I spent all of August (and some of this month) in bed.
Some combination of burn out from months of heightened devotion to my business, intense withdrawal from Zoloft (tapering in advance of trying to get pregnant), physical ailments (a persistent rash on my face, debilitating periods, and a polyp in my uterus), and yes, a daily diet of heart-shattering news of a world in the midst of destruction and eventual rebirth.
It would be easy to simply call it depression, but I’ve been depressed before and this was different.
Then I read something that named it perfectly: soul fever.
The thought of bringing a child into this world is heavy, and I’m exploring that from a lot of angles. Last week I picked up the book Simplicity Parenting and couldn’t put it down. It’s a powerful and useful read regardless of whether or not you have children. The value of the book, though not intended by the author, is in the roadmap it provides for parenting not just children but our adult selves in today’s overwhelming world.
Soul fever (just one of the book’s insightful concepts) is an inflammation, overheating, and overstimulation of the self. Soul fevers might not register on a thermometer, but you know when something is chronically not right. You know when ‘too much’ has driven you to your most unsupportive habits, dimmed your light, intensified your emotions, and thrown you off-kilter. Recent news of hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes (never mind the raging inferno of white supremacy and toxic masculinity) is enough to make anyone sick on every level.
For most of human history, we didn’t have television or the news. Reports of what was happening around the world took time to travel. There was no 24/7 play-by-play of natural disasters or moment-to-moment death counts. We’re not designed to handle this much human suffering in real time.
I keep thinking about the documentary film Paper Clips that details one school’s effort to help children comprehend the human loss from the Holocaust. Knowing that it’s nearly impossible for anyone, not just children, to grasp how many six million lost lives is they set out to gather six million paper clips. This was an ingenious solution to working with the limitations of the human mind, and these days I feel my limitations acutely.
Perhaps you do too.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve come down with a soul fever.
Soul fevers don’t come and go in a day, but like a body fever, linger until proper rest and care have been given. Soul fevers won’t be ignored, they get worse and get louder.
According to the book, soul fevers arise when chaos and unpredictability, a lack of grounding, and intense pressures to go faster, do/have/achieve more — all drive one to be unwell.
Soul fevers manifest differently in each person. We know a soul fever when whatever is a person’s homeostasis is thrown off and the discord persists.
It’s safe to say the whole world right now has a sort of soul fever. An arrhythmia of earth and of humanity.
It took me weeks to get quiet enough to hear where my heart is beating out of rhythm.
And it’s challenging if you’re a helper, a committed citizen, an aspiring ally, an empath, a highly sensitive person (HSP), or a conscious human — to juggle the pull to do something, anything, to help the suffering and threatened people ‘out there’, while also tending to yourself. It’s a delicate balance for many.
I saw this floating around the internet this week and it really stuck with me:
What if we right now we didn’t try to be heroes?
What if we focused more on long-term ‘chronic empathy’ and caregiving—starting with ourselves, our experience, our minds, and our bodies?
Healing soul fever looks different for each person.
For me, it looks like not watching the news (I love Rachel Maddow, but the nightly dosage was making me ill) or deep diving into news commentary. Yes, I like to know what’s going on and thankfully, that’s relatively unavoidable, but I don’t need to know more than that right now.
It looks like getting offline, closing screens, and focusing on simple activities: a jigsaw puzzle, an embroidery project, or a walk around the neighborhood (without a politically-focused podcast to keep me company).
It looks like regular therapy sessions and truth telling to my kinfolk.
It looks like laughter — intentional, radical, unapologetic laughter. It looks like patience and a slow, wide-eyed stance as I, like everyone, navigate these choppy waters. It looks like doing what has to get done and nothing more.
It looks like going out into nature — not just so she can restore me — but so that I can feel into my relationship with her; something she is clearly asking each of us to do.
I invite you to step into a plane of expansive permission and curiosity:
Does this soul fever I speak of sound familiar?
