This is a writing I did in a workshop with Deena Metzger, in February of 1996.  I love the assignment to “think of all the ways someone has tried to fix you, told you who you are or who you should be.” I found it great fun to write, and very illuminating to read now.

Proteus (Son of Ocean & River Goddess) is “son of water.”  Image of river, constantly flowing and changing, evaporating and being replenished.  Proteus was an oracular god — you had to catch him to get an answer.  He can change his shape — to hold him you must keep changing how you hold on.

“There are only two questions we can ask of an oracle: Who am I? and Where am I going?”  Proteus gives the answer at the moment — if it stays the same, it’s no longer true.  “We are Proteus.  We want to get out of those hands that grip us, that fix us.”  Imagine you are Proteus, and think of all the ways someone has tried to fix you, told you who you are or who you should be.  How did you slip out?  What is the elaborate and fluid camouflage to hold on to your identity/ to keep our valid? authentic? self

Mother told me I was selfish.  I withdrew, became invisible, refused to engage.  She tried to get me to fight her and I wouldn’t do it.  They gave me a deb party, I became a Bohemian, wore black, wrote poems in the attic.  At first I thrived on developing my intellect — how I escaped the stultifying boredom of my parents conventional social lives.  By the middle of college I was finding the study of science too confining, I got into theater, took art classes.  Went to Europe in a burst of escape: I will not be confined by Midwestern bourgeois background.  Oldest sister, baby sitter: I chose not to have children.  Men tried to use me for sex: I retreated into celibacy.  Fellowship at Stanford, career track: I dropped out, tried drugs.  But the “hippie” culture couldn’t hold me either, I refused to get lost in drugs.  Searched for meaning and found it in saving the environment.  Lest I get caught giving my life to some cause, I engineered a breakdown.  This forced me back to the East Coast.  Depression took me to the bottom, and I discovered spiritual practice.  The “quiet, tidy, polite” Zen model became too confining, feminist consciousness exploded me out of there.  Refusing to be fixed by the idea of intellectual, I began to work with my dreams.  Feminism and the left-hand side of the psyche became new territory for exploration.  I refused to be trapped by more sociological and political forms of feminism — went right past them.  House in Brunswick, life as a single woman: met Dana & decided to go with him.  Dana has never tried to fix me, has always pointed out ways I try to trap myself: i.e. “artist.”  I eluded “writer” by giving up the idea of publishing.  I eluded artist by never getting too good at anything, by practicing the expression of the moment instead of working toward a goal.

This was followed by a shorter version:

But the career track couldn’t hold me, I dropped out and became a hippie.  But the drug culture couldn’t hold me, I became an environmental activist.  But political activism couldn’t hold me, I became psychotic and depressed.  But depression couldn’t hold me, I became a Zen monk.  But Zen discipline couldn’t hold me, I became an angry feminist.

At the time they were happening, I saw these things as “defeats” rather than a choice to get out of something that wasn’t working and try something else. When Dana and I got divorced because he had found someone else, I was able to set up Neskaya as a non-profit, so I could create an endowment fund. I was happy teaching Observational Astronomy.  I was very happy creating Sacred Circle Dance programs for Neskaya. But because I couldn’t manage on my own, I moved to Kendal. Then COVID happened. It was a good thing I was at Kendal, it would have been a disaster to be alone in my house. But since COVID, the social distancing has kept me triggered by my early trauma. So I am anxious and uncomfortable most of the time.

And now, where am I going?  Who am I? I have no idea. And there’s nowhere else to go.

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Grief that’s Unable to be Mourned Because the Loss is Not Recognized

From my journal for May 15, 1994, posted on April 23, 2022

I feel empty and heavy inside, back to the bombed-out house, carrying the burden of grief.  Standing on the sidelines, watching the enormous pageant of life-and-death — clouds, chickadees, hemlocks, mountains — and where is the life that’s on the other side of all this dying?  It’s not death that’s the problem, I can see the life that’s on the other side of death, lit with eclipse light, bright grass streaming in the wind, death is pageant and beauty and the edges of things, sudden violent storm, rainshower and then sun gleaming again.  What I’m feeling is not death, not grief for a clear loss, but the heavy dull frozen pain of invalidation, of grief that’s not allowed to mourn because the loss is not recognized.

