Born of Dust and Silence

Several months of silence have elapsed since I last showed up to pour my thoughts into this space. Much has been unfolding that is more personal than I am able to explore in this format at this time, and I trust that as stories arise that want to be shared, words will accompany them. For now, know that much is shifting beneath the surface, and perhaps the surface itself is shifting, the landscape of my life changing shape a little, taking on new elements of beauty and fascination and curiosity to marvel at.

I have wondered on and off if it is time to retire from blogging for now. It seems I have less to say here than when I was a student, and it is at least as much personal as it is about midwifery. And then, at the ACNM Annual Convention last week, I spoke with no less than a dozen people (many current midwifery students, or new midwives) who told me that my blog was instrumental to them choosing this profession, or helped them through the rough waters of school, or reminded them that they were not alone. And I realized that I could still do that, even though I am in a very different place now than six years ago when I first sat down to write about my excitement about becoming a midwife and explore my journey towards this career, this calling of mine. Six-years-ago me could not have imagined that I would be sitting down during a lull on a call shift (I didn’t say the “q-word…” I learned never to say the “q-word!”) after a busy day in clinic to blog about being a midwife and becoming myself. Or, perhaps, could have imagined it, but not what it would be like from here.

But six-years-ago me isn’t the part of myself I’ve recently been most strongly connecting with. Ten years ago this summer, I was ill to the point of bordering on death. I look back at the photos of my emaciated body, hollow eyes staring at me through a decade of time, and I have so much I want to tell the person I was then. Last week, I went back to my childhood home (one of them) to visit my parents and my sister, and I spent some time connecting with myself. It felt like a deep healing sort of magic, to be able to send love back through time to myself when I desperately needed it.

Brene Brown put it this way:

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

A number of those things happened to me a decade ago. I was newly out as queer, and newly in love with the person who would become my wife. I was living in a place where I did not get to express my queerness with a sense of safety or acceptance of who I was, and I managed to internalize the unspoken message that I needed to be small and take up less space. Combined with some undiagnosed physical health issues that spiraled together with anxiety and systemic oppression and not feeling a sense of belonging or knowing where home was, I made myself small. I lost 70 pounds in a year, dropping from an average weight to one that I still cannot believe I could survive at. I broke. I fell apart. I got sick.

I didn’t know if I would get better, or if I could, or even if I wanted to. I could not conceive of a life where I got to be my whole self and was loved exactly as I was and where delight was a theme woven through my days alongside the complexities of sadness and beauty and loss and heartbreaking joy.

I remember a singular moment that felt like a tipping point, where I sat alone in my room, my stomach raging in pain and nausea, gnawingly empty. I watched the pulsations of my aorta through my gaunt belly as I sat staring at a banana and trying to decide if I could eat it. I sat with that banana for hours, feeling like choosing to eat it despite how ill I knew I would feel was an affirmation of my intent to stay alive in the world, and uncertain if I had it in me to say yes. I journaled about this inner chaos. On July 1, 2007, I wrote of how “frighteningly low” my weight was (below 100 pounds), and described all the medical interventions that were on the horizon if I couldn’t force myself to eat, and what my choices were there. And then three small words at the very bottom of the page: “I choose life.”

I ate the banana. I somehow pushed through walls of pain and mountains of fear and kept eating. I left home and built a little family and fell in love with my life again. I didn’t die. I dreamed big dreams and from the depths of myself found the courage to follow them. I moved again, by myself, went to school, got divorced, became a nurse, became a midwife. And here I am on my couch at 11 p.m., pager clipped to the waistband of my shorts, hundreds of babies later, blogging about it.

In my grand tradition of writing letters to my past selves, here’s one specifically to me in that moment when I was sitting there with that banana:

Dear Rob (yep, that’s your name now; hang on),

I see you. Where you are at right now SUCKS. You feel sick constantly. Your body is wracked with pain and your mind with terror. You can’t imagine ever feeling alive again. You are eating your own flesh to stave off death for a bit longer, uncertain how much more you have to give. You are possibly the loneliest you’ve ever been, there in the solitude of your descent into illness.

I know, trust me I know, how much you don’t want to do this. You know how sick you will feel if you eat. You know what it will cost you. But just for a minute, I want to plant the seed of the idea that you not eating will cost me everything I now have. I need you to survive. I need you to do whatever it takes to keep your body alive. I can go back and repair anything else, can return with new perspectives and skills and coping strategies and will happily clean up any messes left behind. I just need you to feed yourself.

If I could, I would give you a glimpse into what lies in store for you on the other side of not dying. In the way that time is not as linear as we think it is and magic is weird and knowing that I went back last week with the intention of reconnecting with you, I’ll give it a shot. If you eat that banana, and keep eating, and keep doing whatever you need to do to stay in the land of the living, I promise you on everything you know to be holy and good that you will come alive again. This is not where your story ends. Far from it. You will keep writing.

In a couple of months, you will move to California, and you will meet people who won’t bat an eye at your queerness. A year from now, you will be married. You will put on a dress (sorry, next time it can be pants) on International Women’s Day and say “for today, and for the days to come” to a woman you love, and you will mean every word of it. You will explore together to the end of your exploring, and your paths will diverge, and you will be sad, and you will feel broken, and you will crochet and write and cry and study your way to feeling whole again.

During this time you will have moved again, to Seattle, on to one of the biggest challenges you’ve ever given yourself. You will dream a seemingly impossible dream, and you will have no idea until you’ve actually done it whether you can. From where your emaciated body sits, banana in hand, you can’t fathom being able to take on the role of caring for anyone but yourself, but you will do it. You will kick ass at one of the most accelerated intensive nurse-midwifery programs in the country. You will rise to the challenge of the dream your grandmother offered you. You will sit in a session at a midwifery conference ten years from now and hear her whisper, from somewhere, that you are her wildest dream, and you’ll realize that she gave you yours as well.

You will get a job that will stretch you and teach you a lot about how to be and how not to be a midwife. You will stay there until you need to leave it, and then you will go to a new place. You will bring your whole self to your work. You will receive babies into your hands and stories into your heart. Your presence with your patients is being cultivated by the quality of the ways in which you are showing up for yourself right now. So keep showing up. Keep doing the hard work of staying alive in the world.

Know that you are not alone. I promise that I will come back for you. Ten years from now, I will return. I will sit in the bedroom you spent your adolescence in, and I will bring all of my accumulated love and wisdom and magic with me. I will sit in the living room eating an apple (because I can’t stand bananas anymore), and I will feel the weight of your frail body sitting there with me, and I will reach out a hand to you from across the decade and lend you all of the strength I have built in the 80 extra pounds of muscle and fat and blood and bone and life I hold in this body you now occupy, and through our collective tears I will call you home again. I must leave home to stay alive, and I promise I will come back for you and through some time-warp magic I will reach back through the past and whisper courage to your palpitating heart, the courage you need to stay alive so you can grow into me and I can go back for you.

Your (my? our?) pager will go off while you write this, and you will go catch a baby and not come back to finish blogging for another week. What will remind you is a sunset that is so astonishing in its simple brilliance that it will move you to tears. You will stand in a spot a block away from where you now live, the fading light of day dropping down over the Olympics before you, and the way the sky makes a perfect silhouette of a sprig of Queen Anne’s Lace will flood your cheeks with saltwater because you are alive to see it.

You will be listening to “Turning Wake” by Ayla Nereo right then, and you will stand still with the cool evening breeze caressing your face as she croons,

I’ll be dancing’ with the ones who remind me
we are born of dust and silence
we are made of ancient songs
and there are ones who’ll keep us sleeping
and there are ones who bring the dawn
put your back to the birch and your mind to the matter of a
listening kind of way
we are born of dust and silence
we are made of ancient songs…

I will stare into the lens of my camera in that moment as if I could look through ten years of history and catch your eye.

I will gaze unblinkingly at the memory of your dying body as tears pour down my cheeks, and I will smile because (spoiler alert!) I know you made it out alive. You can’t know that now, and that is terrifying. Your body will indeed die one day, love, and you will return to the dust and silence you were born of. But not yet. This is not where your story ends.

 

I will stare back across a decade and hold you with limitless compassion, borne out of all of the precious life I’ve lived in the 3644 days between these two photographs. I will grieve with the embodied memory of what happens when I try to take up as little space as possible. You have no idea what you are capable of, how you will proceed to gleefully and unapologetically refuse to fit into anyone’s boxes, how in claiming your authentic wholeness and all the space that is yours to occupy you will create for yourself a life that you can thrive in.

I imagine myself with you in my lap. I would kiss the top of your head and stroke your bony cheek and tell you stories of the life you will live if you eat that banana. I would whisper in your ear the names of every single baby your hands will catch. I would sing you songs you have yet to learn and recite to you some of the poems you will write. You have to stay alive, love, because the world’s best cat has yet to be born, and yours are going to be his favorite shoulders to sit on.

