The turn of this new year has felt a little strange. It came about during an in-between season of my life. Often the Christmas season ushers forth a sense of conclusion or a wrapping up of sorts to the year. Those few days between exchanging gifts and ringing in the sparkly new year typically provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on the adventures afforded and the heartaches borne. Hope usually rises as I begin to envision a new start and wonder and anticipate what lies ahead. But this year was quite different.
The unexpected move-pocalypse of 2015 has yet to be fully unpacked and understood. We are each still wrestling and sorting out how this shift in location will continue to alter the trajectory of our narratives. And the uncertainty of how or when this new place will ever begin to feel like home is evidence of the in-between nature of our current circumstances. In the past, these kinds of narrative gaps, the vowels between the consonants, the spaces between what was and what will be – these have been difficult spaces for me to find rest. I’ve often tried to hurry through them, assuming that plowing through transition as quickly as possible is what is best for all involved so that a new normal can be established. On other occasions involving transition, I’ve simply busied myself or distracted myself, or self-soothed by employing go-to addictions – all likely an unconscious effort (most of the time) to avoid feeling the stripping away effect transition can have upon one’s sense of identity, or belonging, or purpose.
It became clear just before Christmas that none of those avoidance tactics were going to be adequate in this season of transition. There was no running away or side-stepping the ever-present sense that the losses needed to be felt and that the confusion that has ensued in the aftermath is inviting deeper levels of self-exploration. I’ve wandered into a gap between identities. I am once again living outside of the weekly rhythms of our extended families of origin. These tribes we are born into and formed out of carry so much power in the shaping and fostering of our identities (for good and for harm). We are sister or daughter or granddaughter or wise one or funny one or strong one or smart one or wounded one. Whenever we venture outside or beyond or away from our people we have a new opportunity to explore who we are separate from them. I’ve found this space to be especially terrifying. Who am I outside of the communities that have affirmed my existence, communities that have formed my own micro-world? What remains when those micro-worlds are fading into the distance?
A similar stripping away has unfolded professionally as I’ve nearly entirely walked away from my previously thriving private practice only retaining a handful of clients who wanted to continue the work via online/video sessions. When we transition vocationally we have an opportunity to explore who we are simply as human beings when we are not striving so hard to be human doings. I began working at the age of 12 generating my own income by way of babysitting thus beginning a 20+ year career in offering care to others in a whole host of different ways. This is the only substantial break I have ever been afforded aside from when I pursued my graduate degree (which I struggle to call a break given the intensity of the program I undertook while tending to three kids simultaneously). I know that this vocational pause is a luxury in our culture and in our world, but I am beginning to see why that is such a travesty. My body and brain and heart and health have been begging for some rest in the gaps all along.
So I’m not quite at the start of a new journey like I would have typically hoped for at the turn of a new calendar year. Instead, I’m in the gap lands and I’m coming to realize that I may need to be here for a little while. It’s clear that I’ve moved too quickly through this terrain in previous transitions. At times, I am certain, survival must have required only a quick pause in the gaps. But I must confess there were others that I unapologetically pushed through quicker than the speed of light. So there is lots of unfinished business in this place, lots of rest needed, lots of recovery for this compassion-fatigued soul. Ultimately it is where a patient grief must finally be allowed. Here’s to hoping that this intentional posture of sitting and staying in the gap as long as necessary leads to restoration and an increased capacity to listen well to the voice of a more stripped-down version of myself.
Something extraordinary happened last weekend. It was the 2015 Women’s World Cup Draw. I stood behind our couch ironing clothes as my 14 year old sat before me glued to the television. The broadcast opened with a panel of former and current female soccer elites. Their anticipation and excitement for the draw matched our own. We were within minutes of knowing how the first round of matches would line-up when I felt an all-too-familiar lump in my chest. It’s a physiological sensation I tend to get when an unexpected emotion is about to surge through my body and being. I couldn’t completely discern the emotion in those moments that tears began to well up in my smiling eyes. Was it gratitude? Anticipation? Joy? I wasn’t quite sure…but I know what you’re thinking- Really? All of this emotion over the Women’s World Cup? And the answer is YES. And not exactly.
