Boundaries

It’s pouring, I tell y’all. Pouring! A tempest. A typhoon. A piney-woods tidal wave with impressive lightning bolts and thunder which both crashes and growls. Something’s angered the gods and boy howdy they’re letting us know. The ducks are loving it but the donkeys, not so much.

I’ve microwaved a cup of coffee from yesterday’s unfinished pot (a brew practice for which I’ve been heavily criticized by many folks but hey, you do what you do) and have turned off all the lights so I can watch the lightning like fireworks. This is one of those storms you see in movies. I half expect a terrifying figure in either a trench coat or tattered, victorian dress to appear out beyond the garden—a spooky someone here to collect my soul or something.

It’s 6:30ish in the morning and although I remain on the couch with my trembling dogs and my mismatched jammies, I have this urge in my gut to hop up, open my laptop, and begin the work day. When I say urge, I mean serious urge that’s not just a mental feeling, but also a physical one. On the other hand, this is one of those moments: a perfect storm, a flashing, gray room and sweet dogs who equate my closeness with their safety. This contrast of feelings: the obligation to begin work right away and the allowance of myself to have a moment of peace is puzzling. I feel both guilty and silly. Also stressed, confused, self-conscious, and pressured. In no time, there’s a storm inside me rivaling the one out there.

I close my eyes, let out a long breath, and relax my shoulders. Boundaries dear girl, I tell myself, Boundaries. 

Here’s what I mean by boundaries (to name a few):

  1. If you’re working from home, please remember that you’re working from home, not living at work. It is crucial that you set business/operating hours. 
  2. Set routines (even small ones) and abide by them. Maybe that’s just doing a 20-minute stretch followed by day old coffee in the morning before you open your phone and inevitably be flooded with notifications and saddened by the news. Those things can wait, I promise.
  3. Set boundaries in relationships. You are not responsible for anyone’s happiness no matter how much someone might be trying to convince you as such. You can be a good friend, partner, listener, advocate, supporter, and champion for people but you are not responsible for their feelings. Ever. Full stop.
  4. Holly Whitaker said it best: “Know what you can f*ck with.” This has been a game-changing practice for me. When you know what works and what doesn’t work for you, you can set boundaries to both respect yourself and the expectations of others. Let me give you an example: I have anxiety & OCD which is heavily connected to my hard-wired impulse to be a people-pleaser. As such, I’ve spent so much time doing things and making choices based on what I thought would make others happy. Eventually, I found myself in an empty shell devoid of any knowledge about what I want. Then my anxiety would spiral and my compulsive rituals would intensify. So. Take the time to what you can f*ck with. That’ll help you find a good base from which you can build solid boundaries (and maybe help with your mental health).

    (Quick pit stop: I have an ask. Please stop saying things like, “oh, that’s my OCD kicking in” when you’re talking about wanting things to be tidy, organized, or look right. OCD doesn’t “kick in.” OCD just is. It always is. Also, anxiety is not a mood nor is it just being worrisome. It’s often far bigger and far uglier than that. You can’t just “not worry” or “chill out.” It’s insulting to simplify mental health like this and I’d ask that you please be mindful about throwing around these terms in jest)
  1. Finally, set some self love boundaries. This includes, but is not limited to: 
    1. Keeping your internal dialogue in check. How are you making your own self feel?
    2. Feeling no guilt when indulging yourself in your guilty pleasures. (For me, that’s binging The Great British Baking Show on Netflix while eating too much of my own badass bread bakes).
    3. Don’t sacrifice your own comfort for someone else’s.
    4. If there are people or relationships in your life that make you feel small, worthless, self-conscious, and/or sub-par, draw a line. There is never, ever an acceptable reason to berate, belittle, harass, or abuse someone. In order to draw that line and feel confident in removing those people from your life, you must realize that you deserve that line. You do. I promise.

I have many, many more thoughts on boundaries which continue to change as I continue to explore and understand them. It’s why I go off on soap-boxes about the toxicity of false-positivity and the absurdity of unreachable expectations society puts on us (especially as women). And if you’d like, I’d be happy to share more of those thoughts as I learn to put them into words.

For now, I look at the clock again. 7:00am. My workday from home begins at 8am (no sooner) and until then, my phone will stay plugged into the charger, on silent, in the bedroom so I can watch a storm, protect my dogs, and sip my shitty coffee. 

While You’re At Home…

Hey there y’all — during this time of uncertainty, I want to urge y’all to take time to connect with yourselves. It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into the news cycles, (not that you should be uninformed…but it’s also a risk of becoming addicted to and overwhelmed by it, so take breaks) and if you’re like me, your routine, schedule, rituals, and finances have all spun out into the abyss.

But please don’t lose yourself in it. Take the time — MAKE the time — to turn your phone off, go for a walk outside, hike in the woods, chop some wood, plant some herbs, play frisbee with your dog, or do some yoga.

