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I’m thinking of Miranda July saying, “All I’ve ever really wanted to know is how people make it through the day.”

How do people make it through the day? This is one of those times when everyday starts with a stomach ache, when I’m throbbing unbearably with things to say or talk about with J but no time to do it, when work pressure feels so heavy I can’t breath. The image of being in a wet sauna comes to mind–air so thick and hot you can barely get it in your lungs.

I do the things I know how to: distraction, deep breathing, return to anything familiar and soothing, exercise , therapy, talking to friends. None of it helps for more than a moment. I’ve gotten off solid ground, and I don’t know how to get back on.

I suppose what I always do– just move ahead as best I can. Perhaps try medication, though none has ever helped. Try to believe that if I do what I need to for myself, things will stabilize eventually, though it is hard to see the hope in “eventually” when I’m so worn out.

***

A couple hours later: less panic. A calm, but the calm not of trust or ease. The calm of powerlessness.

I will or won’t have enough time for my work. I will or won’t perform well this weekend. I’ll do what I can, but there is this calm despair because I can do what I can, but I can’t make it all work. I am not actually powerless, but humanly, despairingly, power-limited.

Bessel van der Klok:

…As far as I’m aware, the first systematic test of the power of language to relieve trauma was done in 1986, when James Pennebaker at the University of Texas in Austin turned his introductory psychology class into an experimental laboratory. Pennebaker started off with a healthy respect for the importance of inhibition, of keeping things to yourself, which he viewed as the glue of civilization. But he also assumed that people pay a price for trying to suppress being aware of the elephant in the room.

He began by asking each student to identify a deeply personal experience that they’d found very stressful or traumatic. He then divided the class into three groups: One would write about what was currently going on in their lives; the second would write about the details of the traumatic or stressful event; and the third would recount the facts of the experience, their feelings and emotions about it, and what impact they thought this event had had on their lives. All of the students wrote continuously for 15 minutes on four consecutive days while sitting alone in a small cubicle in the psychology building.

The students took the study very seriously; many revealed secrets that they had never told anyone. They often cried as they wrote, and many confided in the course assistants that they’d become preoccupied with these experiences. Of the 200 participants, 65 wrote about a childhood trauma. Although the death of a family member was the most frequent topic, 22 percent of the women and 10 percent of the men reported sexual trauma prior to the age of 17.

…The team then compared the number of visits to the student health center participants had made during the month prior to the study to the number in the month following it. The group that had written about both the facts and the emotions related to their trauma clearly benefited the most: They had a 50 percent drop in doctor visits compared with the other two groups. Writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings about traumas had improved their mood and resulted in a more optimistic attitude and better physical health.

When the students themselves were asked to assess the study, they focused on how it had increased their self-understanding: “It helped me think about what I felt during those times. I never realized how it affected me before.” “I had to think and resolve past experiences. One result of the experiment was peace of mind. To have to write about emotions and feelings helped me understand how I felt and why.”

…Numerous experiments have since replicated Pennekbaker’s findings. Writing experiments from around the world, with grade-school students, nursing-home residents, medical students, maximum-security prisoners, arthritis sufferers, new mothers, and rape victims, consistently show that writing about upsetting events improves physical and mental health. This shouldn’t surprise us: Writing is one of the most effective ways to access an inner world of feelings that is the key to recovering from genuine trauma and everyday stress alike.

Annie Lamott:

What does radical self-care mean for you?

Radical self-care means that I gently bust myself out of the desperate lifelong need to please, and it means that I start to say no as a complete sentence. Women get so used to leftovers, helping everybody else get it together, and then living their lives from what time and life force and energy and family goodwill are left over. My mother ate every broken yolk, because that’s how we were raised, and so this is about a new paradigm of saying, Everybody in the family should take a turn with a broken yolk.

It’s so hard for most to allow ourselves to do this.  The almighty “no.”

That’s why it’s called “radical” self-care. Especially if you’re a mom. I’m a mother and a grandmother, and I have both of them with me a lot of the time. Everything in me wants to put their needs and their meals first—I’ll do their laundry, you know. Without radical self-care I’m like some demented flight attendant and they’re first-class travelers.

Americanah is about love, and race, and authenticity, and hair, and the way women’s choices are limited, and the way women limit themselves.

It is also a book about the love of books and reading. About falling in love with books, and libraries, connecting with other people about books, getting lost in books.

This is a loss that I don’t really talk about. It’s too important; I can’t risk having it misunderstood. So I’ll put it here, and hope that someone who reads it will understand.

I miss books. My cats were probably the first thing I really loved; books were the second. I remember when I first learned how to read: riding in the backseat, and suddenly the world opened to me, announcing itself on street signs and store windows. Reading located me in the world, literally.

