Changing Shape

My baby is due in a little over two weeks!

To honor this transition for our family, I am going to take a few months off from offering healing sessions in Middletown, starting next week. I will miss working with you folks during my time off, but I am excited and grateful to be able to cocoon away with our new little one. I will let you know when I am back to work and open for sessions.

Continue reading “Changing Shape”

True Nature

When I observe creatures and plants in the natural world, I am often struck by how boldly “themselves” they are.

I recently watched juncos bathing in puddles on the first clear day after several weeks of rain. These little birds did not mope about wishing their legs were longer or had more meat on them. Nope. They unreservedly threw themselves into the winter water bath, shaking their feathers, gripping the mud with their toes, raising their beaks to the sun.

Juncos also don’t sit around beating themselves up for not having the ability to hunt large game and feed their families with a full-in-one-sitting meal. Instead, they dart and flit about in the grass, picking bugs and seeds until they fill their bellies. There is a distinct lack of reserve in the way they move about. They know their bodies, accept them as they are, and use the tools they have to their fullest function.

Or, when’s the last time you sensed a valley oak apologizing to the world for not having smoother bark or for not producing sweet, juicy fruit? They lose their heavy branches in the winter wind, they drop their acorns in the fall, they watch the grasslands burn at their feet . . . and they stand, just being their oak selves.

In fact, to survive in the wild, there’s no time for foxes or whales or praying mantises or anything else to deny their basic makeup. Plants and animals must follow their instincts and fully surrender to the gifts their particular biological makeup has given them. This allows them to both thrive through the seasons and fulfill their place in the larger ecosystem.

We humans have this ability to help create our lives through our choices. And that gives us incredible potential to remake the lives we’ve been handed. But the power and luxury we have for reflection can also have a destructive side—destructive to ourselves.

I could list many ways people I interact with are hell bent on destroying some part of themselves:

They’re not naturally good at books, so they kick themselves over and over for not measuring up in school, completely overlooking that they have extraordinary abilities in the kinesthetic realm.

They ruffle people’s feathers with their straightforward perspective, and so they shut down that frank, truth-seeing part of themselves for fear of hurting someone again.

They received negative reactions to their artistic creations, perhaps because they were not “practical” or “useful,” and so they starve their creative urges, robbing the world and themselves of the perspective and beauty their art might offer.

We twist and contort our natural makeups in so many ways to try to meet perceived family, religious, or societal expectations. These attempts to destroy parts of who we are affect not only our mental health, but also our physical bodies. A National Institutes of Health Fact Sheet states: “Many studies document that psychological stress is linked to a variety of health problems, such as increased heart disease, compromised immune system functioning, and premature cellular and cognitive aging. Some evidence suggests that mind-body therapies could reduce psychological stress.” Yep, over the past century, even Western medicine has begun to acknowledge and prove how connected our minds and bodies are.

I don’t know much else that produces more psychological stress than the belief that we should change something that we cannot possibly change. This often-obsessive belief holds us in limbo until our bodies or minds break under the stress.

What if we could simply change our relationship with those loathed aspects of ourselves rather than seek to destroy them?

Here’s the thing. Many pieces that make up who we are can be used for both creative and destructive purposes. Let’s look back to nature, at poison oak, the “bad guy” of the plant world. Despite its notoriety for causing agonizing pain and itching, poison oak fills an important function in its environment. It grows in disturbed soils, adding a layer of protection for ground that needs restoration, discouraging human interlopers. It also provides shelter and food for lots of non-human animals.

Same with stinging nettles—they really hurt if you touch them the wrong way, but they are also an incredible wild source of nutrients and medicine if you learn how to handle them.

And same with so many aspects of who we are.

What’s the poison oak in your internal landscape? What parts of yourself do you stay away from because you believe they’re bad? What if there are incredible gifts of medicine and shelter to be found in those places, and it’s just a matter of learning how to interact with them in a healthy way? Yes, you can sting someone, but perhaps you can also bring someone healing with that same aspect of yourself.

