Play Therapy: The Sacred Space

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“So what do you do for a living?” The mundane, conversation-starter question that all of us have faced and asked others from time to time. The funny thing about answering that question when you are child therapist who practices play therapy, is that many people aren’t sure how to respond. Sometimes I’ll get an “Oh that sounds fun, playing with kids all day,” I smile at this because it is, it certainly is fun. And when I am in these conversations, I continue to smile and nod as the dialogue moves onto weather and other avoid-talking-about-anything-real-with-a-near-stranger topics. But I keep thinking about that word. “Fun.” I think about it because “fun” doesn’t truly acknowledge the healing, growth, resiliency, and capacity for change that I have experienced in the play room. Fun doesn’t explain the sacred space and time where play becomes a window into the subconscious, an opportunity for expressing and exploring underlying emotions, a release and way to process unresolved trauma. Fun doesn’t explain how everyday, it changes me too.

Through play therapy, I have witnessed baby dolls being diapered and feed by children who are re-nurturing themselves, healing from the neglect, they may not consciously, but visercially do remember experiencing in infancy. I have seen and felt the horror of domestic violence as it is played out in the dollhouse by children who need to share their scariest memory with someone who will bear to witness to, validate, and share in the weight of that fear and vulnerability. I have watched as children build Lego towers and walls with guards to protect their safe places from the gun shots and the community violence they experience daily in their own neighborhoods. I have played scribble release games that led children and teens to experience enough comfort to be able to share their previously hidden suicidal thoughts for the first time.

Play therapy is serious healing business.

I have been privileged to be the one to provide the attuned presence as problems are resolved, social skills are learned and stories are rewritten. I have seen the beauty that comes from children releasing their internal world of imagination and realizing it belongs solely to them and cannot be jeopardized by any external force. When children feel safe enough to share their internal light of pure vulnerability through their play, it is an honor to witness and to hold that special space for the magic to happen.

It is such an inspiring thing, watching the walls of inhibition come crumbling down in the playroom. I have even seen adults and parents initially question or scoff at the idea of using play in therapy but then be brought to tears at the beautiful restoration and resiliency that comes to fruition in the play room. I have had tough-guy dads ask if they can make a glitter bottle too. Foster parents smile and celebrate as children act out coping skills and emotions with puppets that previously were ineffective being learned about and expressed verbally. I have seen mothers in shock and delight as their child and his or her siblings work together to build kindness trees and then begin to show empathic behaviors and interactions.

Play therapy works.

Play works because play is a language we all speak. Even if we have become removed from it in our adulthood, at one time, we all spoke it. And it is spoken everywhere. Whether rolling old tires joyfully down the dusty roads of Uganda or rocking a baby doll to sleep in a chilly New York apartment, everyone speaks the primal, human language of play.

But being a play therapist can also be tough. Heavy at times. Like snow falling down softly. I get so caught up in watching it, so inspired, I forget it is actually piling up. And at times I forget that, at the end of the day, I have to go home. I will have to navigate through those unplowed roadways and transition into other areas of my life. Areas of my life where I am not Ms. Sargent the play therapist. I forget I’ll have to go home and find a way to answer the question, “How was your day today?” I will forever be searching for ways to answer that question that offer even a glimpse of truth and meaning and light, but I am never quiet able to.

I once had a child say to me after a therapy session, “Thank you for letting kids come here and do what they need to do.” I was so humbled by this comment. That exactly is what play therapy is about. The sacred space where healing happens at the very hands of the brave children who have always had the capacity for change and growth within them.

And at the end of the day, even after my toys are back where they belong, even after the glitter has been vacuumed up and after the paint has been cleared off the easel, there is an energy still present in the room. A pulsating mixture of resonating emotions that lingers beyond the end of therapy sessions. The room is quiet yet alive with the finger prints of the souls who have come and who have “done what they needed to do.”
And this, well this is something that is hard to explain to someone. This is something that isn’t just “fun.” This, is play therapy.

Lone Wolf: Howls of the Free Spirit

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The midnight moon glow envelops the sleeping forest. Insects and frogs create a steady symphony where hundreds of different sounds become one tune. The cloudless sky, freckled with stars, splays out endlessly in every direction.

All is one in the night and yet one is alone. Alone darting through the trees, her shining fur coat pulsates with her running strides. Her quickening breath becomes a cloud in the cool night air. She comes to a clearing and stops. The stars reflect in her everlastingly black eyes as she lifts her head to the sky. She howls. The moon listens until her voice fades into the crickets’ song. Everything is one and yet one is alone…

As you grow older you learn more about yourself. Probably because you are stuck with yourself all of the time. And the more time you spend with yourself, even if you only engage in a minimal amount of self reflection, the more you realize what makes you tick. And as you learn more about yourself, you learn more about others. You begin to search for a pack like you. People with like value systems, likes and dislikes, ways of understanding the world.

