Despite Very Little Joy, I Haven’t Quit, and I’m Not Alone

Slightly edited from my journal:

Monday, June 29

I had been looking forward to B talking about her spiritual journey.  I knew she had had a hard time in her life, and I was really hoping for suggestions for things I could do when I was having a bad time, or things that illumine the path.  But she didn’t talk about the bad times, only about when she felt joy.  

I told another friend I had been hoping for something that would help me in my struggle, and she responded in a way that really made me feel bad.  I can’t remember exactly what she said, because my feeling bad may have been my own judgement of myself.

Sitting here feeling like a complete failure and at the same time there’s a deeper knowing that that’s a misunderstanding.  Pieces of my journey all appear at once: the Chalice Well, the Ocean of Compassion — both experiences I had once, that could be recalled for a while and then faded into stories.  I felt that I had lost them, had failed to build them into my life, but perhaps they were built into a foundation that was deeper than I could perceive.  I guess what’s most discouraging is how long it takes, how the same experiences keep coming back again and again.

Also in my head is Julie Fowlis’ voice singing “O Sister, Beloved Sister” in Scottish Gaelic, and the animation of the two sisters.  The younger one gets wafted off by the fairies, and the older one searches for her until her hair turns grey.  She finally finds her younger sister, unchanged.  The younger sister takes the older one’s hand and starts to lead her.  They both morph into owls and fly away.  “Hair turns grey” brings back the line from Lost in the Stars:  “I’ve been walking through the night and the day, til my eyes get weary and my head turns grey, and sometimes it seems maybe god’s gone away…  and we’re lost out here in the stars…”  Pursuing my soul to the ends of the earth, with occasional glimpses.

I think of Ariel Burger quoting Elie Weisel: “The first moral choice is whether to look away or not.”  One thing I can say for myself, I have never looked away.  I have been ignorant, but as soon as something was brought to my attention, I was immediately on the side of the underdog.  I need to hear that even though I have struggled so much with darkness, still I have done some things right.

What I see is that I have been working hard to unfreeze my small bit of the whole picture, and that’s the best I can do, and it’s good enough, and my life hasn’t been wasted.  No sense of glory or joy or achievement, but at least a sense of “not-failure.”  A feeling of coming out of the freezing storm into a warm room, being welcomed by others, made to sit by the fire, given a cup of hot soup, and the soup tastes wonderful.  And finally really getting it that we are all engaged in a collective task, and these are my fellow soldiers and only now do I realize that they’ve been there all along.

Yes, I am a failure at living, unable to find and enjoy small joys.  And a failure at relationships, finding it difficult to sustain a conversation unless it’s about deep experience.  Unable to keep up with old friends because of severe depression.  But it doesn’t matter, it’s not important.  What does matter is that I’ve never quit, never let down those who suffered, never let down my fellow soldiers.

Tuesday, June 30

It was a day of ordinary pleasures.  It rained all day.  I typed journal and did puzzles.  Also listened to Julie Fowlis singing O Sister, Beloved Sister, and watched the animation.  I find it so moving.  Thinking about the image of the older sister growing old and tired while searching for the younger one.  The young one has been stolen by the fairies and remains young.  With those images in my mind’s eye, I see Aging Jenny searching through her journals to find Younger Jenny who has been stolen away by trauma.

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Trauma as a Warp in the Space-Time Continuum

I don’t usually write about these kinds of ideas.  My early journals are full of them.  Sometimes I wish there was some way of conveying them to a scientist who would be interested in investigating them.  That’s a part of my life that I might have done more with if I hadn’t had to spend so much energy and time working to heal the early trauma.

I have a friend who was in a car accident on her birthday.  It was a rear-end collision and she lost the baby she was carrying and ended up with PTSD.  Some years later, she had a similar accident, again on her birthday.  I couldn’t see any way she could have engineered that.  Sometimes people repeat an event, each time hoping to get it right, but this is different. In Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine describes a young woman who was in two plane accidents, twenty-five years apart.  The second accident happened on the other side of the same hill as the first. (p191)  Wondering about these incidents suggested to me the idea that trauma warps the space time continuum.

