Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.
I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.
Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.
Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.
My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.
As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.
I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.
Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.
When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?
Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.
Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?
This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.
When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.
The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.
Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept that I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.
Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.
Sometimes I think I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces my whole life, never knowing they would all fit together someday to make a complete picture. Now, as I approach my 60s, I have enough pieces that I begin to see larger patterns I never knew were there.
In a recent post I mentioned Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve read it cover to cover twice, and I can’t possibly convey to you how it’s changed my life.
Walker explores, in depth, four human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Fawning is defined as exhibiting affection, attempting to please, or seeking favor or attention. It’s a behavior we often see in dogs, especially when they’ve just done something naughty. (No self-respecting cat would ever fawn!)
We develop trauma responses when we’ve experienced some kind of emotional or physical trauma, and many times we develop them so young we don’t even remember the trauma, thus spending our lives unaware of (or deliberately denying or avoiding if we do remember) the wounds that have locked us into ineffective and destructive behavior patterns.
The four trauma responses are not cut and dried. Most of us exhibit some facet of more than one or all of them when we’re faced with situations that trigger our fear. However, we usually favor one or two responses and unconsciously fall back on them when we feel threatened.
Each of the four trauma responses involves a cluster of easily recognizable behaviors. Much of my writing, both in this blog and creatively, has been, at its root, about trauma response. I just never knew it until now.
My very first post was about pleasing people. Pleasing and appeasing people has long been a compulsive behavior I can’t control well and am not entirely conscious of. Pleasing and appeasing others is the trauma response called fawning.
With the help of Walker’s book and graphics on his website, I have been able to put several pieces of my problematic behavior together into fawning. I’m chagrined to find it in every aspect of my life.
This is life-changing work.
I will probably manage my trauma responses, including fawning, for the rest of my life, and that’s okay with me. Most internal work, I find, is a practice rather than a quick destination to complete health and blissful forever-after happiness.
Here are the ways fawning shows up in my life. Do any of these sound familiar?
Apologizing all the time about everything. Apologizing to chairs for bumping into them. Apologizing to other drivers for using the road. Apologizing for making anybody wait for any reason. Apologizing to the cats when they get under my feet and trip me. Apologizing for needing any kind of service or assistance. Apologizing for being less than perfect. Apologizing for being alive, taking up space, having a thought or feeling, breathing the air or using a chair. Apologizing for not reading everyone else’s minds and anticipating their every move, feeling, desire, and need.
Obsequiousness (being obedient or attentive to an excessive degree). This is a tough one. I can’t really find the line between excessive and adequate, and I’m not sure I want to because adequate feels so inadequate. But then, I’ve always felt inadequate, even when (especially when?) being excessive.
I notice this mostly at work, where I’ve unconsciously made a mission out of greeting and bidding farewell to every patron, patient and staff member who enters or exits the pool facility.
On the one hand, we as a team work hard to make the pools a friendly, safe, and respectful environment, and that’s good. On the other hand, I know many of our patrons don’t need me to be so obsequious. Some people are engaging, friendly, and even demanding of our attention. Others, not so much.
As an experiment, I’ve been refraining from saying good-bye to every departing person. If we happen to make eye contact, or I’m helping them manage their mobility and the door or having another direct interaction, I wish them well and say good-bye. If I’m guarding the pool and they walk by without engaging me, I don’t speak. Our population includes many elderly people, some of whom are, not to put too fine a point on it, grouchy! I suspect they find obsequiousness a pain in the ass. (I find it so, even though I can’t help myself sometimes.) I’ve been letting them come and go in peace, too.
The sky hasn’t fallen. I doubt very much if any of my coworkers have noticed this small change in my behavior. I doubt if the people we serve have noticed it, either.
I notice two things. One is how anxious it makes me to stop being so obsequious. The other is how much less exhausting I find my hours at work.
Servitude. This is a big one at work, too, but also at home. This also played out in my parenting in negative ways, I regret to say. Once again, I have a hard time finding the line between being of useful service in the world and edging into slavery or excessive servitude. I reason that with the world in such a mess, how can we hold anything back when it comes to being of service? Yet at a certain point we can lose ourselves entirely in service to others. My challenge is balancing service to myself and service to others, and I don’t know a woman who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point faced this challenge.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that people with Cluster B behavior demand and expect complete servitude and retaliate in various devastating ways if they don’t receive it. Also, women are burdened with a heavy cultural expectation to be of unending service to their families. Emotional labor is part of this service.
Trying too hard. Trying to be the best person I can be. Trying to protect people. Trying to communicate my love to people. Trying to make a positive contribution. Trying to never be a burden or an inconvenience. Trying to make sure nobody feels “stuck” with me. Trying to please. Trying to be perfect.
As I recently asked in a post, when have we tried hard enough?
As I identified in that very first post: fawning doesn’t work. We learn it when we are powerless and depend on the adults around us to care for us, but it’s not a life strategy. As adults, it doesn’t keep us safe or loved. It’s entirely disempowering. It strips away our dignity and sends a message to others that we don’t value ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, why should anyone else value us?
Recognizing these various fawning behaviors and the underlying anxiety and fear triggering them has been a revelation to me. Challenging them by refraining or making different choices is an even greater revelation. Dredging automatic patterns from unconsciousness into consciousness is weary work and reveals how deeply-rooted my fawning behavior is. No wonder I find socialization so exhausting.
Now that I notice my own fawning, I’m sad to recognize it frequently in others. Fawning is a common human trauma response, especially for women.
Peter Walker is helping me disengage from fawning in such a way that my natural inclinations toward love and service, empathy, fairness, and listening are more effective and genuine and less exhausting and personally destructive. This is a win for everyone around me as well as myself.