I have found that I, on the other hand, am a loner. Not the hermit, hoarder, haven’t-left-the-house-in-years kind of loner. The kind of loner who can be smiling and surrounded by people yet nevertheless, alone. The kind of loner who realizes she’s a square peg with only circle holes. The kind of loner who can be at a party full of laughter and dancing and yet really it’s just her, just her and the moon.

I’ve always been a free spirit. I was the kid who wanted to grow up and live in the rainforest so I could tie myself to trees before they were bulldozed. I was the kid that questioned instead of followed most social constructs and lost plenty of friends over arguments about them killing spiders. Once when someone gave me a toy doll I pretended she was an orphan I found while traveling the globe.

One could argue that this “lone wolf” identity was something I born with. I do believe I was. I am also a magnet for the messy things in life and I believe that too has changed me. I have been humbled, honored and changed by both my career in social work and opportunities I have had to volunteer both locally and abroad.

Being free spirited is often difficult. Running alone is different than running with a pack. You have to watch your own back. And from time to time, you even have to gaze at your reflection in the water to validate and remind yourself that you still exist. Being a lone wolf can be frustrating, sad, and disheartening at times. Not to mention running from the terror of mediocrity and routine can get quite tiring.

But there is a beauty in being free spirited. There is honor in appreciating the grey in life. There is integrity in speaking up when no one else does and offering genuine, heart-driven ideas and perspectives. Our very histories are written in the echoed howl of lone wolves who have gone before us.

When you are a free spirit, you have three choices, you can be quiet, you can try to become a circle peg, or you can howl at the moon. You can howl even if no one is listening. Because when you realize there is meaning, direction and beauty in who you are, you allow your voice to be heard.

And even if only the moon is listening, the moon changes the world everyday.

The Leaf I Found: Thoughts on Embracing Change

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Holding my hand up to the sun, I watch as the brightness shines through the leaf I am holding revealing the tiniest pathways of branching veins. I twirl the stem between my fingers and squint while watching the orange leaf dance against the backdrop of the bright blue, mid-day sky. The leaf has a hole in the center. A hole in the shape of a butterfly. I found it that way. A symbol of internal metamorphosis in the midst of the transforming autumn leaf. Change changes us too. I tuck the leaf between the pages of a book I brought along, and continue down the wooded trail towards the sound of flowing water.

 

 

Just a week before this backpacking trip, my husband and I were sitting in the back of our last foster parent certification class. We were sitting there eating semi-stale Doritos off of small square napkins and listening to a current foster parent share her stories and experiences over the past several years.

“Let me just say,” the guest speaker concluded, “The first month or so of having a child placed in your home will feel like your life is turned upside down, then you just start doing life with them.” Life with them, the words felt heavier to me than she perhaps intended. How powerful and humbling and hard it is, to allow all of someone into your life, all of them, unconditionally. To allow someone in and then to keep moving forward, it’s a big thing.

We drove home in the cold winter rain and the windshield wipers created a steady tune with the faint muffled noise of radio ads in the background.

“Well that class was more real. What they were talking about at least, seemed pretty honest,” Adam said.

“Yeah,” I agreed as I watched droplets on the car windshield reflecting the red tail lights of cars in the night. “So we could have a kid in a couple months by the time we turn in the last of this stuff,” I felt my stomach tighten at the sound of my own spoken words.

Adam nodded as he adjusted the speed of the windshield wipers. He turned to me and smiled with a little raise of his eyebrows, “Yeah, we could.”

 

Change can be terrifying. With it can come danger and change itself threatens the comfort of the status quo. But with change, there is usually also light, light that leads to altered, widened perspectives. That is because change, changes us too. It is impossible to step out of a season of change the same person who stepped in, it just doesn’t work that way.

 

 

 

We’ve reached the water’s edge just before dusk to set up camp and I climb up onto a large rock and watch the moving water. The rock feels cold and I can see my breath. Maybe the next time we camp it won’t just be us, I think. Maybe the next time we will be doing life with someone else too. I open my book and the little leaf hops out, caught on a soft breeze. I catch it and hold it up to the sky again. The sun shines through the hole in the leaf, creating a bright little butterfly shape centered in the shadow of the leaf itself. I tuck the leaf back into my book and watch the steady disappearing and reappearing cloud of my breath against the setting sun. I watch as the water just keeps moving forward.

 

Jamaican Police Sirens: A Moment that Changed Me

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So what’s your story?, a question that has always left me scrambling and wondering how one story could even begin to summarize the essence of who someone is. Maybe my problem with this question stems more from the fact that I have always been a story teller. Whether it is verbalized, written, or through artistic expression, every day I am noticing and attempting to encapsulate the stories of my life.

And maybe it is for this reason that I believe one’s story is more so a spider web of thousands of intersecting stories glistening and reflecting the little rays of light that make up we are.  But I suppose if I had to choose just one story from my life, it would begin along the back drop of a bright blue Jamaican sky and fade off with police sirens in the distance. Yes, I suppose this would be my story…

I had stepped off the plane surrounded by excited tourists brimming with big hats, overpacked bags and no intention of ever setting foot where I was going. I practically floated out of the airport on my altruistic hopes of changing the world in the three short weeks I had there. It was my first volunteer trip.