And reading located me in the world, socially and emotionally. I didn’t get a lot of empathy, attention, care, intimate conversation as a child. Books were where I found people who understood me. Books were where I got to hear people talk about their inner lives, and probably what enabled me to explore and talk about mine. Books were connection across space and time. This probably has to do with my lifelong habit of reading books that I love.

Books let me imagine possibilities for life and relationships, and in that way, they gave me hope. Books were also a badly needed escape.

Reading was a serious hobby of mine from the time that I learned how to do it. I remember the small, secret pride of finishing my first chapter book in a hotel room in Vancouver: I can still see the bed, in the nightstand where I left the book next to me while I slept. I remember carrying thick, hardback copies of Wizard of Oz books with me, proud and embarrassed by their heft.

I remember the first time I really took joy in language. The start of a lifelong love affair.

I remember hours and hours and hours in bed, on couches, at the kitchen table, in the bathtub, reading and reading and reading.

In middle school, I often read through class. In high school, I remember curling into the yellow, corduroyed armchair wearing two hoodies and three pairs of socks against the cold New England house, and pulling a blanket over me and slowly eating six or 10 clementines while I spent an afternoon, or a day, or weekend lost in a book. Or a few – I was usually reading more than one book at once.

I remember lying on my stomach on beach blankets, reading till I fell asleep, blowing the sand out of the creases in the books. Reading in airports and on airplanes, reading over the soothing noise and tumble of the T. Reading in lines, and at the DMV, and to pass time on the stationary bike. Reading in waiting rooms. Waking up in bed and reading for an hour or two before breakfast. Falling asleep with books around me, even under my pillow.

Reading in bed in my dorm rooms. Reading at the Ratty. Reading on that travel futon I slept on for nine months in my apartment with no furniture besides one chair in Boston. Coming home from work and eating miso soup with rosemary and reading. Spending all weekend reading on my stomach or on my side under the covers.

Reading in the middle of the night at my black table in San Diego. Reading in Pablo’s guest bed. Reading in O’s living room. Reading at his mother’s house. Reading at Matt’s parents house. Reading was a constant, a relief, a joy.

I remember the nausea of getting lost in another world and then being pulled back into this one. The fuzzy, concussed senseas I tried to reorient in the present.

I remember the comfort of Great Expectations in those months after O and I broke up. Sentences and passages appeared to me all the time. Somehow during those months, they formed part of an internal scaffold. Deep in culture shock in India, I was desperate to find a copy in India. And I did find one in a bookstore in Delhi. I was too broke to buy anything, but there was a relief in flipping through the pages and seeing the familiar words.

I don’t have reading anymore. I can’t get lost in it in the same way because any position causes physical discomfort which distracts me, which I have to manage, which I have to move around to manage. Disability is inefficient: I can’t read on buses or planes or in lines are at the DMV. I can’t read on BART. I don’t get the secret pleasure of a long wait or ride–what used to be a precious pocket of time for reading. I can’t read in the tub, or at the library, or on the stationary bike, or curled up in an armchair.

Reading takes management. It takes props and arranging and even this I can only do for so long, because no position really works.

Don’t suggest e-books: this is not the same. This isn’t about some anachronistic fancy, though there may well be a touch of that, too. I love the physical objects of books. I always have. I love their smell and weight and feel. I love them as objects to return to. As touchstones. As objects of comfort, with their personalities in their cover and paper and typeset. As things that can be shared with people I love. I love my system of dog-earing, I love underlining and writing in books. I like seeing what my earlier self thought and noticed. Sometimes, when I reread books, I consciously do it with different colors of ink.

So, reading is seeing the words, but it’s also loving the physical object of the book itself, and writing in it, marking it up with me. There’s something ephemeral about an e-book that makes me think I couldn’t love it like I love paper books. And it doesn’t solve most of the issuesof physical limitation, only the one of having to hold the pages open.

And audiobooks: I like these better, but it is not reading. It is not a substitute for reading. Being told the story is enjoyable, but it is a different thing than reading, and, for the most part, a lesser one.

In that terrible year, I found myself often trying to bargain: could I have lost a leg instead? And then I get caught thinking about how much of my leg what I’d be willing to give up, to trade? Above the knee? Below the knee?

Even no longer in the thick of it in the same way, I’d still take the leg deal.

I wish I could say this to someone. But I could talk about this loss, and not have someone try to make it okay (it isn’t), and not have someone try to fix it (it’s not fixable), and not even have someone reply sympathetically.

I don’t want sympathy. I want empathy. I want someone to think about what it is like to love something like I love reading, and what it’s like to lose that thing in this way.

It’s like not being allowed home. You can step into the house for minute or two, just long enough to remember what you’re missing, but you can’t stay.

