Monday, October 23, 2017

Writing Through the Storm

Writing is a way to connect to your deepest self, your intuition, and your own inner guidance. It can also clear the decks when you feel troubled or dismayed, it can be a way to express outrage and release worry, it can be a way to express sorrow and not hold onto it. For many of us who write on a regular basis, writing has saved us. It not only gives us an outlet, it fosters self-awareness and self-empowerment, through truth-telling. It can open the doors to what we are afraid to confront and it can do so in ways that are gentle, such as poetry, changing our voice to third person, or writing a letter to ourselves with our non-dominant hand. Sometimes when we are in the midst of a crisis, trauma, or upheaval, we want to write but our words seem inadequate. How do we find eloquence when feeling overwhelmed, shocked, or outraged? How can we be emotionally vulnerable rather than adding static to the airwaves? 

Take a look at this essay called Punch:  https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/447/punch  and ask yourself why does it work so well?


      This brief essay is 618 words. It goes from the personal to the universal quickly. First we understand a history of family violence -- this may be something we recall from our own families. Or we may simply remember a slap, a scream, a spanking, a threatening environment. Then Robertson write with raw honesty about the urge to hit his own child. A teen-ager. Who with teen-aged kids hasn't experienced this moment when it takes all you have not to use force...either from a reaction to their disrepsect or from the desire to make it stop or from the frustration that you aren't getting through? I am someone who vowed never to use violence, who dedicated her life to making peace, and yet there was that moment when I slapped my teen-aged son, unable to restrain myself because I was so angry. Robertson writes about it with grace and ends with the big question? If we don't stop it, who will? 

      Brief creative non-fiction gets straight to the lesson learned and does so within a wider context. Not only does Robertson have a realization about himself, but the dynamics of living together that extend far beyond his own family.

    Just as I have begun a post about writing as a way to anchor ourselves through the storm or perhaps beam out light from the lighthouse through the storm and want to remind you that we are in a very treacherous storm. We are in the midst of cultural change that will upend our sails. We are in a powerful storm of racism, sexism, and homophobia. We are in a storm of intolerance for immigrants who seek a better life and intolerance on the public roads and sidewalks for those who we share them with. A storm of bad manners and bad habits, of addictions to the screen and instant news, whether it be true or just gossip. And a storm of health issues: from autism of our children to dementia of our elders, and lacking the support we need to improve their daily lives. A storm of loss and a storm of lack. And a storm of fear.

      How will you weild your pen in these days of change? Will you share your story, will you find a way to be articulate, vivid, engaging, and insightful without being irrational, self-centered, or myopic? Outrage turned to something that uplifts us to try harder, sorrow that lights up our compassion, trauma leading to understanding, crisis that is an opportunity to have dialogue. I dare you to give it a try!















Monday, June 5, 2017

Resiliency: accepting what is: what cannot be changed


I believe with all my heart in the power of affirmations.

I use them every morning to start my day with something uplifting. They raise my vibration and give me focus and vision.

Positive affirmations can change the way you feel and the way you respond. They create new neural pathways in the brain. And they are powerful senders of energy that is reflected back by the response of the Universe. When we say “yes”, the Universe says “Yes.”

There are plenty of articles and books about the power of positive affirmation. You can watch Abraham and Ester Hicks discuss it on youtube. Unity became a movement due to the power of Myrtle Fillmore healing herself through prayer and meditation. Writers from Wayne Dwyer to Eckert Tolle discuss the unlimited power of thought.

I believe gratitude is one of the most powerful affirmations of all.

However, I also need to practice acceptance: the things that cannot be changed.

While I was in Puerto Vallarta, I created a bilingual poetry event during Día de los Muertos. I appreciate how the Mexicans honor their ancestors during this celebration. They build ofrendas in their homes filled with the favorite foods for when the dead come by. They clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones in the cemeteries and spend time together at the gravesite, telling family stories. They also have ways to poke fun at death to remove the sting. Everywhere you see calacas and calaveras, miniature sugar skulls and skeleton figurines from every walk of life: the mariachi band to the soap opera star, the barber to the teacher, the bus driver to the bride. They remind us that death comes for all of us, none of us are getting out alive.  The Mexicans call death La Muerte, and La Catrina and La Sebastiana.  I found a poem by E. R. Mares which listed Spanish names with meanings such as The Stinky One, The Bony One, the Hag, the Bitch, etc. The poem is essentially about near-misses, how the poet had close calls but survived. My co-performer and I were calling these names in Spanish to each other across the stage, almost as if taunting Death or enticing Her near. 