Recently I watched an interview with Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing, and Thomas Hübl, a mystic and spiritual teacher who works with collective trauma.  Peter tells a story of a conversation he had with Albert Einstein.  He said Einstein was really there, though he had died long ago.  Having had a similar experience, I had no problem with the idea.  Levine was asking about trauma that got passed down from generation to generation.  Einstein took him to a pond, carrying a yardstick with pebbles resting on it.  He tilted the yardstick so all the pebbles fell into the water, creating many series of concentric ripples.  Einstein said that’s how information is supposed to pass through the generations.  Indicating the places where the ripples cross, he said if something happens to fix the energy at this point, it distorts the whole pattern of ripples.

Fixed energy might be the description of personal trauma.  The event has overwhelmed the capacity of the organism to process it, the process has stopped. When the person is triggered in the present by something that recalls the original event, the person is suddenly back there then, stuck in the past. What the metaphor of frozen ripples is saying is that any unfreezing of any frozen place will help the entire field.

What I understand from this is that the “space-time continuum” is not limited to space and time. The freezing happens because of consciousness, so we have to call it the “space-time-consciousness continuum.” That means that consciousness is a foundation piece of our universe. To me that is totally comforting because it means that the universe is about becoming more conscious, and we do it together.  We struggle together, we suffer together, we learn together.

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The Oneness of Guilt and Pain

I watched this talk on Healing Trauma and Spiritual Growth with Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing, and Thomas Huebl, a spiritual teacher, and found it enormously helpful.  In fact I watched it twice.  I was struck by a story told by Peter Levine.  In his work in Germany, he worked with the child of someone who was in the SS, and also the child of someone who worked for the resistance.  Doing this work, they found out that their traumas were the same.

This story reminds me of something that happens in The Heart of the Family, a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, that takes place after World War II.  Sebastian, a concentration camp survivor, comes to work for David Eliot, and lives in his house.  Sebastian struggles with hate for David, who he sees as being successful in a world where children are starving.  David feels his hate and accepts it as something he deserves, because he is beginning to see his own faults and weaknesses.  Sebastian discovers that his hatred has its roots in his own enjoyment of success before the war, and is able to let it go.  He feels he must make reparation, so he tells David the story of how his wife and children died in the bombing of Hamburg.  David then says “Would it help if I were to tell you why you hate me? … I was a bomber pilot in that raid on Hamburg.”

Sebastian goes through an intense tumult of mind and spirit, and comes to understand his oneness with David.  “They were together in what they suffered, caught in this lunatic age that was not of their making.  Or had they made it?  While one of them harbored one thought of hatred, hugged to himself one moment of self-indulgence, they were not guiltless of the misery of these times.  Mutual guilt locked them together, as well as mutual sorrow.”  p313

Sebastian goes on to say “You saw far enough to recognize instinctively the oneness of men in their guilt.  I was able at one time to see the oneness of men in their pain.  Neither of us saw far enough to see the oneness of the guilt and the pain.” p315

The Heart of the Family was published in 1953.  She intuitively knew what Peter Levine discovered his work.  I read somewhere that one reason slaveowners treated their slaves so badly was that, deep inside, they knew they were wrong to treat a human being like an object.  I remember sitting with my mother one day, when she said “Jack says I was a bad mother.  But I was a good mother.  I took care of you little peeps…”  She went on to complain about Jack’s ex-wife, slurring her words.  I realized that she knew she was a bad mother, and her guilt made her reach for a drink so she wouldn’t have to feel it.  The tragedy of addiction is that it was the drinking that made her a bad mother.

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This is from my journal for May 1991.  It describes the process that Bessel Van Der Kolk called “Hijacking.”  “The big issue for traumatized people is they don’t own themselves any more.  Any loud sound, anybody insulting them, hurting them, saying bad things, can hijack them away from themselves.  And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully.”  Interview with Krista Tippett, in Becoming Wise, p88.

I wrote this journal piece years before I got on medication, and before I discovered I had been traumatized.

