What I learned from the Retreat

This was written the day after the second day of the Courage and Renewal Retreat. Normally, when I post things I’ve written in my journal, I either edit them, or add material to explain some of the references.  Today I’m too tired.

From my journal for Sunday, November 22

I started yesterday feeling despairing.  No one tried to talk me out of it, they just listened without judgment.  We were told to wander outside, or inside, look at something, then turn around and look at something else.  Try to see them in a different way.  I looked at the various works of art hanging on my walls: Amazing Grace, the big green painting, the tiny sewn collages, Judy Brubaker’s turtle shield, the objects in my hanging box.  I took the pomegranate, thinking of the Armenians, and the forced marches into the desert.  Then we were to do 5 minutes of “spontaneous writing,” what I call “keep the pen moving” —> there’s a story: Laurie’s “two minute writing.”  The pomegranate pointed me to Persephone, and I wrote a piece that’s similar to one I’ve written before about my journey in the underworld.  Then they played a piece of music called “with my own two hands.”  What is there I can do for the world with my own two hands?  Teaching sacred dance and creating ceremonies is no longer an option.  Aging and chronic fatigue have made just getting through the day difficult, and I’m losing ground.  Unless I can find ways to nurture myself, things I can do that give back more energy than they take, I can’t possibly do more than I’m already doing.  What am I already doing with my own two hands?  I’m writing this journal.  And then typing it up.  And then, if it’s relevant, posting it to my blog.  This is my line in the sand.  I take my stand in my truth, and the only thing that can move me is truth itself.

I was thinking that it’s because I inherited money that I had the privilege of being in therapy, of living to write my story instead of killing myself or ending on the back ward of a mental hospital, filled with drugs.  But it’s also true that the “privilege” of wealth did not buy me a comfortable life, or only materially comfortable: enough food, a roof over my head, a reliable car.  I look at Eleanor’s struggle with the bureaucracy and see how it takes every scrap of her energy to keep going.  Finding help for healing is not an option for her.  But the truth is: I write in my journal, type it up, use it as raw material for my blog because I can’t not do it.  Even when I question what’s the point I don’t stop writing, typing, or posting.  I post the question.  I say yes, I’m in despair, this is what it looks/feels like for me.

When I realized that the loss of truth in the present crisis is what bothers me the most, that I have always let go of an old truth and gone for a bigger one whenever one came along, I saw that what I can’t forgive my mother for was her denial of the truth, her refusal to listen to the little IRNK inside that warns you, her drowning truth in alcohol.

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Persephone, revisited

from journal for Saturday, November 21

This was the second full day of the Courage & Renewal Retreat described in an earlier post:

We were told to wander around outside or inside your space, find things that are beautiful, find yourself seeing them in new ways.  On a shelf in my bedroom, I found a pottery pomegranate, given to me by a woman who researches and teaches traditional women’s ritual dances.  It was broken and glued back together. 

Pomegranate — Persephone cast her ear to the great below.  It wasn’t any rape by Hades, it was her choice.  She went down, down, under  — go down under and through — came from a dream, a powerful dream. so I went down and Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds while she was down there.  So Demeter searched for her daughter and while she searched and mourned nothing grew upon the earth.  The people began to starve.  So they went to Zeus and prayed him to make Hades give up Persephone —     o but that was the patriarchal version.  In the myth of Inanna, her angry sister killed her and she hung on the meathook until Ninshubur, her trusted secretary, one of the “essential workers”, knew what to do.  So the weird little hermaphrodite critters echoed the sister’s pain and brought Inanna back to life.  As she walked back up the road from the underworld, she gathered the tokens of authority that she had let fall.  I notice that the pomegranate was broken and glued back together but there was a piece missing — “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”  When she went down she was Kore the Maiden, but when she comes back she is Queen of the Underworld.  I have earned my PhD in PTSD.

The myth of Persephone has long been meaningful to me, especially when we started doing the Sacred Circle Dance Kore — a Greek word, meaning maiden, pronounced Core-ay.  I talk about it some way down in this post about the Grandmother Patches.