One morning, our group was walking to the local school with the lesson plans we had prepared. I could feel the sweat beginning to run down my back and trickle between my shoulder blades. The humidity of the mountains left me constantly sticky and my skin had started to smell like pineapple because of how much of the fruit I had been consuming.

I had nervously shuffled my feet on the dusty floor of the classroom as the students stared, frowning and seemingly confused at the children’s story I was reading to them. A woman from the school leaned over, “Sorry. They don’t know what elephants are…” she whispered as she pointed to the one of the characters in the children’s story. I felt my face get hot, I hadn’t thought of that. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Someone else jumped in to help and began explaining an elephant by comparing it to a donkey.  I watched as the students’ faces softened accompanied by some understanding nods.

I lifted my gaze to the rectangle window cut outs in the walls to see older children who had sardined themselves into the space, vying for a spot to see and hear the lesson. Their eyes were wide and curious. I could feel their eagerness and desperation as they leaned forward, practically falling into the building. Their tattered t-shirts were covered in that rich, red dirt and their flip flops looked as if they had been broken and mended hundreds of times. I knew that they were older children with no money for school fees or who had dropped out to help work for their families. It wasn’t the first time I had seen the effects of poverty. It was, however, the first time my altruistic ideals had been anchored in the ugly, sad reality of the way things were. It was the first time I felt small in the midst of it. Very small.

Walking back to where we were staying, our group took the scenic route near the beach. Along the way, we passed the outside perimeter of an “all-inclusive” resort. The looming walls revealed only tiny passing glimpses of the inside but even the swaying palm trees within appeared fuller, tended too. More tended to than the children with the broken sandals.

As we walked, I watched those palm trees moving in the breeze and I felt a little angry, but mostly, defeated. For a moment I imagined myself if I had come to Jamaica under different circumstances, if I had come on the other side of the vacationing walls. I imagined myself lounging, holding some fruity drink, admiring the turquoise calm waters. And if I was there, would I ever wonder about what was outside of the compound? Would the glamorous experiences of the resort be enough to cloud any fleeting concern that may arise in my consciousness? Would that me know that most all of the “all-inclusive” resorts are privately owned exploiting the beautiful beaches and allowing little, if any, money to the local people and economy itself? Maybe. But maybe that-me would just sip her cocktail and choose to forget.

In the distance, sirens began to howl and I shook myself from my daydream as local children ran ahead to get closer to the scene. I could feel the prickle of adrenaline rush under my skin as we were informed there was yet another murder that day. I glanced back at the walls. Would anyone in the resort be able to hear the sirens? Would they ever find out someone else had lost their life to the endless community violence plaguing the area just outside of their vacationing walls? Probably not. 

My stomach churned as I envisioned myself in the resort again, relaxing under the shady palms and dismissing the faint sirens in the distance. But I have spent most of my life in those walls. I have allowed the walls of mediocrity, comfort, and routine to creep up and swell around my vision. My mind was suddenly awakened to all of times I have chosen blindness instead of realizing the suffering and responsibility I have for the most vulnerable people of the planet. And as the sirens faded into the thick summer air, I became different. This new perspective changed not only how I saw things, it also changed me.

I had come to Jamaica with ideals of peace and social justice, but the most significant part of that trip was the moment when I declared war. It was that day that I started a battle against the walls of comfort in my life. A constant fight to free myself from the haziness and attempt to see the world in a way that it truly is and, most importantly, the impact of all of my choices on others.

I imagined the vacationing-me again. But this time she hears the sirens. This time she rises and moves towards the walls. She looks different, stronger. She is focused and intentional with every step as she tosses the fruity drink behind her and leaves the resort, never looking back.

And I know that there are millions of stories that have shaped me and given meaning and perspective and value to my life. But if I had to choose one story to be my story, this one alone comes pretty damn close.

Running in the Snow: Some Thoughts on Process

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I’m sitting there on the trail with snow and mud covering my legs. The thick mittens on my hands did little to brace me once I lost my balance. Adrenalin from my fall is still prickling my temples and the skin on my forearms. My dog is looking back at me with a mixture of concern and irritation from me half dragging him back down the hill once I slipped. I sigh exaggeratedly and watch my breath become a cloud in the cold winter air. Just for a moment I allow myself to entertain that thought again. The reason why I even do it. The reason why I run in the snow.

Working as a mental health therapist I once had a wise supervisor who taught me a little about the importance of process. I had expressed my frustrations to her about a client who created art in therapy sessions. Beautiful, telling, healing art that revealed his feelings, thoughts, perhaps even subconscious desires only to then destroy it, dismiss it, throw it away reporting it wasn’t good enough.
My supervisor had said, “It’s about the process, the journey that takes him there. What do you think his process is telling you?”
I began to realize that this so called “destruction” of the art was just as much a part of the art as the piece itself. A part of his process. And I began to wonder if a part of this process was also his testing me to see if I was strong enough. Maybe he was seeing if I as his therapist was strong enough to even bare witness to and accept him in the midst of the “not so beautiful” parts of his life. The pain, the mistakes, the attempts we all have to “start over.”

