Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Different Sort of Book Launch

Yesterday, I went to a book launch that was very different from any other launch I've been to - for a book I've already read that brought me to tears more than once, as a writer, as a mother, as someone who loves people who struggle with addiction. The book is A House on Stilts, written by Paula Becker, and she took great care to bring this book out in to the world in partnership with representatives from agencies in Seattle who help young adults with addiction and homelessness.

More than once, I found myself swooning during the launch. First, when Paula spoke about addiction as a community issue, rather than a personal or familial one. Then again, when Christopher Hanson, the Director of Engagement Services for YouthCare in Seattle used the phrase "unconditional positive regard," and when all of the panelists spoke about the necessary collaboration between families and social service agencies as we work to craft supports for young people in crisis.

Paula wrote this book knowing that there will be readers who will seek to distance themselves from her story because it is so painful, and many of them will do that by examining her choices and using them to excoriate her and her husband. The book itself is brilliant in the way it combines her personal journey as the mother of someone who fought opioid addiction with the facts about how our communities treat those who struggle and their families. While it is often incredibly sad, it is not a 'woe is me' tale or a defense of her individual choices, but a call to action that we must heed if we are to do right by this generation of young people who have been caught in the grip of addiction and all that it bleeds in to - unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, and physical health challenges.

Unfortunately, so many of our public health systems fail to adequately address the needs of young people and families who seek help - especially black and brown people. And over time, the continued failures make it hard to believe that the systems won't do more harm than good. Threatening to put folks in jail, cut off services, remove children from their parents' home - these are not ways to heal, and they are certainly not ways to engender trust. If you are a person who has been denied services or threatened with punishment of some sort over and over again, the likelihood that you will continue to ask for help gets smaller and smaller, and you become more isolated and more at risk of harm.

When families are expected to support a loved one with addiction in isolation, they quickly become overwhelmed. I have had personal experience loving and supporting someone who is constantly in crisis - waiting for the phone call that will tell me they are injured or dead, getting the phone call with an urgent plea for shelter or money, holding that person time and again while they shake and sob and say they are ready to get help. The toll it takes on your physical body is real, and the emotional triggers last for - well, decades at this point, and I don't know if they'll ever go away. The adrenaline rush that floods your body when you get that call, the shaking, the lump in your throat, the voice in your head that says, "it's happening again and I have to marshall the strength to manage it," are nearly impossible to ignore. If we do not have others to reach out to for help who don't have the same visceral ties to the person struggling (and, thus, can help in different ways that are often more effective), we are quickly depleted in every way.

When partnerships are rooted in genuine care and a purposeful dovetailing of skill sets and resources, they are amazingly effective. As a family member or individual who is struggling, finding those people to partner with is challenging at best, and finding partners with adequate funding and training and physical space is even harder. When we can find them, as mothers and fathers and caregivers, we are allowed to set boundaries that enable us to continue to function and take care of ourselves. Paula's story is not unique, and it is imperative that we listen to it keenly. Her willingness to share the pain of her journey with her son's addiction and her ability to hold it up as a call to action for all of us to come together and recognize this as a community crisis is courageous and wise. Find this book, read it, and reach out. Our elected officials need to know that we want them to support funding for the agencies who are tasked with helping individuals with addiction. They need to know that we believe this is a crisis for all of us, that we all belong to each other, and that nobody can do this alone. Even families with financial resources cannot buy their way in to rehab facilities if there are no beds available.

Perhaps the most striking thing Paula said during the book launch was this: "...you cannot starve someone in to recovery, nor can you shame them in to it. I ask you to have compassion - the next time you see someone who is homeless, don't look away. Offer a smile, meet their eyes, ask if they are hungry and buy them a sandwich."

The beauty of this book is that compassion not only means kindness toward that one person you see struggling, but it also means that we need to work to build systems of compassion that support our community members in their endeavors to heal. We do, truly, all belong to each other. May we start acting like it, soon.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Music and Memory

Hey  -

The Fixx are playing in Seattle on Aug 28th -  if you don’t have plans for that night, you should really take L to see them.   They’re in Portland the night before and I just got tickets for that show . . . 