I believe the possibilities are worth the exploration.

DNA and Choice

For those of you who I haven’t seen in a few months, I have news to share: my husband and I are expecting a baby!

I am six months pregnant with our first child, and what a journey these six months have been for me: Nearly constant nausea in the first trimester . . . the adventure of hormonally influenced emotions . . . developing a relationship with a miraculous, unseen being growing inside me . . . a deepening of trust and newness of purpose with my life partner (the photos in today’s letter are from our recent Southwest “babymoon”).

I have many questions about how we will raise our child, a full gamut of fears and hopes, and these first steps in motherhood prove grand new territory for me to explore what and how I create in this world. It’s both a vulnerable and empowering time.

My reflection this month has particular poignancy for me as I wonder how I will influence my child’s life. I’ve been intrigued for quite some time by the field of epigenetics, a relatively new field of science that studies gene expression. We all keep the DNA we are born with, but studies in epigenetics have shown that the way those genes act, or express themselves, can change over the course of our lifetimes, and those changes in gene expression are passed on to our children (and, perhaps, their children and so on). It’s a whole ‘nother angle on the old nature v. nurture question, with findings that heartily answer “yes” to both.

One of the leading scientists in this field, Rachel Yehuda, and her colleagues have conducted studies on multiple groups of people with post-traumatic stress disorder: Holocaust survivors and their children, 9/11 survivors and their children, survivors of famine and their children. These studies have shown that the alterations of certain genes’ expression in response to trauma are passed down to offspring who never directly experienced that trauma.

These epigenetic changes can be negative (one study showed that children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD were three times more likely than other people to develop PTSD in response to trauma in their own lives). But the changes can also be positive, as in an increased resilience in response to difficulty. In fact, the same adaptation can be either positive or negative, depending on the environment the person is in. In one interview, Yehuda gave the following example:

. . . if a mother was in Auschwitz and was starving and transmitted the biology to the offspring—it’s a biology that allows your liver to hang on to free cortisol and not have it converted to inactive cortisol, so that you can effectively get by with less fuel—that would be a fantastic thing for an offspring to have under periods of starvation. But if the offspring lives in a country where a breakfast bagel can feed a family of two for a day, there is a mismatch between that biology and what has been given.

What first piqued my interest in these studies was how much they resonate with what I have come to know as true in my journey with healing work. We arrive in this life with certain given tools, but if we open up to new perspectives on the patterns in our lives, we can actually choose to use those tools differently. And, it turns out, the science of epigenetics shows just how deeply those choices can change things on a physical level—in our own automatic responses and in future generations’.

In this healing work I practice, we work on many levels at a time, including both the physical and the relational. Many of you who have come for a session have experienced how profoundly this work can change both your physical body and your approach to situations. But it’s easy to wonder howhands-on work can change our physicality. Epigenetics is one field that begins to offer some explanations.

Yehuda says it well, “Feel empowered, because science has shown us that you can change a lot of what you don’t like, or override a lot of what you can’t change.” It is possible to alter your DNA’s expression based on your response to your environment—and we once thought DNA to be one of the most unchangeable parts of our beings.

Now, obviously, these changes are happening on at least a micro-scale all the time, wherever we go. But it is exciting to know that if placing yourself in a new environment can alter your gene expression, then doing something like hopping on a healing table with the intention for your world to be different can be an incredible way to choosethe environment and howyou change. Or even to strengthen the influence of a gene expression you already have and like.

This is also exciting to me because it affirms that we are all engaged in the act of creation, all the time, on the physical level. We don’t just have to take what is handed to us. If we can take what was handed to us and look at it squarely for what it is, we then have the opportunity to choose something new, whether that be in the expression of disease in our bodies or in the way we respond to stressors in life, perhaps even the way we interact with the larger political sphere.

