Shelters

on divorce, grief, and finding peace in the elements*

It surprises them, the nudity, but being naked is its own form of prayer. 

We brought the coffee and the chocolate granola over the rocky outcropping down to the lake, wind lapping ripples against the granite shore. I sipped the sacramental first, perfectly hot and dark taste of coffee and settled into the rock. The girls splashed in the shallows, delighting in the feeling of familiarity in this place that was totally strange yesterday, when we set up camp. 

We sit for a minute, all of us in the clothes we slept in the night before, since I didn’t want to go to the trouble of putting on our wet swimsuits. I feel desire rising in me and announce to the girls, “Mom is going to do something funny. Can you guess what it is?” They can’t. I stand up and move a few steps over to the slight cover of small cedar and strip down. They laugh, wide-eyed with shock and Madeleine, my 7-year-old, looks around to see if anyone else can see. There’s no one else here, though, for the moment, and I clamber over the algae-slippery rocks and dive inelegantly into the water, feeling the cool of the earth caressing all of my skin, everything that holds me in, held in the healing cool of this dammed up river. When I come up, Catherine, 5 years old,  has already started stripping and steps nimbly over rocks to jump naked into my arms. I see the delight of water in her eyes and say,  “It’s the best, right?” I hold her skin to my skin and feel the water passing between us as we float off into the deep together. Madeleine watches with her own delight, feeling too cold to brave the naked waters, watching the rocky hill for intruders into our bliss. I carry Catherine to the shallows and we stand naked, feeling the river drip off of us, the wind greeting wet skin. Before I’m totally dry, I jump back into my shorts and t-shirt and pour a cup of coffee. Catherine hops around the rocks pretending to be the naked creature that she is. 

I think: I should have brought something to read with them, some text to mark the sacredness of morning. In past years I would have had my Bible with me, would have read a psalm about the glories of God, the wonder of creation, would have prayed our awe and gratitude to the God who reveals himself (always a him) in scripture, and sat in silent comfort at knowing the right words, connecting so appropriately with the beauty that is here.

But today I sit in silence, not so much praying as wondering about prayer and casting my hurting spirit out over the surface of the waters, listening for an echo. 

Today I am estranged from that tattered leather bible, left at home on the dining room table where Catherine had set it aside to bring with her. She held it out to me, “Let’s bring this so we can read some scary stories.” I laughed and laughed at the truth of the assessment. But I also felt that estrangement, longed for the comfort the worn leather used to bring to me, the familiar, the sense of mystery but a mystery I could hold and read over and over, a mystery that held me back. The pages of that little bible, given to me by my mother, are tattered with the marks of being read outdoors, as are the pages of my mother’s bible, spattered with rain drops and torn with wind on the pages I’d return to, sitting in the desert or in the woods, Psalm 139, Psalm 90. For many years my whole spirituality coalesced in those Psalms. It was a time when I didn’t want to read the narrative of salvation anymore. The story of the people of Israel, Paul’s letters, the gospels all felt so tied to Sunday school lessons, to proscriptive spirituality, hard to reclaim into my daily life without a great work of imagination that I hadn’t the energy for. But these Psalms, this poetry of longing and wilderness and the certainty of death, praying for knowledge of my own temporality and an awareness of being known by this great mystery of being: “O Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” And “Lord you have been our dwelling place from all generations, before the mountains were brought forth and before you formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. You turn man to dust, and say, return O Children of Men! For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning, in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” 

Yes, these ancient poems speak to something real, something that has not faded entirely for me. And the Bible itself, parts of it at least, I imagine, may return to me with the power of its revelation, the connection with mystery so profound that it has shaped Western culture and shifted our imaginary of the divine so that it can be hard for those of us raised under it to imagine the divine outside of it. But right now I don’t carry a Bible, don’t open a Bible because the Bible has been used to circumscribe who I am allowed to be, and the lines of this circumscription exclude the core of my being. And I feel unable to detach myself from everything and everyone else it has been used to draw outside the circle. The use of a handful of verses, in the mouths of ones I care deeply about, to determine who I am allowed to love, to connect the depths of my love and desire with a leprosy to be eradicated pushes me to push away the text in its entirety. At least for now. And for now, I have enough to explore, to try to attune myself to all the reality that is unnamed in the Bible, that is that beyond which all religious traditions seek after.

I get caught in the tension, wanting to share with the girls words they can hold onto, while feeling the words slipping as I try to hold on to them. While they’re adrift in these waters, whether they know they’re adrift or not, I won’t toss them a rope I know to be frayed. I feel keenly that they are adrift, and fear they are adrift because of me. I am the one who left. I wake in the morning with the bite of guilt, the hurt I have caused gnawing at my heart, a physical aching before I open my eyes. I spend the morning sitting with this feeling, acknowledging it and trying to find myself in its shadow. I fractured the stability of their home, their family, their sense of safety in the unsafe world. We were driving out on this adventure, kayak on the roof and three ukeleles piled up on top of two days of food in the front seat, all three of us singing Taylor Swift with mouths wide open in the rushing wind of wide open windows. I hear Madeleine saying something from the back seat and turn down the music. “I wish you still lived with Papa.” My heart closes and the wind keeps rushing in. “Are you feeling sad about that, honey?” She mutters her assent. I respond with the most true thing I can tell her right now, “I’m feeling sad too.” 

I was not being loved, I tell myself, again. I was in so much pain for every day of those ten years. When I felt what it felt like to be looked at with love, with desire, with curiosity about my person, something cracked in me. The walls that I had constructed around my heart in order to be ok with not feeling loved crumbled and I was exposed, a raw and beating heart needing to be protected, needing to be held. I didn’t want to raise these girls in a shelter built on a lie, pretending that what we had was love when really it was a façade, a strong façade holding up the walls of our home, holding up a sense of security that this path was leading us where we needed to go, that we were doing what we were supposed to. I explain myself to myself. The parts of me that understand to the parts of me that don’t. I imagine him with me, as he was the few times that I could convince him to come camping. He’d likely be driving and I’d be singing, looking out the window, feeling the draft of stale annoyance wafting over from him, wondering what in the world I was doing that was so annoying. Was it the way I was singing? Was it something about how I looked? Was it something I had said? Was it stress from the work that piled up when he left it at home? It didn’t feel like any of these things, it just felt like it was me, just my presence, just my being, was annoying, was inadequate to some unknown task. I’m sad about it too, I kept thinking. I’m sad about all of it. 