I come home, take off my clothes, lie down without dinner. Vic says: a relationship being over isn’t a decision; it’s a state of being. You’re not there.

I lie in bed wanting him. I lie in bed hungry for food I’m too tired to make or buy, and hungry for him. Words like addiction come to mind. I’m all exhaustion and ache.

I turned down his offer to come here for dinner. Too long a trek on a work night: he’s been tired and busy, and I’d feel guilty. But in part for this–to break the craving by not giving in. To endure the longing til it fades. So I can come home at night and not want him so much it hurts.

I’ve been dragging since we got back from the east coast. First, trying to recover energy post-bio-fam. Then, trying to recover energy from all the fighting.

If I went to a psychiatrist, they might say I’m depressed. I’m sleeping poorly. I’m exhausted. I’m dragging. My focus is off. “Loss of interest in life activities”, as they say. Compulsion.

We talk about these periods of time as Depression. A mental illness. A chemical imbalance. Something to be fixed with pills–though the serotonin theory of depression is far from proven; though half the data on them are unpublished, and when you only publish half the data, you can make it look like anything.

In another post, I could write about why the medical model is so appealing. Not today.

Today I’ll say: I would undermine myself to understand this that way. I would miss crucial information. I would avoid crucial information. This isn’t the random fluctuations of brain chemicals, batting me around. Low energy is a natural response to having extended myself past my limits. It is a natural response to putting a lot of energy into something without success. My depression–lower-case d–means something important isn’t working. It means I need to do something differently.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. . I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting . Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

 

Sharon Olds:

When my mother talks about the Burn Center
she’s given to the local hospital
my hair lifts and waves like smoke
in the air around my head. She speaks of the
beds in her name, the suspension baths and
square miles of lint, and I think of the
years with her, as a child, as if
without skin, walking around scalded
raw, first degree burns over ninety
percent of my body. I would stick to doorways I
tried to walk through, stick to chairs as I
tried to rise, pieces of my flesh
tearing off easily as
well-done pork, and no one gave me
a strip of gauze, or a pat of butter to
melt on my crackling side, but when I would
cry out she would hold me to her
hot griddle, when my scorched head stank she would
draw me deeper into the burning
room of her life. So when when talks about her
Burn Center, I think of a child
who will come there, float in water
murky as tears, dangle suspended in a
tub of ointment, suck ice while they
put out all the tiny subsidiary
flames in the hair near the brain, and I say
Let her sleep as long as it takes, let her walk out
without a scar, without a single mark to
honor the power of fire.

I love the grotesqueness, and the ending.

The post below is by Ngọc Loan Trần, writing for Black Girl Dangerous. I’d love to post excerpts, but their policy is the first 20% only, so here you go. I hope you click through—the original article is short, and worth the read.

I started having conversations on this practice of “calling in” after attending Race Forward’s Facing Race Conference in Baltimore, MD in 2012. Facing Race was a gathering of thousands of people working on advancing racial justice. The space was full of energy, commitment, and a ride-or-die-and-put-it-all-on-the-line mentality for making sure we’ve got our bases covered in this fight against racism and dismantling white supremacy.

What happens when thousands of people who all “get it” come together and everyone knows something about “the work”? We lose all compassion for each other. All of it.

I witnessed all types of fucked up behavior and the culture that we have created to respond to said fucked up behavior.

Most of us know the drill. Someone says something that supports the oppression of another community, the red flags pop up and someone swoops in to call them out.

But what happens when that someone is a person we know — and love? What happens when we ourselves are that someone?

Pema Chodron, from a conversation with bell hooks:

Accountability, as you’re talking about it, is my understanding of the spiritual path. With Trungpa Rinpoche, my feeling was that all he was doing was getting people to take responsibility for themselves, getting them to grow up. He was a master of not confirming. Talking to him was like talking to a huge space where everything bounced back, and you had to be accountable for yourself.

Personally I feel that the role of the teacher is to wean the students from dependency, and from taking the parent/child view of life altogether. That’s what I think of as non-theism. Theism doesn’t just have to do with God; it has to do with always feeling that you’re incomplete and need something or someone outside to look to. It’s like never growing up.

To me, theism is feeling that you can’t find out for yourself what’s true. You take the Buddhist teachings, or any teachings and you just try to fit yourself into them. But you’re not really finding out. You’re not grappling with it. You’re not really digging into it and letting it transform your being. You are just trying to live up to some ideal. You are still looking for the security of having someone else to praise or blame.

So accountability is pretty groundless. There is no hand to hold. It’s like the lojong slogan that says, “Of the two judges, trust the principal one.” No matter what other people say, when it really comes down to it, you’re the only one who can answer your own questions.

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