I’ve thought a lot about and pursued integrity lately, to be completely true within myself and in the world, to be whole. But today in my yoga practice, I was meditating on alignment, feeling the parts of myself connecting, lining up. Can you be in your integrity and out of alignment?
arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.
the route or course of a road or railroad
a position of agreement or alliance
I’m on the eve of a new posture—recreating a relationship of primal importance, where I spent many, many years outside my core, outside my integrity. I’ve been drastically misaligned. What does it mean to find alignment in myself here, in a relationship that has both formed and malformed me? A relationship that has been broken and that I have been broken in. A place that used to be my ground, but where the ground gave way, fractured, faulted, and so much fell into the chasm. But I return now with the ground under my feet solid, sturdy, and fecund. I return to the part of myself that exists in this relationship, to find how I can be aligned.
Alignment in yoga has to do with arranging the parts of the body in relation to each other, to build strength and mobility, to prevent injury, and to create aesthetic beauty through the posture. (Yoga Alignment Guide)
Alignment comes from the core, holding the core as central strength and radiating outward to the configuration of limbs. What is central is interior, but the strength of that center enables the exterior to shift, to find postures and ways of being, ways of holding the self in tension and finding ways to breathe, finding strength in the holding, mobility in the stretching, creating beauty in the forms built by the body.
I know finding alignment here will require holding and focusing on my core—the center self I know deeply in my ground–the woman at the river, the person my partner sees when she looks at me with a gaze that makes me want to look over my shoulder, except that I’ve learned and am learning to believe—it’s me she’s seeing. It’s the part of me that connects with the sacred in the light of the moon in the desert wind, that stepped out into the unknown because she knew with finality that this love was true, was the truest experience that had ever rocked me. If I hold myself in this core, find my energy and strength at my center, I can stretch outward in all directions, I can lean deep, I can twist and hold.
As much as I love Whitman’s line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” I don’t want to contradict myself. I want to feel one hand touching the earth, grazing fingertips on grass, and the other, all the way across my body, stretching in the opposite direction, reaching far, fingertips glazing the sky. Opposite directions, held in tension, aligned in a perfect line, fingertip to fingertip, not contradicting but connecting opposing poles of being. There is an alliance between earth and sky. There is a path that connects the two, dispersed as far as they are. The path runs through my body, as I touch the two in unison, gather the meeting in my core, aligned.
Finding alignment in myself, I can connect to other people, to places, to ideas. My self is multiple; my core is a unified whole. If I am aligned from my core, radiating outward, I can hold the parts of myself in appropriate relation to each other. The seeming contradiction of the daughter who loves and desires approval from someone who has taught her her sexuality is wrong with the part that’s learned a rugged defiance, an unapologetic embrace of my queer, non-binary self, and a strong rejection of all that does not embrace them–can be held from the core.
The core holds the true self, the self who loves both my partner and those who have harmed me. From that love and inner certainty, I can hold in my outstretched and open palm the part that fears, the part that wants approval, that wants safety in a place that’s not safe. I can hold it from the core in the appropriate, relative position–acknowledgment, compassion, acceptance. This part of me is connected to the love at my core, but it is not itself the core. Holding to the love at center, I can hold my fear and my need loosely, like I hold the sky, and connect it to the ground, the place where I can walk forward and move from love and not fear. I can hold others with my own feet firmly planted and not need to be held back. I am held at my core. I am balanced here, can lean, twist, and hold. In alliance with all parts of myself, centered in this core, I can step into the multiple paths that various postures of being open into, can create new forms of beauty.
Christmas has become a cathexis of pain for me, I thought, as I leaned my head on the window after a good cry in the grocery store parking lot. It’s a good word, a useful word, I felt at the time; it gives me a way to name what’s happening here, why it actually makes sense that I’m bawling in my car before my holiday grocery shopping because my partner didn’t feel like going to cut down a Christmas tree with me.
A cathexis is an “investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or idea, especially to an unhealthy degree.” It’s a word I came across in a zoom conference, during the height of the quarantined pandemic days. Someone blithely mentioned that Zoom was a cathexis of the toll that remote learning had taken on the socio-emotional state of students and teachers. So meta. But also, so true, so useful to be able to name. It comes from the Greek word for “holding.” So, it’s an object or idea that holds mental energy like a vacuum, like a magnet, like a cell.
So, Christmas. Christmas used to be, for me, a season saturated with meaning, with ritual, with joy. The rituals I most loved in recent years were rituals of Advent, the time of longing, of opening awareness of the growing darkness of the season and lighting candles in the hope of returning light. I loved the seasonal awareness imbued with the spirituality of the incarnation–that in all our places of inner and outer darkness we cast out our own spirit, light our own candles in the hope that the divine will be born in that darkness. I used to light my advent candles in the darkness before dawn and pray that the sun would come up. (It always did). I would sing under my breath the song of melancholic waiting, “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and watch the flame burn and feel the flicker of hope in my chest, crowded with the dark of my weighing depression.
