Like a Bridge Over…

“Can you show me what it feels like to want to hold more?”

Her simple question cut through my inability to articulate this recently growing feeling: the human experience is limiting for all I want to hold.  Though we don’t get a choice on our form, lately I’ve earnestly wondered if I should have been something else.  Maybe a tree, a color, a sound…anything more expansive, closer to timeless.

I rose from my chair in my bodyworker’s office.  I listened for a moment.  A picture flitted across my mind of a rope bridge, strung between two cliffs.  Before I had time to question it, I backed up to the bookcase, bent at the waist, and rested my arms over her massage table a few feet away.

It didn’t just feel good, it felt right.  I could have stopped there, but some vague anxiety propelled me to the vertical plane again.  I attempted to make more container like shapes with my body, things with angles and storage space.  Not only was it not as satisfying, but my feet, ankles, and calves continued to roll out into roundness.  Before I could make a conscious decision to surrender, I had already folded back into a bridge.  I let my spine drop, I exhaled, and after a moment, I stood.

The rest of our session continued along other paths, but this question has stuck with me: what is the difference between holding and bridging?  And have I been trying to be a holder when I actually want to be a bridge?

After all, there are similarities.  Bridges and various holding vehicles are both forms of transport.  As such, they both bear weight, and they both free up the transported to be involved in other activities.  Neither means of transport changes the actual landscape.  In other words, you’re not automatically safer in a car than on a bridge.

Beyond that, I could think of only differences.

You are in contact with more of the air and the view when crossing a bridge on foot.  Thus, you can’t artificially change the temperature with an air conditioner or heater, and you can’t dampen or change the sound unless you yourself stop singing, praying, talking.  There’s a sturdiness, an integrity to your senses, as they report what’s around you.  In short, that which is, reaches you more quickly.

As you access your experience directly, you have no choice but to depend on yourself more.  Your body registers the sway and adjusts your walk accordingly.  Your hands are no longer steering an unfeeling machine or sitting in your lap.  As they hold the ropes, they are measuring the tension, the pulse between two worlds.  And there are no external rules to dictate your speed.  You can go slow, fast, or get out of the way for as long as you want while others pass you.

This makes crossing a bridge infinitely scarier.  The sun could burn you, the bugs could bite you, the waters could wash you away.  And if you fall?  There is time to consider what went wrong, unlike the instant ending of a car crash.  Scarier still?  You bear much more of the responsibility for the fall off of a bridge.  There are no airbags or manufacturers to blame, no institutions who should have protected you.

It may start to feel like a lonely metaphor, but what if we widened the bridge?  What if we put dozens of bridges next to each other–zigzag, crisscross, loops?  Last summer I went through the zip line course at Mt. Hermon.  I was struck by the level of support offered by strangers as I got ready to cross each chasm on my own, as well as the sounds of others unseen, racing through trees and over bridges all around me.

Can we direct our own experience, but still be in community?

What would it be like to travel my life this way?

What would it be like to give this gift to others?

As always, I have more questions than answers.  But after three years conscious movement practice I know this: when you change the way you move, the answers are less important.  There is a call, and then there is endless, endless exploration.

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Rockabye Baby…

Care and connection are just as important to our survival as food and water, yet there is no shortage of people dodging kindness as it comes their way.  If we’re hungry, we eat.  If we’re thirsty, we drink.  So why do we resist being cared for by others?

The question of why we resist care crept into my consciousness as I wrestled a two year old towards naptime yesterday.  This brave little warrior came into the world almost five months premature, and still struggles from multiple medical complications.  Thus, her care team has gotten used to going the extra mile for her, using her radiant smile to power tired brains and bodies.  That being said, after forty minutes of singing, patting, rocking, and my extremely popular (with her) amateur beatboxing, I was spent.  The thrashing elbows to the boobs and sternum didn’t help.

I was feeling desperate.  I adore a good nap and can sleep for hours.  Hadn’t I earned forty five minutes of her trust?  Just as her gastrointestinal feeding machine stopped beeping, and I was contemplating the 2pm tantrums that would surely follow a napless day, her neck drooped and she was out, tiny hands firmly wedged in my armpits as usual.

