the gift of wildly fluctuating hormones

651d184b026fb7ecd9f9e6575e822f6bI want to talk about anxiety. And depression.

Do they always go together?

I’m new at this. Not new at experiencing them. But new at knowing I’m experiencing them.

It’s not only that I didn’t have names for my feelings when I was younger,
but that I didn’t fully feel them.
Until I had no choice.

Hormones.

Earlier this week, I found myself humming and singing what has become my tell-tale sad song (it knows I’m feeling sad before I do):

I learned the truth at 17,
that love was meant for beauty queens,
and pretty girls with clear-skinned smiles,
who married young and then retired.
And those of us with ravaged faces…

Oddly enough, I was one of those clear-skinned, pretty girls.
But still, this song comes to me more and more as I age, to the point where my youngest, at 15, hears it playing on YouTube for the first time and says: “I like the original better,” not realizing that he’s only ever heard it sung by me.

This is Janis Ian, I say. It’s her song.

I’m relieved when I Google her and find that she’s still alive: and 64, happily through menopause no doubt, even winning a Grammy in 2013!

Mid-life women inspire me. They are such warriors. So full-hearted.

This morning I wake with a crushing weight on my chest. (Well, maybe not crushing. But pressing.)
I’m unable to take a full breath. (I taught yoga yesterday.)
When I consider the day ahead, even the smallest part of the day ahead, I feel immobilized. (It’s a relatively straightforward day.)

I’m expecting my period. And menopause. (Soon, please.)

I stay put and feel into the sensations of weight and panic until they soften enough. I take a shower, pack my work things–while scaling the items shouting for my attention around the house–and I drive away.

I feel lighter.

Until I enter our Co-op grocery store. I decide not to shop first as planned, but instead take a seat in the corner of the cafe and get to work. I always feel good when I work. Almost always. It’s how I’ve kept ahead of anxiety and depression throughout my life, though I never knew that then. I thought I loved work. Until someone said these words:

What you love brings you balance.

Work never brought me balance. It brought me 100-hour work weeks at 20. And teacher burn-out by 30. So I decided to stay home. For two decades.

That didn’t fare well either. I found at-home-motherhood excruciatingly boring. Diapers, dishes, routines. Sitting down on the floor with the kids was the worst. I couldn’t still myself into their worlds. I thought it was play that I resisted, but now I realize that it was me. Without complexity to consume my mind, anxiety devoured me.

I had a window into those years when I went shopping with my son earlier this week. I noticed that if I kept my focus on items that engaged me, say the household aisle of TJ Maxx, then I could keep the anxiety at bay. But if he wanted to talk to me, or worse yet, show me something, particularly something that held no interest for me, my anxiety magnified.

I wonder when it all started.

Is it genetic?
Environmental?
Universal?
Trauma induced?

I remember a high fever at the age of 4 and the way the world grew too large and then too small and far away for me to handle.

I remember a fire at the age of 9–the one that took the lives of an entire family except for the boy who went to my school–and how I trembled with that news all night long.

I remember my arm in a sling at age 11, broken on the ice–the result of a mind game that I played often that year–counting down how quickly I could get from place to place–before I blew up.

Aha!
That would have been sixth grade,
the first year of my mother’s alcoholism,
the year that my father poured the bottles down the sink,
and said, “You have to watch your mother. She’s sick.”

My breath catches on this memory.
The weight on my chest returns.

I see this young girl, and go to her.
I rub her heart, and lift the weight from it.

I’m here, I say.
I’ll watch your mother.
You go play.

“Ready to die”

cropped-cropped-cropped-cropped-v1_at_8001.jpgMy son returns to college this weekend so I’m thinking about death.
Mainly my own.
How everything good ends.
And how life is such a trickster.
Sucking us in by love, disarming us of our defenses, distracting us with the infinity of doing, and then VOILA–death! Ending. Finality.

Having a family is the worse (or is it “worst.”) Simply because it seems so permanent. Particularly in the trenches. Like the diapers and the feedings and the messes will never end. And when they did, I was HAPPY.

But now, I’m 51. With a second foot into the decade that took the lives of my beloved mother and the grandmother I adored.

Plus it’s winter. A particularly hard and cold and frozen week of January in Vermont. The darkest time of year. And in Paris, a bunch of people were butchered.

“We’re ready to die,” said the terrorists.

A friend relays that he had a moment on his mat this week where he felt that it was okay to die. Really okay.

I had that once too. On my knees. In the garden. Rain soaked. My hands in dirt.

What if we woke every day with this aim?

Without saving any love or expression “for later.”

