It's my favorite time of year in New Orleans. Other people might prefer Carnival or festival season, but for me it's the pretty lights and feeling of Gemütlichkeit that descends on our city as soon as the temperature drops. In my native Germany, Gemütlichkeit roughly translates as friendliness and warmth. Even now I can almost taste the freshly baked pretzels, warm mulled cider, and spicy gingerbread hearts that were sold at every corner kiosk during the holidays. I can remember lighting candles on the advent's wreath every Sunday and sitting in my grandparent's small living room where family and neighbors gathered.
In astrology, the time from Thanksgiving until the Winter Solstice is when the sun moves through the constellation of Sagittarius. According to mythology, Sagittarius was not a centaur but actually a satyr (half man / half goat) who lived on Mount Helicon with the nine Muses. Gifted in the arts and sciences as well as the hunt, Sagittarius was a wild and lusty fellow with little care for manners or authority. Unlike other half beasts, however, he was known to be kind and benevolent towards humans- even taking a few under his wing as students. Apparently the Muses so loved him that they asked their father Zeus (aka Jupiter) to place him among the stars. He is depicted with four legs because of his affinity for horses, and his arrow is aimed at the sky, a symbol of transcendence.
The archetype of Sagittarius perfectly captures the vibe of the season for me... or rather, how I want to feel this time of year. There is so much to be grateful for, yet the holidays can feel far from light. Relationship, health, or financial stress, not to mention shorter days and cold weather can cause depression and feelings of isolation for a lot of folks. It's important to reach out, stay connected, and prioritize self-care. Also, remembering what's going right rather than what's missing can help if you're feeling the blues. While I never endorse spiritual bypassing, a little optimism can go a long way under Jupiter's influence.
There is a special transit happening this year as Jupiter travels through Sagittarius (which hasn't happened since 2006). Think of where you were 12 years ago around this time. Whatever story was happening then is cycling back around as part of a 12 year continuum. I remember exactly where I was and how the choices I made that year have affected my life in big, SOUL fulfilling ways. Now is the time to envision how to deepen any significant commitments or changes we started at that time.
It bears mentioning that when Jupiter, the planet of expansion and opportunity, travels through its sign of rulership, we get a a double whammy of this expansive energy so pay attention to how you're being summoned to level up. There will be plenty of opportunities to receive divine "downloads" if we're open and receptive. We can also adopt a more Sagittarian attitude by learning a new skill, by spending more time in nature, through travel that expands cultural awareness, and by expanding our tolerance and acceptance of others. Be curious. Take a walk on the wild side, and let yourself roam into uncharted territory. The universe will reward you.
In my spiritual practice, the Winter Solstice is when I reflect on things I've learned and where I have grown over the year. It's also a time to release anything that feels complete or not meant to be anymore, and one simple ritual is to write things down and feed the list to a fire (even a candle will do). Close with a little prayer or just "Thank You" to bless the ending.
This Solstice is extra special because we have a full moon at 0º Cancer with a helpful sextile to Uranus. Our best bet is to stay open-minded and flexible, to expect the unexpected, and to practice generosity of spirit by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, especially family. With Venus finally out of her retrograde shadow, things are moving along, but still... in times of big change, the more grounding practices you have the better.
Soon the sun will begin to shine a little longer each day, ever reminding us of the continuous spiral that is life. As always, thank you for allowing me to be of service. One of the main reasons I love my job is because of the people I get to work with. Wishing you all the very best this holiday season and good health & prosperity in the coming year.
(Repost of an essay from 2016)
The day after your birthday it occurs to you that you're one day closer to turning 50 than you are to being 40, and despite a common sense approach to life, this realization challenges everything you thought you knew about yourself.
Your mother's generation taught you to believe that sex was your superpower. Not intellectual or spiritual development but the grooming of your physical appearance for the male gaze and the sculpting of your personality for the male ego. Their well-meaning advice on financial security was to find a husband. Forget the eccentric great-aunt who played the accordion and never got married. She was clearly a lesbian, not to be taken seriously.
Those messages, aside from being a drag, prevented the bonding that you and your mother so desperately needed. They also fueled a lifetime of rebellious behavior- including a decision to go gray in your early 40's because... fuck. all. that.
These fucks go deep.
Aside from my grandmother (whose silver hair still stands out in my memory as a thing of beauty), all of the women in my family have colored their hair way beyond a natural age. And while I respect a woman's choice to do whatever the fuck she wants if it feels empowering to her, it still bothered me on a fundamental level because I knew it was rooted in the belief that a woman's beauty and worth fade with age.
Two years ago I stopped coloring my roots and shaved off enough hair to expose 80% of my natural gray. Across the board, I found that men were remarkably supportive of the change. In fact, I don't think I've ever received more compliments than the day I traded in my Schwartzkopf chestnut brown ponytail for a salt and pepper fade.
