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Preamble

Issues of personal privacy, openness, and freedom were what were on my mind when I woke up this morning. These on the microscale, mind you, not the grand scale of constitutional rights and such. Just little old me wondering at how much to say or to not say, trying to figure out if I’ve said too much or if there is some value to others in it.

That seems to be the key. I’ve written about some very personal things lately and it feels a bit strange, but it is also very freeing. However, that is not enough. What may be liberating for me to say may or may not be helpful to someone else.

That said, I may or may not know what may be helpful to someone else. So I have to take my intuitions on what to post or what not to post with a dose of faith and a grain of salt. The major dividing line seems to be whether or not the theme of the personal story or the reflections that I am relating touches on the deeper issues of meaning that we all share. There are a lot of things I fly right by with just a word, or a sentence or two, because it doesn’t seem that relevant. If someone responds to that in a comment, I’ll go into more detail at a later time.

This morning, I reached a couple of decisions. This is a personal blog. If I get too personal, or if it is of no use to them, people can pass on by with a click of their mouse. If it is of some value to you, welcome. The surprise to me is that I don’t worry so much about what others think, or about being hurt by being open, as I used to. Age and experience do have their benefits. Some personal reflections by way of example:

It’s Just Bodies

One thing you learn working as a firefighter and an EMT – it’s just bodies. Cultural mores and conditioning fly out the window when someone is in pain, trapped, or injured. They have to. There is no time or energy to waste. Yes, you are taught to respect a patient’s privacy and modesty, and you do to the extent that you are able, but above all else it is life that matters. After you’ve cut the clothes off of people a few times, whether exposing injuries for treatment or searching for them, you acquire a certain equanimity about skin and body parts. You get inured to blood, vomit, urine, and feces. It just isn’t that big a deal.

Likewise, a hospital stay can get you over a lot of physical inhibitions. When the nurse hands you that wispy little thing called a “gown,” we are not talking Cinderella here. It’s too short, too thin, and has that damnable slit up the back. I tried to walk around with one hand behind me in an effort to keep the thing discretely closed, but soon gave up. If my butt shows a bit, it shows. We’ve all got one and most people aren’t in the hospital for the view.

They’re Only Emotions

So much for physical nakedness. The very same thing goes for emotions. They are important and they deserve respect, but they are, once again, something we all share and which are pretty similar across the board.

As a firefighter/EMT, I saw people at their best and at their worst. You deal with the permanently psychotic and deranged, you deal with those who are only temporarily that way out of pain, or fear, or grief. You deal with the dead and the dying, the conscious and the unconscious of every age and background. You deal with those closest to them. You deal with the distraught stranger who is trying to help and the stranger who may have caused the problem. Sometimes those strangers are one and the same person.

Anger, fear, guilt, loneliness are there on the scene to be “managed” and “treated,” too. Sometimes they are far and away what needs to be handled most. On some calls there isn’t even anything “wrong” that regular, basic human contact wouldn’t fix. Failure to thrive can arise from the simple lack of connection and touch.

What Really Matters

Over time, you learn how to handle the situations and your own reactions. Like a series of class iv rapids, you run the risk of becoming hardened and cynical and you run the risk of burning out, of succumbing to compassion fatigue. If you successfully negotiate those powerful currents, you discover the middle way. You toughen up a bit, but you also become more accepting of the human condition and less concerned about the ephemera that most of us obsess about most of the time. Stuff matters less, people matter more. Ego matters less, principle matters more. Time matters. Relationships matter, soul and spirit matter.

We come into this world naked and crying, with at least one other person present. For a long time I thought I’d seen too many people go out of this world with no one else there, or with only some strangers in blue in attendance. Somewhere along the way, I realized none of us are strangers.

Separation is only an illusion, and one I can only maintain if I myself close off. There is no other; there is no individual me that stands in opposition to the rest of the world. The only reason even for the perception of individuality is the opportunity for relationship.

I have to cut off my own garments of fear and become emotionally naked to be free. I have to open up my own arms to embrace the world.

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In the words of that great sage Yogi Berra, “It’s déjá vu all over again.”

Yes, that quote was going through my head on my drive down to Sedona yesterday to see the flamenco show at Tlaquepaque. That, and all that happened a year ago and what has happened since. (A separate post with photos of the flamenco show is upcoming, as soon as I get one more name straight.)

