I don’t know what letter I should be on by this point. Clearly I have been derelict in my blogging duties, and probably have been ousted from the A-to-Z community, but I feel compelled to write today, dereliction be damned.
Not much makes me happier than sitting in my kayak on the lake on a sunny day, except maybe kayaking after a great run. Today was one of those banner days when I got to do both, something I haven’t done for months and months.
The sun finally made an appearance in conjunction with a day in which I had nothing to do but read for class, so I took advantage and slept in, went for a run (5.26 miles or roughly 8.5K), and then spent the remainder of the afternoon in my kayak on the lake (reading my Gestalt textbook). When I looked up from my book, I got to see fish jump and hawks swoop down from the skies to pluck the trout from the water. I chased a blue heron down the coastline trying to get it to sit still while I took a picture. An unsuccessful endeavor, but majestic and rewarding nonetheless.
After a week off due to illness, I took to the trails yesterday and got in a little more than seven great miles (or approximately 11.5K). In fact, yesterday my fastest mile was the last mile. I love negative splits, and I love coming back strong after time away. Today’s run was a bit tougher, a little slower, and a tad shorter as I pulled something in my right ankle while mowing the back 40 yesterday. I had to wear my rubber boots to mow since most of the backyard is a swamp. Those polka dot fashion boots from Fred Meyer don’t have much stability or support. Now I’m sitting with ice on my ankle.
I’ve not seen the backyard this wet in the nearly 20 years I’ve been living here, but had I not mown yesterday, I would have to rent a hay baler next weekend. As it was, I had to take a layer off with the weed whacker first. And I am not exaggerating when I say there was at least six inches of standing water in places. One section of fence had fallen over, the posts completely rotted away. I suppose at some point that’s going to cost me. For now, it’s propped up to keep the deer out (little f**kers got in and ate the geraniums and pansies Mom planted last week—for more on that ongoing battle, check out this blog from a few years ago).
But today I felt great having tackled the first mowing of the season, the first run in a week, and the first kayak since October. I am a little stiff and sore, but done with the worst of it, ankle notwithstanding. I am looking forward to more (especially since I recently talked a couple of buddies into buying kayaks).
Spring is blossoming slowly in these parts this year, and today was a small taste of everything I love about the next six months: kayaking, running, my backyard, and sharing it with friends.
I decided a few days ago that B was going to be for Boundaries—a relevant topic now that I am a counselor and caregiver (see A is for Alzheimer’s). But then life intervened in unexpected ways and while I should be cranking out my C is for . . . blog, I’ve still not gotten around to B. Also, there’s the little matter of a poem to go along with. Every time I sit down to write a poem, I get interrupted. Poetry is challenging enough without constant interference. I wrote one the other night, but I’m not sure it is suitable for public consumption—in fact, I know it isn’t. So, back to the drawing board.
A few words about Boundaries. Boundaries are those imaginary lines that we draw in the sand between us and the rest of the world. The word “no” is a boundary, as in “No, I cannot help you move this weekend (or ever).” Boundaries are personal bubbles, as in “if there are 90 empty seats in the movie theater, don’t sit right next to me if you don’t know me.” I am continually amazed at how often this boundary gets violated (especially in Bellingham). Boundaries can be fences, hedges, the edge of the lawn, a strategically placed flowerbed, or (if you are Cheeto Satan) a $65 billion wall between countries. What all of these borders, imaginary or actual, have in common, is they separate me from the rest of you in some way, or us from them, or my yard from your yard, or my body from your body, or my time from your time. Stepping across the line means I am choosing to merge some part of myself with you.
As a counselor, having boundaries means that I must keep our relationship confined to the counseling setting. It’s a bit odd, this particular boundary because while you (the counselee) may chose to tell me (the counselor) many intimate details about your life, I will not reciprocate with intimate details of my own. Normal relationships (friendships, intimate partners) rely on the mutual sharing of such information across boundaries to create a sense of closeness. You tell me an intimate detail, a secret, something you’ve not shared before, and I reward you with a secret/intimate detail of my own, our friendship grows, intimacy flourishes, the exchange is reciprocal.
Not so in counseling or therapy, which works differently. You tell me (the counselor) a secret, and I reflect it back to you, usually with a question. Something like “what meaning might you assign to the anger you have for your father?” or “what would it mean to you if she asked you out on a date?” or “how has being abused as a child affected your parenting of your own children?” Or maybe even (if I’m feeling stuck) “how do you feel about that?”
As a counselor, I have to have Boundaries because how helpful would it be if you disclosed your traumatic childhood to me, expecting insight and healing, and I said to you “Wow! My childhood was traumatic too”? Or, even if I did determine that some level of self-disclosure might be warranted (a quick rule of thumb re: self-disclosure: it can be ok if it helps the client, but not if it’s only for my own sake, i.e. to make me feel better), how helpful would it be if I confused you by having loose boundaries in the therapy room but then ignored you when I ran into you at the supermarket? If I took your money (or insurance payment) under the auspices of helping you but came to rely on your feedback and your insights? If you leave a counseling session knowing more about your therapist or counselor than he/she knows about you, somebody’s Boundaries are too loose.
Therapy is a very specific sort of exchange, one that depends on firm Boundaries. Less than firm Boundaries create all sorts of havoc and may result in the counselor or therapist losing their license. Lapses in ethics often result from lapses in Boundaries and can be a very slippery slope. Loose Boundaries can lead to inappropriate friendships and perhaps even sexual liaisons between therapists and clients. Sleeping with a client is never a good way to help them heal. It might make the client feel special initially, but will eventually destroy them (and probably the counselor as well).
