A Witch Waking Story

Posted August 3rd, 2017

I’m going to tell you a story that has five parts. Five, I’ve learned, is associated with the universal symbol of the witch. When connected, they form a pentagram, which is the very same design you’ll find when you cut through the center of an apple – you know, the one that made Eve the patroness of Nasty Women? No coincidence, right?

I’m telling you this story because, while deeply personal to me, I’m starting to see how it’s bigger than just me. I’ve been doing this work for nearly twelve years now, so this isn’t a new awareness by any means, but it seems to continually smack me upside the head in bigger and bigger ways.

And if you’re reading this, maybe you’re starting to get that, too. Maybe you’re getting curious about your own story as a woman. Maybe you have a daughter and you’re watching her wondering if her story will be different than your own. Maybe you’re wondering what the hell is going on in our world and you’re questioning everything you’ve ever been told or believed about being a woman. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in these words—in this story—and it will create an opening in you. For you. To go into.

I dunno. But there’s one way to find out, eh?

Part 1: My story begins with my body. Because truly, doesn’t every story begin with our bodies? I wrote about it recently on Instagram, feeling vulnerable and self-conscious as I did, but also thinking, “I can’t be the only one experiencing this…” And sure enough, I wasn’t. Because I heard from you offline (which is telling that it’s still not entirely safe talking about our sexuality and the power that lives in our bodies publicly in the comments).

I wrote about how I had been terrified for months that I had cancer—or something equally devastating. What began as a head cold back in March, sort of settled in my throat and never really went away. It lingered and then got worse, giving me the sensation of having one of those large marbles lodged in my throat. Sometimes the sensation moved down into my chest, having me feel short of breath, never allowing me to get that last full part of my inhale, just like I did when I was very pregnant with my babies and was carrying them high. I just. Couldn’t. Breathe. I found I was putting my arms above my head and grabbing onto the tops of doorways in my idle moments, hoping to create just a bit more space inside me for my breath to enter.

In the back of my mind, I knew it had everything to do with what I had just lived through in my woman’s body following November’s election. I remember the sensation of that night, and the wise voice in my head that started speaking shortly after that, cautioning me about staying whole, helping toxins to move through my body, and the need to feel my feelings.

So, like many women did, I got my ass to a crackerjack therapist—a new one—who helped me to cry my tears and give voice to the truth and the anger and the despair that was bubbling up in me. I gradually got off Facebook and started turning off the news.

I also started writing my second book—the one about women not waiting (to do that thing, go for it, make it happen, step into the arena, live their life, lead)—which was flowing out of me like hot lava at the time.

The marble in my throat got bigger and more time passed. I got better at living with it, ignoring it most days and powering through it. I doubled down on things like gratitude, prayer, and solitude, but I also stopped moving my body. I started holding myself still. At some point, I became frozen, like one of those mosquitos stuck in amber. I told myself I was stressed, heartbroken, angry, and that it would eventually pass. But inside? Inside I was terrified I had finally pushed the needle too far. Inside I was convinced the other shoe was about to drop.

Eventually, I got worried enough that I decided to seek counsel from the world of traditional medicine, feeling like I needed some concrete data on my body to put my over-active mind at ease. I was ready to know. I started with a full work up with my blood, and when that came back “normal”, I felt something in my body exhale. When the kind doctor looked down at me after completing my endoscopy and said, “You don’t have cancer. You’re perfectly normal”, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. More relief. I looked up at her, this stranger, and asked, “So this is stress?” She nodded.

Which honestly, was a relief, but was also a source of shame. How could I let this happen knowing what I know? I knew better, and yet I let this get to me—get inside me. And more shame: I couldn’t talk about this because I had no right to complain…I am white and have so many privileges as a result—who am I to complain about the stress getting to me? But you know what? None of that mattered. My body patiently waited with its marble while I made my way out and about and finally, back into my body.

Part 2: Then my witch woke up. With a twinkle in her eye and a full body stretch. It seems she had been waiting for me. It began in earnest when I started reading Lisa Lister’s mind-blowingly awesome book Witch. Always a fan of anything prefaced by “Un”, I was immediately drawn to the subtitle: Unleashed, Untamed. Unapologetic. Having written a book entitled Unscripted, I immediately sensed that this woman was a soul sister living across the pond.

I’d always loved the word “witch”, but tended to use “witchy woman” so as to differentiate my meaning from its identification with Wiccan, which is a specific spiritual practice I don’t necessarily adhere to. That being said, in recent years women have been referring to my women’s circle as their coven, so there’s that.

Lisa defines a witch as this:

“The witch represents the part of each of us that has been censored, ignored, punished and demonized. And it’s a part that wants—no needs—to be accessed and fully expressed. The witch is a woman fully in her power. She’s in touch with the dark. She knows how to be the witness, how to let things go and how to follow her own counsel. Most importantly, though, she questions EVERYTHING. She’s connected, pussy to the earth. She hears the whispers of those who have gone before her, and she feels the ancient secrets that are in her bones. She’s the one who knows without fail that there’s more of this life than actually meets the eye. She causes hierarchical power structures to shake in her wake. She knows that in any given moment, she can be a hot mess, a woman of grace and beauty, angry and grief-struck, loved and pleasure-sated, tired and soft or raw and vulnerable. She also knows that in some moments, she can be all of this at once. She is whole.”

Yea. That.

That is what I have been referring to all these years as “the and”. That was why I needed to write my first book for myself—to sort all that shit out and to reconfigure myself in a way that made sense to me—that allowed me to see the fullest range of myself, to grab all that is within me without apology, and then to put it to use in the world.

I’ll never forget where I was when I was reading her book. We were camping on the shore of this beautiful river, and it was like the sounds of the water moving over the rocks matched the words on the pages I was reading. It reminded me of the currents inside myself that would always lead me home. Inside my body.

During our three day stay on the river, my youngest son and I made it into a sacred place, erecting over twenty tall cairns of stones all along the shore. I felt like a witch, and I watched as both my husband and my son looked at me, and were drawn to me and the power I was clearly tapping into.

I came home from that trip and found a package resting on my doorstep. It turns out it was a random “just because” present sent by one of my oldest and dearest friends. She had taken a trip to Italy with her daughter this past spring and she wrote: “Saw this in Florence and immediately knew it was for you.” I opened the package, and a tsunami of energy washed over me—a combination of gratitude, love, serendipity and what I can only describe as witch-power. My hand flew to my chest as I picked up the leather bound journal that featured an embossed rendering of Botticelli’s Three Graces.

Not two days before, I had said aloud “I need a grimoire to write down all this stuff.” And now here it was.

Part 3: I got to work healing my body with my body. Meaning: I handed the reins over to my body and said “you steer”. I did what I could to get really quiet and I made more of an effort to listen. I tried my best not to laugh or dismiss the ideas that rolled into my consciousness, like when I couldn’t get the word “jasper” out of my head and finally looked up the significance of that stone and then made a new set of mala beads out of them and bought a jasper yoni egg so I could both wear that stone as well as carry it inside me. All hands on deck. Full court press.

I cracked open my grimoire and I started becoming a student of what I already knew deep down inside me. I started unearthing wisdom in myself that felt exciting and new as much as it did affirming and ancient.

I pulled out all my essential oils and started to use them with intention. I allowed myself to be drawn to certain colors. I paid attention to my appetite and what I was hungry for—and gave myself permission to not eat for long periods of time if my body didn’t feel like it, even when it was “time to eat”. I started to make a more direct connection for myself between my sexuality and my vitality—an awareness that had been building in me for a while, but that got hijacked by my brain so easily in this world of busy and doing and thinking. I started to crave making teas and concocting things like rituals and spells and magic. I started to consider the fact that there was more power in me than I realized—like I had been using just the little finger nail of my pinky, when, in fact, I could be using the entire hand. And my full body. I started to use the phrase “I desire” and then smiled when I realized that is the very same word I chose in January to be my word of the 2017 when we painted our words as a family on the wall of our kitchen.

I knew how to do this.

Part 4: I followed where my path led me. Yesterday, when I was flat on my back getting a “massage” (I put massage in quotes because this woman is clearly a mad-skilled wild woman witch who does more than simply work with my muscles…), I felt her hands and energy be drawn to my heart. She knew about the marble in my throat—I had shared that much with her—and had asked her to tune into the conversation my body was trying to have with me. She put one hand under my body between my shoulder blades and the other she placed lightly on my chest. And she held them there. For a while. Until I felt this wail build up from the depths of me (Oh no, I’m going to lose it…shit, here it comes…stand the fuck back, it’s gonna blow!), and I made sounds that I’d only heard myself make one other time…when I was in the depths of labor birthing my sons. As her hands held steady, my body convulsed with sobs underneath them. One passed, and another started to build, like waves hitting the shore after a storm.

Then, she flipped me over onto my stomach and put both hands on my back. I heard her ask out loud (to my guides, to her guides, to the universe…) What IS this? I was so relieved to have someone other than myself asking that question. A moment later, she said “Mama Bear energy”, and again, I sobbed, this time with anger at the injustice, violence and whole-scale systematic oppression of women that now seemed publicly sanctioned. Apparently I had been carrying that around on my back, reluctant to put it down lest I forget it.

Needless to say I was spent. Wrung out like a sponge.

My “plan” had been to go to this massage and then pop into a coffee shop to crank out some client work before heading out on my August break. She knew this plan, and after working me for much longer than we both had anticipated, she gently suggested that I take a moment before shifting gears—“…maybe take yourself to the water…” 

Which I did. I found a country road and followed it along the coast until it ended. I just keep taking these big huge sighs, and with each one I felt a bit lighter.

I came to a place along the water and pulled over, thinking I would literally get right by the water, maybe even in it.

I wasn’t supposed to be here. I hadn’t planned on it. I didn’t have time for this. I had a mountain of work to get through and here I was just…wandering. I was going to disappoint someone because shit wasn’t getting done when I said it was going to get done. Why couldn’t I just focus, put my head down and get it done? That’s the gist of what my tired brain was saying.

But my body? My body said YAAAAAAASSSSSSS. This is where you are now. Right here is where you’re supposed to be.

So I plopped myself down, pulled out my mala beads (I wear them around my neck for just this occasion…) and went through all 108 of them. When I was done, I opened my eyes and looked across the water at this rocky ledge that was jutting out. And that’s when it hit me.

I’d been here before. Right in this very spot, only last time I was out on that rocky ledge, talking about my life and my business with a trusted friend. It was almost exactly six years ago. I was at a crossroads in my life—wanting something more, but not really knowing if I was worthy of it or could pull it off. You know, that Who Am I…? conversation Marianne Williamson talks about. Sigh. That one.

The conversation on that day was a catalyst for me to make some big changes at SheChanges. Shortly after that I completely re-hauled my website, clarified my brand, stepped away from what felt stale and no longer served me, and grabbed ahold of the idea that would become SheSpeaks, the ever-popular evening of women’s storytelling that, ultimately, was the springboard for my first book to be born.

What my friend and I didn’t know at the time was that there was a woman who was painting us as we were sitting out there. We had seen a woman with an easel, but we weren’t aware that we had ambled into her field of view and become subjects in her painting.

And here’s the really cool part. My friend? She managed to track down the artist, buy the painting, and give it to me with a note that read: As a symbol of our friendship and women making change in the world. For years, I had that painting packed away, but just found it again last year and put it on our bookshelf. When I came home yesterday, I flipped it over on the back and saw that the artist (who’s name, sadly, is illegible…) wrote: Solving? or Creating? Problems!

