Some of the writing I am about to do is going to be not only uncomfortable for me, but it could be uncomfortable for those who choose to spend some time reading it. Where I find myself in my spiritual journey (awakening) is refinement. Layer by layer my inconsistencies, untrue beliefs, and outdated operatus modi are being revealed to me in order that I do the work to shed them. Sometimes the shedding happens immediately upon a no longer useful pattern or outright contradiction coming into consciousness. Most of the time, the process is slow as these things become deeply ingrained into our body's pursuit of homeostasis, however it has come to expect that familiarity to feel. What I reveal might be embarrassing to me. It might provoke comments that will trigger me, and I will have to pause to harness the opportunity choose to see truth instead of reacting.
For a long time, I have tried to spiritually bypass working through some of these layers. A really good description of the effort that takes was written for Psychology Today by Ingrid Clayton Ph.D. "The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn't be experiencing what we are feeling." I wanted to fix myself desperately. I have felt guilty and ashamed of my path, and I continue work on shedding that layer as I will mention again later.
Then, there is the segment of our spiritual culture that will refute my work also through spiritual bypass. As facing our darkness, owning it, and accepting it, can feel the opposite of the bliss that should come with discovering spiritual truth, many disown this process. That which we don't give our attention to, in theory, will fade away. It's the method of ignoring or shaming the "negative" in favor of identifying with or being identified as "positive." As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, "All that glitters is not gold." Psychoanalyst Carl Jung adding, "What you resist, persists." If we are all mirrors for one another, that which we readily identify as a hang up in another, is likely something to be unburdened within our self. I find I get really prickly at the "accentuate the positive" and "I have no time for negative people in my life" memes. My insides react as if I am being personally attacked. That reveals to me that I am still hoping for approval from the wider spiritual movement as someone who has a relevant voice, but I know that my very nature sets me up to be rejected by many of those who do have the capacity to "choose happiness." I won't be palatable with my darkness. I will be told I should smile more as I have been told again and again. My smiles are a currency greater than gold.
She meant no ill, but the part of my ego that felt I had accomplished something important by posting the video in spite of being self conscious, and sharing the truth of this uncomfortable self concern, didn't want to hear that it could be seen as simply a contradiction to what I already understand is truth. Like the Green Day song, "I'm a walking contradiction, and I don't have the right." Consciousness outgrows habits and old systems of belief, but those old ways hang on for as long as they can. What struck me more was the question of whether I should only share the ways that my consciousness is growing and not reveal the truth that ego and shadow fight back to win. I questioned the relevance of sharing my journey at all. Do I only seem like someone milking struggle? Identified with struggle?
If so, I am beyond embarrassed. I don't want to be so pretentious as to think that is my contribution to life. I graduated with the same GPA as many in my high school class who are now doctors and lawyers. Currently, I would be homeless in a month if I made any kind of slip up. I have a Master's Degree in Education, a Bachelor's Degree in English and Creative Writing, and a slue of certifications. What good am I aside from motherhood? How important is the contribution of a writer, yogi, and someone fully immersed in a spiritual path if there's nothing monetary to show for it? In a society where you are measured by your financial worth and achievements, where do I fit and what is my excuse? I am not a monk or a nun being supported by my service to Source. Again, judging myself based upon the perceived judgment of others.
Then, I had a conversation with a yogi I follow on Instagram and am greatly inspired by. Their posts are their practice and snippets of their daily life. They told me that through my posts (we don't know each other personally) they "see that life is challenging and I'm sorry. It can't be easy. Your strength and perseverance are a model for everyone." How could someone like me be a model? They were trying to encourage me and tell me that I am seen, but I was taken back to the question of the first conversation - Do I appear as someone seeking sympathy or highlighting struggle over perseverance/strength? How is my struggle any different than anyone else's? I began to tell myself I am not exceptional in any way and I should be ashamed to accept such a compliment. I'm not doing anything more than any other human. I wrote back a long message of embarrassment saying I hope I don't seem pretentious, whiny, or a complainer, or at worst deemed a "negative" person. I was worried by not seeming "good at" practicing spirituality even though I claim it as my nature. What is that again but and identified ego? Honestly, I admire this person in such a way that part of me feels embarrassed and judges myself as weak despite their use of the word "strength."
The last conversation was with a young teen who follows me on Instagram. Ultimately, this conversation is why I am choosing to continue to accept myself where I am and share as much as I can of all parts of the journey. She asked if it ever gets easier to openly write about hardships and struggles. I answered both yes and no. I have gotten used to vulnerability and I am drawn to do it regardless of fear. Yet, part of me still worries that I will be wrongly seen and judged because it has happened before. I don't want to be accused of tainting the vibe, or become that "negative" person no one has time for in their life. I know I shouldn't care, and in the end, I don't because I choose to go ahead and share. I can discuss very difficult things without being depressed or hopeless. We don't respond to difficulty in a uniform way. I have some level of desensitization to many things I discuss which gives me the space I need to analyze it effectively. In fact, telling the tale gives me the means to separate emotions from truth and apply logic and intuition to things that have happened or are happening. I could tell the story to a live auditorium of people and be fine. When this young woman responded that what I said was helpful, I felt a renewed responsibility to keep being open.
Those who can relate, find comfort, be inspired, learn from, challenge, or guide me from what I choose to write about are worth continuing in the shadow of a landscape that unveils the tendency in me to see my healing process as stages of failure instead of growth. With work, I will accept that a spiritual path is a legitimate path.
When I get down, I go to tattoo therapy. Here's what I worked on last night. Tattoo by the amazing apprentice tattooer Mikie Burke.
The same three episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations played repeatedly at least three times that night. One, he was somewhere in Spain eating in a local's home. I thought of how Mimi always was the one cooking for us when we all lived together. How would Bourdain feel about her food?
I had been watching Anthony Bourdain for years. I was relieved that at least those three episodes was something of a distraction as opposed to infomercials and other random television bullshit that plays in the wee hours of the morning. Through Bourdain, I saw parts of the world that this working class mountain girl will never get to see with her own eyes. I would watch him have experiences as I would want to have them. Ask the questions I was curious about. See the parts of life that aren't just for show. His jokes felt like they were coming from a friend who got my brand of humor. Watching him felt real. There was empathy in his eyes. A knowing from somewhere deep.