Even something as seemingly benign as a friendship can become problematic between a therapist and client. As your friend, I have a vested interest in telling you things you want to hear, things that will keep you as a friend. As your therapist, I have a duty to tell you things that you might not want to hear but need to, things that will help you heal and move forward, things that a friend wouldn’t tell you. Boundaries make it possible for me to be your counselor.
Confused yet? It’s tricky, I know. But trust me, this is one lesson you’re better off NOT learning directly.
Related Haiku (this is an old one, but relevant)
Please do not invite me in and then abandon me at the threshold
Note: Since it is also National Poetry Writing Month (or NaPoWriMo) in addition to the 2017 A-to-Z Challenge, I will try to include a poem at the end of each blog entry. Today’s poem is a Haibun, a Japanese form in which a prose-poem precedes a haiku.
My mother only eats off of salad plates, and she will only use a salad fork. When we run out of small plates (we only have six and she will not use the one that doesn’t match the rest, the blue one with stars, the sun, and the moon) and small forks, she tells me it is time to run the dishwasher even though it may contain only her six salad plates and her six salad forks. She does not remember that she can wash the plate and fork by hand. She eats off of small plates and she drinks only tea but her teacup goes in the dishwasher rarely. It is brown with discoloration and stains and sticky from the sugar she ladles into her tea.
Her habit of eating off of the small plates is not new. She has been in the habit of using the salad plates for a long, long time now. It comes, I believe, from years of being monitored by my father for overeating. For as long as I can remember, my father scrutinized my mother’s eating habits. When I was a kid, a teenager, I remember going out for ice cream and my dad making my mom get a diet coke while the rest of us had ice cream cones. Divorced for 16 years, she now eats ice cream right from the container. It’s as if not using a bowl means the ice cream doesn’t count, doesn’t really mean anything, will not invite supervision or scrutiny.
My mom moved in with me in September. My brother and I had been fielding reports from her friends and neighbors for several months in which they outlined her memory declines and odd behaviors. She reported seeing Sasquatch in her back yard a year ago in March. She forgot that she had ever played Farkle, a dice game that she played regularly over the past several years with friends and family. She got lost driving and forgot why she went places, her best friend told us.
I expected she would move in with me last June, but she called and refused. She didn’t want to leave her community or her friends. She had book clubs and garden club and Friends of the Library, she said. I had time last summer, time to orient her to Bellingham, time to sign her up for services, time to drive her to appointments. But she couldn’t quite marshal her resources, became overwhelmed at the monumental task of packing up her house, of sloughing off unnecessary items, of sorting through the detritus. My brother and I showed up last Mother’s Day weekend and hauled a ton of stuff to Goodwill and the dump. We divvied up her Waterford crystal and boxed up the china to be auctioned off on Ebay. I prepared her room in my house, but she didn’t come in June. She didn’t come in July or August either. And when I asked, she told me she was too tired to pack, too overwhelmed to organize the boxes.
Her friends kept calling. She shouldn’t be driving, they said. She tells the same stories over and over, they said. As if I hadn’t noticed that. Each phone call was the same as the last. Each conversation might as well have been a recording of the previous one. She couldn’t muster the energy or wherewithal to travel. She had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas the previous years. She told her friends she hadn’t been invited. She told her children she didn’t feel like traveling. I know now that she couldn’t get organized, couldn’t leave her dog, didn’t know what to do to get ready.
My mother eats off of small plates. She only will use a small fork. Her life is getting smaller. The walls are closing in. On both of us.
My mother has become an old woman before my eyes, aging into forgetfulness and dementia, a victim now of ancient routines. She flutters toward the light, safe and trapped simultaneously, unable to escape the confines of what little remains, the walls of her cerebrum wiped smooth, scrubbed of the dust and fluff of daily nuances, the surfaces there papered only in history, teflon to what is new. She hunkers inward, shuttering her blinds, while painting on a brave façade.
Memory’s threads fray,
Ragged edges and patchwork
The mind’s makeshift quilt
So, I’m on the downhill side of this mental health counseling degree I started three years ago. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel—but before I can emerge victorious from the darkness, I must complete a handful of tasks:
First, I must accumulate three hundred hours of direct counseling experience. I am about a quarter of the way there.
Then, I must amass a dozen or so hours of direct observation of my counseling skills. I’ve got that covered—no sweat.
I must also acquire many hours of supervision, which I am working on and should have little trouble accomplishing.
Simultaneously, I need to add about 20 credits to my credit total, six of which will come from the two remaining required classes I must take, Intro to Research and Tests & Measures, eight of which will come from my remaining Case Consult classes, and the rest of which will have to come from a couple of electives.
I am taking Intro to Research now, right this very quarter, and it has me flummoxed. I should not have put it off this long. I should not have waited until I was in internship to take it. I should not have dropped it all those previous quarters when I registered for it. Nope. Bad decisions have come back to bite me in the ass, here Dear Reader. I have no room in my little pea brain for academic articles. I am up to my armpits in counseling clients who have many serious mental health needs, and I am having difficulty wrapping my head around how researching and writing a paper is going to help me be a more effective counselor. It seems an exercise for its own sake, a tuition-generating requirement, if nothing else.
So, while I could not give less of a fuck about this paper in general, I am quite interested in the specific topic I have chosen, which makes me reluctant to simply blow it off. I have decided to research Trauma and Transracial Adoption (TRA). It’s a topic that is near and dear to me, a topic that I neglected to address 27 years ago when I first adopted my oldest daughter, a topic that I am now ashamed to admit that I gave no serious consideration to until just recently.