Speaking of yoga…I know there’s a ton of content out there — like a TON of videos — so I don’t want to add to any burnout, but for anyone who might be interested, I do have two little online yoga classes available on YouTube. For years, teaching yoga was my full-time job and although I rarely teach these days, it does remain a part of my routine (which yes, is off kilter right now but dammit, I’m trying to stitch something resembling a schedule together).

Here’s the first: a 40-minute vinyasa class for y’all who want to get sweaty.

 

And here’s the second: a 20-minute gentle yoga (with a curious baby Bodhi!)

 

And finally, while I’m sharing videos, I made one just the other day of myself reading my latest book, “Will You Be My Val-Equine?” with my donkeys as little helpers. For y’all who’ve got kiddos home from school, I thought they might enjoy!

 

Happy social distancing, y’all. Please, please, PLEASE take care of yourselves. Slow down when you can. Breathe deep. Relax your shoulders. Unclench your jaw. Unfurrow your brow. Check in with your loved ones. If you’re struggling with your mental health, reach out for help. Times like these, people may not be able to afford their medication. Job loss, financial stress, isolation, etc can be incredibly triggering. But also, y’all who are doing alright, check on those who you know might be struggling. Remind them that they’re not alone. Ask what you can do to help. Though we may not be able to embrace each other right now, we are still all in this together. We can’t forget that.

Much love.
Jess

Brakes

I’ve no idea the time of day. Through the slits in the shutters it’s light, but dim. Maybe it’s cloudy or maybe we’re dipping towards the evening. I really have no idea. Although I can’t see them, I know my eyes are swollen because even that dusty blue light trickling in burns the backs of my eyeballs. I’m not a cinematically pretty crier. Blotches. Snot. Puffy eyes. Real-life, y’all. I let out a long sigh (something I haven’t been able to do for hours now), adjust the heavy comforter around my neck and close my eyes once more. My throat is sandpaper.

However many hours ago it was (more than 4, I know this much) my body snowballed into a full-blown panic attack. Snowball might not be the right term…more like instantly transported. Appeared then reappeared like a subatomic particle. Was not and then *poof!* was. Anyway, I say my body and not my mind because throughout the whole episode, my head stayed surprisingly in the right place. Instead, my body and primal instincts completely overwhelmed all of my systems and nothing my brain, sense, or breathing could do or say was enough to be heard by my instincts. The bullet train had left the station and there was no catching it.

I’ve had panic attacks before. Real panic attacks. Real, crippling episodes of utter chaos. They’re almost always random and not in response to some in-process circumstance. They’re always terrifying and they always take time to realize what’s actually happening. Being someone who was diagnosed with a panic disorder years ago, I’ve learned that it’s damn near impossible to explain the realities of panic attacks to those who’ve never experienced (or witnessed a loved one experience) them. They’re often written off as just being anxious. Overreacting. Being dramatic. Hey just breathe. Just try and breathe. 

I’m not laying in my own bed which in a weird way, I’m grateful for. On the one hand, my own bed would offer the safety and seclusion of home, the view of my donkeys outside the bedroom window, the chattering of ducks and chickens in the yard (all my critters which tether me to the planet), and the knowledge of being completely alone which my ego would certainly prefer. Panic attacks are not pretty. I hate to use the word humiliating but laying in this bed with a swollen face and wearing an old t-shirt of my little brother’s because mine is somewhere on the floor in the bathroom covered in vomit is, well, awfully vulnerable and difficult to have anyone else witness. The loss of all rational function and contrast between mind and body is…what’s the word…otherworldly. An out-of-body experience but also weirdly, deeply, internally intimate. 

On the other hand, had I been alone, I’d have believed I was having a heart attack or a breakdown and no doubt would have called an ambulance and ended up in the ER. Thankfully, I’m at my parent’s house. If there’s one person who has seen me at my absolute worst, raw, and real, it’s my mom. Fate, I suppose, held off on cutting the wires of the elevator sending it plunging to the ground until I was with her.

With my eyes closed, I try to relax all the little muscles around my eyes and the lines along my neck but just as soon as I consciously let them go and jump to thinking of something else, they’re tense again. My jaw. My brow. Even my guts. All of my insides have banded together. I imagine all my organs clenching one another to try and keep safe from an imminent attack — see because that’s what my body has told them to do. Danger is near and we are either going to run or battle. There’s something calming in imagining they all have little arms so they can group hug. Sweet body. I imagine my liver is scared not having her gallbladder friend to hold onto. Maybe pancreas has stepped in. She is known as the most empathetic organ, afterall. 😛 

Here’s what a panic attack is NOT:

  • Worrying too much
  • Overreacting
  • Overthinking
  • A sign of weakness
  • Just your anxiety
  • Being scared
  • Being dramatic
  • Something you can just relax away from
  • Something you can just distract yourself from
  • Something you can talk your way out of or breathe deeply to make go away
  • Something WRONG with or about you
  • A sign that you’re too emotional
  • A sign that you’re too sensitive
  • And let me repeat: A PANIC ATTACK IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS

Here’s what is actually happening during a panic attack:

  • Your body & mind have triggered its “fight or flight” response which is not a mental function but instead, a physiological one
  • Something has triggered this response. It could be something real-time (a near-miss car accident, being mugged in an alley, someone jumping out of a dark room to scare you etc) or it could be something stored in your brain somewhere. Maybe it’s a response to long term and unrelenting stress. Maybe it’s stored up trauma. Maybe it’s a phobia you forgot about or didn’t realize was there. Maybe it’s a suppressed event which you can’t even recall but physiologically is still quite active in your mind.
  • Your instincts (and subsequently entire body) go into survival mode which triggers a complex, impressive, and instant hormonal chain reaction
  • Your brain sends signals through your sympathetic nervous system which pumps your body full of adrenaline (imagine flooring the gas pedal in your car) so everything speeds up. Heart rate. Breathing (because literally your airways widen). Blood pressure. Blood to the muscles. Senses become sharper. Even blood sugar reserves are released. And keep in mind, this happens instantly before your eyes and ears have even processed any sort of threat.

What SHOULD happen after a panic attack (or once the threat has been mitigated) is that the parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes, if you will) should return your body back to homeostasis. But where I guess the disorder kicks in is in the imbalance of these two systems: the gas and the brakes. Someone cut the brake lines (much like the below video for you Always Sunny fans.) Dammit Charlie. Wildcard! 

 

I flip over in this guest room bed and pull the blanket over my head. This has been by far the worst attack I’ve ever had. Most of them last no more than an hour. There’s not a specific thing or ritual that pulls me down from them. I think it’s usually just within an hour (or two) my parasympathetic nerves start to breathe and a bit or normalcy returns. This time was different. It wasn’t until I eventually passed out from pure exhaustion that I suppose things were able to begin resetting. For the hour before I fell asleep / passed out (whatever may have been the case) my mom told me over and over to try and sleep. “You need to close your eyes. Try to sleep. You don’t need to go to the ER. You’re not having a heart attack.” She kept her hand on my wrist feeling my pulse the whole time.

But that adrenaline. That uncontrollable response Would. Not. Cooperate. That van was going to crash.

My mom must hear me stirring because while still under the blankets, I hear her footsteps. I pull the covers down to peek out with my swollen eyes and she asks how I’m doing.

I don’t know, I tell her. But I’m really sorry you had to see all of that.

She reassures me that it’s okay. That she was glad I was here instead of alone. That she hoped she hadn’t upset me by trying to convince me I didn’t need to go to the ER, but she’s seen me do this before and knew we could get through it. We could get through it with grounding.

Moments before I ended up in the guest room bed, my mom filled the bath with a few inches of water and told me to sit on the edge of the tub with my feet in the cool water. The idea of sitting still felt out of reach but I must admit that within a few minutes, I did finally feel like there was ground beneath me. Though I was still sobbing and shaking and trembling, and feeling like this must be a mental break, this can’t just be a panic attack, I need to go to the ER, my heart is about to explode, I can’t see straight, I need to run and jump but I also can’t move what do I do what do I do what is happening what is happening—the cool water on my bare feet did something.

Or maybe it was that my mom ran a bath for me. I’m in my 30s and my mom ran a bath for me. As an independent adult there was something both embarrassing and reassuring for me about this. How did I get here and why am I like this are questions that bubbled up like a newly opened Coke. Why do I need my mom to take care of me. Why can’t I just calm down. Dammit body, what the f*ck. But also, my mom is still here for me. 30 years later and my mom is still here. She still knows. She’s around and we have a solid relationship and I know that if the tables had been turned, I’d be putting her feet in water. Reassuring, indeed.

It was shortly after that that I changed my shirt, crawled into bed, and slept.

You’re not shaking anymore, my mom tells me.

I think my insides still are, I say, but yeah, it’s not as bad.

She runs her hands through my hair like she used to when I was sick as a little girl and says, you got through that, honey. You got through that on your own.

I tell her that I wasn’t on my own, that she’d been there to help me like she had so many times before.

For the rest of the evening, I don’t eat but I do drink Gatorade. I sit in the living room with both of my parents now and we reminisce about my childhood. That it’s funny to see me in my brother’s shirt and how when I was a teenager, I raided my older brother’s closet all the time. Remember my goth stage? There’s that picture from that one Easter where I look like I’m about to sacrifice a small animal in a pentagram. We laugh about my mom having never been able to handle us throwing up and I applaud her for not abandoning me as I, an adult, upchucked over and over to the point of dry-heaving in front of her. I thank her again. I ask them if I’ve always been like this and they say that this is the worst they’ve seen it but that I made it through and if it happens again, they know I’ll make it through then, too. That they’re glad I was at their house. And honey, you’re safe. You’re safe.

