[Holiday Rerun]…And what is "energy" anyway?

Last week, I posted a question as to whether Rubenfeld Synergy Method is energy work.  Ultimately, I think it is not, though sometimes what some call “energy” enters into it.  The problem, I posited, is that what energy workers call “energy” is not something that can be proven to exist, or quantified by science.  Therefore, I find it a lot more useful to talk about RSM’s basis in the body, engagement with emotion and metaphor, and use of trance to healing purposes.

However, I do want to talk a bit about energy here, for a number of reasons.  One, I find the word “energy” and the concepts that some have agreed to attach to it useful when discussing certain phenomena for which I have no other useful vocabulary.  Two, many people who engage with this work are also conversant in energy work, and it is helpful to have a shared vocabulary when working with people.  But most importantly, I wonder if the idea of “energy” isn’t just another concept that seems too fruity for modern science, but will eventually catch up.

That is to say: is the idea of “energy” akin to, say, the idea of the subconscious back in Freud’s day?  These days, most people accept that the subconscious is a thing, though we still have no way of measuring or quantifying it.  For that matter, though we are learning more and more, we still have vast gaps in understanding about things like the mind, thoughts, imagination, dreams, and countless other phenomena that we can observe to exist.

There are people who are trying to prove – with mixed success at best – the existence of energy – chi, life force, mana, prana, whatever you call it.  And I am happy that such scientific explorations are taking place.  However, I wonder if it’s entirely useful, or necessary.

It seems to me that the true usefulness of energy, as a concept, is as a vocabulary for speaking about sensations that are difficult to qualify in other ways.  We may someday understand whether these types of sensations are caused by electrical impulses, magnetism, chemical processes, or some combination.  We may even understand why some people seem more sensitive to subtle sensations than others.  But until then, it seems clear that for some people, tapping into the vocabulary and techniques we have available for experiencing energy, suspending disbelief, and working with the metaphor is just as helpful as knowing exactly why it works.

Certain types of skeptics will scoff that medicine is not useful unless it has proven effectiveness, tested with double-blind longitudinal studies, and so on.  Many even seem frightened by the concept of studying complementary therapies in this way, which makes me wonder what exactly they would lose if such things turned out to be true.  However, it isn’t particularly useful to talk about talk therapy as if it were science, any more than it’s meaningful to try and derive statistically significant results from exposure to great literature.  At this point most people accept that people sometimes act on unconscious impulses, or from deeply ingrained behaviors that they’re not conscious of.  We accept that humans are not completely – or even mostly! – creatures of logic and reason.

During RSM sessions, clients often experience sensations and feelings they aren’t accustomed to.  A client may experience the sensation of energy moving through her body – waves, shivers, tingles, spirals, spreading warmth.  When a muscle releases, a client may feel what was a kind of “stuck energy” moving out of it.  Emotion itself is a kind of energy: our teachers called it “energy in motion.”  We are all familiar with the tightness and warmth in the chest that comes with anger and embarrassment.  Or the feeling of tears threatening to overwhelm us.  Or the joy that can seem to fill our bodies with light.  If we’re lucky, we know what it feels like to have our hearts opened by love, and the actual physical sensation of being pierced, as it were, by Cupid’s arrow.

As a practitioner, I also receive sensations in my hands at times, things that are hard to describe as simply bodily sensations.  Some clients’ feet feel bubbly or tingly to me, like there is nervousness or fear of which the client is often unaware.  Sometimes I will begin to experience an emotion the client is experiencing – anxiety, or sadness, or anger – and that will be my first clue that the client is experiencing it.  How does such a thing get communicated?  It’s poorly understood.  But talking about energy is a useful way of quantifying these sensations.

While I often experience there being life force in the world – an energy that permeates everything, vibrating at different frequencies (it should be recalled, after all, that matter and energy are one and the same) – I am aware that some other people don’t, and that science has yet to prove its existence.  But if we can talk about the energy of a room or an interaction, or say that someone has a “nervous energy” or that someone else “sucks all the energy out of the room,” then we need to be able to talk about other phenomena that share that character.  Until science catches up – and I’m not saying it will (see above about the subconscious), I’m happy to use poetry.