The responses I got from women weren't as consistent. Not that they were bad, just really different.
One common reaction was something along the lines of "Wow, that's BRAVE."
Some women were enthusiastic about the gray, and for months I couldn't go anywhere without being complimented or asked if the color was natural. (Coincidentally, I had no idea that Rihanna was rocking a gray ombre at the time. Thanks RiRi)
And then there were the women who emphatically believed I was too young to go gray. One friend's mother even scolded me for it, insisting that I keep coloring my roots until my mid 50's at the very least.
Several women admitted that they had at one time considered going natural but for various reasons (all of which I can relate to) were afraid of the drastic change in appearance. And to be completely honest, it was drastic.
As for my own reaction, it changed constantly. I vacillated between radiant self-confidence and debilitating insecurity as all of the stigmas around ageism that I grew up listening to suddenly came gushing in.
As much as I wanted to be a rebel, there was a part of me that feared they were right. Afraid I would be stripped of my sexual identity and tossed by the wayside as an eyesore simply because I chose to embrace my naturally occurring gray hair. It reminded me of body image disorders that are fed by our collective social anxiety around imperfection.
After giving it some thought, I realized that women are responsible for the majority of my socialization and social identity. Beginning with my mother and moving down the line of relatives, friends, church ladies and teachers, most of the criticism, advice, and praise I've gotten in life has been from the women in my community, not the men.
After several months I decided to color my hair again. I wanted to know if I would feel any different, and I did. Something felt wrong, as though I had betrayed myself on a deep level. It wasn't long before I walked into a barber shop, and the relief of feeling those clippers graze my scalp to reveal the truth of my appearance was almost immediate.
I found the experience interesting on multiple levels. It reminded me that our preoccupation with the male gaze is only part of the story. The other part is the way we respond to the female gaze, and how many fucks we give in reaction to it.
The secret of the missing fuck.
The hormone responsible for caretaking and nurturing is estrogen, and by middle age a woman's body begins to curb estrogen production which triggers an array of physical and emotional changes.
Perimenopause literally means the time before the big pause. A time when ovulation and menstruation gradually come to a stop. Unfortunately I hear more about the downside than the upside- the physical and emotional symptoms caused by a constant fluctuation in hormones comparable in intensity to puberty. But instead of the body gearing up for reproduction, it's gearing down.
Hot flashes, insomnia, irritability, depression, incontinence, and the thing we all cringe to say out loud... vaginal dryness... are all symptoms related to menopause. Interestingly enough, not all women experience these symptoms, and new studies are exploring the way cultural attitudes around aging can affect the severity of menopausal symptoms. This has been proven in matriarchal cultures where women rise in status as elders and signs of aging are a welcome thing.
Some women experience what might be best described as a late blooming during perimenopause which supports Jung's theory of individuation. Having a strong sense of identity and self allows a woman to break free of the maternal gaze, including that of the collective.
Having our own children may afford a split from the psychic authority of our mothers (and in some cases our elder siblings), but not always. Whether we get married or not, have children or don't, the expectations we hold ourselves to in terms of pleasing and measuring up to the women we grant authority to can be overpowering.
Looking at it from this perspective, the hormonal transformation of perimenopause can be a welcome change, but again, our cultural and social attitudes have the power to reinforce this liberating stage or suppress it.
I was joking with a friend about the unpredictability of my menstrual cycles and how I'm learning to embrace moods like weather patterns. She told me that when her mother went through menopause it was like getting to know a different person. She and her siblings were insightful enough to be supportive during these changes, and it made all the difference.
It made me think back to how different my mother's forced transition into menopause had been after having a hysterectomy. With no emotional support for the changes that were happening to her, all I remember her saying to me at the time was, "I'm just glad it's out."
It, as in, her uterus. The organ responsible for bringing me into the world. The organ that can stretch from the size of a pear to a watermelon, feed an embryo, grow an entirely new organ called a placenta, support other pelvic organs by holding them in place, and the seat of our sexual pleasure.
It still pains me to know that she regarded her body as the problem instead of the misogyny she internalized about her body.
I remember her sudden hot flashes, clothes soaked in sweat, complaints of sleepless nights, and extreme bouts of depression. I was only ten at the time so I had no understanding of what was happening, not to mention feeling anxious and unprepared about my own upcoming transition into menstruation.
How different things might have been if we'd had more outside support, including rites of passage for both of us, and better resources to help ease our sacred transitions.
The fucks, they are a changin'
My fucks are changing.
I give less of a fuck about making mistakes and more about making better ones. At the end of the day, we are all fucking something up, and we fuck ourselves the most when we place more value on outside appearances than inside progress.
