Coming Home: Day 25 — do it because it’s good for the world

This morning I am thinking about how we take care of ourselves even at the moments we are sure that we least deserve it, when I know for sure that I am the last person in the world who needs to be giving herself an orgasm because, after all, I’ve hurt people, I’ve done awful things, I have so much work to do — I should be helping to create the space for someone else to feel good in and about themselves, but who am I to believe that that pleasure and ease could be for me?

There are also those times when we are engaged in battle, and it’s clear, 100% clear, that sex/sexuality/desire/erotic self care is not at all revolutionary — is taking energy away from the fight. How can I think about sex or orgasm when I know there are women being beaten in their homes this very minute, when my next door neighbor might be raping his child right now, when there are animals being tortured, when someone is getting deluged with harassment, when people are suffering, hungry, hurting, houseless, harming one another? There were years, when I was working for an anti-domestic violence organization in Maine, that it was difficult to have sex, and for reasons beyond my own trauma struggle– I couldn’t get my head around how I could spend any time thinking about my own pleasure when the world was so fucked up, when women I knew and was working with were in their homes, or having to flee those homes, terrified?

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In the dream, the door was open to the place where I was staying — an apartment or hotel room? — and I was afraid it had been broken into. I was afraid someone was after me, or had come for me. Interestingly, every time I’ve had a dream like this before, my certainty was that it was my stepfather who had come for me; not this time — it was someone else. I hesitated, felt the rush of oh no, as well as a surge of curiosity. Who’s in there? I went ahead on in through the door; I would not be kept out of my own space by fear.

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The truth is that if I don’t attend to my own pleasure, to what brings me joy, to what soothes and replenishes me, then it’s not possible for me to be of service to anyone or any movement for very long. When I try to just give and give, taking care of others at the expense of my own wellness, I can be assured that burnout is right around the corner.

And wow did I burn out when I was working at those two anti-DV agencies (one in Maine, one here in CA): after leaving those jobs, all I could do for months was sit and look out the window. I was completely drained, felt like a profound failure because I’d been unable to continue in the work, and did not understand how anything could ever change. People were always going to treat each other badly. People were always going to assume that their partners were their property, so they could treat them however they wanted — right? Nothing was ever going to change.

This mindset was entirely the result of not having a self-care practice. The only thing I’ve ever done to take care of me, or at least the most consistent practice, is to journal. Now, writing has saved me — but it also can keep me close in to whatever is troubling me in the moment. It took me years (and I’m still trying to let it all the way in) to allow for other interests and practices: exercise, dancing, playing with pups, gardening, hanging out with friends.

In Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (which I think every single person should read, no matter what your work is — all of us are shepherding someone through trauma, ourselves included), Laura van Dernoot Lipsky reminds me that if I don’t take care of my own business, I can’t be of service to anyone. She writes:

People may come to believe that feeling happy or lighthearted is a betrayal of all the countless humans, creatures and environments that are under siege on this planet. They may act as if the only way they can express solidarity with suffering of any kind is by suffering themselves. Even for many well-intentioned, noble, responsible people the scope of disease, hardship, and pain from the individual to the global level can be overwhelming. P{eople who experience a sense of helplessness may come to believe there is nothing to be done but keep their heads down and hope for the best. 

Somewhere between internalizing an ethic of martyrdom and ignoring ongoing crises lies the balance we must find in order to sustain our work. The more we can attend to this balance, the greater our odds of achieving a sustainable practice of trauma stewardship. (p.16)

This was the mindset I had while working for these agencies – if others are suffering, shouldn’t I be suffering, too? Won’t that let them know that I really care, I’m really down for the struggle, I’m here?

And further along in the book, she writes:

…we know that if we want to decrease the suffering in our world, we will need to learn a behavior that is fundamentally different from the ones that have caused such pain and destruction. We must open ourselves to the suffering that comes with knowing that there are species we can’t bring back from extinction, children we can’t free from their abusive homes, climate chang we can’t reverse, and wounded veterans we can’t immediately heal. We must also open ourselves to the hope that comes with understanding the one thing we can do. We can always be present for our lives, the lives of all other beings, and the life of the planet. Being present is a radical act. It allows us to soften the impact of trauma, interrupt the forces of oppression, and set the stage for healing and transformation. Best of all, our quality of presence is something we can cultivate, moment by moment. It permits us to greet what arises in our lives with our most enlightened selves, thereby allowing us to have the best chance of truly repairing the world. (p.245)

(I’m not kidding; you want to read this book. Go order your copy.)

When I first met the concept of quality of presence in van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship training, I was completely blown away; I felt both deeply sad, and also hopeful. I became aware that the quality of my presence was entirely lacking — scattered, diffuse. I understood that I believed I didn’t deserve to just be present — wasn’t there something else I needed to right now? How can I take time out for presence?

The hopeful part was this: if people are talking about such a thing as quality of presence, maybe it can be changed. Maybe I can learn to do it differently.
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I also became aware of how scared I was of just being present, which brings me back to coming, to being in my body. This year, I am being called to notice how I’m present in my body, and when I come –

So today the orgasm was a little melancholy, layered, joyous, engaged.I felt the way my body tenses slow but sure, how my muscles pull into themselves, tightening toward the center of me, everything getting harder and harder. I noticed my emotions: hopeful, scared, urgent, uncertain, angry, sad, excited.

(Can we just talk about the soundtrack? I am a girl of my age — I’ve had music in and around my every step since about the seventh or eighth grade. First, at the beginning of my rise, was this one, Ingrid Michelson’s Keep Breathing. Just gorgeous — How’s that for our theme today, oxygenating our quality of presence? And at the end, just as I came: As the Rush Comes — which, come on.Sometimes Pandora gets it just right.)

As I rose, I was present with how hard it is for so many of us just to be with our bodies, how we have internalized the training of distance, how the safest place, so often, is away from this skin. And so, when I came, I had that rush of laughter, joy, then breathed hard into the almost-tears.

 We do it anyway. We take care of ourselves even though we were trained not to, even though we were called selfish, awful, self- centered, uncaring. We allow ourselves to open back into these gorgeously difficult bodies even through we have learned the ways of pain there. We cultivate our quality of presence with and in our own skin– and in so doing, we love the world. We open more space for more presence. We offer joy and contractions and waves of pleasure into what those in power would have us only meet with struggle, rage, loss, lack.

Keep practicing that place of gentleness with you; that’s the only way forward. Come just as you wish. See you tomorrow.