I also have great hope for my son or daughter, and really, for all those who come after us. S/he will inherit patterns from me. S/he will inherit my genes, and those of my parents and grandparents (and back and back on both sides of my husband’s and my families). But as s/he dances into life, my child will also have the opportunity to reinvent those genes and do something new with them that our family has never done before. I have the chance to do the same, as long as there is breath in my body. We all do.

This incredible power of choice brings great responsibility and risk of disaster, as we see in our world all around us, but we also see that it offers great possibility for renewal and regeneration. I hope each of us continues to discover and empower the creative potential in our own lives.

Mr. Busy and the Wonders of Fire

I pull on a wool hat and down jacket, stuff my pajama pants into rain boots, and head out to the woodpile. My breath leaves a trail of tiny clouds in the frosted air. The wheelbarrow rumbles through puddles and over lumps of mud.

I throw back a tarp and, though I have seen the sight many times before, this time my heart swells.

The woodpile my husband Andy has been curating for several years is neat, precisely split and stacked, glowing yellow and dry. It’s abundant, seasoning and storing wood that will heat our home for several years to come.

Back in the house, I load the woodstove, strike a match, and flames fill the space, bringing comfort. They crackle and leap, dancing over grooves of growth rings, spitting when they hit sap in pine, more slowly but steadily enveloping oak that will burn for half a day.

I smile and lean in, reluctant to close the door between me and the flames. The fire is alive. It’s good company. My two cats join me at the hearth, all three of us pressed forward in heat-worship.

When we arrived home last night from four days of Thanksgiving visits, our house was a chilly fifty degrees inside. We heat only with wood, so there had been no timed pre-warming with central heat.

This morning, I am particularly grateful for this fire, in all its simplicity. I think of the trees and soil and air and rain and sunshine that spent years growing the wood now wrapping us in warmth.

I am grateful to this person I live with who spends hours throughout the year combing our property for dead but solid trees, cutting them up, hauling them over steep hillsides to the quad trailer, splitting, stacking, covering. Our friends and I joke that his doppleganger is Mr. Busy, the beaver from Lady and the Tramp. And the crazy thing is, for the most part, Andy doesn’t do this work out of a drudgerous sense of duty. He loves it. He calls it “chainsaw therapy.” He’s been known to go out on a dark, cold night after work and fire up the wood splitter to “unwind,” matching the sinews of his muscle with the steel blade.

Not only does he love to fill our woodshed with fuel, but he loves to walk the woods, on the lookout for which trees and stumps and limbs he can remove to leave the forest a healthier, more balanced place.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Yet, there have been times in the past when I have complained about his woodcutting obsession, particularly on weekends when I’m in the mood to laze around. “Spend that time with me! You don’t have to be alwaysgathering wood. Give yourself a break. Give mea break.” His single-minded focus and precise, clean-stacked piles have at times annoyed me, seeming overkill.

If I were heading up the firewood project, I’d probably work more in concentrated rushes of energy, not steadily through the year, and I’d build piles a bit more haphazard and tipsy. It’s just the way I naturally work.

And this is the way he naturally works.

Over time, I have learned to honor his need for solitude and physical exertion collecting firewood. He has a steady, intrepid work rhythm, and tidiness that I tease borders on OCD—and it often serves us well. It warms our cold mountain winters. In many ways, it serves to balance my rather messier, dynamic dance through the world, and visa versa.

It’s interesting how we can simultaneously push away and pull on the very thing that feeds us, isn’t it?

What sustains you? How do you fight it? How can you embrace it more fully? What beauty lies in that very contradiction?

After one day of feeding the fire, our living room is full of bone-warming heat, and all these things that conspired to bring it here make me feel inside much like my cats now look: limbs outstretched, tummies to the ceiling, trust bared to the heat-full air.

At War

“You have suffered enough and warred with yourself. It’s time that you won.”

This past weekend wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song “Falling Slowly,” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, from the film and Broadway musical Once. For several years now, I’ve enjoyed the soulful, raw harmonies in the song, with sweet acoustic guitar and piano. But until this last weekend, I hadn’t noticed that set of lyrics: “You have suffered enough and warred with yourself. It’s time that you won.”