I respect my mother and the women of her generation for surviving in a male dominated paradigm. I recognize that I wouldn't be the person I am today without the constant pushback and compromise of our differences, but I also give props to the women who mothered me in ways that were essential to my spiritual growth. The ones who loved me into loving myself and when I walked into a room with short, gray hair simply said, "Hello lovely."
Because we are so much more than what meets the eye, and at the end of the day the only fucks worth giving are between you and yourself.
Making the choice to age with grace. Celebrating feminine qualities that are nurturing but also exploring the broadness of our feminine spectrum. Rejecting stereotypes and most importantly, recognizing that we don't have to choose between spiritual enlightenment or sexual empowerment. They are both cut from the same cloth.
These are a few of my favorite fucks...
When I decided to give up alcohol twelve years ago, it wasn't an easy decision. I hadn't lost a job, a relationship or a home because of my drinking. No one was laying down ultimatums or telling me to quit. In fact, my family was really upset when I announced that I stopped drinking and started going to 12 Step meetings. Overly concerned about what other people would think, they regarded my sobriety as more of an embarrassment than a triumph.
No one, at the time, wanted me to call myself an alcoholic. Friends and co-workers all jumped to my defense when I mentioned the word. Don't say you're an alcoholic! We all have those nights.
I knew I had a problem because those nights weren't the exception, they were the rule. Waking up with a hangover had become the norm. If my drinking felt like it was getting too out of control, I would tell myself to reign it in. By burying myself in work, taking on more responsibilities, and focusing on other people's problems, I auto-piloted into controlling behavior instead of getting the help I needed. I could go a week or even a month without drinking. Once I went almost five months, but the minute I picked up the first drink it was like being catapulted back into my addiction with a vengeance. I drank like I had never stopped but with the self righteousness of someone who could stop.
It took a long time to get help simply because no one was willing to admit I had a "real" problem. I was struggling to string more than 2 or 3 sober days together before I finally reached out to one of the only women I knew who didn't drink. I told her that I wanted to stop for a year this time- that I needed to reign it in. She laughed because it all sounded way too familiar. And then she told me where to go for the support and encouragement I needed.
I haven't looked back since. And today I am so thankful for the one dissenting voice that saved my life. It turns out that my liver was able to regenerate in the time I was sober before being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. This is not a subject that I take lightly. Going to those meetings literally saved my life, in more ways than one.
When asked what an addict looks like, most of us picture someone in the late stages of their disease. This depiction is unrealistic by today's standards, and yet the general consensus is to stick to the story of a person with shaky hands grabbing for the bottle first thing in the morning. And while this is a common scenario, it's far from the only scenario.
I ask myself why a lot... why do we enable a story that perpetuates unnecessary suffering?
For one, there is profit to be made from staying in denial. Stress, disease, and the elusive search for fulfillment make us buy more products, fill more prescriptions, and consume on so many different levels. It's as though we're set up to look for love and empowerment everywhere but where it actually resides, which is inside of us.
I was taught to equate martyrdom with love and intensity with intimacy. I believed that alcohol and a relationship would fix everything about me that felt broken. I call this brokenness my hungry ghost, and I thought exerting more discipline could keep my hungry ghost in check when things spiraled out of control. But for me controlling was actually part of the problem... and therein lies the paradox of addictive thinking.
With all the stigma still floating around, it takes courage to dig a little deeper and admit that our favorite coping skills may actually be hurting us, and that we, gasp, might have a problem with codependence or addiction. Keeping up appearances is one of the biggest obstacles for women when it comes to getting help. We are inundated with messages from a perfection-obsessed, I got this culture. No one wants to admit they are struggling, and yet, so many of us are.
The thing to keep in mind is that when a problem is named for what it is, the solution is easier to access, and the first thing we'll learn about that problem is that we're not alone.
We've been in an eclipse sandwich for several weeks along with six retrograding planets: Mercury, Mars, Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, and Uranus. That's A LOT of retrograde energy! The last of the eclipses happened on August 11th and Mercury stationed direct on August 19th which officially marked the end of eclipse season.
During heavy retrograde periods like the one we're in, slowing down and cultivating a detached awareness is often more productive than bulldozing through issues or conversely burying our heads in the sand. The goal is to observe and take stock while reserving judgment. (Notice I used the word goal.)
Eclipses are pauses and reboots. They give us an opportunity to acknowledge what's not working anymore. Rather than amputate a behavior, it's important to consider the driving need behind it which almost always comes back to 3 simple things: self-worth, self-care, and a yearning for connection & support. Even though the eclipses are over, we will be working with them for several months to come.
This is an excellent time to look at any patterns, behaviors, relationships, or beliefs that aren't serving you anymore. Sometimes the writing is on the wall and asking straightforward questions can be helpful. During this process, it's important to keep in mind that this isn't a morality check, it's a reality check. Self-judgment is counterproductive in healing.
