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Posts from the ‘Coping’ Category

After the Rape

The day after the rape the woman enters her office, deposits her belongings on her desk, walks into the women’s bathroom, locks the door, moves to the farthest corner of the room, crouches low, collapses into a fetal position and presses herself tightly against the wall. Eyes squeezed shut – feeling for a brief second the relief of a mind wiped clean.

The minutes stretch out. She stays there as long as she dares. Until it will be noticed. Until they will come looking for her.

She stands up, adjusts her clothing, moves to the mirror and smooths her hair — staring vacantly at the reflection of a woman she no longer recognizes. Finally, she unlocks the door and steps into the airless colorless battle zone which is now her life.

For years she lives like a hot house flower under a glass dome, cut off from the world – breathing her own recycled oxygen, drenched in her own sweat — the only sound, her own labored breathing.

When they will let her, she narrows her view to that which is directly in front of her – a rain drop, the tip of a sharpened pencil, the tiniest petal of a flower. These things fill up her brain, pushing out all the rest — the voices talking at her, questions people ask, memories, thoughts, the future.

Then one day many years later, the woman feels a tiny spark of warmth in her veins. Her eyes begin to recognize beauty again. She surprises herself and laughs. As time goes on, she feels her limbs releasing and unfolding. The tight coil in her mind loosens. She absorbs moisture through her skin and expands like a sponge.  Oxygen moves into her lungs once again, so she can breathe.

Tiny windblown seeds deposited in her body at her birth, begin to sprout and unfurl their leaves.

Surprising chartreuse and orange sunflowers bloom within her.

New blood courses swiftly through her veins and she can feel the gentle receptive heart of a woman begin to beat again.

On a whim, she steps outside and turns her face to the sun.

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I am unwritten. Ending unplanned.

Breaching Dolfins by Betsy Lewis

I dreamed I was curled up asleep on the ocean floor. When I woke, it was to a dark murky gray green world of sea water. It was utterly silent and uninhabited. I felt an imperative to move — to start swimming upward. I did that for a very long time. It was hard work and bitterly cold. I was running out of oxygen. But, as I doggedly kicked my feet and moved my arms, it grew very slightly warmer and easier to move.

I could see a faint light above me and I strained to reach it, but the swimming seemed to go on forever and I was exhausted and wanted to give up.

However, this time I broke the surface of the water to the light, breaching and splashing like a dolphin. The atmosphere was thin, light and balmy; the sun warm on my skin. I gulped in the oxygen.

I’ve dreamed this dream, and others like it, many times before, but without reaching the light or finishing the foot race or finding what I am looking for (usually my car.)

When I woke up this morning from my swimming effort, the words that first came to mind were, “Oh world, please just let me be myself.”

So simple. Certainly this is in my control?

Yet, I exist between a constrained fearful past and a new vulnerable present – one more full of feeling, heart and authenticity. There is a new person rising up within me I do not know yet, but who is making herself felt and heard — confident that it is safe for her to come into existence now.

It dawns on me that at any age we are at a beginning of something that can be big or small.  That we can always be reaching for something in the distance that we can let in, or that we can renounce and give up. Giving up may seem the easier choice as we age. It is hard to keep doing the challenging working — to keep putting ourselves on the line.

What we have as we age, however, is the experience to know we can survive many things and can survive again.

That even the experience of dying can be met bravely as a beginning.

A Facebook friend sent me this inspiring song: “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield (lyrics and music video below.)

I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined
I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned
Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

The things that come in the middle of the night

In 2006 I was still reeling from my divorce 3 years earlier. I did not fully fall out of love with my ex-husband for another two years. Making a comeback from the tragedy of my failed marriage moved at a snail’s pace.

Also, in 2006 I joined a women’s group – 5 women and a gentle skilled woman facilitator. About that time, my need to be seen and heard by other human-beings was only slightly greater than my desire to crawl back into a dark hole.