It makes sense to me that if adoption is a traumatic experience, that transracial adoption would be even more so. I mean, think about it. How in the world can white people adequately prepare children of color to navigate our racist culture? I know now that our optimism when we adopted our girls was misplaced and the result of white privilege. We didn’t have a clue how steeped in white privilege we were. Of course, when the social workers asked if I would be willing to make sure my kids received information about their cultural heritage, I promised to provide it. Of course, I said. Of course. I will read them books. I will tell them about Martin Luther King, Jr. I will hang pictures of Rosa Parks and celebrate Black History Month. But I had no idea how, 27 years later, my ignorance would affect my girls.
I had no idea. I was so naïve, my friends. So very naïve. I did not imagine all those years ago that race relations would be WORSE in 2017 than they were in 1990. Who among us would have predicted? I had no idea raising two black children in our lovely little liberal bubble Bellingham would not prepare my daughters to live in the greater world as women of color, would not adequately prepare them for future encounters with racists, with white supremacists, with law enforcement officers who would just as soon shoot them dead as ask questions.
I should have known. I should have tried harder. I should have. I should have. I should have. And so now, here I am, trying to figure out what I wish I had known then, what I wish someone had slapped me upside the head with all those years ago: how will being raised in a white family impact an African American child? What will they learn? Who will teach them how to navigate this racist world? How did I contribute, willingly or not, to their marginalization? This is perhaps the toughest question: what was my culpability? Did I collude? Can I admit it?
Admittedly, getting to the place where I can acknowledge my culpability has been tough. When my ex-partner and I adopted our kids, we just wanted children. We did not think beyond our desire to have a baby. She wanted kids, and I was along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughters. I would not trade them for anything. But that love doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets about the way in which we went about the adoption process. I should have steeped myself in Black culture. I should have moved to a city more inhabited by Black people. I should have made an effort to connect my kids to their heritage. I didn’t. I admit it. I took the easy path. I surrendered my responsibilities.
And now, as a sort of atonement, I am writing this research paper. It is not enough, but it is a start.
I need to vent. Trigger Warning: This blog may not be as well-written as others on this site. I’m pretty pissed. Here goes:
Three and a half years ago, I quit my job. I quit for many reasons: I’d been mysteriously ill for a few months. I was tired of driving 85 miles a day to work when gas cost almost $5/gal. I didn’t feel that I could work in good conscience for the oil industry. I thought the stress was getting to me. I left a job that paid me six figures ultimately, however, because of sexism. I worked with men who continually questioned my abilities. Not the men whose computers I fixed, but the men on the IT team. The guys whose computers I fixed were awesome. They loved that I could walk into their offices and make their malfunctioning computers work again. But the guys on my team? 75% of them didn’t believe I could do my job.
Before working at the refinery, I managed the network at a private school. I maintained over 300 computers and a 6 server network for eight years. I also taught the teachers how to use technology in their classrooms. My network never crashed. Teachers who hated technology initially, came to love to use it with their students. For five of those years I worked for a woman who believed in me. She knew I could do my job and left me to it. I loved going to work. And then she left and a man took her place. In three years he completely dismantled everything we’d built in the tech department (and in the school at large, but that’s another story). He undermined me at every turn. He relied on parent volunteers to run the tech department, and he chose to listen to parents instead of the person (me) who knew the network. In short, he refused to believe that I, a woman, was capable of running the school computer program and he certainly did not want to pay me to do it.
Tech has a woman problem. I walked away because I was sick to death of being second guessed, undermined, and mansplained. For years I thought I couldn’t hack it, wasn’t tough enough, didn’t know my stuff. I know better now. I know that I’m capable and knowledgable, and I am certain I can fix your computer. And even though I’ve left gainful employment to go back to school in a completely unrelated field, I still loved tech and computers. I really loved helping people learn how to use their computers. And, even if they didn’t want to learn, I believed they deserved someone who could assist them without demeaning them. I decided to go into business for myself when, one afternoon, I was in the local Mac store and watched as a technician completely bullshitted an elderly woman about what was wrong with her computer. Rather than taking the time to fully explain the issue and how it could be fixed, he demeaned her, lied to her, and totally took the easy way out. He hid behind obfuscation and arrogance. He intimidated her. He did not help her. She didn’t deserve his treatment. She deserved respect, and more importantly, the help she had paid for. I resolved to work for people like her.
While I returned to school to retrain as a mental health counselor, I decided to work as much as I could as a tech therapist, someone who could help folks with their computers, smart phones, printers, networks (wifi), tablets, and even televisions. I would charge a decent price, come to their homes, and demystify technology for those who were afraid as well as for those who just didn’t give a rat’s ass as long as it worked. My motto is “no more rude nerds,” and my mission is to save the digital immigrants from the digital natives.
My mission was confirmed twice today. First, I had a meeting with clients who wanted to know why their iMac wasn’t working so well, and later I had an appointment with a client who had to buy a new computer because her old computer was, well, old, and her hard drive was failing. The first couple’s son-in-law had upgraded their 5-year-old computer to the latest OS over the thanksgiving holiday. He didn’t think. They have only 4GB of RAM. Their computer is old. It’s slow. It needs some help. It shouldn’t have been upgraded, but now that it is, it needs more RAM. We figured out how to get their pics off their iPhone and their camera’s SD card. They were happy. I enjoyed helping them. No one felt insulted or demeaned.