And it wasn’t until I realized that. Until I rested in the mindful acceptance of what was, that I could finally let go. I began to realize that letting go, while remaining present and strong enough to hold that healing space for him while accepting all of him, was the single most important thing I could offer.

And when I run, I am my own therapist, in the sense that I bear witness to all that that I am. And when the sun is shining and my stamina is at its peak, all is well with the world. It’s then that the so called good things about me begin to appear like puffy, white clouds riding into my consciousness. Bravery. Resilience. Accomplishments. My free spirited strength.
But as my heart rate rises and the blood is pumping harder through my veins, I become more raw. Closer to that primal part nestled somewhere inside us all. The not-so-beautiful parts of who I am begin to surface, as if washed ashore with the rushing and rising of my pulse. And there they are, the mistakes, the anxiety, the selfish ambition, the jealousy, the thoughts that even though no one can see, shame me all the same. It is then that I am forced to acknowledge and accept all of me, just as I am. And in those moments of running, for some reason, I feel strong enough to do that.

I’m still sitting there on that snowy trail, thinking about all of this as I watch my dog’s breath, an endlessly appearing and fading cloud in the winter air. The rush of adrenalin in my skin has started to fade and it is then that I notice the sound of the snow falling in the forest around me. The softest patting sound that has the amazing capacity to consume all other noise and even one’s thoughts. I watch as the snow begins to rest softly on my dogs thick fur and the tips of his ears.

It is then that I am suddenly, awesomely aware of my own breath again, of my pounding heart and the fullness of my pulse. And in that moment I am completely present with just how alive I am. I slowly find my footing and decide that perhaps today falling was just a part of my process. We all have a process that leads us to face something, to overcome something, to heal from something, to remind us of something, and (despite it all) to find the strength to stand back up again.

And I decide today my process was running, running in the snow.

Play Your Own Song: A Reminder From My Childhood

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I was standing there, flabbergasted, would be the word. It was literally just here a minute ago. I rubbed my eyes, blinked slowly, and pressed the heels of my shoes into the earth, grounding myself.  But still nothing.

I was probably around seven years old when this happened to me, playing in the wooded area near my childhood home. I had found interesting leaves, searched for salamanders in the creek, and lifted rocks in pursuit of insects. Nature was always my thing. I had known that path by heart though, the thin wooded trail that led to an opening in a field before you got the creek. But that day was different. Instead of the trail leading to the field, it had led me to a small space in the woods where the trees created a kind of dome. Light was streaming in through sections of the thick leafy canopy above and rays of sunshine danced in the center. It smelled amazing. Like something I had never smelled before, like flowers in a campfire, I had thought. I entered the area slowly with a level of surprise and curiosity I had never experienced before. I could feel my heart beating and the fullness of my rushing pulse within me.

There, in the center of the cove, was a flute, or at least what I had thought to be a flute. I picked it up. It was light, wooden, with carvings I had never seen before. I had looked around and seen no one. What was this place? I ran my fingers along the carvings and marveled at how still and slow time and space seemed to be. Then, for whatever reason, I had placed the flute back down.

I had walked carefully, purposefully out of that seemingly sacred space, careful not to disturb the magic of it all. But as I started back down the trail and thinking, my meaningful slow steps became a jog, then a run, “Look what I found!” I started to yell once I saw some neighborhood kids up ahead.

And soon we were all running back to the place together. Some of them still carried cups and buckets for salamander catching and another kid was dragging a tangled light-up yo-yo. But suddenly we were in the field. What happened? The leafy dome, the sweet smelling air, it was all gone. After some arguing and mass amounts of childhood ego deflation, I hung my head and I went home. As I sat there thinking about all of this over dinner, I decided to not even tell my mom.

And now over twenty years later, I am thinking again about this memory for some reason. I’m not sure if this is an actual memory or a never forgotten childhood dream. Either way, it has meaning, significance to stick with me for all of these years. This past week, I started searching for the symbolism of flutes. I searched for this in various cultures but specifically in some First Nation cultures.

Late one night under the blue glow of the computer screen, I stumbled upon some information about Cherokee culture in regards to the flute. The article indicated flutes were special, sacred even, and made individually with one’s body measurements. It was considered disrespectful to play or, in some instances, even to look upon another’s flute (Searching Bear Flutes, 1992). I sat back in the darkness and released a breath I didn’t know I was holding.

We all do that though, don’t we? I thought. We all get so caught up in social pressures, other people’s lives, and routine, that the life we set out to live is not our own. It begins to lack meaning, purpose, intention. Haven’t we all forgotten to self-reflect, forgotten to ensure the measurements and designs of our choices, beliefs, and values are consistent with who weare, with who we individually were created to be? We end up spending a lifetime carving a flute only then to sit back and have no idea what kind of song to play with it. A lifetime of falling into the comfort of mediocrity and the external influences that lead our hands to carve the flute of a life perhaps we were never intended to live.