Talk with Dana last night about the problem of fear and not feeling that I own my own life.  He reminded me of the time on the ski lift when I said “This won’t do” and ended my acrophobia forever — at least on ski lifts.  He said I had to do something analogous with my life, to claim it, to take it back, and to be willing to risk anything to do so.  That sounded exactly right to me, and at the same time I felt terrified at the prospect.  I see that this is something that I must do, and at the same time that I have no idea how to go about it.  Dana said “what have you got to lose?” but the fear that I would lose something infinitely important is so great.  What am I so afraid of losing?  I think about other situations where I have asked “what is the worst that could happen?”  I could lose $1000, I could make a fool of myself, no one would sign up …  and if the catastrophic expectation is finite, I see that I could handle it, could survive it.  Or if the catastrophic expectation is physical death, I’m even willing to risk that.  But in this, there’s some level of fearing that I will lose something that I’m not willing to risk.  What can that be?  I think of the time that I was working with Phyllis and she moved a pillow toward me saying it was my mother and I scrambled away in extreme terror, I felt that she could destroy me somehow, something worse than death.  What is this part of me that I feared she would destroy?  Only spiritual language will do — it’s the soul, it’s my self, my identity.  Would I risk my life to save my self?  I would like to think that I would, but I fear that I would not.  But that was the choice I was faced with as a child, and I didn’t have my life to risk it, my life, my physical survival, was dependent on my parents, how could I chose to give it up in order to save that intangible “self”?  So I gave up my “self” — what I wanted and what I knew — in order to placate them, and then felt that I had betrayed myself.  and then felt that I had freely chosen to betray myself, so my identity becomes that of a person who would betray what is most dear — I am a collaborator with the enemy.  How can I own myself, or even want to own such a miserable creature.  But that is not who I am, I am not a self-betrayer, I did not do that freely.  It’s analogous to feeling turned on by stories of rape — that is a result of early conditioning for which I was not responsible.  It is not true that I want to be raped, but that is what it feels like from inside.  When it is so deep and so basic, how does one get free of it?  where is the “I” who knows she does not want to be a victim?  When I did that structural consulting session with Dana, he had an image of me sitting there sullenly, eying a “carrot” that my family (parents) held out to me.  The carrot was their approval, and consequently my self-esteem, but I could only get it by being the person they wanted me to be and not by being myself.  What a double bind: if I choose myself I am made wrong, but if I choose what they want my “self-esteem” is spurious because it’s not based on who I really am.  That’s the source of the self-betrayal.  Many thousands of times of choosing what I wanted and then feeling wrong and bad because they were angry and rejecting, many thousands of times of choosing what they wanted and then feeling wrong and bad because I knew I had betrayed myself.  No matter what I choose I feel wrong and bad, and I have no way to tell which choice is mine, and which is to please them.  This is my life.

And what if you did collaborate?  What if you did betray yourself?  Surely this is not final, surely it is possible to say “I was wrong, I take it back.”  St. Joan recanted her voices, and then rejected the recantation, even though it meant death by fire.

How can you risk what you do not have?  That’s the other double bind in this business: how can I risk what I don’t own?  How can I risk my life to claim it again?  And how does the person in the city under the bombers “risk” their life?  It’s a real different proposition from going into battle where you are fighting actively for what you believe in.  What happens when you have to wait passively for destruction, and can’t fight back, and can’t do anything to save yourself except hide in a bomb shelter all the time?  Then daily living itself becomes actively fighting for what you believe in.  This is my life.  A soldier under fire as I make my cup of tea, write in my journal.  Perhaps that’s why it means so much to me to have the little book of poems that went through the war with Dad.

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Is Sorry Enough?

From my journal for May 25, 2020

Kesaya Noda sent the Hanover Meeting listserve a link to a piece by a doctor who’s working on the Navajo Reservation.  It’s an apology to a baby girl he delivered, wearing a mask and gloves and blue plastic robe.  He apologizes for the unnatural circumstances of her birth, because of the lack of appropriate resources — clean water for hand washing — due to the broken capitalist system.  He apologizes because the baby doesn’t even get the traditional welcome and comfort that she would have had in an unbroken tribal system.  I cried by the time I got to the end, but it was a relief to cry.  I’ve been carrying the pain of the unfairness that we rich white people sit here comfortable and protected and bored, while the poor and dark-skinned are dying, and the ones who really keep us alive, health workers and farm workers and grocery employees, are risking their lives for us.

