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Ever since the accident the other day I find myself whirring and dizzy with so many thoughts and emotions they are so hard to compartmentalize in any way. They bleed together, overlap, & come out like a Pollack painting–splotchy colors that appear random and haphazard until you stand back and stare from a distance.

I find myself thinking about the woman I met wailing over her husband’s body, blood soaking into her jeans, not knowing what her life was anymore, not prepared to define herself without her life partner.

I found myself, in that moment, thinking “That’s it,”. In a family of two when one is gone and one remains that family ceases to be–there is no legacy of that love beyond the memory of it.

This led me back to my own continued dilemma of babies, thinking in a new light of the preciousness of creating life anew in a family of two–something to be shared in love and partnership, something that extends beyond two people and beyond death.

A coworker of mine, a therapist equally bogged down by her own internal snags and hesitations over procreation told me once,”The one thing I do know is that of all the elderly people I’ve worked with, the ones with children are undeniably the happiest at the end of their lives.”. That has to stand for a level of significance whatever the source of this phenomenon.

Maybe, for some unscientific, unquantifiable, unsubscribable, purposeful reason, having a family is not about all those things I feared they might be–relegating oneself and being relegated to some stereotypical stepford female experience, or a frustrating impediment to professional growth, or a narcissistic ego boost in creating ones own replica, and it might even be something more than biological necessity for maintaining the species. It might, in fact, have something to do with LOVE.

Again, per usual, I know, big “duh” moment. I had always known this idea in some peripheral theoretical way but I had neve before gotten out of my own head long enough to get into my own heart on the matter. Until Saturday night when in a flash of shock and grief and a wave of feeling so close to another’s experience (seeing the potential for me in tha widow) I saw the purpose for having children just purely because of and for love.

“Love has no desire but to fulfill itself. To melt and be like a running brook that sings it’s melody to the night. To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.”

Kahlil Gibran

some day i'll bring you flowers, frozen flowers of death by e3000 on flickr

“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.
The Carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality”
Emily Dickinson

 

 

This past week I have been exhausted by things as simple as walking, sitting, and just plain healing.  It has been a frustrating process segwaying back into work only to come home every night too tired to even think let alone write.   I find myself daily contemplating my own fragility, the tender care I have to give to this soft human soul casing.  I have been eating as healthfully as I ever have, trying to give my body the rest it requests from me, and becoming a regular acupuncture patient at a local Doctor of Oriental Medicine’s office who specializes in endometriosis.  With each day I feel more solid, more complete, more functionally human by all those standards we judge ourselves–mobility, brain function ability, and functionality in the workplace. 

 

And then the other day I find my thoughts meandering, after a particularly vivid and grotesque depiction by a client of experiencing the death of a loved one, how I have never seen death.  I have heard it in the therapy room in story after vivid story but I had never seen it, watched life leaving another human being and staring that moment of mortality in the eye. Figuratively that is what I do all day, stare life and death and morbid recollections of others in the eye, but literally, palpably, I had never had to experience it.  I wondered what that was like and how I would react given that confrontation.

 

Last night I was given my chance to see–morbidly, grotesquely, painfully, and in a shock inducing way by the side of a road in a small town on a quiet Saturday night. 

 

I saw life leave a human being in a haze of squealing tires, smoking brakes, mangled bicycle, limbs flying, life leaving, wife screaming.  I will not talk any further about the incident itself,  but I will say it was more than I ever could have imagined in death and more than I would ever have wanted to be a part of. 

 

I found myself last night unable to sleep, unable to process, unable to eat, unable to both think about it and think about anything else.  The shrill screams of a soon to be grieving widow echoing in my ear and the sight of ground pooled with blood and brokeness repeating in my mind. 

 

I found myself waking today with those same thoughts reverberating through my conciousness and aching in my soul in mourning for so many lives that were touched by one moment in time and one small blip on the timeline of human existence that I will never forget.  In a minute a woman lost her husband, a man lost his life, another faced with charges of vehicular homicide in front of them, and a crowd of people–“witnesses” both in legal and philosophical senses–who will carry the memory and fragmented moments with them forever of the sight and sound and brutality of watching such a death occur.

 

I also found myself reevaluating my own reality.  Life, such a fleeting and fragile experience, that gives us no promise of tomorrow or no foresight to know how many tomorrows we have to live.  Living for today, loving like now is forever, and making choices as if they really matter has really become alive in me in a way like never before.  That woman who lost her husband was my age, could have been me, and that thought makes me rethink my whole world view in a way I never could have imagined–reframing what is important and what is urgent in my own life. 

 

All the clients and the years of hearing about the carnage of life and death in an instant of pain and screaming and blood is something I have heard often, heard daily, and my empathy was something I thought covered the weight and circumference of such an experience.  Now knowing what it means to be witness to that moment when a life goes out in this world in such a graphic fury of motion and gruesomeness I find myself knowing my client’s experience in a new and personal way.  It is something I never wished for but an element of human experience I now share with them.

 

I feel life today in a different way–both tainted with pain and sadness and simultaneously made furiously bright and real and scorching with urgency like never before.  I love my husband more profoundly.  I feel the sunlight on my face with more appreciation.  I want to do the things I feared for no valid reason at all because I should–because it’s time and there is no guarantee of time to come.  I want to care for my body in the ways I know how because all we can control is our actions in this world and try to have reverence and preservation of the life we live, the body we have, the good things we do in the world, and the things that we can do for others today. 

 

Live in the now.  Love the ones you love as much as you can.  Be sincere in your endeavors and only endeavor in those things that are sincere.  Be your best you today and be grateful for every today that you have. 

