“Those Mountains That You Are Carrying, You Were Only Supposed to Climb”
Whenever I say, “Everything is going to be okay,” my somatics teacher, Richard, looks at me with that Mona Lisa smile of his and says, “Everything is already okay,” and I want to lunge across the room and punch him in the face. I know he is right, but he doesn’t need to be so smug about it. To accept that everything is already okay is to understand that my paradigm has irrevocably changed. It means I can no longer use “but…” followed by any words at all, no matter how compelling, as an excuse. It means the only choice I have left is to stand up tall in my adult life and live it.
“Everything is already okay” is not an oversimplification or a spiritual bypass, though many have used it in those ways. It is, instead, a hard won truth, a flame burning steady in my mind. It flickers when I ask this question: If everything is already okay, where do I put my grief? Because if there is no room for grief, then how am I even here at all?
R U OK? A friend texts me again when I have not replied to her in two days. She knows I am probably fighting with everything I have not to lie down on my bed and let the hours slip by, as though I am trapped underneath a heavy weight. There is an elephant in every room I walk into and it immediately sits squarely on my rib cage, as though that is the only place to sit in the room. The elephant in this room–the one sitting on my keyboard making it hard to write this–is waiting for the dust to settle again.
When I read about the women in Aleppo who are killing themselves so they don’t get raped, I feel a solidarity in my cells so strong that it drops me to my knees, right here in my kitchen. I press my cheek to the tiles on the floor so that their coldness can remind me that I am still here.
Meanwhile, everything is already OK, and I am only now starting to understand that dust never settles. It never settles because humans have temporarily lost the collective ability to exhale and settle together, and the two are inextricably interconnected.
* * *
When I was four, my mom took me to the allergist because I told her that my nose always felt like it was burning on the inside. What I didn’t say was that my whole body felt like it was burning from the inside out, as though my bones were turning to ash, even as I was still walking around in the world. After all the tests, the doctor said, “Well, kiddo, you’re allergic to grass, trees, dust and pollution.”
“That’s the whole world,” I said, my eyes wide and my brain spinning, trying to figure out how I would get from the doctor’s office back to the parking garage without encountering trees, grass, dust or pollution. The doctor shrugged in answer to the question I hadn’t actually asked and winked at me.
“Well, maybe we’ll just have to put you in a plastic bubble.” He said. He winked at me again and turned his back to me while he talked to my mom. I wanted to claw his winking eyes out with a violence I’d never felt until that moment. It was as though he’d said, “You aren’t equipped to live on this planet, but here you are, on the planet anyway. Good luck with that!” and then skipped away laughing.
“What will I do if I’m allergic to everything?” I asked my mom when we were back out on the street. I looked down at her hand holding my hand as we weaved through the matrix of people in the crosswalk. I was afraid that if I looked at her, I would start crying. She told me that we would keep the windows closed while we were driving in the car, and that I shouldn’t roll around in the grass unless I was ready to feel itchy and sick. And that was about it. There was really nothing to DO, except for live with it, because even if the dust settles, or the pollen, or the pollution, it will only get stirred up again, after a while.
* * *
I write about trauma because it’s the only useful thing I can think to do. I want people to know that there is a way through. Sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between writing and doing, and the question, “is writing enough?” is never quite settled in me. Writing is certainly not without collateral damage. Some of my family members have asked me to tone it down, or to write fiction, or write under a pseudonym, but that feels like taking the easy way out. It’s a kind of shortcut that I blew past years ago, and going back now to find it would only take me longer at this point. I write about healing trauma even though my definition of healing has changed drastically in the last five years from something I can move through and past to something I simply need to live with. Trauma will always run beside me like a stream, and all I can do is learn to stop being shocked every time my feet get wet.
“Everything is already okay” is the original shortcut, except it takes forever to get here. I would say it differently, anyway. I would say, everything already IS, and learning to be with what is is the fundamental practice of love. When hope is too much to ask for, my ability to love is still intact. We are biologically wired to love. So far, anyway.
I had a client who died of cancer. He had that post-chemo hair, so soft and curly, light brown. Even now, when I set the massage table up in my office at a certain angle, I still feel him here with me, his head in my hands. I loved him simply because I got to hold his head in my hands, because that’s how it is with clients. I loved him because he could have been friends with my husband, Michael, a mid-30s guy in tech with a sweet sense of humor, spending his in between days re-watching Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5. His in between days were the days he spent after his treatment options ran out and before he died. When I open a payment app I haven’t used for a while, his name pops up.
He is still alive and well on the internet with bills to pay and a full Netflix queue on the account he shared with his mother. I feel my grief spiral up, then pour back down into soft rays of sunlight. The dust never stops dancing in those rays of sunlight, and there is a kind of comfort in that. It means we are still somewhere in the middle of our story. It means there is still time to rewrite the ending.
Sometimes I feel grief so strong that it literally brings me to my knees. It’s embarrassing and dramatic, but it has happened so many times in my life so far, all I can think to do is practice falling down as much as I can so I can at least fall as gracefully as possible. When it happens, my legs bend all on their own, my knees come crashing down to earth, and my palms slap at the ground. I want to crawl inside the earth, but I know I will never get deep enough. It will never be dark enough. And I am not actually Persephone, though I have lived almost every day of my life in two places at once. Whichever place I am not burns so strong in my body that the brightness of summer feels dark and the grey-black of winter is like a candle burning in a window to welcome me home.
The reality-star-turned-president-elect said to a woman, when he was still a reality star, “I bet you getting down on your knees sure is a pretty sight,” and when I hear this, something crumples to the ground inside my heart and stops moving. Is everything already okay? If so, where do I put my rage?
