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In Troubled Times: Seasons and Cycles

In my work and my life, I notice that I go through times of intense activity and productivity, but that these eventually spin down. No one can maintain such a fever pitch indefinitely. When I am working “well,” I cruise along at a sustainable rate, confident that I have that extra literary “gear” when needed. The same is true for emotional intensity regarding political and other matters, in my case preparing for the upcoming parole hearing of the man who raped and murdered my mother. We step up to the plate, do what is necessary, deal with what we must, and set aside what we cannot handle (hopefully for some future time, rather than burying it indefinitely).

For every advance, there comes a rest. A rest is not a retreat, not a failure, although at times it can seem so. We can become so accustomed to putting forth our maximum effort that it becomes normal. It’s no longer a matter of setting aside other needs to make a heroic effort; those needs get put “on hold” indefinitely. We become desensitized to our own inner promptings, as well as the needs of those closest to us such as our families and partners. We can find all sorts of justifications for our continued dedication to that task or good cause. Just because we can carry the weight to the exclusion of everything else doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for us to do so. It’s important to recognize the difference between an emotionally intense sprint and a long-term, marathon effort.

Another reason why it’s often hard to let go of sprint-mode is that a return to a more balanced life and normal energy levels feels like back-sliding or going in reverse. It’s the emotional equivalent of how the room keeps spinning even when we stop and stand still. Sometimes there is indeed a dip in energy to balance out the extra energy expended during the all-out push. I have to keep reminding myself that needing “down” time is not the same thing as weakness, failure, or deterioration. Recharging my physical and emotional batteries, so to speak, is an essential part of being able to take the next step forward.

These periods of rest always last longer than I think they should. Recuperation and regeneration take time, and they also take resources. Simply ceasing activity stops the outflow, but it may take a long time for the inflow to restore balance. I think of the earth as it passes through the seasons and how winter is a fallow time. Fallow doesn’t mean inert, though. We may not be able to see it, but there are slow, restorative changes happening in root and soil, branch and seed.

What does it mean for me as a human being to be in a state of restoration as opposed to immobility?

What nourishes my spirit? (Music, friends, nature, meditative practices, community?)

What refreshes my body? (Good food, exercise, fresh air, massage?)

What rejuvenates my mind? (Reading, learning a new skill or musical instrument, museums, lively conversation, travel, lifelong education?)

Today's view of the USA

Courtesy of suricattus, used with permission. Hits the nail on the head, doesn't it?

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Day Without Immigrants

Today is the Day Without Immigrants. I wouldn't be here if my father had not been allowed to immigrate in 1922, before the quota on Jews.

What's your immigration story?
Given everything I’ve been dealing with – fear about the unfolding political scene on one hand and the recurring nightmare of an upcoming parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother on the other – I have at times felt powerless. Not just powerless but unable to summon the energy to continue what seems like an endless, life-draining battle. I become prey to fear at these times, fear that I will slip back into unending waking nightmare that was my experience of PTSD. I have worked hard to claw my way back to health, and when I am overwhelmed, I forget all the lessons I have learned and the ways I have changed.

It’s said that fear is False Evidence Appearing Real (or Fuck Everything And Run). It takes courage and a dedication to clear-sighted integrity, seeing what is real both in myself and in the world, to overcome those fears.

But I’ve also heard courage is fear that has said its prayers. I don’t have to be fearless. I’m not sure that’s possible without massive self-delusion. To do what I am called to do even though I am afraid is the essence of courage.

Where do I find such courage? It’s commonplace to suppose that “doing something for someone else” or because no one else can do it is the best way to overcome fear. I’ve done my share of acting according to this belief. I find that although it is sometimes effective, it’s harsh instead of nourishing. It’s a position of desperation. I soon find myself “running on empty.” I’m the last person I take care of or even give consideration to. In fact, the very notion that taking action when afraid can be nourishing came as a startling revelation to me.

There are so many things I cannot change, the past being at the top of that list. But I do have some say in my own attitude. Instead of seeing myself as desperate and without any choices but to plunge ahead, gritting my teeth the whole way, I can see myself as resourceful. I learned to do this for others when my kids were having a hard time in their teenaged years and my therapist pointed out that they didn’t need me to inflict my own worries on them, communicating that I thought they were incapable of handling their problems; what they needed was my faith in their ability to find their own creative solutions.