That Yogi quote was what I whispered to F1 as we walked through the narrow corridor into Patio del Norte at Tlaquepaque last September. We could hear the music, but not see the band or dancers, for the building walls and the dense crowd blocked the view. I looked up at the large sycamore that shades a good portion of the patio and had one of the oddest psychic occurances of my life. (It ranks in the top five or six in intensity, in a life full of such events.)

It was several things at once. It was both the remembrance of a vivid dream I’d had a couple of years earlier, and, simultaneously, the vivid experience of what I had seen in that dream. I had no other phrase for what I was experiencing at that moment and would experience for several minutes thereafter than, “It’s déjá vu, all over again.” I saw the green mass of the tree itself as full of sparkling golden lights, little flickers like leaves all over it. Green and gold. Every sense was heightened and active on another level. No drugs, no bump on the head. Dream clairvoyance is not all that unusual for me, but the impact, detail, and intensity of this particular experience amazed me. Remember the future…

Other than figuring on some great music and dancing, I tried to go back this year with no expectations of anything odd or unusual. Mostly, on the drive down the switchbacks into Oak Creek Canyon, I thought about all the things that have happened in the last year. Things like how F1 and F2 moved from Parks to Phoenix, I got laid off from my web design job, and all of the odd turns that have led me back to music in a new way. (For all of my quiet reflectivity on the way down, on the way back up the rim, I was tapping out palos and hootin’ and hollerin’. What a goon.)

Other than a wonderful little synchronicity of sitting next to an outgoing woman who happens to love the Spanish guitar and has the exact favorite two pieces I do, nothing strange occurred yesterday. She just happened upon the performance while on a short stroll through the center; she stayed for two sets. I am convinced that music is magic.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe this next year will be a little less tumultuous, though M keeps warning me to stay flexible and ready for anything, telling me that I’m not aware of everything that is going on, to trust, have faith, etc., etc., etc. Yeah. OK. Got that. (Right.)

Nothing weird occurred until today. This afternoon M asked me how something that happened yesterday made me feel. “Feels like home,” I replied. Then I laughed. I caught my unconscious song title reference and thought of an old blog post. I came into my office about an hour later, went online, and the weirdest thing had happened with my blog stats.

Eleven views in a row that hour, and most of them within the five to ten minute window when I was talking about the very subject with M. All different people and from four different countries. That very post. I’ve never had that many unique visitors in that length of time and certainly never a straight run like that on any one post. My average traffic is currently between three and four page views per hour, and search terms and post viewings are all over the map, just like my writing. And it’s sort of a silly little thing to start with, one that I’m surprised I even posted. (Just as I’m surprised I’m posting this…)

This stands out as truly weird.

Coincidence? You bet. “There are no such things as coincidences, but I believe anything is possible, don’t you?” (Stole that line from a little girl in my current novel. Makes me laugh every time I try to wrap my head around it.)

Afterthought: I went and checked my stats again. Get this, everything returned to normal for several hours, then during the 30 minutes it took me to write this, three more hits on the post mentioned above and no other views. I think I’m ready to start humming the Twilight Zone theme. These are all coming off search terms, too. It isn’t a link somewhere driving this traffic. Mother of the angels that watch over us (and kick our butts), have mercy. I don’t even want to talk about this with M…

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One thing about writing about personal things in a public forum – sooner or later you will have to retract something you’ve said, apologize, or otherwise eat crow…

I need to correct something I said in my last post. I did believe it was true at the time, and the realization was quite freeing, but it is inaccurate. When I said, “I was finally able to admit what it is that I miss the most about firefighting. The danger,” I was wrong.

That sentence nagged at me all day and wouldn’t let me go. True enough that I enjoyed the danger. I do miss it, and facing it did develop qualities in me that I value, but it isn’t what I miss most. It took a few hours of acute writerly discomfort before I ran smack into what it really was that I missed most. Perhaps I should have known at the ease with which the first post rolled across the keyboard that I was missing the obvious. When something means as much to me as firefighting and EMTing did, it is never that emotionally glib.

I’ve been a frequent reader over at Steve Pavlina’s blog the last few days. I was merely preparing to do the exercise he recommends in his post, “How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes,” when the truth hit me. Structural collapse. A rain of metaphorical burning embers and charred trusses fell around my ears. I guess I needed the old cosmic 2″ x 6″ up along side of my head after all.