“There is a crack in everything..”  Words by Leonard Cohen, from a Hasidic tale about cracked vessels.

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From my journal for Friday, November 20

I wish I didn’t wake up in the morning feeling so tired and discouraged and meaningless.  “May all beings be held in lovingkindness.”  But I have no sense of love, or kindness, or the vast compassion Elizabeth Goudge talks about.  There are people dying of COVID and insisting it’s cancer.  People believing and spreading any number of lies and disinformation.  I guess that’s what hurts the most — the mangling of truth, of integrity.  I once vowed allegiance to the God of Love, even if the God of Power was stronger.  I suppose it’s time to renew that vow, even in the teeth of the evidence that Power is winning.  Of course, Power isn’t winning, because Power is destroying everything worthwhile, and it will all end in darkness.  I’m sitting here, physically comfortable and helpless to change the fact that the ship is sinking.  That’s what it looks like, right now, from here.

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Losing Ground

I’ve been losing ground since I first stopped changing the hangings at Neskaya eight times a year, for the holidays of the Ancient Nature Religion of Western Europe.  I didn’t even notice when that began to happen, I guess I was focussed on getting through one day at a time.  I was mostly spending my energy on healing from trauma, which involved three therapy sessions a week, and a lot of emotional pain.  At least I still had Neskaya across the road, exercise and yoga classes once a week, circle dancing once a week.  Kayla was teaching every other week, so that made my load less, but I remember when I began to just teach old favorites.  Dances I really knew well didn’t require any preparation.  I also did very simple centerpieces.  My spirits were still being lifted by two hours of circle dances.  I could start teaching depressed, and feel much better by break time.  So I think I didn’t notice that it was costing me more and more to teach.  The last time I taught, after I moved to Kendal, I was fine while teaching, but when it was over I almost fainted.  I could barely put food in her dish for my dog.  Fortunately, I was going back to spend the night at a friend’s house, and she took care of supper.

All the work of moving further exhausted me.  Fortunately I had help, and I didn’t have to sell the house right away.  Once I got here, I finally started paying attention to my therapist who kept saying “You are BEYOND the end of your resources.”  I hoped that being here, with meals provided, exercise classes, and no extra demands, that I could begin to recover.  I think I was starting to when I found that just having dinner with a bunch of friends, even if the conversation wasn’t particularly interesting, began to feel comfortable.  I think it was being so depressed for so much of my life that made me very uncomfortable with small talk.  Only meaningful conversation would engage me, otherwise I felt the time was wasted.  Erica pointed out that, as I recovered from having pushed myself unmercifully for most of my life, I began to be supported by ordinary things: ordinary conversation, ordinary hanging out doing not much, going to movies and concerts put on here in the community.

But alas, the pandemic stopped all those things.  No dinner with other people, no exercise classes, no movies unless you had a TV — actually I guess I could even watch movies online — at least we started doing Quaker Meeting on Zoom, so I still had that.  At first I was able to feel energetic connection while on Zoom.  But gradually it began to be apparent that I really need to be present with other bodies, other nervous systems.  When your own nervous system is dis-regulated, being with a calm person will help you calm down.  Because of very early trauma, I need this help on a regular basis.  Bessel Van der Kolk says that what heals trauma is “touch, rhythm, and movement.”  Folk dance, and then circle dance, have been doing this for me for years.

So now I am getting more and more tired, having trouble sleeping.  My body is beginning to hurt on a regular basis.  My brain often ceases to function when faced with even an ordinary task.  Today, even after a reasonable night’s sleep, I woke tired.  Walking Mocha I felt like I was a diffuse cloud, not something with solid muscles.  Instead of brewing a cup of decaf, I just heated up a cup of regular, brought back from the dining room last night.  That has kept me going during the half hour it’s taken me to type this.  I am feeling almost as without hope as I ever have.  What’s missing is the energy to feel really deeply.  I don’t know how I’m going to be able to keep getting through the day.