Later a friend in his sixties cancelled on me for that night.  This is a person who, like my two year old, is immensely brave.  The sheer amount of things he’s survived is astounding, and now he’s answering the inner call to explore where he really fits on the gender spectrum.  His therapist suggested he find someone to tuck him in at night to see if it will help address his inability to sleep, and I was honored and intrigued to be asked.

We’ve been trying to arrange an evening since February, so I knew the cancelling wasn’t wholly about me wanting to come too early.   He didn’t even cancel so much as passively suggest cancelling, hoping I would actively suggest it as my idea.  My heart went out to him.  He needed something but didn’t know how to get it, or if getting it was even possible.  However, I had no desire to catch metaphorical elbows to the chest while wrestling a wiggly sixty year old into dreamland.  We rescheduled.

My own care history is equally filled with resistance.  My reasons had to do with wounded emotional math: if I do for others but don’t let them do for me, then they will owe me.  No one will leave if they owe me.  Blatantly untrue by the way, and as soon as I started to unearth this logic, I made a firm rule.  If someone offers to care for me in some form, and I would actually welcome it, THEN I MUST ACCEPT IT.  This has lead to fascinating moments in the last ten years where I turn down offers of care for no reason, and then have to go back and say, “You remember that thing you said you would do and then I swatted you away, is that offer still good?”

After some time at this practice, I moved to Northern California.  For the first time in my life I met people who cared for themselves and received others care like it was no big deal.  Initially this was confusing, but eventually it helped to further soften my resistance.  My church upbringing may have taught me to be a martyr, but there were people right in front of me now suggesting that there were other ways to do it.  I soon realized I was no longer turning down every kindness that came my way.

The next major revelation in dismantling this resistance was realizing that I would have to ask for what I needed.  As much as I wanted the spontaneous offering, and was now getting better at receiving them, they are rare and people are not mind readers.  How did I learn to start asking?  Bit by bit, using the generic examples of those now around me, I started caring for myself.  And when I say bit by bit, I mean it–it was SLOW.  Instead of grading thirty essays on a Saturday, I would grade twenty and leave myself time for a movie.  Instead of never telling someone that they’d pissed me off or hurt me, I practiced doing it for two weeks so that I could tell them with only minimal voice shaking.  I started to believe that even if I asked and was turned down, I could care for myself.

But here is the magic part–once I started asking, it freed people up for spontaneity, generosity, and creativity of further care.  A simple example: recently I came back to a friend’s from a long day of school.  There was a house full of partygoers, and I tentatively took my place among them, determined not to be the old lady in a room full of twenty somethings that went to bed early.  As I relaxed into the warmth of the group, people started giving each other backrubs.  My shoulders were killing me, but I would not be on the list of people who would be asked.  What to do?

“Hey, anyone want to do me next?”  My friend’s non-girlfriend girlfriend said yes with enthusiasm.  She later told me that she’d been happy to take a break from twenty something males and their wealth of certainty in conversation.  I added this to the list of things I liked about her.  While the backrub was nourishing to heart and body, what happened next was really astounding to me.  When she got up to get herself some juice, she asked from the kitchen, “Chelsea, do you want some?”  This was not a big deal, but after accepting I sat there trying to remember the last time someone offered to bring me a beverage when I wasn’t crying or dehydrated from sex.  I couldn’t.  I sat there sipping, awash in grapefruit juice, past loneliness, and the relief that comes from accepting conscious care.

All people resist care at some point, but some of us make it a habit.  Is this a natural consequence of people who have known too much trauma, seen too much sadness?  Is there a core reason at all?  I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that I don’t regret slowly shedding my persona of fake invincibility.  It has helped bring me into real community for the first time in my life.  I no longer have a tiny roster of friends who all think I’m perfect.  Rather, I have a wide network of people who know me as I am.  As I continue caring for them, and letting them care for me, I’ve grown in boldness.  There’s more room to breath because the burdens disappear faster.