What, in your life, is making things worse? What’s inflaming the fever? (hint: pay close attention to screen-time, news, and social media.)
What would you do if you had a body fever? What’s the equivalent of that for your soul?
What can you trust?
Can you trust in your own essential goodness?
Can you trust in your capacity to awaken, evolve, and hold contradictions?
Can you trust the pace that feels best to you?
Can you trust that other people can take the reigns if you take a break?
Can you trust in mother nature’s wisdom?
Can you trust that out of destruction and collapse, eventually, comes a new birth?
As I look ahead to the rest of 2017, my focus is on creating stillness, grounding, and breathing space for myself and for you. I have no doubt that with these things in place an engaged citizenship will rise, but without them, soul fever, paralysis, and disconnection set in.
If you’re suffering from your own acute soul fever do whatever you need to heal. If you are needing a break, a full stop, or a time-out please know that the permission is there for the taking and no irreparable harm will come of it.
Play the long game.
Listen, listen, listen for what is needed now.
Even in the darkness our hungers light the way forward.
A few ways I might be able to support you in moving through your soul fever:
I have a few spots that opened in my practice this month. Coaching is actually where I feel my most grounded and powerful these days. If you could benefit from a strong container of love, practical strategies, and guidance through these uncertain waters reach out.
There is nowhere I would rather right now than secluded in a canyon in Tucson, Arizona, sitting around the fire pit at night, listening to the owls, seeing the stars, and filling my cup. If a getaway is just what you need, consider hopping a flight to the desert in October and joining in for a long weekend of deep self-tending.
November will be here before we know it and I’ll be bringing back my daily audio meditations with a handful of new guest contributors. There has never been a year we have needed this more. Stay tuned.
Recently I started an in-person writing group—IT’S AMAZING. The first run ends in mid-October and I’ll be opening up spaces for a few new folks beginning in November. If you’re in the Bay Area and interested, send me an email.
Image Credit: Evelyn De Morgan
To hear me read this post use this audio player:
This is just to say we have two ears. One for listening to our own hearts and one for listening to the hearts of others.
This is just to say that the juxtaposition is striking
as we put the chocolate cake in the oven, or scan for cheap flights for the upcoming holiday, or press the wrinkles out of a dress, iron steam wafting in our face
all the while the threads of our democracy are fraying and police can murder black people.
This is just to say Philando Castile.
This is just to say Philando Castile was murdered and it was legal.
This is just to say this morning’s oatmeal wasn’t quite as creamy. Was is too much water? Not enough milk?
This is just to say that fat people are not before pictures.
This is just to say if you care about the ravages of white supremacy then you should care about the ravages of thin supremacy.
This is just to say some of the least woke people call themselves feminists.
This is just to say the plants on my balcony are outgrowing their pots—crawling out of the soil like a child does last year’s shoes. This is just to say that I wonder “Am I outgrowing my soil?”
This is just to say it’s not Flint, Michigan that doesn’t have clean drinking water, it’s the human beings in Flint, Michigan that don’t have clean drinking water more than 1,000 days later.
This is just to say I tried one of those online clothing resale sites. I got a sweater. I think I overpaid. It’s warm and perfect for summer in San Francisco.
This is just to say my cycles have been irregular and it’s unsettling.
This is just to say I think I’m still trying to get what I needed when I was eight. You too?
This is just to say that we have two ears and many people have known for a long time how to listen out of both. The Syrian parents who throw birthday parties while bombs drop around them. They know that we need both ears open wide. They know that it’s a privilege to listen with only one.
This is just to say that we have two ears and one of them is to hear our own life. Through it we get the call, we find the switch to lift us out of the gray. Through this ear our hungers point loudly north, we discover how to start our day, the name of the chapter we’re in reveals itself. Through this ear we find the detours around our resistance and pleasure, and the urge to make, and the imperative to be together. This is the ‘follow your bliss’ ear. The ‘well-fed living’ ear. The ‘live your best life’ ear.