So if I’m going to be creative and resourceful in facing the parole hearing and the distress rampant in my community, I need to think “outside the box.” Not attending the hearing is an option that never occurred to me in the early years. Once I let go of “I have to do this,” I see other possibilities. Some I can anticipate on a reasonable basis (another family member might attend, a representative of the D.A.’s office might – actually, does – attend; I could send a video of my statement; I could hire an attorney to attend in my place), but I must also keep in mind that my imagination doesn’t dictate what happens. Many times I thought I knew all the possible outcomes, only to discover that what actually happened was something I had no way of anticipating.

There’s also the aspect I hinted at above, that instead of forcing myself to do something terrifying, I try to discern where I am led. That implies a leader, a caller, or one who summons, and these are reassuring concepts for people of many faiths. I don’t mean it as a religious tenet. “Being led” is shorthand for finding the actions that are right for us. That sense of rightness is akin to true vocation. What lies before us may be perilous, filled with reversals and setbacks, but following that path brings us deep satisfaction and sometimes even joy.

I’ve found that it’s equally important to remember I am not alone. The rugged individual, dragon slayer mode doesn’t have any room for asking for help or delegating or letting someone else take point. All of these things allow me to catch my breath, so to speak. Once I’ve stepped back, I can evaluate where my abilities are best applied and how much energy I have at any given time. Knowing what I’m good at, what I may not be skillful at but am willing to tackle, and what I really, really don’t want to do allows me to make mindful choices. When I ask for help, I often discover that those toxic areas aren’t the same for everyone. For example, making phone calls is easy for some people and grueling for others.

Instead of “I have to do this. Alone. No matter what it costs me,” I move toward “I’ve created a support network, and together we can handle this.” Sorrows shared are thus divided; we carry each another when one of us stumbles. My resourcefulness includes the strength of others. By tackling daunting tasks in community, I become not only stronger but more resilient. I learn again and again that I am resourceful in my friends as well as my individual abilities, and that makes me powerful.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I’m a dragon-slayer. I place myself squarely between my loved ones and anything that threatens them. It’s a longstanding family joke that the only time I used the physical aspect of 30+ years of Chinese martial arts was when I jumped between my preschool-aged daughter and a rampaging swan (and kicked the swan in the head). Now I’m in the position of the taken-care-of, the protected, not the protector.

This sea change came about as a result of a series of family conferences about the upcoming parole hearing. I mentioned earlier that I’ve learned to pay careful attention when people who love me express concern for my mental health. They have good reason to. At every parole hearing I’ve attended in person, I have been the family spokesperson. That meant staying focused and present, no matter what was happening. It meant putting my own needs and reactions on hold so that I could act. The first hearing took place in San Quentin State Penitentiary. I cannot begin to tell you what a not-nice place that is, even if you know you can walk out. Yet I was so focused on my responsibility to prevent the perpetrator from hurting anyone else, I never thought twice about attending or speaking, and it took a terrible toll on my health and sanity. My family and my close friends know what a dark time I went through and how hard I worked to recover. I have learned the hard way that just because I am capable of doing something scary and hard does not mean that I have to.

The last hearing took place in 2008, and neither my sister nor I attended it. We arrived at our decisions independently but in conversation; we each supported the other’s decision, recognizing that we don’t have to do make the same choice in order to support one another. A month before the hearing, the inmate – Sean DeRutte -- sent a letter to us via Victim Witness Services. When mine arrived, I asked my husband to look at it first. When he read it, he turned sheet white and said, “Don’t read this.” On the first page was a description of the sexual assault, containing details never before divulged.

In all the years since his incarceration, De Rutte never admitted to the sexual assault. Doubtless his attorney counseled him to not mention any crime for which he was not convicted (and this was a plea bargain, so he was not convicted of rape). However, the Parole Board Commissioners had previously made it clear that until he was able to express understanding and remorse, he was never going to be released. That he chose to inflict the details of a violent sexual assault on the daughters of his victim demonstrates he has no empathy for other people’s pain.

Once I stopped shaking and made some outreach calls, I tried to telephone my sister. I was too late in reaching her, for she had already opened and read her letter, and while in a public place, the post office. She was terribly distressed by it, as any person with a shred of sensitivity can imagine. I had my husband fax the letter to the District Attorney to use during the hearing. Apparently, even more shocking details came out then, so much so that the D.A. cautioned us to not read the transcript.

Fast forward 5 years to the current hearing, I contemplated whether or not to attend, resolved not to, and decided furthermore that since I have so far been spared these additional, appalling details of the assault, it would be in my best interest to continue to shield myself and to allow people who love me to help me.