I didn’t need to do the exercise; I’ve been doing it for a year and a half. Longer, even. My personal mission went through my mind as clear as a the crack of thunder a half-mile away during the summer monsoons. “To embrace the world, sing it a lullaby, and rock it to sleep.”

As simple as that. Pavlina says that the mission that is yours will make you cry. It did. I’m still almost woozy from the impact. I know that’s it. I can look back over my life and see so many ways I’ve tried to live that out unconsciously and unknowingly. I “mother henned” my crews and trainees unmercifully at times, try as I might to moderate what I identified as “misplaced maternal instincts.”

“To embrace the world, sing it a lullaby, and rock it to sleep.”

The first part of that phrase is right out of something I told M back when I first started firefighting, that it was a way to “embrace the world,” to help whoever needed it whenever, however, without question. When the tones sound, you roll. It is called the Fire Service for a reason. The thing that gives me the shivers at the moment is that it was also during that conversation that we discussed how I was dealing with the miscarriage I had had a couple of years previous. Sometimes it is like looking into the face of Persephone to gaze into the eyes one’s own unconscious. One half the year in the world of light, the other half shrouded in darkness…

I can think of many ways that this could play out. And I know that thinking is not how it will play out. It will be in the day to day living and dying, the quiet listening to my heart at those moments when I will be tempted to take the easier road, to go back into unconsciousness and denial. On the surface it makes no sense that a childless woman of nearly 50, who wanted children and could not have them, and whose husband (now-ex) once told her she wouldn’t have been a good mother anyway, would have such a mission. M’s reply… “Who better?”

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Since my previous post, I’ve been reflecting on the words of “Not Ready to Make Nice,” by the Dixie Chicks. I’m more of a Juan Martín, Paco Peña, and Mosaico kinda girl these days, but the Chicks have written an anthem for anyone who has ever been told, through violent words or actions, to just “shut up and sing.” I’ve got it playing on the sound system as I write this post.

And how in the world
Can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Saying that I better shut up and sing
Or my life will be over

I’m not ready to make nice,
I’m not ready to back down,
I’m still mad as hell
And I don’t have time
To go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is
You think I should

What has been going through my mind this afternoon is how to keep justifiable anger from turning the raw energy needed for healing into retaliation. As I said in the last post, anger can be a potent source of energy and power when you are down. It has its uses. But to act out towards others from within that anger makes one no better than the coward who threatened or used violence in the first place.

There is an inner transmutation that is necessary before anger can be a force for positive change. For me, that is a very intuitive process and one that is difficult to put into words. The best I can do is to use a visual image.

Imagine a cauldron over a fire in your belly, into which you put all your pain and doubt and fear. Let it simmer over the flames of your rage. Tend it, watch it, keep your concoction just below the point of boiling over as you also add your highest hopes, ideals and dreams. Let the alchemical processes of time, intensity, and intention do their work. When your brew has cooked down to its essence, then you are ready for the next stage.

The inner transformation is just the first step. The true challenge is to bring the results of your process out into the world. It is not enough to keep the results of your inner alchemy to yourself. We are called upon to restore and balance the world. Yet, what form your expression will take is something that only you can know – through trial and error, extension and experiment. The subtle interplay, the delicate balance, between inner transformation and outer action is a tricky dance, like a spider on her web who can only step on certain threads on her way to the center, lest she end up caught in her own net.

For those of us who have been subjected to violence because of our beliefs, it can be exceedingly difficult to step back out into the world and make ourselves visible, and therefore vulnerable, again. Yet, in our healing and courage to act, in our anger transmuted and trauma transcended, lies hope for the world.

And if we’re really smart, we can “shut up and sing” and still get our message across. ;-) Go Chicks…


Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world. ~ Grace Paley

In all things preserve integrity; and the consciousness of thine own uprightness will alleviate the toil of business, soften the hardness of ill-success and disappointments, and give thee an humble confidence before God, when the ingratitude of man, or the iniquity of the times may rob thee of other rewards.
~ Barbara Paley

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
~ Dante Alighieri

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It’s been almost thirty years now and I’m living proof that trauma can be transcended. It is possible not only to survive, but to thrive. What follows is some rather unconventional advice. It’s just what has worked for me.