I lost my Mimi not long after that night. She had played the biggest role in raising the woman I am today. Having watched her suffer, I stopped fearing death. When I understood that miraculous healing is not what we are owed and that this life is but a blip in the whole scheme of things, I realized that death means freedom. It's real freedom. And, that when she passed on, she would no longer hurt, suffer, be cold, feel bodily pain, worry, fear, or anything like that. She'd be transmuted.
I experienced the death of my grandfather, aunt, and uncle during that same period of time. And, each time, while I was sad and wished they didn't have to go, I started feeling relieved for them. They each had to suffer so much before death. Sure, you may think it morbid. Heartless even. But, freedom is boundlessness. I only want freedom and boundless nature for my loved ones.
It was within this time frame that I began to not want to exist. I wanted that boundlessness too. I was done having to be at the doctor all the time, having entire days lost to physical pain and listlessness. Done wondering if I was a good enough mother. Done trying to juggle finances and being poor despite busting tail. Done waiting to live because everything was consumed by timelines and priorities I didn't create. There was nothing to make me want to stay aside from the pain that it would cause my daughters to know that I couldn't stay for them. That was the only thing that kept me living.
You cannot judge someone for feeling this way. Sure, you can say, look at all they have going for them. Look at the life they have that I wish I had. You can call them ungrateful, negative, thoughtless, selfish... but, unless you can understand the loss of emotional attachment to living coupled with a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion associated with going about the day in and out... in and out, then you cannot know how not wanting to exist feels. You cannot judge what you cannot comprehend.
It isn't that a person does not value or see their blessed life. It isn't that they are negative or have stopped seeing beauty. And, other than putting a higher priority on their own suffering than that of their loved ones, you can't even say it is selfish. We make other similar life choices all the time. Accepting or declining medical care, smoking cigarettes, walking a tightrope, doing drugs, eating crappy food, driving the car too fast, climbing Mt. Everest... things that we deem worth the risk despite the pain it might cause to us or others in the future. In a way, that's actually living. The thing to realize is that the people who decide they don't want to exist are too exhausted to keep trying. They made the pros and cons list. They did the risk vs. benefit analysis maybe 1,000 times. And, in the moment they end it, the finality of not existing felt like freedom. Boundlessness. All else would go on. Life, for all of us is a series of struggles as much as it is blessings. We cannot save our loved ones from that experience because they are alive.
I understand how "out there" this sounds. Unless you've felt it, it's a hard thing to intellectually grasp. We are born with the instinct to survive. A newborn baby has the ability to wiggle, smell, root, and find it's mother's breast with no help when placed on her abdomen. I watched my grandmother fight for her life even after she knew it was over. We fear the unknown, naturally. Until, through experiences and chemical configurations in the brain, loneliness, and lethargy from whatever cause, the unknown becomes more appealing than the experience we are having. Suicide is NOT normal. It is NOT an answer. It's an avoidance of the problem all together.
What we have to do though is make "suicide" a word we use. We need to ask our friends about it in conversation. We need to check on the friend that seems so very strong and courageous as often as the one who is having obvious struggles. That doesn't mean a text (though that is good), it also means visits. It means getting up in their business even if it gets on their nerves. It means meeting them where they are - even when they decline invitations, finding something that they can say yes to and doing that. It's about really seeing a person. Not just a social media account. It's about eye to eye conversations. It's about belly laughs. It's talking about the tough stuff.
"As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." ~Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
In a culture that puts so much value on "manifesting" and "postivity," we cannot neglect the experiences that allow us to understand what a "happy life" means. We cannot stop giving space to our pain and hurt. We cannot underappreciate sadness.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. ~Susan David
Stop avoiding your the topic of your friend's suffering. Stop ignoring that funny look in their eyes that you kind of wanted to ask about, but didn't want to intrude or make things uncomfortable. Be willing to get uncomfortable dammit! It won't KILL you!
This past week, despite all the great things in my life, the feelings of not wanting to exist would well up from time to time. It happens when I haven't had a break and get really tired. Now, that I understand those feelings, I think I will always face them when things are especially tiring, hard, or the right combination of this or that brings them up. I have attempted suicide twice in my younger years, before I truly grasped what it was I wanted to do in attempting such a thing. Now, being a mother will keep me from attempting, because I know that I don't want to be a source of any suffering for my girls. Yoga will give me reprieve. I will be open about the thoughts and tell people that if I quit talking about it, that's when they need to pay attention most. Being unmedicated now, I know I must diligently use my new coping tools. I will teach yoga, and I will give myself and my gifts as a resource to humanity. Anyone who wants to sit with me, I will, with honor, listen and I will share if you want to know. Don't discredit me or the things I share with you because I have these feelings. Don't label me negative. Yet, I will still be ok with the thought of not waking up. I have lost my attachment to living even in all its beauty and glory. Time is only now and a long, happy life is never a guarantee. No reason to be attached.
Then, today, while wishing I had more energy to face my day, I saw that Anthony Bourdain had made the choice to end his time here on earth. I cried. I've cried multiple times. I feel like I have lost a good friend. I've openly talked about him as my favorite of favorites. His work opened the world up to me. I'm devastated especially for his daughter, whom it was obvious he loved dearly. I hope she has a good network surrounding her. I hope Anthony is free. Boundless. He, if any of us, knew the beauty this world offers as well as the bad, and understood it twice as good.
I can’t help but share my story when I hear the struggles of others. The year I became a mother, I learned the hard lesson that ignorance is not bliss. More of us, especially women, should be sharing the truth of our stories. We need to share it all, even the hard parts – the parts we’ve yet to fix or grow into, included. It’s how we learn from our own mistakes and from one another. It’s how we can prevent a little heartache and some aimless wandering. You may be thinking, I don’t want people to think I’m a negative person. Or, on the opposite end, I don’t want anyone to think I’m bragging. I understand. Totally.
