapler to use while there.  When I returned, he told me I could use it at home.  Two years later, when I moved out-of-state and away from the false identity I was cultivating at my job, the stapler, forgotten and thrown into a box, moved with me.

There it is: my life of crime.  A cheat sheet, a grape, a sweater and a stapler.  I realize that for many, my infractions may seem mild.  Laughable.  Even a little on the preachy or self-righteous side.  I get that.  But I know what I did, how badly I felt and how quickly Karma–in the guise of a lost marble, an angry mother, a prick of a boyfriend, and the wrong job–acted.  Realizing this is good enough for me.  Even though I also know for many–too damn many–stealing is easy.  Everyone does it, from the government to corporations to college students; really, it’s almost the American Way.  And if everyone does it, how could it really hurt anyone?

Stealing has been on my mind a lot lately.  Obviously.  Like a person who’s suffered from poison ivy only to walk barefoot in the same patch of earth, I’ve allowed my mind to re-infect me with the pain of the past.  I’ve hit an unwelcome anniversary: a year ago, the workshops I created were stolen.  Experiences and words that came from my life, from writing my book, from digging through each painful and joyous moment, were claimed by another.  That hurt me.  That was a Karma I couldn’t easily assign to my own negative actions.  As a creative person with a truly generous spirit, all I did was open the door to someone whose smile hid a black soul.  Yes, that hurt.  A violation: especially because my experiences, what I’ve learned, and what I teach are meant to add honesty and positive energy into the world.  By being taken away, something beautifully personal and universal seemed tainted.  And what desecrated it the most is the fact that I lost my naiveté: now, I have to access a coldness I didn’t know I have; I have to protect myself at all costs.  There is no doubt I created my workshops–I have five years of proof before I ever met the person–but I am protected to the hilt.  Rather than use the money I saved to take a trip on my fortieth birthday, I registered my trademark.  My copyright is registered in the Library of Congress.  And once my baby was kidnapped, I fought like hell to attach my name, face and words to it: there is no question who the hell I am or what the hell my work is about.  It’s a matter of public record.

So why obsess about stealing?  Because I realized that even though the experience taught me a lot and blessed me with growth, I’m still pissed off by the audacity of it.  What gives anyone the sense of arrogant entitlement to take what someone else has created?  Truly, I can understand stealing if a person is starving or dying and needs to steal food or medicines to survive.  But what I can’t understand is how, in a society in which most of us have our basic needs and beyond met, people pilfer words, ideas, music, marketing, and designs without compunction.  Even with all of the protections in place!  Is it really as simple as buying into the bullshit that Everyone does it, so I might as well, too?  Is it fear, greed, envy, a game?  I don’t know. 

I know that no matter which side of the stealing equation you find yourself, it hurts.  It hurts being stolen from and it hurts when your better self calls you out…and no matter how deeply hidden, we all have a better self.  I know that eventually the renewed anger I feel will blaze out when I allow myself to step back from an old, useless threat.  And I know that with the litany of misdeeds–the mortgage crisis, bailouts, plagiarizing of term papers and books, music stolen from the artists who created it, and stolen again in our time through illegal downloads–it does indeed seem like everyone is stealing. 

But not everyone is.

Some of us learned firsthand the pain of losing our marbles.

Some of us still need to.

 

(The clip art used is free)

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