I shit you not.

Part 5: Coming full circle. Which brings me to where I find myself today.

Driving over to that spot yesterday—long before I realized where I was heading and what its significance would be—I had this thought: I gather the witches. And sometimes the men who love them.

I was thinking about the event that scares the shit out of me this September, and the six brave women who will join me on stage this December at SheSpeaks, and the six women who will gather with my for my women’s circle this fall and winter. I was thinking about the men’s group I have almost had on multiple occasions, that feels more timely now than ever. I was thinking about the second book I am writing that has my hair on fire and can’t come out fast enough.

But I know I am poised at another crossroads in my life now. Sitting there yesterday thinking Who am I…? with that marble in my throat, holding back my heartache and anger for fear of….what? It’s power? It’s impact? My safety?

And like that day on the rocks, I already know what my answer will be. It’s the same one it always is: Yes.

Why? Because that’s the witches’ word. A solemn oath. An ancient promise that has me coming full circle again and again and again. Walking my path with as much courage and moxie as I can muster in my white, privileged woman’s body.

 

Want to hear more stories like this? Check out my Unscripted Evening coming up this September 28th in Yarmouth, Maine. Tickets are now on sale.

 

And if women’s storytelling is your thing, save the date for this year’s SheSpeaks being held at One Longfellow Square on December 7th. The theme is “Life In The Arena” and tickets will go on sale November 1st.

Get Your Groove On, Virginia

Posted January 20th, 2017

Mrs. Claus and I had a rather spirited exchange this past Christmas season. It came on the heels of my SheSpeaks storytelling evening — the one in which I wore a long red dress, made an entrance strutting through the sold out crowd to Christina Aquilera’s Show Me How You Burlesque, stood proudly in the bright hot white light on the stage, and let it rip with my whole heart.

I have never felt sexier and more powerful in my life than I did that night.

And then I got offstage, went home, took off the dress and went back to normal life. No entrance song, no lights, no white hot lights, no stage. Just my everyday life, plus a sink full of dishes and a pile of back-logged work I’d put off until after the event. The magic was gone. Or so I thought.

It never occurred to me that I had woken up and tapped into something vital in me.

Shortly after that, we got busy with our preparations for the holidays, which included shopping for presents. Our two boys have historically written to Santa Claus each year, so I began prompting them to get on that task stat. My fourteen- year-old rolled his eyes and gave me the all-knowing wink that assured me he was going along with whole “believe in Santa” bit for the sake of his younger brother.

His brother, now 9, looked at me point blank and asked: “Do you believe in Santa Claus, Mom?” I gave him the same answer I have consistently given both of our kids over the years — and to myself in my life: “I believe in things we cannot see with our eyes. I also believe in magic. So yes, I choose to believe.”

And then I thought: “…or do I?” Because this past November’s election tested that belief mightily. I felt as if I had used up every last ounce of my hope in the years leading up to that one day, like I was swimming up to the surface from the bottom of a very deep lake using one big breath. Except I didn’t break through the surface. It just moved further away…like it was in sight of me, but not possible to get to. It was like that scene from the movie Passengers when  Jennifer Lawrence is swimming in the pool when the gravity lock stops working, and all of a sudden there is no surface, just a blob of floating water with her trapped in it. In the movie, gravity eventually kicks in again and all the water splashes back into the pool and she finally breaks through to air. But this? This shit is real. And I panicked, then got furious, until despair moved in.

Do I still believe? Back in December, I was struggling with this. 

We all ended up sitting down to write Santa Claus one night as we usually do, but I chose to direct my letter to the woman behind the scenes: Mrs. Claus. The one, I suspected, that keeps the entire operation running smoothly at the pole. I decided I would talk to her as I never have before, woman to woman.

It might sound strange, but writing that letter to an archetypal female was like sending out a prayer into the universe: Show me how to do this. Help me. 

And then the strangest thing started to happen. In the days and weeks that followed, I got some very clear messages and started to see the same things replicating over and over…things that didn’t make sense or seem related at first. Until they did.

I started to hear women talk about the familiar topic of self-care in new and different ways…like they meant it this time. For real. No more half-assing it. As if ensuring they stay whole and healthy was now much higher of a priority — even as the flurry of the end of the year activities kicked into high gear.

It’s like women were starting to get the direct connection to their own vitality and their ability to affect change. 

Somewhere in the mix, those conversations with my friends and clients (and myself) were shifting away from concerns about guilt and feeling selfish or self-indulgent to being about their ability to be more fully of service and the desire to assume responsibility for ourselves as women with more reverence.

One evening as my women’s circle gathered we were talking about the feminine (being feminine, the Divine Feminine, feminine energy), and the topic of our sexuality came up, as it often does. Someone mentioned that she thought she’d feel feminine when she became sexually active, but when she really felt it for the first time was when she learned she was capable of giving herself an orgasm. All. By. Herself. We talked about the power of being able to give and receive our own pleasure, and what an inherently loving act that is: Self-care. The words Queen and Goddess entered into the conversation having it, again, feel more reverent, as we started to envision our bodies as alters.

Photo credit: Anita DoreI was reminded of the story told on stage at SheSpeaks about the intersection of our sexuality and our spirituality and how it is has been systematically severed through our enculturation, education and religious doctrines. She called it a form of bullshit oppression.

“If our bodies are holy, then sex is worship”, she said.

That very same message seemed to be everywhere I looked after that. I felt as if Mrs. Claus was whispering hot sweet nothings into my ear all the way from the icy north pole. And I was listening.

I finally picked up Regena Thomashauer’s latest book Pussy: A Reclamation one night and I read:

“I had never thought to look at myself like this, to notice my own beauty….to my utter surprise, when I looked for my beauty, I was completely enraptured with my reflection. I found myself to be so radiant, so lovely, and so touchingly gorgeous…I realized in that moment that women have no clue about our own beauty; no clue about the connection between pleasure and time; no clue about this deep, delicious, endless replenishing source of divinity within each of us.”

Wait, what? Pleasure is my access point to an endless source of Divinity? And it lives inside my body? Whoa Nellie.

But it made sense. Something deep and wise inside me knew this. I had just forgotten how to find my way back to it amidst the shame, guilt, noise and all those walking heads preaching something entirely different. My body knew it was true. It always does. It’s just a matter of reconnecting my body to my head, and pleasure, I was learning, is the glue that will bind them together again.

I started to dig around some more and then found this in Christiane Northrup’s book Goddess Never Age:

“Our bodies are not designed to limit or contain our pleasure. They are meant to experience it as the medicine it truly is…If you want to live healthfully and as a goddess, you need to know how to work with your innate sex drive and spiritual life force, bringing it down into your pelvic organs and your female erotic anatomy. Spirituality and sexuality are two aspects of the same thing, despite the fact that they have been separated by many cultures and many religious for millennia.”

Medicine. Pleasure as medicine. What a delicious concept.

I thought back to how I felt that night on stage in that red dress, and how I had brought intention and a boatload of permission to myself leading up to that event to revel in my body with reverence — as if I were showering it with gratitude for being the container that allowed my spirit to stand in that light, be seen, and ultimately be of service. As if I were a holy offering — a wholly offering. I had finally done what one of my wise friends suggested I do years ago:

Find out who you are and adore yourself accordingly. 

But what about the regular days? When the sink is full of dishes and the magic feels far, far away? How could I bring that intention and permission I had given so generously to myself on stage to my everyday life? To the non-special days.

A trip to Target gave me a clue. I happen to be trolling the shoe aisles looking for winter boots for my kid, and my eye caught these thigh-high black suede boots with three inch heels. Now, I’m a pretty tall woman in bare feet, so when I wear heels, I’m extremely tall — people inevitably make the comment “You’re SO tall!”, as if I’ve stepped outside the bounds of acceptable size and taken up more than my fair share of space in the world.

But I couldn’t stop staring at the boots. And I swear I heard Mrs. Claus’s saucy voice in my ear breathing, “yeeesssssss.” So I bought them not knowing why…All I knew is when I put them on, something in me went “yeeeeessssss”. And when I coupled them with something spicy, the volume of that affirmation turned up even louder.

I didn’t want to wait for a special occasion any more. I wanted to be my own special occasion. I didn’t want to wait for a reason. I wanted to be the reason.

I was ready to embody who I am more fully and adorn myself accordingly. Just because I can. 

And the final bit of intel this whole conversation with Mrs. Claus gave me is this: I need to move my body more. I need to dance. I need to get my groove on more frequently so I could feel my hips move in circles and remember that I’m living in a woman’s body. And I need to do this in the company of other women who are also hungry for that movement, so we can feel the collective power — that “endless replenishing source of divinity” — that lives inside our bodies as it wakes up and comes out.

So I did. On Friday, January 13th I held a women’s benefit dance called HerMojo, and women came out in droves to dance out their prayers and find their swagger again — all for a good cause (resulting in a gift of $900 to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England). Together we swirled and stomped and sweat, and I was so keenly aware that somewhere in the magic of that evening prayers were being said with our bodies and visions for change were being conjured.

Medicine” was the word I heard again and again that night.  And it was.

I share all this with you because if you’re feeling at all like I was back in December — at a loss of what to do, angry or full of despair — check in with your body and see if it’s glued to your head these days. And if it’s not, reach for some pleasure (which I will tell you is heretical, but if you’ve read this far you’re probably good with that). Take a bath by candlelight, buy yourself some flowers for your bedroom, feed yourself chocolate, adorn yourself with oils, do something that makes you feel sexy, take yourself out to listen to live music and dance with wild abandon, or make love to yourself. But find your way back to your endless source of divinity that is waiting patiently somewhere inside you.

That thing I felt on stage that night? It wasn’t about the event or the dress. It was about the energy I had tapped into and allowed to flow through me. It was eros – that distinctly feminine expression of desire. As Regena Thomashauer writes about, it was that “golden buttery caramel feeling” that was fueling my vitality that night, having me feel like a Queen or a Goddess. Worthy of reverence. That is what I’m talking about. And it’s in you, too. We’ve all got it and we don’t need a stage to access it. It’s ours for the taking each day.

So find it. Grab ahold and adore it accordingly. It’s good medicine.

Just ask Mrs. Claus, the saucy vixen.

Want to get your groove on?

Come join me on February 16th for An Unscripted Evening
For those of you who attended SheSpeaks (or missed it, but heard about it), this might be for you. It’s essentially my version of a revival for heretics, misfits, rabble rousers and mavericks. Part storytelling, part improv, part book reading (not necessarily my own), this evening is me at my most real and authentic self. It’s me: Unscripted. In a sanctuary. Tickets are on sale now via Brown Paper Tickets.

Listen to and/or follow my podcast An Unscripted Woman
If you haven’t checked this out already, this is basically my creative response to requests for an audio version of my book. I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from this over the holidays, but will be loading up new episodes soon (so thanks for asking!). In each episode I read a chapter from my book and also do a riff at the end about what I’ve learned, noticed, and am aware of since writing it.

Check out the new events I’ve got coming up this late winter/early spring on my homepage
I’ve got some new experiences lined up for those of you who are not local to Maine, but might be hankering to connect. And yes, I believe I’ll be offering another HerMojo benefit dance sometime in April… Fun! Also, the video of my story I told at October’s SoundBites just became available, if you missed that event but want to check it out.

Anger Advocacy

Posted December 16th, 2016

kaliI had a fight with my son this morning. It was one of those times in the car that leaves both people fuming with tense jaws, bitten tongues, and cold steely eyes starting straight ahead. It was awful.