I must disclose that I did not really grow up loving soccer. I was an athlete in my early years, no question about that. I spent most of my time in dance studios, including the one my mom owned for a period of time. As I approached middle school, I discovered I was fast and strong and tall and determined on both the basketball court and the soccer field. My father had a brief basketball career extending beyond college to the professional realm of European sports. My mother was a dancer, turned aerobic instructor in the eighties before beginning her career in nursing (I should mentioned she competed in Rebok’s National Aerobic Championship when I was still in elementary school). So it was sort of in my blood, but I never really landed and settled onto either the dance floor, the soccer field or the basketball court. Looking back, I was probably most physically suited for soccer, but by the end of my eighth grade year, when it was time to anticipate athletics in High School, one of my girlfriends asked if I’d tryout for cheerleading with her. With little personal direction and having an adolescent-hormone-bathed-brain that already identified the amount of attention the cheerleaders received from the male athletes, I hopped right on that train heading no where good. Thus marking the end of my athletic opportunities. Though, I should mention (or brag) that I did later play on an adult co-ed soccer league in the beginning of my marriage and also went on to fulfill a bucket-list item when I danced for a hip-hop company after having my first two babies.
I promise there was a point to that personal narrative detour. As I stood at my ironing board that morning, peering at the screen that was showcasing such strong, talented and beautiful female athletes, it dawned on me that I couldn’t recall a single strong female role model from my childhood memory. I’m not suggesting that there weren’t women worth admiring and looking up to when I was a developing girl, but I don’t recall being exposed to any that awakened my heart, strengthened my hope or focused my dreams. I pondered for a moment how my life may have taken a very different path had I been witness to more female narratives of greatness back then. In a split-second I was overwhelmed with the importance for girls to WITNESS the possiblities for their lives. We need more women in the pulpit. We need women in governement…yes, we need a female president. We need women’s voices to be present in the media. We need women’s sports to be televised. We need coming-of-age stories that showcase a female narrative. We need Oprah. We need Katniss Everdeen. We all need more women.
Nearly three years ago, my husband drove our three older girls to Utah so they could watch the US Women play in a friendly against Canada prior to the Olympics. Alex Morgan was being interviewed just before the game was about to begin directly in front of where my girls were all sitting. It was a moment they will never forget. We realized then that we would need to be intentional about exposing them to the narratives of a multitude of strong, determined and talented women, but my heart aches for a time when such intentionality is no longer necessary. I long for the day that women’s narratives hold equal weight in a world where they carry half the sky.
My 3 loves taking a photo of one of their heroes (standing behind a fan with a ridiculously large hat)!
Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.~Anne Lamott in Help Thanks Wow
I think about death a lot. That is probably not the way you expected an after-Thanksgiving post to begin. But it’s the truth. Though it’s difficult to recall my mindframe pre-near-death-exeperience, I’m pretty certain I did not think about death as much back then. Perhaps these more frequent thoughts are related to some residual post-traumatic stress. But maybe not. Perhaps it’s because every which way I look there is something reminding me of our mortality as human beings. From recent public conversations about the young woman who opted to end her own life rather than allow her inoperable brain tumor to run its own course of cruelty, to an episode on Grey’s Anatomy, there are reminders of death every single day. Maybe the increase in thoughts is simply a reflection of aging. After all, the older we grow the more loss we are likely to encounter.
About six weeks into my recovery from Briella’s birth, I drove to work for the first time. I was initially surprised by how natural it felt to be heading back to work, driving the vehicle I’ve spent much of my life maneuvering around. Just as I was about to turn onto the off-ramp from the highway, I was assaulted by an imaginary image of the car in front of me being flung into my windshield. My brain registerred the possiblity of another car being struck and sky-rocketing into my direction and apparently thought it was something I needed to be prepared to handle. The imagined and envisioned scenario jolted my heartrate and left me breathless, but it was not the first indication of my post-traumatic stress. Up until that point, I had also been experiencing dreams almost every night where I was unexplainably draining fluid out of every pore of my body. The dreams felt so real that I would wake up and ask Brian to check to see if there was anything dripping down my back. Considering the amount of blood I lost in both surgeries, the retention of nearly 50 pounds of fluid that my body shed over the course of the two weeks following, and the tubes I had coming out of my body to drain urine while both my bladder and my ureters continued to heal, it wasn’t that difficult to discern what my brain was trying to process in the late hours of those restless nights. But this new fear of cars flying through my windshield was not as easy to explain away.