I did spend a lot of time yesterday doing lovingkindness for those who were dying alone.  And I feel angry as I throw away endless pieces of one-use plastic, and biodegradable food containers plus uneaten food that can’t be composted — not sure why, something to do with quarantine.  Meanwhile they’re pumping oil out of the ground, but don’t have any place to put it.  Full tankers sit in harbor, because rich folks aren’t driving their cars.

I guess a combination of anger and grief and frustration and helplessness is entirely appropriate.

We are seeing the failure of all the systems we’ve built up and depend upon that have separated us from the real source of our life, and are destroying the real source of our life.

This is the day that George Floyd was murdered, but I didn’t find out for 5 days.

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Abandonment Trauma

In yesterday’s post I notice the words “nothing”, underlined, and “annihilation.”  I’m simply unable to describe how it actually felt, and in fact, right now, I don’t remember how it felt.  Can’t recall it.  It’s such a total disappearance of “me.”  This is the experience of a baby, with undeveloped brain and nervous system, no concept of me, you, death or connection, feeling completely disappeared.  It used to include frozen terror, but that was before I knew what it was, knew that it was my experience as a baby left alone.

This has also been described as a spiritual experience, but I think that that experience is nothing like mine.  The spiritual experience of losing “myself” — I believe — is one of realizing that you are much bigger and entirely different from who you thought yourself to be.  Also not experiencing yourself as alone, but instead as all there is.

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Being Unmet

from my journal for Wednesday, May 20

I was feeling really awful yesterday.  It was like I had lost all the spiritual connection I’ve felt over the past months.  Somehow I was able to trust that it was real, it was still there, even though I couldn’t feel it.  Erica was a huge help.  She said she heard in my voice a weariness, not physical but emotional.  Trying out words she said “being unmet” and that resonated.  I realize that in some ways I have never been met.  I thought Dana met me, but then he failed to stay with it, he cut the connection.  Jalaja met me, she saw who I was, and perhaps she also saw that I couldn’t see it.  Yes, being unmet is a lifelong pain.  

So then, when Erica talked about the part of me that had to erase the experience of connection in the silence, because the experience of deep connection, of “refuge” as Erica said, is founded on a healthy mother-baby connection.  That is what I should have had and didn’t get.  The pain of that not-getting is so great, that the part of me that protects me has to erase it completely.  I end up in that terrible blank space where there is nothing.  Erica said “annihilation.”  Exactly.

She used the word “pendulation” and initially I thought she was wrong.  Pendulation in Somatic Experiencing is moving deliberately back and forth between the resource and the trauma.  There’s nothing deliberate about this.  I gain the resource — Divine refuge — or maybe it is even granted to me by grace — and then my own dissociative defense whips me away from it and into the center of the wound.  I had noticed that each time I had a new spiritual realization, I would later find myself more completely lost in the traumatized baby state.  (Jalaja: “the depths to which you are journeying”)  I failed to see that it’s a mechanism I’ve long been familiar with.  When you complete a healing step, you feel great for a while.  But because you are now stronger, tougher layers of the wound rise up to be dealt with.

Something else that happened yesterday was reading in Radical Acceptance, where Tara talks about how it would be hard to feel compassion for a murderer, a CEO whose company pollutes the Earth, a child molester.  I immediately felt compassion for the murderer and the molester because I know they were both acting out of pain.  It’s a little harder for the polluting CEO, but I am starting to see that money and power addiction is caused by a hole inside that can’t be filled by the material world.  And that these people are not happy, contrary to the myth that money and possessions will make you happy.

So yesterday, after talking to Erica, I stopped paying attention to emails and let myself do puzzles and listen to sacred harp music.  Erica had used the words “weariness” and “fatigue” as she was trying to describe the quality of my voice.  I think I’ve been suffering from “compassion fatigue” — no, it’s not compassion fatigue but empathy fatigue.  I don’t need to read about the pain in the world to feel it.  It’s more tiring and frustrating because there’s not much I can do about it.  I did send two small contributions along with a prayer to causes I really want to help.