My story of healing sounds nearly impossible if I tell it in its entirety. Pieces of it are scattered throughout this blog and my other writings. I share bits of it on social media. A lot of it isn’t easy to hear, but I try not to be shy about sharing those parts too. I’m a warrior. I battle depression, anxiety, Hashimotos Thyroiditis, polyarthropathy (chronic non-specific joint pain), chronic migraines, and chronic gastritis and colitis. I have a little bit of stuff that likes to slap me in the face every morning. But… I’ve lost over 100 pounds, and I have weaned myself off of all prescription medications aside from my daily thyroid hormone.
I could say that the main factor in getting this far for me was consistent positivity, but that would be a HUGE lie. It would not only be a lie, but it could even set others up for failures in their own journey if they think positivity alone can get them where they want to be. Try remaining positive when in constant pain, worrying that something you said days ago was taken the wrong way, and all the while you don't want to exist anymore. In that state of being, nothing is as simple as a positive attitude. Worse than that is if that positivity is a distraction from the things we’re truly feeling, because it will keep coming up and asking for our attention. For those of us born into a state of fairy like bliss, positivity may come naturally. For others of us, life coupled with brain chemistry wired us differently.
I don’t mean to sound derogatory toward people who naturally tend toward positivity. In fact, there are aspects of that tendency that I can become envious of if I’m not careful. Yet, we must point out, in the age of incessant out of context quoting and the popularity of memes, that positive thinking, as it is portrayed by that mostly online culture, is not accessible to many people who desire to make positive life changes. At worst, those types of attitudes can bring shame, guilt, and alienation to those who feel like they must always keep a positive outward appearance to not seem like an ungrateful, sour person.
There have been times when I personally have felt demeaned for sharing aspects of my story that others perceived as negative. Other times, I’ve taken a deep personal look at this idea that a “change of attitude” is what it takes to bring happiness. I saw a meme once that brought such a sick felt heartache to me that it shocked me to feel it. It said:
The person who posted the meme said they had no room for negative people in their life. It felt as though because I was in a state of unhappiness, I was being accused of being ungrateful. I am immensely grateful for my life and always have been. I do go through periods of intense unhappiness without losing that gratitude. Secondly, I felt rejected by this person for any possibility of friendship or working together because I openly share my struggles with depression and anxiety. Our society sees these things as negative, therefore, did they perceive me as one of the negative people they were referring to in their posting?
I took a long time to explore this idea for myself. Was there something I was missing? Is it really as simple as saying – hating my pain is negative, I need to stop whining and just accept my pain as a permanent part of my life. Be positive. It isn’t that simple. For me to make positive changes in my life, I could not wait for myself to feel that positive attitude, I had to harness the energy of the emotions seen as negative to create my forward momentum. I had to transform "negative" emotions into positive motion.
A fair number of people reach out to me who are also feeling sadness, depression, or intense struggle. Often, these feelings are coupled with health problems, financial issues, or loneliness. None of them want to remain in this state. They want it to end or at the very least believe in the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It is naïve to expect that someone (even yourself) can just choose not to feel the emotions our society have deemed “negative.” To transform these emotions into forward, or healing momentum takes time, goals with a plan to reach them, and a willingness to be more flexible in your thinking. Consistency in those three things is key. Some things will be worked at hard with no results. Some will make you feel worse before you get better. Others will ask you to confront some really hard truths about yourself and your life. The process will demand you use your intuition to guide your way forward.
A lot of language I hear from people as they share their story is self-limiting, such as: I have no motivation. I can’t. I won’t. Others use blame shifting like: There’s no time. The kids won’t let me. I can’t afford it. I have no support.
I’m not going to call those “just excuses.” They’re not. Many of these things are very real obstacles. I am, however, going to call it “stagnant” or “stiff” thinking. While some obstacles will be ever present, those things do not have to block us in other areas. If a person I’m talking with doesn’t respond to my suggestions, or seems resistant, I know what I am offering isn’t something they are ready for at the present time.
For example, diet can be pretty difficult to change, but you want to make yourself physically healthier overall. Don’t start with diet. Start with exercise. You can exercise at any time. You can exercise for free. Research shows that exercise lifts the overall mood. Exercise can look a lot of different ways. Begin by setting a goal. I will exercise 3-4 days a week. Then, make a plan. I will wake up 30 minutes early and do chair yoga. I will always use the stairs at work. After dinner the kids and I will walk the dog. With that, you’ve begun. As you reach goals, you’ll become motivated to create more. You may begin see some of your obstacles differently, turning them into opportunities.
If you’re wanting to begin a healing journey, but find yourself “stuck”, ask:
For those who carry some heaviness of heart or circumstances, it can sometimes be the things meant to guide us toward the light that add to our darkness. No one sharing these memes or ideas means harm. The most important thing to remember is that everything exists in shades of gray. Nothing is completely black or white. No one will be happy all the time. You don’t have to accept your darkest days as a state of permanence.
According to the Buddha, there is suffering. Suffering is common to all. Everyone experiences the tears of birth, sickness, old age, and death. Buddha said,
“There is happiness in life, happiness in friendship, happiness of family, happiness in a healthy body and mind, but when one loses them, there is suffering.” ~from the Dhammapada
The April 8th opener for Saturday Night Live, “Donald Trump Goes to Kentucky,” is the latest example of what many Appalachian academics, activists, and advocates feel is outsiders taking liberties with extreme representations of our people and culture. In the skit, four Kentuckians from Boone County (not in Appalachia or the coalfields) express concerns to President Trump who is there to relish in undying support. They express their concerns. Trump replies in his vague and ridiculous manner. Each of them sit down a little shell shocked, but still wanting to believe the president they elected has their best interest at heart. Almost immediately after the skit aired, my Facebook newsfeed was ablaze with offended eastern Kentuckians admonishing the writers of the skit for stereotyping and making us out as idiots. A little later, came more blogging about liberal elitism and how the Democrats are to blame for our communities’ Trump votes.
In the last few years, I've noticed that there appears to be a "gratitude movement". At least, social media, television, podcasts, and blogs would have us believe it. With Thanksgiving coming up, I'm sure we'll all see the 30 Days of Thanksgiving posts on Facebook and Twitter. In the past, I couldn't help but feel somewhat cynical at the thought of people asking me to stop focusing on what is wrong and the problems of life and instead dwell on the things I can be grateful for. I resented it because it felt as if they were saying because I was upset, sad, angry, or really wanting to fix things that I was in my essence an ungrateful person or a whiner. Of course I was grateful, I have three beautiful daughters, a long lasting relationship with my partner, family and friends who love me, food on the table, and a roof over my head! Why were people insinuating that negative aspects of our lives should not be given as much attention as the things for which we are grateful? To me, being grateful was a given. If you weren't grateful for something, you had a big problem for we all are blessed. It was the problems that needed my attention. Being publicly thankful felt like bragging. I don't like to brag.