However you approach this retrograde cycle, remember to hold yourself in a space of compassion and gentleness. But also, be honest. Confront what's uncomfortable. Believe there's a bigger life ahead of you if you can let go of fear and control.
Today as the sun moves from passionate, heart based Leo into practical, service oriented Virgo, place your hand on your heart and say, "I will love myself today by asking the hard questions and then by seeking the help and relief I need." When we heal ourselves, everyone else benefits. A healthier world starts with us.
May you be free of suffering and all the causes of suffering.
When I was a kid, I often had to choose sides. Whether on the playground, the bus, in the girl's bathroom, or at the dinner table I was perpetually caught in the middle of other people's "stuff". It didn't feel good, but I saw no other option than to stay put, squirming in messiness that wasn't mine.
At the time I didn't know how to say "May I be excused while you guys work it out?"
How I coped as an eight year old didn't look much different from how I coped as an adult. Sometimes I picked the side I could most benefit from. Sometimes I worked both sides, arrogantly assuming the voice of reason in an unreasonable dispute. Sometimes I sided with the person who I most needed love and approval from. And sometimes I just dodged bullets, suffering unnecessary casualties.
Sound like every episode of Game of Thrones? Welcome to my codependent life. (Spoiler: it's gotten better!)
I never learned how to consider my own neglected needs in the chaos of other people's drama, let alone express them. Instead I pretended to be okay and dissociated in self-harming ways which progressed as I got older. I settled for a temporary sense of intimacy that being in a triangle gave me. (It wasn't until much later that I learned the difference between intensity and intimacy.) And here's the mustard seed... when the conflict resolved itself and my role became obsolete, I felt very, very alone.
This loneliness followed me into every one of my relationships until I finally started doing the work of identifying, naming, and recovering my core needs.
I'm sharing this intensely personal and vulnerable thing about myself because shadow work has been so valuable in identifying patterns like this and releasing them with non-judgment and compassion. This work isn't about shaming ourselves or anyone else. It's about naming, freeing, and feeding those hungry parts of our spirit that have been malnourished. It's about asking, "How do I take care of myself right now without acting out of emotional scarcity?"
And when you're ready, it's about acknowledging the ways in which your shadow protected you. How certain defects are actually attributes once they've been exposed to the light.
This week Saturn in Capricorn is squaring Mercury in Aries which means we get a chance to set right the ways we communicate from the wound. We get to be warriors of love and loyalty TO OURSELVES by being aware of our shadow behaviors and cultivating kind, loving acceptance. When that happens, great healing is possible for the entire world.
My mantra for the week as I embrace my shadow is "Breathe, tell the truth, ask for help, remember this is all practice, and just show up the best you can."
Carry on witches.
Good read: The Language of Letting Go, Melody Beattie
It was a typical New Orleanian structure, not built to retain heat but to dispel it. Without insulation, the cool damp air of winter would penetrate through the floorboards, under a crooked door, and around unsealed windows. I made do with two space heaters, but some nights when the cold found its way into my bones, nothing but a hot bath could shake it off. An extraordinarily long clawfoot tub was the one decadent feature of the entire place, along with a brilliant location between the French Quarter and Bywater. In a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying, all of its spartan details made it seem quaint, or at least that was how I chose to see it.
I called it the temple- a tiny shotgun on Spain Street, four blocks from the Mississippi. During the rainy season it would swell with moisture causing the door to stick. Curious vines pushed their way inside, trailing along the window frame next to my bed creating a bridge for tiny insects, rust colored geckos, and frogs no bigger than a thimble. In June there could be weeks of solid rain- not the light gentle rain of the mountains where I'd lived but unpredictable, heavy, tropical rain. Rain that battered the plants outside of my doorstep like a bass drum. Plants whose thick, waxy leaves miraculously survived these daily outbursts from the sky and yet somehow produced flowers with such complicated and exquisite aromas, one might imagine themselves living next to a French perfumery. Plants with leaves so broad they could be sewn together as a Mardi Gras suit.
Gradually I became accustomed to getting caught in these sudden rainstorms and showing up to places completely drenched. And regardless of how much it rained, the smell of confederate jasmine would cling to my skin like an oily film.
August was an inferno, and September even more debilitating. You fooled yourself into thinking that evenings would provide a reprieve from the stifling heat, and then stepping outside you were struck dumb by air so lifeless it made being trapped in a body that much more uncomfortable. Like a vampire, I waited until dusk before venturing out. Some nights I stood outside of the Spotted Cat, a venue where you could catch live jazz until the wee hours. Other nights I took a bike ride along the river where I was more likely to find a breeze. Waving hello to familiar musicians who'd stepped out for a smoke or weaving through the row of psychics in Jackson Square filled me with the most delicious sense of freedom and carefreeness. I learned to be alone without ever feeling alone. I honed my ability to spot an open face and spent many a wayward night engaged in sincere and meaningful conversation with complete strangers.