The sense I’ve been getting lately is that the best use of my gifts is to send compassion to the “bad guys,” to Trump and his cohorts.  I’m reminded of a quote from Elizabeth Goudge:  “Some expiation is made in experiencing suffering, but none at all in the infliction of it.”

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Coalesce, Confluence, Confusion…

Books I’ve been reading, recent news, posts on the internet, images that come to mind…  all have been coming together in a pattern, or almost a pattern, or maybe an almost combination that’s con-fusing…   To me, con-fusing suggests melting together, dictionary says put two things together that don’t belong, dis-order.  It’s all very confusing.  Perhaps my mind is treating things more as images than as intellectual words.  Or perhaps I’m slightly triggered and my neo-cortex is offline.

Carol Lee Flinders, in At the Root of This Longing, points out that rape & murder of little girls is done by psychopaths, but they are allowed to do it by a culture of male dominance that uses them to keep women “in their place.”  She talks about mothers cautioning and being protective of their daughters.  I immediately remember the video of Black parents trying to explain to their little boys how they need to behave around police.  I know that racism is also a consequence of a dominator culture.  As is colonialism and exploitation of the earth.  It’s a little scary how many different systems are part of it, and how deep the conditioning goes into our psyches and nervous systems.

Carol Lee Flinders talks about the luminous vulnerability of little girls on the cusp of womanhood, age 12 or 13.  She also describes the rape and murder of 12-yr-old Polly Klaas in her community.  She quotes from Tony Hillerman’s description of a kinaalda ceremony in which the Navajo/Dine celebrate a young woman’s menarche.  A completely different type of culture.

I think of young men on the cusp of manhood.  No ceremony of going into the wilderness for 3 days of solitude and prayer for a dream that gives direction for their lives.  No.  Our “initiation” into “manhood” is older boys bullying them and turning them into bullies.  They aren’t men at all, only wounded boys who swagger and hide their wounds so deeply that even they don’t see them.

One of the more beautiful examples of how our culture is ruled by “Boys” is Gina Loring’s “Walking Prayers.”  It also shows how what we have been conditioned to think of as “beauty” is in fact “glamour” as suggested by John O’Donohue, in a talk with Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, pp75-78  He says “True beauty is what makes you feel more alive.”  There are wonderful examples of that at the end of this short video.

My own experience at age 12 was that my father came into my room when I was in bed and started feeling my breasts.  I pretended to be asleep, groaned, and rolled over and he left.  The last time I recovered that as an actual memory (now it’s a story) it contained the feeling “o no not this again.”  I knew there was no point in saying anything.  But since then, I have never been able to sleep on my back.  Because I saw my father not as a “real man” but as a “petty tyrant,” I learned that I was only good enough to be molested by losers.

At the same age, I remember feeling “that twilight feeling.”  It happened at our summer house in Maine.  Mom & Dad would go out for a cocktail party and dinner.  I would be left to feed 7 year old Jack, 6 year old Josephine, and 4 year old Jesse, and get them into bed.  I remember figuring out how to cook hamburgers by burning the first batch.  Once the younger kids were in bed, I would be essentially alone in the empty house while dusk fell.  I remember looking out a window into grayness and seeing my life stretching out in grayness ahead of me, my only value in taking care of someone else’s children.

I saw my father’s action as the reason I couldn’t have sex with my husband, and “that twilight feeling” as my first experience of depression.  It was years before I realized that not only was I abused and exploited, I was traumatized.

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Working on Trusting Myself

From my journal for May 18, 2020

Crashed rather badly yesterday.  Not even sure what it was.  Well, there were a number of things.  Spontaneous Evolution was in a place that made me see how big is the danger that we will destroy ourselves and our planet.  I was sent a link to David Martin who is interviewed in a beautiful documentary, and who seemed to have an amazing spiritual understanding.  He has a web page.  He turns out to be an advisor to big financial institutions.  I had a moment of complete doubt.  So I think these things prepared me to be badly triggered by what happened at Quaker Meeting on Zoom.  When I joined there were about 8 people, shown by black boxes with their names.  I joined with video, and it felt odd to see my face when everyone else was blank.  Some people had photographs of themselves as place holders — I don’t know how they do that — but no one else was live.  I began to feel very alone and exposed with all those blanks — O gosh, I see it!  It’s what I experienced as a baby, what I always got from Mother.  Token presence, but no one really there, certainly no vulnerability, no warm response.  That’s what happened.  Triggered into a frozen baby.  At some point, late in the meeting, someone talked about how the technology was messed up.  That helped a little.  I finally left the meeting — I had been reluctant to do it — perhaps some sense of letting others down, and also wanting to support the practice of meeting even tho there was no connection for me.