But that’s not what I’m going to tell you about here because honestly, it’s bigger than my relationship with my son and I value our privacy.

 

This is a post about Anger. More to the point, this is about what happens when a woman expresses her anger.

Here’s the gist of what led up to this morning’s stand off in the car:

For the past month, my husband and I have been jumping through the hoops of refinancing our house. We could have gone with another lender and have been done with all this hoopla by now, but we felt strongly about keeping our business local and giving our existing lender a chance to keep our business. That’s all well and good, but the lender has been dropping the ball internally, dragging their feet in making things happen, and making excuses for what essentially amounts to horrid customer service and communication skills. The final nail in the coffin came this week when the appraisal for our home came back (late) and was far below market value. We looked at each other and scratched our heads, having lived in this home nearly 20 years together and having been through this dog and pony show of refinancing many times.

Upon further inspection of the appraisal, it was clear the guy had left off — or failed to make note of — some key things that would have made a difference, like not including all of our rooms, factoring in all the energy efficient windows we’d put in as well as converting our home heating to gas and investing in a high efficiency on-demand water heater. We also learned that the comp he used for our home was one that was significantly smaller, run down, and located on a major through street (versus ours which is at the end of a dead-end street). In fact, a smaller house up the street from us that has an ancient asbestus boiler system and no garage just sold a couple months ago for much higher than the appraisal had come in for our home.

 

Something wasn’t right. So we spoke up. And asked some questions.

The bank basically said tough shit — it’s good enough for the refinance to go though, so we got what we need. Wait, what?

That’s when I called the loan officer directly and spoke up. This time louder. More clearly. More pointed. I was angry they weren’t valuing their relationship with us, given the fact that we could have taken our business elsewhere. I was angry that they knew they had us over a barrel now that the interest rates were going up. I was angry they weren’t fully comprehending that when one customer is dissatisfied, it impacts about 19 other potential customers because consumers talk to each other. I was angry they were confusing disappointment with downright disagreement. I was angry that the loan officer was resentful of our inquiries and inconvenienced by our calling into question the accuracy of a such an important document that was clearly so subjective.

I was just fucking angry.  I started to hear those common phrases play in my head.. move on, get over it already, suck it up, don’t be a sore loser … and I felt the irritation of my chapped skin and raw scab from November’s election flare up again, reminding me how the popular vote in our “democracy” didn’t matter one iota because of the elector college (WTF!?).

Clearly all this was stewing and churning in me as I got into the car and drove my sons to school this morning. It’s clear my glasses were not rosy, and as is often the case in those situations, I started to notice and feel every irritant more deeply. I got frustrated by the driver that didn’t seem to get how to insert a car into traffic by just creeping the nose out little by little and giving the friendly “mind if I cut in?” wave (isn’t that universal?) to the next car in the slow moving chain. I stood on my horn (did I mention I’m from NJ?) when a driver ran a red light and almost slammed into my car.

My son, experienced driver that he is of 14, commented on my driving. I got defensive. I got angry. And then I shut the fuck up – because isn’t that what we’re trained to do as women when we get angry? Like Elsa in the movie Frozen, we are taught to conceal, don’t feel…don’t let them know! We are taught to fear our anger because it could do damage, wreak havoc, lay waste.

But in my silent front seat stewing I started to think about why it is I felt the need to clam up. Beyond the circumstances of my week or the particulars the conversation with my son, I started to see the arc of our culture’s beliefs about women and anger. More than just a frustrated mother of a typical teenager, I sensed there was something of import to convey about a woman’s experience in a world that is governed by white men…a club to which he belongs whether he is aware of it or not.

 

It’s not okay for a woman to express anger in our society. 

I explained to him that as a woman, I have been shamed, shut down and silenced my entire life any time I have attempted to express my anger. I stated this quite plainly. I also said that this is not okay — and especially hurts when it comes from family. Specifically someone I grew inside me.

That was the end of our conversation that I’ll share, but I will say that it was the beginning of a long conversation with myself about this. I started to think about the specific ways we systematically train anger to go underground in women — pummeling it down with a heavy wooden mallet in a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole.

Here’s the series of escalating steps that formed inside my head:

— We tell women they are over-reacting, being too sensitive, making a big deal out of nothing. Somewhere in there we suggest they calm down, relax, and be more patient, compassionate, grateful it’s not worse (I believe we used to call them hysterical and take out their uteruses…)

— If that doesn’t work, we patronize them, patting women on the head, using terms like humoring, tolerating, and allowing her to vent, rant, or blow off some steam.

— If that doesn’t work, then we resort to shaming, suggesting (or outright saying) women are stupid, uninformed, hormonal, or not capable of understanding something complex.

— If that doesn’t work, we try name calling and labeling women as a means to vilify, ostracize, and humiliate them: bitch, shrew, cunt, witch, man-hater.

— If that doesn’t work, we make them invisible, disassociating, physically or mentally shutting them down and cutting them off.

 

So yea, you can see why women hesitate to express anger or are quick to shut it down in others.

I bring this up because from where I sit, the topic of anger among women is swirling all around us these days. Last week on stage at SheSpeaks, several of the speakers made reference to it in their stories, one of them even asking herself (in front of the audience), “What do I do with all this anger I’m feeling?” My individual clients talk about the anger they are feeling these days — at work, at home, in the world — and my women’s circle dances with it as well.

My most recent thought about it is this: if we don’t heal our internal relationship to anger as women, we’re in for many long, dark nights of the soul (there’s a reason heart disease is the number one killer of women…) But moreover, if we don’t make space in our society for women to express their anger externally, we’re in for a long slow road to change in this world.

There is a fundamental difference between anger and violence, but so often they are interpreted as synonymous, and our fear of one keeps us from expressing the other openly.

“I think anger is one of the most misunderstood emotions we have because it spends so little time in the light of day. It’s shunned and left to fend for itself in its dark cave, mumbling and scuffing up the dirt in frustration like a petulant child. I don’t blame it – I’d be a bit ornery, too, if I were that devalued and misunderstood. Because at its essence, anger is just really another form of energy. It’s an emotion with Tabasco sauce splashed on top. And it generally has something for us to hear. Something that’s coming from a deep and meaningful place.” – Unscripted, pg 135

We are taught that anger is toxic to our bodies, and I agree, but I want to clarify and expand upon that notion. Anger is a natural human emotion that can be a catalyst for incredible change, even a source of power in that it can fuel and drive us forward. But if it remains unexpressed and silenced or stuffed, it can sour and ferment inside us, setting us on the path to one of two outcomes: outward violence (verbal, mental, physical abuse that disconnects us from others and does harm) or inward violence (self-loathing, shame, sickness and dis-ease that disconnects us from ourselves and does harm).

The good news is that we are all capable of making our own choice with how we want to be with anger — our own and others.

We can get out our hammers, participate in our own shame, and do our best to erase the truth inside the anger with a sorry. Or we can increase our capacity to be with it — which means being willing to get messy, be uncomfortable, ruffle feathers, or even offend. But there is one thing that is undeniable in all this:

 

Anger is here, like it or not. It’s the mole that refuses to be whacked.

So what do I plan to do about it?

That experience this morning got me thinking about all the ways I have experienced my plain truth of anger as a woman, and also all the ways I have contributed to whacking it down. While I can’t control how other’s experience me, I can control my own relationship to anger and how I allow — or don’t allow — myself to express it. I can control how I dance — or don’t — with other people’s expressions of anger. I can also control how I give voice to it as a means for bringing it into the light of day — giving space for it to exist, be safe, have merit. Ergo this post.

When I think about it in the light of day, Anger isn’t something that needs to be “managed” or even tolerated, it needs to be actively practiced — so we can get better at expressing it. Look what happened to Elsa in Frozen when she finally took off the gloves and assumed ownership for something that flowed naturally from her. Sure, the village experienced a momentary freak freeze (ever heard of the Hindu goddess Kali?) and perhaps some people got startled or scared, but ultimately, she lead the kingdom and leveraged her gift to create colorful beauty from cold ice.

And sure, you could make a case for that simply being a kid’s movie…but isn’t that we’re all just doing here anyway? Playing our parts, hitting our marks, and following the scripts that were written for us?

I don’t know about you, but I’m auditioning to do the voice-over for Anger. I think I’d make a badass advocate for that character.

The Heart is A Muscle

Posted November 30th, 2016

2016-06-26 13.23.26Last night I sat in a circle with a group of women and we talked about how so many of us are openly grieving – and how refreshing and healing it is when we find (or create) safe spaces and communities in which to do that work. We talked about the feminine, and how often she is told to be quiet, pull it together, be productive, get over it already and move along. It reminded me of this post I wrote this past summer about the heart being a muscle. It’s about my most recent experience of heartbreak… something I did not expect to feel so soon again…like this November. Until I did. And like this summer, I watched the familiar anti-crying war being waged – this time not privately inside just me, but publicly as this energy it swirled around so visibly in many of us in our post-election society. 

So in case your heart is feeling ripped and bruised still, and in case you’re wondering if your tears will ever stop, or in case you’ve resisted letting them ever start… this one’s for you. And our collective heart muscle growing stronger.

Originally posted 6.30.16

Last Sunday I dropped my eldest son off at overnight camp for three and a half weeks. And then I proceeded to crumble.

No, that’s not entirely true. The truth is that the crumbling — much to my horror — began in earnest the night before.

On Saturday night, I was standing in the kitchen trying to put candles on the strawberry shortcake “cake” for my youngest son’s 9th birthday. A small gathering of our family in the backyard was eagerly waiting for me to reemerge with the lit cake and launch into a rousing rendition of “happy birthday” to celebrate him.

But me? I just wanted to cry. But I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I was waging a full-out anti-crying assault in my mind:

YOU CAN’T CRY! It’s a goddamn birthday party…this is no time to be sad! What kind of mother cries at her kid’s birthday party?

DON’T BE SELFISH! This is not about you, for fuck’s sake! He’s all excited to go to camp! Don’t make him feel badly because you’ll miss him! You’re supposed to be the grown up here!

SUCK IT UP! It’s only three and a half weeks, for crying out loud! He did it last year and it was fine! Pull it together, woman. This is just silly.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU!? You’re totally losing it for no reason. You’re a camp person! This is what you wanted! You’re supposed to be excited about this. Something’s wrong with you…

These were all the loud voices going through my head pre-crumble. Loud, loud, loud. Very anti-cry.

Apparently I was in the kitchen “lighting the candles” a bit longer than I had realized. Because soon enough, my eldest son appeared in the kitchen asking me if I needed help.

That’s when the first crumbling happened. I pulled him into a hug and sobbed “I’m just going to miss you SO much.” We stood there, together, and just had a quiet moment in the kitchen. Finally, I pulled away and told him I loved him, thinking that would be the last of the crumble.

You know where this is going, right?

Yup. Turns out that initial crumble was the beginning of a two-day blow.

The next day we drove him up to camp, met his counselor, got him settled in his tent, and said our goodbyes with a fair amount of grace — his younger brother was totally fine, and his dad and I were wearing these weird grins on our faces, but by and large the drop off was a non-event. 2016-06-26 18.18.12

But then after? I was a fucking mess. I crumbled like all my bones had been taken out. I cried big fat silent tears on the ride home. I cried standing in the empty kitchen. I cried sitting on my front stoop. I just couldn’t seem to stop crying.

