Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Child Archetype

I’ve always said that there’s a statute of limitations on blaming your parents for your problems. By the time you turn 30, you can’t legitimately blame them if you aren’t happy with your life. (For the sake of this reasoning, let’s assume that your parents were not grossly abusive.)

My parents were neither the best nor the worst, and my childhood was neither the most nurturing nor the least. I would say we had a typical amount of family dysfunction for that generation.

Today I have close relationships with both of my parents. Not only have I forgiven them for any missteps they made raising me and my siblings; it is my strongest wish that they have forgiven themselves. Our relationships are based on how we treat one another now, and all of us have grown and evolved since those early days.

All of that said, naturally I still struggle with issues that were first set in motion during my childhood. Those patterns are deep and many will always be there, even as some are easier to rewrite than others. Some of those patterns continue to find expression in everyday life. And every once in a while, I am given a glimpse of where that pattern started in my childhood.

I’ve shared before a familiar pattern for me where I feel unappreciated and misunderstood. Sometimes it’s at work. Unfortunately, it describes my current living situation. This pattern has surfaced time and again, despite my deliberate efforts to respond to it differently each time in the hopes of “figuring it out.”

I’ve been pondering lately the storyline of the misunderstood and mistreated hero. You can find him or her in countless stories: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, The Hulk, John from The Green Mile. The more I thought about it, the more characters I came up with who matched this description.

I wondered if there was an Archetype that fit this type of character and did a little digging. Carl Jung references the Child Archetype, a common human theme if you think about all children as being powerless, fully dependent on others, and likely to feel misunderstood or even mistreated. This is an experience that most of us had, and if our circumstances included being belittled or mocked (whether at home or at school), we can relate to that feeling.

This was so obvious: a widely experienced Archetype that most of us can relate to, by virtue of the realities of being powerless children, unable to get away from harmful people or circumstances.

I’m sure I could come up with dozens of examples from my childhood. Growing up with three siblings meant I didn’t always get my way. Moving around a lot as we did, I was bound to have some teachers and classmates who didn’t take to me. But suddenly one childhood memory crystalized in my mind. It happened at easily the most trying time for my family, where poor health, an unwelcoming community, and insufficient income impacted each of us deeply.

I’d made a mistake in the kitchen; I didn’t mean to. My dad yelled at me then stormed off. When I tried to run to my room to cry my mom wrapped me in a hug, keeping me there, so that I was still there when my dad returned to the room and he was able to scold me again.

I can imagine the scene so clearly. But more than that, I can feel it. I can feel the tightening in my chest, like I’m being smothered, it’s hard to breathe. I can feel the sense of being trapped, desperate to get away but unable to. Every part of my body wanting to run away. My body remembers it like it was yesterday.

The same way I feel smothered and trapped, tight chest and hard to breathe, when I am reprimanded by a boss even though I’m doing my best.

Snap. So obvious. Why hadn’t I made the connection before?

Most likely I had, probably several times. But this time, I felt it. And this time, I have the understanding that this is an experience of childhood: of course we feel powerless; of course we feel trapped. Of course at times we feel misunderstood and mistreated. And because we do not have the means to change our situation, we are trapped. It isn’t an illusion; it is a fact of being a child dependent on others.

I am a person who tries her best, who is authentic and genuine. At work I put forth my best effort. I want to please. I want my bosses to like me. I want my landlords to like me. And yet sometimes, I get a boss or landlord who doesn’t seem to notice my efforts and my successes. Instead they focus on my failings, or even fabricate failings.

I feel misunderstood, because I’m trying my best and they don’t see that. I feel mistreated because not only do they not acknowledge my accomplishments, they reprimand me. And immediately my body goes back to that childhood response: constricted chest, desperation, trapped, want to run away but cannot.

Trying to resolve a tricky situation, a misunderstanding, is never helped when the body and mind are screaming, “I’m trapped,” so loudly you can’t think straight. And honestly, I’m done trying to figure out these people. I think the world is populated with people who act out their own unresolved issues around power and control, who take out their own frustrations on those least deserving of mistreatment, and most likely to take it without punching them in the throat.

And given a lifetime of trying different techniques to resolve this pattern, I can only conclude that people who act out unconsciously will not stop doing so because of something I say or do. Period.

So where does that leave me, and the rest of us who can remember so vividly how it feels to be a misunderstood and powerless child, when we find ourselves being mistreated? Heck if I know. But the sooner I can remember that my physical response is coming from my childhood when I had no control, and now that I’m an adult I do have control, I hope at the very least to disengage much more quickly from this pattern.