 

cemetary angel 002 by AdamSelwood on flickr

“Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

James Dean

kissed by the setting sun by lepiafgeo on flickr

 

Nona over at Insight Health Coaching gave me the greatest compliment ever in her post today.  She mentioned how my post “A Dose of Patience: Remembering Self-Care” had impacted her own mindset as she prepares for her own impending surgical procedure and recovery process.  In her own way she showed me how, in slowing down, in thinking about my own self-care, and verbalizing it on my blog in fact effected more change and was far more “productive” than any manufactured list of “To Do’s” ever could have accomplished.  She gave me a great gift today with her sentiments about my post and in turn gave me the inspiration to pay homage myself to those that have been kind enough to mention my blog on theirs as well as send out a bit of blog love to some new blogs I have been lucky enough to discover during my bedridden recovery period. 

 

EIGHT BLOGGERS WHO HAVE KINDLY REFERENCED MY BLOG IN THEIRS:

 

1 Blisschick in the post “What Has Yoga Done For You Lately”

2 it’s all yoga, baby in the post “7 Things about Yoga and Me”

3 yoga addicted in the post “Kreativ Blogger”

4 insight health coaching in the post “A Gratitude Mish-Mash”

5 svasti: a journey from assault to wholeness  in the post “The PTSD Fog”

6 Yogic Muse in the post “Going on Vacation”

7  Heal My PTSD in the post “To Speak Or Not To Speak About Trauma”

8 Nadine Fawell’s Blog in the posts “Link Love” and “Working it Out”

 

 3 puppies all in a row

  

TEN BLOGS I HAVE DISCOVERED THAT I HAVE TOUCHED ME (emotionally, spiritually, creatively, soulfully) AND I WANT TO PAY HOMAGE TO:

 

1 Artful Happiness: News and Notes From the Happy Shack & her post “Dream Takes Shape: Part I”

2 Wish Studio: an inspiring community for creative women & the post (all great) “blowing bubbles in a concrete jungle: a joy rebel’s take on real creativity”

3 Mama-Om: hitting every bump on the path to peace & the post “You Can Dance”

4 Expressive Hart : Creative Expression for the Soul & the post “Joyful Living Workshop”

5 My Autoimmune Life: my journey as I deal with multiple autoimmune issues & the post “I didn’t expect this to be so rough”

6 Tears Behind The Smile-A Journey Through Therapy and the post “What I don’t know about Anorexia”

7 Ecoyogini and the post “Bonne Fette a Moi” (Not a new favorite but a great supporter of my blog and frequent lovely comment poster)

Life Unfolds and the post “To Create is To Destroy”

9 Ink On My Fingers and the post “Allowing Dreams”

10 Creative Therapy and the post “Catalyst Eighty-Six”

 

Beach study, shapes and textures by lepiafgeo on flickr

Bri, Joel, and Indy by Kevin N Murphy on flickr

“In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.”
Eva Burrows

 

Last night I was sitting in the amber light of my bedroom, waiting for pain medication to kick in and belly ache to subside, becoming hypnotized by the rhythm of bullfrog snores from the adjacent room where three dogs and a man slept on the couch and a memory returned to me.  Lately my mind has been swimming with ideas of infants, children, and an imagined life resembling  “family” as defined by the traditional history of the western world–including husband, dogs, and kids.  I never considered myself a traditionalist perse but I always felt warmed by the thought of family. 

 

The idea of starting some variety of lineage of my own lead me back to my own infancy.  An international adoptee I have been pondering my own early childhood the last week as I prepare for speaking this weekend (nothing like flight and speaking engagements to hasten surgery recovery) at the Let’s Talk Adoption Conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey. 

 

I am speaking on issues of adoptee trauma, trauma and the body, and yoga for adoptees, foster children, and caregivers.  I have been revisiting many thoughts of my own infancy, childhood, and memories of family growing up–what is that definition of filial love that makes us a part of a cohesive unit under one name and one roof with one another?  For me it wasn’t a matter of blood, biological or racial heritage, or anything so literal it was only a matter of love, unconditional love.  To this day I feel that, that is the best defining point of family and the essence of what we should share with those we love most in this world.

 

In this way, as an adoptee, I was given some liberation from the idea that this status and conception must be limited to those we share blood with or a name or even a roof.  I was, in some respects, given a freedom to define and find family where it organically grew from bonds of unconditional love and support and not because of sharing genetics.  I know many people, both as a therapist and in my personal life, who were bound to unhealthy love and unhealthy bonds with people they did share genetics with, but little more in abusive family relationships and neglectful or cruel childhood histories.  I always found myself reflecting on the fact that birth giving does not make a mother, a lifetime of nurturing, loving, and mothering earns that title–birthing is just that, a physical act. 

 

The relationships we have in our life that have forged their way through hardship and trials and come out with love intact are the ties that bind us.  And love that makes a family can come from every place–it is the same love that brings life partners together and keeps them together whatever comes and what brings friends back to each other after years and miles and life lived at distances, but hearts that remain faithful to the relationship. 

 

We are, in some ways, the makers of our own lives and the molders of our own family units.  What love and which relationships make up our world is ours to embrace or reject at every turn.  We must work to create love and must work one hundred times harder to maintain and care for that precious gift.

 

So, as I thought of all these things again, preparing for speaking, and thinking of my future and what my future family might look like it also brought me backwards–to an early moment of mine, a maternal flicker in time, and the moment I first fell in love with a baby girl named Seuhedi.