None of my usual tricks were working. Trying to reason with myself didn’t work. Trying to “snap myself out of it” wasn’t working. Reading? Making art? Going for a run? Nope, nah, nothing.

I panicked, actually, wondering if my crying would ever stop. I’m mean, is it possible to literally die of crying?

And that’s when it hit me. I was heartbroken. 

My heart, like my quads sometimes feel after a particularly long run, had a little tear in it. My heart was a muscle, and it had stretched — like it had been given an emotional workout — to the point of ripping it a little. A Couper-sized rip.

When I made this connection in my mind, something shifted for me. Having been an athlete most of my life, I knew that those little rips of muscle were what made them grow bigger and stronger. That kind of pain was familiar to me – a welcome sign that was often indicative of a really productive workout.

The heart is a muscle. The heart is a muscle. The heart is a muscle. 

This was something that started to play in an endless loop during that two-day blow, and with each new loop of it echoing in my mind, I found I was giving myself more and more permission to feel what I was feeling. To have it be normal, expected, and even welcome. To see my tears as a result of my strength, not my weakness.

2016-06-26 18.22.50It felt like a tremendously loving act, that permission. 

There wasn’t anything wrong with me. I had simply let myself love with my whole heart…and then a little bit more for good measure. I had let myself love more than my heart had previously been able to hold.

There wasn’t anything wrong with that. There wasn’t any shame in that. In fact…once I thought about it some more, there was a fair amount of pride. There’s a reason the word courage comes from “coeur”, the French word for heart: I was being brave-hearted.

This is good pain I was feeling, not bad pain.

We talk about that a lot in our family — the difference between “good pain” (that comes naturally from growth, learning, reaching, challenging) and “bad pain” (that comes from injury, sickness, an accident, or something foreign being inflicted upon you). To illustrate my point, I have often told my sons the story of their births, and when they ask me if it hurt giving birth to them (“naturally”), I always respond honestly saying, yes, it did, but my body knew it was good pain so I was okay with it.

When my kids are literally experiencing growing pains behind a knee or in an arm, and come to me concerned, the first question they’ll generally hear me ask is: Does it feel like good pain or bad pain?

This connection — a framework, really — of my heart being a muscle that is capable of growing gave me the permission I seemed to need to cry my tears. I found I stopped apologizing (no one had been asking for it anyway), explaining (no one seemed to need one), and worrying (no one expressed concern for my sanity).

I just cried, and let my body heal my broken heart. 2016-06-25 15.54.17

Such a simple thing for my body to do, but unfortunately began with such an epic battle in my mind.

When I really let myself crawl inside that Couper-sized rip in my heart, here’s what I found:

Sadness at how the passage of time seems to be going faster and faster with our kids.
Grief for having moved beyond the phase of our kids being small and needing us as much.
Panic that there will be many more — and bigger — drop offs and goodbyes ahead of us.
Gratitude that I have been given the gift of motherhood.
Joy at knowing my son was in his happy place.
Pride at knowing that we had raised a child who felt confident enough to be independent.

And then the most amazing thing happened. I woke up Tuesday morning and felt so wonderful. The “soreness” I had been feeling in my heart from that Couper-sized rip had been repaired seemingly overnight. My permission to feel and cry my tears had helped, much like gentle stretching and the potassium in bananas goes to work on my sore muscles.

I was not only all “better”, I was stronger. I could feel it. 

Apparently I had given my heart one helluva workout and discovered that not only was it capable of rising to the occasion, but it was quite naturally ready for more.

Want some good medicine for your heart muscle?

Today is the LAST day of my November Birthday Sale of Unscripted, my book
For the entire month of November, I’m celebrating my birthday and the art of creation by selling Unscripted for $19.68 (the year I was born, get it?) rather than it’s usual cost of $34.69.

There are still some tickets left for SheSpeaks for next Thursday (December 8th)…
If you’re looking for some mojo, some inspiration, some light in the darkness, or some kindred spirits, SheSpeaks is for you. It’s an evening of women’s storytelling I’m hosting on December 8th. This will be the 7th SheSpeaks I’ve held but the first time that I’ll be holding it since writing/releasing my book. And the theme? A Living Prayer. Seven speakers will be taking the stage to explore that theme with me that night at One Longfellow Square. I received word that it was officially sold out yesterday, but the venue JUST released 15 more tickets for sale…) . So if you want in, make a plan and don’t delay — tickets are on sale now at One Longfellow Square.

Listen to and/or follow my podcast An Unscripted Woman
If you haven’t checked this out already, this is basically my creative response to requests for an audio version of my book. Each week, I read aloud a chapter of my book in an episode and do a riff at the end about what I’ve learned, noticed, and am aware of since writing it.

Check out the new events I’ve got coming up this late fall/winter on my homepage
My women’s circle is full and will started up last week, but it’s never to early to look at it for next year (seats fill up way in advance!), and I’ve got some new experiences lined up for those of you who are not local to Maine, but might be hankering to connect. Also, the video of my story I told at October’s SoundBites just became available, if you missed that event but want to check it out.

Life In The Area

Posted November 15th, 2016

This is a repost from something I wrote last year. At the time, I was poised to release my book into the world, and writing this helped me to name what I was feeling. A year later, I find myself returning to my own words in a different context, but with a similar intention: To name what I am feeling in the wake of this election. Unlike when I wrote this, what I find myself facing today is not simply an exercise of navigating “what if…”, but engaging in the stark reality “here we are…” 

This is me throwing another rock to create ripples of change — for myself and others. And this is me, still standing in the arena, resisting my familiar urge to fight for change (for like you, I am tired of that stale strategy), and challenging myself to live my life as a prayer — asking myself what that means and how that looks for me today. I am sitting with that actively. And, like you,  I am mustering the courage to find out. 

When I posted this last fall, it received 2,500 hits in just a couple of hours — telling me, once again, I was not alone and had struck a resonant chord for many. Perhaps it will resonate again in the light (or darkness) of a new day. 

Originally posted: 9.25.16

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechangesMy son and I sat on the couch last night and looked at the proof for the cover of my book. He nodded, and then got really quiet. I asked him why.

“I’m afraid you’re going to get bullied.”

I was speechless. His one comment touched on two raw nerves of mine: 1) the intense vulnerability I am feeling in releasing this book into the world and 2) my sadness that he is growing up in a world that has kids fearing the likely reality – not just for themselves, but for their parents – of being bullied.

I don’t remember being afraid for my parents.

And he’s right. I am terrified. Even as I move forward. Because it is a reality I face. I support my clients in facing down that fear daily in my work, and with this latest creative endeavor of mine, I know that feeling all too well in my own bones.

Here’s the likely reality:

Someone will think what I’ve written is a crock of shit, a load of bunk, or pointless drivel

Someone will call me an entitled white bitch, an angry feminist, or a self-absorbed narcissist

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechangesSomeone will take offense to what I’ve written and will reciprocate by offending me

I’ll be called stupid, foolish, delusional or a whack job

Someone will say that buying my book is a waste of good money or reading it is a waste of valuable time

Someone will find a typo or a grammatical error on page 46 (to name just one) and will use it as evidence of my stupidity

Someone will say they are disappointed by my book…that they expected it to be better, more, different

Someone will feel the need to inform me of all the nasty and mean-spirited things being said about me that I might have missed

Some of these people will be well-intentioned, but many will not. Because sadly, that is the reality of the world we face. Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk touched on this, pointing out that we have made public shaming a blood sport in our society.

I’m not being dramatic. I’m being realistic. Even as I move forward.

When I think of “blood sport”, I think of gladiators and how they entered the arena knowing there was a strong likelihood they would die. They entered the arena with the intention of fighting for their life in front of a crowd that was hungry for blood to be spilled. I remember a similar sensation when I went to a monster truck rally with my sister, feeling an embarrassingly strong desire for some horrific crash to happen. Blood.

Part of me knows it is in our nature as humans to be drawn to death – we do it every day when we slow down at the scene of an accident: it’s called rubber-necking. But social media has taken this sometimes event and turned it into an everyday occurrence. It’s the new normal.

Brene Brown’s TED talk revealed her own experience with this phenomenon when she first sought to engage us with topics like shame, humiliation and vulnerability. I saw her speak recently to a sold out audience for her latest book tour, Rising Strong. She shared the story that helped me finally get off my ass over a year ago and start to write my book that was inside me.

Her story was about sitting in bed one morning in the weeks after releasing one of her books, and reading – even though she promised herself she wouldn’t do it – the scathing comments on Amazon. She was called fat and ugly and other horrific hurtful things.

It broke her heart, and damn near broke her spirit.

2015-09-25 10.26.30And then, she stumbled upon a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that helped her to see her own bravery – for having the courage to step into the arena and get messy, maybe even fail.

In that moment, she decided she would only take feedback from those who were also in the arena – those brave souls out there with her that were also taking risks, doing something that scared the shit out of them, and doing so publicly – agreeing to have their endeavors (good, bad or ugly) be seen by the masses, and consenting to be vulnerable.

Hearing her story was the catalyst for me saying yes to this book – for me going into the bowels of the arena, taking the creaky elevator up, and stepping out in the bright light, knowing there are most likely lions lurking and ready to pounce.

I want to be one of those brave people – like Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, when she first arrives in the arena with the other tributes, many of whom become allies.

Except I’m not going to engage in a battle. I’m not going fight in the arena – I’ve done that, been there, bought the t-shirt. And I’m tired. It’s an exhausting strategy.

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechangesI’ve decided I’m simply going to be present in the arena – to stand on my patch of dirt and to live my life as a form of prayer. To burn with an intention so bright, I am luminous and able to be seen clearly by others.

A Living Prayer. I write about this in my book, but what I essentially mean by that statement is that I want to live life with the intention – for me, for women, for us all – to be free. To be who we are without all the apologies, explanations, justifications, qualifications, and ramifications.

Because I want more people in the arena. I want a crowd. A village. A party. A revolution.

I want the arena to be where it’s at, and I want the stands for spectators to feel barren and desolate…unappealing to the masses.

So I’m being very public with my experience of writing this book – which includes my process of entering the arena. Brene Brown (and Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Glennon Doyle Melton, Anne Lamott, Danielle LaPorte, Tama Kieves, Christiane Northrup…as so many more) did it for me, so I’m paying it forward.

If you’ve found your way to SheChanges and you’ve stumbled upon this – and read this far – I’m going to take a wild guess that you are poised to enter the arena in some capacity.

So for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Shame doesn’t help
Trying to talk myself out of my fear by telling myself I have no reason to feel it? That is just piling shame on top of fear – a toxic stew for the soul. And yet it’s so seductive, it lures you in without even realizing it, like sirens on the rocks. Here’s how that looks: just this morning, I stumbled upon an interview with Aberash Bekele, a Ethiopian woman who was imprisoned at the age of 14 for three years for killing her abuctor-cum-husband, only to be released, exiled from her country and family, having to go silent about her experience for fear of her life being taken. THAT woman has right to be afraid, not me – the western white woman with advanced degrees and a life of privilege. What right do I have to be afraid? Truth? Absolutely – a solid case. Helpful? Not in the least. Shame silences soul whispers and snuffs out desire. It tells us we are not worthy and have no right to feel what we feel or want what we want. There are plenty of people who will do it for you, and we have no control over that. But what I’m learning is how to catch myself when I am actively participating in my own shame.

