On Gratitude

Today, I drove 27 min to the library, so I could stop being so desperately bored. I’ve know boredom is supposed to be good for your creativity, because if your brain has room to wander, it is more likely to wander into something interesting. That’s true. I’ve had a lot of great ideas and breakthroughs in the last couple of weeks. But the less romantic truth is that, 84% of the time, a wandering brain just….wanders around aimlessly into absolutely nothing.

So I’m at the library, piling books into my arms like a fiend, getting so excited about all the different topics. Cupcake baking? Yes please. Bob Marley’s journey while recording Exodus? Yup, piling that on. Novel by Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes please. Memoir by Ruth Reichl? Mmmm yes. I even grabbed a synonym dictionary. I’m not even kidding. I saw this huge, old-fashioned book full of synonyms and thought I’d grab it for some light reading. I was PUMPED. Then, I picked up a couple books that my grandma asked me to get for her, and headed towards the check-out desk, stumbling a bit under the huge pile. I couldn’t wait to get home and read all of these books!

At that moment, the place went completely dark. I looked around, thinking stupidly “is it nap time?” Of course it wasn’t. Unfortunately. Then I got kicked out of the library.

It turned out that the power went out in the whole island of Key West. Before I got my library books!!! And now I was stranded out on the street, longing for all those books I was forced to abandon on a table inside. It was madness. Luckily, I had 5 dollars in cash and I was only a five minute walk from the key lime pie shop. So I went and got a slice (dipped in chocolate, on a stick). It was fucking delicious. It made me smile. I ate it as I walked back to my car to drive home.

Gratitude is like that. I was still PISSED AF that I had to go back empty handed, but then this little sliver of joy presented itself to me. Gratitude is noticing the unexpected gifts in ordinary life. I know gratitude isn’t always a piece of key lime pie. It’s not always that obvious. But the key lime pie is such a great example of how gratitude shows up in my life. It’s unexpected, hard-won, beautiful, tasty, and it gets me through. I’m not at the point yet where I can be grateful for hard things, but I can be grateful for the tiny moments that get me through the hard things.

I think boredom is on the docket for me again tomorrow. And I’m okay with that.

On Decisions

I woke up this morning and shuffled to the bedroom door. What followed was a mess of decisions, routine, habit, emotion, and, like it or not, just plain humanness. What followed was a mess. A beautiful, powerful, ordinary, exhausting, comical mess. A regular day. A regular day where I made so many tiny decisions, each one influencing the next, and influencing the people around me. What a complex web we weave around ourselves!

MORNING
walked out of the bedroom door
thought about boiling water for coffee, but didn’t
thought about picking up my phone
gratitude for coffee
more gratitude for coffee
dragged my feet to the bathroom
while peeing, considered not working out
tried to justify not working out (“I’m sore from yesterday, I didn’t get enough sleep,” etc)
realized that was bullshit
brushed my teeth while dreading working out
realized I could drink coffee right before my work out
got considerably more excited to be alive
turned on the shower accidentally (that was my habit before I started working out in the mornings)
turned off the shower
felt sheepish
walked to the stove to put on the water to boil
went back to the bedroom to pull on my workout clothes
walked out of my bedroom, forgot why I walked out, then walked back in
thought about picking up my phone
resisted the phone addiction (I have a rule – no phone in the first hour of waking up)
grabbed my yoga mat and brought it outside to the deck
chose the YouTube workout I wanted to do
went back inside to pour the water over the coffee grounds
picked up my phone to text someone before I forgot
felt a bit guilty for breaking my “no phone in first waking hour” rule
breathed an audible sigh of relief as the coffee percolated (and my phone addiction was appeased)
poured milk into my mug like I always do
took the first, heavenly sip
walked outside to start the workout
thought about how terrible this feels
thought about how strong I’m becoming
gulped coffee like it was water and I was on a desert island
thought about how I still don’t have a “perfect body”
thought about how I definitely don’t want to do these fucking bridges
drank the last dregs of coffee
was amazed when the workout suddenly was over (I didn’t think I’d actually finish it)
stood up shakily
rolled up my yoga mat
thought about breakfast
thought about all the things I wanted to get done today
realized that the workout actually made me feel super energized
gratitude for my body
gratitude for a full day with “no plans”
almost immediately decided to go into town with my grandma to keep her company at the bank
thought “so much for a day with no plans”
thought “look at me, being helpful”
thought “oh shit, now I’m not gonna get as much done”
thought “fuck it”
tried wheat germ for the first time
discovered that wheat germ is pretty much a much blander nutritional yeast
got really excited about wheat germ
gratitude for wheat germ
had a fantastic conversation with my grandma about nothing and everything
gratitude for my grandma
showered and chose an outfit
decided I didn’t feel attractive enough in the first outfit
changed my shirt
got into the car to drive into town
realized I forgot my chapstick
went back inside
grabbed the shitty chapstick because I couldn’t find my good one
headed back to the car