Not knowing things doesn’t come easily to me. Most of my life I’ve used knowledge as a way of gaining control over my life. I found much truth in the saying, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” So to deliberately not open a file or a letter, to not search out facts that have great emotional importance in my life, feels cowardly and counterproductive. And yet that is also what seems healthiest for me to do now. I truly do not want to know any more about what my mother suffered in the last minutes of her life. It’s easier to remember that and respect the boundaries I’ve set for myself if I have help.Read more...Collapse )

This means, among other things, that not only am I not going to attend this hearing – at which time the letter and other aspects of the crime will undoubtedly be discussed – but I must guard myself carefully in the weeks to come. At the same time, I must remember that I am not alone. How does this translate into action? It means two things. First, it’s up to me to ask for help. This is both difficult and easy. Easy because it feels active, and I’ve found that taking empowering action lowers my anxiety. I’m doing something. At the same time, it’s hard to step away from the solo paladin, front-line role. I have a long-time habit of mistrusting any action that I haven’t done myself or personally observed when it comes to this area of my life. Now I must shift to relying on the judgment of others, to take their word on what is safe for me. I know they’ll make errors, but I hope these will be in the direction of protection I may not actually need and not in the other direction. If one of them misjudges the emotional pain something might cause me and as a result I don’t learn certain details of the assault or subsequent events, that is not a problem. It doesn’t endanger my safety.

For someone as information-centered as I have been, it’s a big deal to relinquish specific accuracy for the bigger picture. I am not a prosecuting attorney arguing the case, requiring that high degree of precision. I already know far more than is emotionally healthy for me. At one time, I believed that no information could be worse than what I imagined, but as I have learned more with each successive hearing, I see that is not true. Rather, the reverse. I have learned more than I ever wanted or needed to, and now it is time to close the door and say No more.

My gratitude to those loved ones who are willing to act as buffers for me is immense. I understand that the same details that might give me nightmares for years are horrific but not nearly as traumatizing for them. Nevertheless, it is sometimes a struggle to allow them to place themselves between me and the fire. I wrestle with stepping back and accepting their help. That part feels passive in the sense of not doing anything but is actually receptive. I think of how a gift enriches both the recipient and the giver, and how good it feels when I am able to help someone else. When I see that I am offering that same opportunity to my loved ones, I feel empowered rather than indebted. This isn’t charity, it’s compassion in action. And for that to happen, I have to hold open the space for others to act on my behalf.

Women's March Santa Cruz

The winter storms abated, we gathered, we sang, we chanted, we hugged one another. Our spirits soared.
Not just women, but whole families...and entire community. Even the cops were grinning.







In Troubled Times: A Personal Sanctuary

When I received a letter from the Department of Corrections, informing me of the late March parole hearing for the man who raped and murdered my mother, I felt overwhelmed. It had been as much as I could do to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of the election and then the illness and death of our wonderful German Shepherd Dog, Tajji. I knew the next hearing was schedule for 2017, but I did not expect to begin the year in dread of that ordeal. I know what these hearings have done to me in the past and how hard I have had to work on survival and recovery. Each hearing has not only opened old wounds but created new ones as more was revealed.

Almost immediately, I started noticing worrisome changes in my mental health. In the 30 years since my mother was killed, I’ve come to know the “warning signs” quite well. I no longer ignore them as I once did. I dare not “soldier on” or bury myself in work: that way lies madness. Thank goodness, I have never been tempted to use substances, legal or not, to escape. Instead, I run to anxiety as my drug of choice. This time I decided to take action on my own behalf before I got into serious trouble.

First I enlisted allies. At the top of that list is my family, both my daughters (one at home, one across the country) and husband, and my sister, with whom I’m very close but who lives in a different part of the state. I let them know I was having a hard time and that if I was distracted or irritable (or flaming irrational), to not take it personally because that meant I needed help. No matter what’s going on, extra hugs are always helpful! So it goes without saying that I am asking for – and receiving – more physical affection. I find my whole body relaxing into a hug and I often fall asleep while cuddling with my husband, I feel so safe and loved.