To be ready TO DIE in each moment.

But not like this:

Ripening still

I want to tug only on those things that are truly ripe.
I want to let everything else take its sweet time.
(Virgo New Moon, Wise Harvest,  )

My youngest brother & sister, 1994
My youngest brother & sister, 1994 at the farmhouse we rented when we first moved to Vermont

As an adult, I’ve never been an author of fiction, and yet I remember delighting in it on Thursday mornings in the 4th grade where each of us got to put her hand into a packet of prompts: one for characters, one for setting, and one for plot–and then get to imagining!

I loved the surprise of it. Not knowing what strips I would get. Not knowing what story would unfold.

It’s the same with the writing I do now; even though I harvest the strips from my own life: this quote about the Virgo New Moon at the top of the page for instance, and this vision that has been rippling in my mind’s eye of my mother on the front steps of my first house in Vermont, 20 years ago.

I’m not sure how or if they go together or what may come of either, but they beckon and I follow…

My mother disliked Virgos. My father was one. She cautioned me about my choice in a husband, scolding me that it was only a matter of time before his easy nature revealed a truer self–one with a critical need for perfection.

She was right and she was wrong. (My father and husband must have different risings.)

My mother loved astrology. The tarot. The runes. Transcendental texts. All things beyond.

Me too. Only I came to it slower, and then sprinted–when my mother was taken from me too soon.

In the years before her death, before we knew she would be dying, I left my hometown by the sea for a little house in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Though my mother was 50 at the time, she still had little ones at home–my youngest brother and sister, twenty years my junior–and I brought them up to enjoy a week in the country while my mother enjoyed a rare week to herself.

When my mother arrived to fetch them the following weekend, they were covered in bug bites and bruises and they had so much to tell her.  That next morning, while the children were still sleeping, I was surprised to see mother out on the steps that led up from the field to our front lawn.

She sat there on the stones in the warming sun of a cool, summer morning, with a steaming mug in her hand, embraced by the mountains.

I was struck by the depth of her presence. Of her stillness. Of the stark contrast to her lifetime of doing. And I paused in my busyness in witness of her.

It’s where I find myself now. At the same age. In the same season. The sleeping children–my own. The house–the one my husband later built–the home my mother never met. And the stone steps? Brand new.

For ten years, I’ve had to leap out the French doors to place myself on the front lawn.

But with the ripening of August and age, I am invited to step down.

To sit.

To be still.

To receive the embrace of mountains.

And the warmth of the early morning sun on stone.

With the added delight of an unexpected communion, across time.

~
(more on stillness: The Still Ones)

 

i’ve got (my) back

10351825_10152504996033746_8547168182269551440_nI hurt my back. In a gentle yoga class. During the first pose.

The irony continues…

I carved out the gift of this single yoga class from a busy week spent at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.

The irony doesn’t end there…

I was at Kripalu to assist at a Let Your Yoga Dance teacher training program–where I danced day and night–without a problem. It was only when I stopped, sat down, and reclined, open-hearted, over a delicious set of cushions, that I was hurt.

This irony suggests an invitation more than an injury, doesn’t it?

But a month later, the invitation is still hurting.

Bending over backwards is the mind/body connection that comes to mind.

But wasn’t I bending for myself?

I made a special request to fit that yoga class into a tight schedule. I rushed to make it happen. I couldn’t wait to surrender to it.  And yet, even after I felt the alarming twinge in my lower back, I refused it.

“This posture is great,” I said to my back. “Come on! Enjoy it.”

And when my back continued to complain?

“What’s the point of taking the cushions out now? You’re already hurt.”

So maybe I wasn’t so much bending over backward–for myself–but bending over backward for… busyness?

Assisting at Kripalu had an alarmingly familiar tempo to previous life incarnations; ones that I consciously left behind: from managing a family of origin to managing a restaurant, to managing a classroom and then a succession of non-profits.

Ironically this new role held none of the responsibilities that once weighed me down, and it also included meditation, hugs and organic food.

So what was wrong with me? Hadn’t I made enough progression? Couldn’t I tolerate a few days of intense scheduling given the obvious benefits?

Apparently, No. I arrived to opening night with an impressive fever blister (my first), and shortly after developed a full-blown migraine.

The most outstanding irony in this entire drama is the fact that I didn’t have to be there; and I couldn’t even blame it on money… I was volunteering.

(Kelly. Kelly. Kelly.)

Once I returned home, that silly, gentle-yoga, first-pose, invitation continued, until I was forced to attend to it with a myriad of practitioners: from chiropractic, to massage, to naturopathic.