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Major Trigger

I usually type up my journal about one month later.  It often gives me some perspective that I didn’t have when I wrote it.  Recently I typed up this:

from October 14
The part of me that’s behind my inability to get that what I’m already doing — my inner work — is important, is a baby who needs food, and no one is coming, no one is acting, mother is taking care of herself and neglecting the emergency.

I have been going through a period of Election exhaustion and COVID exhaustion, but what I see here is the major trigger of the “leader” of a country whose people need food and medical assistance, but no one is coming, no one is acting, he (helped by his enablers) is taking care of himself and neglecting the emergency.  And I, poor fool, get triggered into a state of “false urgency” — imagining that I have to do SOMETHING because the ones with the power are failing to take responsibility.

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The “Gift” of Life

I am doing a Retreat with the Courage and Renewal folks. It’s called “Tending to Our Grief in Autumn” and is similar to the one I did in person in Burlington last January.  Except that this one had to be on Zoom, and the leaders were in Denver and New York City.  The schedule, instead of being a weekend, was a few hours on Friday, November 13, 6 hours on Saturday, November 14, and 6 hours on Saturday, November 21.

In one typical exercise we were given a poem and some prompts, asked to write or draw or whatever for five minutes, and then share in a small breakout group.  Here is the poem and what I wrote.

The Thing Is  by ELLEN BASS

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

From my journal for Saturday, November 14

Courage & Renewal Retreat:
Be present with who I am right now: exhausted, sad,
close to tears
Saying “Yes” to life     ??  It’s like God.   Love life even
when it’s hard
Write or draw: what roots you, sustains you?      anchors you

Right now?  well the Stivell an dro and the landscape of Lewis/Callanish.  But I’m really having trouble with the poem by Ellen Bass ending with saying “yes” to life. 

It feels like being asked to be grateful for the “gift” of life    — it wasn’t a gift.  It came to me smashed.  It came to me with the expectation that I would cure my mother’s pain.  I never felt that my life was mine to do what I want to with.  It felt like I had to prove that I deserved it.  That’s not a gift.  That’s a bribe.  And it’s a bribe to be something I’m not.  I refuse to do that.  I refuse to be the person my mother wanted. a sycophant, who would tell her how wonderful she was, praise and believe her lies, never ask anything from her.

I read the last paragraph to two young women with a lot of fierce anger.

“An dro” is a Breton dance.
My problem with the “gift” of life is the same as my problem with “God.”  With trauma conditioning, the Universe is malevolent, Life is meaningless, and the self is unworthy.

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From post for October 2003:

The pain in my heart is so great — there’s something about this deep level that’s so difficult.  I suppose because I’m so practiced at making myself wrong and turning away from this kind of pain.
Did my best to sit and breathe with it for 20 minutes.  It’s very painful.  I understand better why people will do anything — keep busy, drink, abuse children — to avoid feeling this kind of pain.  I think this is the “soft spot” that Pema Chodron talks about.  It’s like an unhealed wound.  Part of the pain is the vulnerability — too open and sensitive, feeling only cold hostility or indifference — desperately wanting to be safe and warm and comforted and not seeing any possibility of that.

“It’s like an unhealed wound.  Part of the pain is the vulnerability — too open and sensitive, feeling only cold hostility or indifference — desperately wanting to be safe and warm and comforted and not seeing any possibility of that.”

One thing I’ve been finding very helpful is to go back and read old blog entries. I can finally see is how far I have come, how much healing I have done.  This particular description, “too open and sensitive, feeling only cold hostility or indifference,” I realize now, is exactly how sensitive Baby Jenny felt when cold narcissistic Mom left her alone.

The last time I felt any vestige of that was in December 2019, when I went to sit with Little Jenny in the Pit, and the Pit began to crumble.