Often, as I drove away from one of these women’s group sessions, I would feel mortified. I beat myself up for exposing what, I thought at the time, was my basic worthlessness. I would vow never to return to the group, but would find myself returning again and again over several years. I came to know that vulnerable sharing can be one of the most endearing things a person can do.

Why did I crawl out of my pit of doom to attend this group, when it was so hard?

Looking back, it seems that some part of me was always on “healing autopilot”. I seemed to do what was necessary and know when to take the next brave step — all without a plan or deliberate conscious awareness.

Maybe it was just as simple as Life kept happening and I kept showing up. Things got a lot better for me by 2008. Time does heal all wounds. Spring always comes. There can be exciting new beginnings.

Back to 2006: I would often wake up in the middle of the night terrified. Laying still in my bed in a fetal position, I would try to stay with the fear and deliberately feel it — perhaps hoping it would kill me. My throat would close and ache with things I could not even articulate. I remember the ah-ha moment when I realized that feelings could not kill me.

I started writing poetry, as many people do when they take steps to heal and need to express strong feelings.

But, like my fear, the poems came to me in the middle of the night, unbidden. I would awake at 2 or 3 am and there would be a poem — word for word — fully formed in my mind. I started to keep a pen and pad of paper close by so I could write the words down. I would read them in the morning. Sometimes I was baffled and sometimes enlightened.

I believe our subconscious has our best interests at heart and wants us to heal. Sometimes it will send you fear and, metaphorically, burn down the house around you to save you.

Other times it will give you poems in the middle of the night.

Below is one of the fully formed poems. It was confusing in 2006, but now I see it was prophetic.

A Dream

I dreamed I was writing a poem,

my muse – pain.

 

I dreamed I was God; the poet Hafiz;

the Prophets.

I heard the chanting,

“In the Fullness of Time,”

“In the Fullness of Time.”

 

I moved serenely, an acolyte to God

in a holy gown.

I carried pain on a serving dish,

offering it to you like a meal.

 

My other offering,

the gift of perfect understanding

 

Shakespeare wrote, “Give sorrow words.”

In the fullness of time,

I will give you the words for your pain

 

Betsy Lewis

March 2006

Now in 2018, poems no longer come to me in the middle of the night. Starting in 2006, I did go on to find the words for my pain and for the perfect understanding and I still search and explore.

I speak these words. I write them. I share them. I dance them. I do art about them. I act upon them. I live them. When all else fails me and I crumple down to the floor with the pain, I know I still have the words and that they have and will save me.

I continually work at developing my capacity to hold more and more — both pain and perfect understanding, fear and poems, and other of the incomprehensible paradoxes of being a human-being.

I am always healing. I am always finding new understandings to speak and write.

Rarely, but every once in awhile, I surprise myself and scream them in the middle of the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miracle at Walmart

My Baby Kai

I am embarrassed to say I shopped at Walmart the other day. I don’t support their policies toward the human beings in their employ, but there it was and I needed something in a hurry, so I stopped in.

I have stereotypes about Walmart shoppers. Facebook does a good job of reinforcing them. And sure enough, in the checkout line I was behind a large woman in too tight stretch pants and a spaghetti strap tank top (buying cheap stuff – just as I was.) She had the words “Baby Kai” tattooed on her shoulder blade. I have a son, Kai, now 20, and when he was a baby we called him “Baby Kai”. I normally wouldn’t comment on a tattoo, but I couldn’t help myself.

I told her about my Kai and asked her how old her Kai was. She hesitated and then said her baby Kai had never been born. I told her I was sorry and apologized for asking. Her cheeks got pink and then she rushed to say she had had two healthy children and another was on the way.

The line was slow and long. We began to talk. I told her about my losses. She said that there were things you never got over. I told her that was true, but that it seemed with time, it got easier to bear. She was sweet, thoughtful and soft spoken. She spoke with her eyes and had a beautiful smile. I have no idea how old she was, but we were two mothers, and in a very short time we had bonded — in the Walmart checkout line, no less. We exchanged a long soulful look when we parted.

What a wonderful thing to have happened to me in many ways.