Receiving care is not like going shopping at Costco.  You may not be able to find everything on your list, you can have as many samples as you want, and nothing announces itself with garish colors and oversized packaging.  You won’t find yourself fifty aisles away from what you need, contemplating spider colonies on impossibly tall shelves.  If you’re at Costco searching for care and reading this, LEAVE RIGHT NOW!!!

Get in your car and go find a river.  Walk down to the bank.  Notice that it’s quiet, not silent.  For one part of the river ecosystem to flourish, all must flourish.  One day your eye might be drawn to the light on the water.  If you come back again you may find yourself mesmerized by the croaking of frogs.  There is space for you here.  An invitation, but never a command to join the mystery, the alchemy of perpetuating life.

 

Every Time You Open Your Mouth

Dear Man-Child,

There may be hope for you yet, though you don’t make it easy to get there.

“I’d like to do things to that ass, baby!!”  Oh.  Hell.  No.  I was not being catcalled from across the parking lot on my innocuous walk to Subway.  Someone was not trying to steal the blue sky and my yellow scarf from me.  My legs pointed me to him before I could even consciously decide to join them.

Note: You need to get some new friends Man-Child.  They started exclaiming that you were going to ‘get some.’  You were definitely not about to get what they had in mind.

“What gives you the right to disassemble my body?  Do I look dead to you?” The words shocked me as they rolled out of my mouth, but they were true.  There are many components of harassment that are noxious, but in this moment I was most in touch with the indignity of being seen as a collection of parts.

“No, I was just trying to pay you a compliment.  You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”  It was like he was reading from a script, or maybe the book Toxic Masculinity for Dummies.  Even his board shorts and tank top reeked of stereotype.  I couldn’t believe that this person actually existed on a Northern California Saturday afternoon.  My screaming pulse urged me to flee, but I couldn’t.

“Am I a bitch to want to enjoy my day?  Am I a bitch to want to just chill and listen to music?  Don’t you get to do all those things without anyone interrupting to give random comments about your body?”

“Why are you so uptight?” he countered, getting visibly angrier.  I had struck a nerve.  His ape’ish friends were long since quiet.  A few slinking back to the truck and getting in.  “Haven’t you ever been paid a compliment before?  This is just how dudes talk.”

“No it fucking isn’t.”  I rolled out a long list of men of quality that I am privileged to know.  I assured him that they were not all, ‘old dudes.’  There were men of his age that were brave enough and patient enough to counter the stereotypes and be aware of more than just their own biological drives.  We went back and forth, some comments raw with hurt and confusion, some instructive.

He almost seemed to pause for a moment when I told him how unsafe his behavior made me feel, how I locked my car doors every time I got in at night, walked with my keys in hand, crossed the streets if it was dark and there was a man following too close.  I told him that the only reason I could even begin to have this conversation was because it was daytime, in public, I am white, and have five or six inches on the typical woman.

Finally, he yelled, “Okay, okay, you win, I fucking did it wrong.  But how the fuck you supposed to meet someone if they all fucking snap and take your head off every time you open your mouth?”  He had stepped too close to me, but oddly, it made me calm.  My metaphoric vision slid down like the nictitating membrane of a frog.  I pictured him standing on two old-timey, wooden pirate legs.  He has no legs Chelsea, he has no legs, he has no legs.

I stepped back and took a breath.  “Good question.”  He looked confused.  “I understand wanting something and not knowing how to get it.  The answer is that there might not be a way to meet women on the street.  You could try walking up politely and saying, ‘Excuse me, can I talk with you for a second,’ but realize even that may get shot down.  Do you have any female friends?”

“You mean chicks I don’t want to fuck?  Not really.  What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, where it may not help in the moment, it would go a long way in waking up other parts of yourself as a person.  That might give you some more creative options to work with.  Not all women are attracted to wholeness, but all women are afraid of the dangerous level of imbalance in your approach.”

He paused for a full five seconds.  I was wondering if I had just confused him further with too many big words.  But then he looked at me and said, “Okay.  I will think about it.  I gotta go now.”  And with an awkward lack of closure, he turned and walked away.  There was no apology, for he still did not believe he’d done anything wrong, but he agreed to think.  That is something.

Dear Man-Child, I will be rooting for you.

 

Articulating Play

“And then, I ate all the cheese!”