We want to protect our children from the pain of living. We want to shelter them from the bone-crushing pain of a family falling apart. I wanted to protect them with stories about God and verses they could memorize to feel that they are loved and protected and everything is going to be ok. I wanted to tell them, as I did the first time I told them about my parents’ divorce, on another camping trip, that that happens to families sometimes but it’s not going to happen to our family. But I’m having to teach them a much harder lesson, a lesson I’ve learned with my life–there is no shelter. All the shelters we construct are facades to keep out the elements that continue to swirl outside the walls. Our narratives about God and our prayers are built up to keep at bay the howling wind of uncertainty and unknowing that claws at all our theology. I don’t want to raise them in a home to teach them that love doesn’t fall apart only so that the walls can crumble the day they leave for college and they realize we held it together just for them, that they were the mortar holding us together, keeping me from ever being loved as I needed. I’d rather they grow up in this wind, this heat, this rain: when families don’t love each other well, they do fall apart. We fell apart. And now we’re pitching a tent and hoping the wind and rain are not too strong, hoping against hail. 

The storm last night proved to not be too strong; the red line on the radar snaked around us yet again. We spent the night dry, waking from time to time to the steady patter of drops on the rain fly, rolling off and dripping into the ground, the wind rustling the cedars overhead. And in its wake, the storm left us with a cool, cloud-covered morning, the girls delighted to be out in the open, waking in a rush of desire to see the lake again. So we’re here with our granola and me with my coffee, wondering how I can pray with them, how I can inhabit this beauty with them and show them how it also inhabits some beyond, the beauty inside and beyond all beauty. While they play, I read Mary Oliver’s  “Morning Poem” aloud, and they draw near: 

there is still 

somewhere deep within you

a beast shouting that the earth 

is exactly what it wanted–

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, 

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

At the words “a beast” they feign terror and laugh, but they also listen, they also nod and stare out over the lake in silence. “She’s right,” Madeleine says. And I agree. 

Before we head back over the granite mound to break camp, I stand up and draw near the edge of the lake, dark waters when you stare straight in but bright blue as you gaze out over the expanse. I tell them, let’s take a moment of silence to offer gratitude for this beautiful space. Let’s take deep breaths and ask to be aware of the Great Spirit in all this beauty. I don’t know the words to share, but I can invite them into the silence with me. They stand with me for thirty seconds or so, and I hear Catherine’s affected deep breathing and smile. Then they skitter off, back to splashing and looking for frogs, and I know they are still praying. 

*I wrote this essay a couple of summers ago, when I was newly separated. I didn’t post at the time because I was processing only with a few people, and huddled in the chrysalis of this enormous change. The reflections here still feel relevant, though, in the spiraling way that healing can work and in this non-linear path to reclaiming spirituality.

Uprooting: On faith and pretending

It’s that kind of day. Sometimes you just feel like putting on your boots and tromping around the garden, or rather, the mess of overgrowth that could be the garden, and cutting it all down. Chopping the unwieldy branches and gathering them in piles, hacking them into manageable pieces and stuffing them in the organic bin. Hoisting the maddock and cutting into the roots, digging and axing deep into the soil, severing the roots, sweating and pounding at the hard wood until it releases, is tossed aside and leaves a pile of loose soil. I want to plant a garden here. I want to plant vegetables, fruits, or flowers–plants that give life and beauty and don’t crowd it out. I want my heart to be a garden. Time to put on my boots. 

I didn’t expect to lose my faith when I came out and came into love. And, in many ways, I haven’t lost it. In many ways I have found faith, but I have lost the specific brand of Christian faith that I was born into. Why? I had, for decades, been able to hold in tension a belief in the teachings of the church along with my own dissent–for instance about the position of women in the church or the stance on homosexuality as sinful. I believed I could be part of this institution while disagreeing with these aspects. I could work toward change from within. I was comfortable with the idea of mystery as a category that could hold everything I did not understand or could not rationally explain. I knew that whatever I thought or experienced of God was less true than it was true. This spirituality held space for my desire for connection, formed a frame for prayer, had room for uncertainty and growth. 

But when I spoke the truth about myself to myself, and when I spoke it out loud to others–I am in love with a woman and I cannot and do not want to let that love go–I left behind the willingness to pretend. I had been pretending to be different selves in different contexts for as long as I was Christian. I wasn’t pretending on purpose, or even aware that I was pretending for much of the time. I was doing and believing and saying what I needed to in order to be good–to be welcomed by God, by the church, by my family. 

I knew what would happen when I spoke the truth about myself and lived that self into being. The close ties with certain people of this faith would unwind; I would find myself outside, as I had long felt myself, at my core, to be. They would love me in spite of who I was, meaning they would love me in the hope that I’m not really who I am. They would make it very clear that they still loved me, but that they knew, like God, that this part of me was shameful, and in the end, would need to be burned eternally. They would want to save me from being burned with it. And the more they told me how much their God loved me, in spite of who I am, the more I got the message: this institution is not something I can be a part of. Because the whole premise is based on believing–pretending to understand–who this specific God is and spending your life to convince others to believe the same. It’s this belief–that some have faith and are inside this divine goodness and others are outside–that I want to stay outside of. 

This is a particular brand of Christianity, of course, and there are other forms that do not hold this and do not put their own belief as a burden on the outsiders. But this fundamentalist Christianity is the Christiantiy that crowds my garden, because this is where I was planted. This faith believes there is one way to connect with the divine, and if you step outside of it, you are outside of communion with the sacred. 