Forgiveness and Forgetting
Forgive? You will be advised to forgive – usually immediately – by well-meaning people who are discomfited by whatever your experience represents to them. Don’t do it, at least not until you’re damned good and ready. Definitely do not force it to please someone else. (Even God!) You will forgive naturally when you are truly ready.

Until then, stay angry. Anger can be a great source of energy and power when you want to just lay down in your tracks and die. Anger can prevent you from giving up. Find ways to keep it focussed outward (so it doesn’t turn into depression) and still keep it contained enough that no one gets hurt. A good therapist can be a great help here. So can the Dixie Chicks. (Not Ready To Make Nice.)

Don’t expect to forget. Use your memory – it is the foundation of wisdom.

Four Step Formula
Here’s my personal four-step trauma recovery formula. As an old firefighter, I love acronyms. They can be lifesavers when you are under duress. With the creative addition of a couple of vowels, it is also a mantra of great power. :-)

Friends – Gotta have ’em. Support is vital. With the advent of the Internet, it’s even easier to broaden your network.

Courage – You do have it, obviously, because you’ve survived this far. Use that. Acknowledge it. Some days just getting out of bed is a tremendous act of courage.

Keep at it – Little steps every day. That’s how your support network will grow; that’s how your courage will increase. It is also how you will, over time, go from merely surviving to thriving.

Meaning – I wasted a lot of time trying to “find” meaning. Everything turned around when I decided to make it for myself. Somewhere in the mess of your life right now there is a dull, rough, unimpressive looking stone. Dig it up. Cut, grind and polish it. It is a precious jewel that only you can identify and design out of whatever misfortune has befallen you. Do this, and your tragedy becomes your transcendence.

The Most Important Thing of All
One last thing, and this is the most important thing of all. Inside you is a spark of Spirit that is indestructible. Bodies can be harmed, psyches can be maimed, but nothing can destroy your essential nature. Even when life looks its bleakest, even when you can’t feel it and don’t believe it, that spark is there, deep inside your heart.

Breathe gently on its flickering flame. It will burn brighter and hotter for all that you have been through and turn you into a light for others. Express it. That is your gift to the world.

Heart Flame

May you burn bright and strong, fellow Sisters and Brothers of the Purple Heart.

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Giving Up Control

I’ve had a post simmering in the background that I thought was waiting for an upcoming personal anniversary. Once again, I’ve gotten the cosmic nudge to go ahead and post something that I was hesitant about. The Universe has its ways of getting my attention and teaching me to give up control.

First, a little background before it goes up. I’ve been reading a blog called “Giving Up Control” that I came across recently while doing research on a leadership project. It’s been interesting and thought provoking, well worth reading in and of itself, but it was author Barry Brownstein’s exhortation to be a “sparkling one” in a comment that tipped the balance for me concerning my next post.

It’s also proof to me of the strange and wonderful connections that exist on that archetypal “cosmic web” that I’ve talked about before. (Note: I’m not talking about the Internet; wonderful though it is, it’s just a pale reflection.) We put our individual ideas out there and they circulate and have ripple effects that none of us can anticipate. That vast web of connections has hidden paths and unknown circuits that never cease to astound me.

Tikkun.

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During breakfast this morning, some fragments of lyrics I wrote 25 years ago popped into my head. The words were from one of my brother’s favorites, yet I haven’t played that song in at least two decades. I can’t even remember all the words anymore. So, I expect I will be out in the shed in the near future digging into some of those boxes from long ago. This one isn’t going to let go anytime soon, that’s for sure.

In the bleak hours before the dawn,
With the words that burn and ache within your soul…
{I don’t remember the next two lines of the verse}

Chorus:
Sing the song that only you can sing,
Sing it out loud and strong,
The words that you were born to,
With the voice that has been silent for too long.

Ironically, I wrote those words for a friend who was struggling not to give up on his music and wondering if he still had any songs left inside. But, I might as well have been speaking to myself from 25 years ago. I got to wondering what else my younger self would have to say to me, and what today’s me would say to that twenty-three year old…

She’d probably walk through the door and once she got over the shock of seeing what time has done to her figure and her face, she’d look at me sitting at my table having leftover pizza for breakfast (Hey, it’s brunch. I got up late. Musician’s hours.) and say something like…

Younger Self: “Uh. Shouldn’t you be eating bran flakes or something healthy?”
Older Self: [Folding hands and smiling benignly] “You have not yet studied the venerable art of Tong Long Chu Gar, Grasshopper. Hush your mouth.”