Oh, my love, the tales I have to tell you of who you are becoming! You have so much life left to live. I wish I could tuck you in at night with stories of how brave you are, how resilient, how you will create a home and a life and a chosen family for yourself. It will be a long, tough rode; I won’t lie and tell you otherwise. Dozens of healthcare providers, well over a hundred appointments, several surgeries, and countless medications and treatments of a variety of kinds will be required to keep your body alive. You will do so much inner work, filling journal after journal with your thoughts and reflections. You will come face to face with your own shadow and welcome it. The journey of a lifetime is to integrate all that you have seen and done and experienced and been in the world, and I promise you that you have within you a seemingly endless well of courage that you will draw from again and again to show up and do the work.

Your beautiful queer self belongs in this world, Rob. Despite what you grew up hearing and what you still hear: there is a place for you at this table. You will discover, as you do the work of staying alive, just how much the world is in love with you. Oh, I wish you could take just a tiny glimpse into my bank of memories from the past decade! You have no idea what a ridiculous life I’ve built for you to come home to. I need you not to give up on living just yet, because there are full moons to admire and queer humans to kiss and mountains to hike up and songs to dance to and heart-shaped rocks to discover in all of the places you go. There are books to read and baths to take and poems to take your breath away. There is love to give and receive and make and fall into and fall out of and do it all over again. There is so much delicious food to eat (I promise that nourishing yourself won’t always be as hard and painful and scary as it is now). There is this incredible body that you get to inhabit, and as you put in one of your poems, “to live in this skin and come alive here.”

And so you will, dear one. You were born of dust and silence, and one day you will return to the same. But not yet. I came back for you. I came to bring you home with me, to carry you to a life you’ve made for yourself to thrive in. I left a heart-shaped stone behind so that you can find your way back to me. I’ll take care of you; I’ve learned how.

Come home with me.

All my love and magic,

Rob (roughly 5,247,360 minutes later)

The Antidote to Despair

I don’t know about you, but the last week and a half (the entirety of this current presidency thus far), and even the past couple of months since the election, have brought me closer and closer to feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion that previously I had been better able to keep at bay. Seeing my newsfeed filling up with story after story of injustice and trauma and an all-out assault on my values and the communities I care about seems to drain all of the fight out of me and push me right into my trauma response of choice, which is to freeze and find a way to numb the overwhelm of it all.

Self-care is and has long been vital to my survival, and recently it has become ever more so. I find that doing multiple things every day to care for my whole self (physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, spiritually) is so important, and takes so much time and energy, and it is a privilege that I have those things (not always, but usually) to put towards the activities I need to do to keep myself as well as I can be under the circumstances.

When things are out of balance, I feel it everywhere. When my sleep is interrupted by nightmares of hiding in closets from Nazis out to get me (the second part of that dream was not untrue, but I no longer hide in the closet), when food is not interesting to me, when I spend days without reaching out to people I love and deeply connecting, when I hide inside instead of moving my body to metabolize the accumulating trauma… I hurt. I hurt in mind and body and psyche and soul. Sometimes I can’t seem to shift out of the hurting place, especially when I have to care for others. It is hard to be in deep trauma and still show up authentically and hold space for someone in labor or in my clinic room or in the operating room. It is hard and I do it, because it is part of my work and my magic in the world to show up as my whole self in spaces and give myself room to feel everything, not necessarily in that moment, but to create daily space to feel.

One of my self-care practices is to get out in nature. Because of the weather, I hadn’t gone for a hike since Christmas, but a few days ago, despite a drizzling rain, I took myself out to one of my favorite Seattle parks and wandered around, not entirely aimlessly but definitely without my usual drive to explore and move my body. I felt like I was right at the edge of despair and could tell that it would take very little to push me right into the thick of it. I searched in my awareness for some answer, some of my unique magic, that could provide a shift to bring some greater ease into this situation, and as my mind went into a state of inquiry, the question asked itself of me, “What is the antidote to despair?”

At the time I was asking myself this, I was unfamiliar with Joan Baez’s quote that would answer that question with a single word: action. She believed that moving forward and doing something would provide the shift I was looking for. And she may well be right, except that I was so overwhelmed with inertia and pain that finding actions to do felt almost impossible.

Sitting in the question, and holding it gently to my chest, I ended up on a rocky beach and found myself looking for heart-shaped stones. To my dismay, I wasn’t finding a single one. I searched and searched, and these stones that always find me easily were staying invisible on the beach. Tears began dripping down my cheeks along with the drizzle of the rain, and I squatted down by the water and let myself feel everything. “What is the antidote to despair?” I asked myself. And I instantly found my answer in the word I chose for this year: belonging.

Belonging is my antidote to despair. I brought to mind the humans that I love, by name, one by one, and as each name appeared in my mind, I noticed that my magic was returning to my body. I thought or whispered a name and a heart-shaped stone appeared on the beach. I called to mind folks I consider my chosen queer family: Dylan. Carey. Emily. Maggie. Nico. Simon. Meg. Susan. Katie. Brooke. Tasha. Maddie. So many others. I thought of my family of origin and my complex love for them. I pictured my community of midwives and nurses and physicians. I thought of all of the folks I’ve shared dances with over the past year since I started dancing. And yes, I thought of my cats.

And I whispered my own name to the stones. I meditated on what belonging deeply to myself might mean to me. I thought of how complex it is to belong in my skin, to feel at home in my body. I thought of all of the love and labor that I have put into belonging to myself, and I sent gratitude back in time to all of the iterations of me who have worked for my survival and to help me have the chance to thrive. I also sent thanks to all future selves I will become, and to the love I know they are sending back through time to me, as I do now, as part of my work in the world. I thought of all the bodies I’ve lived in already in this lifetime (young, fat, gaunt, sick, athletic, scarred, tattooed, frozen, dancing, and oh-so-queer), and how many more I might get to experience. I fell in love with my life again.

I thought of what it means to me to explore the concept of belonging while living on stolen Duwamish land, a land rightfully belonging to people who are not my ancestors. I thought of the lands my ancestors belonged to, scattered throughout northern Europe. I thought of all the heart stones I might find on the beaches and in the fields they called home, before they left to become settler colonists (some of them coming over on the Mayflower). I reflected on the violence of their actions towards Native peoples, towards people of color, especially Black people who were brought over to serve as slaves whose labor was foundational to capitalism’s beginnings. I felt into what it means to belong as a queer and gender non-confirming white person to a community of activists working to create a world where there is room for everyone to belong.

I wove for myself the fabric, the web of belonging that holds me fast in the world. By the time I left that beach (forty-four heart stones later!), my pockets were heavier than my heart was when I arrived.

As I made my way back to my car, damp and grateful, I thought how important it was that belonging is my word for 2017. This is a year that already promises a lot of intensity, with no sign of letting up. Reminding myself over and over that I belong here, in this world, at this time, is going to be vital to my well-being and indeed, to my survival.

There are other things that act as antidotes to despair for me, and I will name them in case any of them speak to you. Just the sheer act of existing as my whole self in this world that attempts to deny me that is an example of fierce defiance and resilience. My existence is resistance. Here are some of the things that help me keep existing:

Sleep: easier said than done when my nights are plagued with nightmares, but I find that if I do not sleep well, I do not function well. When I am able to allot sufficient time for resting my body and mind (quality of sleep aside), I have much more reserves to cope.

Community: Staying in contact with the people who give meaning and purpose to my life fills me with love and oxytocin. Checking in with my loved ones whom I know are also struggling with various heavy burdens is important to me. Making some effort, daily, to reach out and love someone, whether in person or over the phone or via social media, helps keep me going.

Food: this is an edgy one for me, as my body has a complicated relationship with food (due to both allergies and chronic stomach problems from a birth defect). Choosing to eat foods that nourish me and give me energy, as well as intentionally making food and feeding others, gives me stamina. Choosing not to use food to mindlessly help numb my feelings can be hard, but it feels important to make an effort to tease those two things apart and let my feelings have space to be expressed and not conflate them with food. Letting myself be fed–in all the ways that can be interpreted–is one of my goals for this year.

Organizing: as much as I have reserves to do it, showing up in activist spaces and working with existing movements for social change and resistance helps me remember that there is work that needs me and that my voice and my efforts can create good in the world. There is a balance between exhausting myself in all the doing and letting the action feed me, but here is where I do agree with Joan Baez, that action is indeed one of the antidotes to despair. Especially getting behind efforts led by people of color, and queer and trans folks, who have been doing this work for longer than I’ve been in it, is vital.