Even after that, I might keep using poetryIt’s the language I’m most comfortable in.  Your mileage may vary.

[Holiday Rerun]…And what is “energy” anyway?

Last week, I posted a question as to whether Rubenfeld Synergy Method is energy work.  Ultimately, I think it is not, though sometimes what some call “energy” enters into it.  The problem, I posited, is that what energy workers call “energy” is not something that can be proven to exist, or quantified by science.  Therefore, I find it a lot more useful to talk about RSM’s basis in the body, engagement with emotion and metaphor, and use of trance to healing purposes.

However, I do want to talk a bit about energy here, for a number of reasons.  One, I find the word “energy” and the concepts that some have agreed to attach to it useful when discussing certain phenomena for which I have no other useful vocabulary.  Two, many people who engage with this work are also conversant in energy work, and it is helpful to have a shared vocabulary when working with people.  But most importantly, I wonder if the idea of “energy” isn’t just another concept that seems too fruity for modern science, but will eventually catch up.

That is to say: is the idea of “energy” akin to, say, the idea of the subconscious back in Freud’s day?  These days, most people accept that the subconscious is a thing, though we still have no way of measuring or quantifying it.  For that matter, though we are learning more and more, we still have vast gaps in understanding about things like the mind, thoughts, imagination, dreams, and countless other phenomena that we can observe to exist.

There are people who are trying to prove – with mixed success at best – the existence of energy – chi, life force, mana, prana, whatever you call it.  And I am happy that such scientific explorations are taking place.  However, I wonder if it’s entirely useful, or necessary.

It seems to me that the true usefulness of energy, as a concept, is as a vocabulary for speaking about sensations that are difficult to qualify in other ways.  We may someday understand whether these types of sensations are caused by electrical impulses, magnetism, chemical processes, or some combination.  We may even understand why some people seem more sensitive to subtle sensations than others.  But until then, it seems clear that for some people, tapping into the vocabulary and techniques we have available for experiencing energy, suspending disbelief, and working with the metaphor is just as helpful as knowing exactly why it works.

Certain types of skeptics will scoff that medicine is not useful unless it has proven effectiveness, tested with double-blind longitudinal studies, and so on.  Many even seem frightened by the concept of studying complementary therapies in this way, which makes me wonder what exactly they would lose if such things turned out to be true.  However, it isn’t particularly useful to talk about talk therapy as if it were science, any more than it’s meaningful to try and derive statistically significant results from exposure to great literature.  At this point most people accept that people sometimes act on unconscious impulses, or from deeply ingrained behaviors that they’re not conscious of.  We accept that humans are not completely – or even mostly! – creatures of logic and reason.

During RSM sessions, clients often experience sensations and feelings they aren’t accustomed to.  A client may experience the sensation of energy moving through her body – waves, shivers, tingles, spirals, spreading warmth.  When a muscle releases, a client may feel what was a kind of “stuck energy” moving out of it.  Emotion itself is a kind of energy: our teachers called it “energy in motion.”  We are all familiar with the tightness and warmth in the chest that comes with anger and embarrassment.  Or the feeling of tears threatening to overwhelm us.  Or the joy that can seem to fill our bodies with light.  If we’re lucky, we know what it feels like to have our hearts opened by love, and the actual physical sensation of being pierced, as it were, by Cupid’s arrow.

As a practitioner, I also receive sensations in my hands at times, things that are hard to describe as simply bodily sensations.  Some clients’ feet feel bubbly or tingly to me, like there is nervousness or fear of which the client is often unaware.  Sometimes I will begin to experience an emotion the client is experiencing – anxiety, or sadness, or anger – and that will be my first clue that the client is experiencing it.  How does such a thing get communicated?  It’s poorly understood.  But talking about energy is a useful way of quantifying these sensations.

While I often experience there being life force in the world – an energy that permeates everything, vibrating at different frequencies (it should be recalled, after all, that matter and energy are one and the same) – I am aware that some other people don’t, and that science has yet to prove its existence.  But if we can talk about the energy of a room or an interaction, or say that someone has a “nervous energy” or that someone else “sucks all the energy out of the room,” then we need to be able to talk about other phenomena that share that character.  Until science catches up – and I’m not saying it will (see above about the subconscious), I’m happy to use poetry.