The unruliness that had become my life was invigorating. I was elated to finally fulfill a lifelong dream seeded by Joseph Campbell after reading a collection of his work called Reflections on the Art of Living.
What stood out about Campbell's life and left a lasting impression was the time he spent in Woodstock, NY. Before going on to become one of the world's most well known mythologists, Joseph Campbell lived in a shanty, did not hold a job, read as many books as he could get his hands on, listened to jazz, and made an art out of listening to people's stories. And he did this for five years.
Having spent those years on the heels of the Great Depression, it was a radical choice to live on a whim and follow one's bliss. But the life he designed was not based on whim. On the contrary, there was much thought and intention that went into it. Campbell believed that a life dictated by others was detrimental to both body and spirit. Bliss was the enthusiastic energy of the divine expressing itself uniquely through each person's journey of individuation. The master morality that Campbell sought was tied to this bliss.
As a young woman, I was never encouraged to explore my autonomy. And for the most part, my self-worth was proportionate to how well I pleased others, both in deed and appearance. I was handed a specific set of expectations supported by another glib set of doctrines, neither of which took into account my intelligence or my curiosity. One message after another conveyed that happiness and satisfaction were to be found in goodness and domesticity despite the fact that these things looked very different for boys and girls. I was being sold a fairytale, and I was expected to accept this fairytale as my personal myth.
Which didn't pan out.
I hungrily read the works of female writers and thought leaders, excited by any new discovery of a feminine archetype that personified self-possession and heart wisdom.
I've often wondered what it would have been like to inherit a more sophisticated morality system where my goodness was inherent, and I wasn't expected to constantly prove my worth. Not to imply that usefulness and cultivating a concern for others aren't meritable traits- on the contrary, my life has been immensely enriched by service and charity. The satisfaction of helping another human being goes without saying when it's in the spirit of true generosity. But when robbed of choice, acts of charity can become something entirely different.
It became clear that good deeds alone weren't going to deliver what I most needed which was the experience of being loved independently of merit and permission to explore myself without the stigma of immorality or selfishness. Because somewhere in my bones a map was hidden carrying step by step instructions on how to live a good life- a life of my own design. And I wanted as much time and space as I needed to decipher it, regardless of the sacrifice.
The temple was where I spent days, sometimes weeks, studying the map. It's where I learned the value of stillness and pause. Where I gained remarkable satisfaction doing things that would never count as progress in the real world- a world I was slowly losing touch with as I came to trust an inexplicable process that revolved around surrender. The more I learned to let go, the better I felt. Without question, I was content despite not having checked off all the things on "the list". In fact, I did away with lists altogether and paid more attention to the small, otherwise overlooked, details of life that held so much meaning. By cultivating a daily practice in gratitude, I found my bliss.
Swimming against the current is never easy, and I often slipped back into old behavior by explaining myself or justifying my choices to those who couldn't relate. A dip in conversation or sideways comment could propel me into self-doubt, reaffirming an old story that I wasn't worthy of being taken seriously. Within seconds I was reduced to being a middle aged woman getting out her ya-ya's rather than the pioneer I had envisioned myself as. There were times when the trap of comparison was overpowering, and my spirit became crushed under the weight of everything I'd failed to achieve. I often wondered if I was fooling myself, stalling for time, and avoiding the inevitable.
But these periods of doubt always passed, and I eventually learned to lean in and weather the storms in my head no differently than the storms in the temple. The years passed like this- three steps forward and two steps back.
When you accept that you have no control over what lies ahead, the present moment becomes everything.
And so my last year at the temple turned into a montage of ecstatic, frozen-in-time moments. It was as though my senses had heightened- detecting more beauty, more color, more dimension. Love and forgiveness appeared in places I had long forgotten. The map pointed out what was most important and what needed to be surrendered.
Which reminds me of an experience I had years ago in a ceramics class, taught by an artist who lived alone at the top of a remote mountain. The driveway was so steep that I had to park at the bottom and walk the rest of the way up to her studio. When I arrived, all the the tables were covered in brown kraft paper with huge pillars of fresh, wet clay as centerpieces and an assortment of jars holding sculpting tools. I pulled out a notebook, expecting a lecture on technique (as I'd never worked with clay), but there was no lesson. She simply told us to dive in, that there wasn't a right or wrong way to handle clay, and to allow our senses to guide us.
People were visibly perplexed by this informal approach; we'd all paid good money for a proper lesson, and this seemed rather willy nilly. Nevertheless, the room eventually started buzzing like a giant beehive as we worked on our little masterpieces. Halfway through the day we broke for lunch, and afterward, she instructed us to destroy the pieces we'd made thus far. Then, sensing the tension in the room, she added, "Of course it's up to you. If you're too attached, keep what you've made. But if you're up for a challenge, start over."