My next client had called her “tech guy” three times before she called me. He’s worked for her for six years, but didn’t answer her recent emergency calls. Her hard drive was failing. Her wifi needed rebooting. Her new OS was too much for her old computer. We talked about options—I could replace her hard drive. But the computer was old. Other parts would fail soon. The apps wouldn’t work well with the new OS; eventually she wouldn’t be able to use her browser or her Office suite. She decided to get a new computer. We chose the bigger hard driver over the faster hard drive. Programs will only get bigger. Pictures will continue to take up a ton of space. She’s not gaming or watching videos. A faster hard drive won’t make a big difference in her quality of life. The cost was the same either way. But there were somethings I didn’t know about her set up (like why she had two iTunes accounts or where her offsite back up resided), so she called her original IT guy. When he called back, he berated her for buying the new computer and for not getting the solid-state drive. He then mansplained at me for not seeming to fully understand iCloud. She didn’t deserve that treatment. I didn’t deserve that treatment. No one deserves that treatment.
Tech has a woman problem. I want to fix that. Let me fix your computer today. I’ll fix your psyche, tomorrow.
My friend Linda swims nearly every day. Her devotion to swimming her mile in Lake Whatcom is as sacred as my devotion to running laps around Lake Padden. We often meet up to write together after we’ve completed our individual exercise routines, and at some point we started talking about her swimming across the lake instead of along the shore.
“How far is it from your beach to the other side of the lake?” I asked. “Could you swim it?”
“Probably a half mile,” Linda answered. “Of course I could swim it, and I have, but I need an escort so I don’t get run over by a speedboat.”
“I could paddle along in my kayak,” I said. “Let’s do it!”
That was last summer, and somehow the sunny warm days ended without us ever having made the crossing.
Recently, as we had a little bit of a heat wave and a string of decent days, I’ve been jumping in the lake to cool off after my runs and then hopping in my kayak to soak up some rays. Which reminded me that Linda and I had yet to conquer the cross-lake challenge. So I brought it up, as summer seemed to be coming to a rather quick and blustery end.
“Still up for a cross lake swim?” I texted her.
“Sure! When?” She texted back.
“Friday? Weather still looks good. I’ll be done with school for the quarter.”
“Let’s do it,” she wrote.
Last Friday morning dawned gloriously pink. “Uh oh,” I thought to myself as I let the cat in for his morning feeding. “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” I texted Linda. “Wanna go a little earlier?”
“Sure,” she wrote back.
I shooed the cat out the door and hurried to get dressed. Then I loaded the kayak in the back of my truck (so much easier than heaving it up onto the fancy and expensive Thule rack I own) and headed out to Sudden Valley to be the support boat for my friend’s great swim.
I lugged the kayak down to the shore, through the bushes and garden bark, across the vast green lawn dotted with deer poop, which I deftly dodged (you can read more on how I love deer here). I tied a rope around the little carry handle on the end of the kayak and lowered it down the high bank into the water. So far, so good, I thought.
The sun was rising over the mountain across the lake, glistening golden against the clouds. The water, for now, was calm, inviting. And warm. I stuck my toe in. Hmm. I could swim in that. But I had to be in my kayak to fend off bigger boats and wayward jet skis in order to protect my friend. Plus, I don’t really like swimming.
Linda walked down to the water’s edge in her black swimsuit, pink bathing cap, and teal blue flippers. She held two pairs of swim goggles in one hand and a black neoprene swim cap in the other. Her wife Amory trailed behind her, phone at the ready to document this momentous event. But first things first. A goose had left a large, uhm, gift on the bottom step and as I was about to brush it off into the water with my paddle Linda stopped me.
“NO! Don’t put that in the water,” she admonished. “Amory, would you go get a paper towel?”
“Oh, like there’s no other goose poop in the lake,” I said from my kayak cockpit. I suppose if I were getting into the water, I might feel the same way. “I guess you have a point,” I conceded.
“Just so you know,” Linda said, pointing at me, “I count as I swim, so don’t interrupt.”
“Roger that,” I saluted, a little disappointed as I had envisioned a leisurely paddle-swim in which we conversed. Guess it was going to be a quiet journey instead.
Once the goose droppings had been dealt with, Linda descended the five steps and dove in, splashing me, and we were off. I waved to Amory standing on the bank and pointed my kayak toward the distant shore. I knew immediately I had more of a challenge on my hands than I had anticipated, as Linda veered off in the wrong direction, and by wrong I mean instead of heading across the lake, she appeared to be swimming parallel to the shore. I tried to herd her into going the right direction, but she could neither see nor hear me. I sighed and stayed close, assuming she would figure it out eventually.
We zig-zagged across the lake, making it to the other side in about a half hour. I took a picture and sent it to Amory. “We made it!” I wrote. Linda and I chatted for awhile, took a few pics of each other, and then headed back.
For some reason, she swam in a straighter line going the other direction. I didn’t have to herd her nearly as much, though when we were about ¾ of the way across, she suddenly veered to the south. By the time I got her attention, she’d swum a few hundred yards. We would have been back to her beach if she had been going the right direction.
She laughed when I finally got her rerouted and adjusted accordingly. “I didn’t want to tell you how challenging this would be,” Linda said. “I didn’t want you to change your mind. You should have seen me swimming across the St. Clair River (in Michigan, at Amory’s brother’s house, over Labor Day weekend), dodging speed boats and freighters. I almost ended up in Detroit!”