Even after that, I might keep using poetryIt’s the language I’m most comfortable in.  Your mileage may vary.

[Holiday Rerun] Is Rubenfeld Synergy "energy work"?

This work that I do tends to attract the interest of, and yet fall just outside of, two major groups of practices.  One, and the one that I tend to try and cultivate more, is the psychology/therapy side of things.  I think of RSM as a kind of body psychotherapy, in fact, and group it as a therapeutic technique which, while body-centered, is focused on the health of the whole person.  I don’t see RSM primarily as “bodywork,” like massage, Alexander technique, yoga therapy, or other things that don’t tend to deal overtly with the emotional content of sessions.  But neither do I tend to bundle it in with the other major set of practices and interests that tend to be attracted to this work: energy work, like Reiki, cranial sacral, zero balancing, and other practices that have a somewhat more esoteric, New Age bent.

Often, people who are interested in energy work will approach me, curious about this energy work.  While I think many kinds of energy work are valuable and effective, I like to be clear that RSM isn’t actually energy work – at least, not overtly.  While a couple of the 18 principles of RSM address the idea of energy directly, I feel like it’s important to differentiate RSM from modalities that chiefly address the body’s energy field.

First, it’s important to note that for some people, energy simply can’t be sensed, or they don’t understand it in that way.  And for people who do have a powerful relationship with energy, Reiki and other straight-up energy work modalities will probably be more comfortable and effective for them.

Second, RSM tends to work in a realm that can feel quite opposite to much energy work, and even much bodywork.  Namely: RSM sessions ask the client to stay in their bodies, in the present moment, and often to answer questions.  I have noticed that Reiki and other energy sessions tend to promote a “floaty” feeling and a sense of reaching out to something larger than oneself, an experience that is mainly spiritual and outside the body.  Even massage, which is an incredibly embodied experience, sometimes even to the point of being painful, is something that can allow the client to “zone out” and experience the sensation without much reflection.  (It is worth noting that while one almost always feels better after a massage or chiropractic session, one often finds oneself going back again and again, as the habits that led you there in the first place haven’t been changed.)

But I believe the most important difference, and the one I want to highlight here, is that RSM is about engaging the client with his or her own bodymind, rather than about the practitioner removing energetic blocks or adjusting chi or any of those things that some people simply don’t engage with, as they remain esoteric and unproven.  Everyone has a body, and everyone’s body has a story to tell.  The practitioner’s role, in RSM, is to teach the client how to listen, and to help the client learn his or her own story.

A client may experience the sensation of energy moving through her body – waves, shivers, tingles, spirals, spreading warmth – I’ve encountered any number of somatic sensations that could be described as energy.  As a practitioner, I also receive sensations in my hands at times, things that are hard to describe as simply bodily sensations.  Talking about energy is a useful way of quantifying these sensations.  But others might call it emotion, or muscle tension, or nerves firing.  But what you call it is secondary to the information that it is conveying.  Energy workers work explicitly with the energy itself; RSM practitioners work with what it is saying.

Example: Joyce feels tired and run down.  She goes to have a Reiki session.  During the session, she feels warmth, tingling, and the sensation of well-being flowing into her body.  She relaxes as the session takes place, bathing in the attention of the practitioner and the image of white light healing her.  Afterwards, she feels better, but doesn’t really know why.  Next month, she’s tired and run down again.

The same hypothetical Joyce goes for an RSM session.  During that session, she feels some of the same nurturing sensations she felt in the Reiki session.  But in addition, she discovers that her shoulders are held tightly into her body, even when she doesn’t feel particularly stressed.  She experiments with conversing with them, finding out why they are holding so tightly.  Perhaps she finds that she felt safer being invisible in school, where she was bullied, and so curled in around herself; her shoulders retained the habit even though it is no longer useful and is now in fact harmful.  Or she has a memory of her father pushing her away, when she grabbed him by the arm, trying to stop him from leaving when she was twelve.  Maybe she even finds something simple and somatic: she’s been working at a computer desk for ten years, and her habitual body position is causing her pain and stress.  On the table, she might learn some strategies for holding her body differently, and, while in the suggestive state of the healing trance, create some triggers for reminding herself to be conscious of her body during her day-to-day life.