Naming and feeling your fear feels counter-intuitive, but it greases the skids and helps you move forward
Wanting something with your whole heart means you run the risk of getting heartbroken. It just does. I sat with a client yesterday who was poised to go after her dream with her whole heart, and had hired me to hold her to that intention. We talked about how “scared” and “uncomfortable” would be her new metrics of success. When we started to drill down to specifics and brass tacks, I saw what I often see in my clients (and have felt in my own bones): paralysis. Fear moves into terror, which has us want to hold perfectly still – not breathing, not moving a muscle, hoping the feeling will recede. But it doesn’t go away. It lingers, and we soon find ourselves stuck and lacking oxygen. This was the case with my client yesterday and when I paused at that moment and asked what she was feeling, she burst into sobs and was unable to speak. What we touched was her fear: what if I do this and I fail? By touching it, we honored it – we made it right, we allowed that fear to come into the light of day and have an audience with us. Which allowed the death grip to be loosened, the breath to return, and the body to relax and feel safe again.

Hang around with brave people
This one is tricky to navigate. What I’m talking about is not the people who necessarily comfort you, but those who inspire you to come out from behind yourself (into the arena). Many times they are in the arena themselves. But more often than not, they are the people that don’t see you in harms way or in danger – they see you on an adventure or a mission. They don’t soothe as much as they agitate, like that cycle in the washer that gets out the stubborn stains. In the coaching world, we call this technique “calling forth” someone – locking eyes, saying “I see you”, and standing fiercely beside them in the face of fear (or doubt, anxiety, the unknown, obstacles…) Brave people are the ones that see life as an adventure to be lived. Brave people have fallen down and would do it again in a heartbeat. Brave people know how to “feed your strengths…pet the tigers…and don’t worry about the amoebas”, as Tama Kieves writes about in This Time I Dance. Brave people love you too much to have you stay where you are. Find them.

Shake it off…literally
Rochelle Schieck, founder of Qoya (although she’s quick to admit Qoya founded her) taught me something so valuable when I attended one of her dance experiences this past summer at Meggan Watterson’s REVEAL immersion at Kripalu. Her premise is that when women dance, they remember they are wise, wild, and free. At some point during this guided dance experience, she tells a story about a gazelle being chased by a lion. She points us back to our animal instincts, when she shares that after the gazelle is out of harms way it begins to shake. All over. Not because it’s afraid, but because it is systematically inviting the fear to exit its body, one appendage at a time. So she has women do that – shaking hands, hips, butts, heads, feet – showing us how the earth is able to receive that fear from us and use it as compost. The result? More lightness, heat, and vitality. Try it. Shake one hand really hard for ten seconds or so, and then stop and hold it up next to your other hand. Notice a difference. Yea. So if you’re feeling scared, nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, overcome: shake.

Ask for what you need
And know that this will change, sometimes daily. This is often the hardest bit for women, because asking for what we need takes us into the realm of feeling selfish, guilty or needy (all variations of the shame theme above). Having navigated this over the last year, I found the muscle I’ve needed to strengthen the most was providing specific direction to those in my life on how I needed them to be with me. For instance, I would tell my husband and sons that I was in a deeply creative hole, and so if I seemed overly distracted or preoccupied, I need them to understand it was because I wasn’t really here in this realm, but was far, far away – deep inside myself. In another example, I told a group of women I meet with regularly that I just needed to give voice to my shame so that it could be witnessed by someone outside myself, asking them to resist the urge to rescue, fix or soothe me in that moment.  What this has required of me is a degree vigilance and self-awareness I didn’t know I possessed. But when I was able to connect my needs to the service I was seeking to honor by writing this book, I was somehow able to become a better wing woman for myself.

Figure it out as you go
The phrase “I don’t know” has become a familiar traveling companion over the past twelve months. In fact, not only am I saying that phrase with more frequency, but I’m also believing it. I never thought I’d get to that point, but it speaks volumes to my relationship to the unknown and the degree to which I’ve had to acclimate to feeling uncomfortable, exposed, and vulnerable. Because the reality is, as my friend Kate has been known to say, “none of us know what the fuck we’re doing.”  I have taken such solace from that over the past year. It’s what has helped me not feel so alone. I used to look at accomplished women and tell myself a story about how confident, supported and fearless they must feel. Then I heard Kate’s mother, Christiane Northrup speak in front of a group of women this summer about how being at the edge is always lonely. Always. With tears in her eyes and a heart full of gratitude, she shattered my perception of her life – having me see that just because she has written countless books, done PBS specials and been interviewed on multiple occasions by Oprah, she was no less impervious to fear and vulnerability than I am. Fear, it seems, is a constant companion at the edge – and in the arena. Necessity is the mother of invention. Feeling fear (and doubt and insecurity) is an prerequisite to figuring it out.

View More: http://melissamullen.pass.us/shechanges

So I will not be engaging in a battle in the arena. I will be living my prayer and inviting you to do the same.

I will be thinking about the wise friend of mine who told me that my job was to throw my rocks into the water – and to stop expecting to see all the ripples it creates.

“Just keep throwing rocks, Lael.” 

I will be thinking about the woman I will most likely never hear from or read about. The one who picks up my book in the middle of the night, relates to something I’ve written, and doesn’t feel so alone as a result.

I’ll be thinking about her.

She will have made my trip into the arena worth every moment.

Want to learn more about being a living prayer?

I’m having a November Birthday Sale of Unscripted, my book
For the entire month of November, I’m celebrating my birthday and the art of creation by selling Unscripted for $19.68 (the year I was born, get it?) rather than it’s usual cost of $34.69.

Make a plan, rally your friends, and reserve your ticket to SheSpeaks for December 8th
If you’re looking for some mojo, some inspiration, some light in the darkness, or some kindred spirits, SheSpeaks is for you. It’s an evening of women’s storytelling I’m hosting on December 8th. This will be the 7th SheSpeaks I’ve held (and it’s generally a sold out event) but the first time that I’ll be holding it since writing/releasing my book. And the theme? A Living Prayer. Eight speakers will be taking the stage to explore that theme with me that night at One Longfellow Square, and tickets are flying off the shelves. So if you want in, make a plan and don’t delay — tickets are on sale now at One Longfellow Square.

Listen to and/or follow my podcast An Unscripted Woman
If you haven’t checked this out already, this is basically my creative response to requests for an audio version of my book. Each week, I read aloud a chapter of my book in an episode and do a riff at the end about what I’ve learned, noticed, and am aware of since writing it.

Check out the new events I’ve got coming up this late fall/winter on my homepage
My women’s circle is full and will started up last week, but it’s never to early to look at it for next year (seats fill up way in advance!), and I’ve got some new experiences lined up for those of you who are not local to Maine, but might be hankering to connect. Also, the video of my story I told at October’s SoundBites just became available, if you missed that event but want to check it out.

Be on the look out for some of my favorite blog posts to be reposted this month 

The Right Hook of Physics

Posted October 12th, 2016

physicsA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about this amazing experience I had where I literally drew my intention with my whole body. My intention?  To be more luminous.

I shared how I felt luminous as I embodied that word in the circle of women gathered that night. It was powerful and mysterious. Like magic.

I felt like a High Priestess conjuring something from the depths of my soul.

Driving home that night, my whole body felt alive and vibrating with vitality — as if I had tapped into some divine charging station that continued to juice my batteries. I felt deeply connected – to myself, to the circle of women that had been strangers earlier that night, and to my purpose. I felt as if the aperture of my soul had widened, allowing in some much needed oxygen, creative energy, and mojo. I could breathe. Deeply.

There was a halo effect from that experience as well. I went through my week feeling grounded, present and grateful. I gathered my family for a similar ritual to honor the new moon in Libra. We pulled tarot cards, created “God boxes” and did an amazing despacho ceremony (an offering of gratitude back to the earth). We were digging it. The whole family — and even my eldest son’s best friend who happen to be spending the night — commented on how peaceful and relaxed they felt afterward.

ritualThat evening ushered in a weekend that felt deeply nourishing.

Now maybe you know what happened next, but I sure as hell didn’t see it coming. What happened next felt like a right hook out of no where that left my jaw sore, chaffed my spirit and made my ass twitch in annoyance — like I’d been bamboozled or something precious had been taken from me.

Here’s what happened:

As the weekend rolled on into Sunday, life started to feel more congested with brass tacks. Reality started to hit. I dragged out our bill basket, collected all the debit receipts, and opened the computer, knowing full well the rat’s nest of untangling that lay ahead of me as I did our bi-weekly bookkeeping. My husband, meanwhile, tackled the mounting dirty laundry piles, replacing them eventually with clean laundry piles stacked in the room all around us needing to be put away. He also fell on the sword and did the grocery shopping for the week, coming home with more bags that now filled up the kitchen floor, adding more receipts to the pile that seemed bottomless.

He looked tired and disenchanted and I felt like Bartleby the scrivener all hunched over the computer and myopic in my vision. We both were sighing a lot. Audibly.

Later that night, we dug into all of our financial files, printed recent statements, and ran reports because we had been putting off compiling all the necessary documents for the new financial planner we were starting with who needed them the next day. We were cranky, overwhelmed, and pissed that we had waited until the last minute to do this dreaded task.

This is all normal household stuff and part of living, I realize. And yes, I’m grateful we can afford groceries, have a home, and have access to a financial planner. I am aware many people cannot and do not. I’m also grateful I have a committed and loving partner in all this. My point is not to complain about the daily grind of living that most of us are all too familiar with these days. I could just suck it up, stuff it down, and suffer in silence, saying mean-spirited things to myself (you have no right to feel this way…you have nothing to complain about…you’re so lucky you miserable shrew!), but that’s not what I’m about these days. I’m kind of done with actively participating in my own shame.

Now, I’m about keeping it real, being honest, and showing myself more fully. So hang with me. Because what happened next was…ironically illuminating.

My point is that suddenly, almost overnight — like a switch had been thrown — everything started to feel pinched, constricted, and dire. As we pulled out insurance policies, I started to worry about fires, theft and total disaster. I started to think about death and destruction and how devastated we would feel. I started to think about all the people, things, and dreams we could lose at the blink of an eye. I started to focus on everything we didn’t have instead of everything we did have.  I started to think about the political election we face in November, the environmental crisis we’re in, and the epidemic of violence that seems to be running rampant.

In short, I started to feel vulnerable, and found myself knocking on wood, crossing myself (even though I’m not christian), and noticing the black cats in the neighborhood (when did there get to be so many?) My husband found me wrapped in a blanket that cold, gray Monday afternoon after I’d brought my youngest son home from school, knees to my chest, rocking back and forth with a deeply furrowed brow.

What happened to being luminous?” he asked gently. 

He held up the mirror of me not three days before in which I could see myself then — all glowing and expansive and radiant, which gave me pause. What had happened to me? Where had that woman gone? Why wasn’t I fucking luminous anymore? I wanted that shit back again. Stat.

I felt like I’d done something wrong, like I’d misplaced my intention, dropped my eye from the ball, or fallen prey to the pervasive suck of fear, lack and disconnect that is seems to saturate our consciousness through main stream media these days.

To be honest, I couldn’t even remember that woman who felt luminous just three days before. In that moment, she felt like a figment of my imagination — trite, silly, lacking substance. Gone.

Thankfully, the very next day I happen to be sitting with a wise woman. I was explaining to her how I’d lost my luminous, and she smiled at me.

(this is where it gets good — I love when people smile at me like that…) 

It makes sense that if you want to feel more luminous, you would also experience greater darkness.” 

forcesinpairsDoh! As I heard her say that, a flood of rightness washed over my body like someone had finally taken her finger out of the dam. The “someone”, in this case, was me.  I had been doing my best to staunch the feelings I had been making wrong in me, when, in fact, they were a natural consequence of the laws of physics.