I would rather be out in the sunshine, digging my hands in dirt and planting seeds, I would rather be organizing my house or writing a book, I’d rather be washing dishes or doing production sewing or reading a mystery novel, than hanging out with this dull pain, which I can’t seem to express or give articulate voice to, which never resolves and never changes.

Actually, that’s not true.  It is changing, but so slowly over such a long period of time.  And it does periodically “resolve” into an outburst of tears, and then I feel better for a time.  I wonder about someone whose life was cut in two by an accident that left them crippled, if they also have periodic bouts with grief, if after a while they too have to struggle with invalidation: it happened a long time ago, you’ve accepted it, no use making a fuss now, pull yourself together.  But at least if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, no one, including yourself, can pretend that the accident didn’t happen.  And you don’t imagine that you could just run up a mountain if you would only use a little will power.

I’m describing the loss that Francis Weller describes, a loss that is difficult to grieve, because it’s hard to see the loss as a loss.  It’s seen as a defect.

Quotes from Francis Weller:“the places never touched by love” “These neglected places of soul live in utter despair. What we feel as defective, we also experience as loss. The proper response to any loss is grief, but we cannot grieve for something that we feel is outside the circle of worth.”  “We anticipated a certain quality of welcome, engagement, touch, reflection … communal rituals of celebration, grief and healing that kept us in connection with the sacred. The absence of these requirements haunts us… ”

It’s sort of scary how well this describes how I’m feeling right now. Struggling with the pain in my knee that does seem to be getting better, but so slowly. I see that I’m imagining I “could just run up a mountain if I would just use a little will power.”  I think I must be minimizing what I’m up against: early trauma triggered by being too much alone, plus a lot of dysfunctional learnings from my parents.

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1996: Description of Very Early Trauma

From my journal for February 5, 1996

I’ve been trying to live as though I were going to die soon, and of course that brings me right back to the present moment, to being in the present as much as possible.  But the present is no escape from the pain and fear that come from no source that I know of.  It feels like everything is contaminated by the fear of death and meaninglessness.  I think of the Zen tale of the man hanging off the cliff by a vine that is being nibbled by mice, at the foot of the cliff is a hungry tiger.  Near him a strawberry is growing and he plucks and eats it — and enjoys it.  He’s so completely in the present moment that the taste of the strawberry is not contaminated by the fear of doom.  But I feel like my life has been contaminated by something that’s already happened and that can’t be changed.  There’s no growth, no forgiveness, no transformation possible.  I feel like an infant whose mother has said “You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”  What am I to do?  I can’t leave, I’m truly dependent and helpless.  So of course I live my life trying to be as independent as possible, trying so hard not to be a burden to anyone.  And feeling that it’s too late to redeem myself, there’s nothing I can do to make myself “worth” the trouble Dana takes for me for example.  It seems that he should be in charge of deciding that, he seems to think I’m worth it.  But I can’t take it in.  And, in fact, I think I defend myself against it because it would be too painful to take it in and then have it vanish.

“the pain and fear that come from no source that I know of.”   “my life has been contaminated by something that’s already happened and that can’t be changed.  There’s no growth, no forgiveness, no transformation possible.”  This is such a brilliant description of what PTSD feels like.  In 1996, I still have no idea what happened to me.

Some of this — “too late to redeem myself” — is also from the fact that my mother never forgave me for anything.

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1996: Work with Conflicts

From my journal for February 5, 1996

I wanted to write down the number of conflicts I’ve been experiencing:

MOVEMENT <—> STILLNESS     I know that exercise is important in combatting depression.  I’ve found that getting up and moving often eases that frozen state.  It’s hard to do things like yoga and continuum because it’s hard to be with myself.  I don’t want to jump up and run away from the pain, but to try to be there for myself, be at least a witness if I can’t comfort myself or make it change.