Movement, and especially dancing: when I move my body, either on my own or in connection with another body, I get out of my head and the swirl of trauma I’ve accumulated and emotions I haven’t gotten to process and I land fully in my own skin. I feel into my strength and flexibility and resilience, qualities that fuel my ability to keep doing the work of this moment. Physical activity helps me to metabolize all of the build-up and keep it from drowning me, giving space for big feelings to come up and move their way out of my body. I deeply appreciate collapsing in a sweaty heap after a good night of dancing with folks I love.

Poetry and stories: words are my lifeline home to myself. My walls are plastered with poems that remind me where home is, what healing looks like, that I am whole, that loving is worth it, that living is worth it. “We need to share our wars,” Nayyirah Waheed said, in one of the quotes I taped above my bed. Writing and reading others’ writings keeps me going. Stories link me to the experiences of others and simultaneously help me come home again. Language is a bridge across solitudes.

Therapy: I need to have a place I can go to download and process things so I don’t only rely on my friends and loved ones to do this emotional labor for me. If I let them build up, they sink me. Having someone in my life whose job is to hold me, and who does not require any holding in return, is so necessary to my well-being. Mental illness is so highly stigmatized in the dominant US American discourse, and speaking openly about it is part of my activism.

Pleasure: living is full of pain. We know that far too well. Taking joy in the delights that also make their way into my life reminds me that living is not ALL pain. A lot of experiencing pleasure is about mindfulness; pain and pleasure often coexist, and noticing both when they arrive and when they go is one of my practices. The heat of my evening shower on my skin as I step into the water and rinse off my day is pleasure. A bite of kumquat dipped in honey and topped with a Szechuan peppercorn is pleasure. Watching the colors of the sky as the sun dips below the horizon is pleasure. Feeling a lover’s lips on my own and being aware of nothing else in the world is pleasure. Hearing a newborn’s first fierce cry, announcing their arrival onto this planet, is pleasure. Snuggling into my bed at last after a long night of being awake welcoming new people onto the planet is pleasure. Pain is mingled in each of these in different ways (the bite of the peppercorn feels different than the ache of up-all-night-babycatching exhaustion), but all of them also hold delight.

Nature: I have to go outside to stay well. I need to bury my toes in cool grass and jump into chilly lakes and feel the smoothness of stones in my palms. I need to kiss trees and tuck bits of lichen in my hair and smell the sea and let myself get lost in the wildness outside me as well as within. I need to inhale fresh oxygen and remember that I am a part of this, that I belong to the world. I need to let the crashing waves remind me where home is. I need the animals to teach me how to be. I need to wear out my body climbing trails in the middle of nowhere so I can find myself again.

Unplugging: this one is hard for me, because I feel so drawn to staying connected with what is happening in the world around me. But I have found when I am outside of cell reception range or wifi access for a day or five, I return feeling recharged. When I mindlessly scroll through a newsfeed of despair, I lean closer to that edge myself. This one is most definitely a work in progress, and I don’t often do it well, but I am committing to finding a balance between informing myself and overwhelming myself with information.

Breathing: staying in my breath helps me stay in my body. Whether through singing at the top of my lungs in the shower, or consciously slowing down my rate of breathing to quell anxiety, or moving my body hard to get my lungs going and my heart beating faster, mindfully being present in my breath brings me back to what is happening right now and diverts my attention from catastrophic thinking. Meditation also fits into this category.

There are so many other self-care strategies, so many other antidotes to despair that are possible. I am so grateful to be finding mine, and I want to be authentic in this writing and make it clear that I don’t have this all figured out, not by any means. These are things that help me survive and sometimes even thrive in the world, and they are not easy to do. Some days I want to hide in my room and eat chips and ignore my work and not talk to anyone, and that is okay. Some days, survival is my work, and I do that as best I can. Every time I choose to do something to preserve my aliveness in the world, I am part of the resistance. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Belonging is political warfare. Belonging is raw power. Belonging is my antidote to despair.

I would love to hear about your equivalent to heart stones. What speaks to you of belonging? What keeps you going when despair looms in close? What fuels your resistance? What reminds you that you have a home in this world?

 

Tell About It

pay attention.
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

Words have been hard to come by lately. This year has been a transformative one for me in so many ways, and I have found it challenging to find ways to describe my experience in language. I’ve spent this year doing countless things I’ve never done before, and I am doing my best to listen to Mary Oliver’s wise words. I have indeed been paying attention, and I am astonished over and over again. So here I am to tell about it.

This January is when I started dancing, which was the first time I ever really intentionally began moving my body. After a couple of decades of my muscles existing in a trauma-induced state of permafrost, I remember the exact moment (in the middle of dancing) when I felt them melt. At first, learning to dance was an endeavor of being in deep solitude in the middle of a crowd of people I didn’t know, but over the coming months, I developed a community of beautiful humans who have become family to me in ways I cannot begin to define in words. These people have gone on so many journeys with me, both in the container of an evening’s set list, as well as journeying with me into the wilderness of my humanity and vulnerability while exploring deep connection and belonging. I am unendingly grateful that this year brought dance to my world, and the people that have come with it.

February brought me to the end of one job–my first position as a midwife after graduation–and the beginning of another. That transition was an important one that afforded me much more time for self-care, as I am currently working much less than I was previously. My quality of life has drastically improved in this new role, and I view my decision to accept this new position as one of my most important life decisions thus far. I am grateful for the environment in which I work, the delightful midwives and nurses and other staff who make my workdays something I look forward to, and the precious individuals and families I have the privilege of serving. This month, I also met for the first time someone who became a member of my chosen family and one of the dearest humans in my world. The end of February was also when I learned that my mother had cancer, which would prove to be a thread woven throughout the remainder of the year.

March was full of cherry blossoms and poetry. This month ushered in my thirty-second year of life, and with it, the first labor I ever attended where the baby shared my birthday with me. That is a special moment I will not soon forget, and a hard birth that compelled me to dig deep into my reserves and hold exquisite space for what was unfolding. I went home to vegan cake with a small handful of special friends, and I felt loved. I also stood on a stage on the tenth anniversary of the start of the Equality Ride and told a deeply personal and hilarious story about my journey of self-discovery of my sexuality, which felt like an embrace of my choice of the word “storytelling” as my word of the year.

April involved a road trip that took me to a workshop that proved life-changing for me in several important ways. I met some people who made a big impression on me, and formed new connections that would push me to the edges of discovery and increased self-knowledge. I continued to become more comfortable in my new job, and kept building relationships as I met more people in the dance community I joined at the beginning of the year. April took me away from home to help me find home within myself in new ways.

May brought me love, and exploration, and curiosity, and growth. So many stories unfolded this month, stories I can’t begin to unpack just now. May was about mindful embodiment, witnessing my formerly trauma-frozen body continuing to melt and heal and open to movement and wonder and delight. I kept dancing, and catching babies, and writing poems, and falling in love with the world in new ways.

June took me out into the woods and brought me home again. The magic I created during my five days there left indelible imprints on my life. This month kept teaching me about relationship-building, and boundaries, and attachment, and family. June also contained some new trauma that shook me to my core for a while, and ultimately it showed me the importance of healing in community. I claimed very openly my whole self, and I lost some people I loved because of it. I saw how resilient I have become, and how even painful wounds can be tended to in ways that strengthen my wholeness.

July was about coming undone. The trauma from June seeped into my spirit, and I could not keep holding it all. I went into the woods again, and I fell apart. I set some clear boundaries in relationships that were not serving my wholeness. I grieved hard for what I lost. I felt everything deeply. July was messy and important.

August, again, took me out into the wilderness in search of something inside myself. I went to the coast alone for a week, and felt so very lost. I wrote my way back to myself there, and I came back home with thousands of pictures and hundreds of heart-shaped stones and dozens of ways I had reclaimed lost parts of myself. I went to dance camp this month, and explored movement in community. I allowed myself to be witnessed and held in extraordinary grief, and through this found the strength to go all the way through it to the end of my sorrow. Relationship creation and nurturing continued to be an important theme throughout the end of the summer, as did showing up in my solitude in the natural world and finding myself belonging to it.

September taught me more about healing and letting myself be held and loved by my chosen family. This month found me unearthing the courage to be vulnerable in my storytelling, to choose to unload shame that was not mine to carry, and to see myself through the eyes of the ones who love me the most. This month, I traveled to Oregon for the second of five times this year, and I saw my mother and her family and connected with them in the beauty of nature. I made memories of collecting heart-shaped stones from the beach together with my mother, which I will always cherish.