I tell this story because panic attacks are real. They are real and I’ll say again, they are not a sign of weakness. Being in the storm is terrifying but you will get through it. You will, I promise, and when you do, instead of letting your mind fizz with self-deprecation for being someone who has these episodes, thank your body for doing what it’s wired to do. Your body is trying to protect you. Even if there’s an imbalance in your systems where the brakes have been cut, still, it happens because your body, even without your consciousness’ control, wants you safe. In time, it will pass. Maybe stick your feet in the water. If you’re alone, maybe call someone you trust to just be on the other end of the line while you’re crying. Try anything to find the ground. But most of all, love yourself. Love yourself for everything that you are.
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A final note — if you do struggle with panic attacks and are not confident in your ability to get through them or want help to start digging at the roots, please contact your doctor, counselor, or therapist. I do. I think that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to even type a post like this. Take care of yourself. Lean on others when you need to. Seek help before things are out of control. There’s zero shame in that. Instead, there is a lot of strength in doing what you need to do to feel supported, whole, and seen. Whoever you are, I love you. Truly, I do.

Polka-Dots

I know of a shore that harbors magic: an old, forgotten magic that lies dormant beneath the rocks and pebbles of all shades and sizes. They sit atop the sand at least two feet deep and two miles long. In my memory, I return there often. The Atlantic whips the coast with salty daggers and it’s no wonder the rocks are smooth and shiny like jewelry. I think my face would’ve become that too if I had stayed. I wanted to pocket a few of the rocks before I left as some sort of souvenir, but that’d be kidnapping. They belonged there. They belonged there like the birds that darted around in the tall grass behind the rocks—birds I’ve not seen anywhere else. Plus, I’d whispered to the rocks that I’d be back someday. I asked them to wait for me. 

I sometimes imagine that if the world were ending and I had some sort of heads up, I’d return to that shore and wait to be consumed. It’s a place of deep pondering; a place that takes the whole brain to attempt comprehending. Just imagine how many rocks decorate the sand and how many more hide under the waves which crack and foam. How many critters have made homes between, inside, and under the rocks? How many hundreds or even thousands of years has it taken to build a collection of stones this size? How much longer might it all last?

I had a dream once that I stood on that shore atop the rocks barefooted and wearing a polka-dot dress. I watched the sun begin to unravel into a purplish, pinkish version of itself. It swirled into what looked like a portal and all I can remember feeling in this dream was that nothing would ever be the same. An end, maybe. Or beginning. I wasn’t (and still am not) sure. I also stood very tall. I wasn’t taller, per se, but I stood tall. I can picture myself because in the dream, I must have been a spectator watching myself from somewhere in the tall grass with the flitting birds. Maybe I was a spectating bird. She, (or I, I guess) was fearless. She stood unshaken even though the world was moments away from swallowing her.

That dream sits vividly in the front of my mind always. Everytime I see a collection of stones, I think of it. Everytime I visit a shore of any kind, it appears. When my posture sinks and I worry the waves may sweep me away, I try and picture that version of me in the polka-dot dress standing in complete defiance of the chaos swirling around her. A strong, stoic, secure pillar in a melting world.

I wonder what became of her all those years ago. I wonder if she’s still standing there watching the world burn. Or perhaps she went down in flames with all of it. She seemed like someone who could fight and fight hard. A woman who could destroy. Who could snap open her eyes and they’d be filled with flames and like a terrifying beast, scream and roar causing any nearby danger to dwarf and whimper in the presence of her power. Polka-dot dress versus the whole, freaking world. In the dream, furious waves battered the coast—mean, ugly waves  trying to manipulate the shapes of everything. They tried to sweep and steal the rocks and drown the birds along with their entire history of existence and their impact on the evolution of this place. They were the kind of waves that I think I’d run from, terrified, submitting to the fear, hoping that my feet would carry me fast enough.

But polka-dot dress and all, I stood there. I couldn’t see my face from my post in the tall grass, but I know the face I make when I have no more patience for intimidation. My jaw clenches tight, my eyes narrow, but my brow does not furrow because I have nothing left but will: the will to preserve all in which I believe. All which I have yet to discover. All which I stand for. And there’s a calm, unfurrowed freedom in running on pure, honest will.

I know of a shore that harbors magic. There must be a billion rocks, no two the same. It’s no wonder the mysterious birds live there. I asked them to wait for me and my gut tells me they still are. I’m sure it’s changed, the landscape an entire shift from what I remember. But it’s still there. Soon, I hope to return.

 

Sweet Girl

For the third day in a row, it’s pouring. My grumpy donkeys huddle together in the barn as the rain batters the tin roof so loud that it rattles my bones—it must be deafening to their large ears. After piling their feeders with extra hay in lieu of typical grazing time, I pull the hood of my rain coat over my head and slide the barn door shut behind me. Like a million pellet guns, the drops strike my whole body.