My whole body exhaled with relief. Permission to honor the entirety of my human experience came riding in on the next breath.

Nothing was wrong with me…it was simply science that was right. And then I smiled at the wise woman sitting across from me and said:

“Of course. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” 

It was not only entirely natural, it was a LAW. It wasn’t just me experiencing this — it’s everything that does…the tides, the moon, and those little paddles with the rubber ball connected by a string. I started to remind myself of all the ways this was true…

If you push your body physically beyond what it’s used to, your muscles will be sore the next day
When you knead pizza dough on the counter, it will both expand and contract
The longest day of the summer will be mirrored by the darkest day of the winter
When the tires of a car push against the road, the road will naturally push back against the tires
The wings of a bird push air downwards, the air pushes the bird upwards

It’s how friction is created. It’s what enables something to have form and move. 

Now this is where I come clean and let you know that one of my few regrets in this lifetime is that I never had physics in high school or college. So there’s that.

But there’s also a deeper appreciation of this: the degree to which I challenge myself to become more luminous — to allow myself to shine brighter, be more visible, and be powered by my fullest wattage — needs to be equally matched by my willingness to feel a deeper level of darkness, which naturally comes as a result of that lightness.

It’s the shadow side of a luminous life.

If being luminous was the full moon, being with darkness was the new moon. It’s a package deal, apparently. So clearly, I need to be gracious enough with myself to receive both of these gifts, and stop pretending as if I can simply chose one and opt out of the other.

There is no surprise here. I had simply forgotten what’s natural.

Brene Brown talks about this a lot, suggesting that those people who live their lives most whole heartedly are also the ones who are willing to feel the most vulnerable. Not just once, but always. Danielle LaPorte talks about how “being the giver” is a sure fire way to experience a life of abundance — and I would add that it also makes you keenly aware of the level of need, potentially raising internal conversations around greed or selfishness. Want to live a life with more integrity? Better be willing to look at shame. Want to live a more balanced life? Get ready to experience some imbalance.  Want to live more simply? You may be gobsmacked by the complexities of life. Debbie Ford writes about the need to face these very things within ourselves in her book, The Dark Side Of The Light Chasers. Hell Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock even sing about it.. “Joy…and pain…sunshine…and rain.” 

It’s powerful information to know what lives on the dark side of your moon. 

And now that I had remembered, the darkness doesn’t seem as scary as it once was. I am finding I’m not bracing for it quite like I used to, clinging to the light side for dear life. I now see them as allies, not adversaries. Sort of a dynamic duo that will ultimately support me in moving forward.

Which means my work now will be about foster better relationships with each of them individually, learning how to move through my days exposed to both brighter light and deeper darkness. Increasing my capacity to be luminous, while also increasing my capacity to be with darkness. I can’t want more of one without expecting more of the other to show up in equal measure.

This realization feels new, but in many ways it’s another version of what I’ve been writing about for years. It’s just that I’m having another go at it, having the very real human experience of forgetting, only to remember something anew. And that, too, is natural. When we are in the light, we literally cannot see the dark, so we tend to forget about it — out of sight, out of mind. Until we see it again — and then we wonder that the light ever existed.

It seems Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock were onto something…it does take two to make a thing go right.

A Living Prayer: Embodying Intention

Posted September 30th, 2016

woman-prayingThe woman’s word was “WORTH“, and I watched as she went first, embodying each letter of that word — her intention – with her body, spelling it first forwards and then retracing it backwards.

I was her partner. My job was to witness her.

It was an exercise, really — something we were asked to do as part of a ritual for a new moon Qoya gathering. If you’re not familiar with it, the foundational belief in Qoya is that through movement, women remember they are wild, wise and free.

A friend of mine who is trained in Qoya recently decided to offer a series of new moon rituals with a small group of women here in Maine. The last time I attended one of her sessions it inspired the opening scene from my book. Needless to say, I was keenly aware of reentering that sacred space again just over a year later. Part of me couldn’t help wondering if dancing in this barn was how I would begin all of my books.

But as I stood there, watching my partner dance her intention, all my thoughts and wonderings sloughed off me and slid soundlessly to the floor. I watched as this woman — whose voice was barely above a whisper when she spoke — close her eyes and move deeper and deeper into her skin as she embodied each letter. I became transfixed by her as she moved through the W and onto the H and the O and the L, eventually getting to the E. When she finished each pass, she quietly gathered herself, keeping her eyes closed, and made her way back through the word, ending where she began, with a W.

Back and forth she went as I watched, sometimes in capitals, and sometimes choosing to embody a lower case letter. While music played softly in the background and three other women traced their words with their bodies behind her, I watched my partner, enrapt. I could see the moment where the exercise moved from her head and melted down into her body. And then her soul. I watched as her expression of the word “WHOLE” shifted from being a thought or an intention “out there” to a whole hearted embodied desire “in here”.

And as I widened my gaze beyond her particular movements, I could take in the other women moving in the space, eyes closed while they invited their desires to inhabit their bodies more fully. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before – no choreography, no synchronization, no consciousness or awareness of how they were sharing the space in this small magical barn in the middle of the woods. They just moved from someplace deep down in their bodies — and when taken as a whole, the scene was utterly breathtaking like some mystical ballet was happening before my eyes.

When the music paused and my partner opened her eyes and looked into my own, we both had tears streaming down our faces. The awkwardness was gone, and a deep intimacy had moved in its place, bonding me to this woman who had been a stranger 30-minutes earlier.

Then it was my turn, and she waited patiently as I gathered myself and wrote my (long) word on a piece of paper so I would know how to spell it backwards. My word was “LUMINOUS”, and my breath caught in my throat when I felt myself write it down — as if I were taking a sacred vow with the Divine.

I began as she did, a bit awkward and literal in my movements, wondering if my partner could “read” what I was “writing” with my body. And then, as she did, I felt the shift. Far from a flip of a switch, the sensation felt more like a faucet had been opened to its widest aperture within me. I could feel I was dancing with and for something much greater than simply my own intention.

I felt like a high priestess. I felt deeply of service. 

I felt luminous as I was embodying the word “LUMINOUS“. It wasn’t simply something I was wanting or aspiring to be…it was actually ME in that moment. More than that, it was flowing out of me, like my body had become one of those a metal spiles that gets tapped into a maple tree, and this warm viscous syrup was just pouring through me — and out of me — like a gift.

When the music stopped and my friend instructed the dancers to open their eyes, I felt the same sensation I had when my partner met my eyes after her dance — a deep connection that felt more like gratitude; as if witnessing me and being in my presence had somehow nourished her.

I have never experienced anything quite like that in my life, and that’s saying a lot because if you know me at all (or have read my book), you know I’m no stranger to being exposed to things like this. But this was different. And, I assume, timely and by design.

This was me living my prayer with my whole body. Or perhaps my wholly body.

A living prayer. I’ve written about that concept, and maybe you’ve even heard me talk about it. The tagline of my book is even entitled “A Woman’s Living Prayer“. But now I get that writing those words on my book was really the equivalent of me opening yet another door inside myself, saying “this way, Lael…this way.

The first was an intellectual exercise (naming it) as I started to chew on a new desire, and the latter is actually me deciding and learning how to embody (own) that desire. The first was saying my prayer, the latter is living it.

This is something I’ve actively been making space for in my creative life lately — inviting that living prayer into my body more fully and feeling my way as I go. I know now that I can’t simply just understand it. I have to experience it. And I am, more and more. I’ve had moments in nature recently where I feel completely present and connected to the earth, feeling its pulse as my own. I’ve held my boys and smelled their heads and experienced profoundly new degrees of presence. I’ve made art and gotten in the dirt. I’ve immersed myself in lakes and oceans, and have felt the wind hit my skin in new ways. In all of these instances, I’ve slowed down – by choice, by circumstance, or by design. Most recently, I found myself singing that song by Alison Krauss — the very song that inspired the tagline of my book — the other night in the shower:

Take my life…and let me be….a living prayer…my God to thee. 

In the hot water and the mist of the shower, naked and with my eyes closed, it did, indeed, feel like I was making a prayer with my whole body. A prayer that had me being of service, of doing work that felt sacred, of using myself to let some amber syrup run into the world. A prayer that had me vibrating with such a clear intention that I am luminous.

I’m finding my way into this, I am. I can feel it in my bones, but more to the point, I can feel it in my soul. It’s not always graceful — and certainly not without a good fight every now and then just to prove to myself I’m alive and kicking. But my senses are more alive now than they’ve ever been which, in this culture and landscape, has been both wonderful and challenging. My increased senses have literally made me more sensitive.

But now? Something new has emerged from all this: a curiosity. A desire to hear from and connect with others who are interested in this idea of being a living prayer. In fact, earlier this year when I announced I would be relaunching my SheSpeaks event (my evening of women’s storytelling) this December 8th, I decided the theme for this one would be “A Living Prayer.” I want to hear from more women on this topic: What is your living prayer and how are you living it? But more importantly, I want to bear witness to them embody it that night, just as I did my partner as she traced her intention with her body.

I am envisioning an entire audience dripped in warm syrup by the end of the evening.

So join me — and them — if you’d like on December 8th (tickets are on sale now), but in the meantime I’ll leave you with this invitation on this new moon in Libra (an uber powerful time to manifest, by the way…):

— Pick a word… a word that lights you up, makes your whole body smile, and represents a deep desire for yourself
— Put on some quiet music
— Enlist a partner to witness you or simply keep company with yourself
— And invite your word to move into you more fully by slowly tracing each letter with your body, first forwards then backwards
— Repeat this (S.L.O.W.L.Y.) until you feel it move out of your head and into your bones…wait for the faucet to open

Somewhere in all that, see if you can feel how what you want — your living prayer — is actually connected to us all. See if you can feel how the service you are doing, the nourishment you are providing, the gift you are offering starts with you and ultimately pours out to us like syrup.

And then thank yourself for being such a badass rockstar of a living prayer. I know we will.

Mea Culpa

Posted September 20th, 2016

episode7meaculpaDid you know I’ve got a new podcast out? Yup! It’s called An Unscripted Woman and it’s available right now via SoundCloud – which means you can subscribe to it through your podcast app on your smart phone. Easy peasy.

I started this as an experiment back in July this summer, and the response was really positive, so I’m back for more this September, as promised! Essentially, this podcast is my creative response to the question I’ve heard from so many of you:

“Where can I get an audio version of your book?”

To be clear, this isn’t an audio version, per se, but it is me reading from my book aloud — chapter by chapter. It’s also a chance for me to riff out loud with you on my thoughts, learnings and experiences that I’ve had since writing each chapter. I’ll be posting each episode right here in my blog as well as on Facebook, so listen however — and wherever — you’d like if it you want to come along with me on this audio journey.

Beyond that intention, we’ll see where it leads us.

Oh, and rest assured…just as I said about reading my book, don’t feel like you need to listen to the episodes in order. Each one will stand on its own just fine — so no rules or shoulds here. Start from the first episode, join me at the latest, or follow your nose to sniff out the one appeals to you most. You can’t do this wrong.

But I do hope you join me at some point. It’s so much more fun when you do.

Scroll down and start listening if you want to catch my latest episode — Mea Culpa.