My brother emailed me sometime in June to give me a heads up about this show. I'm incredibly grateful because there's no way I would have found my way to it without his suggestion. I am notoriously horrible about names - band names, song names, celebrity's names. In the moment, I couldn't conjure up even one song The Fixx was known for, but I knew if my brother was cueing me, I'd know them when I heard them. 

I bought tickets that day. 

As a junior-high kid (we didn't call it middle school in the 70s and early 80s), I went to a lot of concerts - most of them with my big brother. Mom went to a few with us, but eventually, I think she burned out and decided that if I tagged along with C, there would be no hijinks, even though the nearest big city for concerts was Portland, which was a two-hour drive from home. I was the happy recipient of that policy, although C has pretty eclectic taste in music. We went to see Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, as well as REO Speedwagon, ZZ Top, Metallica, and Judas Priest. He knew all the songs - A and B sides - and which albums they were featured on. He sang along with them all, knew when the drum solo or guitar solo would come, knew the names of each band member and which other bands they'd been in. He still does. He's a walking encyclopedia of music, and I trust his taste. Every year he sends me a CD for my birthday and while sometimes it's a performer or band I know (Tom Petty, Steely Dan), other times it is an entirely novel act, but I always love it. He knows what I'll like and respond to. 

As a kid, I used to listen to the album for whichever band we were going to see next obsessively, reacquainting myself with the lyrics and the rhythms. I could remember songs really well, but I never knew their names or which album they were on or who was playing which instrument. I never really felt the need to catalog that or keep it in my brain. 

My big brother is 50 now and I can't even begin to imagine the number of concerts he's been to in his life. He goes to about two a month, at big venues and small, and he always has recommendations for me. On the day of The Fixx concert in Seattle, I woke up to a series of text messages from him, complete with photos of the show he'd just seen and a review of how great it was, which albums they played music off of, and which songs were the best. I smiled and got excited for my own experience. But unlike when I was younger, I didn't seek out any of the music to refresh my memory. I went in cold, as did my daughter. She was definitely the youngest person in the crowd, but as a musician herself, she's usually up for a concert (especially if I'm paying).

As the early strains of "Are We Ourselves" began to play, I felt a warmth in my belly. When the lead singer pointed his microphone out toward the audience, I knew exactly where to come in and what the tune was. It happened again with "Saved by Zero," "Red Skies," "Stand or Fall." At one point, I leaned over to speak into L's ear and tell her that I was reminded of sitting on C's bedroom floor, playing cards and listening to music - these very songs. Had we not gone to this concert, I'm not sure I would have ever thought about The Fixx or been prompted to seek out their music. I simply hadn't remembered they existed. 

There is a lot that I don't remember about my childhood, a lot I dissociated from as I tried to find a way to survive emotionally in the firestorm of days after my brother disappeared and my parents divorced. I've been researching polyvagal theory lately as part of my work with adolescents and trauma and trying to understand how our bodies protect us by disconnecting from so much of what is going on around us. As I listened to the band play and felt the comforting memories of hanging out with C, listening to music, I wondered, is music the way in to those memories I want to have?

As I let my mind play with that thought, I realized that I was feeling calm and peaceful, that I was recalling the safety of being my big brother's little sister, remembering a mundane, "normal" childhood activity that must have happened dozens of times in those frightening, sad days. I'm not so sure anymore that what I want is to use these memories to push my way in to other ones. For now, I'm simply basking in the reminder that my brother and I shared a connection through music, that it was his way of being in relationship with me and showing me the ropes, leading with his passion and inviting me in to share it. What a beautiful gesture, what an amazing, seemingly simple way to be part of each others' lives, even though we haven't gone to a concert together in decades. 

I'm so grateful to have these kinds of memories come back to me as I get older, to remind me that there are myriad ways to connect with others, and that the ones that come most easily, most naturally, are often the ones that endure. I hope that someday my big brother and I can go to another concert together, but in the meantime, I'm definitely listening for his advice on which ones I should buy tickets to myself. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Seven P's That Lead to Peace

My last post pointed you to my friend Jen and her work that helped me set a new tone for my life. I have several pages of notes from a day I spent with her last year in a tiny little cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest and every now and then when I'm feeling a bit lost, I revisit them and find new nuggets of wisdom.