It only felt worse.

Finally, I succumbed to bringing it where it belonged: the psychotherapist.

With her guidance, I take myself back to the reclining pose on the soft cushions at Kripalu, and realize that I WANT EVEN MORE SPACE, more than this yoga class, more than this mat, more than this open-hearted pose.

This hunger for space has been a constant throughout my life–as the oldest of 8–parentified by alcoholism–orphaned by divorce–driven to exhaustion at work.

But the truth underneath my desperation for space is that I don’t want to give up on anything else to have it.  I want the joy of assisting, the gift of a family, and the delight of professional pursuits.

What I need to learn how to do is this: Occupy the space I need, ALL the space I need, in the midst of it all.

With this realization, the pain in my back grows louder and louder, until I want to crawl out of my skin and become spineless.

The familiar reclining chair in my therapist’s office becomes so uncomfortable that I am forced to move to the floor while she carefully guides my attention to the story behind the pain:

My grandmother appears. Not the one I adored. But the one I abhorred?  Because she was mean? And fat? (obese really.)

Energy moves from my right side to my left side, and then wraps around my belly where this grandmother’s dark and heavy pain is lodged inside of me.

This is where my doctor placed his hands last week to contrast the muscular differentiation between this and my thighs. “Your weaker abdominal muscles may be contributing to the vulnerability of your lower back,” he suggests.

But here’s what I heard:

“You hurt your back because you are fat and lazy and out of shape.”

(Yet another invitation masked as injury/as insult.)

“I don’t want to connect with the energy of this grandmother,” I say to my therapist; but even as I say the words, and realize how afraid I am of this journey, I know that it is my next frontier.

I pick myself up off the floor and climb back into the chair, reconnecting my heart to my lower back; surprised to find that my spine suddenly feels like a source of support again instead of agony.

10301211_10152601746673746_16322046353505728_nMy mind flashes back to Kripalu, to the ritualistic closing of each demanding or vulnerable or evocative Let Your Yoga Dance training session: We circle up, wrap our arms around the bodies touching ours, and take turns whispering into one another’s ear:

“I’ve got your back.”

I stand to say goodbye to my therapist, and I smile as I walk out her door, whispering to myself:

“I’ve got my back.”

 

Love Never Ends (a tribute to a friend)

utils_files30 years ago I spent a semester in London, or to be more specific, in Hampstead, in a home filled with American students and just as many (retired) Jesuit priests. Maybe 50 in all. Maybe a bit less. There was also a Director (of the house); a Professor (from our Jesuit university); a cook, named Eric, with a fetish for toes; and someone else, unexplained: a single extraneous woman.

Sister Norrie.

I pulled out my address book this morning in search of her last name and her last place of residence and only then did I realize, as I paged through, how infrequently I relied on physical addresses of friends for communications anymore. Yet, once upon a time, Sister Norrie and I were pen pals; and before that, house mates.

Southwell House was cold and damp and dark, and to me this fully explained the British habit of afternoon tea; and London itself was dark and dreary and bitter which illuminated the addition of sweets. Thursday was my favorite. Eric baked scones. Despite the careful directions he sent me via post years later, I was unable to duplicate them.

Tea and sweets and beer kept me warm that winter, as did the occasional hot shower stolen from the priests when I was brave enough to infiltrate their wing. Sister Norrie lived above them, at the tail end of the students’ wing, where she kept me company in her tiny room.

Norrie must have been 70 at the time, maybe older, but I was only 20, so she could have been 60. I remember long, white, wispy hair. Thin bones. Ruddy cheeks. A steady and gentle presence.

She once confided that her only regret at becoming a nun was not having children of her own.

I gave her a grapevine heart sent to me by a dear friend, and she gave me a small brown earthen mug, handcrafted by beloved students. (These, our parting gifts on the morning that I took the train to Heathrow to fly home.)

Most of my classmates left the second the semester ended, but I stayed on, stashed my belongings in an empty room off the foyer, and took a journey to Ireland, to the roots that Norrie and I shared, and to further delay my return to the world of pain that had become my family as it silently imploded.

Those belongings of mine, including a stuffed dog and two blankies, had been mistakenly donated to a charity while I was traveling. I was desperate to get them back, and embarrassed to think that the priests had opened my things, and perhaps seen my diaphragm and spermicidal jelly (which I never did use there); but not a word was spoken; and Sister Norrie saw that everything was returned to me in time for my departure.

Years later I would return to Southwell House with my new husband, a lifetime after I had lived there; though in regular time, only 6 years had passed. The life of Southwell House had been dramatically altered too.