It was always about candles for me. As a child on Christmas Eve, there was this climax of singing “Silent Night,” the sentimental words counteracted with the fire passed from candle tip to candle tip, spreading light row by row to fill the inner darkness with flame, the way the chest cavity opens up and reaches out, and the vocal cords stretch to meet the melody of other voices in the room, singing the story of the virgin birth, the lowly child. It required a humility and a transformation, to come down from whatever rational understanding and practical concerns of the day to take your imagination to believe in God as a baby, to focus on the divine entering the realm of the most humble workers and the sky crying out with voices of angels.
But it wasn’t just a story. It required also belief, and with belief conformity, not just with the truth of the story, but with the religion, the institution, the regulations, all laid out and enforced and normalized and sewn into the fabric of the culture.
I hadn’t been thinking about Christmas traditions this year. I have stepped out of the Christian faith insofar as it claims to be a truth beyond other truths and as a response to the deep wounding I’ve experienced from the teaching that the love and desire at the core of me is akin to leprosy. And as much as I know that not all Christians hold this teaching, it has shaped my self-understanding my whole life, alongside the beauty of the rituals and the symbols, so that now they are entwined in a cathexis of pain.
So, I avoided thinking about Christmas right up until a week before, when I realized I wanted a Christmas tree. When my partner, exhausted from finishing a semester of accelerated Master of Teaching classes, so gently asked, “Do you mind if I don’t go?”, a stress response fired in my brain, and my body ached with loss. It shouldn’t matter, of course; it’s not a big deal. The kids and I would have fun and she would have time to rest and breathe. I found myself weeping, loudly, trying-to-catch-your-breath crying, sifting through the raw emotions to find what it was that set off this storm. I realized, this is the only thing I’m keeping, and I want to share it. I want to have rituals, and I want the rituals to bring connection and meaning, within our family and with the realm of spirit. A rush of memory flooded me–the songs, the handmade nativity scene, the figures I formed out of clay still in their box in the garage, the St. Nicholas icon and the books stored away, the advent candles unbought, the waiting erased and replaced by absence. Absence is not usually noticeable, except as a dull ache, a numbness, a mental strain of ignoring, a busying with something else. But at times it rips open and reveals a wound festering beneath the surface, gnawing suddenly and impossible to ignore.
Part of the wounding is the loss–loss of meaning, loss of ritual, loss of belonging, loss of voices joined in melody. But, in the car, head leaned on the glass in the cleansed space after tears, I wondered, do I have to lose all of it? Of course it’s not about going to the tree farm, it’s about communicating what’s important. It’s about deciding together what our family rituals are. When I was finally able to communicate that this tradition felt important to me, she rallied and came with me. “I just need to know what matters to you,” she said. Yes, it’s just hard to articulate when I don’t know for myself. So, late in the evening with a car full of noisy children, we drove an hour in traffic to get to the farm just before closing, to walk out, as the fiery sun dipped below the horizon, and select the tree that would fill our house with life and light. The children dispersed and disappeared in the rows, hiding and seeking. We cut down a tree and set it on the wagon and looked at each other’s faces, smiling in the evening. I breathed in deeply the scent of pine, the red-orange light, her smile, and the children laughing and running in the winter air. This matters to me.
In the future, I think, I want to keep the candles, the sense of expectancy, the awareness of darkness, even perhaps, the story of the young mother in a culture where marriage was her only future, carrying the stigma of a child outside marriage. The story of the man who listened and loved beyond what he could sense. The God born into the humblest circumstances, the light of the divine interweaving the fabric of the earth. The story has power as story and symbol. The power is squandered when we reduce it to literality.
Right now, though, the songs, the images, the story still connect at my core with the reality of my ruptured relationships. The feeling of once having belonged and now being outcast. The knowledge that going home to the church where I learned these songs would mean heads turning in surprise, in pity, in disgust to see the woman who strayed so far. They would see my presence as hope–not that I would join them as I am with my family and my wildness and my love and my truth of finally knowing myself and being loved as myself, against long repression and fragmentation, now stitched together into a beautiful whole. No, they would hope that I would see their truth and break myself and my family apart to fit into it.
So, for me, the story and the songs and the handmade nativity will wait in the garage. The rupture needs to heal more before any of it can be brought into the house. I entered instead into the joy of being brought into my partner’s tradition–the lights of the menorah, connection with ancient waiting and hope and miracle beyond expectation. We live this year with Christmas stripped to its beautiful roots–bringing greenery and light into the house, creating a spiral to walk into darkness, lighting fire to bring out from the center, meditating on the light that finds us in the dark, the light we find by sinking down into ourselves, as well as by looking clearly into one another, into the intricacy of a blade of grass, becoming aware of the synaptic system of mycelium connecting below ground all the plant life that sustains our bodies and breath. We don’t need to believe in a miracle beyond what is right here all the time, the miracle of existence exactly as it is, atomic, stardust life, intricate and interwoven and infinitely expanding beyond comprehension. We can shift the meanings that we hold.
Christmas this year I celebrate the light in my lover’s eyes, the warmth of our bodies together, the verdant young growth in our house, sheltering from the dark and cold that presses on the walls.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!