Suddenly I had a revelation that Death is part of the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth.

I had placed a candle on each table and at a certain point, asked audience members to light their candles and hold them aloft in honor of someone they had lost. As I looked out over the sea of flames, I realized that we have all lost someone…or will lose someone…or we will die. I was not alone in my grief. 

My son was not coming back. This was the beginning of acceptance. This was a turning point.

There are things in life that will never change, no matter how many affirmations we say. The only thing that can change is our attitude. I will never have the same flexibility I had before hip replacements. . I will never be a professional dancer, for example (but I still can dance.)  Some of us have lost people or relationships or ways of living. Some of us have lost homes, cities, or freedom. Some of us have lost dreams that won’t come true.

Acceptance is letting go and moving on. I will never stop loving Sam but I had to accept his death. This is part of my healing.


What things do you need to accept? 




Monday, May 1, 2017

Cultivating Resiliency part 2

How can we cultivate resiliency? What is resiliency and is it a muscle we can strengthen? How does being resilient change our lives and the ways we cope with crisis?

Resilience is defined by the ability to bounce back after trauma, to cope with or to heal after a crisis. Resilience is not only coping or bouncing back or healing but change, growth, and transformation. 

The love of my life, Michael, was wild—gregarious, funny, warm-hearted, affectionate, honest—and he lived his life in a creative fury. But when his mood changed to unrelenting depression, he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. The next eight years were a roller-coaster of manic highs where he stayed up all night, disappeared out of state, and spent recklessly, and lows that sucked the air out of the room, when he spent all day in bed, unable to change clothes. I lived in constant fear after he told me he wanted to die. During this time I joined two writing groups, one a women’s poetry group and the other Write Action, a writing support group led by poet Joan Logghe. These would cushion my grief when he took his life.
     Michael’s death released me from the weight of care-giving and my own depression. A burst of creative inspiration uplifted me. My poetry group held our first public reading during Day of the Dead to honor those we had lost. I wanted to share a poem about Michael but felt too emotional to read it off the page. I needed the audience to support me, so I memorized it. The connection was gratifying as I shared my grief honestly in public. I opened hearts, and mine was comforted.
         I decided to memorize all of my poems. I self-produced a poetry CD, had a launch party, traveled to promote it, and honed my performance style, creating a career as a performance poet.
But tragedy struck, one I was not anticipating. When my younger son died, also by suicide, my life shattered. I was filled with anger--at myself, at him, at God, and a burden of guilt—that I hadn’t seen it coming, that I hadn’t tried to stop it. My voice was strangled. I was unable to pray or write. The spiritual practices that had guided me through mourning Michael were now silenced. At the memorial services, one in Minneapolis where he lived, and one in Santa Fe where friends gathered, I fell into dark despair.
As Thanksgiving approached, I wanted quiet—I didn’t think I could put on a façade for friends. However, I didn’t want to be alone and I decided to go to Christ in the Desert Monastery. The monastery is thirteen miles up a dirt road by the Chama River. I didn’t have a car, I don’t drive, and I didn’t have money for a retreat, but I contacted the guest master and asked for prayer. He replied that the monks would pray for me.
            Then, a small miracle happened. A friend had gone back to Mexico but slipped over the border and drove me out to the monastery. (Little did I know that here Thanksgiving was celebrated with a turkey feast with wine and the vows of silence lifted for the evening meal!)
            The next day the Abbot read the preface from the book The Thorn Birds: “There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life …it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale…For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain. …Or so says the legend.”
                As a poet without words, this seemed hand-picked for me.
                 I walked to the river where we scattered Sam’s ashes. I had chosen this spot because we camped here when I was pregnant with him and when he was a teen.  I hiked back through autumn leaves to the beach. At Earthwalks for Health retreats, we learned from the indigenous people how to listen to the river, the rocks, and the drum. I thought, The river wants to give me a gift, and walked to the water’s edge. Was it a special rock, a feather? Then I heard a voice saying, “You have all the pieces of the puzzle. Take all the pieces of your life and put them together. You must sing again.”
This visit to the monastery was a turning point. I came home to write on my own for the first time, recording my experiences of the week-end.