I stopped pretending, and I stepped out of the faith I had known. What’s the difference, I ask myself lately, between faith and pretending? The word pretend dates back to the 14th century, meaning “to profess, put forward as a statement or assertion, maintain” (Etymonline.com).  The word initially did not mean “to make believe,” but simply to claim that something is true. The later meaning that we use today, of acting as if something is true that in fact is not (or is not known to be), came from the common practice of professing a false claim. There is a slippage in the word itself–the act of professing something is true is a steep slope toward pretending that it’s true, especially when we profess what we cannot know. 

“Pretend” also holds within in it another word (as my brilliant partner pointed out to me)–tend. Tend, meaning to attend to, comes from the Latin tendere, to stretch. The word tend has many meanings: to pay attention, to listen (now obscure), to serve, to manage as a caretaker (merriam-webster.com). Today I tend to my garden beds. Today I want to tend to the sacred. I do not want to pretend to understand. I want to pay attention to what is here. I want to stretch myself toward, to stretch myself to listen, to stretch to serve what I know is true, without professing what I do not know.  

I want to dig in this garden bed to uproot all beliefs that require me to pretend. I think there were aspects of that faith that were life-giving. But I can’t tell what they are anymore. They’re all choked out with the overgrown, overhanging branches that clutter my heart, telling me I’m sick, there’s something wrong with me, something very wrong at the very core of me. I have to dig it all out. Maybe, once in the compost, these roots can decompose into something lifegiving. For now, I have to tend to the soil. Drink some water. See what grows. 

In some ways, this process is intensely personal. And for that reason, perhaps, I should keep it to myself. 

In other ways, though, the drive to keep it personal obscures the social consequences and the political ramifications of the private experience of religion. And just now those consequences are impossible for me to ignore. They need to be dragged out from the privacy that obscures them, to be pulled up at the roots and left to wither in the sun. The personal belief that my sexuality places me outside of the goodness that God plans for me is not just personal. It severs authentic relationships and creates shame that ripples outward into other relationships. It lays a foundation for othering that enables legislation to make queer lives illegal. It creates an environment where hatred spills into violence and the violent can feel righteous, putting God’s judgment into motion. 

This process of uprooting, digging up what’s toxic in this garden is personal. But it’s part of a larger story, of how spirituality seeps into the fabric of social and political life. For that reason, it’s a story I want to share, for the other gardeners out there. 

This is not a process of apologetics. It’s a process of letting go of assumed understanding. It’s a process of experience, of authenticity, of waking up to presence and not pretending to know their name, stretching into presence, and growing by being stretched. 

Writing in Crisis as Necessity

The time we’re in can aptly be described as a crisis. There’s a very real life or death risk of unknowingly infecting someone or contracting this virus that could put someone high risk on a ventilator. We can’t see each other in person. We’re isolated in our homes, physically detached from our communities. So we meet and look at each other on screen and try to connect. We talk about what we’re feeling and how we’re coping.

How do we cope? Do we push away the unease with Netflix? Do we numb ourselves by starting drinking earlier in the day? Do we do mindfulness exercises and focus on a gratitude practice to get our minds off the the very unsettling other feelings that rise up, that flare up like flame too close to the skin?

I want to suggest that one of the best ways to care for ourselves in those feelings is not to walk away from them to but let ourselves dive in. Writing is one way to take a deep dive into the uneasy. Candyce Counseling, a grief counselor at Deep Center for Growth, notes that much online advice about coping with the daily experience of grief in this unsettled present urges us to activities “that kinda sorta help—mindfulness, exercise, staying connected, controlling what you can, gratitude practice.

Yet, she continues,

“none of these articles address the bedrock, existential emotions that generate the anxiety and/or sluggishness. They offer advice for distracting from or allowing feelings, but not understanding, expressing, and soothing the feelings. And they only address the top layer of (very important) things we’re grieving. In my personal and professional experience, if you don’t name and soothe what you’re really feeling, all the tools are simply band-aids. Don’t get me wrong, we all need band-aids when we’re bleeding. But we also need help to see the wounds clearly, so we can accurately tend to them and help them heal.”

Paradoxically, moving into, opening to, the woundedness we are experiencing and have experienced is a crucial step on a path to healing. Feeling the stress, the anxiety, the grief of this moment is part of self care. Writing about it can be a way to access it.

Maybe this capacity to access existential realities through writing is connected to Virginia Woolf’s startling claim at the onset of WWII: “I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.” (Sketch 73).

How can writing the self be a necessity in time of war—or pandemic? Writing seems to many, even to writers themselves at times, to be gratuitous, a form of escape even. Nowhere near the necessity, for instance, of working in the ICU or even just keeping a social distance from those you love for the sake of community health.

An entry from Woolf’s diaries around the same time gives some insight into how she sees the work of writing functioning in wartime:

“And for the 100th time I repeat—any idea is more real than any amount of war misery. And what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make. This little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff and shot in the cause of freedom—so I tell myself, thus bolstering up a fragment—a phantom: recovering that sense of something pressing from outside which consolidates the mist, the non-existent (Diaries 235).

The whiff and shot of war—the act of discharging a weapon—has the effect—like illness, or like social distancing—of fragmenting, of turning people into phantoms, or into images on a screen or in memory. The work of writing has an opposing effect. Woolf asserts that, in writing, she gathers together the phantoms of the nonexistent. War, like a deadly virus, turns physical presences into phantoms, while writing gathers phantoms into lived experience. Or rather, to take a closer read of her very precise language, she becomes aware of “something pressing from the outside,” gathering together, “consolidat[ing] the mist.”

Here, the work of writing itself does not do the work of gathering. Rather, the writing brings to the surface an awareness of this gathering force. It’s the gathering force that “is more real than any amount of war misery,” more real, perhaps, than any amount of pandemic misery.