The ducks scatter around the yard, rain wicking from their slick feathers. Like children in a ball pit, they bounce and play gleefully in the growing muddy puddles. The chickens on the other hand, band together in one of their coop’s nesting boxes even grumpier than the donkeys—wide, feathery, pissed off floofs. I make sure they’ve got dry food, then check to make sure none of my little infant plants are flooded, and finally check on the part of the fence that leans too far when the ground is soft and the wind is harsh before finally seeking refuge on the porch. Like a dog after a bath, I shake as much water off myself as I can. To nearly the top of my rubber boots, mud goops like raw brownie batter so I sit down on an empty milk crate — (a milk crate that I’ve had forever, although I’m not sure where it came from?) — and slide them off with a suctiony, slurpy sound. Even my socks are soaked. 

It’s too early for us to have rain this heavy and consistent, right? These are the kinds of showers that roll through with fury in the springtime. Then again, we’ve hardly had a winter down here—a single hard freeze and only 2 or 3 light ones. The summer will be a bug nightmare. This is the year I should build a bat house. Maybe today is the day I need to build a bat house. I should build my bat house. 

*Sigh* I forgot to bring towels outside with me before my morning critter-care chores and so until I’m not dripping, I’ll stay seated on the milk crate. A shiver runs down my spine and echoes through my limbs. It’s cold. Cold for East Texas, at least. Low 40s and wet. I briefly consider wrapping the grill cover around me but that’s also where I’ve seen not one, not two, but three different black widows over the past year. So nevermind. I guess black widows prefer their meals grilled?

The cold scurries up and down my spine like a mouse whose chilly feet tick-tick-tick in my limbs. The shivers follow the rhythm of my heartbeat: pangs like beating drums ripple back and forth…back and forth. A puddle of my dripping self has formed around the milk crate below me—its rounded edges creep outward with every drop, latching onto stray bits of mulch, dirt, and bird shit. The puddle grows and grows swallowing all the grit around me, the mucky water now littered with specs of dirty farm junk. 

The temperature’s become painful in it’s dampened strength and at this point, has swallowed me whole. It would make sense to end this torture by going inside regardless of the dripping, but I’ve become completely enamored with this slowly expanding pool. It just keeps growing. Of course I could end its growth at any time, I am in complete control of this particular puddle’s fate. Subsequently, I am in complete control of the fate of all the bits of ground stuffs that one by one are being sucked into the edges and then belly of the beast.

It grows and it grows and it grows because I’m allowing it to. I’m invested now. If I were to move, I’d step in it, break it, free the yucky stuff, and proceed on with my day as if this thing I’ve created never existed and then what would all the effort of sitting out here in the cold, shaking and quivering, be for? This is time I’ll never regain, a scene I could never recreate, and why? Why would I leave? For my own self-care?

For my own self-care?

My own self-care?

Self-care?

Carefully, I stand. I step delicately over the puddle which recoils a bit and as I walk towards the door, a trail of splats follows me. My wet socks leave footprints across the cement and even after I strip myself completely down and wrap up in a thick blanket, some remnants of the dampness is with me. Even now, in the softness of my blanket, my toes and fingers are pruned and my guts still shiver. I pull the blanket tighter and wrap my arms around myself. Relax. Try to relax. Let your eyes sink back in their sockets. 

Sweet girl, it’s okay. It’s okay. Come here, it’s okay. 

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sit

you want to
perch upon that
branch

the one which
overlooks the meadow
where even when it

rains, rabbits skip
between flowers,
unbothered

but to rest
to observe means
stillness silence

steadiness

you can’t grip
the mug between
your hands

without spilling over
the edges shaking
unconscious

unconscious

so sit.

sit with it.
sit with it.
sit with it.

spilling, splashing,
spinning, sit.

sit with it.

the meadow will wait

Afternoon Pause

It’s a typical late-Texas summer on an early, weekday afternoon where leaves hang completely still from the treetops. The chickens have dug small holes outside of their coop in which to rest (the dirt beneath the surface being much cooler than anywhere else they may find) while the ducks drift gently in their pond with their heads tucked into their feathers. Little naps. Flapping bugs hop through the grass—pops of glittery movement in an otherwise motionless yard.

I’ve been sitting on the floor for some time gazing aimlessly out the window with gratitude for a working a/c in my house. I keep wondering if the ducks will wake or if the chickens will grab a skipping bug as it passes. I wonder if the donkeys will emerge from the barn but even they’ve foregone grazing under this afternoon sun and opted, instead, for the shade and coolness of their stalls. I suppose even I’ve been frozen for a while—perhaps time on this afternoon has simply paused.

I take a long, slow breath and as I exhale, I lay back and place my hands over my heart. I stare at the ceiling fan above and try to focus on one blade and follow it around and around, but I keep losing track. I can feel the beat of my heart in my hands. It’s wonky. It’s always wonky in heat like this. So I breathe deeper and more slowly, hoping that will calm her down. Ba dum, ba dum, baaaa dum dum. Ba dum, ba dum, baaa dum di dum dum. 

I‘ve learned to take advantage of quiet, still moments like these in an effort to find the same kind of calmness within my brain and being by trying to visualize various things depending on what I need or what’s going on. I’ve described some of these images before—things like purposefully pushing boulders down mountains in an effort to establish new grooves in the thought process. Streams of light that swirl into my body as I inhale and carry out the dark as I exhale. Muscles relaxing and releasing over the bones that support them, even the tiny ones around my eyes and ears. Lately I’ve been walking down a long hallway, slamming doors of busy thoughts as I pass while focusing on the dark end which I can’t quite make out yet. 

