Tonight I snuck out for a cigarette after the city was quiet. I love cities at night, being a former New Yorker, where we never sleep. Edinburgh sleeps, softly. And in my view, cobblestones reflected moonlight and lamps, silvered and shimmered. The soft play of light and shadow on the stone of buildings, of marble and rock, entranced me.
I could see the line where the road construction crew had carefully hewn out the stones with a micro-bulldozer (built on a trail gator frame, I think; it alone was something to see). The crew carefully removed the old cobblestones and stacked them in order along the trench where they installed new fiber optic cable in bright purple pipe. And after the new had come, the internet speed for the neighborhood increased, the workers replaced the stones. They are in just the same order as before, with new mortar in between.
These cobblestones stand out in the moonlight, a bright line across the street because the new mortar hasn’t yet accumulated its patina of city grit. I want to be like those cobblestones, blending the new and keeping the best of the old as I grow.
Sobriety feels like that sometimes. A struggle, with bulldozers digging up layers of Self, uncovering ages old mess and restructuring it, making it better. I’m still me—just like the beautiful moonlit street—but better.
The story is written on my heart and in the soft lines on my face. I endured. I had help. I got better.
Hope. Hope and moonlight dance on the medieval stones, still set in the road. With shiny new fiber optic cable beneath.
I’m still reading Furiously Happy. It rocks. You gotta read it–or at least this excerpt. Elegant words reminding us that our issues, disorders, our STUFF–be it alcohol recovery, anxiety, depression, or whatever you’re dealing with–can be a source of hope.
There is light in the dark, and those of us who experience intense pain can also feel immeasurable joy.
Depression lies. Anxiety lies. PTSD lies. I experience academic-writing ptsd-like anxiety attacks because of that man, but I am strong and I will beat them.
The fear, doubt like that of a valkyrie’s projection, the hyper-neurotic-fast breathing, blinding terror narrowing perception to a small space around my head—I have to get out of it, into my body, do things I know will cheer me. I look at my manicure: green sparkles. I get out of my robe and into my clothes. They match. I am vivid color—green—growth. Life.
A shift in perception. The blinders now off, but pulse still racing. I must get control of my breath . . . take my power back. Throw the panther of panic off my shoulders, un-dig its treacherous claws. Name the fear: my old advisor. Face the fear: I can write. He tried to destroy my confidence, but he was never my mentor.
My mentor was a Holocaust historian from Brooklyn, who marched with Dr. King and led student protests at Columbia. My mentor was a high school English teacher who didn’t let me get away with any shit, ever. My mentor was a college professor who was a poet who taught me that words are weapons, beauties, gifts. My mentor was my father, the writer.
I lift my hair of the back of my neck. It is hot, my neck, and my hand is cool. I focus on the sensation of touch; I come back into awareness of my body. More of the fear-fog dissipates, like a dementor being beaten back by the sheer power of the will to love.
Inhale. Deep, slow. Feel the air expand in my lungs, catch myself clinging to the top of the inhale. I am holding my breath. Let it out, I command myself, in my head. I dwell in the bottom exhale for a moment. A glimpse of nothingness—death, even—as the yogi sages say.
Spirit. Serenity prayer. I close my eyes and choke on the first word. Again. Listen to my voice. Corporeal reality into sound.
Vibration. The hum of the universe. Om.
I can manage an Om.
Om gum ganapatayei namaha.
A knock at the door.
My puppy runs in, hiding from his bath. He touches his forehead to mine when I bend down to get him. He hides under the bed. I giggle.
“You cannot hide from your fears, my love. They will always find you later.”
I took the Sunday. To actually rest. I lazed about in my pajamas and binge watched and wrote and recharged my batteries. I yoga’d some kinks out of my shoulders and I ate chocolate chips and kettle-cooked potato chips together with coffee.
Supreme laziness? Maybe that’s what it looks like. But it’s more like the hummingbird image in this puddle of rain and oil and tricks of the light: junk food and yoga and rest and cuddling my dog and deep breaths and Netflix were more than the sum of their parts, and I feel ready to take on the week and soar, for the first time in a long time, I’m EXCITED about Monday.
The best part is: I DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR CHILLING. There were a million things I could have been doing (I’m pointedly not saying “should have” here). But I needed to recharge my batteries so I can begin the week fresh, ready to take on all the challenges and adventures that come.
The more we value our time, resources, energy–ourselves–the better we can complete the tasks set before us and accomplish our goals. But it’s true.
I’m re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s You are here. Page 39 popped out at me this morning; he’s talking about the beauty of being still and fully present for the moment. And how freeing that is.
I like to make a practice of reading something positive in the morning to set my day off on the right tone. It helps to get me in a place of, hopefully, presence and stillness. The more I practice, the more it works. Like playing the piano, or doing yoga. Mentioning yoga, I’d better get on my yoga flow before work.
But after the coffee. Always, after the coffee and the books.