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Wisdom from my Younger Self

Reading my journal from decades ago, I am sometimes astounded at things I realized, that somehow got lost — I suppose because they didn’t fit my “worldview.”  Here’s an example:

June 24, 1992
I never wrote that yesterday, after the work with clay, I decided that it was time to face the mirrors.  I wore the walkman with the “mouth music” tape in it.  I just listened to the music, danced as I usually do, and then sneaked a look in the mirrors.  I was astonished!  I see now what the Journey women mean when they describe me as “boneless.”  And I see that my self-image is way out of date, or perhaps was never accurate.  I think of myself as skinny, angular, and tense, with all the energy in her head and shoulders, and no real connection between my upper body and my legs.  What I saw was a person who is very sensual and organic and fluid, whose body is full of energy and expressiveness.  I did some of the movements that I do when I want to dance lightly, thinking of them as subtle and not very obvious.  I discovered that they are highly visible and very beautiful.  Somehow I thought I had to make big movements for my gestures to be seen — that’s not true at all, my big movements are in some ways less successful.  I also really like having the mirrors give me feedback, I could see when my rear end is sticking out and remember to tuck it in which not only looks better but feels better too, more supportive.  What an amazing experience!

June 25, 1992
I shared with Daphne my experience in front of the mirrors.  She was touched, and she said that my dancing was powerful, vivid, sinuous, and muscular.  What wonderful words.  “Vivid” especially, and I can own it after seeing what my “subtle” movements look like.  And all this time I’ve been imagining myself as angular, bony, and invisible.

This was written during a time at a 5-day Contemplative Dance Retreat at Hampshire College.  Contemplative Dance is a different name for what is also called “Authentic Movement,” partly to honor the understanding that ALL movement is authentic.  It is very hard to lie with the body.  This version is taught by Alton Wasson and Daphne Lowell.  I think of my surprise at seeing myself in the mirror, very different from my idea of myself as “angular, bony, invisible.”  Usually when I see myself in the mirror, I don’t like what I see.  This is true even now.  I think of the 97 pound anorexic who looks in the mirror and says “I’m so fat.”  What we see is not what we “really” look like, if there is such a thing.  Maybe we look different to every person who sees us.

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What can I do with what’s left?

Today I had a really hard time.  Because of COVID, there are a number of offerings on the internet, talks, webinars, ongoing classes, all of which are of potential interest to me.  I start to feel overwhelmed, and then a sort of “false urgency” — that I’ve got to DO SOMETHING!  I don’t have any sense of which thing might be appropriate — O gosh I notice my language — “appropriate”  — according to whom!  Do I feel any desire of the “I want that one” kind?

I also have a practical issue, I should have some insurance that will cover me where Medicare doesn’t.  Since my health is pretty good, I don’t want something with a high premium, I’d rather have something with a low premium and a high deductible.  I talked to someone who recommended a particular plan, but also sent me a number of different plans.  But looking at them, I just got overwhelmed and confused.  It was like my brain just couldn’t think.  Part of it is that there are so many variables, and I don’t know what half of them are.  I feel a sort of frozen panic, and recognize “false urgency.”  I HAVE to pick the “right” one.  

I was in such a hyper-vigilant state that I couldn’t figure out what to do.  It might be a good idea to go outside, walk the dog, but I couldn’t move.  Find a way to CALM DOWN!!!!   Frantically trying to calm down.  But no energy.  Finally I lay down with the dog for comfort, and concentrated on breathing slowly.  Eventually I calmed down enough to take the dog for a walk in the rain, just the right thing to do.

What’s really horrible about this time of COVID, climate emergency, political idiocy, is the strong sense of MUST DO SOMETHING, and nothing I can do at the moment.  If I could do anything at all?  I’d be back at Neskaya, with energy to change the decorations, and to put together a series of dances that celebrate diversity, and the life-support system of the earth.  That would feel like the right thing to be doing, to be enacting the world we want to see right now.  But that’s not an option.  I’m too old, don’t have the energy, can’t take care of myself, need help just to survive.  And we can’t have dances at Neskaya right now anyway, unless with masks and social distancing.  Can’t imagine what that would be like.

So my other choice is to grieve.  Grieve the life that I never had enough energy to really live, grieve the suffering of so many people, creatures, and our planet.  But grieving properly needs the support of community.