 

I was fifteen at most and she was only a few months old.  It had been the year following my mother’s most recent miscarriage (actually the stillbirth of a son named Christopher) and via family meeting we had made a decision to work with an organization called Healing the Children who paired families in the USA with children from third world countries in need of housing during major operations or medical care only available in the States.  It was sort of an international short-term foster care program.  Seuhedi was the third child we had sponsored who had come from the Dominican Republic and she suffered from spina bifida.

 

crib by valentinapowers on flickr

 

She had the most beautiful face, with soft olive skin and deep brown eyes filled with a quiet intensity far to powerful for her age.  She was gentle and never cried except at bedtime.  I think it was the only time, in the darkness and silence of night that she realized she was alone–foreign smells, strange sounds, and no face she knew. 

 

My parents urged me to go in, speak to her, hold her hand hoping maybe I could placate her.  I walked into the room with her soft sobs the only noise echoing through darkness and silence.  The hallway outside brought in the only brightness and her crib sat covered half in shadows and half in light.  I stood over her and she reached out her tiny fingers for some comfort.  I held her hand and spoke whispers of spanish into her crib and looked at her looking at me with deep brown eyes that were so familiar–as if I were looking into a picture of  my past, hovering over myself in some orphanage from years before. 

 

In those moment something linked us together, outside of words, outside of time, locked in a familiarity of loneliness where we both understood being in an in-between world.  Night after night I would go by her crib and speak softly in my limited spanish and look into the deep eyes that knew me as I knew them.  She would not sob and my heart would fill with light and tears: in those moments with her I fell deeply in love with her tiny soul, her open beautiful heart, and the honesty that resided in her never-ending brown eyes.  She trusted me completely for no reason besides a vague sense of familiarity and understanding.  I loved her completely for allowing me into share in that space in the in-between–to connect with a part of myself I had forgotten and to give something to her that I never had.

 

That first love of a child in that kind of unconditional way was something I never felt before, never could explain, and never fully understood except that it was pure and real and based on nothing but shared moments and unconditional love. 

 

So, in thinking could I ever love a child that much–the answer is yes.  Could I love so much it expands and breaks your heart all in the same second–the answer is yes.  Am I ready for the responsibility of that kind of a love sustained for a lifetime–that is the question.  But in remembering myself, my infancy, and that first love of a child with unconditional proportions I know that it is something I am capable of.   “Am I ready?” is the only real question.

 

I share this story with you for a multitude of reasons, but I send it out there because I know that nearly everyone in their life has someone they love so much it both breaks and expands their heart in equal measure.  That kind of love is a gift and a blessing–the gift of family.  However we define it or create it, whether it be in a traditional context or one of our own making, love is love, and it is the essence of what binds us together.  I am glad that my journey through mind and memory brought me back to the blessing of knowing and loving Seuhedi–even for the brief time I knew her.

 

“What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life – to be with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

George Eliot

 The Sanchez Family by Kevin N Murphy on flickr

Pain by Michelle Brea on flickr 

“What is truer than truth? Answer: The story.”

Old Jewish Saying and repeated by Isabelle Allende in her TED talk.

 

There is a lot of my life from 18 to 20 years of age that I just don’t remember.  Most of it in fact.  In retrospect and following therapeutic training I know that to be a form of trauma related repression.  I just hit overload and shut down.  I remained on autopilot for two very self-destructive years during which my rampant PTSD symptomotology took a front seat and my conscious self was somewhere locked in the trunk. 

 

I built a shell around myself so I could block out anything hurtful or scary at a moment’s notice by shutting down, but in truth the shell was a mirage of my own making–because instead of feeling nothing I felt everything–I was so sensitive I was raw.  I shut down constantly and in that I lost a lot of my current day perception of what happened when and many details are lost altogether. 

 

I would block out and black out (technically known as dissociation) and not really be sure what happened after: it was like watching a blurry movie of myself from a short distance–sound was dulled, images were faded, it was often like living a half life.  It helped me survive but not live.  I was nothing but shell with nerves exposed underneath. 

 

I was raped for the first time somewhere between 18 and 19 (again time is not so clear during that period).  The second time, by another perpetrator, was somewhere between 19 and 20.  I no longer blame myself for the second rape, but I know professionally that my downward slide following the first incident made me more vulnerable to another assault and my autopilot living added to that vulnerability.  Following the second assault I could no longer regulate any part of myself: I was up and then down, I was isolative and then explosive, I was spiraling and dizzy and petrified of the world. 

 

Escape, escape, escape.  That was all I did.  Long before I fled New Jersey I had fled myself–the Teresa from before my assaults was somewhere deep inside and the shell grew so thick and heavy that I could no longer remember what came before it.  I was hiding inside myself and from myself.  I was locking my memories so far down that I choked on them. 

 

My trauma clients often reference the visual of a “box” or a “closet” where everything painful and traumatic is crammed in and locked away and when it accidentally opens you push it back in with all the strength you have–that is definitely an apt description. 

 

When you are stuck inside your trauma all that seeps out is your traumatized symptoms and all the unhealthy and unpleasant behaviors that follow, all you can see is survival.  You want to make it to tomorrow without snapping and that is the only goal.  You cannot live.  You cannot love.  You cannot think about moving forward.  You are locked in the “box” you created living under the illusion that you have somehow contained the collateral damage. 

 

From 18 to 20 I was in the thick of it all.  When I moved to Colorado at twenty I thought I was making a big step and a change that would change my brain and free my body.  The only thing that really changed was scenery. 

 

I loved the mountains that rose as if heaven bound.  I loved the clear, crisp air and views of horses running wildly in fields, but inside my mind–when I paused too long or closed my eyes–there I was, still in my box, still petrified, still clinging to my shell. 

 

I woke one day. 