October taught me again about loss and grief. In the span of two weeks, I lost a dear mentor (a mother figure I have loved since college, when her presence in my life was instrumental in keeping me alive in the world) to cancer and two queer friends to suicide. I grieved their loss in my bones as I continued doing my work of baby-catching and community-building and working for justice. A bright spot in this month was getting the chemical structure of oxytocin, my favorite hormone, tattooed onto my forearm, reminding me to generate love and connection and relaxation wherever I go.

November was a hard month. Anxiety building up to the election, exponentially worse afterwards, gave way to an odd mix of paralyzing despair and dedicated action towards resistance. Two more weekend trips to Portland, and a third to Bainbridge Island, made this month full of travel. I stayed on friends’ couches and in guest bedrooms and in a gorgeous cabin in the woods, connecting with chosen family and my ancestors and finding belonging in the world I inhabit while continuing to work for justice in as many ways as my limited energy would allow.

And now it’s December. 2016 is close to over. This year of exploring storytelling has taken me into both my past stories, as well as giving me many new ones to write. Indeed, I think I am realizing that I write in ways that go much deeper than words. My presence in the world is writing epic poetry to the time I inhabit. My body is composing a love story to the land. My feet are dancing stories into sand, snow, dirt, grass, and on hardwood floors throughout the Pacific Northwest. The birth stories I witness unfolding and help to write with the families I serve may go untold, but they are writing themselves into my memory, not to be forgotten.

I may not have been writing as much this year, definitely not blogging as prolifically as I used to, which has required much gentleness and self-compassion on my part. But silence here does not equate to a lack of stories being lived or being told. I think I am just learning new ways of storytelling. I am seeing that the way I eat a ripe satsuma tangerine is a story. How I trace my fingers down the cheek of someone I care deeply for. The ways my body has learned to move to music and to rest in stillness. The quality of space I hold in my clinic and hospital rooms when important things are unfolding. The presence I give to the feeling of fall air on my face. The tenderness with which I welcome new people onto the planet. All of these are evidence of the ways I am becoming a more prolific storyteller and stepping into my greater wholeness as a member of the human family.

I have been paying attention. I am astonished. And I am doing my best to tell about it.

img_2562

All the Robins

I woke up in the middle of the Hoh Rainforest at 5:00 this morning, realizing I had completed what I set out five days ago to do. With that sure knowledge settled deeply into my bones, I packed up my campsite and was on my way ultimately back home. It seems I am always on my way home.

The past week has been one marvelous adventure after another, starting with staying up terribly late after ecstatic dance to go with a dear friend to see the Perseids meteor shower at its peak. We lay out in the middle of an open field, giddy with excitement every time we saw a meteor arcing its way through the night sky. In between gasps of delight, we shared deeply with one another and continued to build on a connection that has been so nourishing to me.

The next morning, bright and early, after a counseling appointment to set me off on the right foot, and running on only 3 1/2 hours of sleep (from staying up so late watching pyrotechnics displays in the sky), I packed up way more than I needed and headed out into the woods in search of something. I had not made any firm plans about where I would go or whether I was car camping or backpacking or what precisely I would do when I got there. Being a planner by nature, this was a stretch for me, and it put me in precisely the frame of mind I needed to be in to do the work I went to do, namely, to get lost in search of myself.

Which is exactly what I did. I let myself get lost, alone and far away from home and from the people I love, away from the creatures that keep me warm at night and the food I’m used to eating and the bed I sleep in and the routines that make me feel safe. Dropping the facade of safety was key to the work I had planned, which was to dig deep into the stories I carry in my body and in my psyche that want out, that want to be written in a form beyond the limits of my journal or this blog.

I allowed myself to deeply face my fears. I sat with myself, my selves, all of the Robins I have been throughout my life, and I greeted each of them–regardless of how difficult I find it to love them–and welcomed them back to me. Over and over again, I allowed memories of all that I have been and done and experienced to wash over me, and gently, with courage and grace and dignity, called them home.

As I have done repeatedly over the years, sometimes what I need to say can best be expressed only by directly addressing myself in a letter.

Dearest Robins,

I usually write to one particular memory of you, one time or place in the past where I think of you and recall you needing to know that you are loved and that you are going to make it. Usually, I take this one at a time, and focus in as with a zoom lens on my camera onto one particular area, but today I want to take a step back and look with a curious eye over the entire landscape of my days.

I love you, each and every one of you. I love the scared child about to undergo surgery not understanding why. I love the creative, curious kid who loved climbing trees and swimming in the lake. I love the terrified little one who learned about violence way too soon, and I love every last creative thing you did to survive and live through it so you could become me. I love the sick teenager whose body grew and shrank at almost unbelievable rates, disappearing nearly before our eyes until birth defects were discovered and lifesaving surgery was carried out and more trauma and healing could happen, and did. I love the person who grew so focused on coming alive and living well. I love that, despite further trauma from multiple complex sources, that person found ways to make it through. I love the person who lived in the sick body that again nearly died, and again, fought to remain in the land of the living. I love the queer one who declared their autonomy from all of the oppressive messages that said they weren’t worthy. I love the lover, who has in their heart an enormous capacity to love, and the ability to continue to love again even when it doesn’t work out sometimes. I love the midwife who helps others create their families, even as family is a tricky thing to define for oneself. I love the one who has lived through fractures in mind and body and has nevertheless pursued wholeness. I love the one who creates their way out of the darkness with any means available: words, poems, art, music, crafts, connections with humans and animals, dance, photography, time in nature, cooking, and physical activity.

To sit with every last thing about my life I could remember and accept myself fully in every aspect of my wholeness took me to some of the hardest places I’ve ever been. I chose to go there alone, to be physically and emotionally and psychically and spiritually in solitude, with the natural world as my anchor, always calling me back home to myself.

To the Robin who is so sick she is terrified to leave her house, I say this: You will travel out into the wilderness with courage in a body that is as strong as it has ever been.

To the Robin who is so terrified she cannot believe she will ever feel better, I say this: You will learn skills to help you hold all of the enormity of your feelings, and you will learn to reset your brain so it can be calm, and you will not always be afraid.

To the Robin who needs constant reassurance that you will be okay, I say this: You ARE okay. You belong to the Everything. You are a part of the world, and you belong to the trees and the mountains and the waterfalls and the wind and the rising moon.

To the Robins who have done things they are not proud of, I say this: You are worthy of love and acceptance and belonging. There is forgiveness for you. You have hurt yourself, and you have hurt other people, and there is yet healing and reconciliation for both.

To the Robin who doesn’t know what the next step is, I say this: Stand still. Let the forest breathe you. Listen to the winds beckoning you forward. The way will open. Let yourself be guided gently forward. Your passion will continually call you home to yourself and to your work in the world.

To the Robins who feel permanently broken, I say this: Brokenness and wholeness are not opposites. They exist in dynamic tension with each other. I would not be able to be this whole if I had not been this broken.

To the Robins who feel lost, who long again and again to go home, I say this: Home is inside you. It is as close as your breath. Home is the presence you bring with you to any given moment, the attention you give to the elements that make up your life. You will find your way home again. And again. And ever always again.

To the Robins who strive for safety through some very creative means, I say this: I see you wanting to structure your world in such a way that you make it predictable, and controllable, and solid. But hear me when I say this: You will wake up one night in your car in the middle of the Olympic National Forest with a black bear trying to get inside, and you will know deep down what safety is. None of the mental structures you create can give you the sense of security in the world that you can get from standing firm in your truest wholeness, and in the knowledge of how inordinately fragile a thing life is, and how out of reach it is to control.

To the Robin who is afraid of germs (and I mean, seriously afraid of them), I say this: You’re going to wake up one day not having properly washed your hands in a while. You will be filthy. You will swim in bodies of water that may contain giardia, and you will poop in holes you dig in the woods, and you will laugh at the reality that a germaphobe grew up to be a healthcare provider with a job in a hospital, and you will delight in the irony that is your life.

To the Robin who is afraid to be whole because claiming their authentic self in the world has some degree of unpredictable loss inherent in that process of selfhood, I say this: Be wholly you anyway. Yes, you will lose people you love who cannot create space for you to be you. You will lose dear friends and family members and casual social relationships, and your vulnerable authenticity will make people uncomfortable. Be you anyway. Be the most Robin-ful Robin you can be. Nobody else can do that for you, kiddo. Nobody else can go on this journey to the places that scare you (both inside of yourself and out into the world) and come back with 2200+ photos and 200+ heart-shaped stones and dozens of stories of encounters with nature that took your breath away. You are it, love. You have it in you to go on this journey and to do this big thing, and I believe in you.

You are coming home to yourself love, loves. Every last one of you is a part of me, and I am so beyond grateful that each of you existed, and engaged with whatever your challenge or struggle in all the ways you did, and that you did everything you could to survive and to become the Robin I am now. You each had a part in helping me create this life that I can honestly say that I love living. And I give you my word that I will do my best to honor the work you have done by bearing witness to the stories you have lived.