And when I heard them, I teared up, because those words, along with the tender pleading tone of the song, match so well the experience of many people I know—of all of us, really, at one point or another. We fight ourselves in so many ways.

Maybe we think that setting a boundary with another person will hurt them or alienate us, so rather than take the risk, we shut down the inner wisdom that tells us this boundary is just what we need. In doing so over and over, we silence a crucial part of who we are.

Or: we believe that whatever we do will never be enough to create security for our family (even when our physical needs are taken care of), and so we work hard, pushing ourselves past our own limits so often that before long, we have no sense of our own center in the midst of exhaustion.

Or: we hold this deep, unexamined belief that we are bad and wrong, so that whatever we do in the world, we tear ourselves down for not having said or done the right thing, self-editing into a static ball that allows no room for creativity or movement.

Over time, such internal battles can actually cause physical disease, as well as mental and emotional distress.

“It’s time that you won.” What does that mean? Does that mean you finally destroy whatever “demon” you’ve been fighting inside and glide along in peace for all of time? I don’t believe so.

“Winning” the internal battle is different from killing off the parts of ourselves we dislike. I actually don’t believe it’s possible to delete those parts. They are a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.

What is possible, though, is to sit with those elements that cause destruction within you, ask lots of questions about them (Where did this come from? What is this feeling telling me?), get to know them really well, and use them for creative purposes instead. There’s no formula for this. But the journey has something to do with honesty, and surrender, and looking for new possibilities.

“You have suffered enough.” What if your old, familiar internal nemesis could become your greatest ally? What then?

Sitting with Grief

I have witnessed many sources of grief this month:

An ended relationship, lost pets, a miscarriage, the Clayton Fire, the end of one job for a more desired one (yes, grief even there), the effects of a custody battle on a child, the failure of a long-hoped-for project.

I have also witnessed many sources of joy: garden harvests, vacation with friends, new loves, family reunions, visits among old friends, job promotions, unexpected gifts.

The grief rests alongside the joy, often more quietly. Yet, it is there.

When we lose something, our perspective on everything changes, and everyone responds differently to change.

A while back, I learned about the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, in which family members and friends come to sit with the mourner in their house. These visitors enter the home in silence and remain silent unless the mourner initiates conversation.

I love how this tradition honors the reality that loss has changed everything in a person’s life. It gives them the opportunity to sit in stillness (while embraced by community) and allow their eyes to adjust to how the world looks with this new lens on it.

Loss often brings disorientation. The grief can be so subtle and close that attempts at explanation seem to dishonor it. Any demand for sense or for a plan or to pluck up and move on seem impossible.

Gentleness here is key.

Yes, we are strong. Yes, we are survivors. And yes, we can also honor the shock that change brings to our psyches. The world is not as we once knew it to be; what will we do with it now?

The flipside of any grief is that it tells us there was love, or hope, or delight. That fact connects us to our own possibilities. The change that comes with loss offers the opportunity to see ourselves in a whole new light, which is always a gift.

If you hold a grief within you, I invite you to connect with how it feels and to allow some space and silence to be present with it. Perhaps ask someone you trust to sit with you. When we are simply present with what is (within and around us), we eventually discover incredible potential for the ingredients we now hold in our hands.

Leaf Eaters and the Power of Attention

Summer heat presses down on Lake County, politicians sling mud from one national convention to the next, kids soak up long days of vacation, and in my Cobb Mountain garden, the healing metaphors keep springing up left and right. If you’re up for a little sunflower saga, read on.

Lots of things demand my attention in the garden, especially this past month, when I aerated the soil with a spading fork, transplanted my late-started corn and amaranth and sorghum into beds, babied the transplants so they wouldn’t wither in the day’s heat, adjusted irrigation, tied up tomato vines, dead-headed dahlias, the list goes on.