I won’t change the other person. But neither am I trapped, with no control over their ongoing mistreatment. I can always choose to walk away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Content warning: discussion of terrorist attacks on 9/11, death count, and racism

Note: I am taking my cue from friends who are trying to distinguish the United States from America in their language. Thus, "United Statesian" instead of "American."

For most of us September 11 is a significant day. For many if not most United Statesians, it is a day of collective mourning and trauma. It is the day we decided that we would not be bullied by terrorists.

I considered myself a pacifist until the day the Twin Towers came down, when I watched the plane slam into the second tower. I never could have anticipated the bloodlust that filled me, the fear and rage the demanded swift and bloody retaliation.

Al-Qaeda? Bin Laden? I wanted them all killed immediately. I believed our government more than capable of carrying out swift and targeted assassinations of those responsible.

As the months wore on, it was painful waiting for retribution. I just wanted the U.S. to hurry up and do away with those who had cut us so deeply.

The whole sleight-of-hand didn’t escape my notice, how we invaded the wrong country. But then it seemed as though we all collectively experienced amnesia, or at least a hazy recollection about that. The invasion commenced, and we saw a desolate country bombed even further into the Dark Ages at our hands.

The body count grew. From an initial 3,000 lives lost, our War on Terror has now resulted in an estimated 7,000 U.S. troops killed and 1.3 million Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians.* And while the aftermath of 9/11 includes thousands suffering from PTSD, cancer, and other health issues, those numbers are increased exponentially from the War on Terror. 

How many years, and how many lives, in retaliation for 9/11? What could explain this body count, other than vengeance? How many brown lives make up for the loss of one white life? How many foreign lives for one United Statesian life?

And for fourteen years now, Muslim Americans, Americans who wear turbans, Americans who look possibly Middle Eastern, are subjected to discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Collectively white United Statesians abandon logic, insisting that Muslims devalue life and are all potential terrorists – even though Muslims comprise nearly 1/4 of the world’s population and if that were true, a non-Muslim United States would have long since ceased to exist.

Every 9/11 we Remember, we Never Forget. We never forget the lives that were lost, the heroes birthed in an instant, out of necessity, those who rose to unimaginable feats of self-sacrifice. I hope to never forget the stories of courage and sacrifice.

But we also never forget how it felt to be so violated, and how we collectively raised our fist and declared to the terrorists, “You will not make cowards of us!”

And then we lashed out not just at terrorists, but at all Middle Easterners, at Afghanis, Iraqis and Pakistanis, at brown people. We took 430 lives for every one United States citizen lost on 9/11. We sacrificed 7,000 of our own seeking retribution. We did it wrong.

We did it wrong.

We were so blinded by hatred and fear that we lashed out, indiscriminately and repeatedly, for years. We have lashed out at our own. In order to protect ourselves from ever letting terrorists come into our country and hurt us again, in order to protect ourselves from feeling our deep fear, we have become a police state: airport security which is ever more intense, yet still woefully inept; police being equipped like military; surveillance cameras on street corners; our personal communications being monitored.

There were proud moments coming out of 9/11. So many stories of heroism. A country coming together in solidarity, declaring that we would not cower in the face of terrorism. Coming together in strength and resilience and courage.

Where did we go wrong? What could we have done differently? As a world leader, what if we did not go on a killing spree, a rampage of vengeance? What if instead, we had carried out covert actions to weed out Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden without decimating countries already desperately poor and lacking in modern technologies and civil rights?

What if instead of invading those countries with military force, we instead worked with them to strengthen real economic and government stability, worked with their citizens to support efforts of equality and civil rights? Rather than asserted our white imperialism and belief that we knew what was right for others, what if instead we helped prop up those aspects of those countries that were already improving living conditions, infrastructure, and stability?

What if instead of perpetuating our legacy as an empire, asserting as always that Might is Right, we started a new legacy – one of being an ally to countries in their efforts to improve themselves? Not sweeping in and making our usual mess of things, but acknowledging their own agency, intelligence, and abilities.

We could have chosen to be a new kind of world leader, one that fosters home-grown self-actualization, one that trusts “even” foreigners and “even” brown people to make the best decisions for their countries.

Instead we went down a well-worn path.

We did it wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Might I have a bit of earth?

Disclaimer: after waking up to a social justice perspective, every previously-loved book and movie now prompts an essential question: would it now pass the social justice test, or would I find it offensive? I will address this question further along in the post.

“Might I have a bit of earth?”