So that’s where I end, and where I also begin: In the storytelling. I went out into the wilderness in search of myself, in search of the inspiration I needed to start writing again, and I found it in measures that astounded me.

I found it in the moonrise over the Hoh River:

IMG_6202

I found it in Lake Crescent:

IMG_6330

I found it at Sol Duc Falls:

IMG_4685

I found it in the Hall of Mosses at the Hoh Rainforest:

IMG_6041

IMG_5915

IMG_5904

I found it at Kalaloch:

IMG_5510

IMG_5376

IMG_5370

IMG_5257

I found it at Rialto Beach:

IMG_4960

I found it at Ruby Beach:

IMG_5025

IMG_4992

I found it in the presence of the world’s largest western red cedar, near which I had unwittingly camped the night before:

IMG_5038

And I found it in the pages of my journal, and in the pages of my history:

IMG_5302

Greet Yourself Arriving

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
–Derek Wolcott, “Love After Love”

The time will come, and for me, is soon coming. I am leaving this weekend for a week-long solo trip to the Olympic Peninsula, to get lost and find myself in the woods, or something. I’m going to write, to explore what is inside of me that wants to exist in the world, to explore both my inner world as well as the world around me. I am taking my camera, and my journal, and my curiosity and anxiety and courage and authentic wholeness.

Nine years ago exactly, I was really sick. This body I live in now was eating itself for food; I weighed 70 pounds less than my current (very average) weight. I had a BMI of 13.7. I was aware that I was actively dying. I said goodbye to my life, and detached from everything that I loved and that gave meaning to my existence. I was ready. I remember vividly what death tastes like. I can feel the coldness of her shadow on my skin. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect to survive.

But I survived. Thanks to exquisitely-timed interventions from loved ones that involved leaving my parents’ home, moving across the country to seek specialty treatment for the leading expert and researcher in my particular condition in a place I’d never lived before, and being welcomed in my wholeness into a loving and accepting community, little by little over the next year I started getting better. And in my process of healing, I realized that I had the opportunity to rebuild my life in whatever ways I chose. I launched into an exhausting process of exploring every last piece of my life as I decided whether I wanted it to be part of what existed for me now. After not dying when I fully expected to, everything since that time has felt like bonus time, moments that I never thought I would get to experience. It was during that exploration that I realized I didn’t want to study childbirth academically as I had planned, but that I wanted to have a more hands-on role. And a year later, I was enrolled in prerequisites for midwifery school.

That period was a turning point in my life, setting me on a path that has led me to a place where I get to be my most whole self, doing work that I love, in a place I feel welcome and accepted, belonging to a community of people who see me, creating a family for myself out of chosen friends and loved ones. I have gone to the very depths of myself, digging into the deepest awfulness of human experience, and come back with fists full of unearthed treasures.

Some of what I’ve done doesn’t seem like it should be humanly possible, and when I look back, I wonder how I did it. I have so many stories of survival, of not just getting by but of actively thriving. I never thought I would be able to say that I love being alive, but I truly do, and getting here was a journey so full of rich stories that now want to be told. So I am going, in large part, to explore my stories. I did, after all, pick “storytelling” as my word for the year, and it is kicking my butt in all the best ways.

I am simultaneously terrified and fearless to go on this trip, to pay attention to every last bit of me that has stories to tell, to sit down with myself and “feast on my life.” I feel strong (hopefully strong enough to haul my pack on the trail!), both in body and in spirit, probably as strong as I’ve ever felt. I have no idea exactly where I’m going, other than that I’m taking myself to the woods to get lost and found again, and that I’m going away so that I can call every last part of me home.

It is time to greet myself arriving at my own door, after all the work I did to heal from my illness, and to address all of the physical and mental and emotional and psychosocial challenges that got me that sick in the first place. It is time now, after the intense work I did to heal, and to prepare myself for becoming a midwife, and actually studying and learning how to be a midwife, and becoming a midwife, and then working fiercely as a midwife for my first years in practice, and now finding myself settled in my second job and with more free time and energy to be able to bring some attention and gentleness back to myself.

Who am I now after that long journey? What do I want to do next in the world? What writing do I need to do? What stories want to be told? What further healing wants to happen in my mind and body? Where am I going, and what do I need to support myself on the journey?

These questions and more will follow me to the coast this week. I don’t know what I will bring back with me, but I can guess that there will be stories, and photographs, and likely more than a few heart-shaped stones. I’m ready to let the meteor shower make me feel exquisitely small, and for the trees to breathe me, and for the ocean to call my name and the ground to give me a place to rest. I’m ready to “give back my heart to itself.”

I will love again this stranger. I will find my way home.

Invincible

For those of you who have been following my blog for a while (some since I wrote my very first post as I was starting nursing school!), it is not a big secret that I am something of an open book. I was having a conversation with someone recently who was surprised at the level of vulnerability I share in such a public space, and they were curious how I came to the place where I decided I wanted to write this deeply about my life.

I can think of no better answer than Nayyirah Waheed’s beautiful words:

it is being honest
about
my pain
that makes me invincible.

I spent nearly a decade of my life swallowing down pain so deep it threatened to drown me and could have succeeded. I fought hard to claim ownership of the voice that allows me to find the words to speak of the pain and joy that have made up this delicious beautiful mess I call my life. This body and mind I live in has survived an enormous range of experiences, some which should not have been survivable. The very fact that I am still breathing sometimes takes my breath away, and the exquisite poetic irony of this truth teases the corners of my mouth into a smile.

Finding words to attach to the experiences I have had as a member of the human race alive in this body on this planet at this particular juncture of time and space has given me a sense of delicious freedom, as if by writing something into being I am simultaneously creating it and acknowledging my utter lack of control over anything.

I had a moment of piercing clarity in a clinic visit a while back, during which time I was working with a client who was struggling with health concerns that I have had as well. I saw myself in her suffering. I remember the despair, and the longing to be seen. I did not go into detail with her about my story–it was time to focus on her own wellbeing, not to shine the spotlight on me–but something in what I said alluded to the fact that I knew on a very deep level what she was experiencing, and that gave her a measure of relief in itself. She was not alone. I understood and believed her. Isolation gave way to validation, and her pain abated, if only for a moment.

When I was lost in the despair of the closet that trapped me, that I had no idea how I would ever find my way out of, hearing the stories of others who had been there gave me strength to keep going .Through witnessing their bravery, I found my own. What I discovered is that I am made of ferocity beyond my wildest dreams, and that some measure of that courage is borrowed from others who came before me and, in the raw sharing of their stories, pointed me towards my own north star.

It is being honest about her pain that makes Nayyirah Waheed invincible. It is being radically vulnerable with my life story that revealed to me the expansive magnitude of my courage. I know that by owning every aspect of my life, I am risking loss: I have lost dear friends, family members, and social relationships because of it. I am potentially risking my safety (because queer folks still face violence for existing) and my employability (in states I would not choose to live in because my human rights can be legally discarded), among many other things. Because me being me is more than some folks can handle. But me not being me is more than I can bear.

13020190_10101813596031064_1551724506_n

Case in point: my hair is a little more queer this week than last, and there’s a lot less of it. One of my lovely people cut it for me, and I’m rather delighted by it. I had briefly forgotten the vulnerability that comes from instantly being recognizable as being a little too much, too “out there,” until I twice yesterday got called out on why I cut my hair the way I did. I cut my hair because it’s my body and I get to do with it what I damn well please. And because it’s adorable this way. And I really don’t even need to give that much of an explanation, because I don’t exist to make anyone comfortable. If anything, hang out with me for a minute and I’ll be sure to ask you a question that will take you to an edge that makes you wince a little and think a lot. It’s what I do.

I have already given up way too much of my life to fear. I let anxiety about what other people would think of me and what I stood to lose hold me back from all that living from my authentic wholeness would open for me. I played small for too long. I made myself palatable. But I’m not easy to swallow. I am a fireball of healed trauma wrapped in non-conformity with sprinkles of compassion and a heaping side of mindfulness. I am incapable of moderation. I love with abandon because I know how desperately short everything can be and I have no idea how much time I have left to soak up what the world has to offer me and to splash my own magic around liberally. I’m okay if that’s messy, and I hope you are too, because I hope that my wholeness can interact with yours in ways that makes each of us more ourselves.

So I choose in this period of transition to step out of all of the closets that have held me captive, and pry back the lids of every box I have ever tried to conform my queer little self to fit into. I embrace my wholeness as a person whose interlocking identities defy easy categorization, whose gender and sexuality don’t resonate with binaries, and whose heart has longings that don’t always make logical sense but always, always point me towards home. I say yes to loving wholeheartedly, to seeing deeply, to creating glorious messes, to arriving wherever I am in any given moment and finding myself ever only always here now. I am willing to sacrifice the illusion of connectedness with people who are incapable of loving me in my authenticity so that I can see and be seen by those who want to play in the richness that vulnerability has to offer.