Is this “what one’s made for”? Perhaps so, if one feels a compulsion to write. Certainly Woolf is not arguing that writing is the most necessary thing for anyone to do in war. But for a writer, attending to her deepest calling is most necessary, regardless of the state of the world. Woolf writes that her sense of self as writer is related to her capacity to receive shock:

“I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.”

The sense of shock, for a writer, leads directly to a “desire to explain it.” And the shock does not only refer to a trauma, a sense of grief violently impacting the self. The writer can be shocked by a sense of joy, by hope, by the light coming through the leaves of trees, illuminating the chlorophyll life force pulsing in the veins. The blow comes from an awareness of “some real thing behind appearances,” an awareness so sharp that she can only liken it to receiving a blow, like a sensation of desire can strike the body like a wave, can wash over the body with an undeniable physicality.C18467EA-E1AD-45A9-BD6A-F83403D2CA16

Yet, in spite of the undeniable reality of this gathering force, Woolf oddly continues: “I make it real by putting it into words.” This paradox sums up the tension of the life of the writer. A writer may sense something so strongly that they experience it as a physical blow. And yet, it has no presence in the life of the world. Perhaps in accessing it in writing she brings it into the world. Perhaps writing helps to retain that sense so that it exists beyond the immediate moment of the impact. Perhaps writing gives that gathering force a space to exist in the present and the future.

She continues this line of thought:

“It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.”

In putting the blow into words, in gathering together the severed fragments of existence, she brings it into a whole, takes away its power over her, and gathers a power from it.

To me this means that, as writers, we don’t have to do the work of making the shocks mean something. The meaning is there. The pattern is there. The work of writing calls the pattern, the gathering force, to our awareness, accessing it, letting it form our awareness of our present.

But its not easy to access the pattern. Sometimes you can’t access it directly. You can’t start by looking at or for the meaning. A good way to start is by finding an image, a picture of a moment, and trying to accurately describe it as you experienced it. In trying to find the words to write our experience, we find the meaning, the pattern, the gathering force. The sensory details of life contain all the meaning.

Writing in this way is a way of life, a habit of being that trains us to inhabit our moments of being as we are living them. It’s a a way to bring the gathering force to awareness and to be gathered in that force.

Nesting Instincts, Guest Post

In my “Writing Memoir in Time of Crisis” course last week, we asked “How is our memory of the past shaped by the present moment of pandemic? How is your relationship with memory affected by the questions you ask of your memory?” Memories do not exist in a vacuum but are shaped, toned, and seen through the present moment. Likewise, accessing memories and reflecting on them shapes our understanding of how they relate to the present, and thus may affect how we live in the present.

Joyce Carol Oates brings to mind the familiar reality that our memories are shaped and solidified by the things that we choose to take a picture of:

“Memory is our domestic form of time travel. The invention of photography—in particular, the ‘snapshot’—revolutionized human consciousness, for when we claim to “remember” our pasts, we are surely remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a distinct visual immortality. Just as art provides answers long before we understand the questions, so, too, our relationship with our distant past, in particular our relationship with our parents, is a phenomenon we come to realize only by degrees, as we too age, across the mysterious abyss of time.” (Joyce Carol Oates, 49 in The Nonfictionist’s Guide).

Our memory derives so many images from the moments we’ve captured in a “snapshot.” Because the moments we photograph are moments we return to, remind ourselves of, think about long after they pass, they find a place in our memory and in our narrative of self. Writing, of course, can be another way of taking a snapshot of the present, documenting events and reactions to events as they unfold, creating a word image that will shape our understanding of the past in the future.

I asked course participants last week, “If you were to take a snapshot of that would show what this life is like right now, what would you snap? Write a description of a snapshot you would take. Describe a scene of what life looks like in this COVID moment. Maybe write two.

You may also take a snapshot of a moment of your childhood. Briefly describe the photo you see, or an image you remember photographically. Put these two photographs in relationship with each other. How does that self in the past relate to self in the present? What would one self speak to the other? In what sense was the present already in the past in seed form? How does the past enter the present? Are there questions that you ask in the time of COVID that you may ask of your memory that you haven’t asked before?”

Photo by Sarah Hartung

In Sarah Hartung’s work below, she evokes how the living space of the present looks out onto an uncertain future—through the work of bread making. This work of reading the present through the future offers a twist on the question of how perception of the present takes form.

Nesting Instincts

Sarah Hartung

I’m baking bread again today. I was baking bread months ago before it was hip, before everyone was stuck at home in one global nesting impulse. What the hell will we birth out of this darkness? I start the recipe in between telehealth therapy sessions, wearing my faded pink pj bottoms and green printed blouse. I tell myself how convenient it is that quarantine descended just when my belly swelled past the point of fitting even my maternity jeans. I tell myself how nice it is to only have to look professional from the waist up. I tell myself many things these days.

The no-knead bread recipe cycles through my mind, memorized from repetition:

4 c. flour

¾ t. instant yeast

2 c. water

2 t. salt

Mix and let rise 18 hours. Punch down and let rise another 2 hours.

Bake at 450 degrees for 50 minutes.

Today I google the conversion between active dry yeast and instant yeast. Add yeast to the list of things in scant supply at Fry’s and I’m making do with what I can get. I tell myself I’m lucky to have any yeast, a thought that two months ago I would never have even imagined thinking. I take comfort in having the recipe memorized, in reaching for familiar metal measuring spoons and feeling the weight shift of flour from canister into cup into bowl. There’s no recipe for panicked pandemic pregnancy. This is not how I imagined third-trimester nesting.

I keep thinking about those Harris Hawk nests on the desert trail six weeks ago. Which feels like six months ago. Or maybe six years ago? Time collapses in on itself in this season and I wonder if I can really be trusted to track bread rise-time or gestational progress. I lean my aching back against the kitchen counter and re-calculate the weeks til my due date, feeling my stomach settle at the confirmation that I am counting right. As if the ability to track time predicts my ability to mother amid chaos, as if my little one even cares if I count. He will come on his own when the time is right, a primal mystery that defies any recipe.