What can I do with what I have left?  Thank the trees for taking my carbon dioxide and giving back oxygen.  Take care of my little dog.  Support my friends when I have the opportunity.  Use resources as carefully as possible.  Try not to become despairing that, because of COVID, my community is generating an enormous amount of waste that can’t be recycled.

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Pressure to “Prove that I Deserve to Live”

I’ve been reading through my journal from the beginning.  These two entries really impressed me as describing a dynamic which I have been coming to know well.  I have called it “keeping going through a blizzard” and “false urgency.”  It will be several years before I recognize that this push is related to the need to “prove that I deserve to live.”

My therapist at that time was Karen Collins, whose work focuses on the body, actually important for someone dealing with trauma, though I had no idea at that time.

From my journal for May 28, 1992

Therapy session.  Got to the necessity of creating safety for myself, and creating supportive structures, so I don’t get pushed into things faster than I want to go — so I don’t spend lots of energy resisting the pushing.  Supportive structures: discovered that using the timer to break my momentum/addiction at the computer (which isn’t good for my health not to mention my life) by allowing myself to work on Ritual Year for 30 minutes and then doing housework for 30 minutes is a supportive structure.  I do in fact enjoy choosing entries and editing them, I love it that editing is so easy on the computer, but I don’t get to enjoy it when I’m pushing myself to finish so fast.  And why do I push myself so hard?  Karen said it’s because I never felt safe enough to explore the whole process.

O. the tree that they tore up and left lying there with its roots exposed [enlarging the main crossroad of town].  I guess it’s dead now, I hope it’s dead.  It makes me so angry that they did that, a nice little maple, it could have been planted somewhere else, or they could have at least dug up a decent sized root ball — such a shame.  And I feel such pain thinking about it so it’s clear that I identify with it.  Uprooted just as the leaves were starting to come out — leaves just unfolding and roots grasping for soil, gasping for water.  Lying there exposed at the public cross road, people walk by and don’t notice, don’t care, don’t help, and it’s helpless to do anything, can’t walk to the river for water, can’t hide its roots in the cool dark soil but must lie there exposed to the merciless heat.  I feel so bad, so sad, I want to help but what can I do?  I have no place to put it, it’s a lot of work to dig a hole that big.  No tree rescue possible.  I’m helpless.  Step one.  I’m helpless and I’m so sad and sorry.  Give it up, let it go, give it back into the hands of the tree deva, it’s just a hair on the head of the total organism, let it go.

Safety, safety for myself.  This journal, this writing is a place of safety that I created for myself.  Keep the roots hidden, in the dark, near the springs of water.  Do not expose it too soon.  Need to let safety be the priority, everything else will come of itself.  Safety is the soil in which psyche can grow.  How do I keep this journal safe?  By editing appropriately, not giving it to people to read too soon, taking out parts I’m not comfortable with etc.  Also things like setting the timer for helping Alice, so I could still have time for yoga.

How can I create safety when the airplanes come?  That’s the hardest.  Music, fans, computer work.  And admitting that I’m powerless.  That’s all I have.  Not much.  A candle in a war zone.

May 29, 1992

Dana & Greg ripped out the cupola yesterday.  I was sitting at the computer trying to finish the corrections to Ritual Year so I could take the printed copy to Jan to read.  When a big piece of board all covered with roofing tar came crashing through and left black stains on the carpet, I realized it was too much and shut down the computer.  I was having too many feelings to be clear about them.  Part of me was really enjoying the destruction, the ripping apart, the opening up, starting to see the trees through the roof, then the sky and clouds, then feeling the rush of fresh air through the house.  Part of me was very upset at the invasion of my house, the dirt falling down inside, the boards sliding down the roof and landing in the perennial bed.  Part of me was denying that there was anything to be upset about and part of me was hard at work on the computer project.  So it felt like a real committee inside, a real jumble of feelings.