This is the first chapter I really dig into the specific stories of masculine energy and my experience of it as a woman. In doing so, I also explore how I wasn’t able to even get to that conversation with myself until I really started to sit with and ultimately own my identity as a woman — a tall order, considering I had essentially dissociated from that fact (Why does that matter? How is that even relevant…?) for more than half my life. And then I became pregnant with my first child, and everything, it seemed, “outted me” and forced my hand along this road. This is the story where I started to see the degree to which I had been actively participated in my own shame, and how once I decided to face it — and assume responsibility for it, with compassion — I was able to more fully access and leverage some of my favorite parts of myself.

Thanks for listening — now or later!

Happy New Year

Posted September 16th, 2016

happynewyearWe were quite a sight that day, arriving at my youngest son’s elementary school for the annual “watermelon welcome”. A few people, seeing us hobble up the front walk, asked us if we had been in a car accident. No, we assured them, we’d just had a bit of a rough summer.

My husband, having crushed his arm in an accident back in early July, had six metal bars sticking out of his forearm (an “external fixator”) that were in plain view despite the thin sheath of gauze he used on such outings to spare people the full impact of his edward-scissorhand-esque arm. I donned a big gray boot on my foot, having broken my toe weeks earlier, but it packed quite a wallop visually because I had bedazzeled it with puffy paint that gave it sort of a cyborg-rocker vibe.

Needless to say, we were quite the pair.

The kids, happily, were healthy as clams and ran ahead to meet their friends as we hobbled behind and did our best not to let a wayward braid or a sticky toddler snag the metal bars sticking out of Todd’s arm.

When we arrived at the door, we were greeted by the principal and a bunch of parent volunteers who were holding the door, and managing the chaos with smiles on their faces.

“Happy New Year!” one of them said, as we finally arrived at the door, and we were given New Year’s tiaras.

I felt like Todd and I were the underdog team that had just completed an episode of the Amazing Race and were standing at the end of the journey on that little mat, about to find out – surprise – we were actually not eliminated this round. I literally remember exhaling at the entrance of that school, thinking “WE MADE IT.”

It felt like a finish line.

And as we crossed over the threshold into the lobby of that familiar school, wearing our tiaras and taking in all the fresh faces of the teachers and sharp new pencil smells of the hallways, it occurred to me:

September is the start of my new year. Always has been, always will be.

At first I used to think it was simply because of my conditioning as a student, always “starting” the new year in September, which gradually morphed into adulthood when I began to work in a boarding school as a professional in my first career. Growing up, most of my friends where Jewish, so I was accustomed to this time of year quite literally marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next according to their faith. Then I thought it was about becoming a parent, and how our entire year gradually started to rotate and revolve around the school year, starting in September and ending in June.

But now, as I’m hearing so many more people – like my friends and clients who don’t have kids – talk about their feelings about September, it feels like something more. It feels deeper than education and religious calendars. It feels… primal. And I know I’m not alone. There’s something about this time of year that feels “new”, and I suspect it has to do with leaving behind what was and charting a course for what will be – ready or not.

It’s the changing of the guard time of year, when grief and denial and dread of the summer being over collide with distinct hints of excitement and optimism and eagerness of a fresh start. It’s when playing hooky trades places with a do-over. It’s an in-between place, September…definitely not summer, but still not autumn. No longer there, but not yet here. Feet in one location, but head in another. Moving forward, and yet still holding on. Too cold for shorts and flipflops, but too hot for pants and leather boots.

So what was it, exactly? Where the hell am I?

Feeling a little battered and bruised to begin with this year, I entered September feeling disoriented and ungrounded.

So I did what I always do when I feel ungrounded: I read. In this case, I pulled out everything I had about the seasons, hoping to find something that would help to tether my understanding and right my ship that felt lost at sea. And I found it.

It turns out that according to Chinese medicine and Native American beliefs, there are actually FIVE seasons in the year – Winter, Spring, Summer, LATE SUMMER (ever heard of “Indian Summer”?), and Fall. I had no idea – where has this bonus season been hiding my whole life? It’s often referred to as the “five element theory“. Huh.

Late Summer is actually a distinct season – the shortest one of the year, lasting 4-6 weeks – and is associated with the earth element. That made sense as I read it, because I found I had this intense craving for “grounding” and “getting grounded”. Something in me must have instinctively known this, because I had already given up caffeine and pulled out my bracelets with wooden beads and had been applying really earthy oils like frankincense, sandalwood and patchouli.

Come to find out this season packs a wallop just like my bedazzled boot. Because of its shortness, it’s a time a intense metamorphosis in nature and within ourselves. It’s marked by extreme swings in weather (hot, cold, wet, dry, windy, stagnant, crispy, soggy), which consequently can be a mirror for our what’s going on in our internal environments. Apparently this is a season when things are in motion, both inwardly and outwardly, effectively disabling us from holding on to anything in particular.

Ergo the desire to stay grounded and centered lest things go into total chaos. Sound familiar?

Because while it’s all perfectly natural, it’s also pretty fucking scary when it’s happening. I know this personally, but also because of my clients who have been navigating these waters recently with me as their witness. Clients have used words like “stuck”, “stalled”, “overwhelmed” and “meh” as they are seeking to move toward something, and feel like the wind they were feeling so strongly in their sails just a short time ago has just…disappeared. As a consequence, things seem take a wee bit more effort and focus than they usually do, like trying to walk through a living room with a small child clamped around one of your legs.

So I’m sending this post out into the ether just in case you’ve been concerned it’s just you. Just in case you’ll feel like you’ve lost your way, used up all your mojo or don’t recognize yourself. Just in case, you’re feeling neither here nor there. Maybe you’re through it already and have burst out the other side with all your colors flying – in which case, good on you! But maybe you’re not quite there yet. In which case, sometime thinking in things in terms of “seasons” – especially when you find a bonus one! – can feel immensely soothing and entirely validating.

Like a bearing on a compass. Or a tiara on your head.

 

Want some more bearings on yourself this season?

  • Join me next Thursday night on the autumn equinox (Sept 22nd) at Sherman’s Books in Portland as I do a reading, give a talk and answer questions about making the transition from here to there. Starts at 6:30, completely free and open to all!
  • Help: Given & Received

    Posted August 2nd, 2016

    HelpJuly was a bit of a train wreck for our family.

    At first I thought it was just me, and I did my thing of quietly hunkering down to power through a rough patch that seemed to appear out of nowhere. But the more I talked about it with my friends, family and clients, the more I discovered I wasn’t alone in my experience of this month.

    It seems an inordinate amount of people have had accidents, gotten sick, been diagnosed, or have had other sudden life-changing circumstances descend upon them in July. When I pulled back from my immediate environment, and looked at the larger context of the United States and recent world events, it felt like there was a heightened din of mayhem, violence, and dis-ease that was undeniable.

    But this isn’t a post about that. There are plenty of wonderful people talking and writing about that beautifully.

    No, this is post about how we CARE for each other in that context.

    Because as I’ve heard how many of you out there got the call, heard the news, and had the shit hit the fan in your own lives last month as well, it has felt like we’re all – ready or not – getting a crash course in the need to care for each other.

    In the midst of all this in my own life, what I became aware of is how woefully unprepared we are to do just that — myself included. We’re trained to qualify, put on rose-colored glasses, and pick ourselves by our bootstraps to make it all feel somehow neater. We’re not trained to be with the mess of it – to be with the unknown, the unanswered, and the tough emotions. We’re not trained in being to the degree we are with doing. This is not to say or suggest in any way that we don’t have the innate capacity to  care — I believe in big hearts and best intentions — it’s just that our culture truly doesn’t really train us well in how to BE WITH each other in these ways.

    And now more than ever, I believe the heart of our healing — how we give and receive help from one another — is about how we relate (or don’t relate) to each other in these places.

    More than just muscle and brawn (broad shoulders and capable hands), what I’m pointing to — in myself and others — is our need for us to also care for each other with our hearts and our very presence.

    Caring with our whole human beings, and not simply just our human doings.

    I’m going to tell you a story of my most recent experience of this — mostly because writing about it (with you as my witness) is my primary way of figuring myself out. It seems that’s what writers do.

    On July 5th, I got a call from my husband letting me know he had just broken his arm at work. “It’s really bad”, he said. I’ll spare you the details on exactly what happened, but let’s just say that was a gross understatement. That call from him began a three week shit storm, that ran the gamut from alarming to affirming, exhausting to inspiring, and painful to healing. It was — and to some degree still is — a time filled with lots of questions, very few answers, big stretches of waiting and seeing, huge learning curves, new systems to navigate, an alarming amount of “new normals”, and lots of emotional swamps to wade through with fear, pain, gratitude, vulnerability, guilt, self-consciousness, more gratitude, anger, reflection, and grace.

    The bottomline (today’s) with regard to his injury is that he now has an external fixator (think Edward Scissorhands) holding his arm in traction for the next 8 weeks so the bones can heal appropriately. He apparently doesn’t have any nerve damage to his hand, but several fingers are still numb. “Clean and dry” are our operating instructions, as he will have five open wounds in his arm where the metal rods that are screwed into his bones come out of his skin. So yea… scary and now, somehow, normal. Beyond this phase, he’ll have another surgery to remove the device, and then will heal some more in a cast before engaging in lots and lots of physical therapy which will restore his left wrist to 50% functionality.

    His goal is right now is to be able to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.

    As I have been processing all that’s happened over the last month of our lives — and specifically my role in holding our family in a remotely upright position — I am keenly aware (and profoundly grateful for) the help we have been given. More to the point, I have made lots of mental notes about what worked, why it worked, and what didn’t work in receiving that help.

    Because all this help we’ve received? It’s made a world of difference to us. It’s had us feel loved and held, safe and cared for, seen and validated. But there’s a real art to it, I’ve found. Sometimes help — even when offered with the best of intentions — doesn’t feel like help at all. It feels like more work and therefore burdensome. There have been some amazing shining examples of what I want to pay forward to others — as well as things I want to avoid because I know, firsthand, how they have felt to receive.

    I want to pocket the learnings I’ve had from this time because they’re rich.

    For starters, I have an even greater appreciation for caregivers and what they experience. Aside from the daily trials of parenting, my own experience of it has been brief and humble,. But the last month has given me a glimpse into this role a bit more. It has me thinking more compassionately about newly single parents, caregivers for chronic or terminally ill people, as well as partners to those in the merchant marines or the military who leave home for extended periods of time.  Here are my top ten lessons from being a caregiver:

    1. Communication becomes a full-time job. Immediately. And everybody, it seems, wants to hear directly from you. Group texts or emails with updates help, but they also set in motion days of follow-up with individuals as more information comes out and people ask to be kept in the loop. Oh, and the size of “the loop” grows exponentially daily.

    2. The workload doubles (or quadruples) almost immediately as you learn for the first time all the things the other person had done that were invisible or you had taken for granted. In addition to this, each “new normal” arrives with another set of activities you never even thought to imagine, like bagging an arm before a shower or cleaning and sterilizing metal pins that stick out of an appendage.

    3. Detailed, specific and very critical information and instruction hit you like a tsunami at the exact moment your ability to focus, comprehend and retain complex information reaches an all-time low because of stress and sleep deprivation. Simply put your attention span is nil and your memory is shit.

    4. You move through your days coming into contact with other people’s grief, anxiety, and worry when your own load of it is already feeling more than you can bear. “Good” and “fine” feel like minimizing (or lying), while “not good” or “awful” feel alarming, so you learn to use neutral terms like “to be expected” or “day by day” so you don’t spend valuable energy soothing someone else.