The point is, while for some people, talk of energy is useful, for others, it can put them off and make them feel you’re talking about something that isn’t “real” and therefore doesn’t affect them.  Addressing the physical body directly, and recognizing the ways it echoes and internalizes our thoughts and emotions, is what this work is truly about.  The spiritual aspect of RSM is important, but it relies on differing ideas of spirituality that can vary from client to client, and energy work unfortunately tends to fall under ideas of spirituality rather than ideas of science at present.  Thus, I tend to shy away from calling RSM “energy work,” though in some respects it is.  Primarily, though, RSM is bodymind work: talk and touch combined, counseling that takes the body as its chief resource for information, support, and healing.

[Holiday Rerun] Is Rubenfeld Synergy “energy work”?

This work that I do tends to attract the interest of, and yet fall just outside of, two major groups of practices.  One, and the one that I tend to try and cultivate more, is the psychology/therapy side of things.  I think of RSM as a kind of body psychotherapy, in fact, and group it as a therapeutic technique which, while body-centered, is focused on the health of the whole person.  I don’t see RSM primarily as “bodywork,” like massage, Alexander technique, yoga therapy, or other things that don’t tend to deal overtly with the emotional content of sessions.  But neither do I tend to bundle it in with the other major set of practices and interests that tend to be attracted to this work: energy work, like Reiki, cranial sacral, zero balancing, and other practices that have a somewhat more esoteric, New Age bent.

Often, people who are interested in energy work will approach me, curious about this energy work.  While I think many kinds of energy work are valuable and effective, I like to be clear that RSM isn’t actually energy work – at least, not overtly.  While a couple of the 18 principles of RSM address the idea of energy directly, I feel like it’s important to differentiate RSM from modalities that chiefly address the body’s energy field.

First, it’s important to note that for some people, energy simply can’t be sensed, or they don’t understand it in that way.  And for people who do have a powerful relationship with energy, Reiki and other straight-up energy work modalities will probably be more comfortable and effective for them.

Second, RSM tends to work in a realm that can feel quite opposite to much energy work, and even much bodywork.  Namely: RSM sessions ask the client to stay in their bodies, in the present moment, and often to answer questions.  I have noticed that Reiki and other energy sessions tend to promote a “floaty” feeling and a sense of reaching out to something larger than oneself, an experience that is mainly spiritual and outside the body.  Even massage, which is an incredibly embodied experience, sometimes even to the point of being painful, is something that can allow the client to “zone out” and experience the sensation without much reflection.  (It is worth noting that while one almost always feels better after a massage or chiropractic session, one often finds oneself going back again and again, as the habits that led you there in the first place haven’t been changed.)

But I believe the most important difference, and the one I want to highlight here, is that RSM is about engaging the client with his or her own bodymind, rather than about the practitioner removing energetic blocks or adjusting chi or any of those things that some people simply don’t engage with, as they remain esoteric and unproven.  Everyone has a body, and everyone’s body has a story to tell.  The practitioner’s role, in RSM, is to teach the client how to listen, and to help the client learn his or her own story.

A client may experience the sensation of energy moving through her body – waves, shivers, tingles, spirals, spreading warmth – I’ve encountered any number of somatic sensations that could be described as energy.  As a practitioner, I also receive sensations in my hands at times, things that are hard to describe as simply bodily sensations.  Talking about energy is a useful way of quantifying these sensations.  But others might call it emotion, or muscle tension, or nerves firing.  But what you call it is secondary to the information that it is conveying.  Energy workers work explicitly with the energy itself; RSM practitioners work with what it is saying.

Example: Joyce feels tired and run down.  She goes to have a Reiki session.  During the session, she feels warmth, tingling, and the sensation of well-being flowing into her body.  She relaxes as the session takes place, bathing in the attention of the practitioner and the image of white light healing her.  Afterwards, she feels better, but doesn’t really know why.  Next month, she’s tired and run down again.