Thoughts of flying cars have morphed into far more horrific scenarios of which my children or husband are the primary victims. It’s as if living through trauma, an experience where I came face to face with my potential finality in this bodily form, caused a breach in the protective armor many of us live encased within throughout much of life. I think the armor is constructed by equal parts of denial and hope. Denial keeps the inevitable reality of our end and the end of those we love the most at a safe enough distance to function relatively unfazed. Sure, we all know that we will dies someday, but knowing by way of an idea is a very different thing from knowing by way of experience. Hope sustains our life as it compels us to travel further and further down a road we trust will lead us to joy even in the midst of potential tragedy and sorrow. Denial and hope, the two are very different things…or so I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
In my case, denial took the greatest blow in the aftermath of my trauma experience. I’m not sure I will ever be able to live in bliss with that psychological defense mechanism again. I now have an intimate knowledge of how quickly and unexpectedly my own life or anyone’s can come to an end. So how do I function in the midst of this new knowing? My capacity to function now directly correlates to my capacity to live in gratitude. It was gratitude for my life that sustained me during the months of painful recovery. It is gratitude that comes upon me like a wave knocking me off my feet when I’m sitting in the theater watching the production of Once next to the love of my life. It is gratitude that welcomes the tears shed after hard conversations with my oldest daughters about life and love and sex and beauty and shame and struggle. This gratitude thing isn’t about just feeling lucky. It’s about feeling like EVERYTHING is a gift. EVERYTHING. Every day. Every moment. Everything. I am not always able to live out of this place of gratitude – hence the days I don’t function as well. But learning how to practice saying thank you to the source of life daily has been my saving grace. Thanksgiving has moved its way up towards the top of my favorite holiday list over the past couple of years because it’s a day that simply invites us into the practice of gratitude. Let’s hope the spirit of Thanksgiving carries us all through the rest of this holiday season.
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In the end, we’ll all become stories. ~Margaret Atwood
Trauma has the power to strip us of all the layers we’ve worn around like clothing through most of our lives. It can bring us into contact with our primal, more fragile and vulnerable self. It reveals who we are when we come face to face with the possibility and reality of our inevitable death.
I am not trying to be dark and dismal as I am keenly aware of the fact that we all just emerged on the other side of Holy Week and are supposed to be lingering in the afterglow delight of sayings like “He is Risen” and “the tomb is empty”. We were only supposed to sit with the heaviness of death from Friday through Sunday morning…right? I’m not so sure that’s true at this point in my life. In actuality, the lengthier my story becomes, the greater my capacity to hold both life and death simultaneously. I’m beginning to think that this correlation between my days on earth and my capacity to bear the heaviness of both life and death is in part due to the time I’ve spent getting to know that more vulnerable part of me in the face of indirect and direct forms of trauma.
Last night I wound up observing the traumatic experience of another. My mother was helping out with childcare while I was finishing up a workday. She delivered our nine year old to her soccer practice and was entertaining our one year old until I was able to arrive at the field. Shortly after she settled onto a blanket on the sideline there was a freak accident in the parking lot involving three vehicles and one of the cars striking a mother and her four children while she was loading two of the children into a stroller. The mother and her children were all transported to the hospital but fortunately none of them suffered life-threatening injuries.
I pulled into the parking lot nearly 20 minutes after the mother and her children were taken by ambulance, but the evidence of this horrific scene remained. The vehicles had not moved. There was glass everywhere. People surrounded the area and watched as police officers tended to the ensuing investigation and firemen managed the aftermath. After surveying the expanse of the scene, my eyes eventually rested on the man responsible for striking the woman and her children. That’s when I felt an all too familiar shudder within my own body.
I woke up this morning still feeling the weight of what had happened inside my own body. In the few moments of quiet throughout this day, I have been wrestling to understand the implications of that shudder. I was overwhelmed with compassion for the man most likely deemed responsible for the accident, so I knew that the shudder was in no way reflective of judgment or repulsion. If I felt anything toward this stranger it was curiosity around how his story had collided into the stories of the victims. We often go through the motions of life exhibiting little to no awareness of just how interconnected all of us really are until our stories bump against each other in some way. Beyond the curiosity, however, I began to recognize that I was projecting my own experience of trauma upon this distraught man. I imagined he was feeling incredibly raw, vulnerable and stripped down in those moments following the accident.
Therein lies my visceral response. The shudder. The stripped down naked shudder. The raw shudder. The shudder that is more appropriately linked to a category of awe than of fear, though they’re difficult to distinguish from one another at times. It was a shudder of remembrance of what it is like to come face to face with my own fragility. It was a shudder that conjured up a recollection of moments where all of the noise and inconsequential stuff that fills our days and the pages of our stories was held at bay. The shudder was the reminder of what happens in the aftermath of trauma when we are left begging the question – what is all of this really about anyway? The shudder recalls the given answer to that proverbial question. The given answer that could be heard and known in a deeper way when trauma had left me utterly naked and entirely aware of my own fragility. The answer that still reverberates throughout my being in moments of stillness – that LOVE is all that matters, it is the truth, the reason we are all here. It is what lives on when we do not.
Sometimes in the aftermath of trauma death and life kiss and give birth to love.