Those nests I witnessed on the trail were perched in the spiny crook of Sagura cactus arms, suspended 50 feet from the ground, cradling black-winged beauties and their trill lullaby. I remember being struck by nature’s irony: a mama choosing to home-make amid cactus barbs, exposed to blaring sun and dust storms. Where is the lullaby to haven us in this spiked desert of a moment?

I miss my mom, who was supposed to come visit a couple weeks ago, who will now not have a chance to feel the kicks and stretches that puncture so many moments of my day. My mom who lives across the country, who just bought a refundable plane ticket around my due date. Refundable, just in case. It’s hard to finish the thought, to imagine the pandemic preventing her from being able to visit, to imagine early mothering without my mother. It would be nice to be a bird, to mother purely from instinct without the throat-catching desire for my own mom’s steady physical presence and confidence born of bringing four babies into the world. I’m not used to feeling this desperate for holding and guidance from her. I’ve been the independent one for a long time.

I wipe up spilled flour and get ready for my next client session, grateful for the technology to sustain my personal and professional relationships but more aware than ever of its utter failure to connect to the sheer physicality of stretched skin, tiny heels, and milky infant smell. I set a reminder on my phone for 18 hours from now to check the bread, not trusting myself to remember.

 

Sarah Hartung lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband and beloved cat, Luna. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Drama Therapist who has worked since 2012 with individuals healing from trauma and eating disorders in a variety of settings. With a background in theater, writing, and literature, she incorporates creativity and embodiment into both her healing work and everyday life. She deeply enjoys being out in nature and engaging in community dance spaces.

www.desertwillowtherapy.com

Writing Women’s Memoir in Time of Crisis: Self-Reflection as Self-Care

During a time of crisis—as in this time of being isolated, rising death tolls, economies crumbling, and jobs slipping away— writing about one’s self or personal past may seem self-indulgent. However, somewhat paradoxically, the work of writing about personal past experience can be a powerful tool to enter the present more fully.

Like many freelance writers, I was hit recently with a job loss due to changes in the work availability brought on by COVID-19. A good friend of mine suggested that I offer an online course on writing memoirs, as a way to fill the gap while also doing something I love. My gears started turning. I studied WWII civilian women’s memoirs for my doctoral dissertation and found that women like Virginia Woolf and Hilda Doolittle used memoir writing as a tool for sustaining the self against the fragmenting realities of wartime.

My mind lit up with the possibilities and connections—writing the self can be a potent form of self-care, a way to express the fragmentation and dissociation of current experience, laying the fragments out to piece together a whole. Why not use this time of forced isolation to go inward, to explore how the past shapes our experience of this present and to very intentionally take note of what this strange present looks and feels like?

Passages from Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” came rising up from the dusty memories of my dissertating days. Woolf wrote “Sketch” from 1939-41, the early years of the war, from the relative safety of the English country village of Rodmell. Though the Woolf’s were set apart from the graphic violence of the London blitz, the frontline war zones, and the death camps, the violence of the war encroached on all sides. Both of their homes in London were bombed. German planes flew over with the regularity of vespers bells. Voices of dictators raged into the living room through radio transmissions. News of the dead piled up in newspapers. The threat of war haunted them to the point that Virginia and Leonard had plans for suicide in the event of a German invasion.

At one point, Woolf returned to her home to dig though the rubble in order to find her diaries, from which she gathered memories to write this memoir. The very material from which this memoir is drawn was salvaged from the wreckage of the war as it ripped through the present.

In the midst of this reality, Woolf writes about her childhood, inquiring about the nature of memory:

“[I]s it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? … I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering, here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

From the present of wartime, Woolf describes the experience of memory as something existing independently, whether or not she is actively remembering. It’s as if the traces of the past are playing in radio waves all the time, and she has only to turn the dial and turn up the volume to hear those scenes playing. This frequency in some ways may drown out the voices of dictators and news of war trauma that also come through the radio. But the traces of the past also intermingle with the present, affecting what can be heard even after the station is changed.

Later, after attempting to describe her aversion to looking into the mirror, and exploring the childhood trauma that precipitated that aversion, Woolf questions the nature of memory and the problem of accessing past experience:

“The person is evidently immensely complicated. Witness the incident of the looking-glass. Though I have done my best to explain why I was ashamed of looking at my own face I have only been able discover some possible reasons; there may be others; I do not suppose that I have got at the truth; yet this is a simple incident; and it happened to me personally; and I have no motive for lying about it. In spite of all this, people write what they call ‘lives’ of other people; that is, they collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown” (69).

Woolf illuminates here how the impact of a moment on the perception of the self may be inaccessible to that same person, not only as the experience is happening, but also decades later, with the perspective of a lifetime. However, the work of delving into her memory, through writing, places that fragment in the context of a larger tapestry. Bringing the fragment to the surface, she takes hold of it and explores its colors and patterns in relationship to other fragments.

Memoir writing, in this way, becomes a way to inhabit our experience. Writing about the past, in the present, we inhabit memory and bring it to life, tuning into its frequency and becoming attuned to how the traces of strong emotion inflect what we hear in the present. The practice of memoir enables us to explore the depths of experience as we live through it, seeing the picture as more of a whole, even if it’s patchwork, composed of many fractured pieces.

How do Woolf’s reflections on memory accord with your own experience? Does memory have a life of its own? How is the work of memory affected by writing in the midst of crisis? If you tune into moments in your past and turn up the volume, how does that frequency interact with the noise of this present moment of pandemic, quarantine, and uncertainty?

The Opening of Morning

“IMG_2567” by Ben’sMom is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the morning I had both my girls in my arms. Catherine snug on top of my bicep, hair nuzzled in my armpit. Madeleine just beyond her, within reach of my fingertips. Both almost breathing heavily, eyes almost totally closed, but then a cardinal lights up the widow with a red splash of sound. Both girls’ eyes brighten and startle out of their snuggles to their knees to look for the singer. My frustration slips away in their wonder, yes, it is the opening of the morning, it’s pure wonder, the clarity of that bell traveling through the half-light into our open window.