At a workshop a couple of weeks ago, I stood in a circle with other folks and spoke my deepest fear and my greatest desire into the center. I learned in doing this that what I fear and what I long for are light and shadow to each other. I am most afraid not of being vulnerable, but that in my vulnerability, folks will see my true self and find me either inadequate or excessive, not enough or too much. I won’t be good enough, and therefore I won’t be lovable. The flip side of that is that my greatest desire is to belong, both to belong deeply to myself as well as finding a home in a community of family, friends, and lovelies who see me in my authenticity and love me precisely in my too-muchness.

I am taking steps towards creating space in my life for my greatest desire to be possible. One of those steps is telling my story, making myself visible, taking up space and giving others permission to do the same. I do this with a fair bit of trepidation, and also with great courage, remembering the words of Albert Schweitzer, who asked for divine help to “fling my life like a flaming firebrand into the gathering darkness of the world.”

This is me. This is what I have to offer the world. This is who I am, in my broken, unapologetic openness. This is my queer body that defies any attempts to categorize it. This is my immoderate heart that loves with abandon. Here are my stories of pain and brokenness and violence and healing and discovering that I am made of exquisite magic that wants to do big things in the world. This is the space I take up. This is me becoming invincible.

If I could send any message back to my closeted self, I would say this:

Robin,

I wish you could see how much you would fall in love with your life, how much love you would give and receive, how free you would feel on the other side of that closet door and with a good decade or so to work through all of the shit that put you in that confined space to begin with. I wish it was possible to give you a glimpse, in just a few words or photographs, of how much you would come alive.

I think of you daily, and am grateful to the point of tears that you didn’t give up. You could have, and I wouldn’t be here doing the work that I love (catching babies that share my birthday!) and loving the people that I love and sleeping snuggled next to the cats that I love and wandering through the forest just to be caught completely off guard by the incredible beauty of the world.

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being,” Hafiz said, and this could not be more true of how I feel about you. I wish I could help you see how deeply worthy you are of love. I wish I could reassure you that you will find it, and that it will knock your socks off. I can’t go back in time, but I can share your story moving forward, and I will.

Thank you for holding on. Thank you for putting one foot in front of the other on the days that you wanted to die. Thank you for choosing to do the hard work of healing so that I can do the hard work of being healing in a wounded world. I am fiercely in love with my life now, and if any tiny bit of this message were to make it back in time to where you sit, I wish it would be this: you will come home again. You will discover what your name is, and you will live your way into it. You will never be without family, though it may not look anything like what you expect. I promise you: you’re going home.

In the meantime, keep doing the hard work of being a whole person. I love you more than words can ever say.

Ever,

Robin

Burying Sadness

But if you bury your sadness under your skin instead of letting it out, what else can it do but grow in your veins, to your heart?

–Nikita Gill

My life is full of joy. I have spent delightful hours over the past couple of weeks at my new job, getting to know a new population of clients, most of whom are expecting to welcome babies into their families in the near future. I have had the immense honor of catching their babies in my hands and whispering a blessing of welcome into this big world. Witnessing contractions opening bodies so new members of growing families can come through never ceases to amaze me. I have no doubt that I am doing my work in the world. I am lucky that my job is also my vocation and my calling.

Mixed in with that joy is now and always a fair bit of sorrow. Sometimes my experienced hands cannot guide the Doppler to a heartbeat. Sometimes a scan shows worrisome findings. Sometimes the lying bastard known as depression tries to steal away the happiness of welcoming a new little love into one’s home. Sometimes a partner unexpectedly turns violent, or cheats, or leaves, and my client is left with a mess on their hands. Always, always, there is fallout, and often this bubbles up in my clinic room.

And my life, too, has its measure of sadness. It is not easy to be a healthcare provider and simultaneously the adult child of a mother with cancer. It intense to live in a body that so regularly reminds me that I am made of flesh that aches and bleeds and can sometimes break open. I have not hidden the fact that my mind has myriad reasons for big feelings to arise from time to time, and when I am in periods of transition, everything in my history tends to ask for my loving attention again, which I am willing to give, and which offers me insights into deep and beautiful things when I slow down and show up for myself.

It takes its toll being queer in a world that doesn’t have a box to check that easily defines me, always being “other.” No part of me easily fits into a box, and while I would not trade in my queerness if I could (though I did spend the bulk of my teens trying, without success and with plenty of damage to my wellbeing), the idea of being understandable and understood by more than just other misfits and weirdos has its appeal every once in a while. Coming home to an empty house after a long call shift spent helping other folks create their families doesn’t always touch that place in my heart that aches, but today it did. Being a wounded healer is a privilege with a heavy price tag attached.

So on nights like tonight, I feel my sadness instead of letting it settle in my flesh unexamined. I notice the ache in my sternum where my awareness of mortality lies. I feel my ovaries begging me to use their eggs. I feel my belly (always), chugging along, painfully digesting my life as it so diligently tries to do. I sense the vast empty places in my bed that for now will be filled with feline companions. Sinking into my body, I remember that sadness is a universal experience, one which links me to the whole world. Catching my breath, I feel the ice around my heart melting. Tendrils of compassion wrap themselves around me and extend outwards to hold the shared sadness of others. I feel all the feelings at once. It is not possible to feel so alone when I remember that I am a part of everything.

So much is shifting for me, and so quickly, that it is easy to get lost in what is different. And also, in the groundlessness, there is space to rest as well.

We are always in transition. If you can relax with that, you’ll have no problem.

–Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Transition is hard. In labor, it’s when many people hit a wall and feel like they can’t do it anymore. In life, it’s when the maps that used to prescribe where I should go next no longer show me the road ahead, and I must wander through and trust that the way will open before me.

Choosing “storytelling” as my word of the year is kicking my butt. I didn’t realize that such a word would call me to more deeply question and explore who I am as a storyteller. This year is not even a quarter over, and already I am not the same as when it began. My life is dynamic just now, and while all that is changing leaves me feeling like I have no solid ground on which to rest my feet, relaxing into that reality is bringing me comfort. Not long ago, I felt very stuck, and while I had solid plans for what direction I would be going, I wasn’t happy. Now, I am most definitely not stuck, and I have no idea where I will be in six months or a year, but I feel free in a way that I didn’t before. Free not only to tell stories that have been holding me back, but also to release their power over me.

For me, I have found that in my vulnerability and acceptance and willingness to face the things I haven’t wanted to write down or speak aloud, they lose their power over me. As I claim all of my life experiences and actions as mine, I become free from them. Integrating every last bit of my life into one complicated whole has been some of the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done, and there is certainly plenty left to do.

Sometimes, when I remember to pause in the midst of chaos, I ask myself, “What is the work of this moment?” And then I do that. Tonight, my work has involved rearranging furniture, answering pages from clients, remembering to feed myself, having a good cry, reaching out to friends to break my isolation, and writing a blog post under the warmth of a snuggly purring cat-friend. And now, the work of this moment is to rest (until morning or the pager goes off again, whichever comes first!). Much love to anyone and everyone who has ever felt sadness, and may the willingness to feel it deeply open you to greater joy as well.

The Word Beyond Home

what is the word beyond.
home.
after home.
where is it. this word.
why can i not remember
how to say this
thing. this feeling that is
my whole body.
–nayyirah waheed

This is my first blog post this year. I have sat down many times to write and have found myself in a state where I am too full of stories to tell any one of them.

I am in transition. That is a story in itself. I am in an in-between place, where I am becoming more fully myself but not entirely sure what it is that I am becoming, where I am going, who I am in the world. I know I am a midwife; this part of my identity is solid and lovely to me in its reassurance that I know this much of who I am, at least. The rest of it feels like it is up for grabs.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the word that I chose to represent this year for me. I was anxious about choosing “storytelling” as my word, because I knew that it would ask big things of me and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I was not wrong about either of those things. “Home,” my word for 2015, took me to some incredible places. This is a new year, a year for storytelling. This, for me, is the word beyond home.

This word, in under two months, has already called me to rise in ways that I cannot fully describe in language (ironic, given the word I chose). Committing to tell my stories this year is a radical, political act as well as an intensely personal one. I am making the intention of owning my whole self, every facet of my being, without shame. This authenticity and vulnerability is game-changing. For me to stand up and say, “This is who I am in the world,” and to be that person, involves a depth of wholeness and integration that is revolutionizing the way I walk through my days and show up in my interactions with other people.