If I could go back to my seven year old self, I would affirm her decision to leave the flute in the forest. I would tell her that she will continue to create her own over the years. Shaping, shifting, learning, and growing to become the best version of herself. I would assure her that it is okay if her flute doesn’t look like the others. The gentle breeze through her honey blonde hair would assure her that she would forever keep that special wooded cove in her spirit. That she can inhale that sweet smell of floral wood-smoke and rest easy knowing she is intentionally living, intentionally carving her own flute to play her own song.

And it will be a song that her soul will recognize, because it was the song she was created to play all along.

 

 

 

Reference

The Flute Story. (1992). Retrieved November 19, 2016, from http://www.searchingbearflutes.com/FluteStory.htm

Looking for Tears: Some thoughts from my inner 5-year old

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I think I used up all my tears when I was a really little baby. Colic, doctors called it. I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried.  My parents rocked me and held me and fed me and changed me, but none of it worked. They said I hardly ever stopped crying as a baby. And now, at five and a half, I can hardly ever do it.

It’s dark. Really dark. I have figured out I am definitely still on the school bus, which isn’t good. No one else is on it now. Just darkness. I think about raccoons, how they live in the night. I’ve always thought they were cute but my mom told me they are dangerous. Maybe she’s right. And maybe they are here too.

My heart is beating so fast I can hear it. The only other sound is the clicking and the loud knocking of the bus engine cooling off. Even the mean old bus driver lady is gone. That makes me a little scared, and a little glad.

Grown-ups teach you what to do for a lot of things, like rolling when you are on fire, asking the owner to pet their dog before you try so it doesn’t bite your face off, and curling up really tight by the big-kid lockers when there are tornados (real or fake ones). But no one ever taught me what to do when you wake up on a school bus and all of the other people are gone.
I look out the windows and through the darkness and I can see other buses. This must be where they all sleep. I wonder if anyone else is on those other buses. I crawl under the cool leathery seat and try to cry. The floor is sticky in spots and everything smells like kids. Kids and food. I feel like throwing up. I scrunch my face and squeeze my eyes. Crying is hard sometimes, even if it seems like you are supposed to do it.

Then I hear a loud noise and big foot steps shake the bus. My skin is prickly and my heart is beating faster. She’s calling my name. That bus driver lady. I stay under the seat.

“Kristine?!” She calls. Mean lady can’t even say my name right. She’s not the first one.

I stay curled up and listen to my heart. The knot in my throat gets bigger and bigger and it starts to hurt. I choke and it makes a sound. Her footsteps come to me.

She reaches down and pulls me out. I yell and scream. She is a stranger.

I’m yelling and she takes me outside. I walk some and maybe she carries me some too. My head feels dizzy and I wonder if it’s a dream. The sun is so bright that my eyes squint and some little tears come out too. Not the crying kind of tears though.

The road is gravely and crunches under my shoes. My light up shoes. Even in that dark place, they never ran out of their light.

She says I fell asleep in my seat and that’s why I never got off the school bus and ended up in the big garage. I don’t know if I believe her yet.

Her car is sparkly. Sparky and blue in the sun. She tells me to get in it. Her voice is scratchy. She still doesn’t smile at me. She never smiles at me.

This is it, I think. Just what my mom told me never to do. Never get in a car with a stranger, even if it’s a you-kind-of-know-them-stranger. Still a stranger.

“No!” I yell and I surprise myself at how mean I can sound to a grown-up. But it’s okay. Mom said if this happens, it’s okay to be mean. Mean and loud, to stay alive of course.

I stomp my feet into the crunchy rocks and cross my arms. She tries to pick me up and I yell louder. I do like her sparkly car though, but I’m not telling her that.

“Kristine, your mom knows where you are. It’s okay. You have to go home.” Her voice sounds a little less scary.

“Kristin-ah” I whisper. And I’m surprised that came out loud.

“Huh? What’s that hun?” She leans over to me but I’m quiet now. No talking to strangers either. Oops.

She walks away and I listen to her crunching steps. She’s talking. Must have a special pocket phone with no cord attached to the wall. My dad wants one of those.

I look at the sparkly car and it’s shiny, shiny and clean. I can see myself. Me and my serious-face, but no tears. I still think I used all of those up.

I feel something press against my ear and I push it away but then there’s my mom’s voice and I reach back. It’s that special phone and my mom’s talking in it. The bus driver is holding it up to me to hear.

“Kristina?! Oh Kristina- sweetie you have to get in her car…” My moms voice is sad and shaky. Mom never used up all her tears when she was a baby. But I already knew that.

“Mom?! But…” I start to say.
“I know what I told you, but this, this is different. Honey, I’m telling you to. She’s taking you to me, you, you fell asleep and I was so worried, and please, oh thank God you are okay, Kristina.”