The same hypothetical Joyce goes for an RSM session.  During that session, she feels some of the same nurturing sensations she felt in the Reiki session.  But in addition, she discovers that her shoulders are held tightly into her body, even when she doesn’t feel particularly stressed.  She experiments with conversing with them, finding out why they are holding so tightly.  Perhaps she finds that she felt safer being invisible in school, where she was bullied, and so curled in around herself; her shoulders retained the habit even though it is no longer useful and is now in fact harmful.  Or she has a memory of her father pushing her away, when she grabbed him by the arm, trying to stop him from leaving when she was twelve.  Maybe she even finds something simple and somatic: she’s been working at a computer desk for ten years, and her habitual body position is causing her pain and stress.  On the table, she might learn some strategies for holding her body differently, and, while in the suggestive state of the healing trance, create some triggers for reminding herself to be conscious of her body during her day-to-day life.

The point is, while for some people, talk of energy is useful, for others, it can put them off and make them feel you’re talking about something that isn’t “real” and therefore doesn’t affect them.  Addressing the physical body directly, and recognizing the ways it echoes and internalizes our thoughts and emotions, is what this work is truly about.  The spiritual aspect of RSM is important, but it relies on differing ideas of spirituality that can vary from client to client, and energy work unfortunately tends to fall under ideas of spirituality rather than ideas of science at present.  Thus, I tend to shy away from calling RSM “energy work,” though in some respects it is.  Primarily, though, RSM is bodymind work: talk and touch combined, counseling that takes the body as its chief resource for information, support, and healing.

Holiday ephemera

It’s Christmas Eve, and I thought I’d share a few of the things that make this time of year work for me.  True, these days I’m a practicing Pagan and celebrate Yule, which I did the other night with flame and food and reading and watching most of the night through for the sunrise.  But I was raised vaguely Catholic, not to mention generally American, and Christmas has always been a big part of my life whether I was celebrating the birth of Jesus or not.  (Mostly not.)

I try to be a deeply thinking person, with depth of feeling and a giving soul and all of that good stuff.  But it’s also true that I was brought up in the ’80s, and media has always suffused my holiday celebrations in a way that is indelible to my adult self.  Thus, I give you my Top Eight Shows, Movies and Music Without Which It is Simply Not Christmas.  Warning: this list is going to be extremely conventional.  Enjoy.

8. How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

I’m talking original, Boris Karloff stuff here, none of this Jim Carrey movie or whatever this godforsaken musical is.  2-D cartoon, Thurl Ravenscroft (true story! awesome name, right?) rumbling through “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes and making me cry.  Oh, yeah.

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas. 

Even if I don’t get a chance to watch the classic cartoon, with it’s still-supremely-odd real kids’ voices saying frightfully adult things, I always manage to give a listen or twelve to Vince Guaraldi’s fantastic jazz soundtrack.  The wistful “Christmastime Is Here” always bespeaks to me the complexity of trying to celebrate peace, light, and the spirit of giving in our anxious modern age.

6. George Winston’s December.

Some years ago I picked up this album by the minimalist piano composer, and have always loved his icy, contemplative take on a number of traditionals, plus a few originals of his own, which sparkle. I can’t listen to this without imagining ice-coated branches and the sound of boots crunching and creaking in fresh snow.

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  

This Rankin-Bass classic stop-motion special is full of sexist language, weird violence, bad lip-matching and strange messages about conformity, not to mention one of the most annoying Christmas carols ever.  It’s AWESOME.

4. Frosty the Snowman.

Rudolph and Frosty were my big two back in the day. Sure, it was important to see the other specials, but if I missed these when they were on, it was all over. I cried every time Karen found Frosty as a melted puddle in the greenhouse. Plus, dude, Jimmy Durante.

3. It’s A Wonderful Life. 

I almost never see this movie in its entirety; it’s really long and front-loaded. But I almost always catch at least some of it this season. It truly is a fantastic movie, corny as it may seem. Thomas Garvey, my current favorite theatre reviewer, has a fantastic, fresh review of it here.

2. The Bishop’s Wife. 

Folks might not be familiar with this movie, which was remade maybe ten years ago as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington.  The original, though, starred David Niven as an Anglican bishop, the radiant Loretta Young as his increasingly discontented wife, and Cary Grant as an extremely dapper and charming angel.  This movie is so splendidly corny and wonderful, and everyone looks so luminous.  It’s really a must.