“That frozen state” is a consequence of trauma. If one cannot fight or flee (the state of a baby) the reptilian default is “freeze.”  I describe it beautifully, but I have no idea what I’m up against.

CORRECT DIET <—> COMFORT     I no longer know what’s OK and what’s not OK to eat.  In the past, tightening up my diet seemed to help make me feel both mentally and physically better. But this fall, it didn’t work at all.  Now I’m starting to feel that being so strict about food is counter-productive.  But I don’t know, and there’s no way to know.  I have experience of too many headaches resulting from white enriched flour and/or sugar to make those an attractive proposition, but as for avoiding dairy, corn, meat, etc, I’m not sure it’s worth it any more.  It would be easier to decide if I had an actual craving for something.

Now I think that the issue of trauma is confusing things. It may have an impact on what’s safe to eat that I don’t even know about.

DIGNITY <—> DISCHARGE      I’ve been holding up the ideal for myself that I should behave with dignity, that I’ve done plenty of crying in front of my friends and it “hasn’t done any good” — doesn’t make me feel better, gets them upset.  I’ve been thinking that if I were going to die I would not want to poison my last days with a lot of negative emotions.  But today on my walk it occurred to me that “dignity” describes what it looks like from outside.  “Dignity” is one of my mother’s values, it’s a form of “looking good,” and, when I lay it on myself, it’s form of trying to keep my pain from inconveniencing someone else, i.e. Mom.  I have decided that when it comes down to a choice between dignity and truth, I chose truth.  And though I would like to spare Dana my pain, I can’t do it by pretending I’m OK, he cares enough about me and is sensitive enough that he sees right through my pretence.  Mother, on the other hand, wants me to pretend, and is perfectly satisfied with the most minimal version because it doesn’t make any demands on her.  So I think I’ll throw out “dignity” as a value to live by.

Neither hiding my pain nor expressing it will work to help me heal. I need to be doing something like Somatic Experiencing where I allow my body to discharge the trauma energy.

On the other hand, I do want to be able to create some spaciousness around my pain — as Stephen Levine describes there’s a way of having pain “float” in the spaciousness.  This is not something I’ve been able to achieve, but it appeals to me.  It seems to be a way of staying with the truth of my pain and bearing witness as I want to do.  This means I can’t get all wrapped up in the pain, involved with expressing it, I have to stand back a little, keep quiet, give it space.  Sometimes I feel that trying to discharge the pain by crying, screaming, getting upset, is really just another way to try to escape it.  Yet I know that actual discharge can help release muscular tension.  So I come back to discharge when appropriate, i.e. with Karen, and sometimes with Dana what I know what to ask for.  Exploring and witnessing the pain is something that I need to do alone, not something I can do easily with other people around.

Before I can really begin to work on healing the trauma, I need to know that’s what I’m up against, I need to get on medication so the effects aren’t too strong, I need the help of a trauma informed therapist.

DISTRACTION <—> STAYING WITH THE PROCESS     Actually, I think distraction has ceased to work.  I’m thinking back to when I first went skiing and it was such a lift.  Also visits with people that seemed to help for a time.  But now the distraction effect only works while I’m actually doing the thing, and I can’t ski or visit all the time.  Then the relief of distraction only makes the down time worse.  On the other hand, as with food, I’ve haven’t seen any real advances from “staying with the process.”  I think I’m worse now than I was in November.  Well, I remind myself that I don’t have any idea how long it will take.  And I would stick with see clearly, true to myself, and bear witness even if there were no improvement.  So I’m back to that bottom line.

It surprises and impresses me that I have something to hang on to even when nothing is working.  See clearly, stay true to myself, and bear witness to the pain.

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Help from Inner Teacher

Dear Inner Teacher, I’m feeling lost, confused, disconnected, uncomfortable, irritable.  I really need some help!