AFTERNOON
called Chris while I waited for my grandma to finish at the bank
learned a lot from talking with him
decided I love being with him (I usually decide this 1-7 times a day, as if it’s a new revelation)
thought that I really want to trust him more
gratitude for Chris
thought about how I really really have to pee
talked about Christmas plans
felt stressed about buying Christmas gifts
received a text from my grandma which read “I’m going to scream soon”
felt panic rising in me, that old, familiar “I’ve been at the bank for almost an hour” panic
thought about how much I have to pee
went over to sit by my grandma, trying to be comforting
decided to go find a bathroom
wandered around the neighborhood for a few minutes, desperately searching
felt weird about going into any of the fancy hotel lobbies nearby, so just went back to the bank

EVENING
hid in bed watching Monk
felt incapable and anxious
forced myself to venture out of the bedroom for a family video call
thought about how far away we all were from each other
gratitude for family
tried to time things so our dinner would be delivered before we both got way too hungry
decided what I wanted for dinner from the Cuban restaurant
called to order
thought about how luxurious it was that we didn’t have to leave to pick up the food
shared a beer with my grandma – Blue Moon – her favorite kind
finally read a text sent that afternoon, from the parent of a piano student (S)
realized she’s asking if I could teach S this evening, instead of tomorrow evening
weighed all the factors: my crippling anxiety, my love for this student, my deep exhaustion, her dedication to the instrument, and her recital coming up in December
decided to let go of my “free night” and teach her an online piano lesson at 7:45pm
ate dinner with my grandma
thought about what I wanted to teach S
thought about how proud I was of her
thought about how I wasn’t making any sense
wondered why the hell I was talking so much
thought about how inadequate I was as a teacher
thought about how much awesome wisdom I was imparting
wondered if anything I’m saying is actually getting through
ended the lesson on a strong note

NIGHT
felt proud of myself
gratitude for my student
gratitude for teaching
dreaded writing this blog post
said goodnight to my grandma
begrudgingly sat down to write this blog post
had zero clue what to write about
lay down and snuggled into my blankets, trying to feel more at peace
then decided what the topic would be: decisions


On Decay

Today I wandered into a cemetery filled with palm trees and cracked stone. I felt lighter than I had in weeks. Everywhere I turned, there was life demanding to be acknowledged. A baby palm tree pushing up from the grass. An iguana sunning itself on a grave. A bird alighting on a post. It didn’t seem like a place of death at all, especially not in the sunshine, with the grass shining greenly underfoot. I was reminded of Whitman, who wrote in Song of Myself that there is no death (I’ve included the full excerpt below). Later, I opened Rumi, searching for a response. I found it in this poem:

Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me,
if this is the time.

Do it gently with a touch of a hand, or a look.
Every morning I wait at dawn. That’s when
it’s happened before. Or do it suddenly
like an execution. How else
can I get ready for death?

You breathe without a body like a spark.
You grieve, and I begin to feel lighter.
You keep me away with your arm,
but the keeping away is pulling me in.


While Whitman asserts that death doesn’t exist, Rumi speaks of waiting at dawn for an execution. Both reflect the feeling I had today: that death is never permanent. Something will always disintegrate and decay, and something else will always grow from the nutrients/energy of the decayed thing. The graves today were filled with life. Grieving really does make us feel lighter, like Rumi writes in this near-perfect poem. Giving space to the darkness in us, being vulnerable and letting parts of ourselves die, can allow light to come in.

Full excerpt from Song of Myself (Leaves of Grass) by Whitman:
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means,
Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,
I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.


Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon
out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.


This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken
soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

On Overwhelm

When I was little, the holidays were always a time of extreme giggling and waking up way too early with my cousins. I remember laughing so intensely that my small body felt like it was bursting apart. It felt delicious and fun, but at times the sensation got too big for me to handle. Sometimes, after rolling around in pure merriment for too long, I would start to feel out of control. I’d feel overwhelmed.

I had a natural solution to this feeling of overwhelm. I remember this clearly. I’d pick up a soft blanket. I’d pull it over my head for a few seconds, letting it fall down gently around my face. I’d close my eyes, breathe, and silently tell myself it was alright to calm down. My cousins and sister would be screeching and bouncing all around me, but I had this one small moment of solitude in the dark. I’d feel my body come home to itself, like a houseplant responding to water. Then I’d lift the blanket up and start playing again, refreshed and regulated, ready to dive back into those large sensations.

This response to overwhelm was automatic when I was a kid. I didn’t have to think about it, or strategize in any way. I wasn’t dissecting theories about the nervous system’s response to stimulation. I hadn’t read “The Body Keeps The Score,” by Bessel Van der Kolk, or “Unbound,” by Tarana Burke. The only resource I had in that moment was my own body. And I knew what I needed. Not only that, but I was able to provide it for myself.