It's been over the last two weeks that something inside of my being has shifted and I understand what it means now to live in gratitude. I've been a fighter all my life. I've always had a crusade, a cause, a depression, or something to overcome. In always approaching my life with the fighter in me, I had grown accustomed to feeling the cloud of gloom behind everything. I couldn't rest. I couldn't experience myself for trying to fix myself, my situation, or some injustice befallen someone/s I care for. I carried the world on my shoulders and I could never be enough. I grew tired. Lonesome. Invisible. Eventually, my fight began to fizzle and I wanted the darkness to win so I could just stop. I didn't have the faith to think I'd ever have a victory. There would be always something else to fight and my principles wouldn't let me give up.
We every one have and will have hard battles in this life. Somehow, we have to become aware of our own strength and how to utilize the love we have available to us during times of trial. It refines us. It heightens our sensitivities and brings forward the areas in ourselves and our lives that need attention. However, we don't have to let the battles define us. That is what I had done. In becoming the embodiment of the battle, my "self" was caged away. I had become a thyroid problem. A migraine. The lonely wife. The scary and sad birth story. The warrior victim. The thing that just won't die for all the pain it's in.
A month ago, I went completely grain free (all gluten free, of course). I gave up nuts and most cheese. I cut way back on all other dairy. I went soy free. I, also, gave up chocolate! It's recommended for anyone suffering from an autoimmune disorder to try eliminating common food allergens and foods that can cause digestive upset. For the first week and a few days, I felt like CRAP. I was angry and sure it wasn't going to work. I have a rock gut. It wasn't food that was causing my issues to worsen.
I think I was wrong. While I haven't gone completely toward the autoimmune protocol paleo approach to nutrition, I have noticed a tremendous difference with these small adjustments. I'm still waking and going to sleep very tired. At this point, you'll have to pry coffee out of my cold dead fingers. But... I'm not having huge emotional ups and downs. I'm not having any pain or headaches. My face hasn't swollen in a month. I'm still having some digestive issues, but I have a plan for that. Keeping up with a hectic schedule doesn't stress me out nearly as much as it did before. I have heart palpitations regularly, but they don't seem to be brought on by stress or anxiety anymore. Truly, the difference in my ability to cope emotionally has increased 100x.
About three days in, I was about to call it and go back to my normal whole foods diet which included all food groups aside from processed foods and refined sugar. A friend encouraged me to stick with it. I had been complaining of the lack of food options, meaning my favorite foods. He said, "You won't know unless you try." Curious me, I have to know, and I have to be able to say I tried. It was a challenge and I took it. Here I am. It's like I've emerged from a fog. As cliche as that picture is, it is true.
Now, my heart is filled with gratitude for things I didn't even notice before. It hasn't been a effort on my part. It is like it has happened along with this emergence. At the same time, so many things are falling into place. My spirit is being freed from the fighting and allowed to be and do with all the strength it once used to fight endless battles. My dreams are revived to be chased and earned. I'm realizing that I will be okay in whatever path my life takes as long as I am remaining compassionate, open, available, aware and caring of my body, and embracive of my truth by actively knowing and living it.
This week gratitude has taken the form of finding tremendous joy in being welcomed into a new yoga community through Evolation Yoga Kentucky in Pikeville where I am teaching yoga. Enjoying a 7 day a week yoga practice and having the ability to practice/teach up to 3 hours of yoga on 4 of those days. Hearing the new expressive vocabulary my three year old, Gwen, is adopting. She's so full of spunk. The 100% my oldest daughter got on her math test. Seeing the excitement that she and my middle daughter have when going and coming from their school every day. I'm finding myself growing more and more thankful for the time several of my friends take in their day to send me little messages to laugh at, poke fun at one another, or to share burdens and triumphs. I'm wonderfully thankful for my husband being willing to coordinate his schedule with mine and the childcare my friend has been willing to share with me, so that I can take a few hours every day to follow my bliss as an adult woman.
I could go on. It's easy to be grateful when you are feeling good. It's easy to notice the joy filled moments when you aren't managing with pain or feeling muddled. Right now though, I feel like I'm breathing in gratitude. The scary part is that a little voice in my head tells me it all could be a fluke and the next debilitating headache is around the corner, the next big crisis is imminent, loneliness will overwhelm again, or another tragedy will be brought upon a friend or family member. There are some who I know would tell me to ignore that voice, or to actively direct my thoughts to the good. However, I know good and well that it is more than very probable that any or all of those things are true. What I think I've learned with this go around is that I don't have to go into the ring punching and kicking with all I have. I simply have to have my gloves on, my guard up, and be there. Present. Alert. Knowing where my heart lies, what I am capable of, and that winning or losing is nothing compared to the process and the time we take to be there in it.
Will living here rightly prepare my daughters for being in the world?
How do I ensure that my children see the bigger picture of culture and a more accurate representation of the variety of people in the world while living in a largely homogenized location?
Will they be able to raise a family here, or make a living for themselves if they desire to remain in the mountains?
Could they develop resentment and contempt for being here if they are aware of what is outside of these hills?
I can ask these questions with a type of hindsight, as I was young in the mountains once. While I had a deep love for the landscape and culture, I longed to experience more of the world. I was endlessly curious about other cultures/peoples. I often didn't feel like I fit in well in my community, and because of that, a place where I could be more anonymous appealed to me. As soon as the opportunity arose to leave the mountains, I took it. It was also something I had been prepared for by the adults in my life. As they noticed my interests and the way the economy was turning, they encouraged me to find a place outside of the region if it was made available. They wanted more for me than what they thought I could find here. It was made clear to me that at the time I was considered the youth, it wasn't good to be young in the mountains. In fact, I was taught by several of the elders in my life that it is best to keep where I am from hushed when outside of the mountains so I won't be judged and have opportunities taken from me based on the stereotypes promoted about our home.