I was very glad that I hadn’t been the support boat for that adventure. This quiet lake swim was
proving to be more complicated than I had anticipated. And we’d only seen one jet ski and three boats, one of which was oar-driven. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to keep her safe in a busier body of water.
Last week I had to write my Spiritual Autobiography for the Spirituality and Counseling class I’m taking this quarter. This particular assignment scared me a bit. More than a bit. In fact, just thinking about this assignment made me itch. By its very nature, the assignment implied that not only am I in possession of some sort of spirituality, but that I have been for most of my life. I’ve discovered over the past 15 years or so that the word “spiritual” conjures up positive happy feelings for a lot of people, yet there was nothing positive about my early spiritual development. In fact, I did not have a positive spiritual experience until just two years ago at the tender age of 51. Everything spiritual in my life up to that point came from either my parents pushing their religion on me or me trying to accommodate their wishes, or me fleeing from any and everything that even hinted of religion, spirit, or the supernatural. That’s what I have to work with: my own fear and dread regarding spirituality.
Sometimes, we get stuck in our stories, so I decided it was time to change the story. Below is what I ended up turning in as well as an art project I created to go with my paper.
It is time to change the narrative that has been my spiritual autobiography. It is time to rewrite my history from a power stance, from a strength perspective, from the view of a survivor rather than a victim. While my parents filled my formative years (ages 5-22) with radical fundamentalist christianity, and while those tenets and precepts haunted and dogged me for most of my life, I somehow found the courage to follow my own inner voice and at the age of 22 began shedding what held me back. I started to develop an ethos to call my own. I used to say that I spent the years between 22 and 51 avoiding all things that had even the faintest whiff of religious/spiritual energy, but in my reframe, I must say that I spent those years searching for a spirituality that worked for me. And, truth be told, I am still searching. Only in the past two years have I discovered the merest thread of a spirituality that may work, but when I look back, I can now identify the many sacred elements of my life that have been there all along. I just didn’t know that I could shift my definition of sacred to fit my needs. What I once thought to be profane is actually sacred, and much of what I learned early on to be sacred is, in fact, profane.
The bible served as my early foundation, and I learned god was angry, vengeful, wrathful, and to be feared. Scripture seemed to mock my most deeply held personal beliefs—equality, justice, fairness, and the right to love who I wanted. I grew up with a sense that no matter what I did, I would probably end up in hell anyway: if I took communion without all of my sins being forgiven, if I had premarital sex, if I even thought about someone with lust in my heart. If I took the lord’s name in vain. If I read “secular humanism.” If I listened to non-christian music. The world became a place not to be embraced but to be feared, a land fraught with temptation and danger. I couldn’t even love to be in nature because if I loved anything more than I loved god, I was committing an act of idolatry.
Somehow, I managed to hang onto myself just enough so that the summer before I started graduate school (the first time, when I was 22), I began to seek out other perspectives. I started reading those dangerous books and making friends with non-believers, and listening to the still small voice inside that urged me to stand up for what I actually believed, not what I’d been told to believe. I stood at my kitchen sink one morning, washing the dishes and decided in that moment that I could no longer be both true to myself and remain a christian. Christianity had to go. Thus began the journey in which I started collecting my own sacred experiences.
I started dating women. Sacred. I met and had a commitment ceremony with my first long-term partner. Sacred (and a little profane, but that’s another story). We adopted Anna. So sacred. I started therapy and exploring my feelings, wants, needs, and desires. Sacred. I learned I was depressed and began taking a new wonder drug that lifted my fog and allowed me to enjoy the world. We adopted Taylor. Sacred. I learned to stand up for myself and my needs. Sacred. And painful. When my ex had our daughters baptized without my permission after our divorce, I returned to church (I opted for the Unitarians) for the first time in ten years in order to provide my children with an alternative to mainstream religion. Sacred, though I didn’t end up staying long.
I bought a house and set about making it a home for my girls and me, an act that I now see as a step on my path to a personal spirituality. I met and married another woman and we lived and laughed and loved for fifteen years. When same sex marriage became legal, we got married with my children as our witnesses. Our love had finally been recognized and validated as sacred. Much of what we shared was sacred—some of it was struggle, and when it ended, we left each other intact, emotionally, having developed a stronger sense of what was sacred in the other.
During those fifteen years, I did not spend much time thinking about my spirituality or my soul or the sacred. From my vantage point now, I can see that I did continue to cultivate and sharpen my own sense of sacredness, however. I spent eight of those years working with for a Catholic elementary school, and I came to understand, perhaps for the first time, that not all who are religious are judgmental and/or narrow-minded. At Sacred Heart, I learned that the individuals in a religion could hold different values than the institution itself, and that community more than religion or dogma is what compelled most people to attend that church.
Also while working for the Catholics, I realized that I needed to start taking my body more seriously, that it was in fact sacred, and necessary to a healthy long life. I started working out, and found a connection with others, sacred bonds of friendship, which, for me, represented the spiritual connections with others I craved. Eventually, after I left the Catholics, I started running and found whole new worlds of spirituality open up. More connections and new friends, time in nature, the dawning awareness that my body really is a miracle in its own right. I started my runs (especially the more challenging runs) with a meditation: “I am thankful for my feet. I am thankful for my legs. I am thankful for my lungs and my heart. I am grateful for the time to run and for the money I have to buy shoes and running clothes. I am thankful I live here where I can run on trails instead of sidewalks.” By the time I got through my meditation, I forgot that running hurts.