But anxiety is several doors pouring open at once, their insides tumbling and scattering all over the floor. Before you can even think about receiving the satisfaction of slamming the door shut, you must shuffle all the pieces back into their places, careful that you’re picking up the right stuff and not accidentally mixing up this door’s thoughts with the contents from the door across the hall that just spilled open, too. And when you’ve finally, meticulously stacked all the screaming thoughts back into their boxes and arranged them just so, two more doors with even louder and more fragile thoughts burst open. 

It’s then that I lay down in the growing pile of crashing thoughts and chatter and close my eyes into an even smaller, darker hallway with smaller, more finicky doors—a sort of inception of my own coping mechanisms. 

Over and over I do this until the darkness swallows me.

Dizzy, I open my eyes quickly. The room is bright with afternoon sun. The ceiling fan spins around and around and again, I try and find one blade, but can’t. I take in a deep breath and stand as I exhale. The ducks are splashing in the pond. The chickens are pecking through the grass. The donkeys are out in the pasture, heads down and tails flicking. 

As I wander back to my office, I wonder how many versions of me might still be laying in piles of thoughts with their eyes closed? I wonder if there even exists a hallway that can be silenced? Or maybe that’s not the point? 

Thoughts for the next pause, I suppose. For now, the afternoon is alive once more and so too is my need to return to it, spilled contents and all.

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Sunflower’s Story

There once was a patch of sunflowers (10 stems, to be exact) who divvied themselves upon either side of the walkway through a garden. Some said they were oddly placed, but the sun shined strongest right there along that path and as we all know, sunflowers not only need, but love the sunlight.

For weeks, the stems grew and grew and finally, one early summer afternoon, the first flower bloomed.

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Her petals stretched wide as her face turned toward the sun and soon after that, other flowers upon other stems began unfolding too. Each flower was beautiful and strong, always turned towards the light which fed them–a stunning, vivid patch along that little garden path.

But as the weeks went by, one stem (the one on the far end of the patch) still had no flower—no face to turn towards the beaming sun. The stem just kept growing taller and taller, spitting out giant and heavy leaves in every direction.

By mid-summer, the other flowers began to droop (their time having passed) and still, the tall stem remained flowerless.

The gardener, curious about this large, barren stem, removed the old lifeless flowers from their shorter, less leafy stems. She wondered if this towering stalk would ever bloom? She pruned the other flowers, readying them for a new season. Day after day, the gardener checked on the growing stem at the edge of the harvested patch. The plant grew so tall that she could no longer reach or even see the top of it.

Finally, one humid morning where the heat laid in wet fog along the surface of everything, the gardener awoke to a beaming yellow crown, high above the otherwise empty patch. She ran outside to greet the soaring sunflower which was bigger and more beautiful than any flower she’d ever seen.

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For days the glorious flower radiated her beauty—her face so large that she didn’t need to turn towards the sun for the sun reached her from every direction.

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People came from far and wide to admire her. No one could believe that a sunflower could climb that high. She had been worth waiting for.

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As the summer blazed on, so too did the wheel of time, and so the day came that this mountainous flower—the largest and most beautiful that had ever been—started to slump. Her time had come.

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The sunflower’s strong stem began to buckle under her wilting weight, and so the gardener, with her best pair of shears, was forced to clip the crown from the queen of the patch.

The path through the garden was empty again, the only remaining growth being skeletal stems of their former, shining glory. Seemingly the end of an era.

But the gardener knows that this is no end. This is in fact the beginning! Because from the heart of every one of those sunflowers are the seeds of tomorrow.

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What started from a single seed is now dozens! Dozens that will line the little garden path. Dozens that will ship through the post to friends and family who have bees and butterflies anxiously waiting for a patch of their own. And from there, an infinite number of sunflower seeds…seeds from flowers that remind us that we all move in our own time. We grow in our own ways. We find strength in our roots and inspiration in the light that feeds us.

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…seeds from dried out and drooping death. Life goes on, our legacies and time taken to do what was right for us is built into these vulnerable, harvested seeds so that they may grow in awe inspiring ways.

…seeds which carry with them the pride and stamina and determination of those that came before them. Bury deep, your roots. Reach high, your ambitions. Be proud, your growth, even if it takes more time than the others.

Shine on, sweet sunflowers, shine on.

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Softness

I’m sitting in my spot—the one in the far, left nook of the couch by the window that looks out towards the donkey’s barn and pasture—as my coffee cools and the night is swelling into its final, heavy moments before the prick of dawn. I spent the fifteen or so minutes before this trying to meditate without much success. Meditation for me looks more like a whack-a-mole game of trying to silence my internal dialogue. Relax your face, I tell myself. Soften your shoulders. I don’t know how I’m going to respond to that angry email I’ve let sit in my inbox for a day. I guess it was my mistake that got me there, but it was a mistake nonetheless. And I owned it. But the world seems so unforgiving these days.