1. Alastair Sim’s Scrooge (1951).  

There have been countless adaptations of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, but for my money none of them matches this sublime effort by Alastair Sim, who with goggle-eyed specificity makes both a perfect pinched, cruel old man, and the most delightful, fleet-footed redeemed Ebeneezer you ever saw.

Whatever you celebrate, enjoy your holidays, everyone!

On the Solstice, contemplating the concept of faith

Today is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day, and the longest night, of the year.  Mayan Calendar nonsense notwithstanding, pagans tend to celebrate this night as Yule, the time when the old sun dies and is reborn anew.  We stay up all night, tending candles and fires, carrying the light through the long dark.  We tell stories, play music, eat and drink, nap in shifts.  Tonight, my household will feast on roast pork, decorate a tree, possibly watch silly movies and/or play silly games, and generally make merry through as much of the night as we can manage with our aging bodies.

Outside, rain and wind is pounding us, and it’s exactly the kind of day where it feels like we’ll never see the sun again, even during the daylight hours.  But marking this day and this night with merriment is what gets us through to the other side.

Two years ago, a couple I’d met only recently invited me to a Solstice gathering at their place, which they hold every year.  Each time, there is a theme on which the gathered are asked to speak in some way, and invariably it is intensely moving.  That year, the theme was faith, and I wrote an essay that encapsulated what I felt about that very loaded word.

I’m pleased to share that essay here, in the spirit of the season, and in the hope that it may bring some illumination.

Happy Solstice, everyone, and Happy Hanukkah, and Merry Christmas, and Joyous Kwanzaa, and Blessed Yule, and joy rain down upon you whatever you do or do not celebrate.  Let’s push through to the light.

***

When I heard about tonight’s theme, I must admit I had a little trouble. Faith is a difficult concept for me, one of those virtues which, like “purity,” has had all the piss taken out of it by Christianity. Faith is George W. Bush following his gut into Iraq. Faith is Creationists who value their fairy tales over scientific evidence. Faith is what got the witches burned, kept the Crusades going for hundreds of years, fueled the Spanish Inquisition, took out the Twin Towers, impregnated and infected teenagers whose only sex education was abstinence-only, and defined people like me – female, bisexual, queer, pagan – as sub-human.

If you can do the hard work, though, of separating faith from its incredibly strong right-wing religious connotations, it’s actually an incredible tool of being human. Because faith, real faith, isn’t about blind belief in dogma. It’s about mystery. It’s about going forward with grace, when faced with the unknowable and terrifying. Faith is the holy communion of imagination and hope.

I’m a pagan woo-woo witch-identified skeptic. The founder of my own tradition used to say, “First perceive, then believe.” Of course, his doors of perception were open a little wider than a lot of people’s, and his perception allowed him to believe in fairies, spirits, gods and goddesses, energetic currents, blessings and curses. I’m only beginning to touch some of those things, and even when I perceive them, I’m still not sure I believe.

But I have faith.

Faith is what is left over when inquiry is exhausted, that thing that keeps us going when we Just Don’t Know. Faith is what allows us to turn the proverbial lemons into the equally proverbial lemonade; to keep trying when the damn thing has broken down fifteen times in a row but maybe if we switch these wires or kick it a few more times it’ll start; to wait and wait and wait because maybe this time, the Great Pumpkin will come. (The secret? If you wait long enough without eating or sleeping, he does.)

Faith allows some of you to light things on fire and swing them around your bodies for fun and entertainment, and others of us to look at a bare stage and make it into a world. In fact, faith is what makes most art – and all theatre – operate. For as the prophet Geoffrey Rush once said, “it’s a mystery.”

Faith is what allows a marathoner to get up Heartbreak Hill, a widow to get through her grief, a soldier to make it through the night. It’s what made our ancestors learn to wait for the bread to rise, the crops to grow, the game to return, the rains to stop. It’s the thing that lets us live in the terrifyingly simultaneous way that our human brains make us: one foot in the present, and one in the future.