 

I woke in a loud clap of thunder and a moment full of sound and fury and everything I had been avoiding.  I was sitting in a class on Front Range Community College Campus in Fort Collins.  I had decided to go back to school and finish up that bachelors degree I had abandoned during the period of my first rape—part of me thought, since nothing else had worked, if I could just pick up where I left off I could erase the past that had taken me so far from anything resembling a future.  I was sitting in some Sex Ed type class and tapping out my boredom with my pen.  It was one of those banal required courses in the degree curriculum and my anticipation was learning something akin to high school health class.  Then it happened.   

 

The teacher began discussing sexual assault and sex crime “victims” (can I mention I still hate the word victim and all the implied vulnerability and helplessness it imbued in it).  He spoke about acquaintance rape and the incidence of sexual assaults in college aged women. 

 

After that I don’t know what he said because all I knew was that I felt dizzy and nauseous and my extremities went numb.  I couldn’t breathe.  It was only by the time I reached the bathroom, leaning over the toilet bowl with my knees on the floor and my hands shaking and pale, that I realized I had, had a panic attack. 

 

That was the moment I woke up. 

I realized this trauma thing I had tried to avoid was real.  The rape was real.  My state of frozen-in-symptoms-rampant-PTSD was real (although I could not identify it diagnostically at the time I knew it was trauma).   And most of all I realized with a great oomph of panic attack finality that I could not avoid any of this thing inside of me anymore—not even in a benign antiseptic classroom environment.  I realized I didn’t want to spend my life wondering when I would have to fall onto a bathroom floor again.  So I went home that day, looked up a Sex Trauma Therapist, and, still somewhat skeptical and grudgingly, I went to the appointment. 

 

The night after my first session with that therapist I had the worst nightmare I have ever had.  

 

It is for that reason that even before I knew much about the therapeutic process, early in my graduate school internships, I would forewarn my trauma clients about a potential “outbreak” of sorts in their PTSD following their first session.  Opening the box held tight and controlled for so long can create a sort of allergic initial response.  Your mind is a clever thing that often has a mind of its own when it comes to trauma—it has been protecting you for so long from your own memories and emotions it becomes startled by an opening up of all that was hidden.  Before I knew enough as the trauma therapist, the trauma survivor in me knew to warn my clients of this occurrence.  Since then, the trauma therapist in me learned and now understands the many onion-like layers of “why”.  

 

I woke from my nightmare shaking with the vision of a shadowy figure moving in front of me through my bedroom.

 

All I could feel was the moment following my first rape.  I was lying in the wet grass on the earthen floor of a park in New Jersey, afraid to breathe.  I was nauseous and numb and my hair was wet with dew.  My insides were shaking but my body was frozen and my fists were clenched.  I could hear the frogs and the crickets and see the dirt path that led out but I couldn’t get there.  I could smell his breath and see his smirk and hear his mocking voice saying words I’ll never forget, “You’re not going to tell people I raped you or something, right?”

 

I closed and opened my eyes and I was back in my apartment, in Colorado, 4 years after that night in the grass.  Tears were on my cheeks and sweat was covering my body.  I began to tremble and cry as if I were purging all the memories of those nights I had held from my conscious memory for so long.  My eyes adjusted to the dark and the shadow faded from view.  I steadied myself against the large oak posts of my bed. 

 

I jolted up, turned all the lights on in my apartment, and spent the rest of that night on my bathroom floor. 

 

I knew something cataclysmic had occurred.  I felt like these ghosts that had been following me had to be exorcised out of my mind and out of my internal closet before I could start fresh.  Something about the palpable nature of that nightmare made me believe that was the door to my locked closet swinging open and something new opening up inside of me–something alive.   

 

 Ego is not a dirty word by Michelle Brea on flickr

 

I have had nightmares since that night, but never one like that again.  I have never had to sleep on the bathroom floor or see shadows that weren’t there hovering over my bed.  I never went back to that park distilled in my mind or had to find myself lying in the grass without warning. 

 

I never had to go back to that park, until I wanted to, and then I did. 

 

I was in graduate school when I went back.  I had come so far and I felt so unburdened from so much of my traumatic past.  My life was no longer governed by rampant symptoms, but rather by the course of my chosen path: A life path that had taken me through an undergraduate degree in English with a Minor in Women’s Studies.  I had explored all my man-rage via feminist courses, empowered myself in my womanhood, and come out a very healthful, non-raging feminist at the end. 

 

I had written out my story, written both my stories actually, and realized after I finished that much of the details didn’t matter.  I realized that I was the story—the testament to my own survival and I didn’t have to write every painful minute of rape I could recall to prove that to myself.

 

I had found my way into graduate school for a Masters in Clinical Social Work.  I fully immersed in the coursework and quickly found my focus and passion—traumatology and trauma therapy. 

 

I had found a way to master my pain and give my experience a meaningful purpose.  I had found that my empathy and understanding of trauma as a survivor, without all my own symptoms to bleed all over myself and others, brought me to a place of usefulness in the field.  I understood trauma from the inside, from the belly of the beast. 

 

This combined with my intellectual and academic capacity to absorb all the psychology, biology, and behavioral aspects of the disorder made me both trained and intuitive, simultaneously, when it came to working with traumatized persons.  I was passionate about the work and I knew it was going to form my life’s professional pursuits.

 

I had begun to live.  I had begun to love life.  But I had not yet begun to love anyone else, at least not a man.  And every time I was in South Orange, New Jersey I always drove every way I could to avoid going past that park.  The park where so many things began and so many more things ended. 

 

And I had one of those moments of epiphany where I knew I had to go back.  I didn’t want to remain afraid of anything—not even one solitary park in a small town in New Jersey. 

