Wednesday, February 10, 2016

square peg seeks circle

1. radical self-care

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Poets & Writers’ annual Workshop Leaders Retreat, a long, beautiful exhale where I was surrounded by people who speak the same language as me. Also there were sandwiches.

Most of the attendees lead writing workshops for people with trauma histories: veterans, sexual abuse survivors, kids in juvie. I’m not leading workshops for anyone these days, so arguably I was an imposter, but whatever. The topic of the day was Radical Self-Care. So what did all these teachers do to care for themselves in the midst of such harrowing stories?

Just in case you thought Oprah or the Yankee Candle Company invented self-care....

Me with radical caretaker (and amazing poet) Cathy Che.
One woman, upon leaving the juvenile hall where she taught, would wash her hands, get in her car and say out loud: “What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is yours.”

Another brushed herself from head to toe.

Another took long showers with aromatherapy crystals.

It’s my nature to discount rituals as a bit woo, despite the fact that I have them and believe in them. But the fact that everyone said they literally washed or brushed the trauma away made me sit up and pay attention.

2. trigger, happy

Flash forward to last Sunday afternoon. I had a little bit of writing time, and a shortage of mini bullshit projects to work on. Maybe it was finally time to read through all those journal entries I wrote between November 2012 and January 2015 and see whether they added up to a memoir.

With all the books I’ve written (five, the last three unpublished, but that’s another depressing post), I’ve taken breaks between drafts and then read with an editor’s eye, taking notes on how to fix the inevitable avalanche of structural and character problems.

I knew that reading about my cancer year wouldn’t be a picnic, but I didn’t think it would be triggering, exactly. First, because the phrase “trigger warning” gets thrown around so much it has almost lost meaning. It’s like “hipster” or “smurfy.” Second, because I sort of consider myself simultaneously too smart to fall for such Psych 101 stuff, and also unworthy—I haven’t survived real trauma, therefore how can I be triggered?

Hipster Smurf really wishes you'd issue a trigger warning before bringing up Gargamel.
But there I was with my dirty chai at Highland Café, crying into my keyboard. The woman who wrote those journal entries was the same one I’d encountered upon rereading my high school diaries: surprisingly insightful, desperately (tragicomically) determined to make her life better and terrified of the unknown. I’d thought I might want to smack her, but I wanted to hug her.

Starting a new writing project now sounds exhausting, but not quite as exhausting as starting a new tragedy. Which I did, yesterday at 3 p.m., when a radiologist confirmed I had breast cancer in two locations in my upper right boob. She said it probably hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, which seemed like a peppermint on top a stocking full of coal, but it actually may make the difference between being one of those people who lives to 85 and had breast cancer that one time, and being a person who is Fighting Cancer and loses a few years down the road.

I read a few days’ worth of entries—the MRI, the concern about planning my surgery around AK’s IUI—and then closed up shop, planning to go about my day, grateful that this is a story I have (knockonwood) lived to tell.

3. the churning questions of motherhood

AK, Dash and I went to a Super Bowl party, where I felt out of sorts. I chatted with our friend Holly about baby sleep schedules, and worried that our No Nap Schedule At All is a terrible way to go. Usually I’m more of the Meh, Works For Us camp. I found myself looking around at various women and wondering if they were pregnant, my old hated hobby.

One very clearly was—like, seven months or so—with her third child. She said, “I don’t do anything except work, take care of children and watch Game of Thrones, which I just started doing to keep myself from going to bed at 7:30.”

Apparently this is a person from Game of Thrones.
God bless parents of three children, but I don’t want to be one. I’m not sure I want to be a parent of two. I’m not closing that door just yet, but I often think that having one kid feels like the best of all worlds. But suddenly the should-we-adopt-a-second question was churning inside me.

I was grouchy the rest of the night, and I ate too many M&M’s and too much seven-layer dip.

4. sage and sweetgrass

Today I had some annoyances at work. Nothing huge, but there were a couple of moments where I felt more peon-y than usual. I was fantasizing about venting in private Facebook groups when Janet walked by and said, “We’re starting a Women’s Healing Circle in Classroom B. Come join us if you’re interested.”

As soon as I walked into the darkened classroom, the energy—my energy—shifted. Maria had made an altar at the center of the room, with a candle and sage and sweetgrass and a Tibetan singing bowl. The women in the room were mostly trainees, but the whole thing of the circle is that everyone is equal. We introduced ourselves: our passions, our children, our addictions. We burned sweet grass and washed the smoke over ourselves.

Sweetgrass for smudging.
When I returned to my office, my boss said, “Where have you been? You look so Zen!” I told her, and she listened with an attentiveness she rarely has time for. I could tell how parched she was and how in need of healing herself.

So, I think I need some kind of ritual. Not because other people’s difficult lives slough off on me, but because my own does. I need a small, real thing that I do before and after I go into the dark parts that I have to go into if I want to do the thing that brings me the most fulfillment, which is write. Any suggestions?

3 comments:

Kathleen Stander said...

Fantastic post, Cheryl. I cannot believe I have not been following this blog.
I too need a ritual before I power up my keyboard. Playing Bakery Story on my iPad isn't quite working. It's hard to delve deep onto the page when all I've been doing is mixing and baking virtual croissants.
Now, thank God, I am no longer working in the high-stress classrooms of urban schools. I used to sit in my car before hauling out all my gear and ask the universe to please be kind to me for the day ~ hope that I didn't have a panic attack or that my students didn't attempt second-degree murder. After school ended, I would sit in my car with my eyes closed for ten minutes, enjoying the quiet. Would drive home the long way, with no music, and try like hell not to reflect on the day. Sometimes I'd stop at McDonald's and purchase inferior French fries and stress-eat for six minutes. Sometimes I would cry.
My life has been filled with suckage at times. I was always good at recognizing how and when to escape. I got out of the classroom before I did something rash and ended up on the six o'clock news.

Cheryl said...

A belated thank-you for your comment, Kathleen! I too know fries and cries as coping mechanisms. All too well. Here's to more good reading, and more virtual croissants. ;-)

Claire said...
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