Dear Jenny, relax.  Your meditation of imagining a prostration on the out breath, of emptying your self, or demonstrating “Thy will be done” — with the complete surrender of your body —  This is a great practice.  Go ahead and keep doing it.  Yes, the Divine is using you to help the world, you don’t need to do any more than what you are already doing.  As you suspected, your uncomfortable feelings are being picked up from others.  You tend to think that everyone else is doing fine and you are the only one stumbling around, but it’s not true.  You live in a culture where many people — especially those who are wealthy and upper class — are busy “looking good” and doing their best to tamp down their discomfort into denial.  These are exactly the conditions under which a sensitive person like you picks up all the denied feelings.  The times are very difficult with ongoing war, global warming, destruction of the environment.  Your job is to bring  compassion to yourself and to the discomfort of all who are not feeling appropriate feelings of fear and anger, but instead feeling the denial of these feelings which is the very uncomfortable irritable feeling that you pick up and find very unpleasant and unfamiliar.  It is not something you feel because you have always preferred to face the truth.  Dear one, you are doing just fine for the world you love.

Thank You.

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Self-pity, Anger, Compassion, Gratitude

This morning as I walked Mocha in the bitter cold, my knee aching, she turned back very quickly, and pulled, which I find so difficult.  I started feeling sorry for myself, then I got angry at myself for self-pity, then I stepped into the witness and found compassion for Jenny.  Then I reminded myself that there are others out there who struggle with pain that limits them, old women living alone, perhaps, who aren’t lucky enough to be in a place where someone else does the food, cleans the room, changes the sheets.  I feel grateful for the help and the companionship.

That will make a blog post.  I really have stopped feeling sorry for myself.  I really am feeling gratitude.

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Early Trauma and Knee Pain

This blog is about living with PTSD, so what’s the point of writing about my sore knee?  I did a post about it on December 27, but then I thought it wasn’t directly relevant. It turns out that I am dealing with bursitis, and it has been very painful to walk, which has made life extremely difficult. I’m doing a program to heal it, but it’s improving very slowly. I’m very grateful for the friends who have walked Mocha so she can walk faster and more than I can do. I’ve not been dealing very well with it, and gotten angry with myself, which doesn’t help at all. Finally the witness reminded me that my helplessness triggers my early trauma of being left alone as a baby and being utterly helpless.

From my journal for Saturday, January 13

What am I learning from working with this pain?  I don’t see anything yet.  Emotionally, I feel irritable and uncomfortable.  I’ve been trying to accept the pain.  I really don’t know how to do that.  I can accept emotional pain by stepping back from it and saying “there there.”  I can do that with my knee.  “There there.”

Thinking of the snow, I had a sudden hit of that first winter in Franconia in Crosby’s cabin and the time I was so short with Letty — I’m so impatient with the meaningless “How are you?” that people say so automatically — and Dana called me on it.  It’s true, I don’t need to be rude.  And the time with Mom after Dad’s death, when I was so angry because she was drinking.  I think I’m being angry and impatient with myself for not getting better faster — as if there was anything more I could do about it.  I choked on my first sip of tea — too impatient — and I ran into some furniture and hurt the little toe on my right foot.  Something I used to do a lot, run into furniture and hurt myself.  Sometimes I didn’t even notice until I saw the bruise.

So what am I learning from this injury?  To be more patient and kind to myself.

From my journal for Sunday, January 14

I haven’t talked to Inner Teacher in a long time.  I haven’t done a scribble drawing in a long time.  though I do put a hand on the little doll and the stone that represent parts.  Somehow I feel that we are still connected.

My leg is lying across the footstool and my knee hurts.  I try to hold it in compassion.  I try to hold myself in compassion.

And it’s very hard.  I was thinking that I had got to the place of “conclude I can’t do it,” some part of me just wants to quit, and I’m angry at myself for wanting to give up.  Then I step way back and find compassion for Jenny who’s having such a hard time.

Sitting here feeling utterly discouraged.  I step back into the witness who says “you must consider that the early trauma is making it much harder to deal with the pain in your knee.  It triggers the real helplessness of a baby, and leaves you feeling vulnerable and more helpless than you are.  Struggling with pain is bad enough, feeling helpless to move, finding necessary tasks very difficult, is hard.”