Last week, I unearthed the notebook again and found a loose sheet of paper I'd tucked inside. It features just eight words, spaced out and written in sky blue pen. I don't remember when I wrote them, but I vaguely recall sitting down one morning with my coffee, lighting a candle, and doing metta meditation to start my day. When I finished the meditation, I reached for a sheet of paper and wrote what came to me. I do this often, and it doesn't always make sense in the moment, but capturing them for later has proven to be powerful.

Sometimes, I have epiphanies or sudden shifts in thinking that have profound effects. It's a little like an earthquake that suddenly and irrevocably changes the landscape of my mind and heart and life. But more often, I'm learning that making substantive changes takes intent and practice. I have to embed and embody new ways of being in to my life so that they become habits, and these seven words are emblematic of that hard work.

Patience 

Being patient requires me to trust in the abundance of the universe, the kindness of people, the rhythms of life. Like a surfer whose timing is off and has to watch a perfect wave pass by without begin able to ride it, I have to wait and know that it's only a matter of time before the next good one comes by and lifts me. Once-in-a-lifetime stories are romantic and cinematic, but not really an accurate reflection of the way life works. 

Perseverance

This also asks that I trust - in my own ability to keep moving, in the fact that one step will lead to another. It doesn't mean that I have to know what all the steps are, or where the ultimate destination is, just that the next step will come and then the next and the next. And it doesn't mean that I can't rest, only that I listen closely so that when I'm called to start moving again, I hear it. 

Passion

This word is sometimes over-used, but it is also under-rated. Being able to tap in to the things that drive me, that motivate me, that stir that feeling in my belly that excites me and makes me smile is a skill, if only because it asks that I acknowledge that those things are intrinsically worthy, that they are enough, important, valid (whether or not they lead to monetary success). I've been in relationships where my passions were trivialized and called "cute" or "sweet" and I learned to doubt myself, but I'm (re)learning. 

People

We are designed to live in community, and many of us enjoy it, but we aren't taught to be comfortable resting in it, being held by it, surrendering to the give and take. We cannot accomplish the things we want to do without other people, and celebrating our victories is not nearly as sweet when we do it alone. A willingness to be seen and heard and see and hear others is vital in my journey to a better life. 

Paths

Not path. Paths. Plural. There is no one path, there are many, and they connect to each other. It is ok to head down one path, change my mind and veer left or right or even make a u-turn and head right back to the last fork in the road. It is perfectly acceptable to travel for a long time down one path, decide that I've learned all I can from it, and hop off or run as fast as I can to a different one. 

Plans

Gloria Steinem said, "Hope is a form of planning." This P brings together passion and perseverance and bathes them in hope. It gives me a place to start and a goal to strive for, even if things ultimately go sideways. As long as I remember that a plan is simply a blueprint and I get to decorate the walls however I damn well please, I can see opportunity in it rather than feeling limited by it. 

Presence

This is often the hardest P for me. It requires a willingness to pay attention to what is happening, even when it's scary or uncomfortable, and especially when life is joyful. Having learned to be dismissive of my own successes ('humility is sexy,' I was once told), I have to practice being intentional about noticing when I feel joy and imprinting it on my brain and my heart. Paying attention to my instinct to minimize my own efforts or hedge against jinxing myself and correcting it to bask in the feeling of happiness is a lot of work. Noting my reaction to fear or sadness and counteracting the shrinking by opening up further has only gotten easier the more I am present. 

When I remember these pillars (ha! another P), I am rewarded with a sense of peace. When I slow down, envision them, act with intention to give them a place in my life, and embody them, I begin to transform the way my brain reacts to the world so that the old lessons of scarcity and bootstrapping and fear fall away. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Falling, and Staying Put

Over the last 18 months, I've wrestled (well, thumb-wrestled) with something that keeps cropping up for me. It's nothing major - thus, the thumb-wrestling - but nevertheless, it keeps showing up for me and I keep nodding at it and then moving on with what I've been doing.