A favorite book when I was a child was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My take-away was that a spoiled, sullen, sickly girl was transformed by putting her hands in the soil and bringing a forgotten garden back to life. The story also had tantalizing features like large castles with locked rooms, hidden gardens and cabins in the woods, and lots of secrets.

I discovered those hidden places along with Mary, uncovered their secrets, and tended them with curiosity and a growing love. It was an amazing work of fantasy and escapism, and I must have read the book at least a dozen times.

There are many things from my childhood that nurtured an appreciation for nature: family backpacking trips, a big brother who dabbled in scavenging edibles like dandelion leaves, and even a year spent in Scotland where we got to live in a gigantic castle-like house complete with locked doors and a huge backyard with hidden places (although in truth, I was often scared in that house and many nights would run from my bedroom into my parents’ for safety).

For many years as an adult I brought what nature I could into my environment. As a young adult and new mom living in a bleak apartment, I had dozens of house plants, growing ever more by taking cuttings from the existing plants (philodendrons were my favorite). As my son got older, I made sure to find apartments that had at least a small yard. And in these I grew what I could, even if only bold colored impatiens and a couple tomato plants. In colder weather I found protected areas to sit outside, and would bundle up with a book so that I didn’t have to be inside where it was so dreary. When my ex-girlfriend and I became home owners, I slowly and lovingly created my first real garden. Every hour spent in it was therapeutic and soothing, and after three years I was delighted with the results. 

Living in the South Bay, also known as Silicon Valley, California, we had an abundance of sunshine and warmth. I filled my small garden with lavender, rosemary, lobelia and alyssum. Wildly blooming jasmine greeting us home one time from vacation with a blurry of color and an intoxicating scent. I dabbled in medicinal herbs such as chamomile and borage. We had a dwarf Meyer lemon tree that gave us lemons year-round.

I never once had a garden during the years I was a park ranger. Quite simply, I was very busy not only doing my job, but doing all the training in my personal time that it took to do my job well. But more than that, I lived in a fish bowl. It was a common occurrence for campers and other park visitors to knock on the door of my home with a real concern or with simple curiosity, rather than go to the park office or look for the ranger on duty. The expectation was that I would assist them. I always found it very disruptive, and would often be derailed from whatever project I was working on, particularly if the interruptions were frivolous.

To be outside invited interruption. People couldn’t resist the friendly ranger, whether in uniform or not. Everyone likes to imagine park rangering as their dream career, and they can’t wait to ask all kinds of questions. Some folks are just plain lonely; or bored without their TV and Internet. And then too, being outside meant I was more likely to see rule violations: a car speeding by, a dog running off-leash, or a camper breaking branches off a live tree for their campfire. And again, expectations (and my sense of responsibility) dictated that I would intervene.

Living in park housing meant that I never got away from the job. It meant that home was not a refuge from work. And it meant that my yard was not a place to relax and create a garden. Instead I hiked and jogged on forest trails, and immersed myself in nature as much as I could. Still, I missed having that bit of earth for myself.

Before buying this trailer and moving to the California coast, I spent three years in an apartment outside of Portland, Oregon. I had a very small yard, facing a stand of tall fir trees, which I enclosed so that both my dog and cat could spend time outside but safely contained to the yard. My yard rarely got direct sunlight, and during the most favorable weather the trees dripped these disgusting little worms; while I spent time outside, my yard was more the big litter box for my animals than a comfortable place to relax or garden.

The one redeeming feature of this suburban city was its use of green spaces. Tucked in alongside creeks and bordered by apartments and houses were miles of paved walking and biking trails. It was “urban nature,” but I’ll take what I can get, and a side benefit was seeing some really lovely creative gardening in the yards butting up against the trail.

It’s been almost a year since I moved to the rural California coast in my trailer. I live in a trailer park, packed in among my neighbors like sardines. There is very little privacy, only made up for with an extraordinary zeal for gossip. Add to this some tension with the park owner around me creating a safe outside enclosure for me and my animals: my efforts to create a tasteful and well-build enclosed space were met with disapproval, delivered with condescension and antagonism. On too many of our extraordinarily beautiful and sunny days I was sequestered inside. I looked longingly through my window at a sliver of sequoias until finally I came up with a plan that I thought would meet their approval, typed up a letter to the owners with my plans, and went outside with my screw driver and screws.

Within short order I had an area around my picnic table defined with lattice: not secure enough to keep in the cat, but enough for my dog and to create a sense of privacy. Spontaneously one day I felt compelled to go to a nursery and buy some planter boxes and flowering plants. Next thing I knew, I was unpacking my yard decorations: a beautiful garden globe, and some sweet mini lanterns on a string.