The conference was well attended with youth and those supporting them from throughout and outside of the region. The vibe was very upbeat and the conversations seemed energetic. I attended a workshop on applying for grants through the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and I sat in on a panel discussing whether or not it is worth it to pursue higher education if you plan to remain in the mountains. It seemed that even though we are all still very unsure about where the future in the mountains leads, we are hopeful. As a parent, I'm more hopeful than I have ever been about the increasing opportunities for my daughters to broaden their outlook and express themselves to the world while being right here at home. There was a time when we were considered an isolated and backward people, but that is quickly changing. Our young people are making themselves known in a larger sphere.
What I saw at IG2BYITM was dedicated youth. The Ghandi quote that we always see in memes and even cheesy home decor - "Be the change you want to see in the world." - sums up what they are embodying. If our youth want opportunities, they must create them. With the support of those of us who came before, they will clear a path through this dense underbrush placed in their way by previous generations who latched on to mass culture and the perpetuation of misconceptions through the rest of the country. Will we take on the mantle of the stereotypes and allow them to stand outside of the context with which they were bred, or will we use our uniqueness to bring about a time when mountain youth will be proud about their heritage and hopeful about their future here?
By the time July 2014 rolled around, I was finding that I could no longer keep up with the form of workouts I had chosen. I was doing CrossFit inspired and HIIT home workouts. I was really worried because no matter my physical size, I had always been athletic and capable of pushing myself to keep up with strenuous exercise. Not only this, but the migraine headaches that I had been having since age 13 had picked up in frequency and were becoming debilitating. I reluctantly went to my family doctor. That began a cascade of testing and seeing specialists. I have seen a neurologist (and will regularly, indefinitely), orthopedic specialist, gastroenterologist, ob/gyn, chiropractor, and a dermatologist. I've had bloodwork every 3 months, MRIs, CTs, x-rays, and cultures of various sorts. Then, the ER visits.
I had to begin taking medications that would significantly lower my heart-rate in order to help prevent the headaches that were interfering with day to day life. This meant that it was now physically impossible for me to keep up with the intense workouts. That is when I took back up with a daily yoga practice. I now practice Kundalini and Vinyasa yoga at least 6 days a week. I eat real food as well as I can manage, and I try to feed my family the same way. See, I wasn't giving up. I have three daughters to raise and provide an example for. If I gave up on myself, what would I be teaching them?
All that said, leads me to why I'm really writing this post today. This region of Kentucky is known as one of the sickest regions in the nation.
Kentucky is one of the sickest states in America, a place where too many people die too soon, and many who live endure decades of illness and pain.
I must say, that what I'm seeing in my neck of the woods, currently, around health and fitness, gives me a great hope for our future. As I research and find the resources I need to receive the healthcare and access the food that I need to live the best quality of life possible for me, I am finding other eastern Kentuckians doing the same. Not only are they taking charge of their health, but they are becoming the change that they want to see in the region.
People I went to school with who are in the medical field are offering free, daily health tips via Facebook and coming back to the region to serve their communities. When I make posts about health and fitness information, I get messages and replies asking for more information or making comments that offer me more information. Area residents seem more interested in local food options. Farmer's Markets are sprouting up all over, and people are learning more about wildcrafting. Yet, the thing that inspires me the most is what I'm seeing as an increased willingness of people to use and explore the capabilities of their own bodies in outside of the box ways. I have recently started teaching yoga in Hindman and Whitesburg and have been so pleased to have no fewer than two and as many as eleven in my classes! So many express interest and a desire to learn how to take responsibility for their health. This makes me hopeful for the health of our young people.
Nick is part owner (along with Stacie Beckett and Carrie Adkins) of the new CrossFit Experior in Williamson, and Cristin instructs and works from the box (gym). I asked Nick why he wanted to make this passion of his into a career, and his answer is so much a part of the solution I envision for the positive growth of our region.
I wanted to open a gym to make a difference in the community, to help people change for the better. I think people are more interested in a healthier lifestyle these days for many reasons, like a better quality of life, to be more physically capable, longevity of life, or maybe to prevent a future health crisis. People as a whole are learning and adapting. 80 years ago everybody smoked. It was the norm. We're at a time now where healthcare and technology make things well known. We know now smoking has many adverse health problems, eating fast food, and drinking soda everyday has adverse health reactions. - Nick Potter
Simply put. He wants to make a difference in his community. Nick and Cristin saw an issue that affected them personally and in their desire to change it for themselves, they are a part of changing it for the community at large. We live in an area that is so naturally beautiful. I see it as very possible that this region can be known for health and well-being in our future. That's part of my vision as I share yoga with those who come to my classes. I know Nick and Cristin are seeing it on a daily basis as they inspire people of all ages to good health.
Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion, "I am half agony, half hope." On the days when my body and emotions feel agony, I look to hope. I'm going to fight the good fight. Others are fighting the good fight. This is just one part of the puzzle that will be rebuilding eastern Kentucky, but it is this type of revolution that makes me not give up completely. It is a clear path to goodness.
The winter holidays have been my least favorite time of the year for as long as I can remember. As a child from a divorced home, the pressure of deciding where I'd spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was crushing. Either my mother and her family or my dad and his family would be disappointed, or so I felt. Even the seemingly easy task of telling the adults what I wanted for Christmas was enough to make me feel burdened with responsibility beyond my years. It was no one's fault. It was the nature of the way we have chosen to celebrate these holidays coupled with the way the cards fell for my parents. I guess it really couldn't be helped.
There was one Christmas though that I have a small but poignant memory that has kept me believing that Christmas can be more than intense stress, dealing with massive overspending and how it comes into my home, and sadness. I was maybe five years old. My parents were still married, but as all memories of this time when they were both occupying our little trailer, it was more as if they were shadows than real people and I was nearly alone to be as I would be. Our Christmas tree was up and lit. I still believed in Santa Claus and, this Christmas, I'd see him. I grabbed my pillow and a quilt off of my bed, my dad tucked me in, and I resolved to stay awake, camped under our tree all night. I remember how the tree smelled of warm plastic and how the colored lights shot tiny beams like stars when I got sleepy. I laid there thinking of how Santa must love me, and to meet him would be magic. Just magic. I didn't care what I got for Christmas. I've never been someone who wanted much in the way of stuff. My wishlist is pretty simple. I just cared that I saw this man, this grandpa, and felt his magic.