A stand-off, but I know how easily she can be distracted. The library and the instruments will be too much for her. My thousand square feet of mobile home is a true embarrassment of riches to a struggling musician, the sum total of whose possessions are a lime-green 1966 Dodge Dart (a true tank of a car), a guitar, her clothes, her grandmother’s antique bottle collection, a single bookcase full of books, and a tackle box of art supplies, and who draws and paints at a borrowed drafting table.

YS: “Cool. Look at all the books…Oh wow, a harp! And a cut-away, acoustic-electric guitar!”
OS: “Look in the cases along the wall…”
YS: “You play all these?”
OS: “Not very well. Only the harp and the guitar are worth listening to. My fiddling is atrocious.”

She’s practically squealing in delight at the contents of the cases – a purple, five-string electric violin; a concertina; a mandolin; bagpipes; and best of all, a flamenco guitar. Uh oh, she’s pulled out the flamenco guitar. She can play rings around me, but she doesn’t know that yet. She’s a damned good classical player, but she has no idea how her music will slip away for years and I’m not about to tell her. At this stage of her life, she needs all the hope she can get. I play my trump card.

OS: “Here, let me show you something. I’ve been taking flamenco guitar lessons and I’ll teach you a really great rasgueado.”
YS: “C won’t show me any.”
OS: “I know. You may find this hard to believe, but C is not the only guitar teacher in the world. Just remember, someday you learn to play flamenco, and from a teacher who laughs when he plays.”

Instant attention and absolute focus. We pass the guitar back and forth…

OS: “This is ‘tapao.’ Damp the strings with your left hand and do rhythmic strumming…like this. That’s it. Good! Very good. Now, here’s the rasgueo: Thumb up, m and a fingers down, thumb stroke down. Emphasize the thumb up-stroke, that’s the accent. It’s a triplet, but when you get it up to speed it will be a continuous roll.”

She’s scary with how fast she picks up the strum. She keeps at it while I wonder what else to say to her. She’s right in the middle of the worst of it all. The rough times still ahead, she’ll find out about those soon enough. There isn’t anything I can say that will change that, and in looking back, every mistake she makes is an honest one, an honorable and heart-felt one. No regrets there. I don’t even have any warnings or cautions for her. The stubborness, the smart-ass humor, the impertinent questions, those help her survive and keep her spirit alive.

I have to make her take a break from the guitar. She adores Elmo and thinks I live in the coolest place on Earth. She is especially happy when she finds out that Mom and Dad live just down the road. She thinks our brother is crazy to live in Pennsylvania, but then he always did have to do things his own way. (She ought to know.)

She asks a lot of questions on our walk over to the lake. Things like, “Don’t you have any kids?” and “How come you’re single, don’t you at least have a boyfriend?” No, and no, not at the moment anyway. More for her to find out about as she goes along. Instead, I tell her tales of close calls, river trips and skydiving, fires fought and ambulance runs out on the res. She thinks that’s cool and is looking forward to it. I don’t tell her that learning how to manage those adrenaline surges was a big part of curing the post-traumatic stress disorder she doesn’t even know she has. I can truthfully tell her that, yes, I still played music even when I was an EMT. I almost always had a guitar back at quarters and would often practice between calls.

I had some normal nervousness performing last night; she gets stage-fright to the point of being violently sick. She performs anyway. I remember and have worked through what happened one fateful night long ago; she still has amnesia from it and can’t drive down that road without ending up at an intersection miles away, wondering how she got there. She knows there’s a couple hours of her life missing and it scares her, yet she persists in trying to remember. She will, and she’ll end up stronger for it. She’s smart, she’s resilient, and she won’t let anyone or anything keep her down for long.

We stand on the rocks along the shoreline and I point across the water to where the bald eagles nest and where I’ve seen wild turkeys, where the bear den is, and where the elk cows and calves like to bed down on summer mornings.

YS: “Grandma would have liked this, huh?”
OS: “She sure would have.”

I see her enthusiasm, optimism, and hope, her unbounded curiosity, and realize how they pull her through so much. Even her idealism lives on, tempered somewhat, but I haven’t really changed all that much. I put an arm around her shoulders. I tell her about my writing, and that a song she wrote means an awful lot to me.

OS: “You hang in there, kid. It all works out. And you sure made my day.”

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