Six days ago, I started a ten-day program with my lovely and amazing friend, Jen Lemen, that has re-surfaced all of this and put it front and center, and it's profound and moving and scary as hell. In a good way.

This morning, I woke up and sat in metta meditation (part of the program involves saying metta every morning) on my deck. Surrounded by fragrant plants and bathed in sunshine, I opened up as wide as I could and by the time I was finished, tears were rolling down my face unabated. As is my ritual, I wrote down the messages I'd heard as I sat and texted Jen to download.

The next, very critical piece of this for me is to walk. I have access to a gorgeous arboretum about six blocks from my house, so I leashed the dogs up and we headed out. There is something about opening myself up and making myself vulnerable and then walking to the trees and sitting in quiet for a while that grounds me and lets the messages of love and compassion sink deep in to my bones.

Between my house and the arboretum is a play field and this morning, there was a t-ball game in full swing as the dogs and I approached. There was a father and son (young, maybe 4 years old at the most) playing catch off to the side, and we rounded the corner just in time to see the little boy running as fast as he could with the ball in his hands, racing on chubby legs and laughing and then he just crumpled in to the grass, his legs giving way beneath him as he rolled on to his back and giggled with his face to the sun. Then he sat up and stared down at the grass next to him, the game of catch completely forgotten. He pulled a blade of grass, ran his hand across the top of others to feel the tips on his palm, and was generally engrossed where he sat. His dad kept trying to coax him to get up and throw the ball back, come back to the game, but the little boy just sat, smiling, playing in the grass.

I began crying again. I have been falling, over and over again, for the last 18 months. Not hurting myself, not upset, just falling. And after each time, I get up and go right back to the thing I was doing when I fell.

As I watched that little boy, my heart swelled with nostalgia and longing. I remember being a kid and staying where I fell for a while. I remember the joy of it, the discoveries I made that I wouldn't have seen if I had just gotten right back up and kept playing.

It's time for me to let myself fall and stay where I am for a while. My body is crying for me to let it be, to pay attention, to sit in that place and be still and quiet and open up to different possibilities. I'm listening.

*If you're curious about the program with Jen, please check out Jen's Instagram and look for information on the Path of Devotion. She's starting another group July 1 and it is life-changing. She is a gentle, wise guide if you're looking to create new, meaningful rituals and rhythms in your own life, and you pay what you can.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Power and Promise of Story

We know the power of story to motivate and connect people, to convince and add color. But I am increasingly aware of how storytelling has become co-opted over time, bent and twisted to be used as a power tactic or a marketing tool.

Story is a tool - it used to be a tool to educate; elders would tell fables and parables to illustrate concepts. It is used to entertain, to take us out of ourselves, and it is an incredible way to build empathy. Telling our stories helps us release them from our bodies and, in the right setting, reminds us that we aren't alone.

In the last several decades, story has also become a way to ask for validation, acceptance, consideration. And while that might not seem like a bad thing on its face, in the context of people without power telling their stories to people in power as a plea for empathy or understanding, it feels heavy in my gut. It feels more and more like justifying our existence, defending our choices, hoping to be considered equally human and deserving of care.

Many years ago, I began interviewing women about their stories. Specifically, their stories around being pregnant and having to choose whether or not to stay pregnant. I was increasingly frustrated that the political tug-of-war around abortion rights seemed never ending and I was certain that the conversation was all wrong. My hope was that centering the stories I wrote on the issue of choice would shift the spotlight a bit and add depth - open people's eyes to the notion that the issue wasn't two sides of the same coin, but far more complicated than that.

I had fully bought in to this new notion of what story was for. I was using these stories to not only educate people, but to convince them that these women deserved their consideration.