I woke up the next morning with the gray of a winter's light seeping in through the little window in our trailer's back door. I hadn't met Santa. Sleep was too precious a thing. There all around where I had slept were our Santa presents. He had been there working all around me as I slept, being careful that I didn't hear and stir.
It's that achingly sentimental memory that motivated what I wanted Christmas to be for my children when I became a mother. The focus on the material that made me so nervous that my stomach would be sick, the rush to be everywhere and buy the best present would be secondary to acknowledging the magic of the time and what variety of beauty that can be celebrated as Christmas. Traditions are hard to amend though. American Christmas has become barely more than a frenzy of excess and disappointment as it never quite plays out the way you had it pictured and resembles little of the Christian and Yuletide traditions that inspired the holiday at all.
As much as I wanted something different for my girls, it has too often been much of the same. Phone calls and endless conversations about what my girls want for Christmas. Me feeling like that little overwhelmed child who just wants people to smile and not feel slighted or out done. The girls get so much from family that my husband and I can't even begin to compete with quantity nor do we want to try, so I focus on quality and substance. Our little family trying to fit in visits over a period of a few days. Returning home with a car load of gifts and no place to put many of them. Experiences and conversations a blur. Exhaustion. Irritability, and weeks of recovery.
Christmases prior I tried to make change. I asked that certain toys not be bought. We've worked out a schedule of visits and stuck to it every year. We don't celebrate our own Christmas until we can be relaxed at home, even if that means that Santa visits us and the grandparents. At our home celebration we rest in the spiritual reasons for Christmas and Yule and read the stories. I've learned that I still would love to be home and have grandparents come and see us sometimes, but I know that isn't the season of our lives. I now know that it doesn't matter if you have preferences for gifts, children will get what the giver wants them to have. And, Christmas often equals hard feelings and stress as much as we try to stave it off.
This year, while I know I can't take it all away, I can make a conscious effort at affecting what I can. There are several things I'm doing this year to make the season one that brings a little more rest for me than discomfort.
1. I'm giving up scrolling my newsfeed in Facebook or making posts about my day for the entire length of Advent. I know giving up something is associated with Lent, but I'm striving to live an authentic life these days. I'm not making myself unseen and unheard in my Truth any longer. I'm living boldly in order to fully express the me that God made. What does that have to do with a Facebook newsfeed? In my feed on any given day, I am faced with racism, ugly politics, hate, bigotry, violence, and horror stories about suffering inflicted upon women and families by institutions and scared people. I'm triggered emotionally by what I see and it affects my well being and my ability to process the news on my own terms. It creates for me the sensation of fight or flight without anything to direct it toward. I see these posts from those I know or have known, and to be honest, it is heartbreaking. Being in that space can make it so easy to be paranoid and lose hope. I can refrain, clear my head, and return when ready. This season is for celebrating and acknowledging Truth, and I will accept nothing short of it.
2. I'm being honest about what happens to toys and excess material goods in our home. We donate them. All of us do it. We just took two boxes of toys to Goodwill in order to clear out what isn't used. Our cabin is teeny and I want it to be as beautiful and comfortable as possible. Lots of things clog up the energy. It is a work in progress. My girls have very honed interests. While something might be appealing to them for awhile in newness, they fully recognize what they truly hold as valuable. "For you may palm upon us new for old: All, as they say, that glitters, is not gold." -John Dryden
3. I'm volunteering to take on some cooking. I've always wanted to, and I love to cook. I love to watch people eat my food. So, my mother in law has asked that I help and I am so happy to!
4. I'm taking time for mindfulness and being right here - right now. My spiritual walk takes precedence over all extraneous things during this season of kindling the light within. It's not just a metaphor. It's action to take. I have goals.
5. I'm continuing the traditions that we've made as a nuclear family that bring home the purpose of this holiday for me and my family. For us, it is a time to celebrate a man who came to light the path and share with us the tools of salvation. Jesus was a spiritual hero - The Redeemer. All the pieces of Christmas are supporting roles to this beautiful piece of the spiritual puzzle... this includes Ole St. Nick.
As an adult, we can control what we do with our experiences in order to adjust the impact we feel from them. The question is always, how can we use what we know to express Truth, experience Truth tangibly, share Truth, and light the path of Truth for others? This question if taken on in a meaningful way can make massive difference in even the most difficult of times or challenges. There is always something there for us to claim or reclaim in Truth. Christmas is a season of warmth, love, reflection and togetherness. Any appearance that does not reflect that does not have to remain.
It is inevitable that by writing this piece I'll tick someone off, or insight them to explain their position as to why they don't believe homeschooling is a responsible choice. It is also very probable in just mentioning that I homeschool and have done so since my oldest began her educational journey, that someone will say to me that they wish they could do that or could've done that, or that they commend me for doing it because there is no way on earth they would want to manage that. Thank God for public school - right!? We should all be thankful for that option.
I'm working on an article about making the choice to homeschool in southeastern Kentucky where the public schools are losing enrollments by the thousands. It has made me once again deeply look at my choice to go that route. It has the potential to be controversial. Simply going to the grocery store with a few school aged kids during school hours can be enough to get some stares. I'm writing this anyway. In my experience, what I'm about to reveal about our day to day is the truth of choosing to homeschool. It's important that we aren't kept in the dark about our individual experiences with choosing the education that is right for our families.
I'm a former public school teacher. I taught in a rural farming community in north central Kentucky for four years before having a child of my own. It was an amazing experience. I earned a Master's Degree in Teaching during that time period. I also made some friends who I still communicate with today mostly through social media. Despite the hard work and about $30,000 in loans to go toward graduate education, I could not make the choice to remain in public education after having children of my own. One of the hardest things I have ever done is to reveal to my principal, whom I liked very much, that I wouldn't be returning the following year after my daughter's birth.