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT RESILIENCY: ASK FOR HELP
We live in a culture that demands we be strong and self-sufficient. Asking for help is a seen as a sign of weakness; asking for charity makes us dependent on others. But what I learned is that to ask for help is being resilient. After I learned of Sam’s death, I asked friends to make phone calls so I wouldn’t have to. I remembered from Michael’s transition how draining that had been. My friends threw fund-raisers. I asked for rides to the grief counselor, to pick up groceries, to the writing group. I asked the monks to pray for me. I had support from professional counseling, a grief support group, and a women’s group. People helped move possessions to second hand stores or storage. A friend took me camping. Another friend cooked meals. Alejandro escorted me on the plane from Minneapolis back to Santa Fe, I felt incapable of doing it alone. People gave me places to land, kept me connected.

Question to ask yourself: Where can you go for help? Is it professional: a therapist, counselor, or coach? Physical therapist, yoga class,  hot tub? Is it a support group or workshop or spiritual community? Is it family and friends: a listening ear or just company; an invitation to dinner; transportation: errands, to the doctor, to support group; a walk in nature together; help with de-cluttering or getting rid of things; or prayers, healing energy, and positive affirmation?  






     Sam's altar at the Santa Fe memorial gathering.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cultivating Resiliency part 1


How can we cultivate resiliency? What is resiliency and is there a way to strengthen it? How does being resilient change our lives and the ways we cope?

Resilience is defined by the ability to bounce back after trauma, to cope with or to heal after a crisis. We think of bouncing back after health challenges such as cancer, heart surgery, joint replacements, serious infection, root cannals, as recuperating, but actually we never recuperate to be exactly as we were. We may have scars, we may have new body parts, we may have a new diet or restrictions on activities or we may be advised to increase physical activity. With an on-going illness such as diabetes, MS, CP, Lupus, Parkinson’s, we may think of resilience more in terms of attitude and determination. We practice gratitude for what we have, we choose to be disciplined about therapy and we ask for help and guidance in order to enhance our lives. We continue those activities we love as best we can. Resilience after pregnancy doesn’t mean we bounce back to the person we were, even if we get our figure back. Our hearts, emotions, minds, time, stamina, are all stretched, sometimes to the limit. We give up sleep, autonomy, our own comfort; even our friendships may change. But we live more fully, deeply, richly. So resilience is not only coping or bouncing back or healing but change, growth, and transformation.

Resilience after an emotional crisis is a sign of healthy moving forward. Whether it is a loss of a loved one or our relationship with someone, a way of life or a job, a home or homeland, a dream or our abilities, we mourn and let go. Sometimes this happens in cycles, a wave of rising and falling, as we are reminded of what has been altered, perhaps by an anniversary, a special place, children and grandchildren, a certain fragrance or song. When we are resilient, we are able to feel whatever it is we are feeling, then we move on to another feeling which may be relief, gratitude, love, or acceptance. We may find ways to express our feelings through art, journaling, a support group or a friend's listening ear; we may choose to weep, scream, pound our fists; or we may draw, pray, dance, walk by a lake. But we don’t stay stuck in the past. We remember we have other relationships, ideas, projects, homes, dreams and a life to fill. We may be more compassionate; we have gained insight, wisdom and new perspectives.  
  
Michael was the love of my life. He made me laugh and he listened to me, he took me seriously. He was the first person I ever told, “I am an artist.” He healed past physical and psychological abuse with his affection. He was fun to travel with, always ready to explore, gregarious and enthusiastic. He also had wide mood swings. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed, some days he couldn’t sleep. He would call me from another state or even disappear across the border and not call at all. He would bring home people he had met at the bar at 3 am. He was also suicidal, telling me that he didn’t want to live daily, that life was too abrasive. With a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, we began to understand his suffering was not going to be cured by will alone.

We lived in Santa Fe, a Mecca for alternative healing, and I began to search for alternatives to prescription drugs. Earthwalks for Health was part of my search. Earthwalks connected us to indigenous artists and local sages for a week-end of learning about their healing practices. This is how I met Joan Logghe, beloved Santa Fe poet.
           
 Joan was the founder of Write Action, a writing support group. I was writing poetry with another group at the time and encouraged Michael to attend Joan’s group. He found it satisfying to pour out his brutally honest thoughts on paper and not be judged. One week, he couldn’t attend because he was going out of town so I suggested that I could go and “keep his seat warm.” I loved it and we continued attending together weekly. We felt supported and accepted. It was energizing to hear common themes go around the circle and to be reassured that coping with Michael’s moods was not isolating us.
            