 

Of all the things that had gone from my memory in a blaze of anguish, like what time of year it was when the assault happened—was it Spring or was it Fall?  Or what year was it—was I 18 or 19 when it happened?–I remembered the park. 

 

I remember how he parked his car on the slight slope on the side of the hill.  I remember walking on the dirt trail that wove through the brush into the open field.  I remember the tall grasses tickling my ankles and the sounds of night turning into early morning. 

 

So I went back. 

 

I walked down the dirt path and felt the grass on my legs.  I walked into the clearing to see not a dark early dawn, but a bright sunny afternoon.  The sun hit my face and grass tickled between my sandals.  I walked into the field to approximately the spot where he had put his blanket down for us to sit on. 

 

I sat in the grass and then I lay down.  I looked up into the sun and heard the sound of cars pulling up.  I heard a child and her mother laughing.  I smiled and I breathed in the grass scented air.  My hands touched the earthen floor and I felt the soft tickle of wildflowers under my fingertips.  I made a fist and pulled a few up from the soil.  I pulled them to my nose and breathed in and then breathed in deeper.  The air and scent of flowers filled my lungs and I smiled.  I could breathe again.  In that grass where I lost my breath years before, I could breathe again. 

 

I may not have returned to who I was before that night, we are always changed by our experiences, but I found something there in the grass that I had lost.  A piece of softness and bliss that I thought I could never retrieve. 

 

I felt a freedom in my own breath as I let go of one last strand of that petrified fear—I opened the box and let it all go.  I let the park go and I walked out the way I came—into the sunlight and into my future. 

  

(Below) Photo of me as a child, breathing in the scent of park grasses and enjoying the bliss of wildflowers.

distilled

 

Although the world is full of suffering,
it is also full of the overcoming of it.

 
Helen Keller

 

 

watch me fly away, give me life like a butterfly by Te55

 

There are people who come into our lives maybe for a minute or a day but leave an indelible mark, an imprint in our heart and our soul–they teach us something about people, life, and ourselves that is unexpected and a blessing.  I thought I would take this Friday to focus on a few of those people who I have met and seen beauty through in some unexpected way. 

 

 

I am sure everyone has those people in their life history.  Often we remember our mothers, our fathers, our closest friends and they are truly jewels to have in a lifetime but there are also the more anonymous relationships that we have, in passing, which may be fleeting but I feel speak to the beauty and grace that exists in the world, not just from those that are close to us but from random strangers that flutter through our memories from time to time.  I wanted to take a moment and think about those anonymous souls that have stepped on my life path.

 

There are also those people we meet, equally randomly, in whom we see such pain in that may live with us and haunt us–change who we are and deepen how we can feel for someone else.  They may tell us a story, share a sorrow, or just exude such ache that they are permanently inked into some shadowy place in our inner selves.  Those people, as much as the former have changed my experience of the world.  They have helped me to be more empathetic, to see people even when they just pass by me, and to understand sorrow to be as universally human as joy, love, and kindness.  Sometimes people provoke kindnesses in us by the experience of knowing them in some deep and inner way.  I wanted to remember those people too–those who taught me about hurt in the human condition.

 

There are also those people who teach us about hate, fear, and misunderstanding.  Their bitterness seeps out into the world because of their discontent and they can touch our lives, hurt our hearts, and jade our worldviews.  If we try we can find our way back from those moments and away from those people but they leave their mark–like water damage on a page, the water dries, but it has seeped into the ink.  They permeate our memory in some way and we may recall them randomly and without warning.  They too teach us about the world, and ourselves, and give us an opportunity for resilience and empowerment in ourselves.  It may be a painful path but it is a worthwhile trip–so that we do not remains stuck in their bitterness or sucked into their darkness.

 

1.  Mama from Laos:

Mama was a lady who ran the guesthouse where I stayed during 5 days of my solo travels to Southeast Asia following graduate school.  While I was staying at the guesthouse I got one of my patented killer sinus infections and Mama was an angel.  Bringing me tea, patching my face with vicks patches, and praying for me at the local temple.  The morning I left Mama gave me a bracelet that she said she had blessed by a monk in the temple at sunrise and she placed it on my wrist, kissed my hand, and welled with tears.  Her kindness was profound and her impact on me so great I found myself on the plane to Ko Samui later that morning surprising myself as I welled with my own tears for a woman I barely knew and barely knew me but had treated me like a daughter nonetheless. 

She taught me that even anonymouos love can be unconditional–across and despite all the boundary lines that humans create for themselves through religion, language, culture, and familiarity. 

 

2.  The Colombian Police Officer In Bogota Airport: 

When I met him this man was probably in his early 20’s and I was in my early 7’s.  We were both pretty confident and assured and we clicked right away.  My mother and I had traveled to Bogota (city of my birth) when I was 7 years old to get my newly adopted sister Maria (aka Yolanda–that was her orphanage name).  We had just arrived, rumpled and tired at the airport arrivals area and found that we were stranded–the driver meant to pick us up had not arrived.  Not that I was aware of it at the time, wondering with  impatience why my mother was so on edge, but a woman and a child from the United States in the Bogota airport in the early 1980’s was like a stationary target.   The officer was well aware of that and went far above his required position in staying with us, as our personal sentry and my personal new playmate, until we were able to get a reputable taxi to take us to our housing.  He smiled wide, played my games, and probably gave my young mother traveling with a child a blessed gift of security. 

 

He taught me that men wielding rifles can wear unguarded smiles and that even, and maybe especially, in countries with such dangerous reputations  kind hearts and good deeds can still prevail.