Faith is what makes you able to love even when your heart has been torn out, stepped on, run over, and left on the side of the road to die. Faith makes you get up, dust your heart off, maybe wall it up a little better than before, but leave a window open a crack, just in case.

Just in case. Because we still imagine. And we still hope. And we still wait for the light.

When will it be safe to be a girl?

This week I stumbled across two posts about gender that really resonated with me.  Gender is a tangled and complex subject, and there are people who can speak far more eloquently about trans issues, the intersection of gender and sexuality, and breaking the gender mold than I can.  But I wanted to highlight these two articles, as they spoke to body identity, trauma, support, and strength.

The first made the rounds among my female friends who are into Crossfit and kettlebell training: This One’s For The Butch Girls.  In it, a fitness instructor visits a Pilates class to learn about it, and is treated in the following way:

After pointing me to my machine, the instructor turned back to the other students and said, ‘That one’s for the butch girls.’

Excuse me? Now, I get that not every woman wants to look muscular…This doesn’t mean I’m a lesbian. This doesn’t, in fact, mean anything about who I am as a human being or my identity in the world. 

So, it comes back once again to this idea of strength versus femininity. Of strength being in opposition to what it means to be a woman – that is, in opposition to some sort of archaic sense of what it is to ‘be a woman.’ Does being strong mean you are man-like? Does being man-like make you a lesbian? What if I’m a lesbian, but I’m not strong? Seriously. I’m being ridiculous because this whole train of thought is ridiculous. None of these concepts has any impact upon or anything to do with each other.

The article goes on to encourage women to find places – or make them, if necessary – where how they work out, or how muscular they are or aren’t, won’t be automatically judged in a particular way.  “Where you can lift weights and grunt. Where you can wear pink and rip your shins open. Where you can paint your nails, do your hair, and have calves that make men green with envy. Even a place where you can be as ‘butch’ as you want to be.”

The idea of there being limitless possibilities for gender expression is one that I hold sacred, and one that I’ve spoken about here before.  So this article spoke to me, as a woman who has weight trained for some time but was never much of an athlete, and one who has started rock climbing and loves it.  (Now there’s a place where female muscle is respected.)

But I wasn’t prepared for the punch in the gut the next article gave me.  The Girl Who Said She Was a Boy is by a blogger who has raised five children with disabilities.  I’m grateful she liked one of my posts this week and therefore alerted me to her sensitive and funny writing on this topic.  Her foster daughter, at age 7, started insisting that she was a boy.  She wanted to dress, cut her hair, and be identified as a boy, and her mother – particularly once she adopted her – supported her in this.  At the doctor’s office at age 10, “she blurted out to him that she was a boy and that she did not have the right part. She begged him to “sew a penis” on her.  He was very comforting and reassuring, and said she was fine the way she was for now and when she was older she could make that decision.”

I was already impressed at this point at the supportiveness of the mother, and the sensitivity of the doctor.  But I wasn’t ready for what happened next, as I was prepared for this to be the story of a transgender child.

At 11, her mother cautiously began to introduce her to what it would mean for her when puberty came.  To her surprise, Marie, was excited about the prospect, and very inquisitive.   And then, the truth emerged.

“She shyly admitted to me that she was happy to be a girl.  She told me she only SAID she was a boy because men ‘hurt girls’ and she didn’t want to be hurt any more. She said ‘the men’ never hurt her brother, so she decided if she was a boy she was safe.”

In a world still reeling from Friday’s events, I find myself wondering when it will finally be safe to be a girl.  Or to be a woman, in all the ways that one can be one.  A woman becomes strong, and she is seen as less-than, as not womanly.  A little girl wants to be a boy, because being a girl means pain.  The catch-22 of femininity still has us profoundly in its grasp.  Don’t be too strong or you’ll be threatening.  Don’t be too weak or you’ll be threatened.

What might happen if more of the world saw the human body as the sacred property of the human being, not to be tampered with, undermined, ridiculed or destroyed?