I think I need Harriet in The Rosemary Tree.

Harriet is a character in a book by Elizabeth Goudge, who is nearly paralyzed by arthritis, and also has a great deal of wisdom.

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1996: Grief About Neglect When I was a Baby

From my journal for February 2, 1996

I spent most of my session with Karen crying.  I told her about the awful pain I woke with Tuesday morning and how everything that I could hold on to had disappeared.  I told her what Lynelle had said about that pain being connected to early infancy, and said that I needed to cry like a baby.  So we made a place on the floor by the bed, and I cried and cried.  When the first high-pitched cries died out I rested for a while and then tried to make the sound that came from the pain in my chest.  That resulted in some desperate, agonized screaming.  Every now and then I’d get this sudden vision from outside: here’s this adult woman lying on the floor screaming like a baby, how stupid and ugly.  Then I would come back to myself with the knowledge that I had to do this and just keep going.  I also kept saying to myself “there, there, dear.” Karen stayed in physical contact with me, gently patting my knee or my wrist.  At one point I opened my eyes and saw that she had lain down on the cushions to be with me.  I heard a little voice say inside me “will you be my mommy?” and I thought that Karen really does love me, I don’t need to ask her, I see it in her willingness to stay with me in my misery.  Again I got a hit of her seeing me as ugly: tears on my cheeks, snot dripping from my nose, my ugly face with wrinkles and mustache, and then I knew that she doesn’t see me that way.

I sat up and blew my nose and drank some water.  I said I had a “more adult” pain that needed to be released, so I lay down on my back and began to vocalize.  The most extraordinary series of sounds came through me.  It started like the wail I made when I spoke for the floor at the theater workshop, and went on into a wild keening and lamenting.  I saw women with shawls, great rocks, bleak landscapes.  It felt like generations of women all mourning children who had died horribly.  Sometimes it seemed that they were dealing with corpses on a battlefield.

I wish I could say that I felt better after all that crying, but there’s clearly more to do.  The pain in my chest had eased but was still there.  (It felt like there was a tight band around my chest.  I could breathe deeply but not widely, if that makes sense.  This morning I can breathe widely, but feel a little pain on the right side.)

Yes, there’s a lot more crying to do. I have a lot of grief, things I need to mourn about my childhood and what I didn’t get. I find my expression interesting: first there’s the crying of a baby who’s alone and wants someone to come. Then there’s some desperate, agonized screaming, this is NOT OK. Then there’s some strange wailing that seems to connect with ancestral trauma. My description reminds me of the Greek folk dance we sometimes do that represents women stepping over the bodies of men killed on the battlefield.

Karen Collins is the therapist I worked with for many years. It’s very interesting that I want her to be my mother, clearly a response to my experience of neglect. The times when I see myself as ugly are my introjected mother, who had no sympathy for my pain.

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1996: First Hint of Early Trauma

These notes are from my journal for January 30, 1996.  I’ve clearly had a very bad night. I haven’t been able to find the previous notebook, so I don’t know what else I might have said. But my reference to Dr. Brunette, a psychiatrist I was going to ask for a prescription for an anti-depressant, and to the Brattleboro Retreat, which is a mental hospital, suggest that I’m having a pretty hard time.

I’m in the hut. Listening to Aap Sahaee Hoah. Released some tears initially which relieved some of the pain in my chest. I’ve had it since Sunday night — don’t know whether it’s physical or emotional.
Places to go for help:
Dr. Brunette(appointment a week from tomorrow)
Brattleboro Retreat
Karme Choling
Rowe & Deena Metzger (weekend of Feb 9-11)
Kripalu & sound self

I suppose I could go to Kripalu for R&R sooner. Last night was so bad, I wonder what I’d do if I felt that bad at Rowe?

Things to remember (Recopied from previous notebook so I’ll have them to go back to)
It was this bad in ’70 and ’71 and I came out of it.
Life is a mystery, health is a mystery
I have made a difference to people I care about: Dana, Beverly, Lynelle, Sybil, Alice.