Madeline whispered, “It’s the first light of morning.” “Yes,” I whisper, “it is.” “We’re seeing the dawn!” And I suddenly, in my sleepy stupor, want to see the dawn with them.

We listen for awhile and they get chilly and cuddle back down under the heavy covers. I slip my arm back under Catherine’s three-year-old head and watch Madeleine’s eyes get droopy and close, like a miracle falling from the sky.

I lay there and hold them, unable to sleep, uncomfortable, listing to the noisy cardinal, the planes overhead, deeply glad to be able to hold their bodies close to mine, that their worries and needs are something I can take in my arms and hold them while they gently subside. If only there would always be such a balm for their loneliness, their cries. For now, come here, come lie with me under the covers. Let’s doze to the opening of the morning.

Of Denim Jumpers and Blackberries

I never thought I’d homeschool. Not in a million years did I want to be associated with the families in denim jumpers, with awkward social skills, knowing lots, sure, but not knowing how to live in the world. Why would I want to do that to my kids?

And what about myself? Of all the things I could be doing with a PhD–to teach my own two children, to spend so much time and energy to educate just these two–and in doing so ensure that I’m not teaching the potential high school or college classes I could pursue. Or I could work as an editor for a small press, or take up journalism, or, or, or, or…

I could. I could put them in school–there’s a very good public school right down the street. And that would be lovely. They would have dedicated teachers, make new friends, learn things I hadn’t thought to teach them, learn the crucial skill of how to survive with a pack of kids. And they would ride the bus–which, to Madeleine, is the single most important symbol of really being in school.

And I would breathe a sigh of relief, as they rode off on the bus, and I’d walk home and get ready for work. And I’d have a salary. And I’d have something interesting to say when people ask me what I do. And my parents would have something interesting to say when their friends ask them what I do. And I’d spend time everyday with adults. We’d have meetings and make important decisions, and we’d blow off steam at happy hour every now and then. And I’d have a salary. I’d buy new clothes, look sharp. I wouldn’t think twice each time I pick the organic option. We’d buy plane tickets and stay in Air BnB’s around the world.

But, just like when I was about to put Madeleine in preschool, and I found Free Forest School, I realized–I don’t need to put her in a school so she can learn and make friends. We can do that ourselves–with this woodsy group of people who want the same things for their kids. We’ ll band together and build a moat of protection around these kids and let them play in the wild kingdom of nature–taking risks and making experiments, learning how to balance on wobbly trees and how to walk down a slippery slope, mastering the art of playing with sticks and rocks without clobbering your friends.

And we’d have time. Time, that most valuable of commodities that is not a commodity at all but is existence itself, there for the living. Time to move more slowly, time to cuddle and read together, to say yes to one more book and have the kids think they’re getting away with something. Time to have another cup of coffee. Time to spend outdoors, in nature, in the park, in the garden. We could plant and to watch things grow–every day. What happens to the flower on the okra plant? What does the young shoot of broccoli look like? What happens to asparagus fronds when they grow tall?

Over these forest school preschool years, my desire for a successful career has loosened until my hands are just open.

I had thought my life was leading towards something that would make it worthwhile. A title. A salary. An office. It wasn’t. It was always leading towards right here. The present. Learn to live in the present.

The life of the home, the natural world, the family, community are not in service to the career. It’s flipped upside down. The career is needed to support the life of the home, the community, the family–lived in broader community with the natural world as we all work to find food, to weather the elements, to care for this space we share, to enjoy the breeze.

People whose survival is threatened know this. When people in war torn regions are asked what they really want, they often answer, just peace. Peace to live and to love.

What if that is the whole purpose of life? Just to seek and create and enjoy peace. To live in this stunning and strange world and take a look around. To enjoy the company of those we are here with and to learn from how they see the world.

My life has been unfolding into that realization for years–maybe all of them. It was a slow and hesitant epiphany to realize that homeschooling could be a way to live out that realization.

It seems like a gift that’s too good to be true (in the abstract of course. The reality is full of bickering and messes) that at this point in my life–I’m inching closer to 40–my job could be to take another look at everything that is most amazing and wondrous and mysterious, to seek answers to difficult questions, and to get to share this journey with the two people I love so deeply that it’s like a wound.

Add to that that we can do this in a community of people with a similar vision, who love the world and who want to share its beauty with each other. Who share their wisdom with me and help me figure out the nuts and bolts. So the kids and I can be in community–socially engaging with a range of ages and personalities and so many minds to learn from.

And in all this I can have time to write–to live fully in that part of my being–because I have time. And because my friend is watching my kids. And it’s 11 am on the first day of school. Because we can do school after lunch. Because we have time.

I do want to underline that I’m not arguing that this option is the best choice for everybody, or that other careers are wasting time, or that all women should be home with their kids. Certainly not. This complex world needs all kinds and people find joy and meaning in different ways. I’m just trying to articulate why this choice brings me joy, because it’s something I’ve grappled with. And I’ve come to believe that following what brings you joy can be the best marker of which path to take.

It does seem too good to be true. But that’s how true goodness is, isn’t it? Like a blackberry, growing plump in the woods, hanging on the vine when you come around a corner.

At least that’s how it feels on this first day.

Hiking in the Rain for Mental Health

Finding community in Free Forest School

When we moved to San Antonio in 2016, I was 8 1/2 months pregnant, with a 2 1/2 year old. I had my baby the next week. It felt like I’d been ripped from my community and thrown into a sweltering solitude, in a new city, with no friends close by (at least not close enough). On Sunday evenings, when the reality would set in that Erick would leave us alone again for school in the morning, a heavy desperation would weigh on me.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to Free Forest School that I found myself in community again. Free Forest School is a volunteer-led movement started by Anna Sharratt in Brooklyn in 2015 to be an avenue for children to be out learning in nature, in all weather, as in the Scandinavian forest schools. Volunteer facilitators and parents accompany children into the woods and watch as the children explore and collaborate and learn with all their senses. I found my people. It felt so right to be out in the woods, sitting in a circle of like-minded parents, helping each other keep an eye on which baby was crawling too close to poison ivy or which 4 year old was climbing near the wasp nest.