This morning, I read that 70% of women in refugee camps in South Sudan have been raped, and 78% have been forced to watch others be raped. Women know rape is used as a weapon of war because it reinforces our powerlessness. That threat of rape reminds us that we have no say about what happens even to the insides of our own bodies. Not like we actually need reminding. It is a clear message that we have ceased to be human and have become mere objects to destroy in the course of war, like the well in the village, the school, the livestock, the road out of town. We are terrified for our bodies, for our children’s bodies, for our hearts, our souls and for our humanity.
Men see rape being used as a weapon of war and they are angry that something of theirs will be used by another man without permission. Because even men who don’t rape see women as things, possessions. The rapists know that men will feel enraged and powerless because one of ‘their’ women was raped. Not because rape exists. Not because the women are hurt and bloody. Rape happens to the women, but it is meant as an assault on the dignity and the power of the men who love them. That the way to hurt men is by raping women only serves to reinforce the belief that we are merely an extension, an asset and a liability, to the real players in the game.
* * *
I started to gain weight the day a man told me my hair was so pretty, he wanted to see it between his legs. As though my hair was a merkin he could try out on his penis. Then he tried to get in my car. I hardly remember driving away–my memory of it is like driving through fog and my mind keeps saying, “you’re so dramatic–he was just being friendly.”
Everyone is friendly when you are thin. It also helps to have long hair. When you have long hair and are thin and also white, you are welcome everywhere. You get appetizers on the house, free coffee with a wink and a parking attendant who waves your hand away, as though his looking at you walking toward him was payment enough. Everything is a transaction because women are bought and sold–micro-trafficked–in countless interactions every single day of our lives.
But even the free coffee isn’t free. We smile, say thank you, and never go to that parking lot, that cafe, or that restaurant again. We feel ashamed, like we did something to lead them on, and if we go back there, we will owe them. Nothing is free. Everything is a conversation and everyone knows how it will end if it starts with our being noticed by a man simply for being a woman. It will end with us, somehow at fault.
We are not allowed to be grumpy when we are thin without being told to smile. When we are fat, we are mercifully invisible. We get shitty service without the smile. We NEVER get anything for free except for scorn and unsolicited advice. I have been in the world both ways, and they both have costs that outweigh their benefits.
Last week, I was walking out of the store with a bag of groceries and a man yelled out of his window, “Put back some of those groceries, you fat bitch,” before accelerating up the hill, laughing. I was fine until the woman behind me gently touched my shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
My throat crowded with sobs. All I could do was shrug and shake my head, the hot tears on my face betraying my attempt at looking like I didn’t care. It is a betrayal in this culture to be fat, because it means you are no longer part of the social economy and our GDP has been plummeting for years.
* * *
Have we gotten to a place in history where nothing will ever be okay again? And is writing about it enough? The world used to rebalance itself over and over and over again. At least, we thought that’s what was happening. It turns out none of that was balance, just a slow, steady march to the place where the scales have irrevocably tipped toward our demise. We were just seeing what we wanted to see all along. It was our inability to see underneath the very top layer. It was a data set we only just learned how to measure. We didn’t know we had been chipping away at our source of life for hundreds of years. If we had understood that, would we have done anything different?
A physical therapist I know sighs and shakes her head, “People only do the exercises I give them when they’re in pain. The second they aren’t in pain, they get amnesia, and all the gains they got from doing the stretching and strength-building disappear, and it is only a matter of time before they find themselves face down on the sidewalk again, their wobbly knees no longer stabilized by those squats they used to do every day.”
It’s the same thing with us and the earth. If we still consume its resources, if there is still water coming out of our faucets and oil coming out of the ground, we stop paying attention. The dinosaurs, who did not have big enough brains to know whether or not they were paying attention, decomposed over millions of years and became the oil we now use to fuel our world. I wonder what the thick layer of humanity will become when the next wave of species inhabits the earth? I hope they don’t squander us the way we have squandered the remains of the dinosaurs.
When my therapist asks me what it is I want for my daughter, what I would instill in her to prepare her for this world, I say, “I want her to have hope.”
“Hmmm,” my therapist says. Then, after a pause, “What if hope is too much to ask for?”
When she says this, I don’t want to lunge across the room and punch her. Instead, I want to sob out tears of relief. But even as my body lets go, my brain clings to the question.
“But isn’t hope the thing we’re supposed to want? Isn’t hope the thing that drives people to change things? How can I ask her to live without hope?” I ask. I already know the answer, but I need to hear the question out loud. I need the universe to register that it has been asked.
“Maybe hope does those things. But I think it’s love that sustains us. We are biologically wired to love and nurture one another,” she says. I know she is right. I know that the practice of hope is, in fact, the opposite of the practice of love. To love is to be with what is, without trying to change it. To love is to look upon a person and accept the whole of who they are, quirks, warts and all, and to expect nothing about them to change.
Hope, on the other hand, is the practice of expecting change. And, sure, it is the expectation of positive change, but I understand in this moment exactly how much of my love has been forfeited to the unrelenting idea of hope.
My body lets go even more, and a small sob of relief squeaks out of my throat. I always tell my clients that the fundamental practice of somatic work is to build our capacity to be with what IS, without reacting out of it, collapsing under it, or spending all of our energy wishing it was different. And the funny thing is, that is also the practice of love, isn’t it? To be with the whole of a person, without wishing they were different, or trying to change them? To see them and accept them for exactly who they are?
That is the legacy I want to leave my daughter. That is the legacy I would choose to leave in the strata of earth that humanity will become–what I want the earth to hold deep in its memory and to pass on to what or whoever comes next. That the possibility for love is infinite, the practice of it lives in our cells and that our love will be the fuel for the generations and regenerations that burst into life after we are gone.