I decided to tackle my broken sleep first. My daughter and I had gotten into the habit of watching videos until it was bed time. We made a pact (and shook on it) to turn off the television early, to not begin a new episode of whatever program we were streaming after 9 pm. I was delighted at her enthusiasm for meditating with me. We got out our cushions and sat on the living room floor, facing one another. The first evening, we lasted only 5 minutes, but that was enough to produce a sound night’s sleep. Since then we’ve missed a night here and there, but have been continuing the practice for progressively longer times. I don’t need an hour; 10 or 15 minutes seem enough right now. Soon we realized that one of the cats was joining us, sitting in between us or on my lap, and purring. I found the purring added to my relaxation and mental calm.

Secondly, I began keeping a journal again with the specific purpose of using this method to sort through the various logistical decisions surrounding the parole hearing. Taking out the old spiral bound notebook was like meeting an old friend again. This practice had the effect of “corralling” stressful thoughts into a specific setting. Knowing I had a time and place to figure things out – and that I was not allowed to do so at other times and places! – is very helpful. I reminded myself that once I decided what order I wanted to do things in, it was necessary to only worry about the one at the top of the list. One thing at a time, breaking what seemed like an insurmountable load into small, manageable steps. Soon I had prioritized the decisions and tackled the first, most time-critical action. At this point, I had to take myself in hand and not go on to the next one but to allow myself a breather in which to regain my emotional balance.

Third, I have been reaching out to other people I trust, most of whom know the whole wretched story. This way, I have people to talk to with whom I don’t have to rehash history. I miss my best friend, who was an incredible source of support through very painful times, but since her passing I have gotten closer to other friends. As has happened before, I have been sometimes surprised and deeply touched by the kindness and wisdom of the people in my life.

Next up is to ask the Quaker meeting (of which my husband is a member, and I an attender) for a Clearness Committee. This is a small group of weighty Friends who sit with you not to offer advice but to support you in your discernment of a path. I’ve done this for the last two parole hearings and the experience of being “held in the Light” with such tenderness has sustained me.

I find myself missing the comfort of a dog, especially one as responsive and emotionally literate as Tajji. The cats have been extra cuddly since Tajji died, and Shakir, the one who meditates with my daughter and me, curls up beside me at night on the other side from my husband. But it’s too soon to get another dog, so I imagine Tajji wagging her tail at me and giving me a big doggie grin.
I am convinced that Trump cheated and manipulated his way into being POTUS, in collusion with an unfriendly foreign power. I am willing to allow that he himself may not have explicitly given orders to rig the results, but having long since become a pawn on Putin and the extreme right (Pence, Ryan, Bannon, etc.), he played right into their hands and remains under their control. The Russians gamed our system; Trump was not elected by the American people. He is not a legitimately elected President.

Trump Tweets so explosively, we buy into his smoke screen. Ignore his histrionics -- pay attention to what's happening! The truth is that our country is now run by a gang of plutocrats bent on looting America for every penny they can get at the expense of the most vulnerable: women, the poor, working people, people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Muslims, and so forth.

I have run out of patience with "respecting the office" or "giving him a chance" or dancing around the truth. We are perilously close to a fascist plutocracy and about to plunge into the abyss.

In Troubled Times: Overwhelm

Life has treated me to a bumpy ride recently. I’ve written about challenging times following the election, with all the fear, confusion, and so on. It seemed the bad news would never end when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. We lost our old German Shepherd Dog after a short but difficult illness that turned all our lives inside out. Through this, I tried to practice good self care, cultivate insight and perspective, and share my journey. Mostly I was able to regain my emotional and spiritual balance, and the periods of feeling at a loss grew shorter. The grief for our dog felt natural and healthy; she had gone peacefully in the end, surrounded by love, and we all had so many happy memories of her.

And then I received a letter from the Department of Corrections with the date of the next parole hearing of the man who’d raped and murdered my mother. It’s such a horrendous thing to be reminded of at the best of times, but now, when my stability is already fragile, it’s particularly awful. I’ve written about the murder many times over the years, from my introduction letter upon joining SFWA to a recent post as part of #HoldOnToTheLight (a blog campaign encompassing posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues). I tell my story when I campaign against the death penalty. As much as I do not want to give a single thought to the murder and its aftermath right now, I’m going to have to deal with it. Whether or not I attend in person, send a letter, record a video statement, ask friends to write letters opposing his release, it’s in my mind. Like some particularly vile parasitic worm, it’s wending its way from my thoughts into my guts.

Sometimes treading water is the best you can do, and that’s enough. Running as fast as you can to just stay in place at least keeps you in place. Life flattens us and we have a good cry and then pick ourselves up. Our friends (and sometimes strangers) give us a hand up. We do the same for them. But sometimes what life piles on us is Just. Too. Much.