Bus driver lady pulls the phone away and she keeps talking for a bit. I uncross my arms and wonder what her sparkly car looks inside. I’m glad I can see my mom soon.

A quick and quiet ride later, and soon my mom is hugging me and crying. She is thanking God out loud and the whole neighborhood is watching. I’m safe now but I don’t want them all watching either. I stand there all frowny-faced but happy. Sometimes I do that. I’m letting my mom hug me, letting her hug me really hard. I pretend all the people watching are just invisible. That makes me feel a little better.

My mom says I did a really good job, not getting in the car with a stranger and that it wasn’t my fault. Grown-ups should have checked the bus first before they put it in that big bus garage. Everyone was so worried, and looking for me, and she says she is so so so so happy I wasn’t kidnapped.

The bus driver lady is about to leave. The sun makes shadows in the grumpy wrinkles between her eyebrows and her hair is all mixed up with grey and yellow. I look at her as she’s getting in her sparkly car and I wave a tiny wave. I wave because maybe a long time ago she used up all her niceness. Maybe it’s not her fault she’s so mean. Maybe she used up her niceness like I used up all my tears. She waves a tiny wave back and she smiles a tiny bit too.

Then my mom keeps hugging me and I even start to cry a little. A big, wet tear runs down my cheek and gets caught in my mom’s hair, and I think about how maybe you never use up all the things you need that are inside of you. And I think about how I am more than just-a-little-bit-glad to know that.

Becoming the Mountain: Resting in the Presence of What Matters

mountains_x43gimi_article_largeI am midway through my afternoon run and there are acorns everywhere. At first I dodge them, with each footstep landing safely on surrounding leaves or bare spots on the crack-filled sidewalk. But soon there are too many. My irritation grows. Stupid acorns! Where the hell did all these come from anyway?  My feet are landing on them now. Thick crunching like bones breaking. As I continue on my journey I begin to wonder what has me so worked up about these acorns? What did they ever do to you, Kristina? I ask myself. But the funny thing about that question is that the answer is usually, Nothing, they just remind me of me.

And that’s the thing. Sometimes I am the acorns. Sitting, waiting to be consumed, to offer some life-sustaining yet temporary nutrition to the next eager squirrel or burrowing insect. I give. I give and I give and I give but it’s never enough. I allow whoever needs me to take whatever it is that they need. I give crisis support to my therapy clients, encouragement, quick behavioral fixes to keep someone from the next terrible consequence that could lead their life to spiral all the more out of control. I become the bridge over waterways, use myself to fill the potholes on the dangerous roads leading to anywhere. I am the acorn.

I give all that I have and it is never enough. And when I finally sit, when I finally come home, I am nothing but a shell. My eyes are empty, pits leading to a bleak and tired soul wrung out like a wet rag and left in the shadows.

Experts call this compassion fatigue. I call it being-a-damn-acorn-too-much.

But being an acorn has reminded me that sometimes, though, I am more than an acorn. Sometimes, I remember to be a mountain.

When I am a mountain, I am not merely consumed and left an empty shell. I am grounded and strong. Instead of being tossed around by the breeze or snatched up to be used or stored away for some winter food supply, I am secure, present, here. I am offering instead of fixing. I am the mountain.

I am there for those in need of a drink from my clean springs, a view of my color-dancing sunsets, a rest under the quiet steady shade of my coniferous forests. And if they choose not to take what I am offering, I am still here, if they change their mind later. That’s the thing about offering.

I provide the space and the safe footing needed for climbers to journey up the path to healing, self actualization, underlying changes in self belief. I guide and I ensure the lighting along the safe path, but nothing more. I leave the choices up to the climber as I celebrate each and every one of his small victories. I am the mountain.

I am a part of the big picture. No quick fixes. No handouts. I have become meaningful, sustaining. I am grounded in the knowledge that I am not the source of it all. I gather my strength from the firm foundation rested in my beliefs, values, insights, faith, prayer, meditation, advice, and experience woven into the very fibers of my being. I am firm yet I have a heart beat, I pulsate with strength from what matters. I am the mountain.

I rest and yet I am here. I offer and yet I am here. I celebrate and yet I am here. I create the space for healing, recovery, growth, change, and yet I am still here.

When I am the mountain, I close my eyes and my heart sings with the morning birds. My hopes fly through the crisp breeze dancing on the orange painted leaves of change. The clouds of doubt, disappointment, and suffering will come, casting shadows over the rocky ravines and wildflower meadows, but underneath, I am still the mountain. I am not the source. I am not everything. But I am still the mountain.

I am sitting there watching diligently feeling anticipation and pending regret as the tattoo ink mixes with tiny spurts of my blood leaving my wrist. The tattoo artist wipes away the black and red fluid revealing the final product, and there they are. Three tiny mountain tops resting along the pulse line of my wrist. Three tiny mountain tops that remind me: I can always choose to be the mountain, and being a mountain is all that I need to be.

The Little Light in You: Finding the Essence of Who You Are

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Light. The essence of who we are. It is that vulnerable and life-sustaining heartbeat of our identity. Our little lights shape our perspectives, form our systems of meaning about the world, and drive our dearest dreams and passions.