I work in a small local hospital rehab facility. Maine has recently instituted a mandatory COVID vaccination requirement for all healthcare workers.
Here in Maine, school districts are choosing whether or not to enforce masking and social distancing as in-person school begins.
As we go into Fall, these two issues are inescapable, not only here but across the country as businesses, organizations, and individuals make choices about dealing with COVID. Or not.
It’s an unpleasant atmosphere, rife with argument, outrage, broken relationships, blame, and contempt. I frequently drive home in tears, exhausted by the effort to remain calm and professional with our patrons, patients, and some staff members.
Much of the current conversation centers around the issue of freedom of choice, and those are conversations worth having. However, I’ve noticed a key part of that conversation is nearly always missing.
We are not free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.We have never been and never will be free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.
Freedom of choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility, and choices cannot be separated from their effects. Sometimes those effects are logical, and other times they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they’re obvious and immediate, sometimes subtle and long-term. Sometimes the right choice results in heartbreaking consequences, and sometimes the wrong choice doesn’t. None of us can fully foresee where our choices will lead us. Some people are paralyzed by this fact and resist choosing.
Refusing to choose is also a choice, and it creates consequences.
This inescapable part of being human is something we all share and experience. Nothing can shield us from it, not power, not money, not beliefs, not government. Sooner or later, consequences catch up to us and play out.
We are not “losing” our freedom to choose. We’ve never had unlimited choice. We are experiencing the effects of our choices, just as we’ve always done. It’s a process beyond justice or injustice or good or bad. Consequences are often teachers and opportunities.
Choices and consequences are simply what life is. Everyone’s life. Every day.
Sometimes consequences are deadly and tragic, and we never have a chance to make a different choice. Sometimes we have lots of chances to choose again. Most of us are familiar with the I’ve-been-standing-at-this-crossroad-before kind of feeling.
Choices are linked together in our lives in an endless chain. We decide who to believe. We decide what to believe. We make choices reflecting our faith in someone or a source of information. Things happen. We discover our faith was misplaced, or we discover our faith was justified, or, possibly, both.
This is the human condition.
I believe most of us are making the best choices we can in life. Inevitably, we will experience consequences we didn’t expect and don’t want, and we’ll have to manage those as best we can. Sometimes we’ll need help and support to manage the effects of our choices.
At the end of the day, our power resides in making choices for ourselves and accepting the consequences. We can’t make choices for others, and nobody is making choices for others. Rules and mandates regarding the pandemic are going into place, joining countless other rules and mandates we’ve always lived with. As individuals, we will choose whether to resist or comply, and then deal with the consequences of that choice.
Because the globe is so densely populated, our choices, and the effects arising from them, are bound to affect others. We can’t escape from interconnection. Even so, we can only choose for and manage ourselves. Hurling contempt at one another over the choices we make isn’t useful. It doesn’t provide resource, support, or respect. It makes unwanted consequences more difficult to experience and manage for all of us. It doesn’t persuade anyone to make the “right” choice.
It doesn’t change minds or save lives.
We are comparatively free in this country, but freedom is never absolute. None of us have unlimited choice, but all of us have some, and that means all of us will experience consequences generated by ourselves and others. Freedom does not erase the consequences of our choices.
Free. Managing consequences, just like you. My daily crime.
Or perhaps not becoming, but emerging. I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
I’m emerging as someone I was always meant to be.
This emergence began (I know you’ll be shocked) with a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. In the pages of this book I found the self I’ve always known and the private experiences I’ve hidden out of guilt, fear, and shame.
I also found a map to a new person.
Although the catalyst was the book, which by its nature is intellectual, the process itself is almost entirely felt. I can’t think myself into a new sense of self and my life; I must feel my way.
This makes it hard to write about here.
As so often happens, a poem came along that perfectly describes what I feel in the subtle, intuitive, symbolic language of poetry rather than carefully crafted, concrete prose.
The Return by Leanne O’Sullivan
I walk through paw-prints the frost has dug, among the moist grasses, my silver hair flowing like a cat’s deep stretch.
This is my season. Again and again I die under the blossom of leaves and count my lives by the sapped rings of trees.
No one will know me, none but the wood growth, its hug of frost its scent of moss its naked shadow
and I, standing at the end of an embered wood where once a light passed through me and passes again,
before I remember how I appeared or how I ended, folding myself into my arms —
the seed, the root, the blossom, the stone shining with all my running juices.
From Cailleach: The Hag of Beara (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)
Emergence, I discover, is a kind of death, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or moth. It’s a process of uncovering, of freeing something hidden inside, somehow familiar but never before seen. The soul and spirit I was meant to be was covered with a stony crust, originally formed for protection, but long ago becoming a prison. A crust of coping mechanisms and beliefs. A crust covering feelings too painful and overwhelming to acknowledge or face when first felt.
As I scrape away that crust, the feelings it covered swell into life, and they do not want my intellect or to be pinned down into a blog post.
They want to be felt.
And, having been felt, they dissipate like incense smoke, leaving behind a coating of scented ash that scatters with a single breath and reveals someone I’ve never known or been before.
In the meantime, external life goes on around my internal experience. My car is in the shop. It’s a heavy work week. We are stifling in high humidity. I have just finished editing my second manuscript and am rolling up my sleeves to begin writing the third. I’m working on my new website.
As I live the days, I recognize triggers I wasn’t aware of before, triggers to old feelings and reactions, and I apply new tools, habits, compassion, and understanding to them. I’m grateful for the foundations I’ve already built of mindfulness, creativity, and emotional intelligence. I didn’t know they would become the foundations of a new self.
I am changing. I am emerging. I am learning and growing. I am wondering where I’m going.
Wherever I’m going, it’s better than where I’ve been.