 

Funerals for six-year-olds, or, moving some of that emotion through

For all my compassion and concern for humanity and its state, oftentimes I find myself feeling closed off from larger events, the kind that get national attention: hurricanes, earthquakes, bombings in Gaza, shootings in Colorado.  The media bombard us with images, coverage, analysis, and repetition of all of the suffering, exploding, and ghastliness, and I don’t think it’s particularly healthy.  (Mr. Rogers had some very useful things to say about this, that don’t just apply to children.)  It’s an insanely difficult balance: how do you manage all of the collateral emotional damage from these events that are outside of your monkey sphere – those 150 or so people the human mind can manage to care about – and if you choose instead to close off from them, how do you keep from becoming hard?

Numbness, Miriam Greenspan wrote, never occurs selectively.  When we try to protect ourselves from one emotion, say, fear or grief, by becoming numb to it, we find ourselves numbed to all emotion.  During the later years of George W. Bush’s presidency, I shut myself off from a lot of news coverage, because after a while I felt like I couldn’t bear to participate in the national conversation anymore – it was too intense and depressing.  I’m not sure how much Greenspan’s idea extends to issues of scale: if you numb yourself to people you don’t know dying in a school shooting, are you cutting yourself off from experiencing more personal grief – not to mention joy, anger, love – all the things that make for a full life?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that I often feel guilty about not feeling more during national tragedies, or at least, for not doing more.  I sent some supplies to people in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, but then again, I’m from there, and the people asking for help were folks I went to high school with.  Sure, I’m pretty removed from them these days, and wasn’t even friends with them then, but I could connect for the moments it took to lend a bit of a hand, however minor.  But the tsunami in Indonesia?  The earthquake in Haiti?  Even Hurricane Katrina – which I felt so moved by in 2005 because I was at Burning Man at the time and the Temple was covered in memorials – I ended up doing practically nothing about.  I think I sent a few bucks to the Red Cross, when at first I was ready to drop everything and go volunteer.

Which brings me to the school shootings of Friday.  This was horrible, the whole world is talking about it, and it’s totally screwed up.  But on Friday, I couldn’t figure out how to feel.  Regarding it as something that happened to people I don’t know and trying not to think about it too much seemed callous, but engaging it fully and letting it fill me with grief seemed impotent – and a little disingenuous.  Why this tragedy, why this time?  Because it’s kids?  Because it’s close by, in New England?  Because it was so senseless?

Nevertheless, this morning I was driving to my therapist’s office, and BBC News, with their strangely touching accents, was covering the first funerals of a couple of six-year-old kids, kids whose lives senselessly ended on Friday.  And whether it was the grey day, the difficult issues I’m facing in therapy, the descriptions of the kids (one was “curious and wonderful”; another, “intelligent and mature for his age”), I broke into tears in traffic.  Whether or not it did anyone any good, whether or not I was showing compassion for strangers, raw emotion flowed through me, and afterwards, I felt a little better.

We live in a strange and confusing world.

Sandy Hook, the gun control narrative, and sitting with pain

Today, I recognize that the horrible elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT, is the one thing everyone is talking about, and with good reason.  27 people are dead, 18 of them children, at last count.  Even with the rash of random shootings in the past little while, this feels like a new low, a fresh horror, and we’re transfixed by it.

I don’t really know what to say about it right now.  It’s just happened, we don’t even have all the details yet.  The shooter is dead, we know that.  And of course, the arguments over gun control have already begun. About which, as usual, Jon Stewart has better things to say than I do.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Aurora Shootings – Gun Control
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But right now, I just really don’t have a lot of insight. I have shock, and sorrow, and a bit of numbness as I try to process still another tragedy in this screwed up world of ours.

So I’m going to sit with that for a bit and see what it has to tell me.

"I thought I could drown all my sorrows. But I found out my sorrows could swim."

The above quotation, from a man in Guatemala who had his wife and children killed during the civil war there, broke my heart while I was driving today – perhaps especially because it was in translation from Spanish, and I was moved by how such a cliche about grief could be transformed with an unexpected addition. (I once was proud of myself for writing the line, “My mind scrambled. Like an egg.”)

Today, I’m again powerfully reminded of the ways that emotions won’t let us go until we let them take us.

I haven’t listened myself yet, but this story – of the one surviving son of this man, unknowingly raised from infancy by the lieutenant who carried out the slaughter – is on This American Life.