What had once been a quite serious, period home was now egregiously festooned in primary colors. The retired priests were replaced by residential youth. Eric was still the cook. He made us scones. Sister Norrie had already returned to Ireland; but even after she entered a nursing home, we continued to write to each other, until one letter was left unanswered.

It was Norrie, that winter morning at Southwell House, thirty years ago, who saw me put the receiver back in its holder, and must have seen me slump into the corner chair beside the house phone there.

I saw her across the foyer in the doorway of the diningroom so I stood and smiled too.

“Is everything okay, Kelly?” she asked, as I turned to head past her up the stairs to my room.

“Yes Sister.” I lied, convincingly.

She was not convinced.

Just then a group of students went by, inviting me to a impromptu Valentine’s celebration. “Sure,” I said, smiling, as they continued into the library with decorations in hand.

As I put my hand on the banister, but Sister Norrie placed her hand on my forearm: “You’ve just gotten some bad news, haven’t you, Kelly?”

“No,” I said, “Everything is fine, Sister. Really.” (I was an expert at hiding pain.)

Norrie turned me toward her by my shoulders, looked in my eyes, and then took my hand in hers, leading me down the hall past the priests’ guest rooms into a tiny Chapel that I hadn’t known was there.

It was only then, in that sacred space, where I did not belong, that I spoke the truth of my grandmother’s passing.

The altar shook as a subway passed in the tunnel beneath us, and I almost told Norrie that I couldn’t be there; couldn’t receive her love, didn’t deserve it, or the light shining through the stain glass above us (because I had had two abortions at 16) but instead I remained frozen, in pain, in a small pew, beside her, as she prayed.

This tender moment between an elder and a child, between two women, between two countries and two kindred souls was something I could not feel; did not want to feel; and I so I slipped away as soon as Sister Norrie finished, refusing any further affection or attention.

il_340x270.602291411_hdx4And yet, she loved me still.

That evening I found flowers and a card in my room.

The calligraphy read: Love Never Ends.

 

 

Healing the heart of the past

Many ancient impressions live on in the genes we inherited from our parents and ancestors. These, too, need to be made conscious, lest they manifest as disease or as seemingly inexplicable urges to behave in certain ways or to pursue certain ideas.
(The Path of Practice: A Woman’s Book of Healing with Food, Breath, and Sound;
Maya Tiwari)

My Aunt Trish, in her twenties, just after her mother died of heart disease.
My Aunt Trish, in her twenties, just after her mother died of heart disease.

50 is a plateau from which I survey my past and future, following which I enter my “fifties”–the decade (or shortly thereafter) that took a chunk of my relatives–including my mother, her parents, her brother, and just this past week: one of her baby sisters.

Given the overlapping of generations common to large Irish Catholic families, my Aunt Trish and I were teenagers together. When I was in Junior High, we traveled to Disney World and to the Keys. Trish shared the driving with my grandmother, while my Aunt Col and I dozed in the back seat.

I can see Trish in a phone booth on the strip in Key West. It’s raining. She’s crying. Her boyfriend is on the other end of the line. (I can’t remember if she married that one.)

Trish moved to Florida for permanently decades ago, and I haven’t seen much of her since; which makes it even more unfathomable that she’s old enough to die from heart disease.

The heart.

It took her mother and her brother; and brought an older sister to the brink.

Cigarettes and alcohol and weight complicated the matter for at least some; but what else is hidden there? What family burden is buried in the heart, and is there a part for me to play in freeing it?

In the book, Path of Practice, author/teacher Maya Tiwari writes about the necessity of healing the past, even the past that took place long before us.

This concept has been beyond my understanding until recently when I stumbled upon it again and again–in conversation with a friend or a health practitioner, or in in Tiwari’s book.

And yet, the prospect of uncovering what came before (let alone healing it) is daunting, particularly since my mother’s people have always seemed somewhat guarded. Protected. Fearful.

The heart.

I’m not sure that I want to know what is buried there, but I also don’t want another generation to begin dying in their fifties. I have 7 siblings too; and alcohol and cigarettes continue to play a leading role in some of their lives.

I’ve decided upon a few simple steps that I formed based on suggestions by Tiwari in her book. These are practices with which I’m already familiar and perhaps they’ll gently lead the way to the more complex.

I’ll share those steps below and maybe others will make suggestions or share their own stories to help light the way… past, present & future.

Ancestral Practices:

1. Create an altar for the ancestors with photos, momentos and touchstones.

2. Share stories among family members about our people.

3. Read about the legacy of the Irish.

4. See what comes…

(And you?)