What a punch line!  A masterfully told story by a six year old, detailing the wonders of the time there was a lot of cheese on her dinner.  It didn’t matter that we’d never met.  I had a butterfly dress on, she was pulling off a star top and polka dotted pants while she waited for her mom to order at the burrito place.

It was enough for us to redefine fixed realities.

Her mom soon joined her, friendly but cautious about the odd stranger her daughter was engaging with.  “Are you a teacher?” she finally asked, still skeptical about someone genuinely enjoying child logic.  I wanted to keep her in the tension a moment longer, but I nodded.

Cheese girl took a bright yellow highlighter to the weekend I was having.  In this second session of my body based expressive arts therapy program, we were studying the legs and feet.  Anatomy, mechanics, themes, metaphors, and so much more through the lens of the arts.  As I listened to my legs and feet, reflecting on my foundation and locomotion, many things became clear.  The most startling?  How badly I wanted to honor and embrace play as a valid posture.

Those who know me are confused right now, because they know I’m a wonder-filled, metaphor maker.  I love to laugh, I search for the odd, and words and pictures connect me to the places where boundaries blur.  But it is easy for me, and somewhere I learned: easy things are frivolous, difficult things are worthwhile.  I imagine I’m not alone in this self-crippling foundational belief.

As I sat with this toward the end of the weekend, these words flowed from my pen: Play is intentionally calling myself or another into a new relationship with what we consider to be the fixed realities.  And then, no joke, I just kept writing!!  I was four or five lines down when I found both my feet tapping the ground.

Feet: HEEEEYYYYY!!!!!

Me: What?  I’m trying to do serious spiritual analysis here.

Feet:  You asked us to let us know the next time you weren’t listening, well guess what dude, YOU ARE NOT LISTENING!!!  If it please the court, run your eyes back about four lines.

Me: Geez, okay.  Oh.  Play is intentionally calling myself or another into a new relationship with what we consider to be the fixed realities.  Wow.

Wait, this is not a frivolous definition.  This is not silliness!  This is how revolutions, from the small to the mighty, begin.  I have been missing the goodness of what I know how to do, but my legs and feet knew.  Underneath the umbrella of play, all the other things they were longing for could be met: a desire to listen and trust myself, a receptivity to support, flexible boundaries, a way to stand without rigidity and exhaustion.

Six hours later I wrote on my bathroom mirror: “Have you played today?”  The question flashed across my mind this morning as I sat in my car.  Twenty minutes early to work, I was going to gobble breakfast, maybe scroll aimlessly on my phone.  But I slipped into inquiry instead: what were the fixed realities in this moment?

I considered a couple before settling on the transitory nature of the parking lot.  Parking lots weren’t for pausing, for beauty, for slowing down.  I touched my legs and feet reverently, rolled the window down, turned the music up, and climbed onto the back of my car to finish my breakfast.

A faint waning moon in the sky.  The sun making a halo around the tree.  A wet, sharp scent.  It was only ten minutes, but it was beautiful.  I was playing.  Cheese girl would be proud of me.

 

I Call Do-Over!

After seventeen years of no homework, it hasn’t been exactly easy to get started again.  I love my new field of study–in fact, I love just the title of it–expressive arts therapy.  This particular school uses the body as a road map for discovering-telling-integrating life stories, and our first month focused on the legs and feet.  This was all well and good until I got to the homework.  Among the drawing, dancing, and creative writing, the following sneaky question was slipped in:  What do you want to take a stand for and how?

I instantly hated the question.  It made me feel embarrassed that I am no longer doing something big and grand for the world.  I thought back on all the times I had “taken a stand,” both in and out of professional contexts.  They had all been so rigid, so exhausting.  It occurred to me that I don’t really know how to stand for something without locking my knees and digging my curled toes into the ground.  I was sure that was the kind of “stand” the question was asking me to commit to.

But, being the reformed perfectionist that I am, I sat down to answer the question anyways.  The words that tumbled out shouldn’t have surprised me considering who I’ve worked with and the life I’ve lived.  Needless to say, they did.