The decision to not put my children in public education was one I had made long before becoming a mother. My husband was always in full agreement. That decision is one in which I was extremely confident, maybe more so than any other decision in my life. Having my oldest now in 3rd grade/4th grade, I'm still very solidly there. Though, from time to time, my husband may hear me whisper, "I should just send them to school." In return, he looks at me cross-ways.
While living in the city of Louisville, we had the excellent opportunity to attend the Parent/Child classes at the Waldorf School. We would often talk of how to afford the tuition for one child, let alone if there were more. I had been the breadwinner up to that point while my husband finished graduate school. He was then completing a tattoo apprenticeship and we were living off of fumes. The next choice was to home educate, and when we moved back to the coalfields, away from the option of Waldorf schooling, that was the only choice for us.
If you aren't familiar with the Waldorf educational philosophy, I will sum it up in two words - soulfully beautiful. I cried real tears when we toured the campus of the Waldorf School of Louisville for the first time. Hoping to recreate this in my home, I dove head first into the ideal. My daughter (then, the only one) would not eat many sweets. She would not have plastic, meaningless toys. She would be surrounded in clean, simple beauty. She would not be exposed to media through television or video games. And, I'd be a Waldorf purist. We did OK for the first few years of her life.
Having a second child and moving close to family, where there wasn't a Waldorf community and more influences outside our nuclear family were upon us, things changed a little. I grew as a mother. I opened more to the possibility of my own family culture. One still very based in Waldorf philosophy, but one that worked for our lifestyle. We had a lovely preschool experience.
Then, it became time to introduce "real" schoolwork. I also got a longing to add some outside work to my schedule and earn a little extra green. I wanted to maintain my daughters' sense of wonder. I wanted them to be excited by learning and to enjoy "school time". There was so much that I knew we'd be safe from. Yet, when I became intimidated by actually carrying out a Waldorf grades method and switched to the Charlotte Mason method, the first step in my realization of what homeschooling meant was revealed. This was going to be one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. Could I maintain this choice, and still be a person? I was so glad to be fully responsible for their education. I believe it is my right and duty as their mother to hold no one else responsible for it but my husband and I. But, this meant I had to give it my all and do it well all the time. The overarching theme of my life was going to be mother, teacher, and wife. The dreams I had of exploring careers would be on hold. My time to have a hobby - reduced. I'd need to learn to be consistent, less spontaneous, and well planned.
It is incredibly hard to maintain a household, tend younger children, and make sure that the school aged children (who are in two different grades) complete their lessons. We are still in elementary grades, so home educating them is very hands on. I still experience frustrated students. They still cry when they get confused during math. I still lose my cool and have to regroup, or just chalk my day up to a loss and vow to try my best come morning. Sometimes, I feel like a failure for weeks on end because there isn't time to clean the cabin the way I'd like. I'm too tired to call my grandmother whom I haven't seen in a year. I can't figure out why my wee one begins to tantrum right when I sit down for the lesson story with my middle daughter. I long for meaningful, adult conversations and to be able to spend whole days writing again.
People say that they wish they had the money to be able to stay home and homeschool. It isn't about having the money to do it. There are ways to make it work. Most homeschooling families I know work with a very limited budget. Mothers or fathers work long hours to try to make up for income lost by one or the other being at home. Or, the stay at home parent will work late shifts, or find work from home jobs that they tend to at night. We learn to live frugally. Many of us live in a way unfamiliar, but respectful of time and energy. We go without things like cable TV, data plans, vacations, multiple vehicles, new clothes, tons of presents at Christmas, and the newest electronics. Not saying this is better or awesome, but it is what we are willing to do in order to provide this education to our children. At the time we made the choice to homeschool, we gave up 75% of our income in order for me to stay home with our daughter. We made it work. If you believe in something and want it bad enough, you will make it work.
There are those moments when I know that what I'm doing is working. When I hear my toddler singing the Circle Time songs loud and clear. How she giggles at the motions. When my older two daughters run to greet their daddy and grab their main lesson books to show him what they did, proudly. The days when I see their deep thinking reflected in their play or their questions to me. How when they complete something difficult, all the whining becomes meaningless, and they say, "I think I really like doing..." And, sometimes, one of them will say, "I love homeschool." That's how I know it is working.
Last year, I jumped back in to committing to a Waldorf education for my daughters. It takes tons of commitment, planning, and willingness to let go. I found a homeschool Walorf curriculum that works really well for us (Waldorf Essentials), and the authors offer a support service and program called Thinking, Feeling, Willing that has helped me stay on track through all the ups and downs of the school year. I'm incredibly blessed by this program. We have joined a wonderful homeschool co-op that keeps me in tune with other local homeschool families, offers field trips, special classes, and time with peers. Even when I wake up feeling like I don't want to do lessons that day, I know I have support. I know that I can manage.
Our Waldorf inspired homeschool doesn't look like private Waldorf education, and every other Waldorf inspired homeschool will be different from ours. My girls watch some TV (commercial free), they have some commercial toys like My Little Pony, and they love to overindulge in sweets at their grandparents' houses. Shoot, mommy will even let them have a Sprite with their fries and burger from time to time. Sometimes (no, honestly, quite a bit), I wake up in a panic thinking that all of our little issues would be solved if I became purist once again. Then, I realize that if I let go just a little more, the issues wouldn't seem so huge.
The truth about homeschooling is that it is a choice that requires immense time, dedication, willingness to always be a learner yourself, to research and find the answers on your own, presence, and a strong will to see your family through the times that are tough. All sorts of families make the decision to homeschool for many different reasons. You can easily get the impression that we are all religious zealots, super strict, or our homeschools are picturesque. Even in my rural area, if you polled our homeschool co-op, you'd find that there is as much variety there as anywhere and we all get along. There is so much more I could say about homeschooling, making the decision, getting support, and the reasons why I made the choice. I've written this for those considering, in the midst and wondering if they are "doing it right", those who feel they cannot do it but want to, and those who feel we are doing a disservice to our communities. Don't underestimate us. There's a lot of fantasies around homeschooling. The truth is far richer.
By now, most people who have been acquainted with me either in person or on social media know that I have personally experienced a traumatic childbirth. I'm sure many of them wish I'd just shut up about it already. It was my first personal birth experience. In a very large part due to that experience, for the last six years, I've been a birth professional. I've pursued and achieved credentials from various organizations, professionals, and institutions. I've walked the walk and talked the talk of empowering women with education. Helping women in this glorious time of their life has been some of the most enjoyable moments of my life. Yet, it is time for me to step away from the model of childbirth educator and doula that I have been following.
