On hope, healing and self-care
I'm that person that sees hope everywhere. I make no apologies.
Today my chiropractor and I talked about passive vs active healing. A passive healer is one who can’t (or doesn’t think they can) heal on their own, they need someone to guide them. An active healer is one who directly takes charge of their healing. They do deliberate work to heal from their traumas.
My chiropractor is a holistic healer who works with the fascia–also known as connective tissue, it is a fibrous web (primarily collagen) that extends into every structure and system of your body. The fascia forms a matrix throughout your body and helps to support overall structure, stabilize and to aid in movement. The memory of the trauma is stored in the fascia, which is why emotional trauma or stressors can result in physical symptoms.
Getting services from this chiropractor, a brilliant Dominicana, is me taking charge of my healing, me being an active healer. My chiro said she is an active healer as a result of what she experienced as a child, but there are those who decide to be passive healers as a result of their trauma. I don’t understand this inclination to leave one’s healing in someone else’s hands.
I’m always thinking about healing somewhere in my body, but this week that took on a different energy with news of multiple mass shootings, including the horrific massacre that left 19 children and two teachers dead. How do we care for ourselves when something so devastating happens in our backyards?
I got off social media pretty quickly. It is not a healthy place for me to be at times like this, as those without empathy or compassion come out en masse.
I am a person who feels profoundly. I was shamed for a long time because of this. Told I was too sensitive, “a ti no se te puede decir nada”, “you have to toughen up, V.” Yes, it is hard at times being so soft and affected, but this is also my super power. It’s why I can do the work I do with writers, why I can mother the way I mother, why I can be an active healer.
I have wanted a garden for a long time. I trace this longing back to my mother’s garden oasis, which I write about a lot. That garden is where I fell in love with all things fauna and flora. It’s where my mother was the happiest I ever saw her. When I am working the soil, I am consumed with a joy that makes my cheeks tickle. I feel the tension ease in my jaw and shoulders. I feel my muscles loosen. The relentless monologue in my head quiets. It’s backbreaking work. I could do it every day for the rest of my life.
Last year, in Beacon, NY, I saw a flowerbed made out of an actual bed & knew I had to make that happen on our land. The sellers left us an old style wooden bed in the garage. We dug it out a few weeks ago and started conspiring. I had the vision but it’s my wife who has the boss-lady-know-how to put it together. And she did so beautifully!
Then we had to fill the bed with layers of cardboard, branches, peat, cow manure compost, soil, all nourishment for what will grow there. And we had to add layers of compost, peat and soil to the nearby vegetable beds too. I’ve been aching all over for days, but this garden is coming together & I am so excited. I can’t wait to continue to nurture it, to plant the seeds & bulbs, flowers, vegetables & herbs, see them all come to life, to share the bounty. I’m already thinking of the details too, like where I’ll put the hummingbird feeder, a little gnome & fairy statue, a flower pot here, another there, a chair to sit and take in the magic of it all.
I’d been reading a lot about fear leading up to my Writing Fear class. I’d been writing about it too. When I looked down at my hands in the soil, I saw my mother’s hands in the dirt of the garden oasis she created in our backyard in Bushwick. When I smelled the mossy wet of freshly upturned soil, I remembered the mud pies I created in that garden. I remembered the soil caked under my nails and in the creases of my skin. I remembered the beauty of that garden and also the trauma I experienced there. I remembered the fear.
When I heard the news of the shooting in Texas, I fell to my knees. I thought of those poor kids, how terrified they must have been. I thought of the teachers, the parents, the horror of it all. I thought of my daughter. My nerves were frayed. I barely slept Tuesday night. Wednesday morning, before 8am, I postponed the class, which was scheduled for that evening. I went into emergency self-care mode. I am an active healer, I know what to do to take care of myself. And because I feel things profoundly, I’ve learned that I have to prioritize self-care when things bring me to my knees.
I went to the page first, as I do most mornings. I remembered…
Once when Vasia was in kindergarten, I watched as the kids exited the bus at her stop. I craned my neck looking for my daughter. I can still feel that boulder smash into me when I realized she wasn’t on the bus. The driver had no clue. Before he could call dispatch, I was flying down the block towards the school, which was 15 blocks away. I was sweating and frantic when I arrived. When I saw my daughter, I fell to my knees crying. She ran to me, eyes wide, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” I held her and sobbed. Ms. Didi, the principal, put her arm on my back. She waited until I calmed down before apologizing, said someone had forgotten to line Vasia up to get on the bus. Promised she was going to find out who dropped the ball, and it would never happen again. It didn’t, but I’ve never forgotten that feeling. That boulder.