I was hooked from my first session and started facilitating as soon as I could. I recently wrote a blog post for the Free Forest School website, Hiking in the Rain for Mental Health. It shares a glimpse of encountering nature in community has helped to keep me integrated these past two years, and delves a bit into the psychology of why nature can be so crucial for mental health.

I hope you’ll check it out! And while you’re there, I hope you’ll browse the FFS website a bit. There are Free Forest School chapters all over the country and in at least 6 other countries. And if there’s not one in your area, the organization has a simple process for starting one!

Stay in touch! Click here to join my email list.

Feasting in Haste

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What are the rituals that sustain you? Morning coffee and deep breaths, sun salutations, setting intentions for the day, prayer before meals and bed? I’m a big believer in the power of ritual to hold us together in the midst of life’s constant demands and anxieties. To me, while other actions have a purpose in accomplishing something—like feeding ourselves and others, completing projects for work, gaining education—ritual is marked by stepping away from accomplishing and into reflection and observance. Rituals are a platform to help us see where we are. In daily life, we plod along in dense brush. And here in Texas, the brush is thorny. Acts of ritual work like rungs on a ladder to give a vantage point from which we can see the trail, take a deep breath, take in the view, and descend again to the path.

For me, religious ritual—even that old-fashioned one of going to church every week one—sustains me in ways that surprise me. Even when I’m disgusted with the church as an institution, I crave the act of kneeling in community. Entering the walls of the church, stepping out of the current of life’s demands, places a marker of completion on one week and marks the beginning of another. During Holy Week, the ritual of the church reaches a crescendo. As the practice of going to worship each week holds my weeks together, I’m realizing that attending these Easter services holds my years together, weaves the chaos of life into a story, and helps me to imagine myself again within that story.

If you grew up in a faith tradition, as I did in Christianity, or even if you just grew up in America, the tropes of the faith are entirely familiar, and their familiarity renders them boring. If you’re an intellectual type, as I sometimes imagine myself to be, the familiarity of the story makes it seem simple-minded and not very useful to those of us who got past all that a few centuries ago. But this is just where Christianity draws me back in. While I enjoy the complexity and the deep wells of theology and mysticism found in Christian thought, it doesn’t require a PhD to comprehend its tenets. The message can be carried in the mind of a child. Of someone who never went to college. Or high school. Of someone who is illiterate. The essence of this faith—that God became like us to bring us back to God—is not defined by its difficulty to grasp, but by the total demands it requires in order to live it out.

What does it demand? It’s dangerously familiar. Jesus washed his disciples feet. He broke bread and poured out wine and ate and drank of it with them. Do this, he said. Instructions don’t get any more simple than that. It doesn’t get any more difficult either. Don’t think highly of yourself, but stoop down and take care of the bodies around you, in the most physical, necessary ways. Take this bread and nourishment to go break yourself and pour yourself out. Love the most unlovable around you, even the ones who stab you in the back.

I got to sit in the Thursday service all by myself, as my husband had offered to stay with the kids. I get stuck in so many questions about the history of the church, about troubling teachings in the Bible, and I am cynical about the present life of the church. These are important dilemmas, urgent questions. As I get tangled in all the questioning, the story itself loses its interest and any hold it had on me. It feels completely out of touch and irrelevant. But every now and then, some detail, some phrase catches hold of me and pulls me back in. Last night, the reading from the book of Exodus brought me back into the story. The reading describes how the people of Israel were to prepare the first Passover, where the blood of the slaughtered lamb painted their doorposts and the angel of death passed over them. They received this instruction for the feast: “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you will eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD’s Passover.” They are instructed to eat the feast as people who are in flight, taking quick nourishment, just enough to keep them alive and moving. The intensity and the urgency of the ritual is jarring against our current backdrop where religion is something that holds us back from doing what we really need to do, something out of touch with reality, a chore for keeping up appearances. No, in this ritual, the act of feasting is urgent, entirely necessary to keep from being overtaken.

The thread of urgency weaves through the service. Of course, when Jesus breaks bread and pours wine with his friends, he is eating that Passover feast with them. And he is in haste; the angel of death is in pursuit. Knowing this, he retreats to pray and urges his friends to stay awake, to pray with him. Those fellows fall asleep of course.

After mass, the bread and wine were carried to the front porch of the church, where, in the middle of a bustling urban area of restaurants and bars, apartments, and beautiful homes, the church had set up a large, white sheet partitioning off the porch from the city’s activity. Candles lit the contemplative space, and small palm trees enclosed the space, which was further enclosed by overhanging live oaks above and Texas mountain laurels on the sides. I stayed awhile, enjoying the quiet of contemplation, marveling at how this physical space was transformed by the spiritual intention brought to it. These stone steps are usually empty, usually just the entrance to a building that most passers likely think of as obsolete, or more likely, don’t think of at all. But this evening it was a contemplative garden, and a crowd of people gathered and knelt, pouring out desires and griefs stored up over the weeks, over the year. You can make any kind of space you can imagine, I thought. You just have to imagine it. And do the work to bring it into being.

I knew full well that I would not stay until midnight, as we had been invited to. I wondered if anybody would, as so many had already filtered away, checking phones, going out to dinner. I knew in a few minutes I would head home so I could hug my girls and read them a story and put them in bed. But I felt as if I were being asked a question: what would it mean for you to stay awake? The urgency of the evening recalled to me the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg: “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.” How would we live if we acted in full awareness of the realities we live in? In other words, how would we live if we lived out what we believe?