You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.
–Florida Scott-Maxwell, “The Measure of My Days”

That is what storytelling means to me: claiming the events of my life, making myself mine. Being fierce with reality. And my reality has been fierce with me, to say the least. Those of you that know me in person or have followed my blog for a while know that my life has been full of some not-so-easy stories to tell. As, likely, has yours. I feel compelled to tell my stories, even the seemingly shitty ones, because I have found that my vulnerability bridges a divide that exists when we walk around in the world trying to pretend like we have it all together.

So I sit here not for the first time this year, but for the first time that I have been able to put words together in a form I can share publicly. I am taking Nayyirah Waheed’s advice and writing “the thing you are most afraid to write.” Almost. I’m not quite ready to share that one. Close, but not quite.

But I am ready to sit down with myself and write me a letter. I think of my fifteen-year-old self, closeted and lost in a mire of depression and shame, with unresolved trauma and a sense of never belonging. I think that person that I was needs to hear from the person that I am now.

Dear Robin (the 1999 version of you),

Oh, honey. Just to think of you brings tears to my eyes. I see you trying so very hard to make it, to make a place for yourself. You invented crushes (on boys who grew up to be gay–good gaydar you had!) because all of your friends were dating and you wanted to fit in. You went to church and Bible study and missionary kid youth groups, and you did your best to fit into the molds you were presented as the only possible good way to be. You sat and studied your Bible for hours a day, highlighting verses and taping them up around your room, and tried desperately to pray away parts of yourself that were becoming undeniably true for you. Parts that you knew, if you invited them into the open, would possibly cost you your friendships and family relationships.

I also see you desperately trying to stuff down secrets that wanted to come out of your body, stories you’ve held inside for too long, words you’ve told no one. I see you struggling to fight off the demons of shame and a sense of doubt in your value that comes from the violence you experienced at the hands of people who should have been safe for you. I see you holding these secrets inside you, piling food on top of them to choke them down. I see you gaining weight rapidly (a hundred pounds last year alone) in an unconscious attempt to be invisible. I still see you, and Robin: You are a lovely human. I know that the size of your body feels to you like it will make you safer. You have already internalized the sense that fat bodies are not seen the way that slender ones are, and the safest thing to you seems to be being unseen and unseeable. So your creative self, the you that desperately wants to stay alive in the world despite how hard and painful it is for you, came up with a solution. You survived, and I am proud of you. You did what you needed to do to make it.

Nothing about your body needs to change, though it will, and drastically, and soon. Over the next 11 months, you’ll lose more than half your body weight, as you lose your appetite for life and your ability to stuff anything down anymore. Your guts will literally turn on you (you were born with them tangled and “defective,” though you don’t quite know this yet), and you will have a long struggle ahead of you that will involve many invasive tests, a surgery that will take three times as long to heal from as anticipated, and a lot of pain and anxiety. And you will pull through it, and at the end, you will finally come up with the courage to tell someone about the violence you suffered through as a young child.

Sometimes the pain will feel like too much for you to hold. Sometimes it will burst out through lines traced in your skin, the blood leaking out a reminder that you are alive. There will be a time you “put the sharpness back,” as Mary Lambert so beautifully says.

Fathers and uncles are not claiming your knife anymore
Are not your razor, no
Put the sharpness back
Lay your hands flat and feel the surface of scarred skin
I once touched a tree with charred limbs
The stump was still breathing
But the tops were just ashy remains
I wonder what it’s like to come back from that because
Because sometimes I feel forest fires erupting from my wrists
And the smoke signals sent out are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen

You will not have to wonder what it’s like to come back from that. You will come back. Do you hear me, love?

You. Will. Come. Back.

You will come home to yourself, in new ways, again and again and again. You will find words to attach to the deafening silence you’ve choked down for years. You will cling to stories of other survivors like life preservers. You will read Alice Sebold saying of her rape, “You must save yourself or you remain unsaved,” and you will set about the work of saving yourself. You will reach for the doorknob on the closet door, and you will come home to your queer self. You will find yourself with a new name and a new body. You will come to a place where you feel the permafrost in your muscles melting in dance class, and you will move in your skin and learn–little by ever so little–that you belong here.

You will do thousands of hours of hard work and self care that make it possible for me to do what I do now. Had you not invested so much into your healing, there is no question that I would not exist, either on this planet anymore or in my current role as a midwife. Death would have taken me ages ago if you hadn’t worked to keep her at bay. So you worked. You wrote. You put your pain into words on paper in dozens of journals that now fill boxes in my room. Your words pour off the lines into my memory and I send so much love back to you, back in time. I think of how much you despised yourself, how lost you were in shame and loneliness and grief. I think of the body that you hated and treated with such contempt, yet managed to keep alive. Here’s a secret: You will love this body one day. Joy and pleasure and happiness will show up beside pain and sorrow and loss, not taking their place but coexisting with them. You will expand your capacity to feel all of these things.

From where I stand, 17 years later, I am so grateful to you for your courage, and your strength, and your creative tenacity. You could have taken your life, and by extension, mine. You certainly thought about it. Your childhood friend did, last year, hanged in her closet full of despair after holding onto life as long as she could. Your closet reeks of pain, too, my love, and nevertheless somehow you held on. Thank you for holding on.

Thank you for somehow believing that there was a world with room for all of you in it. Thank you for making your way out of oppressive spaces and finding a path to a city and a community where you could be big. Thank you for following your passion to a profession where you get to do work that you love and make a difference in the world. Thank you for claiming your authentic self and wholeness in an environment that wanted you to be small and normal and ordinary. Thank you for the immense work you put into becoming me. I am in love with my life today because you did the heavy lifting and taught me how.

You are a goddamn tree stump with leaves sprouting out of it, reborn, my love.

And tomorrow, you will start your second job as a nurse-midwife, at a new hospital, with a new group of colleagues, in this city that is becoming home. You will continue to show up for your life and tell your stories. Day by day, year after year, you will become ever more yourself.

And so I send love back to you, in hopes that somehow it reaches some part of your psyche. I think of you with fondness and gentle compassion, in the complexity of the person you were and are. I think of the wars you fought and the bravery you showed just by showing up.

I have tried for a long time to escape you, because who you were at 15 is not who I am or want to be now, is not the life I want to live. I never want to return to your closet of death again. But I see now that running away from you is just running away from the person who would become me, and showing you kindness is cultivating self-care. In every way, you are me. You learn how to become an ever-closer approximation of your whole self. You live your way into you. Into me. You find your way home.

You find the word beyond home.

IMG_1591

Jealous of Trees

When people ask me where I am from, I am never quite sure what to say. The short answer I give is “everywhere,” but the long answer is ever-evolving. Do I say I am from Colombia, where I took my first breath in a cold operating room (illuminated only by flashlights in the middle of a power outage) and spent the majority of the first decade of my life? That makes sense, as it is the only physical place in the world that I have ever truly, truly felt I could call home. But my home there is a place that does not exist anymore. I can never return and have it be the same.

Home is not Minnesota, where I spent one very cold, dark winter of my childhood.

I also refuse to say I am from Texas, even though I spent more time there than any other place. The house in which I grew up is not home, though it is mostly familiar when I return for brief visits.

Do I say I am from southern California? That is where moved here from, but I never really belonged there. I loved the four years I split between Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and Pasadena, and still find myself craving satsuma tangerines grown in endless sunshine. I came back to life in that place and will be forever grateful for it, but I don’t think I could truthfully say I am from there.

Between leaving Texas after college graduation and moving into the house where I currently live, I have had ten different addresses in six different cities in three different states. I have spent much time packing and unpacking and packing and unpacking again. I have settled and unsettled and resettled quite a lot.

I have spent much time jealous of trees because they have roots. I have leaned my back against their solid trunks and gazed up into branches than have been home to many birds, and I have wondered when or whether I would ever feel truly at home in the world.

During panic attacks as a teenager, the most common sentiment that would arise from the depths of my anxiety was, “I want to go home!” I didn’t know where home was, or what it even meant. I kept looking for a literal place that felt like all of the things that I thought home should mean, and I kept not finding it.

When I was in Haiti this summer, during my relatively terrifying 24-hour stay as a patient in a hospital in Port au Prince, listening to the agonal breathing of people mere feet from me who died before my eyes, feeling dreadfully sick myself and attempting to coordinate travel back to the States and doing my best to advocate for my wellbeing in a healthcare system I didn’t understand, communicating in a jumbled mix of college French and self-taught Creole through my feverish haze after not having consumed solid food in five days, I had a moment. It was a moment so striking in its clarity that I doubt I will ever forget it.