Popeye and the illusions that save us

When I was a little girl, I loved the TV cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man. Popeye was a crusty old sailor who rose above his lot in life to fight for justice, rescue the girl and generally save the day. His secret power was spinach. He got a boost of heroic energy when he consumed a can of spinach – sometimes inhaling it in through the pipe, perennially hanging from his mouth.

Popeye had a theme song — a memorable nonsensical tune. (I’ve posted the lyrics below.)

The child (me) who loved Popeye was, unfortunately, often burdened by adult responsibilities — with no clue how to carry them out. Despite this, I was optimistic and resourceful — with an imperative to survive. Illusions of powerful super heroes are fortifying when one is as young and powerless as I was.

For example, I knew if I could just get my hands on one of those cans of spinach, I too could be able and strong and my problems (shame and confusion at my incompetence) would be forever over.

When I grew up and entered the work-a-day world, I felt called to the field of social justice. Back then, my illusion was the adult version of believing I could save the world. It amuses me now to think that it might have been Popeye the Sailor Man setting me on this path.

I do not remember my mom serving us spinach often, if at all. I do have a vague memory of being offered spinach once, but not in a can (like Popeye), and feeling angry and disappointed. It was obvious to me that the can was essential for the power, and the spinach by itself was yucky.

I do remember the exact moment when I realized Popeye wasn’t real. I was in a library arguing about it with a taller child  — who I could see was making a lot of sense, and as I walked away, the truth sunk in. It was bound to happen. It was like losing Santa Claus.

I have shed a lot of fantasies and illusions as the years have gone by. The romantic ones were the hardest. (Those are stories for another time and a bottle of wine.)

Today, at age 62, I am uncomfortably having to coexist with hard truths about our leaders, my fellow citizens and the humanity of the world in general.

It is in my dreams, however, where I experience the ultimate falling away of illusion and encounter the abject terror of being a soft small vulnerable mammal on a ravaged planet in an incomprehensible universe.

The truth can be cleansing and invigorating, but it can also be painful — like standing in an ice-cold shower.

I am harboring the illusion now – that it is this truth that will set me free.

 

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

I’m strong to the finich

Cause I eats me spinach.

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

I’m one tough Gazookus

Which hates all Palookas

Wot ain’t on the up and square.

I biffs ’em and buffs ’em

And always out roughs ’em

But none of ’em gets nowhere.

 

If anyone dares to risk my “Fisk”,

It’s “Boff” an’ it’s “Wham” un’erstan’?

So keep “Good Be-hav-or”

That’s your one life saver

With Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

I’m strong to the finich

Cause I eats me spinach.

I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.

 

The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

No one likes an old angry woman

Screaming Woman By Betsy Lewis

Screaming Angry Woman: Mixed Media Collage 11″ x 14″ By Betsy Lewis

My 61st birthday approaches. So far, the “golden years” have been anything but peaceful. I have been angry, spitting angry, a lot this year. I’ve learned (again), that no one likes an angry woman. People wish angry women would just go away, suck it up and be demur and quiet. Probably even more so if you are an OLD angry woman. You’ve lost the bargaining chips of youth and beauty.

And if you are an old angry woman, there will be repercussions — and often repercussions that impact you financially.

I learned this year that you are never too old to be sexually harassed. I spoke up, justice was not done and I took a blow financially. I learned that, although I was being dangerously harassed by my next door mentally ill male neighbor, I would be the one told to leave by my landlord because I demanded (sometimes angrily) to be able to feel safe in my own home. I took another financial blow when I had to move.

I know we are all talking about anger, hatred, violence and war in light of recent national and global events. Many of my friends on Facebook are preaching love and peace. I know I am a privileged white woman, so my experience is not the same as a person of color. I also know there is no hierarchy of oppression. I am angry about it all. I would love to feel peace and love by just saying it, thinking it or wanting it, but honestly I just can’t jump there on a whim.

I need some sort of bridge for me to get there.

So, meanwhile, I am still an old angry woman, but thinking about how I can be a tiny part, with the time I have left, of making that bridge.

 

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