I’d take a stand for revision.  The right to change your mind, your mood, your life.  The right to keep reaching towards life even when it appears far away or others call you greedy for doing so.  The right to be many things.  The right to adapt quickly or slowly, whichever is more real.  The right to people who love multiple versions of you, throughout the years or within the course of a day.  The right to leave those who don’t, won’t, or can’t.  The right to stand out in the rain until even concrete gets wet enough to melt.  The right to invest resources in following whispers around corners or shouts off the edges of cliffs.  The right to not feel guilty when you stop telling the old stories.  The right to take generic advice until you know what you specifically need.  The right to dabble at the outside until you’re gutsy and well-resourced enough to dive into the center.  The right to fear and confusion.  The right to pride and astonishment.  The right to heart-stopping questions from unexpected places.  The right to dismiss other possibilities without wondering, “What if?”  The right to fail and make a giant mess.  Revision.  I have worked for this and will again.

My heart has been awake for some time now to the joy I have in helping people find their voices, but this was an update to that familiar theme.  Not only do I want people to know, value, and use their voices, but I want to help them follow the changes to that voice, preferably as they happen.  I want to sit next to people as they create, but also as they re-create an outgrown form.

The only part of the question I could not yet answer is ‘how?’  I’ll be getting new homework in about a week though, so stay tuned.

The Loneliness of Leaving

Transitions are lonely.  Whether you asked for the change in front of you or not, you can’t be two places at once. Leaving an old way of being often requires leaving behind the people, thoughts, places, and routines that used to keep you company there.  Not only is this space inevitable, but necessary in preparation for the new.  You can’t see and adapt to something coming if you’re too busy to look towards it.  Small transitions may require less space, but the need remains.

However, this conventional wisdom seemed wholly insufficient as I read my writing partner’s daily writing yesterday.  He, like many in the Bay Area, is exploring the move towards an intentionally nomadic life–no fixed address, limitless possibilities. The writing starts with the story of his bad day, but the last few lines speak powerfully of the loneliness that can infiltrate everything during transition.  As I often do with his lean and elegant prose, I felt jolted.

Why is transition so lonely?  I turned the usual answers over and over in my head today, like suspiciously perfect pebbles.  After supporting people in transitions for almost twenty years, I felt like I should know this one.  I’ve also managed to stay friends with myself throughout deeply difficult transitions in the course of my life.  This has been no small feat of belief.

During the most recent, leaving public education, there were some astoundingly lonely moments.  I have arguably had the best friends of my life in the last few years, but knowing I was supported didn’t always help.  It definitely didn’t help knowing I had chosen to walk into this place of isolation.  Even when focusing on the beauty this move brought to me, and continues to bring, the beginning still felt like I was stranded on an island with no fruity drinks to take the edge off.

Of all the unhelpful, true things in these times of transitional loneliness, the most unhelpful and true is this: sometimes you are supposed to be lonely because of what you learn there.  Loneliness has gifted me immense healing, understanding, and love, especially when I don’t try to escape it.  But the moment before these gifts arrive?  I still want to know why I am sinking in the quicksand of dislocation.

I have been thinking a lot about the collective unconscious in the last week: the words, themes, and images that hide beneath the surface we present to the world.  Could it be that transitions are lonely because we don’t know what the big ones are really about till years later, if ever?

On the surface, yes, my writing partner doesn’t want to keep spending more than he makes.  He’s after a specific quality of life that can’t be created with those constraints.  On the surface, yes, I needed to leave teaching to learn to exercise all my gifts in a more sustainable way.  But almost two years later, I am more and more convinced that leaving teaching wasn’t really about leaving teaching.

So what was it about?  I am at the outside edge of that answer now, packing supplies for a journey into its forest.  I grasp its form in image and metaphor, and a moment later it’s gone.  But because it’s hard to know the real why, it’s also hard to explain it to people, to plan for it, to talk to yourself about it, to do a thousand other things that would make it feel less lonely.  You simply have to trust and keep moving forward.

Transitions aren’t going to get easier, but you and I can get more curious, more patient, more willing to close the door, draw the shades, and see what comes.

 

Wahooooooo!