With all this activity, my sunflower plants reached about two feet high before I noticed that they were being seriously chomped on.

As with most things I grow, I really care about these sunflowers. I had tried to order this rare variety last spring (Hopi black dye), but they were all sold out. Getting the seeds in the ground this summer fulfilled a small, but cherished yearlong hope. I only slated space for five plants, but those five plants are precious.

When I saw the large holes in their leaves, I flashed back to the last time I grew sunflowers, when the plants could barely keep ahead of whatever phantom pest chewed them. At six-feet-tall, the flowers bloomed, but under them stood sad stalks with skeletal leaf stems drooping. The perfectionist side of me is embarrassed to say that I never did figure out what was eating those leaves, never did take the time. I was busy learning the peculiar needs of other plants.

This year, though, I was caught up enough on everything else to pause and do some research. I mentioned the chewed leaves to my husband, and he said he’d seen birds munching away out there. I googled, “Do birds eat sunflower leaves?” and sure enough, goldfinches are notorious for the deed.

The next morning (earlier than usual), I got myself out to the garden and looked at the leaves again. A couple of white droppings hinted at the culprits. Then, to be sure, I sat still and just watched, unlike my normal garden bustle.

With my stillness, the birds returned that had startled when I walked in. Sure enough, they descended upon my five beloved Hopi black dye sunflower plants: a gang of tiny goldfinches, jubilant, fluffy, adorable, and systematically ripping the life off my plants.

Because I took the time to ask the question, seek help, and carefully observe this small corner of my garden, I was able to cover the plants in bird netting, leaving the finches free to play in the birdbath and hop about other plants, but keeping them away from what appears to be crack for tiny birds.

And here’s what leapt to my mind about healing: our bodies, our beings, our lives are much like my garden—a living organism with moving parts and much diversity. Oftentimes, it feels like it requires all our focus just to keep everything moderately balanced and alive. When a problem crops up in a tiny corner, it can be easiest to keep charging onward, letting the damaged part limp along behind, even as it causes us pain.

Over and over, I am amazed at what some quietness, some open questions, and some observation can do for physical, mental, and spiritual issues alike.

I judged myself a bit for not giving attention to the sunflower problem years earlier, and it’s common to feel shame about a problem we believe we should have already figured out. It takes courage and humbleness to really ask questions (What’s causing this? What do I need?), and to observe, and, if needed, to seek help from someone with another perspective. But those simple actions can help us see and change something that’s been right under our noses yet so far out of our reach. And that, my friends, is a freeing and empowering experience.

Imagine

When someone comes to see me for help with depression, an autoimmune disease, cancer, or anything else, I’ll ask what they want to create in their life.

A lot of people answer, “I just want to feel better.”
I’ll press them: “Anything else you want?”
“No, just to not hurt anymore, just to feel better.”

Now, this goal makes a lot of sense when you are in constant pain. However, I’ll often encourage this person to get in touch with something else they want, with the use of an undervalued tool: imagination.

We get imagination drilled out of us at an early age—most people don’t believe it is as valuable as hard work or logical reasoning. For the most part, we make grades in school for the latter two, not for dreaming up some fantastic creation. The same goes for earning a paycheck. We are usually paid to produce, follow orders, make manifest others’ dreams in someone else’s framework.

Of course, hard work and logic are invaluable skills, necessary partners to imagination. But imagination deserves more of the spotlight.

Let’s say you have cancer, and all you want is to feel better again. This is a worthy aim, but if this is your only goal, then you are still giving cancer a lot of your power. It’s the thing to overcome, to fight against, and when it’s gone, what will be the driving force in your life?

Why wait until the cancer is gone to decide that?

What if imagining what you want to do once you’re healthy could actually smooth and speed your recovery?

This imagining doesn’t have to be as big as a new career or remodeling your home. It can be as small as “I’d like to cultivate one close friendship,” or “I’d like to plant some lavender in my backyard,” or “I’d like to treat myself to fresh fruit every morning,” or “I’d like to learn to rock climb,” or “I’d like to play my old drum set again,” or “I’d like to take my grandkids on fun outings.”