 

3.  The Brazilian Guide In The Pantanal:

I can no longer remember his name but I remember him clearly, first and foremost, as the man who got me to swim with gators.  Now, lets just say that at that moment I needed little provocation just a small reassurance from my barefoot, machete-toting, jungle guide that, “They are fine, I feed them fishes,” to get me to edge into the cold river, flanked by alligators on both those sides.  It was a now or never and I foolishly went with the “now”.  That is a story for another day (a story I have written but fearfully never even attempted to get published–the same goes for stories I have written about many of these momentary characters in my life). 

 The thing I remember about him even more vividly than instigating my gator encounter was what happened later that night back at camp.  This scene is set in a deep and brush-filled region of the Brazilian Pantanal Jungle (northern jungle cousin of the Amazon) and the only inhabitants of the area are anacondas, piranhas, gators, snakes, lizards, jaguars, the jungle guides, and their guests that dorm in grass-roofed huts lined with hammocks.  And I cannot forget the corrugated shack of a jungle bar stocked with beer and sugar cane liquor enough to satiate both campers and guides for a night–or until the generator dies.  That night I saw my guide, once confident and adept by day–probably one of most well-versed natural ecologists using a wealth of training handed down by fathers and grandfathers–become a stumbling, aggressive, incoherent alcoholic.  He did so for all three nights I was there and on the third night his lifelong friend and fellow guide revealed to me, without knowledge of AA, and in portuguese accented english, “He has a problem and he has for a long time but I just don’t know what to do.”

He taught me that even in the deepest jungles and amid the most raw beauty anyone can feel emotional pain and numb themselves with addictive behaviors.  He showed me that human pain is universal and even men who brave alligator infested waters and carry machetes with ease can be weak and injured inside.

 

4.  Mama from Mississippi:

I met Mama from Mississippi in the very small town of Pearlington the year following Hurricane Katrina.  My mother and I had decided to volunteer over Thanksgiving to assist in clean up and found ourselves on a very eclectic bandwagon headed by a Catholic Priest who loved to play U2 Songs on his acoustic guitar.  He was a native Mississippian and had grown up in Pearlington, Mama was his mother and so there we found ourselves, crowded on the floor of Mama’s tiny FEMA trailer.  The trailer was parked alongside her once beautiful southern home which had been drowned from the inside leaving a hollow shell dripping with mold,  littered with shattered glass, and splintered in two with pieces of lifelong memories collapsed and crushed under the weight of water. 

The entire town had imploded and on every street there were pieces of pots, strips of photographs, and remains of family treasures.  Some people had fled and never returned while others came by daily to rummage what they could out of what was once their lives and now was mud.  And there was Mama, a sort of self-appointed town delegate, checking on families and making us food from whatever she had stocking her barely livable trailer home.  She cried when she prayed, and shook in a Pentecostal sort of way, beside her Catholic priest son.  But above all she had a beautiful soul, it shone through the dimness of dark times and town ruins with a hope that seemed unbreakable. 

Mama taught me what unwavering faith could look like and she reminded me that there were people, in unexpected places, who were strong enough to hope and pray and love even when even the world and the ground beneath her feet had given way.  She reminded me that there is a love universally found in God, in humans, in ourselves, that can not be broken even by the greatest of storms.

 

5.  The Widow In My  NonFiction Writing Class:

She sat there, often fairly quiet through our ten week creative non-fiction class.  While some wrote out pain in a group therapy type method and others held back emoting with the use of journalistic style prose, she lay somewhere in the middle–writing intelligently and beautifully but often just above the surface of something bigger.  I just couldn’t figure what. 

One day she read a story she wrote about the death of her husband just weeks before beginning the writing program.  She read about how she had taken this class as a means of reviving herself, finding life after his chronic illness and years by his pained side, and losing him finally at the end of it all.  She read how she had found some kind of spark of herself again in story-writing and reading with a purpose.  She had immersed herself in technique and storytelling and found something alive that wasn’t there before. 

It was the most beautiful story I heard in that entire class and is probably the most I ever got to know her–and in that I felt like I knew her both intimately and not at all.  Now I cannot even remember her face but the exquisite craft, melancholy and bravery in her story I will never forget. 

She reminded me how therapeutic writing can be and also that the best writing is made while straddling that fine line of telling the story, feeling the pain in the pages, but not indulging the pain in leu of the craft.  She did it perfectly with artistry and bravery.  In reading her story of mourning and her capacity to tell it, unwaveringly and honestly, I would have guessed years not weeks had passed.  She reminded me that writing has a power that extends beyond the author and becomes alive–her melancholy is still alive in me.  It also reminded me of the curative powers of words–writing and reading them have a capacity to revive and heal. 

 

6.  The Man On The Train To Amsterdam:

He was from Kosovo.  I was from New Jersey.  And we were both riding the night train to Amsterdam from Germany with a man from Austria.  It is a complicated beginning I know.  It was late summer of 1999 and the War in Kosovo had just ended.  We all found ourselves on a train to Amsterdam, me on my first backpacking trip, and the both of them headed somewhere with a purpose.  The Austrian man spoke English but the man from Kosovo spoke none.  He was wrinkled and tired looking with tanned skin and dark hair.  And we began to talk–me and the man from Kosovo–with the Austrian man acting as intermediary translator. 

I heard about his wife and his children who he loved dearly, who had been crushed in the bombing in his town.  I heard about his journey to find life and work and to try to find a reason to live with his family gone.  After a few hours I nearly forgot that the Austrian man was there, it was as though we were the only two people on the train and in the railcar corridor.  I remember feeling like part therapist, part mourner, and part historian hearing a tale of history in the making. 