Faces drew a blank when faced with such a decision. It was an awful moment, and yet I felt an excitement stirring inside of me that was unexpected. I did as she proposed (I've always been an enthusiastic learner) and almost immediately felt my brain flooding with endorphins. It was truly an incredible discovery that I never would have come up with on my own. Once the clay was back in its primordial form, I felt liberated, and a second wave of creative inspiration consumed me. For a brief time, I felt the breath of God permeating my senses, and I glimpsed an endless fractal of potential. I could play it safe and make something that I knew would turn out pretty. Or I could use my new skill of surrender, and work until I produced something honest. I chose the middle path, making one very literal piece that was recognizable in shape and meaning (a gift for someone else) and another piece that simply felt good. I kept the second piece for myself as a reminder.
Leaving the temple after almost seven years wasn't an intuitive process. Like a blind caterpillar groping its way along, it took a strong shake to pry me away from the familiar branch that had become my entire world. I was content to stay there and easily could have spent the rest of my days happily munching leaves, growing fatter, and never changing my environment. But my inner map must have known it was time for a change in course. It heard my soul's calling before I did and created the catalyst for my departure.
A succession of events changed everything. It felt as though the temple, like my body, was under attack. As though invisible forces were working overtime to get me out. I would have preferred for things to stay the same, but I also knew that things already weren't the same. I was changing more rapidly and my environment simply wanted to accommodate the change. As William Shakespeare wrote, " for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so-" it took everything for me not to default to old blaming behavior or see myself as a victim. In life, we are given tools. Whether or not we use those tools is up to us.
And so I envisioned myself tuning out the distraction- anything that might lure me back into a life I wasn't meant to live- and writing the next chapter. By a stroke of divine grace I was offered an opportunity to caretake a friend's cabin in the woods, and without too much hesitation I accepted the offer even though my head was filled with uncertainty.
But that uncertainty led me here... to the chrysalis from which I write.
Tucked away within the folds of a landscape that appears barren on the surface but in fact is thriving with activity, I am wintering with two enormous cats. Cats who hunt and leave slimy, still-pulsing tokens of love on the kitchen floor which I stoically clean up in the morning after praising and rubbing their fat purring heads. Cats who snore so loudly I hear them through the walls. Cats who were both waiting when I arrived, padding through the soft, fresh snow to greet me. With very little but this natural world to interact with, I have time to explore the master morality which Nietzsche, Campbell, Thoreau, and other notable men of thought had the privilege to ponder without the impatient breath of societal convention breathing down my back.
I didn't grow up building fires. Or learning to identify animal tracks. Or living in a house where the curtains weren't drawn at night because there wasn't another house right next door. This is all so very new.
There are evenings when it's 20 degrees outside and wearing nothing but my robe and a pair of gardening Crocs, I walk down to an outdoor tub where I can see the trees reflected on the surface of the water, their bare, spindly limbs appearing both menacing and protective. I look up to see Orion, Canis Major, Cassiopeia, Sirius, and Taurus, and I'm reminded of endless galaxies in a vast universe where the center is solely determined by perspective. I stand naked for a few moments and feel the same thrill of cycling through a rainstorm with my mouth open to the sky or walking alone at night through the streets of New Orleans. Somewhere in the distance I hear my mother's voice, rife with worry, "You'll catch your death out there."
And another voice, "When are you coming home?"
This body is my home. These woods, the river, the temple... it's all home.
Then I climb into the steaming water and imagine myself a Japanese monkey sitting in repose, eyes closed and surrounded by snow. It's a purification ritual. The water out here comes straight from the ground, full of minerals and so much softer than the water I've become accustomed to. In this water I am stripped of all the layers that have calcified over the years. Every boundary and wall that is no longer serving me.
A month ago I wasn't sure of anything. This morning I sit contentedly and listen to the wind bending around tall pines, the creaks and groans of a dry branch like an old barn door opening and closing. Every two or three minutes a rooster crows on a distant neighbor's farm competing with the clanging of wind chimes and an occasional stink bug hitting the glass pane of the window. At night when the temperature drops below freezing, it's the crackling of a fire and the drip of a faucet. Sometimes I think I can even hear the buzz of electricity in the air. It's truly that quiet.
Though it's a temporary situation, I have ample time to collect myself. Time to restore. Time to explore uncertainty, morality, and the driving notion that we constantly have to make something of ourselves in order to feel worthy. This time is an investment that won't depreciate, be repossessed, or crash in any market, and therefore, it's priceless.
This morning I was in the kitchen when I heard a loud screeching. It lasted long enough for me to walk to the porch and watch a red tailed hawk fly directly over my head and into the trees behind me. As I stood there gaping in awe, my first thought was, "It's a message."
Until then I'd been in hiding. Regardless of how wonderful things seemed, there was always an underlying sense of treason... as though I was doing something very wrong by taking full advantage of this solitude.