On her 16th birthday, my daughter was in an accident. She made a foolish teenage decision that had devastating consequences. I had just arrived to my friend’s apartment on 38th St in midtown Manhattan when I got a call from an unknown number. It was the third call. I answered as I sat down. The woman on the line identified herself as a police officer from the 34th precinct. Asked if I was the mother of… Said my daughter had been in an accident and was enroute to the hospital, that I should head there right away. I remember the ride up the West Side Highway. It was the longest ride of my life. I knew my daughter was alive. I knew she had broken her leg. I knew she had a head injury. That’s all the officer could tell me. It’s wild what the mind does in crisis. Even the clouds looked menacing. I called my wife and kept her on the line to distract myself from the horrendous thoughts and images flashing through my brain. My daughter is alive and well, gracias a dios. I will never forget that ride up the highway. The images I saw in the clouds. The paramedic who waited for me to arrive. The way he kneeled in front of me and said that he’d seen some terrible things in his years as an EMT. Said: “Someone was watching over your daughter. I’ve seen accidents like this with very different results… She’s going to be fine, I promise. Bless her…and bless you.” I thought of my brother. He was watching over her that day.
When I was in elementary school, we had bomb drills regularly. More often than fire drills, or at least that’s how it feels in my memory. They had us practice what to do if an atomic or nuclear bomb was dropped on the city. There were various scenarios and appropriate actions to take–huddle under your desk, line up in the hallways and face the wall, protect your face by burying it in your arms. In fourth grade, we did this opposite a window that faced a courtyard. The window ran the length of the hallway, maybe 20 feet. I remember thinking: “Won’t the glass explode and hit us? How does covering my face protect my body? Wouldn’t a bomb incinerate the city?” By then I had seen images of the mushroom cloud that formed after the a-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
I had apocalyptic nightmares when I was seven, eight, nine years old. The doctors said it was side effects from the asthma meds I was on. They changed them a few times to try to remedy the issue, but I still had those dreams. Yes, there was a lot happening in my life. I was experiencing a lot of trauma at home and at school, but those dreams were also fueled by those bomb drills. By the terror they instilled in me.
I’ve thought about this over the years when, as a teacher, I’ve had to get training in and participated in active shooter drills at schools and after school programs I’ve worked at. What longstanding effects are these having on our kids and communities? Do they do more damage than good? Are they instilling a deep sense of fear into their hearts?
To care for myself this week, I put my hands in soil. As I toiled the land, I said silent prayers, prayed for those children and their families, prayed for the Black folks targeted by that white supremacist at the supermarket in Buffalo, NY; gave all my fear, worry and pain to the earth, so she could do what she does—transmute it into life force.
This is one of the many ways I care for myself when I am in crisis. My chiropractor said she could feel it in my body–the active healing, the effort.
I also actively heal by writing, examining my wounds in story, transmuting them into life force. I share this when I teach. I think, in large part, this is why I teach, why I’m not afraid to take on hard topics like Writing Fear. The class is now happening tomorrow, Saturday, May 28th, 10am-12pm. You’re welcome to join us.
The peony bush on the roundabout driveway is huge, the buds are fat, marbled with shades of pink and white. They look like little worlds ready to burst.
The first peonies to blossom are the ones on the left side of the house, by the retaining wall. I can see the bush from my bedroom window. There’s something about the soil on that side of the house that makes the flora that blossoms there extra decadent and full. For the second time since we moved here, the giant Korean azalea bush just beyond where the den is, where the wood burning stove sits, put on a glorious show at the beginning of May. The flowers were so lush and plentiful, you could barely see the green of the leaves. They were blocked by bright bursts of pink.
Saeed Jones wrote about peonies in his most recent newsletter:
The flowers always seem to be exhausted by their own opulence, ready to leave us right as they arrive.
I worship their extravagant brevity.
Sometimes, I wish I didn’t so easily see death, bright as sunshine, burning at their centers, reaching out to us to be touched, to be known, but I do. I see the end of the world unfurling in the petals of every peony flower I pass.
It would be enough for all of us to make it home tonight. A miracle even.
It makes sense that Saeed sees death when he sees peonies. Their lives are so short, but my word do they put on a show in that short breath.
In them I see hope…but I’m that person who sees hope, or wants to, in everything.
An ex-lover once told me I could make a metaphor out of anything. I don’t think he was being kind, and for a while I was offended. Then I realized there’s magic in that. In me.
(Maybe that poet was just being a hater?)
Peonies were my bridal bouquet. A dear friend gifted me the bouquet after canceling her attendance and disappearing into the secluded world of caring for sick, aging parents. I hadn’t seen her for weeks and she refused my calls and didn’t answer my texts, but on May 10th, 2019, she made sure to get me that bouquet.
We moved to our land in February of 2021 so I got to witness the land come alive that spring. One of the first things to bloom were three peony bushes surrounding the house.
The history of the peony plant includes murderous gods (Greek mythology) and furious empresses (ancient Chinese lore). The peony is also said to have healing properties: the dried root of the white peony has been used in ancient Chinese medicine to treat a wide range of ailments, including fever, inflammation, and pain.
The peonies on our land have helped calm me when I’m distraught. They’ve made me gasp with joy when they bloom. And when they shrivel and die, petal by beautiful petal, I remember that they will bloom again next year, due to their own want to live. There is hope there…
A writing prompt for you: What brings you hope on tough days?
Next Wednesday, June 1st, Writing Our Lives is starting a series: For the Love of Craft. We begin with: Writing Fiction from Real Life. Join us!