He showed me what pain was, what war was, what trauma was and how excruciating it can be to be the one that lived when everything you loved has died.  He was my first touch of the existential of war and loss.  He was my first session, although unofficially, as a trauma therapist.  He showed me the value of just listening to someone’s story and the importance of hearing someone else’s pain and validating it.  He showed me war and the casualties of war in lives, in hearts, in souls crushed with love lost.

 

7.  The Montville Racist:

He was a teenager around my age who lived in Montville, New Jersey.  Beyond that I remember nothing distinctive about him as a person–besides being a racist, of course.  I remember that night and what was said very distinctly but in a backwards dream sort of way.  Mostly this was due to the fact that I only figured out what transpired and what it meant after the fact–with a sort of suburban child naivety which, thanks to him, was lost that night. 

I remember going to this anonymous boy’s house one weekend night because he was a friend of a friend.  I remember getting there and them arguing in the other room.  He was saying things like, “There is no way.  I don’t want her here.  I want her out of my house.”  I remember her shouting back that he was a “pig” and “awful” but I didn’t really understand why.  I remember we didn’t have a car and he had to drive us back to our town and to my friend’s house.  She was blush red when we got there and apologizing to me profusely.  I didn’t realize until half-way through her gushing what had even happened.  He didn’t want ME there.  He didn’t want a HISPANIC there.  He didn’t want someone NOT WHITE in his house.  Then I felt nauseous, disgusted, humiliated, and vulnerable all at once.  I wanted to pass out and go home and hide.  I was disguisted at myself for not “getting it” before and for having to spend an entire ride home, unknowingly, with a bigot who hated me just because I “was”, period.  I was horrified that, that kind of bigotry existed and that I had experienced it first hand and I was angry that he had shifted me in a way that could not be taken back or taken away.  I felt unwanted for my skin and the genetics of my birth–and that was a first. 

He taught me that hate can exist–be it for fear or learned stigma–just to exist; for no rational or real reason.  He taught me that bigotry was not just in history or somewhere else but it could be anywhere.  He taught me to be prepared but never ashamed.  He taught me to know people’s potential for wrong, but to not let that hold me back for seeing all the good and right.  I would not let him taint me…but in some ways, in just existing in my memory, as a memory he did, and he has. 

 

8.  My Birthmother–Imagined and Real:

I have thought of my birthmother throughout my life in a number of ways.  When I was young I idolized her as a perfect angel from impoverished circumstances who, with saint-like capacity, gave me up for some greater good.  When I was a teenager I despised her for feelings I had about myself, for not knowing where I came from or my hispanic lineage, and for not giving me the answers to why I was the way I was from the roundness of my nose to my racing mind and hormonally excited emotionality.  As an adult I just wondered–without answers.  After two private investigators and a number of dead ends I guess I came to terms with having nothing but questions without answers.  She is who I am, but also she is not.  She may be my hair or my nose but I’m not sure she has anything to do with my obsessive literary bent.  I blame that on my (adoptive) mother talking to me like I was 30 at 2 and reading me long, linguistically winded novels at 3.  I have found my balance between nature and nurture.  But there are days like my birthday that I still look in the mirror a little too long with a little too much melancholy laying on my heart and wonder about the questions. 

She taught me to love who I am even when I don’t know where I came from–not by example but by absence. She is someone who I have the freedom to imagine however I choose.  She is someone I thank for freeing me to live the life I have, and love the family I love and know that they love me.  But despite all that she has given me, without even knowing that she has done so, she is still a stranger.  She is someone I only see when I stare in the mirror a little too long. 

 

 

Footprints in The Sand by johncooke on flickr

 

My article “Yoga: A Healing Art in A Psychotherapy Context” has just been published in the Fall 2009 Issue of  THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER MAGAZINE

Check it out if you would like!

Happy Birthday Candles on Angel Foods Cake by Rob J Brooks on Flickr

“Happy Birthday Candles…” by Rob J Brooks on Flickr

 

Today is my husband’s birthday.  He turns thirty.  A milestone birthday that we had planned to share together in some pinnacle life moment kind of way.  But he is in New Jersey and I am in Florida and I feel pretty blue. 

 

I always had a hard time with my birthday.  As an international adoptee, born in Bogota, Colombia, and adopted at 4 months of age my birthday was always a loaded day; often full of more questions and melancholy than anything resembling celebration. 

 

This year, however (although my birthday is also looming a month plus a day off from my husband’s), all I can think about is his.  I know it is important to him.  I know he loves to celebrate it and this year his celebratory spirit has been deflated by our distance, future uncertainty, and separation of not just place but a family divided.  I feel more awful today than a hundred melancholy birthdays of my own put together. 

 

We have talked about celebrating a joint birthday on the Friday after mine next month and that would be nice.  Yet no amount of frosting can make this day sweet.  It is what it is–a sad day to be divided. 

 

And yet, at the same time I think with a bit of a smile of the older gentleman I encountered in a waiting room earlier today.  I was eavesdropping or as I like to think of it partaking in a professionally affiliated social study of humans in their environment.  This kind of experience, one purely observational, can often bring rich personal rewards and insights.  This was such a moment.

 

The stout, stocky man with thin but crisp white hair and glasses smiled “Hello” at myself and the man sitting to  my right.  They he leaned in towards the man to my right, and whispered with a bit of glee, “I have something to tell you.”  He said his daughter had called that morning and asked him how he was doing to which he replied, “Well I have to go to the doctor today to get a tooth removed and my ankle has been aching some.”  The man’s daughter shouted, “Thank God! That’s all!” 

 

The man telling the story laughed at his own recollection and smiling hobbled on his injured ankle over to his seat.  The man he had whispered his tome of wisdom to smiled as well and said, “Perspective, huh, I guess it is all about perspective.” 