Sofie.  A year ago, water poured in her mouth would come dribbling out.  Six months ago, she was accepting small sips and then trying to grab and fling the sippy cup.  For a two year old who came to the world five months early and still struggles with medical complications, this was huge progress.

Yesterday her mom says, “Sofie, should we show Miss Chelsea how we can drink?”  I had been gone for a week at a movement workshop, but I was confused.  I knew how she drank.  I had been shaping and holding her tiny hands around the sippy cup for a month.

Her mom put the cup in front of her and Sofie picked it up with both hands.  She took a big gulp, all by herself, before setting the cup down.  I teared up.  I looked at Michelle wide-eyed.  She was smiling broadly.  I looked at Sofie, already on her second sip.  We were enjoying this beautiful moment of awe together and we knew it.

Michelle stepped out a moment later to get the laundry, and Sofie continued to sip.  She grinned at me before each one as if to say, “This is pretty cool, right?  I’m not just making it up?”  I answered her in tears, laughter, and cheers: “This is AMAZING!  Look at this new shiny toy you have!!”  She laughed, yodeled, and yelled in gleeful response.  Drinking water was great, having her friend to witness it was great, it was all super great.

As always, she reminds me of a great many truths.

The relationship between teacher and student can be fraught with complexity, but at least one thread should remain intact.  There should always, always be a celebration at the point of attainment.  The best teachers are never too busy, too self involved, or too enmeshed in a rut to say, “Wow!  That’s it!  How frickin’ cool!”  In the reality of classroom teaching you may only have a moment for this practice, but a moment can be more than enough.

I was and am pretty great at this part.  Whether it’s sippy cups or thesis statements, my joy at someone else’s attainment has always been genuine and effusive.  I’ve shrugged off large portions of the embarrassment I used to feel for being “too childish,” and I usually ignore those who accuse me of hyperbole.

But, as Sofie reminded me yesterday, I don’t always do this for myself as I learn.  I tend to take my learning very seriously,  wondering why I can’t go faster instead of stopping to throw myself the party I throw others.  And while it’s true that integration and reflection are necessary for mastery, why shouldn’t I also celebrate Sofie style?  I still feel the same chaotic, invigorating thrill when I learn something new.  But, as the workshop facilitator requested while I shared with the group this weekend, I have learned that I am supposed to “slow it down.”

Thus, here is one part of the conversation about this workshop that I REALLY wanted to have with someone.  Trigger warning: for those of you upset by all capital letters, this probably won’t be fun, but read it fast enough and you may get a nice little head buzz:

“OMGEEZUS!!! HOLY CRAP. <jazz hands, karate kick> All these new embodied communication tools are SOOOO FLIPPIN FUN.  I can’t even handle it, I can’t even…you know how we did the me and the you and then the WHOLE first two days I was like, NO!!! Me don’t wanna look at you right now, let’s dance side by side, nervous system meltdown…AHHHHHH…and I just protected that space like nobody’s business. <wolf howl, princess twirl> And then Julian and I were talking Monday and I’m usually all…AHHH, ERRR, UMMM, about the subject, but instead I was all BAM, clarity, and he was all, BAMBAM impact, and it was THE FUNEST because then I learned stuff on top of stuff and I LOVE THE CRAP OUT OF THAT HUMAN even when I don’t always like him. Super crazy sauce.  And wait <dramatic pause for effect> Monday night at dance I was like, HEY, WHAT’S YOUR STORY ABOUT SOOOOOO MANY THINGS!! It was weird because then there was all kindsa room, VROOM VROOM, about these particular stories, and I was like WOAH…I AM COMMUNICATING THE FUCK OUT OF THIS DAY, and maybe I will only get better.  BWAHAHAHA…I AM CHELSEA, COMMUNICATION MASTER!!”

Compare this to: “It was a really powerful experience.  I can really see the impact already in the area of communication, integrity, and boundaries.”  You’re right, you can’t, because the grown up version is boring.

Don’t get committed by concerned friends and family, but seriously people, celebrate your learning the next time you get the chance.  Take your cues from your two year old, your dog, or even nature blooming into Spring.  We woke up today when others didn’t.  Everything else should seem miraculous as the first days navigating the sippy cup.