SEE CLEARLY, observe myself without judgment

STAY TRUE TO MYSELF   and what self is that?

BEAR WITNESS TO THE PAIN    and don’t abandon myself


Journal for January 31

Better night last night.  I didn’t sleep well, in fact I was awake from about 4:00 to 5:00 and woke very tired at 7:00.  But at least I didn’t go into the pit of the night before.  I took physical precautions: I had a tea tree bath before going to bed, I put on the filter and ionizer, I made sure Dana would be OK with me coming to get in his bed if I had a really bad night.

But I think what was most helpful was talking to Lynelle in the car on the way to and from Hart.  I told her how bad I had been feeling, how I had lost everything I used to hold on to in the night.  She was concerned about the money we’re spending [on her] (it was $600 yesterday) and I said I didn’t know if it was too much because it felt like I was going to be dead in a couple of months so what did it matter?  She said she thought such bottom of the pit questioning of why live was related to experiences from infancy, that she thought I had been wounded very early.  I think she is right, and having some kind of cause for the depression turned it into a piece of work that I’m doing, something from the past that needs healing, rather than the eternal damnation it feels like.  Certainly I was feeling very much better, by late last evening I felt “normal” though scared to go to bed for fear of a repeat of the night before.

Lynelle is very perceptive. She was seeing that I was dealing with trauma from a very early age. It’s going to take me a few more years before I really understand how right she is.

From my journal for February 1

Spent time with Dana talking about my emotional ups & downs.  I said there weren’t any “ups” as such, there was just the “normal” “neutral” place and the blue black pit and I seem to be cycling between them.  I said I often came out of the pit as a result of a conversation with him, with Beverly, with Lynelle, in which I felt safe to talk about the depression and then, with their help, to come to some sense of a wider context.

The reason why it helped to have a conversation with a friend was that I wasn’t alone any more.

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The Within of the Web…

I’ve been rereading The Phenomenon of Man, because it was very important to me a while back. I don’t list it in the Bibliography of The Feminine of History is Mystery, but I can see its influence in the passage quoted below. But I was unaware of its influence, because left hand writing I listen for, but don’t consciously create.

I’m reading Teilhard de Chardin’s writing about how cells develop out of large molecules and he says that’s the first appearance of consciousness because the cells are spheres with nuclei — matter has curled around itself to create a new dimension.  (This is Section C. The Cellular Revolution, pp86-90)  My own words from a left-hand writing come to me: “from the within of the web to the out skirts of the galaxy…”

I found the lines on the lefthand page facing righthand page 27.  It starts “susurration… cerebration… celebration, serrated, sierra nevada, nevada, nirvana… patterns enfold unfolding from the within of the web to the out skirts of the galaxy …  the structure vibrating, radiating, stabbing straight and outward, and the sticky spiral, fibrous, magnetic, hurling inward particles and stars, dust and brightness sucked to the center.

The sequence is susurration = whispering, cerebration = thinking, celebration, serrated = jagged edge…  whispering leading to thinking, leading to celebrating, changing to jagged, mountain, snowy, sacred…  Teilhard de Chardin talks about tangential energy as physical energy, and radial energy as spiritual or psychological. “Radial” energy seems to relate to energy that comes from a center (radius of a circle or sphere), so it somehow makes sense that when a complex molecule curls into a sphere with a nucleus in the center, that it might gain a lot of “radial” energy. I see see a similar difference in the images of “structure stabbing outward” and “sticky spiral hurling inward.”

This all feels more poetic than scientific to me, which doesn’t make it less true. I think about the concept of “emergence” where something completely new can come out of the self-organization of diverse elements.

Something else I wrote, that may depend on Teilhard De Chardin’s ideas acting deep in my unconscious is:

“The arc of the moral universe…” is paraphrasing something first said by Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister in 1853. An interesting study appears in the Huffington Post. I have taken it and turned it into words for me to hang on to: The arc of the physical universe is long, but it bends toward consciousness and compassion.” My evidence is the Dalai Lama. I do not believe that he could exist, if consciousness were not implicit in the first hydrogen atom.

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