 

I sat in my chair two seats away and smiled as well.  I began thinking of today and all of the reasons I was sad, which were real reason, and within my own reality I tried to find my own perspective. 

 

Perspective.  Especially when we are down it is something that is so hard to find.  Even more so I find it hard as what I am feeling today is not so much pity for myself but sadness on the behalf of someone else.  I wish with all of my heart that I could make this day wonderful for my husband but I know that we are apart and that is not going to change and I understand that I cannot change his experience because I want it to be different.

 

So what do I do about me?

 

I have decided, at least on my own behalf, to try to carry the elderly man’s tome with me today and try to have a little perspective.  I want to bring a mantra of, “That’s all?” about my circumstances. 

 

Yes, we are apart.  Yes, it is his birthday.  But that is all.  We are both healthy (well with me that is always relative with my countless chronic funks but relative to me I’m pretty good).  We are together, in marriage and in love, if not in geography.  We have jobs in a job-less economy.  We have strengths both individually and as a collective duo; quite a few of which have been enhanced by this time apart.  Our seperation is temporary; we are separated only by occupational circumstance not by hemispheres or continents or years away at war.   

 

I will accept that today has its hints and hues of sadness but I refuse to drown in it.  I will try to maintain a “That’s all?” focus on my path forward and carry that mantra nugget forward, in my secret “Just in case I need it” pocket of tricks for mental health and emotional well being.  I am grateful for my chance encounter and my ears capable of a quick eavesdropping/social assessment–however you want to look at it. 

 

I miss my husband desperately, more than I could have imagined, but I am grateful for all the good and that helps me with my perspective on the bad.  This focus is work but work that is worth it to give a bad day a little less tartness and bite. 

 

Perhaps tonight I will even be inspired enough towards proactive action to FINALLY get started on my required reading for my upcoming first day of yoga school!  Perhaps. 

 

The following is for my husband who I am thinking about constantly today:

 

The simple lack of her is more to me than other’s presence.

Edward Thomas

  

And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depths until the hour of separation.

Khalil Gibran

 

by SmallRaffaela

by SmallRaffaela

flickr photo “hide and seek” by SmallRaffaela

 

 

Good thing I believe that my body is just the fancy (or not so fancy) outer casing for much more valuable goods: my soul, heart, spirit.  If I had higher expectations for my “casing” I might be more inclined to really resent the one I got handed to me from the cosmic assembly line. 

 

Although, in truth, I have some body resentments.  Between chronic rhinitus, psoriasis, and endometriosis (all conditions correlated to immune system dysfunction) I vacilate between fevers, abdominal spasms, and scalp burning and itching; each condition exacerbaterated by the next.  Last week rhinitus was center stage and today endo has come out to play. 

 

Curled over on a bathroom floor doing my lamaze breath to placate my angry belly which writhes and stabs and contorts from the inside out I find myself swimming in my own pool of self pity–and then resenting myself for my thoughts. 

 

I can remember back in November sitting in the office of my reproductive endocrinologist with my husband and having him tell me that during my laprascopic surgery they found “Stage IV” of endometriosis invading my body. In non-medical terms “Stage IV” is pretty much an internal warzone the like of maybe the battle for Troy.  My organs were fused together and my fallopian tube was blocked shut with endometriosis, not to mention a giant cyst wedged between the carnage like a giant grenade.  I imagined something close to a Dali painting going on in between my hips; an abstract distortion of what innards should look like. 

 

He also told me that I would probably have to have the surgery again within two years, I guess something like an ovarian detailing, and that if I wanted to get pregnant, due to the damage to my fallopian tube, I was at risk for tubal pregnancy which can require pregnancy termination due to the dangerousness of the situation.  I left my appointment with photos of my internal carnage, a prescription for birth control to take daily indefinitely, and feeling completely betrayed by my body.

 

Today is one of those days I revisit that same sense of betrayal.  I have, over the years since I hit puberty,  become accustomed to days spent writhing on the bathroom floor, alternating between cursing and praying, and drowning in my own self-pity.  As I become more expert at this particular ailment I come to terms with the pain as a piece of my existence, just an element of my story that will persist at the very least until I remove all the pesky troublesome organs.  I live with it.  But the pity still creeps in from time to time. 

 

I work to live in my body, love what I have, and forgive it its flaws–and just as I do that I know I have to do the same for myself emotionally.  Forgive my moments of pitying weakness and allow myself to feel as I feel, give myself permission to be human.  

 

It is hard to have a cohesive and complimentary relationship with one’s body and one’s mind when they seem to be at odds.  When you feel that your body has betrayed you in such a core way, and as a woman in such an essential and intimate part of your anatomy, in your female center. 

 

But as I stare down at my body and run my fingers across the surgery scars that flank my navel I know that wounds, and aches, and scars, and all, I have to love my body.  Because although it is only the casing for the raw materials that define my “self” it is also a collaborative experiment, this human existence thing.   I have to work with what my body has given me and accept it’s flaws, accept my emotional moments of weakness, and be able to acknowledge my scars without hating them. 

 

I continue to struggle with this tug of war and some days I lie on the bathroom floor breathing deeply and sobbing.  But other days I don’t.  And all of that is also part of the human experiment that is my life; finding the balance and making my way through my own ebbs and flows.  And give myself permission to not be perfect and try to constantly remember not to expect the illusion of perfection that doesn’t exist for anyone anywhere anyway. 

 

“Good for the body is the work of the body, good for the soul is the work of the soul, and good for each is the work of the other.”

Henry David Thoreau

dream on by smallraffaela on flickr

flickr photo “dream on” by SmallRaffaela

 

 

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