I wanted to go home more than anything. I wanted to be off that sweaty stretcher, away from the fierce heat and the flies and mosquitoes I had to keep swatting away (the same ones that got me into that dengue fever-induced stupor in the first place!). I wanted to be able to sleep in my own bed. I wanted not to have a poorly-taped-on IV in my arm. I wanted not to be surrounded by the sickest people in Port au Prince, who were vomiting and seizing and gasping their last rattly gasps. I wanted to be in my own hospital with healthcare providers whose language and medical culture I understood and tests I could research and friends I could call on for support. I, without apology (at the time), wanted access to all my various forms of privilege, which was getting me much farther than the people laying in the beds beside me but was not getting me home. I wanted to go home.

In that piercing moment, I realized that if I could climb into my sick body and be at home there, I could be at home anywhere. I wanted nothing more than to escape the whole situation, but I chose to be exquisitely present, one breath at a time. I counted them slowly, breathing six deep belly breaths per minute as I was trained in meditation. I calculated how many breaths to get through an hour at that rate, and rationed them out. Breathing deep into my sick body, I felt as if I was sending love into the body of the earth, pouring out whatever medicine I could conjure into every wound she showed me. I reached my energetic love towards the dying man in the corner and, from my cot, felt the same ferocious love that helps me welcome new people onto the planet gently help him leave his body. I dug deep when the keening howls of his grieving widow threatened to undo me. I looked at every person in that intensive care room with me–the skinny elderly woman two feet to my right, the young man carried in by a friend during a seizure that would not stop, the woman propped up in a wheelchair sucking on an oxygen mask as if it were her only hope at survival, the plump woman vomiting right in front of me into a metal bucket held by her young daughter, the woman beside her moaning in agony, the man in the other corner coughing violently, and a few other folks that I could hear but not see–and held the intensity of their suffering, and then blew it out the open front door with the force of my carefully-measured exhales.

I felt myself settle into my body, this body that has during my 31 years in it been my friend, my enemy, my lover, my muse, my agony, my inspiration, my limitation, and my delight. I came home to myself in that moment, something I have spent the better part of at least two decades trying to do. This is my body. I am here now.

I still wanted out of that place. I still wanted my own bed and my own country and my own language and my own food and my own kitties to keep me company as I healed, and in the space of the next couple of days, these all reappeared in my life. But when I walked through my front door again, I was not the same person who had left, nor did I live in the same body.

For the past couple of years, I have chosen a word at the beginning of the year that I want to spend that year exploring. In 2014, I chose “delight,” and found it around every corner. This year, these past 365 days, I have been exploring the deepest meaning of the word “home,” and I could not have picked a better word to explore. Looking back now over the past year, my journey with this word did not take me where I expected it would. I had been planning to build a home and a life with a person, and that did not go as I had anticipated. But home took me to even deeper places. Home brought me to myself.

In the last fifteen minutes of this year, I am committing to my word for 2016. I had a hard time deciding on this one (there were several strong contenders!). I know what this word will ask of me, and I am not quite sure if I have the courage to show up for it. But I want to go to the places it will take me and stuff my pockets with anything worth bringing back.

Storytelling.

That’s my word. That’s my goal. Now that I’ve journeyed back home to my body, I need to explore all of the stories I carry. I need to remember where I came from and who I am and what my life wants from me.

I need to rest my palms on my sturdy trunk and feel that I, too, have roots. I belong in this world, and this world belongs in me.

12469483_10101679999439704_5521682146242248650_o

Thanks to the trees and this gorgeous sunset at the end of the year for providing me with the angst to realize that I am jealous of their rootedness, and thanks to my amazing massage therapist/friend/fellow magician Nekole Shapiro for finding that jealousy in my right ankle (her way with finding stories in my body is phenomenal).

12473979_10101679999579424_2912731795052709247_o

Here’s to a year of storytelling!

12357065_10101679999589404_1657922595971213608_o

You Burn

“You burn because you carry fire.”

–Rune Lazuli

I know that I am not alone in this sensation of burning from the inside out, this intensity that has called my name since I was a child and has compelled me to follow a tough path with many opportunities to give up and choose something easier. I know that I take up more space than is “ladylike” or comfortable or easy to witness. I speak openly about some very difficult topics and don’t hesitate to move in the direction of big feelings. My dinner table conversations are likely to make some people squeamish. If I take a liking to you, I will probably ask to see your soul and show you mine in return. I believe in and practice radical vulnerability. As Brené Brown says:

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Sometimes this is scary. Not everyone can hold this much fire, at least not without practice. I have felt lately in certain relationships like I might be too much, too big, too intense, and have contemplated how to go about being just a little bit smaller. I would fit so much better in the world as it is now, in my family of origin, in polite company, if I could contain some of this potent energy, if I asked less of the people I love and showed them less of the harder-to-love parts of myself. But the thought of making my magic smaller hurts me. I feel like I would be less whole, less authentically me, if I worked to fashion myself into something more acceptable. I feel that burning, and lately, I’ve been struggling with what to do with it.

“You burn because you carry fire.” What a simple and potent statement! The ardent heat in my chest that put me on the path that has led me to becoming an ever-closer approximation of myself is not an anomaly. It is not a symptom to be treated, a burning to be extinguished. I burn because I have spent my life chasing down my demons and reclaiming their power over me, and this has made me brave, if not exactly fearless. I have gone to many dark places, some with company and some alone. I have made space in my chest for the enormity of grief, the agony of loss, the ugliness of shame, deep waves of sadness, isolating loneliness, and the bitterness of rejection, and in turn this has carved more room inside me for deeper joy than I could have ever imagined. I live in a body that I have only really known in a semi-broken form, and I invest much time and energy working to understand what level of wholeness is possible for me. I am a broken healer, burning because the fire I carry is not something I can put out.

I do not exist to make anyone comfortable, not even (especially not) myself. I am here to invite you to go to the scary places where you will meet yourself. If I extend a hand to you, it is inviting you to come with me to the edges and peer over to see what lies beyond them, to discover what wholeness you might claim from going to the places that scare you. I am here to hold up a mirror to show you the most beautiful things about you that you’ve never let yourself love. I am happy to love them with you.

This will likely be unpleasant. Big feelings will come up, and along with them all of the things we do to avoid feeling those big feelings. But if you can breathe, and stay at that edge, and not run away, I promise you that something valuable will be there to explore, something that will deepen your understanding of yourself and your life and your purpose.

I am at that edge now. I am breathing. I am wanting to run away, wanting to quiet the feelings with chocolate or mindless chatter or anything but actually feeling my way into them. So much in my life is shifting, and with these transitions come both the finality of closed doors and the invitation of open ones. In this period of liminality, I invite my whole self to show up and remind me who I am and what my life wants me to be. “Let your life speak,” the Quakers say, and I am working to create the stillness necessary for the quiet voice to come forward and beckon me into deeper wholeness.

Paying attention to the voice of the whole self is dangerous, because often it asks for what it needs, and these requests require action. I have been offered invitations to make some big changes in my life this year that are pointing me in the direction, ultimately I believe, of greater authenticity and wellbeing, but for the time being, I also feel a certain degree of chaos surrounding them. I am making changes in my personal life, in my most important relationships, in my work life, and in my home, and I anticipate that while I feel destabilized temporarily, I will settle into a place of greater stability in the long run. All of these choices presented themselves to me initially as a sense of unease, whether in my mind or body, and only as I explored them was I able to mine their deeper messages.

2015 has been a big year for me. I have had several major health issues to deal with (including needing surgery and having a couple of procedures under general anesthesia), an important relationship that grew as much as it could but ultimately was not sustainable, my first international midwifery volunteer experience, many dozens of babies caught and hundreds of encounters with pregnant folks as well as those seeking general reproductive health care or contraception, some lovely new friendships and relationships built, and the beginnings of transition from one place of employment as a midwife to another (which will officially happen in February 2016).

I am making choices that will stoke this fire that I carry, that will help me guard it and use it well and help it keep burning strongly for as long as I live in a body to carry fire in. It is not easy to stand up and say, “I need this to change for me to be my best self,” especially when claiming one’s wholeness risks disappointing others. But self-care is the least selfish act I know of, especially for those whose job it is to care for others. It took guts for me to recognize that the work situation I was in was not sustainable if I wanted to remain healthy and balanced, and to take steps to orchestrate the changes necessary to create that balance. The same goes for relationships, and for my interactions with family. Ultimately, I am only responsible for myself, and if I do not love myself fiercely and protect this spark inside of me, I risk it going out.

Robin Williams said, “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” He’s right. We just have that one spark. But if we care for it, that one spark is enough.

You burn. You burn because you carry fire. So carry that fire. Merge it with other flames, dance on dry twigs, and stoke smoldering embers. Let the fire inside you burn whatever does not make you your most whole self. Let it remind you who you are in the world to be, and then go be that.