Joan had worked with Natalie Goldberg and used the same basic writing instruction that so many writing instructors and writing groups would come to rely on: spontaneous timed writing. However, Joan used poems as prompts. 

Eventually Michael became more and more mentally unstable and one night he gathered up the courage to kill himself. I wept until my eyes were swollen shut but I was released from care-giving and uplifted by a burst of creative energy. To be able to pour out my grieving heart onto the page in the writing groups was cathartic. To feel that others cared was life-saving. From that point on, writing became not only a way of self-expression but a life raft that saved me from drowning. When emotions feel overwhelming, writing helps me to stay focused. Writing helps me to analyze and understand what I am feeling and to make a shift from emotion to clarity.

There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realization. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatizing challenges –Arthur Koestler



What I learned about resiliency is that it is important to name and claim your emotions. When we feel something, the amygdala part of the brain lights up. This is called our flight or fight center. Studies confirm changes take place in the brain when we feel or name our feelings“When you put feelings into words,” wrote UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman in an article in UCLA Today ”you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

In one MRI study, appropriately titled "Putting Feelings into Words" participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant's amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

Suppressing emotions doesn't work and can backfire on you. Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so. While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused.

To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here's the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.


Therefore, the emotions move from the amagdala to the prefrontal cortex, which decides how to respond. Here is where writing about our experiences not only sends helpful chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin to the brain, but the emotions move from flight or fight to determine how best to respond.
  • How do you feel when you wake up? At the end of the day? After work? After your evening activities? Is there a way to express what you are feeling?
  • Are you sad/frustrated/angry/lonely/upset/frightened?
  • Are you relaxed/filled/content/happy/satisfied/joyful/curious?
  • Keep a feeling journal and note the ups and down through-out a day.
  • Chose an emotion and write to it, telling it you let it go. Use Joy Harjo’s poem I Give You Back as a prompt:

I Give You Back 
                                            
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don't know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.

You are not my blood anymore.




Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What will fill your soul in 2017?



Every new year is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have accomplished the year before and what we look forward to in the new year. We make resolutions, that it we make a list of ways to improve ourselves, coming from the root re-solve, to solve a problem. But often we find ourselves unable to keep our resolutions as early as the end of January. We haven’t signed up for the fitness center, we haven’t written three new poems, we haven’t cleared out the closet, we haven’t changed our eating habits, or we did for a while then slid back to what is familiar.

What if instead of resolutions we set intentions? An intention is a course of action we are going to take but it begins with the idea that we are creating or planting the seeds of what we wish to see grow. Deepak Chopra says, An intention is a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create. and here is a link to his method for setting intentions.  

In other words, rather than seeing ourselves as a problem to be solved, what if we saw potential? Instead of lack: I need to lose weight, be more healthy, make more money, have better relationships, find true love, write a best seller, buy a new car….we saw ourselves planting seeds for a future that we love: I am perfect weight to wear clothes I love, I am healthy and strong, I have plenty to spare and to share, I love fully and am loved in return, I am writing something that is compelling, I am driving the right car.

Think back over the past year at your accomplishments that are not necessarily signs of success but are signs of growth. Did you get to your yoga class? (I did, at least once a week, although not the three times a week I “resolved” to go.) Did you call a dear friend you haven’t spoken to in a while? Did you join a book club? Did you speak up about your feelings instead of hiding them? Did you try a new recipe? Did you attend an event in a neighborhood where you don’t normally spend time? Did you support an artist of color by attending his/her reading/exhibition/show? Did you volunteer? Did you speak kindly to a strange? Did you fill yourself with beauty?

Now think ahead to the life you want to create. What would fill your soul in 2017? More prayer and patience? More determination and speaking truth? More fun? More gratitude? More support of those community organizations you think are making a difference? More kindness and more gathering with those you love? More words on the page with dynamic impact? More celebration? More beauty?


This new year in 2017 is a year for deepening our courage and our determination. The world around us is shifting, there is an awakening happening, some of it very painful. It may feel we are sliding backwards, it may feel like a shadow has chilled us to the bone. But at the same time, we are awakening to our fullest potential.  We must take nothing for granted, including that others think the way we do. We must remember that we are here to learn and grow. We must not let the fact that we have slipped from our resolutions prevent us from carrying on with developing our intentions. We are beacons of light in the midst of a terrible storm. When it clears, the horizon ahead will be glorious. Be kind to yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world, one small step at a time, one leap into the life you want to manifest. What if you are not a problem to be solved but a solution to the challenges you see?