I told Karen about all this, and cried for a little.  I also felt angry that I couldn’t just enjoy the little boy glee of destruction.  Then I said I was having trouble with that intense push to finish the book, it was like it was pushing me faster than I want to go.  Sitting at the computer all day is not good for my body, it’s not good for my house, it’s not good for my life, and I don’t even get to enjoy the choosing and editing because I’m in such a hurry to finish.

I said I experienced the pressure as an intense wind, blowing endlessly in one direction, that I could resist it, and spend all my energy resisting, or lie down and spend the rest of my life flattened out.  Karen said something about trying to get to the flowering part of the cycle and forgetting all the rest.  Yes, there’s dormancy underground, and then the seed starts to grow, makes roots, makes stalk, makes leaves, then a bud, and finally a flower.  Then the flower droops and dries, seeds form and fall, and we’re back to dormancy again.  Karen said I had never felt safe enough to experience the whole cycle.  I was surprised that “safety” would be the critical factor, but she’s right.  The pressure to produce something that everyone can see as a valuable accomplishment must be an effort to ward off… what? criticism?  (now I see that it’s really an effort to get to the place where there’s nourishment in the form of positive feedback from outside.  As a child there wasn’t any support for daydreaming, fooling around, playing, woolgathering, doing nothing, etc, yet an artist must spend a long time in these dormant or low key states in order to gather enough energy to push out a work.  I think of that poor tree dying at the crossroads with its roots exposed, a sacrifice to efficiency.)

Comment from March 1993: Actually, I disagree now, it’s not gathering energy so much as allowing the work to form itself that requires a period of “dormancy”.

We worked on the feeling of being pushed by the wind.  Even if it’s pushing me where I want to go (because I do want to complete the book or books) how do I keep it from pushing me faster than I want to go.  I thought about flags: attached to a pole, it can play with the wind, and sails: a boat can use the wind to go in any direction, even tacking upwind is possible.  Then Karen suggested I take up a crawling position, facing the way I wanted to go, feeling the wind at my back.  My rear end felt incredibly vulnerable, I sat right down saying “No, I won’t.”  Then Karen leaned a big pillow against my back and leaned on it a little.  I was surprised that it felt very comfortable.  It felt supportive, not like the wind which could push me off my feet.  I said I needed to change the image, that it was more like a rule book, and I could take the parts I wanted and throw away the rest.  Karen started personifying my parents’ rules, saying things like “who do you think you are”  “you have to produce” etc.  I answered back: “I’m myself — I live by my own rules.”  She said “these are the rules, the way it’s supposed to be.”  I said “No, they are only your rules.”  Finally she said “You’re bad.”  I laughed and said “You can’t use that one to manipulate me any more — I’m bad, and it’s OK to be bad.”  Then she said “I’ll just take my book and leave,” and removed the pressure from the pillow.  I felt bereft, and realized that I needed some positive rules, a supportive structure.  So we discussed how I could create rules and structure that would promote safety in my life.  I suggested rules like: “It’s OK to have fun” each with its counter-rule like: “It’s OK not to have fun.”  Also I realized that using the timer to do 30 minutes at the computer and then 30 minutes of housework, to slow the momentum, was a very wise and clever thing I had done for myself.

Karen suggested I try the crawling position again, with the pillow representing structure that supported/protected my backside.  That felt good.  I realized that I felt safe to explore, to go sideways, to follow a meandering route toward that distant goal, to choose at any time to go somewhere else.

Thinking about it afterward, I realized that by discussing strategies for slowing momentum and creating safety, we had broken up the power of the wind.  It no longer seemed so continuous, blowing forever, but rather something that comes in gusts.  (Karen said something about waiting til the wind died down.  I said this wind is not the wind of nature, it will never die down.  Well of course the feeling of my childhood was always this enormous unending pressure to be somewhere, or someone, other than I was.)  I saw that when I tried to resist it, it was like holding up a sail and then that held the wind in place and I got stuck in a battle of resistance.  (Karen said that resistance was how I survived my childhood.)  But if I saw the wind as coming in gusts, then I could just lie down flat and let it bowl over me, and then get up and go about my business when it was gone.

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