    5. You are forced to prioritize things that all seem equally important, like choosing between eating and a shower, paying bills or doing laundry, playing with a neglected kid or responding to a patient client, and getting sleep or catching up on work.

    6. You feel like you can’t complain because it’s not you that’s hurt or sick or being brave. Period. And on a related note, it’s also hard to take time for yourself because you feel guilty or selfish – going for a run on a beautiful day when someone else has five metals bars sticking out their arm and is stuck inside just feels like rubbing salt in a wound.

    7. You feel the need to start every sentence with “I’m sorry” or “thank you SO much” even though you know you don’t have to. You just are — sorry (for the inconvenience, the disappointment, the distraction) and grateful (for the help, the support, the understanding). AND eventually those two phrases start to feel shallow and insincere. Sadly, you also start to listen for them coming your way (like when the ungrateful cashier at the supermarket hands you a receipt for spending $275 on groceries with a “here ya go”).

    8. People get really flustered when “strong” people break down, which often means they feel the need to rescue (You can handle this), reassure (You’re so strong) or point out all the silver-linings (It could have been much worse).

    9. Sometimes touch is so much more affective than words. Eye contact. Someone touching their heart. A dry steady hand on your sweaty shaky one. A warm hand on the shoulder. A big bear hug. A rub on the knee. These all speak volumes.

    10. Sometimes there is a weird pride and gratitude for the opportunity to help, like when you grill an amazing steak for the first time your 47 years, or you bring home the bacon AND fry it up in a pan, or when you get giddy at the chance to finally learn how to use a mower because someone else has always done it and now can’t.

    But mostly, here’s what I learned as I’ve received helped from others:

    Make a statement. Questions add to the noise.

    How are you? How is he? How did it happen? What’s the latest? Do you need some help? What do you need? What can I do to help? How are you holding up? When can he return to work? What’s his pain like? How’s his arm healing? Are the meds helping? Do you need me to do something for you? How are you feeling? Are you okay? Is he okay? Anything I can do to help? All wonderfully loving, kind-hearted and generous questions. And…questions. Lots of them. Coming at us fast like one of those automatic tennis ball servers that has you running all over the court chasing them down.

    These well-intentions questions are added to the mix of everyday questions that tend to swirl around us. What are we having for dinner? What does my work schedule look like today? Tomorrow? Next week? Who’s going to pick up the kids today? Where ARE the kids today? Where do they need to be tomorrow? Do we have food? Did we do the laundry? What bills are due? Did the dog get fed? 

    What happens next? Circuits overload. Texts, emails and phone calls go unanswered. Patience wears thin and guilt gets a foothold. An I don’t know stupor sets in, followed by an it doesn’t matter meltdown, which eventually leads to grid lock in the brain. And then you find yourself crying uncontrollably in the cereal aisle at the grocery store with complete strangers asking you if you’re okay. More questions.

    What I’ve come to appreciate more fully through this experience is how very little we know about anything at any one moment in time. We just don’t. Which causes a great deal of anxiety for most of us. But when we were in the thick of it earlier this month, we got so overwhelmed and stressed out trying to address all the questions and options coming our way from the medical people, that we didn’t have anything left over to cope with anyone else’s questions. All those just sounded like noise, even as we knew they were well meaning.

    What did cut through the noise, however, were the statements people made to us, whether in person or by text. I am keeping you in my thoughts and prayers. We’re sending you love – no need to get back to us, we just wanted you to know we’re here. We’ll be thinking about you tomorrow. Lit a candle for you today. I’m making you a meal next week. I’m stopping by to see you on Thursday – leave the door locked if you’re not up for it. I’m here if you need me. 

    Decisiveness is a tremendous gift.

    When we were preparing for the labor of our first baby, our midwife gave my husband some sage advice. She said, “Don’t ask her if she’s thirsty, just stick the straw by her lips…if she’s thirsty, she’ll take it…if not, she’ll bat it away.”

    Decisiveness can be a gift. Questions can distract those who are in pain — be it emotional, physical or mental. It feels counterintuitive and presumptuous to decide something for someone, but when someone’s world is saturated with unanswered questions, the biggest “help” you can give them is to not add to the pile. People who tell you they want to help and repeatedly ask you how they can do that are unwittingly adding to the burden of questions to answer — even when their intentions are good. They are adding their needs to the list the caregiver is inevitably carrying.

    One of the biggest learnings I got from this whole experience was from those who were bold enough to just decide something for me. They didn’t ask me my opinion or consult me in advance. They didn’t ask my permission or have me weigh in on choices or options. They didn’t feel the need to coordinate logistics or be involved in any way. They just decided.

    Like the friend who, upon finding out Todd’s surgery had been started and then aborted because of the rash they found under his cast, texted me to announce I’m bringing you dinner tonight. Or the friend who was with me at the hospital that has an amazing recollection of details who chose to call my parents for me without being asked simply because he knew they’d be anxious and would want an update. Or the family member who made it a point to plan a movie date and a beach day and a concert in the park with our youngest child because she knew we would be worried about him feeling anxious and neglected as we navigated this time.

    Each time this happened — and there were many — my whole body sighed with relief when someone else took the reins and decided something for me. These people just made it so easy and simple for me to say yes to their help. They just stuck a straw near my mouth when I didn’t even know I was thirsty. And I sipped.

    Meet people where they are, not where they might have been.

    You’re lucky, it could have been his head that got crushed…or his leg. He could be paralyzed right now. You’re lucky he didn’t die. You’re lucky it happened at work. You’re lucky you have each other and you’re not single. You’re lucky you have flexible work. You’re lucky you have a supportive workplace. At least it’s not chronic or terminal. At least it wasn’t his dominant hand. It could have been much worse. Yes, all of that is true. And it’s not remotely helpful to hear.

    Most people say stuff like this with the best of intentions – they’re trying to cheer you up, have you see the silver lining, or help you to focus on the positive. What it does do instead? It immediately takes me back to the trauma, and all the what ifs and it could have been thoughts and greatest fears that churned wildly in the wake of first learning the news. It picks a scab, makes me more anxious, and ultimately has me feel guilty because try as I might, I just don’t feel “lucky” right now. What’s worse, I now feel like I can’t complain. Or say anything, lest I sound ungrateful. So I shut down.

    The other thing that happened — and I suspect this is a well-meaning, but misguided attempt at relating to our story with another — is that people started to share all the gruesome and tragic stories they knew of people who got in accidents. Like the nurse in the ER who tells us we’re lucky because just last week a 62-year-old woman tripped on an acorn while on a walk with her husband, hit her head, and BOOM – died instantly. Or the person who fell down the steps and became a quadriplegic, or the person who got in a car accident and has massive brain trauma. Yea, laying on more trauma stories as a means to illustrate all the ways we’re lucky? Not so much.

    Instead, I’m making a note to meet people where they are because that is what felt so damn good and helped me to feel seen and safe to open up. One of my favorite openers was You’re fucking shitting me, that sucks. Another was This must be really hard. Or one that Todd got was The man who’s always helping everybody else, now has to accept help from others. Those were real, honest and gritty responses that gave us the safe space we needed to drop into and admit: Yea, this fucking sucks right now. This is hard. I am scared. Meeting us where we were in any given moment gave us permission not to see the bright side, not be grateful, and not assure people we were “fine” when all we really wanted was to lose it or fall apart.

    Be an angel investor. Presence is a fantastic present.

    The afternoon we came home from Todd’s second — and successful  — surgery, we got a call from a local pizza place confirming a delivery. The guy said dinner had been called in for us and was all taken care of. Thirty minutes later two artisan pizzas, a big order of caesar salad and four cannolis magically arrived at our door. Some guy named “John” ordered it for us. We still have no idea who that kind soul is — even after checking with a few of the people we know by that name — but we were so very grateful to him. Clearly he didn’t need us to know, he just wanted us to be fed.

    Anonymity in caring for people is underrated. It’s like being cared for by an angel, discovering that some amazing person helped us out when we weren’t looking. It had me realize that overly involving me in the logistics of help or trying to coordinate the delivery of it creates more noise in the system, having me feel the need to acknowledge the giver more than simply accepting the gift. And try sending a thank you note to an angel named John. Yea. That’s not something that can fit on a to do list. Crafty.

    There were so many instances of this, and frankly we are still delighting in discovering them. Just last week we finally “caught” the neighbor who had been returning our garbage and recycle bins back to our garage each Thursday morning. We have gotten gift certificates to restaurants and handfuls of lottery tickets from people we barely know. I’m quite certain a pile of people have included us in their prayers at church, dedicated their yoga practice to us, or silently offered us loving and healing energy during their meditations. Angels. Every one of them.

    We have this thing we say in our house when the boys ask us what they can do to help. We tell them look with your eyes. We mean to teach them to notice what needs to get done or could use some help as a means to encourage them to take initiative, rather than rely on instructions. But more recently, I’ve made a note to add to that. I want to also tell them to feel with your heart. To have them feel what needs them and respond accordingly — with a hug, a bit of encouragement or some simply love.

    Leverage your strengths. Do more of what makes you awesome. 

    This was one of my coolest learnings, because it was just so clear and simple to see as the receiver of help. I started to notice that the gifts were that were the easiest to receive — and sometimes even ask for — were the ones that came naturally to the giver.

    Like when the neighbors who go to the beach every weekend said they wanted to take our youngest son to the beach with them for the whole day to teach him how to boogie board. Or the other neighbor who makes fresh-baked muffins every morning for her Airbnb guests, brought some extra ones over for us. She’s also the dog lover and devout walker who made sure she had a key and knew where the leash was so she could come in and take Max out for some exercise. Or the other neighbor who mows her lawn like clockwork ever week, so figured we wouldn’t mind if she mowed ours, too. Or the friend who shares our sense of humor and brought over a box of classic DVDs from the 80s and 90s to make us laugh. Or the friend who loves current events who noticed we didn’t have a subscription to the paper and thought having one delivered to the door each morning might help us feel connected us to the world. Or the co-worker that sent a text a couple times a week that made us laugh because she has a seemingly endless supply of funny dog pictures or cat videos to express something she knows we must be thinking or feeling. Or the quiet friend you could talk to for hours that cleared his calendar and stopped by for a visit to help pass the time. Or the kind-hearted spiritual neighbor who sat with us and listened intently while the tears flowed and then gradually stopped.

    That’s when I started to see that sometimes getting the answer to What can I do to help? is as simple as looking at what already comes naturally to you. You don’t need to break the bank, turn into Martha Stewart or channel Ina Garten. You don’t need to make things a big hairy deal or twist yourself into a pretzel. Sometimes just doing more of what you already do easily is best. And as someone who has received these gifts, seeing them flow naturally from the giver makes it somehow easier to receive them because I know it was just an extension of who they are.

    It would be tempting to close this post by making all kinds of comments that would serve as disclaimers and qualifiers to remind you just how grateful I am. But that would be just participating in my own shame, and frankly I trust you more than that. If you’ve read this far, I trust that you know I know all that, or at least are gracious enough to assume it.

    This is me telling my story with my whole heart, which Brene Brown believes is the very definition of “courage”. This is also me shining a light on all the ways we can do that “lean and catch thing” Kelly Corrigan writes about in her essay Transcendence. Because, as she says, “it is only together that we will rise.”

    So here, take bits and pieces of my story, and add them to your own. Share them with a friend, and then go out and live some more. Tell someone what you find and experience, so we can learn some more.

    Let’s heal and be healed together, shall we?