Give your imagination some time to run free. Let it toss some crazy, impractical, childish dreams in the mix. Let it carry you to an idea that is sacred or beautiful or silly or hopeful for you. And then, let yourself really imagine what it would feel like to live that idea, with all of your senses.

Then, if you want a small challenge: choose one imagining and do one thing this week to move toward it. Buy a lavender plant or some peaches. Invite that potential friend over for coffee, or call the friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Check out a book or magazine about rock climbing. Make a date to take your grandkids to the pool.

There are so many things that threaten to wrap around and strangle what we might dream for our lives. Be aware of this, but dream anyway.

If you don’t have much energy, be easy on yourself: let your imaginings be as doable as the next breath of air. But still, let yourself imagine.

Sometimes, it’s been so long since you’ve imagined something new that you need a kick start. That’s okay—you can ask for help.

Listening to the song of that dream can often show you the next solid step in the dance with and through the illness you are facing. If you can allow your vision to expand to be broader than the painful grind of your current challenge, then you may be surprised by what options you see arise. And as you cultivate imagination with small things, you also strengthen your muscles to imagine and create larger things, like a life free of chronic disease or full of meaningful relationships.

Wherever you are today, I wish you a vibrant imagination, one that opens up your world.

Gifts in Garbage

Last fall, I set up my first well-researched compost pile. Rather than just throw all my food scraps in a heap and hope they’d eventually amount to something (as I’d done in the past), I studied the ideal ratios of carbon and nitrogen and built a pile accordingly, carefully layering dead corn stalks from last year’s harvest (carbon) and food scraps and green plant parts (nitrogen), with a little bit of soil in between.

All winter, that pile sat out in the elements at the end of our garden, scruffy and drab. This last month, I’ve been eyeing it from a distance. By this time, I’d expected everything to be broken down. But those corn stalks were still mightily intact.

Then, I remembered that everything doesn’t decompose at the same rate.

I decided to poke into the pile and investigate. When I did, I learned that, besides the corn stalks and some other fibrous matter, the pile had turned to delicious, deep brown, crumbly compost. I soon had the corn stalks separated out, with absolute glee that the pile had succeeded in creating rich nourishment for my seedlings out of last year’s trash.

What does this have to do with healing?

Well, as you may know by now, I’m a sucker for metaphors, and nature seems to offer them all the time. The death and waste of past seasons feeds the life and birth of this one.

My piled-up kitchen waste and dead plants did not look—or at times smell—pretty. However, in the end, the rotted stuff will support the long-term health of my garden’s soil and bring forth delicious food for my table. Likewise, the nasty, smelly, painful events from our lives often hold crucial insights and gifts that, if we claim them, can help us create what we truly desire. I believe that trying to pretend they don’t exist actually does us more harm than good. If I’d had all my food scraps and dead corn stalks hauled off to a landfill, my garden soil would never have seen the benefit of all that hard work it did to get them in the first place.

Most of us have this urge, I think, to stay away from the unsightly or uncomfortable. No matter how much I believe in compost, I didn’t relish the idea of sticking my hand (albeit gloved) into a slimy mound of partially intact food mush. However, it was my willingness to explore that pile that led to me to discover that time (and microbes) had transformed that trash into a treasure.

The same has been true for me in my own healing journey, and I’ve witnessed it again and again with my clients and friends. Sometimes we need to explore those piles of “waste,” those memories (and feelings about them) that hold the greatest discomfort or fear. Because they happened to us, these things arepart of our internal landscape whether we look at them or not. The beautiful thing is when we do decide to dig into them and really explore them with curiosity, we often discover that time (and fresh perspective) has transformed them into fuel for new life within us, perhaps even holding an antidote to the disease that ails our minds or bodies or relationships.

So: as the sun warms our earth into flowers and fruit, I also wish you good compost.