What do you believe to be true, at the core of your being? What would it mean to stay awake to that truth? For me, staying awake would mean actually getting involved in welcoming and providing for the migrants arriving by the thousands in my city, as I’ve been meaning to but haven’t actually taken any steps towards. It would mean continuing to look honestly at how my decisions affect the ecosystem and how my purchasing contributes to injustice in local and global systems. It would mean going without items that are part of a system of harm. It would include caring for my children in the full awareness that the way in which I care for them is shaping them for their whole lives. It means interacting with each person I encounter as someone carrying the divine spark. On Easter, the sun rises with the hope of new life, and we feast with our faces shining. We feast, though, in haste, gathering energy for the work to be done, staying awake for the road ahead.

Come Home

I remember the first Ash Wednesday service I went to after Madeleine was born. I was caught off-guard when my introspection swerved into an image of the face of my baby smeared with ashes. She wasn’t with me, but the image was stark, a cross swiped in black ash, off-center on her forehead.

That year I had been thinking of the ashes, reminder as they are of the certainty of death, as if they were human ashes. I know, kind of weird. In reality of course, they’re the charred remnants of the fronds that adorn the air on Palm Sunday, hailing the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem, before people realized why he has come. But the idea of human ash, human dust, still holds in my mind. That year I saw people walking across my Jesuit university campus in the drifting snow, with their own incinerated bones scrawled on their foreheads. I don’t know. I was studying trauma. I was writing a dissertation. I was nursing a baby at night instead of sleeping. From dust you are and to dust you shall return. This is a true statement, no matter how you understand your creation or evolution, and it is equally true of my daughters as of myself. Who needs to be reminded of that? We all know this, every minute of the day, right? But don’t we also structure our days and our lives to blur out this reality?

What struck me that first Ash Wednesday as a parent was that I was being asked to love my daughter as someone who would always be passing away from me. How do I hold someone— whom I love with such ferocity, with such need that it frightens me—loosely, like a butterfly, not like a body pillow or a rope hanging from a cliff?

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Copyright Phil Roeder

I vacillate between living the days in awareness of their beauty—this sweet time together, cuddled in the mornings, reading books and drinking coffee, and hiking in the evening, sharing our awe at the unfolding, tender leaves on every tree—and terror mixed with existential nausea that these days will end. (Of course, there are days too, and many moments within the day, that are like a marsh of paralysis and inability to inhabit the present, but it’s the other poles I’m thinking about right now).

There’s a song, “Come Home,” by the band Cloud Cult that I love, even though, and perhaps because, it makes me weep nearly each time I really listen to it. It always comes as a shock, like a wave—the wave that is the reason for the cliché—that hits you from behind, or in the face, just at the moment you came up for air and had yet to open your eyes. I learned of the band from Krista Tippet’s On Being, where I also learned that the lead singer and his wife, also in the band, lost their 2 year old son, and their grief permeates much of their music in the years since his loss. This knowledge, with the swelling orchestral background, the hauntingly simple piano melody, and the poetic lyrics that inscribe the loss into images of longing so strange that I’m able to see them, combine to knock me off balance enough that I’ll be singing along one moment and weeping in the middle of traffic the next.

“I gave my skin back to the prairie
So in the coldest thundershowers
You can see me in the flowers
I gave my soul back to the breeze
So when you’re feeling down, you
You know I’m all around you
And though your hand I’ll never get to hold
Just give me one more chance to say
I love my baby, so
Come home.”

The way I keep returning to the song, again and again to experience that flood of tears and raw emotion, has led me to think that I need to connect with this grief for some reason. What am I crying over when I hear this music? I feel foolish on one level, or like some poseur, because I haven’t lost a child. They’re right here, in fact, wrestling noisily on the reclining chair behind me. Some part of it is an empathetic grief, experiencing vicariously the unimaginable loss that this couple faces and brings out in the open. Mostly, though, I think the music connects with my fear and certainty of losing them. I think this fear, this certainty, and the grief that accompanies it, rises so overwhelmingly because it’s always with me and I will not or cannot acknowledge it. The images and the music in “Come Home” provide a way to access the nerve fibers of grief that run through the reality of loving someone deeply. We can’t always connect with these nerves; we wouldn’t be able to get through the daily tasks. But the catharsis brought about by being able to weep over the passing of my children feels like cleansing, like it helps me see the tender and fragile beauty of holding these bodies for this time.

Ash Wednesday brings the sign of death into the everyday, marking me and my children at lunchtime in the middle of the week, my toddler receiving the smear on her forehead while asleep in my arms. At the same time, the ritual begins the season of Lent—the lengthening toward the coming dawn, which asks people to look closely at the things that we hold tightly, the things that we hold onto to keep from feeling the feeling of falling. The ash streaks on my children’s faces tell me starkly, all this is passing away. What can we hold to?

Yesterday morning was one of those days when I woke in a haze of discontent and paralysis, groggy and ungrateful. Instead of ignoring my heaviness, I actually pulled myself to my yoga mat and breathed and prayed into it. I felt lighter, like I could breathe again and sat for a while breathing and cupping my coffee in my palms. I wrote about the moment earlier: ‘Madeleine came and stood in front of me smiling. I gave her a hug and looked at her in the morning light. “I love you.” “You said I love you like I’m leaving,” she said. “That’s true,” I said. “I did.”’

How do you love someone who is leaving?

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We ended the day with a hike in the woods, winding along a footpath through glossy, silver persimmon trees and cypress. I had thought the sun was already down, because the sky had been darkening since we left the house. Then we came around a bend and Madeleine shouted, “Look at that light!” The cypress grove in front of us was flaming with mandarin-rose light. The three of us gasped and turned around to see the fireball of the sun emerging from the cloud bank. Just then, Erick careened around the corner on his mountain bike and stopped to watch the light with us. He took Madeleine with him up the trail on her bike, and Catherine and I followed on foot. Catherine reached an open field and sat down, carefully and deliberately crossing one leg over the other. She actually said, “Let’s just sit and breathe.” Of course I sat next to her, in the dry grass, and took deep gulps of evening air, watching the flaming light scatter over the treetops, over the grass, and recede beyond the horizon.

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