Sharing our stories is an enormous act of vulnerability. Opening ourselves up and shining a light on the parts of us that feel different, look different, are different is incredibly courageous, especially if the listener is not simply a vessel, but a judge. And while story is known for building empathy, it shouldn't be the key that opens the gate to empathy. If, in telling our stories, we are hoping to gain acceptance and validation of our worth, and the listener is the one who gets to grant that (or not), story has become twisted and co-opted.

The notion of needing to tell our stories so that people in power will acknowledge us and tap us on the shoulder with their scepters, allowing us entry in to the world of Worthy Humans is abhorrent to me. We need to start with the belief that we are all worthy and cherished. People with disabilities, people of color, transgender or non-binary people, women, elders, childless folks, immigrants - nobody should have to tell their story in order to be regarded as worthy of respect. Nobody should have to show their scars and bare their souls so that they can be deemed worthy of care and honor.

Our stories are reminders that we are not alone. They teach us about the depth and the breadth of human experience, but they should not be a pre-requisite for civil rights, for love, for worthiness. The power of our stories is that they help us connect to others, and to use them as currency for equality and humane treatment is wrong.

I admit that when I started my interview project, it was with the intent to use the stories as political capital. I hoped that they would be published in a book that would reach the ears of people in power, that the stories would shift something inside them fundamentally and convince them once and for all that reproductive rights are vital, foundational, human rights. The women who spoke with me trusted me and, in some cases, had never told their story to anyone else but me. I was powerfully moved and believed that it would make a difference. These days, I resent the fact that I should have to tell my story in order to gain agency over my own body, in order to maintain or regain my civil rights and be seen worthy of that by people in power.

I believe in the power of story. When someone trusts me with their truest, deepest truth, it is a gift I do not take lightly. As receivers of story, we have an opportunity to be deliberate and generous with our listening, to recognize that we are being given a gift. I have felt the significant difference between telling my story to someone who is willing to hear it, contain it, hold it and reflect back to me that I am not alone in my difference, in my pain, in my perspective and telling my story to someone in an effort to get them to recognize my humanity. The first instance feels healing and fuels connection - the second feels defensive and frantic and defiant. Sharing something profound in an effort to find community is expansive. Sharing something profound as a way to justify my existence or worth or right to have agency over my body is like always being a step behind, and it reinforces the power differential between me and the receiver.

I appreciate the people who gather the courage to speak for themselves and others - the ones who testify in public hearings in support of accommodations or policy shifts or funding sources. I simultaneously lament that movements like #shoutyourabortion  or #youknowme have to exist, that we have been forced to use our stories as justification for our choices, to plead for help from those in power. It isn't as though there is some tipping point, some critical number of stories that are told that will shift the narrative in favor of acceptance and compassion, in favor of the foundational belief that we are all human and, as such, equally deserving of the right to live freely, move through the world without obstacles in our way or a target on our back.

Until we can start at a baseline of humanity for all, equal rights, and acknowledgment of the historical systemic ways we oppress women and people of color and folks with disabilities and non-binary gender expression, etc. etc. we will not be able to truly hear the stories of our fellow humans. We will always be looking for the "hook," the seminal difference, the spark that makes us say, "Oh, ok, you're not like those other __________." But in my heart, that's not what story is about. Story is about bringing us together, reminding us of our connections, and reinforcing the power of being acknowledged.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Growth and Agitation

I am writing my way in to my body. This is difficult, but not counterintuitive. In the last ten years or so, I've discovered that what I used to think was counterintuitive was simply fear. Instead of doing what I was told to do (don't poke at that, don't examine the pain, pretend it isn't there or deny it or minimize it) for most of my life, I have learned that opening up, asking questions, and leading with curiosity is actually the most intuitive thing I can do.

So, while it has been a while since I sat down to write, I am agitated and hyped, uncomfortable and tense, and too far in my head. It is time to write my way in to my body.

The word agitated conjures up the washing machine of my youth - the golden colored 1970s top loading contraption that swirled clothes to clean them by violently twisting them back and forth. The one I had to stand on my tiptoes or levitate off the ground in order to reach that last sock or pair of underwear caught on one of the fins of the center agitator before tossing it all in to the dryer. Is this agitation getting things clean? Is it separating the dirt from the substance?