I didn’t get to vote on this. I didn’t ask for it. My mother was an amazing, compassionate, intelligent, radiant soul. Even if I walk away, the way her life ended will still be with me. I can’t take it out of my mind and body, let alone my spirit.

It sucks bigtime.

That’s where I am today. Despite all the self care, I’m sleeping badly. I’m irritable, at times bordering on irrational, although my family nudges me back to sanity. My muscles reflect the inner escalation of tension. Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun to be me, but not now. I’m not sure why the people who love me put up with me.

Sleep is my miner’s canary, my early-warning signal that I’m no longer treading water, I’m sinking. I don’t ever, ever want to go back to what happened to me after the first parole hearing, so I take these signals very seriously. I take it even more seriously when a dear friend and, separately, a family member express concern for me. I’ve learned to not brush off such concerns with, “I’m fine.” I’m so clearly not fine. If someone who cares about me sees something in my behavior, or hears something behind my words or in my unguarded expression, for them to say something to me is an act of pure love.

When we’re drowning, we need all the love we are offered.

I am loved, and that’s how I’m going to get through this as a sane, loving person.

In the next installment of “In Troubled Times,” I’ll share some of the ways I’m giving myself extra help. I don’t expect it to be an easy passage, but I’ve learned a lot over the years about surviving even what seems to be unsurvivable. Please come on that journey with me: it’s not one anybody should ever take alone.

In Troubled Times: Tenaciously Hopeful

Recently, I’ve noticed more articles on staying grounded in joy and hope, even when surrounded by fear. Perhaps such articles have always been part of the general social media discourse and I am only now becoming sufficiently calm to notice them. But I rather think (hope!) this is a trend. In me, it certainly is. After the initial rounds of fear and trepidation, the constant adrenaline wore off. I’m not naturally a person who enjoys being fearful; from my experience training dogs, I suspect it’s not an appealing state for most of us. Some, I suppose, enjoy the “high” of confrontation, even violence, but I’m not among them. Harming others and myself is not where I want to live my life.

I see also posts affirming commitment to action, often in terms of “We Will Fight On!” and I’ve been resisting the urge to jump on that bandwagon. (Also the “Organize the Resistance” brigade.) It all sounds so necessary, a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. And is just as unrealistic for me as remaining in that state of terrified fury.

As unhealthy.

I am not objecting to others following the paths to which they are led. Resisting fascism and protecting the most vulnerable are inarguably vital to our survival as individuals, communities, and a society. I am thrilled that people have the drive and knowledge to organize such resistance. I will be right there, cheering them on. But I won’t be in the forefront.

It’s taken me a long time, coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool organizers (labor unions, radical politics, war resistance, etc.) to come to terms with not being one of them. Undoubtedly, seeing the cost to my family played a role in my reluctance. I’ve marched in my share of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, written a gazillion letters, painted an equal number of signs. But it’s not where my heart is. I’ve seen the joy in the eyes of those for whom this is their passion, their “thing.” I want to hug them all and say, “I’m so glad you’re out there, doing this for both of us.”

The fallacy is that making the world a better place is an either/or proposition. Either I’m out there, making headlines by facilitating events of vast numbers for the people’s revolution (as an example), or I’m sitting at home, knitting while Yosemite burns.

The fact is, any social movement happens on many levels. There’s the outward, banner-headline, political level, one that often requires organization on a national or international level. There is a community level, supporting your neighbors, particularly those in need. Soup kitchens are just as necessary as demonstrations outside the White House, although they serve fewer people. Taking care of ourselves and our families is yet another.

Quiet, mindful actions that focus on compassion, justice, and unity need not be limited to small numbers. In fact, outward activism must be balanced by inner activism. We can all find where we are called to act along that spectrum, and we can move back and forth (or in and out, whichever image works best) with circumstances, experience, and energy levels. What a relief to realize I don’t have to pick one thing or level of involvement!

So what speaks to me right now is remembering joy. The year to come is almost certainly going to be full of occasions for grimness if not despair, so I don’t want to start off that way. I want to full up my “savings account of hope” as much as I can, cultivating those people, places, and things that lift my spirits. I want to never, ever let go of believing we can survive this, kindness and persistence will triumph, and no matter how dark it may seem at the moment, love will win.

I refuse my consent to fascism. I also refuse my consent to despair.
I affirm that I will cling tenaciously – relentlessly – to hope, and I invite you to do so, too.