Before I started running, I generally felt as if I were living two lives, and I often said in therapy that I needed to pull my circles into alignment. One circle represented the me I wanted others to see, and the other circle represented what I did that I wouldn’t want others to see, probably the real me. As running became paramount in my life, I began treating my running time as sacred, inviolate. Pargament (our text book author) writes that when we discover the sacred, our sense of fragmentation dissipates and the sacred becomes a passion and a priority.
As running began taking over my life, I began to wonder if it might not be time to stop taking the Wonder Drug, if it wasn’t maybe masking my (normal) responses to a difficult world. I found the new clarity to be sacred, and I redoubled my efforts in therapy to seek enlightenment, a search which led me to body work: massage, acupuncture, breath work. And on the massage table I had what can truly be described as my first encounter with The Divine. My massage therapist always finished our sessions with a blessing, her hands on my head, channeling love and oneness (that’s what she said, I just figured it was a nice way to signal the end of my session). This time, however, she stood at the head of the table, her hands hovering over my hair, and I could feel a new and different energy fill me up, a surge and a tingling from my scalp to my toes. She stood there for a good ten to fifteen minutes while something or some being left her and entered me.
Once I dressed and asked her what had happened, she just laughed and said, “You’ll have to ask Spirit.”
I wrote a haiku (that’s another sacred thing in my life: writing) to commemorate the event:
She laid hands on me Channeled a Divine spirit– Broke through to my Soul
That encounter with Spirit (or whatever/whomever) on the massage table served as a breakthrough of sorts, or at least it opened me up to the possibility of a spirituality absent of religion and a sense of The Divine unattached to the particular form of god on which I was raised. I felt pure love. And though my skepticism wasn’t completely eradicated, that experience gave me permission to explore my spirituality in ways I didn’t ever think I would want to. I now attend what I call Not Church, the local Bellingham Center for Spiritual Living, on a somewhat regular basis. They offer a 9:30 a.m. service in which there is no music and no singing, no “meet and greet your neighbor,” all things from traditional church services that tend to make me anxious. We end with a 10-15 minute meditation.
I’ve dabbled in meditation and mindfulness. Both sacred experience, and in the process, I’ve sort of fallen in love with Buddhism—the sacredness in not grasping, in letting go, in silence, in pausing. I feel as if these past two years have made up for a lifetime of ignoring my spiritual life, and if I were to describe myself spiritually, I would have to say that I am becoming a Warrior of the Light, as described by Paulo Coelho:
I was hoping to have a blog on more recent events, but I just can’t put my thoughts into anything coherent. Today Facebook reminded me that I wrote this piece two years ago today. So, here it is. It’s aged pretty well.
Lately I’ve been lamenting the disappearance of my haiku muse, and yesterday I had a bit of an epiphany about this apparent abandonment. I was sitting on the deck, inhabiting my favorite summer writing space—our gazebo or what The Little Woman has dubbed “the man cave” (since I’m the butch in the relationship, and, I guess because I occasionally drink beer out there). Anyhooo—as I scribbled in my journal, writing random lines of bad poetry, revising, creating better lines of poetry, a thought occurred to me. If I were to think about running in the same way that I think about writing, I’d just be sitting around falling out of shape instead of getting fitter and faster.
Which is to say—my running only improves because I am out there on the trails every morning (honest to god, six days a week, 8 a.m., at least five miles each day). Even on days when I don’t want to get out of bed, when I’ve slept like shit, and my feet and calves ache, I hobble to the kitchen, put on the coffee, make a smoothie (or toast), and pull on my running clothes. I tell myself that I will feel better soon. I remind myself that my running buddy awaits, that we will have coffee after, that after the first quarter mile, the aches and pains will shake out. I know that if I can just propel myself around the lake once, the endorphins will kick in and the next lap will be so much easier.
I know these truths about writing too, but for some reason I have more difficulty remembering. As much as I remind myself how good it feels to have a new piece published, whether on my blog or picked up by an anthology, I have difficulty motivating myself to put my butt in the chair and write. And really, the process may look different from running, but they are much the same thing—do the work, reap the rewards.
Last weekend I ran in the Great Sedro Woolley Fourth of July Footrace. After a bit of a dry spell, I have entered a spate of footraces recently—a few weekends ago, TLW and I ran the Camano Crab Dash with our running buddies April and Karen, then the GSWFoJFR with Cami, Bill, April and Karen and some other lovely women from The Fit School, this weekend The Chuckanut Footrace, the following weekend, my friend Cami’s Windhorse Half Marathon, and more into the future. Probably the Bellingham Waterfront 15k, and the Bellingham Bay Half Marathon, Run Like a Girl . . . and so on.
Something happened at the race in Sedro Woolley that I never even imagined might be possible—I placed third in my age group! Like my friend Kari said, that’s some compliment, being told you run fast for your age, but THIRD IN MY AGE GROUP! Usually I’m pleased to run under 10 minute miles and come in in the top half of the total field. Last Friday, I ran 5.17 miles in 44:16—that is smoking fast for me, a series of 8:30-ish miles, sustained for 5 miles! Even on my best training runs, I don’t string together more than one or two sub-nine minute miles but put me in a crowded field and my competitive juices start flowing.
Along with the competition and adrenaline, there’s another factor: I tell myself I can do anything for an hour. Anything? Anything. Hmmm, I thought to myself yesterday, maybe that mantra can apply to writing as well. And how had I so quickly forgotten what I could accomplish after two fairly recent months of writing a blog post a day? How did I let myself get so out of writing shape? What might happen, I wondered, if I sat down for an hour every day and just wrote? Might my writing muscles get as developed as my running muscles?