I started moving the gravel that covers the ground to create a walkway with a border. Later I started lining it with small rocks.

Gardening is an excuse for adults to play outside. I started small, and found every addition motivated me even more to create a nice space, in the space that I have. My plans bring me outside. The pleasant space that I have created keeps me outside. My yard beckons me.

It is ironic that I am spending far more time outside now that I’m living in a trailer park. Every day I come outside and catch up on Facebook while having a cup of coffee. Some days I do my writing outside, on occasion staring out into the trees behind my yard. I come outside to water my plans, or tidy up my gravel-lined pathways. Most nights I do yoga under the stars, then lay back and stargaze before heading in to bed.

The healing power of spending time outside, soaking up sunshine (or liquid sunshine, here in the Pacific Northwest), and breathing in fresh, tree-oxygenated air is profound and cannot be understated.

My message to you? Find a way to get outside. If you like to hike, explore natural areas near you. Urban areas often have wildlife preserves, botanical gardens, or paths along greenways. Bring growing things into your home, no matter how humble. I don’t bother with house plants anymore, because I don’t need more things to keep me busy indoors. But outside you can grow many vegetables in pots, not to mention gorgeous flowers and herbs. Put your hands in the dirt. Cut some fresh basil into your salad. Or create spaces with what you’ve got: use rocks and wood to define pathways and entrances. Everything you do gives you more time in the healing outdoors, and will create a pleasing space that is all yours. Creating your own refuge is an act of empowerment.

Oh, and the book The Secret Garden? Turns out it’s really racist.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tears in the Sky

The natural world has always been my place of refuge. Where I can breathe deeply and feel calm filling in the spaces that have become encrusted with frustration and bitterness. Where I can look out at the water, or gaze at the sun, or look longingly up at the stars, and understand that the world is much greater than my pain in the moment.

The natural world also helps me to understand those things that seem incomprehensible, especially to one without a religious or spiritual tether. Life and death happen; disasters happen. Death is necessary in order to sustain life. And from death, comes rebirth. There is no Good, no Bad. Nature is a system that strives only to maintain balance, and ironically nature is most in balance when humans resist the urge to interfere with it.

When I realized that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, when I started to understand how completely it had derailed my life and my plans, I was angry. I wanted to blame people, institutions, events. And I could do that: people, institutions, and events all aligned in such a way that I emerged irreparably damaged. But the only thing that provided any solace, any comfort or understanding, was the realization that I am a part of this world, and the world is wild and unpredictable: accidents happen; death happens; tragedies happen, and leave behind deep wounds.

It is tempting to believe that my family has endured more than its share of hardship in recent years. My son is surviving cancer, diagnosed three years ago. My niece died from cancer two years ago, just as she was becoming an adult. My son and his wife have more recently endured several personal tragedies, one after the other in rapid succession, and the fallout has been extreme.

I realize others experience hardship and loss, and that my family isn't unique. I know one only needs to scratch the surface to find grief that is fresh, or old and unhealed, or more likely both. And sometimes people are battered by too many tragedies all at once, and it seems like we will never be carefree again. We start feeling weighted down as the hurts are piled on us; it feels harder and harder to get up, let alone start a new day with hope and gratitude.

Sometimes I sit on a bluff overlooking the ocean doing gentle yoga and trying to quiet my thoughts. Inevitably feelings of sadness and discouragement surface; they’re never very deep. I imagine offering my grief to the ocean, where it will be carried away by the currents and absorbed by the waves.

Some days I wonder how long – how many days, weeks, months, years – will I have to come here and offer my grief to the ocean before I feel the sorrow cleansed from my heart?

Last night the sky was clear, and the stars sparkled brilliantly overhead. It was cool but not cold, with a delicious moist breeze that felt wonderful on my face. I did my yoga under the stars, breathing in deeply, breathing out fully. I imagined the tears of my family falling upwards and becoming the stars in the sky. I realized that the sky could contain all of our tears. There are stars enough, sky enough, for all of the tears, for all of the world’s grief. It was a comforting thought.

After finishing my yoga I laid back and gazed up at the stars. We are made of star stuff. I tried to imagine what this really means. I tried to feel it. I come from the stars. My tears come from the stars. Everything that happens on this planet, in my family, is a part of the dance of the stars. Every hope derailed because of a physical or mental accident, every life cut short too soon, every tear cried, every family in mourning – all of this came from the stars and will return to the stars.

Every ache of my heart, I release to the waves. Every tear I cry, I send up to the stars. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know that no matter how infinite my grief feels, the ocean and the sky are vast enough to contain it.