Let me say that again: I knew what I needed, and I was able to provide exactly that. With no outside help. In the moment. Without hesitation. Without inhibition. Without ANY THOUGHT WHATSOEVER.

Here’s my question: where, in the crevices of my childhood, (let’s include upbringing, personality, socialization, traumatization, and formal education in the “childhood” category), did I lose my ability to soothe my own overwhelm? Was it a mere forgetting, or rather a more sinister, slow unlearning? And, will it ever feel automatic again?

Overwhelm* happens frequently for me. It used to happen when I was laughing and playing a little too hard. It happens now when I’m in a really crowded public space, when I’ve been taking care of other people all day, or when too many things are demanding my attention at once. Overwhelm feels like someone suddenly opened an umbrella inside my chest (one that’s way too big to fit behind my ribs) and it’s pressing pressing pressing against my bones, my skin, my throat, my heart, threatening to take away the life inside me if I don’t do something quickly.

Overwhelm often leads to panic, and because that sensation feels so urgent, it’s almost impossible to interact with the world until I’m able to regulate again. As an adult stuck in a state of overwhelm, do I use the blanket method? The automatic childhood response to overwhelm?

No.

Instead, I hide from my overwhelm.

I go into dorsal vagal mode, which is the shut-down method our body uses when it’s in a state of hyperarousal. I feel trapped inside of myself. My body feels numb. I start bumping into doorframes, dropping things I would normally be able hold on to, and, finally, lying in bed watching Netflix out of desperation. It takes conscious thought to invite myself out of dorsal vagal (the feeling of “I can’t”) and into sympathetic (the feeling of “I can”). Then, with a lot of effort and focus, I can spend a few minutes experiencing and “being with” that sense of panic, using non-judgmental awareness, and pull myself up into ventral vagal (the feeling of “safety”).

Through body work, therapy, close relationships with people I love, mindfulness, and dance, I’ve slowly learned that I do have the ability to self-regulate, take care of myself, and attend to my “overwhelmed-ness” when I need to. I’m developing the habit of gently delivering myself out of shut-down and into safety. But it has taken years, and will take many more years, for this sense of security and trust in myself to return.

I don’t have answers, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here for the questions – that’s what keeps me going. If overwhelm always existed, and so did my natural self-healing response to overwhelm, where did that instinctive response get suppressed along the way?



*My “overwhelm” in adulthood may show up differently from other people’s, as I have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as anxiety and depression that stem from the PTSD.

On Flight

Scruffy, angelic white puffs blow in the wind outside my plane window. My sister says it’s an invasive species. It seems ludicrous that something so beautiful could be so violent. We take off, and the white puffs give way to dead grass, then an expanse of grey sky. I’m thinking about elementary school birthday parties in dimly-lit bowling alleys. I can taste the greasy pizza soaking through the paper plates. Huge sheet cakes with frosting so sugary the granules are rough on my tongue. Blue lettering. A barbie with hair that grows when you pull a string.

Now we’re over the ocean, spots of white littering the indigo blue water. I can still see the lines of tiny boxes on the shore, distant now. I’m thinking about how someone once described humans as a parasite, quickly spreading across Earth, taking and digging, extracting all the life out of our host. Sucking her dry. The CDC describes a parasite as “an organism that lives on or in a host organism and gets its food from or at the expense of its host,” so this seems pretty accurate. I wonder if I agree with this image of my species. It’s certainly romantic, but makes my skin feel too tight for my body, especially from up here in this plane, where our parasitic behavior is so clearly laid out for me to see. The Bay, taken over by human dwellings, along with all the necessary dwelling-accessories. Tiny lines, beige against green: roads. Lighter bits bunched together in squares: farmland. Chunks of sun reflected, glinting: office buildings leering up at me.

Now the mountains are below us. They are bare compared to the city we left behind. Strong in their solitude. It’s been awhile, a long moment of just spacing out in the general direction of the horizon, but I haven’t been able to forget the parasite analogy. Will these little pockets of human disease eventually spread to cover the entire surface of the earth? Will the faraway mountains soon be teeming with scurrying people, gardens, rats, parks, highways, restaurants, and chlorinated pools?

In the distance, the mountains have huge wrinkles. Elephants, heavy velvet. These mountains know deep change: they are not static. Constant erosion. Surrender. Receiving. Yielding to the rain that flows down their many faces. They are relinquishing and relenting. I think the mountains must have to fully know themselves to accept such complete and uncontrollable distortion, without protest.