Relax your throat. Deep belly breath. Notice the crickets outside. Mistakes are supposed to help us grow. We are supposed to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities so that every day, we can do just that much better. But that email. The failure. The broken glass on the floor with me standing over it. In many ways, I’ve always been clumsy. 

Soften your eyebrows. Unclench your jaw. Imagine your breath is a jellyfish gently propelling itself through darkness. I’m sorry, I’ll say, I misunderstood. Because I truly did. I thumbed through my notes which I remember jotting down with what I later learned was incorrect information. My cheeks get hot and red when I realize I’m wrong and a giant hole opens up around my heart which swallows it into a pit of shame. 

Whack-a-mole. Whack, whack whack. So I abandoned my not-so-quiet spot on the floor, made myself some coffee, and settled into my couch nook.

I take a sip of my coffee which is mostly cool now. My brother makes fun of me for preferring room-temperature coffee. I don’t like hot coffee and I don’t much like cold coffee either. Hit me with that middle ground. This makes me smile because my brother never pokes fun with harshness, only silliness. He’s appalled at my coffee preferences and habits (because I also do this thing where I’ll make a whole pot of coffee, only drink one, cool cup form it, and spend the next three days pouring my morning coffee from the same full pot I brewed days ago instead of making fresh coffee). But he never makes me feel bad for it. He just laughs about it which in turn, makes me laugh. Actually, his recognition of my (albeit strange) brewing practices makes me feel seen.

Dawn will break any moment. To me, the anticipation is exciting every single morning. Sip. Breathe.

I recently finished watching the Amazon Prime series, “Good Omens,” which is based off the novel written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s a fantastic read (and wonderful listen if you’re an Audible subscriber) and I’m happy to have found that the television series is just as remarkable as the book. They did a phenomenal job adapting the story for the screen. I highly recommend.

I bring this up because there’s a moment in the television series where the angel, Aziraphale, sighs and says, “I’m soft.”

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Since finishing the series, I think about this moment often. 

I’m soft, he said. I’m soft. 

My chest still feels hollow and empty as my shame is berating my heart somewhere else that I can’t see, but boy can I feel. I absolutely loathe making mistakes. I hate letting others down, of course, but I also know that a misstep means the beast of self-consciousness is fed. I close my eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. 

“I’m soft,” he said. And he said it with a sigh. With a release. With a surrender. 

Softness. 

Softness, I think, is porous. My big donkey, Bunny, keeps relapsing with what’s called “white line disease” because her hooves are soft and porous. It’s been raining nearly non-stop for months which hasn’t allowed her desert-evolved-hooves to dry out and bacteria thrives there. Only in dry, open, and clean air can white line disease start to heal. The hooves need to harden and in hardness is protection. 

Maybe I’m soft. Maybe that’s why the monsters of doubt, anxiety, and depression thrive in my being like bacteria. My face feels so hot. I hate screwing up. How could I be so careless?

I take another sip of my cool coffee. The blackness outside has shifted into navy blue. Ron Swanson, my rooster, perches on the fence and crows—a deafening break of silence. 

I’m soft, I realize. I’m soft. 

I picture Aziraphale’s face and try, too, to surrender to the idea. I let go of the tension in my face, my shoulders, even in the muscles between my ribs. I let out an audible sigh. Ron Swanson crows again. 

But softness is what allowed Aziraphale to become sympathetic to the human race and even, I think, fall in love with them. Softness is how Aziraphale was able to connect with and find a partner in the demon Crowley, ultimately saving the world through their camaraderie. Softness allowed them to see one another. 

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Softness is why my brother making fun of my coffee habits doesn’t hurt my feelings. He sees me as a person with unique traits and I receive the comments as being seen as an individual. Softness is our ability to see one another as humans with strengths and weaknesses. With talents and flaws. With complex histories and room for growth. Softness connects us, it doesn’t block us out. Heck, softness is why I got into donkey rescue in the first place—because those long ears and thoughtful eyes passed through the netted walls of my soft heart and found a home in there and I never, ever, wanted to see another donkey suffer.

To be soft is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable, in my opinion, is to be brave. Knocking down the calloused walls knowing that the rawness behind it might be seen or judged by others takes strength. To recognize, admit, and own missteps with the intention of improving moving forward is something that as imperfect beings, we should all be trying to do. No one is perfect, so bust down that wall that you’ve built around the insecurity of not being perfect all the time—it’s not doing you any good.

I learned quickly as a novice gardener that the soil must be tilled, soft, and porous in order for plants to find strong rooting, ultimately allowing them to grow larger and hopefully, bear more fruit. So maybe if we till ourselves, allowing the surface to soften from time to time, we’ll experience growth in ways we hadn’t previously imagined. We’ll see each other as individuals with complex pasts and beautiful minds—that in our collective imperfection is infinite possibility for growth and connection. 