The Great John Lennon once said: whatever gets you through the day. So go forth and you do you this morning. Even if it means making your silver fingernails look artier in the pic (but hey–I was in the moment 😉
Sometimes we don’t have flowers. Sometimes we have weeds. But there is beauty even in that, in the work of weeding, hands in the earth, knowing that hard times are the fallow fields preparing us for tomorrow’s beautiful growth.
So we accept what we cannot change. This ALLOWS us the mental space and the time to work on what we actually can. The serenity prayer is simple, freeing, and actually pretty deep. When we make space in our heads by giving to God what we can’t change–accepting, surrendering to our Higher Power’s higher will–we have a lot more time and emotional energy to change the variables under our control. God’s got this–but we are her hands.
Many people are emotionally reeling right now. In addition to the turmoil in the world, we all have our own stuff. My great-uncle passed away this weekend, and I loved him dearly. He was a hero of the Korean War, beloved by all, full of laughter and light and stories—and love. All he had seen, all he had experienced, made him more loving, more empathetic, and more compassionate. He cared deeply for all life. With my emotional red alert raised already by the refugee crisis, my uncle’s death was harder to process. This is normal; we’ve all got our “stuff.” And in times like these, what might have felt like ordinary obstacles can become full-on roadblocks, and traumas seemingly insurmountable.
Seeing refugee children torn from their parents’ arms and placed in cages and tent cities is terrifying. Perhaps it is even more frightening seeing people we know (or thought we knew) supporting this horrific violation of human rights.
When I taught the Holocaust, my students would ask me, “How could this happen?” There is no simple answer. Indifference, fear, hatred, and bigotry are the big ones. But the choice to be a bystander is in itself a choice. Do you look, and face the darkness, or do you turn away, barbecue something on the grill, change the tv channel? Do you believe the propaganda, because it’s easier than facing the darkness and then having to make the choice about actually doing something about it? Or do you find a way to stay kind, to stay aware, to stay good, and somehow remain sane despite all the madness around you?
These are hard questions. And I’ve thought about them for seventeen years. As a scholar of war and human rights, watching or reading the news is never simple.
Anxiety is running rampant in these dark times.
But there are some strategies I learned in my years studying the Holocaust, slavery, and genocide, that help me to stay sane.
The first is the most important. It’s about perspective. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard hundreds of hours of accounts of the worst violence, torture, and cruelty—what Victor Frankl described after the Holocaust as “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Oprah (yes, Oprah, legit!) asked Tutu years ago how he handled it. Tutu said that most people are like vacuum cleaners; they suck all of horrible things they see inside of them and it just stays there. Tutu said that we have to be dishwashers: to witness, to help others be seen, to process their stories, and to clean them.
It’s hard to be a dishwasher. Reading concentration camp memoirs and stories from the Warsaw Ghetto and U.S. State Department documents turning refugees away, such as the story of the SS. St. Louis, in which refugees from the Holocaust were literally on the coast of the USA, yards away from safety, but were turned away. They died.
I fell into a deep depression the first time I was studying these things, and understandably so. But I had to learn that the act of witnessing, of listening, of not turning away, is itself a good deed. It’s the right thing to do. When we don’t turn away, we can educate others.
When we don’t turn away, we have to process the grief and the horror and the compassion fatigue. It’s hard, but it can be done.
Reading memoirs of trauma and violence can be overwhelming. But they can also be sources of hope—many authors stand out in this category, transmuting their experiences into stories that can uplift us after they make us cry. Organized by going backward in time, here are a few to get you started:
And seriously, laugh! No, really. Even fake laughter releases endorphins that are very real for your body. If you can’t make yourself laugh, take a gander at “laughter yoga.” Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long time.
Call the people you love and tell them how much you love them.
Take a hot bath. Use candles. Add bath salts. Music helps too. Go wild. Add a boat like Chandler Bing from Friends if you need to make it feel more manly. (Actually, here’s a whole fun thread about Friends!)
Listen to slow, soft music that slows down your brain. Here’s Peaceful Piano on Spotify!
Take deeeeeeep breaths. In to the count of three, out for the count of five. This gets your body out of fight or flight mode, and lets it normalize itself. Let the Berkeley scientists teach you mindful breathing here.
Play: pick up an instrument, lift weights, play video games with your kids or friends, toss a ball for your dog, annoy your cat by removing them from whatever box they are currently sitting in and cuddle.
Get in touch with the Higher Power of your understanding and ask for help.
Work on mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite writer on this topic, and this is my favorite book of his. He even has a great quote on the magic of washing the dishes:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
And please remember: it’s okay to ask for help. Reach out. Ask your loved ones for a little extra TLC or a hug. Talk to a trauma therapist. Send up a flare. Let someone see you, really see you—so they can know.
We are all in this together. Keep fighting the good fight and take care of yourselves. And love each other. Love each other fiercely, because life is short. But hang in there, because together, we dishwashers can help heal ourselves, hold each other up, and continue the great work of doing good wherever we can, however we are able