As a child, my light was evident even when I was very young. I had fantastically supportive parents who supported us each to become all that we were capable of becoming. My light was (and still is) a whirling mixture of unbridled altruism, compassion, and fairness. By about six years old, I was saving all of my money to “save the rainforest.” I created posters, decorated informational brochures and spent quite a bit of my time digging through couch cushions for spare change to fuel the cause. I was burned and driven by how unfair it was that trees and animals could be destroyed for selfish interests. And by six years old I thought, We can do better than this.

It didn’t take me long to realize that, although my parents were never short of all-embracingly supportive, not everyone shared or understood my light. I still remember handing people the colorful posters and some adults smiling that how-sweet-and-how-bizarre-she-isn’t-just-playing-with-the-other-kids kind of smile. I remember how that hurt. I guess that’s because I wasn’t handing them a poster, I was handing them my light, that vulnerable little essence of me. I still remember kids laughing at me in kindergarten or snorting, “Who cares about the rainforest and humpback whales anyway?” It hurts all the same, light smothering does.

As I grew, my passions and causes changed to encompass more child and poverty related endeavors but my light (that essence of me that fueled it all) never changed. Even as an adult not everyone notices, understands, or supports your light. People will laugh at me, interrupt me, make incentive jokes, laugh at other people’s insensitive jokes, tell me it won’t matter anyway, encourage me to “lighten up” (oh the irony), and say things the equivalent to a pat on the head and a “shushing” finger to my lips. Hell sometimes just saying your social worker gets me the Oh my gosh she must have bed bugs expression.

Light smothering.

And you probably know as well as I do… it feels terrible. It’s an attack on that very essence of you, that light of your being that has been with you since you first opened your eyes to this world.

The good news is there are opportunities to notice and nurture light in ourselves and others every day. Every time we notice or nurture the light in someone else, we create an environment of acceptance and safety and their little light shines a little brighter. You don’t have to agree with someone to notice or nurture their light either. Sometimes you will have to look past years of hurt and walls created because of all the light smothering someone has experienced.

Like that 13 year old girl that tells you she isn’t coming to therapy today with a middle finger and a seriously salty attitude. The six year old with a trauma history who destroys the classroom on the first day of school. The guy who cuts you off in traffic then throws a McDonald’s bag of trash out the window. There are times when it’s hard to see the light in others.

Light smothering creates a world full of children and adults who don’t feel safe. A world of people who create armor and walls to protect that little light within them that has been hurt so badly, so many times. The armor and walls can be anything from isolation to outward aggression. When we choose to see people this way though, as the hurt and suffering guards of their light, can change the way we approach and respond to them. It can help us to look all the more carefully and mindfully for opportunities to create spaces where people feel safe to expose their light. Spaces and relationships where people can expose their light to have it noticed, nurtured, and celebrated.

Example

A young boy excitedly brings in a beetle he found outside to his mother. He thinks the beetle is hurt and is very concerned (compassion). Mother can respond in a variety of ways, some light smothering and some light nurturing.

Response 1: Mother shrieks (because she hates insects, especially beetles) and exclaims “Ew honey bring that back outside!” Light smothering.

Response 2: She glances too quickly to even notice the insect cradled in her child’s hands and gives a dismissive “Uh huh. That’s nice. Please get out of the kitchen so I can make dinner.” Light smothering.

Response 3: Mother sees the light in her child, knows his compassion, takes a few breaths and mindfully responds, despite her dislike for insects. She bends down on his eye level puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “Wow, this looks so important to you.” Light noticing. “I can see you really care about the beetle. Let me help you get a box and maybe we can see if it starts feeling better later today.” Light nurturing.

Light noticing and nurturing creates a world of people who feel safe. A world of people who know who they are and grow to become all they are capable of becoming. People who make the world better just by letting their light shine.

So to all you light smotherers out there, stop it. Please just stop it. Know your own light and allow it the space to forgive and heal for all the times it’s been hurt too. And once you have, I invite you to take a deep breath, become mindfully present, and respond through a new perspective.

To all of you who notice and nurture the essence of others every day, thank you. Please know that what you do matters. You make the world better, one little light at a time.

So today… May you be filled with light and love. May you experience goodness, and may you extend more goodness back into the world.

Let your little light shine…

The Parasites that Restored My Perspective

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When you have worms everything starts looking like worms. A string hanging off of your work blouse, a strangely twirly twig on the trail you’re hiking, your half-assed signature, spaghetti. But even weirder than how the thoughts of your parasites can consume you is the fact that at some point you had them and didn’t know it. That at some point you fell into the routine of life with no awareness of what was really happening inside of you. That’s the danger of comfort and routine I guess, that you can become so numb you don’t even know that something is terribly wrong.