Hawk medicine, as it's often referred to, is about vision. Seeing the big picture, looking ahead, keeping a sharp eye, and being prepared to act when seized with opportunity. Some Indigenous tribes believe that hawks carry messages from spirit, and healers who work with hawk medicine are thought to be more closely connected to the spiritual realm.
I live in a city where I rarely come across birds of prey, and seeing one fly so close felt magical. Just like seeing a shooting star, which also rarely happens in a city, or waking up to a doe and her fawn grazing just outside of your doorstep. When we regard life as art, bestow each choice with meaning and consecrate every moment as something holy, we become the dreamer of the dream. The witches of ancient lore.
Once again I am called to trust the process, anticipating the day my life unfurls like the fresh wings of a black swallowtail waiting to become strong enough for flight.
It sure is an interesting time to be a woman. I bet every generation says that, but when smashing the patriarchy and slaying become standard vernacular for the average thirteen year old girl, it's obvious that something big is happening.
I'm the byproduct of war. Of generations of internal and external battle, so the idea of smashing anything reinforces a narrative to me around fear and violence. But endorsing the alternative wouldn't be as powerful a change agent, and I get that. We have a lot to fight for right now. If Beyonce had written, "I nap, hey I nap, you should nap, let's all nap" and shot a video all curled up in her pajamas, it wouldn't have gotten anyone's attention (though I'm sure she slayed some serious naps while she was pregnant with twins).
You don't get bumped to warrior goddess status by writing about the realness of adrenal exhaustion or how bad we all need self-care, things relevant in smashing patriarchy but not as impressive as, say, smashing windshields.
So today I woke up thinking, "How do I slay?" I have mad for respect for Queen Bey, but I'm not the Amazon she is. I'm sensitive and cry easily. I worry more than I used to and have to work at relaxing. I've spent a lot of time on my knees praying (which rhymes with slaying) and bowing to uncontrollable circumstances. In fact I can't recall a more humbling period of life, maybe ever.
This year it became obvious that saying I got this wasn't serving me anymore, and I would have to let people in, accept help, and embrace things that don't fit the strong woman archetype.
Maybe because society confuses vulnerability with weakness and stoicism with strength, admitting we don't got this is one of the biggest spiritual challenges we face as women. I've spent too much time comparing myself to other people, wishing I could handle things differently when I'm actually doing the best I can with the tools I have. I've inherited some not-so-great beliefs about self sufficiency and what it means to be "strong." I'm ready to let go. Instead of keeping up appearances, I'd rather be keeping it real.
So that's it. Fierce self compassion and humbling honesty is how I slayed 2017. Sometimes gracefully, but mostly in a state of awkward discomfort, I accept who I am when I'm not constructing a public image or branding myself as this or that. I listen to my body. I'm receptive. I ask for help.
"Life is uncertainty. Life is change. Life is growth. So I came to know that I did not know. The twist is that once I surrendered 'knowing', I was free to enjoy what life presented. And I learned to trust more and more the process of life." -Catherine Ann Jones
As always, my clients have been some of my greatest teachers, and I've been blessed with very wise, very brave women asking for support, wanting to get real. Women who struggle with vulnerability just like I do. Women who are bone tired but still manage to show up and do the thing day after day. I've listened and learned so much from your stories, taking it all to heart, and I feel humbled by the trust you've placed in me.
Our world is going through such an enormous paradigm shift, replete with the turbulence and trauma that all massive change pushes to the surface. We are at the crossroads, releasing the old, birthing the new, figuring out what we want to carry over and filing it all into context while it's happening. Patriarchy wounds all of us by de-sensitizing and robbing us of our softness. If you have the energy and the gumption, then by all means... go out there and slay like an Orisha. But don't confuse slaying with betraying your intuitive, emotional, and life-affirming feminine nature.
This morning the sun moved into Capricorn, marking the first day of winter. The rebirth of our sun on the Winter Solstice is symbolically my favorite time of year. A time of restored hope and deepened faith that everything comes back around, darkness doesn't last, and life is a great big spiral.
Capricorn brings much appreciated stability. While the sun is in the archetype of the engineer, we can use this time to draw up juicy plans for the spring. But first...
Catch up on some rest.
And remember that you are the gift. May the warmth of my heart join yours on this longest, darkest night.
So I had my follow-up appointment with a liver specialist last week.
"I'm not going to start any treatment yet. Just stick to what you've been doing, and come back in three months," says the nice lady at Tulane Organ Transplant Center.
Time. What I've been doing is buying myself more time.
In future blog posts, I'll be writing about things I feel might be helpful to anyone on a similar healing journey. But before any of that happens, I needed to be okay saying I have this thing. This chronic dis-ease. And I needed to believe that it doesn't make me defective. That I am not a fraud posing as a healer because I have something that is one of the most common and misunderstood epidemics of my generation, affecting more women than breast cancer or heart disease.