So, I sat longer yesterday and didn’t get discouraged when the muse didn’t show up right away. I kept writing, doing word maps, stretching and challenging myself to find better synonyms, more complex words, words I could use in double entendres. It’s the same in running—I don’t just run flat courses (though I work one or two in every so often). I generally run terrain that challenges me. My favorite course has two good hills and many ups and downs in between. No matter how often I run there, I still find the hills difficult—some days more so than others. Yesterday I ran about two miles longer than I do on an average day. These runs make me stronger, mentally and physically. When I run a race on the flats like I did last weekend, I can fly (you know, for my age).
Eventually, the muse returned to me yesterday. And here’s the thing about the muse—it’s me. The muse lives in me—she is not some external ethereal creature who decides to occasionally grace me with her gossamer presence. I own her wings and her wand, as much as I own my running shoes and shorts. And just like I drive myself to the running trail every morning at 8, I need to put my butt in the chair and flip open the computer and make my hands move across the keyboard. I need to challenge myself like I did a few months ago with the blog a day or something similar, some writing exercise that will improve my writing, strengthen my storytelling abilities, improve my dramatic arc.
I read enough writing books to know that even the most celebrated authors don’t possess a magic bullet or super secret writing regimen. No writing will occur if one does not sit and write. No running will occur if one does not put one foot in front of the other. I may occasionally find my inspiration outside of myself; I may credit this person or that circumstance for providing an impetus for writing or running, but ultimately I am the one who needs to do the work. Only I can move the words from my head to the computer screen, only I can propel myself down the trail and across the finish line.
“The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.” —Carl Jung
A year ago I sat at this very table faced with the onerous task of writing a final class paper. Again, I have the same chore in front of me, albeit for a different class. Back then, I had to write a proposal for a group therapy group. Now I must reflect upon my time as a practicum student, as a fledgling counselor seeing clients for the very first time. What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? (No, it doesn’t say weaknesses, the assignment says “areas of growth” but we all know what that really means). What did I learn about my clients? How did I experience myself in supervision, and how do I want to grow in this area?
Let me just say this at the outset: seeing clients for the first time, the first two, three, four, five times is flat out terrifying. I’ve had two years of classes and coursework preparing me for sitting in a room with someone who wants help. I’ve participated in numerous role-plays and fish bowls and practice sessions with my student colleagues. I’ve had more personal therapy than the average bear over the last twenty-five years, and still. What can I possibly do for the anxious or the depressed, the overtaxed, the under functioning, the overcompensating, the abandoned, the unloved, the overachieving, the lonely, and the traumatized who sit in the chair across from me?
How can I possibly help?
For years I wanted nothing more than to be a therapist. The women I most admired were the ones who had listened from that chair as I unburdened myself of my anxieties, depressions, anguish, loneliness, and traumas. I thought about how amazing it would be if I could bring the same sort of listening ear, the same sort of compassion, the same sort of hope to others that these women had given to me. But I didn’t think I was healthy enough to be a counselor. I didn’t believe that I had the capacity to help myself, let alone anyone else.
But then in the spring of 2013 I had a chance encounter with the author Claire Messud who wrote The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children. We chatted about her character Nora and what happens to us as we age and begin to realize that perhaps our previously unlimited horizons are shrinking. At some point, Ms. Messud said to me, you wake up and realize that you simply don’t have enough time left on this earth to fulfill all of your dreams. Where once so much was possible, you begin to grasp the reality that you’ve reached a point where that is no longer the case.
That is when I understood that regardless of what I thought about my own mental health or lack thereof, if I didn’t do something about pursuing my dream my horizon would shrink even further. If I didn’t enroll in school soon, my dream might slip away. I signed up for the necessary prerequisites and enrolled at Antioch a few months later.
And what I’ve learned in the time since then, and particularly this quarter as I’ve worked directly with clients, is that my experience on the other side of the couch, my years as a client, what I previously saw as my greatest weakness, is actually my greatest strength and most valuable asset.
What I have learned in practicum and in supervision is that I am enough. Who I am is precisely what I need to be to be effective with clients. I haven’t learned this from my clients. I’ve learned this from my peers primarily, and from my instructors, and from my own therapists. And slowly I’m beginning to see it for myself, from within myself. And that’s the thing—we usually can’t see in ourselves our own strengths. As I move forward into my second quarter of practicum and then into a full year of internship, my greatest opportunities for growth will be in recognizing my own strengths and trusting my own wisdom, sourcing my confidence from within rather than looking to others to reflect my strengths back to me.
I’ve learned from my clients that they too have all they need within them and simply need to be heard, to be given a chance to lay their vulnerabilities and fears out there in order to sort through them, evaluate and ponder, decide what’s working and what’s not, learn how to hang on to the useful and discard the useless. While self love and self compassion are the ultimate goals, sometimes we need external validation from someone we trust, someone whose values align with our own, someone who can see what we’re seeing and tell us we aren’t crazy or imagining things. Sometimes we just need to be seen and heard in a world that seems to be ignoring us.
I learned basically the same thing in supervision that I learned from my clients—I learned to trust myself, that I didn’t need to put on a persona or be an all knowing font of wisdom or channel the great mystics of the ages. I learned to be real, to be myself,
to trust my instincts, and to be present. I learned that I am enough and to bring my self to the sessions. I think my greatest learning this quarter came when I was seeing my own counselor and parsing through my anxieties about practicum and seeing clients. She stood up and walked over to a cabinet near me, opened the glass door and took out a porcelain Pinocchio statue. She set Pinocchio on the small table between us and asked me what Pinocchio wanted more than anything.