It was a few days after returning from our volunteer/adventuring trip to Uganda Africa when I first noticed something was wrong. Ironically enough, we were sitting in my parent’s living room, visiting and watching go-pro footage of our Nile River rafting trip. My mom was sitting on the edge of her seat as if she were watching live footage and any moment would be the moment she finally loses her eldest and always uncomfortably incautious daughter to chasing another thrill.

“Oh my gosh! Jimmy did you see that?” My mother exclaimed. My father gave an affirming nod, obviously not quite as entrenched in the emotions of the video as my mother.
A stabbing pain in my side caused me inadvertently to hunch over and press both hands into the pain.
My wonderfully over-attuned and always worrying mother noticed before I did.
“Kristina are you okay? What’s wrong?”
I looked down at my hands curiously, as if just noticing I was in some kind of pain.
“I umm, I have no idea…”

After some discussion and the ruling out of an appendicitis, I did what I do best, get the attention off of me. Popcorn was made and video watching resumed. Some things in life are like that I guess. A sharp stab then you learn to ignore it. You go through the motions. You forget.

Forgetting can be dangerous though. The sharp stab wasn’t all I forgot. Once the video watching was complete and trip stories had been told to all interested, life went back to normal. I started back to work. I could shower and forget how awesome it is to have hot water, or even to have water, period. I could throw away leftovers without becoming sick at the thought of all those in the world who would give anything to have them. I complained when my air conditioner broke. I cursed at people in traffic. First world problems slowly started to seem like actual problems again. I could go days without thinking of the smiling faces of the children who have touched my heart in Uganda. Children who had every right to complain, but never did. Children who’s happiness was internal, intrinsically intertwined with their very being.

But weeks later, the ache had found new areas of my abdomen to settle in. The pain came and went and I noticed and forgot, an endless cycling dance. It wasn’t until the pain woke me in the night and I laid awake for hours imagining the Hungry Hungry Caterpillar children’s story playing out in my insides, that I finally broke down and called a doctor.

Moments after I shared my symptoms and recent travel history with the nurse, a bright eyed and bushy tailed physician entered the room. You would’ve thought I had come in with the cure for all diseases or something with how excited everyone was over my parasite-possible case. Northern Kentucky family doctors must not have many interesting patients to meet with. It wasn’t long before residents and students joined the team, and within minutes, I became everyone’s favorite specimen and next research topic.

My physician was bubbling over with excitement as he explained my pain was more than likely egg sacks of thousands of some unpronounceable parasite bursting in my organs. How can you smile and tell someone that? I remember thinking. But, before I knew it, we were both sitting there, awkwardly smiling. Smiling and talking about bursting egg sacks. I am sure I ended up in at least one med student’s dissertation. The Egg Sack Bursting, Nile River Rafting Patient, hell I’d even read it.

After a couple of months, two ER visits, several infectious disease appointments, numerous labs and many awkward photos shared with overly enthralled doctors later, it was determined I “had a few different parasites” and an intestinal infection likely caused from my parasite-filled-and-suppressed immune system.

Through the process I even learned first hand that there are reasons other than pregnancy to go to the hospital with your husband to get an ultrasound. That instead of crying with joy at the sight of a tiny human, there could be silent horror as all parties stare at the glowing screen in the dark imaging room, looking for aliens.

The funny thing was after all of that you would have thought the final prescription would have felt like the holy grail.
The fountain of youth.
The. Cure. Finally.

But it didn’t.

After eagerly picking up the supposed final prescription, racing home to get some fluid to take it with, I instead found myself pouring a glass of water, sitting at the kitchen table, and spinning the unopened prescription bottle around. Around and around. I watched as the text on the labeled side of the bottle became a blur. The past two months had been a blur. A blur of doctors, specialists, pharmacists and awkward conversations (where after having one too many drinks) I admit to near strangers my being pregnant with worms.

But as I sat there spinning, I thought of Uganda. I thought of the red dusty earth the beautiful soul-filled smiles. The simple living. The gratefulness despite any amount suffering. It’s funny how we can be inspired and changed for the better then allow ourselves to fall back into the comfort of first-world-living and that mindless routine that makes you think you somehow have the right to complain.

There would be hundreds, thousands of people in the world with the same parasites and infections as me but no options. No bushy tailed doctors, no ultrasounds, no “final” prescriptions. If my parasites had given me anything, it was perspective. They had reminded me of the true danger of forgetting.

Before I took that first pill though, I did something. I found a photo of smiling faces of some of the Ugandan children I volunteer with. I studied the photo. The early afternoon light splayed out over gleaming smiles, bright eyes, and the almost unnoticeable scars and over-delineated jawlines and cheekbones that marked a life that had been and always would be, harder than mine.

In that moment I thanked the parasites. I vowed to be sure to never lose perspective. I vowed to always remember the gratefulness in those smiles. And I prayed for the ongoing drive and perseverance to serve all people everywhere while allowing myself to be forever changed, for the better, along the way.

And as I sat there,  I vowed to never forget.

Thank you for reading! If you feel so compelled to help people with preventable and treatable health conditions across the globe, consider a donation to UNICEF.
https://www.unicefusa.org