"While 2.2 million women are living with breast cancer and 7.2 million women have coronary disease, an estimated 9.8 million women are afflicted with one of the seven more common autoimmune diseases." -Donna Jackson Nakazawa
I'd love to de-stigmatize the word disease and to provide an emotionally safe environment for my clients to share their journey, which can often be isolating. The more we connect and empathize with each other, the better we feel. This philosophy has been the foundation of my professional practice for 18 years. It's the walk I am committed to.
But talking about your disease with friends and loved ones can be hard. I, myself, needed to cocoon for a while. To get used to the idea of living with something that will never go away. Like with any major transition in life, I needed time to adjust to my new reality without the pressure of a million reactions and well-meaning opinions. I have a lot on my plate, and it's my right to take care of myself in the way I need... apart from the needs and demands of others.
"We are human. Of the nature to grow older, to get sick, and eventually, to die." My therapist Nancy shared those words with me, and they are actually quite soothing.
While I don't want to think about aging, illness or death, it's been a relief to face such a giant a fear and retrain myself to believe nothing terrible is happening. My goal now is to learn how to adapt to these new circumstances, and override any hope of being the exception. Being part of the pack, embracing life as a moment to moment gig, feeling my feelings. That's the approach that feels most sane to me.
It has been five months since my last cookie.
Even before hearing the official diagnosis, I knew the jig was up... that whatever was happening inside of my body probably wasn't going to improve if I kept up my relationship with sugar. And processed flour. And caffeine. And most importantly, with stress... or rather, the way I react to stress.
I was embarking on an anti-inflammatory journey. Giving up way more than I had ever bargained for.
I haven't touched alcohol in over a decade and tobacco even longer. I've always eaten a pretty wholesome diet, give or take my religious devotion to chocolate. I exercise and get 8 hours of sleep every night. Based on lab work, physical exams, ultra sounds, X-rays, and the results of an EKG, my doctor says I am a model patient.
Yet no one in the medical industry can explain why my immune system is attacking my liver. Until science ups its game, this disease can lead a patient down two roads: drugs that make you feel like shit or co opting some dead guy's liver. Worst case scenario, it's both. Luckily I'm not there yet.
A low white blood cell count is what initially alerted my doctor to run tests which led to more tests that eventually brought me here. I have been down this path with so many of my clients that I feel like I'm at an advantage. I know how to slow down the progression of this disease holistically, and yet it doesn't change the fact that I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.
That's the tricky part. Accepting that aspects of my life will never get back to "normal".
"Isabelle, if you want me to wear black and mourn the death of white sugar and white flour with you, just say the word. I know this is hard," said a friend.
It is hard to give up socially encouraged reward systems, instant comfort, and self soothing tricks you've relied on for the last forty something years. It's also hard to re-train your impulses. In the face of challenge, when your heart is racing and your bowels are clenched, it seems counter-intuitive to pause, slow down and breathe. Because when your brain senses danger your instinct is to speed up, hold your breath, and go numb. Even when the danger is only in your head.
Everything, that for so long has been your intuitive response to life, is now suspect as the cause of your auto-immune malfunction. White sugar is not your friend anymore. Caffeine can't fix the tiredness that is your soul. That person who six months ago didn't seem like a problem is suddenly wearing you the fuck out. And all the things you used to pretend were okay are now not okay.
Saying no to a cookie is hard. Not reacting impulsively to a crisis while a long-standing neural pathway is being re-routed through mindfulness techniques... that, my friends, is Jedi level. But like most kids born in the 70's, I truly feel with all my being that I am Jedi material so at least there's that.
There is a saying that goes, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." And though it sounds good, it's not that simple. Sometimes you need to feel the stages of grief when you lose something before you can apply the alchemy.
I'm using this as an opportunity to explore the roots of auto-immune illness which I believe are linked to the way we are trained (or not trained) to cope with stress, tolerate frustration, experience anger, take care of ourselves, and survive in a world where, let's face it, conflict, unexpected change, and trauma will always exist. We humans may not like it, but we're going to have to accept that those things are part of the deal. Change is inevitable.
I'm trying to lean into the experience. Accept that this is my life, now. That in this moment I have no control over anything except the way I respond. Getting my ego out of the way is the first step. I'm powerless over this shit. I didn't cause it, and I can't control it. I also don't need to be model patient in order to be "good". All of this, like so many things, is a big lesson in surrender.
"Lemonade... that cool refreshing drink."
I suppose I am making lemonade. Not Beyonce's chic and glossy Lemonade, but Eddy Murphy in a red leather pantsuit from the 80's pacing up and down the stage impersonating Elvis lemonade. And that feels pretty good, despite the fact that mine has to be sugar-free.
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