Over the years, I have gone through many stages of healing my own trauma and coming to a place where I can use what I experienced in a productive and positive way. It has taken a lot of hard work, and will take more. Upon taking the work of a birth professional, I have made it a point to read op-ed pieces, studies, and news reports pertaining to pregnancy and childbirth. I've kept up with advocacy organizations and their various approaches to making the birth climate in the US more friendly to women and mothers. Honestly, it has been utterly exhausting on the emotional and physical levels.
From all of this reading, interacting, seeking, and doing, I have learned quite a bit about how women communicate with one another. In the most general sense, I have discovered some really troubling trends, especially related to how we discuss the topic of childbirth and share our stories and information. I can no longer surround myself with the qualifying, judgment, and blame that I see coming from women on every side of the discussion of childbirth and empowered women. I'm seeing too many women hurt by mindless comments, too much hypocrisy, and too many speaking from a place of hurt either knowingly or unknowingly without the access to resources that they need to process this hurt. I know that in order to make real change in regards to how we become mothers, there must be change in how we are initiated into and experience womanhood. A woman who has not tasted empowered womanhood will not suddenly become an empowered mother upon becoming pregnant. This issue goes so much deeper than the choices we make or do not make during the pregnancy and birth experience. It is woven into our lives as women.
Advocates for access to childbirth options are making grave mistakes in how they are communicating with the women they are hoping to reach. Some are so zealous with their beliefs on how women should birth, that their whole campaign is based on assumptions about women and mothers - assumptions that equate their personal beliefs with the "right" way to birth. Under this guise they speak of empowerment, yet many mothers cannot be heard or acknowledged for fear or attempted avoidance of being judged for their choices or the way they gave birth or chose to give birth qualified against this "ideal" in one way or another. Women are hiding. The truth is every childbirth option is a valid one. Each and every woman is faced with unique circumstances and history as she prepares to birth. Every birthing option has the potential to carry great beauty and satisfaction to a mother. The key is empowered decision making and unconditional, respectful support.
Two pieces written over the last two weeks hit it home with me, that even the movement that hopes to change this less than optimal environment for mothers and babies is broken. The first was an article written for Time by Mehera Bonner titled "Why Having an Epidural Should Count as Having a Natural Birth". Bonner states, "By classifying Cesarean and medicated vaginal births as unnatural, mothers who prioritize natural delivery are potentially put in a position of feeling inferior if their birth plan is unexpectedly thrown out the window. An unplanned emergency C-section is stressful enough without worrying that your birth experience was somehow less legitimate and authentic than you’d hoped." In various birth circles on Facebook, I read comment after comment from birth professionals pointing out a few minor flaws in the piece that really doesn't retract from the overall point. What is the threat of this mother asking for validation and acknowledgement for what she was able to accomplish and the work that she did to get herself there?
Next, came "An Unnatural Birth: In Praise of the Cesarean Section" written for Jezebel by Laura June. This piece hit me in the gut as I hear and read it so much in mothering circles. June writes, "It took me months to come up with a better, more accurate, and more honest response to the, "I'm sorry to hear about your C-section" comment, but I've got it down now, and I need to, because I hear this fairly often. It is always, always, delivered with genuine caring and disappointment on behalf of my subpar birthing story. Like my well-worn "My face just looks like this" response to "You look like you're having a bad day!" or "Why aren't you smiling?" comments, my response to the C-section question can come off cutting, even rude—even though I don't intend it that way, not really.
"Actually, it was fantastic," I say now. "I slept well the night before, checked into the hospital, she was born healthy in about fifteen minutes, and I healed up in a few days."
It's all true: it was a wonderful experience. But it's not what a lot of people expect (or maybe want) to hear about a C-section birth." Why offer condolences for someone who isn't asking for them? Who am I or anyone else to feel pity for a mother who simply states that she gave birth via cesarean. A cesarean is not an automatic bummer. Trauma is created either by the circumstances leading to the cesarean, how one is treated by those who should be guarding their safety, deep fear, or tragedy. I've seen several cesareans that were wonderfully satisfying and family oriented. There are "natural" births that are also extremely traumatizing. Do we qualify these mothers by saying that somehow their birthing choice was less than? Can you imagine having to withhold plans, not connect with other mothers around birth, or not sharing your birth story because of this qualification and judgment?
I can. I will share my story far and wide, but how it is received or if it is heard is always a hit or miss. In fact, I think I make many uncomfortable when I share it. Laura June writes many statements in her piece that qualify my birthing experience as well. That, if I open myself to it, though I have a feeling it wasn't at all her intention, can make me feel judged, unheard, and ashamed. For example, "Every birthing experience where the end result is a healthy mother and healthy baby is equally awesome." The end result of my birth experience was considered a healthy mother and healthy baby. There was no part of that trauma that was awesome. The only awesome things about it was the miracle of life, hearing my daughter cry the first time, and seeing her gorgeous face. Blanket statements like that negates the feelings of many mothers who have experienced birth as trauma and can result in feelings of guilt and wrongdoing. June says, "If, like me, you don't get to decide, don't feel bad. It really doesn't matter, you will likely remember the day as one of the best of your life, and your baby will be amazing." Some of us could only wish that our having no say in the matter of how we birth could have left us feeling amazing. Tit for tat.
I cannot any longer participate in advocacy for mothers in the same ways I have been doing. For my sake and the sake of my family, I must change things up. The bitterness, pain, backbiting, and unthinking from woman to woman cannot be allowed to go on. I'm calling it out right now, and dare to say we have all been guilty. Empowered womanhood does not project these insecurities. It honors women for educated decision making, provides opportunities for growth and exploration, and supports women right where they are. From now on, that is my path. For my three daughters who may or may not ever be mothers, I recognize that womanhood is not a competition of degrees. It is Divine.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, avid yogi, reiki practitioner, and is living life with chronic illness. Connect with her @ Kelli Hansel - Writer & Spiritual/Yoga/Self Transformation Guide
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