I talked to Karen.  I said I was flattened like a balloon.  She said she felt like a lot of people had hit a sort of wall in their ability to cope with strictly shutting down because of the pandemic.  When it started, we didn’t think it would last this long.  We won’t be ready to open up again because the government didn’t use the time to create more tests and more protective equipment.  Some places that have opened up have experienced a new surge of cases, but some places, Trump influenced, will probably not post the information.  Bad news all around.

I wasn’t able to talk to Dulany until we walked the dogs at 4:30 and that’s when I was able to find out that she also saw only herself on Zoom.  She said Suzanne set up a new Zoom for Business and it went fine.  I told her how I felt exposed, she said paranoia wasn’t part of PTSD.  At that point I still didn’t understand why I had been so badly triggered.  It felt really good to be outside and with Dulany.  She wanted to know why business meeting was “not my thing.”  I said something about the blankness I had experienced around conducting meetings of the book group.  She said that’s just fear ahead of time, then you did OK.  I wasn’t sure, hadn’t experienced myself as “doing OK.”

But I kept thinking about it and realized the issue had to do with trusting myself to say the right thing in the moment.  When I teach dance — I think about some of those early times when I had put together a program and for some reason it wasn’t appropriate.  That was in the folk dance days.  I found that I could improvise a program just fine.  And I always felt competent to talk about astronomy when teaching, to point out the constellations when the weather cooperated.  But leading a book group was a new experience and I was right in the middle of the huge transition from figuring it out to trusting myself to improvise.

Whew!  That’s where this discipline of writing is so useful for me.  It has really helped me see what was going on by writing about it.

What I haven’t managed to write about was how bad the crash was.  I felt totally helpless and apathetic.  No idea what to do to pull me out of it.  No motivation for even trying.  There was a part of me that knew that I’ve been here before, that it’s OK to crash completely, that even without making an effort I will come out of it.  I realize that I gave Karen an alternate image of bread dough.  It’s been punched down, but the yeast is working and it will puff up again.  I see that my intuition found the correct metaphor for the process.  Again, I can trust myself.

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Frozen Terror from PTSD

I was amazed when reading through my journal for 1991 I found this:

from Journal for April 25, 1991

I have been printing out copies of Ritual Year to send to people. When I glance through it, and see things like “Rape of an Infant” or “Gemstone and Wings” or “Mother abandoned me” — then I hear mother saying “Nothing like that ever happened to you. Who do you think you are? How dare you say these things?” When I go outside I feel like everyone hates me, I feel hostility coming at me from every direction. Then my muscles all tighten up, I feel incredibly tense and dead at the same time.

OK describe how I feel — trapped and yet exploding. at some vast distance from myself  I want to scream, run through the streets tearing off my clothes, piss on the Village Green. In my body I feel like I’m encased in a suit of armor, the muscles are tense, I feel pressed on, held down by weights, strapped in — yes, I imagine this is what a person in a strait jacket might feel like. I don’t feel alive in my body at all, I feel like my body is dead, clogged, compacted, pressured, and then animated by prickly electrical energy. So I can’t truly rest when I sit still, and I feel too weak and frightened and scared to try to move vigorously. And what would I do? I could hardly stand being outdoors with the dog. I can’t imagine going out again and trying to do anything. I feel a lot of pressure on my neck, like I’m being strangled, I can feel the pressure mounting in my head. Also I’ve been dizzy a lot lately.

“Ritual Year” was a project I was doing of compiling my most powerful writings into a sort of calendar, one piece for each day of the year.

We had just started doing Journey Into Courage.  I’m concerned that the planes are about to start flying.  I’m feeling a lot of tension from the stress of my life at this time.  I had no idea I was severely depressed and struggling with PTSD.

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