I think about how often I used to yield to people and experiences. When I was 18, the thrill of that surrender was expansive. It felt like a dripping diamond necklace, or a huge, cool lake waiting for me to jump into the deep waters. The thrill was like water, flowing around me, through me. A womb and a river simultaneously. I was at home in surrender. I trusted that I, or something else, something benevolent and good, would pull me out if it got to be too much. If I got too chilled, or too wrinkled.

I didn’t know myself yet. Or maybe I knew myself too much already, and the world would not budge to accommodate my knowing.

The people I surrendered to were not ready for the trust I immersed them in. They were not the rain. Was I the mountain? Was I the rain?

These people submerged me. And I drowned. They told me I couldn’t swim, should not swim. So I stopped swimming. That was part of the yielding, right? I had to yield. To make the complete shift to embody someone else’s experience, I had to leave my own body and experience behind. And so I went still. My limbs atrophied, my mind filled with grotesque images of floating heads and penises, surrounding me in a suspended, tangled mass until I couldn’t breath anymore, and drowned.

What was the yielding, then? Suicide? Or was it just a big misunderstanding? Back then, I assumed that everyone was exactly like me. I saw a face and thought, “behind that face is a deeply-feeling, spectacular spirit that takes in everything, yields to everything, and knows itself fully.” I thought everyone was tapped into the huge, cool lake of it all. I thought each person would automatically wrap us in a warm, fluffy towel if things got to be too much, too cold. I thought they would notice these things. I thought they were like me.

But it was all a big misunderstanding, wasn’t it?

Now we’re moving through the clouds. I’m thinking about all those times as a kid, looking out the airplane window at the clouds and feeling like this is the one true experience. Like everything else in the universe was just a distraction from this moment. Like this white, clumpy, grey, writhing mass was the pure heart of it all. At the time, it felt undeniable. Now, the cloud is over much more quickly than I remember. Now, I watch it giving way to a clear view of Los Angeles below us.

Los Angeles, the parasite to end all parasites. The horrid, flat buildings weighing down the land. The football fields, skyscrapers, palm trees, languid universities, and sad little cars. The water shipped in from Yosemite. The clouds are above us now, back where they belong, suspended in chaotic little puffs. An ominous fog obscures the horizon to my right.

Suddenly, there are large piles of red dirt and tiny scruffs of bush along the runway. White paint sprayed on the pavement to mark our way as the plane lands. Houses in the distance jar me back to the parasite idea. “The parasite carrier touches down onto its host,” I think wryly. First stop down, two to go.

Reality

I live in my dreams
I haunt reality
my mother sings to me
she sings me to sleep

Reality doesn’t have much to give me
I’d rather be sleeping and hide in my dreams


awake I can’t breathe
the light is so heavy
asleep I can see
the colors wide and deep

Reality doesn’t have much to give me
I’d rather be sleeping and hide in my dreams
Reality doesn’t have much to give me

Meteor

sit with me
gaze into space
can you hear
the stars embrace

stay with me
on the bridge
blankets up
to the edge

of our faces
of our chins
breathing places
we’ve never been

I know, I know you
I know, I know it’s hard

the meteor may never come
but there are songs yet to be sung
the meteor is slow to fall
but you and I talk through it all

take in
the night sky
as it bows
its head to cry

walking past
the morning birds
they understand
how much it hurts

to know you can’t
go back and change
who you were
or who you hurt

I know, I know you
I know, I know it’s hard

the meteor may never come
but there are songs yet to be sung
the meteor is slow to fall
but you and I talk through it all

I know it’s sad
but I’m here
I know it’s sad
but have no fear

we’ll lift up
our heads tonight
and won’t look back
on who we might have been

I know, I know you
I know, I know it’s hard

the meteor may never come
but there are songs yet to be sung
the meteor is slow to fall
but you and I talk through it all

the meteor may never come
but there are songs yet to be sung
the meteor is slow to fall
but you and I talk through it all

Kyoto

for my dad

The stones that we left there are calling to me
Have they grown into boulders? Or rolled to the sea?

It’s a myth, oh father,
that we carry these stones
But the memory heals us,
so we’re no more alone

You show me the water splashed up on the stones
You bring out the beauty in Earth’s grey-green bones

It’s a myth, oh father,
that we carry these stones
But the memory heals us,
so we’re no more alone

So we’re no more alone

MeYouUs

he kneels over me
all anger and silence
I know I should leave
but I feel so frightened

you kneel next to me
all lovely and caring
I know I should stay
but this is so scary
but I feel so wary

I’ve kept it safe within my memory
the pain of his sin
threatens me, and you, and us

here I stand
trudging through hell
before we began
I buried myself

it’s not yours to hold
but you’ll be the witness
this thing is cold
but I won’t let it freeze us
I won’t let it freeze us

I’ve kept it safe within my memory
the pain of his sin
threatens me, and you, and us
me, and you, and us