I’m soft. 

I’m soft.

I’m soft and for the first time all morning, I don’t have to remind myself to relax. Let flow, the feelings that rise. There is so much to learn and so much room to grow.

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Waiting out the Storm

It’s an East Texas downpour out there—the kind where I know that somewhere beyond the endless sheets of rain is a brown barn that inside, must be awfully loud beneath a tin roof, although I can’t see more than a blur of gray and swaying, green smudges that are the swelling leaves of new, spring life. I keep wanting to clean up and till the garden to start anew, but every time I find a few free moments to get out there and tend to her, storms move through with a fury, washing out the loose soil and feeding the rampant weeds that I can’t seem to get out in front of, no matter how I try.

Through a foggy window, I watch the rain switch directions over and over again as lightning flashes every few seconds and drum rolls of thunder barrel by almost without break. The forecast shows we have several more days of this and I keep thinking of the garden flooding, washing away any bit of useful dirt and leaving behind hard-packed, red clay that’s been beaten down into a calloused and impenetrable space.

I think of the donkeys in the loud barn, imagining their eyes staring out into the blurry forest that surrounds our house. With ears as sensitive as theirs, storms like this must be painful. Both of my dogs are hidden in a closet right now, terrified of the thunder that crashes through, full-bellied and heavy, every few seconds. It’s the kind of thunder you feel in your chest—ribs rattling with the rolls—a direct hit to the heart every time.

I worry I’ve missed my window to plant a garden that might have a growing-chance because after this stormy season comes that notorious, inescapable, Texas summer. Watching this storm, however, I suppose that even if I’d gotten those tiny, eager seedlings into the ground and meticulously arranged the mulch, cages, and cork-labels around them, they’d have rotted in the rain water by now or been washed away before establishing any real roots. How can roots reach out when every time those tiny arms try to grab at the spaces outside of themselves, their entire world floods and deforms, leaving nothing solid to latch onto or dig deeper into?

Still, here in early spring, bright, green life is blooming rapidly in all directions up in the treetops. Heavy with leaves, their branches droop down and cast dark and cool shadows across the yard. Along the edges of things, sunflower sprouts and sweet grass reach high towards the sun when she’s out and radiating while aggressive, spiky weeds slither and slap across the ground like an octopus out of water.

But it’s the little seeds in their tiny pods with thread-like roots: cantaloupe and cucumbers, tomatoes and hot peppers, sweet peas and turnips, that I want to gently transfer outside and tend to daily so I can watch them reach, swirl, and grow and witness the fruit they could bear. It’s just for now, they don’t seem like they’ll have a fighting chance as the rain falls harder and faster creating muddy pools that’ll take days to recede. I lose hope that my tiny, delicate seedlings will sprout and find their real roots in the ground outside: little seeds that started out so hopeful in little baggies, labeled proudly and waiting to learn what it feels like to reach into the warm, open air. I’ve read so many books and blogs that have told me when it’s the perfect time to plant around here, but I just can’t seem to land on that perfect time and as I watch the blurs of grays and greens whip and lash around outside, I doubt I’ll find that perfect time.

I’ve read about above ground gardening, seen pictures and how-tos, and have even been encouraged by some to take that route. Maybe I will. Maybe I have to. I guess that’s the problem with laying all your hopes down in the space you cleared up near your house where the sun would be perfect and the drainage seemed ideal because of the slant. You root for that space that you spent time clearing and turning with your hands, shovel, and tiller and fenced in to keep the rabbits out. You liked the idea of digging down a little deeper, where it’s cool and dark and full of strange bugs that tie themselves in knots when the sun touches them. The idea that the root’s paths were essentially endless without a bottom created hope for their strength and growth to be infinite. I’ve always thought that the deeper we dig, the taller we must grow.

But then these days, it feels like it’s all about building up. Building up, filling in, creating drainage systems, and using that cold, hard clay as a foundation….a base…a starting point that if you’re building up and up, doesn’t really matter if it’s too hard to breakthrough. You use the callouses as starting points from which to move forward, not to dig beneath in hopes they’ll ever soften enough to allow for real, fruitful growth.

The storm has subsided a bit now into a steady, straight-down rain that you can actually see through. There are some large branches scattered around the yard: branches without new, green leaves that the trees must’ve been ready to shed to make way for anew. Branches that had must have been overrun with bugs or rot or had simply just died off because their part was finished. The trees must feel lighter now—relieved, even—having rid themselves of their heavy, dead branches.

I don’t think I’m ready to give up on the idea of digging down into that now hard and calloused space I’ve created. It doesn’t feel dead to me yet and abandoning it, I suspect, would bring me no relief. It just needs more time. It needs more tilling. It needs to be fed and touched and rid of the sneaky weeds that grow faster than the fruit I intend to grow.

So I suppose I’ll keep waiting. Waiting. Waiting for the storm to pass and the for the sun to dry the puddles so I can get back to turning and digging and loosening the ground enough for roots to travel freely and growth to reach up full and tall.

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