I am an extreme empath, especially when it comes to my daughters. When they are overwhelmed or upset, joyful or incredibly excited, I am too. I feel it in my core - like that washing machine agitator of old. I think sometimes I need that twisting motion, that constant shifting and moving inside me in order to parse out what is mine and what is theirs. Especially when the intensity is driven by fear.

It is my job as Mom and holder of space, purveyor of radical acceptance and unconditional love to operate from a place of calm and curiosity and centeredness. In order to do so, I have to filter out the fear.



It is Spring and I am eager to burst forth in to new growth and projects. Last fall I went to a plant sale and bought two tiny dogwoods and a lilac. They were in 1-gallon pots and at the time, they were simply sticks standing upright - not even impressive enough to be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was skeptical that they would grow at all, but even after the 15 inches of snow we got this winter (unheard of in Seattle), a week ago, they each sported one tiny leaf. Today, they are all decked out in green, leaves growing by the minute thanks to the rain and sun breaks we have had. I like to imagine that all winter they lay resting, knowing that the time would come for them to busily push forth new leaves, maybe even agitating deep inside as the Earth rotated and the days got longer, readying themselves for the burst of energy it takes to produce new growth.

I think I'm a few weeks behind, but I'm going to get there.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Grand Canyon is Not 100. And I Have Not Been Married for 25 Years



Today would have been my 25th wedding anniversary.

I'm trying to figure out how I feel about that. Honestly, it's not that I woke up with any particularly different feeling today. And I did my usual things - letting the dogs out, feeding the cat, making my coffee, checking in with Eve who is two hours ahead of me in the Midwest. It wasn't until I decided to double-check the date and match it with The Tarot Lady's daily card reading that I realized it was February 26.

And it wasn't until I stopped and did the math that I was certain it had been 25 years. But as soon as I confirmed it, I felt prickly warmth in my cheeks and a small lump forming in my throat.              
I focused on breath. Expanding my ribs outward and upward. Shifted my feet to balance the weight between both legs.

One of the headlines I read this morning in my news crawl said GRAND CANYON TURNS 100. That was another thing that gave me pause. Not because I was trying to figure out how I felt about it, but because it seems absurd.

The Grand Canyon is not 100.

The fact that human beings named it and stated that we were giving it some sort of special protection (from us, if we're being honest) is turning 100. The Grand Canyon has been there for a long time.

Human-centering.

I'm pretty sure that's a big part of the problem, isn't it? That we think everything is about us and we only see the world in terms of how it affects us, what it can provide for us, or how it can harm us.

In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston recounts a memory from her childhood where she climbs a tree in her yard and gazes out at the horizon.
"Every way I turned, it was there, and the same distance away. Our house then, was in the center of the world."

Today is a day. The moon is not in a particularly unique phase, there is no unusual meteorological activity happening in the part of the world where I stand, the calendar is a human construct, as are wedding anniversaries and the particular significance of one's 25th. It is not even my 25th, as I am no longer married.

Unpacking the flush in my cheeks and the tightness in my chest requires an examination of what I think I would have received were this truly my 25th wedding anniversary. Accolades from friends and family for having maintained a marriage for a quarter of a century. Some significant gift from my husband along with a nice dinner or small gathering of loved ones. Perhaps cards from our children. All of that may have led to some pride on my part - an acknowledgment of the work and effort it took to stay married for this long - and perhaps an extra burst of love and affection for my husband as I quickly flashed back through carefully curated memories of special times.

The Grand Canyon is not 100.
I have not been married for 25 years.

We have both existed before these milestones that would define part of us.
We will both continue to exist and evolve and have value regardless of any external measure of time.

There is something powerful in recognizing the set of relationships to which I exist today - not centering myself in them and imagining spokes radiating outward, but simply pointing to them. It is nearly impossible to talk about them without centering myself, without using the words "my" or "me." But if I can resist putting words to it, instead getting really immersed in how it feels to be part of this bigger community of people and animals and land and sky and water, I remember that I am held firmly and safely and that, here, time is not relevant.
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