“To be real,” I answered. “He wanted to be a real boy.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to be real, Pam. When you are real, you are enough.”
When I was a kid (a long, long time ago), I loved this book I had called Fortunately. It starts out “Fortunately, one day Ned got a letter that said “Please come to a surprise party.” We see Ned looking happy in full color, imagining all sorts of birthday treats. The next page (in black and white) says “But unfortunately, the party was in Florida and he was in New York.”
Fortunately, a friend loans Ned his airplane. But unfortunately, the engine explodes. Fortunately Ned has a parachute. Unfortunately, it doesn’t open. Fortunately Ned lands in a haystack. Unfortunately, there’s a pitchfork in the haystack. And so goes Ned’s adventure.
My day got off to a sucky start today when Unfortunately, the neighbors’ dog started barking quite loudly at 5:06 this morning, waking me from a rare and deep sleep. This unfortunate dog barks most mornings, usually about 6:30, which while not ideal, is much better than 5:06.
I couldn’t fall back to sleep, so I got up to make coffee (fortunately I had coffee) and decided to go for an earlier-than-normal run. Unfortunately, when I left the house I ended up following a slow and stinky old diesel car all the way to the first stoplight (about a mile). I decided that if it turned right, I would continue on straight ahead and run along South Bay Trail. If it didn’t turn right, I would turn right and run at Lake Padden (in spite of the fact that it’s Mean Lady Monday).
Fortunately, stinky and slow old diesel car turned right and I could avoid the mean ladies at Padden. I drove another half mile to the Fairhaven Green and parked. Unfortunately, I had updated my Nike running app the previous night, hoping that the update might have fixed the issue with the music not starting when the run started. Unfortunately, not only did the music not start, I had to go through three or four additional steps to make it work at all. Fortunately, that was all the update broke.
Fortunately, the morning was glorious—blue sky, gentle breeze, lovely sailboats in the harbor. Fortunately, I am healthy and can run. Unfortunately, about .75 miles into my run, I had to, uhm, use the loo. (Running shakes things loose). Fortunately, there’s a bathroom at .76 miles. Unfortunately, the first one I entered stunk of cigarettes and had a large mound of , uh, a large brown mound still in the bowl. I flushed it, but unfortunately, the mound remained unmoved.
Fortunately, there was another bathroom right next door. Unfortunately, it too reeked of someone’s old stogie. Fortunately, the bowl shone empty and bright. Fortunately, I was in and out in record time.
As I ran, I tried to shake my annoyances out. I reminded myself that I was healthy, generally happy, able to run five miles. I remembered the Fortunately book, and the idea for this blog was born. Unfortunately, as I ran, I encountered many smokers, at least one of whom I suspected was responsible for the aforementioned smelly and clogged up bathroom. Fortunately, I can hold my breath while I run a few steps. Fortunately, my second mile was faster than my first (negative splits baby), and my fourth mile was the fastest of all.
Fortunately, I was able to make the run up Taylor Dock without stopping. Unfortunately, I did have to stop and catch my breath once I got to the top. Fortunately, I took this great picture of this amazing view. Fortunately, I had less than a half mile left in my run.
Unfortunately, when I finished my run, two smokers were sitting right on the steps where I usually stretch. Unfortunately, the grass cutters and leaf blower guys were there. Unfortunately, as I decided to stretch on the other side of the green from the smokers, the leaf blower guy motioned for me to leave. Fortunately, we have a parks department that cares for and maintains our many green spaces. Fortunately, I decided to listen to him and save my hearing. Fortunately, I drove home.
Unfortunately, I ended up in the middle of the Fairhaven Middle School morning traffic jam. Fortunately, I had decided to write this blog and so I didn’t get too annoyed. Fortunately, I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be at a specific time. Fortunately, my children are all grown up and no longer in middle school. This fact is a big, big plus.
Unfortunately, I did have to go home and write a paper. Fortunately, I was able to focus and finish a decent first draft by 1 p.m. Fortunately, I have a kayak and a Jeep. Fortunately, it was 88 degrees and sunny today. Fortunately, I could go to Lake Padden to read my textbooks while I floated on the lake in my kayak. Fortunately, I finished my reading. Unfortunately, my water bottle exploded all over inside my “dry” bag. Fortunately, I had a large towel in the bag and it absorbed the water and my books stayed dry. Fortunately, I had a great text conversation with my oldest daughter while I floated on the lake. Unfortunately, our discussion was about racism which unfortunately seems to be getting worse. Fortunately we can talk about this difficult topic. Fortunately, she is a wise young woman.
Unfortunately, the sun just became too much for me as it sparkled and reflected off the water. Fortunately, I have the good sense not to stay out too long and get completely sunburned.
Unfortunately, I headed home just as the middle school was getting out for the day and again got stuck in the middle school traffic jam. Fortunately, I still had no place to be, so tried to remain patient. Unfortunately, I thought as I watched the tweens meander by my car, middle school is a hard time for lots of kids. Unfortunately, we all have to go through those years. Fortunately, we don’t have to stay there.
Fortunately, I have a home to which I can return when I want to. Fortunately, I have a deck on which I can sit and be alone and think. Fortunately the neighbor’s children have all nearly grown up and no longer scream. Fortunately (knock on wood), she’s not power-sawing anything in her backyard yet.
Fortunately, this day improved as I decided to focus on my good fortune.