This is just to say the other ear is to hear the babies crying. Through this ear we hear injustice so it makes, wakes and shakes us towards our one mouth. This is the ‘we’re all in this together’ ear. This is the ‘privilege isn’t a choice’ ear. This is the ‘talk less, listen more’ ear. This is the ‘blindspot shattering’ ear.
This is just to say thank you.
Thank you to those fighting today and to those whose shoulders today’s teachers stand on.
Thank you to Shaun King, Kelly Diels, Desiree Adaway, Melissa Toler, Linda Bacon, Ragen Chastain, Jes Baker, Janet Mock, Cecile Richards, Ethan Nichtern, Ijeoma Oluo and Sonya Renee, and and and…
This is just to say you deserve to eat. You’re allowed to eat. Food is not the enemy. You are not the enemy. Your body is not the enemy. The enemy is anyone or anything that tells you to mistrust yourself, to shrink yourself, to override yourself, to cover either of your two ears. The enemy is anyone or anything that tells you that trading ease for the illusion of control is a good deal.
This is just to say Sandra Bland.
This is just to say Kalief Browder.
This is just to say go register to vote. Go now.
This is just to say that one time at a dinner party, many years ago, the woman seated next to me casually mentioned that she and her husband saw a therapist for general relationship maintenance. I cried. Right there. The ache for a partner willing to do the work was so deep in me. Listen for this ache. You have two ears too.
This is just to say you’re not alone.
This is just to say that Greta, my niece, learned to crawl this week.
This is just to say I want to circle around the fire with you.
This is just to say that the week our president took office my face broke out in a rash.
This is just to say that the cake is almost ready to come out of the oven.
This is just to say your faith can be as simple as believing in your own worthiness and our interdependence.
This is just to say white nectarines are my favorite of all the summer fruits.
This is just to say we have to hold both.
This is just to say the juxtaposition is striking and we’re not supposed to feel comfortable.
This is just to say that we all have two ears and one mouth.
This is just to say I struggle to listen too.
“Get into extended triangle pose, Utthita Trikonasana” my yoga teacher says.
Everyone in the class moves to assume the position.
“I say each asana in Sanskrit because we believe that the poses, in their original language, have energy” she explains.
And so it goes, every Sunday morning that I get myself there, first in English and then in Sanskrit. One way so we understand, another way so we feel it.
Life coaches are sticklers for language too. We’ve learned that our words have power. We’re trained to listen for the subtlest energy behind the words our clients speak.
This past week I was having a one-on-one session with a Feast student and she told me she was struggling with mindfulness. She said she was planning to start practicing on the coming Monday when she finally had a break in her busy life.
(An aside: yes, this does sound a lot like “I’ll start my diet on Monday”)
As I listened I noticed that every time she said mindfulness, a word I had not used in my teachings, it felt sterile and heavy, burdensome even. She talked about mindfulness like I might talk about taxes, root canals, or going to the DMV. If she was selling mindfulness I was not buying.
Mindfulness isn’t a word I use a lot for this very reason: the concept and practice have become an aspirational buzzword and measure of moral ranking. It’s now common belief that like exercise, morally superior people practice mindfulness.
I want no part in that.
Don’t get me wrong. The years of mindfulness study that I’ve undertaken through the Insight Meditation community, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Zen Buddhism, and via the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Cheri Huber, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron (just to name a few) has transformed me, my heart, and my life.
But the word generally doesn’t connect with me.
So I interrupted her and said: “What if we replaced ‘mindfulness’ with ‘experiencing’ or ‘engaged experiencing’?”
With that simple switch, everything shifted for her.
She felt lighter and excited even. After all, she wanted to experience her life, her food, her emotions, her relationships. She wanted to experience what was happening. Yes, this is what mindfulness practice is all about, but by changing the verbiage a resistant student became an eager student in a matter of minutes.
This got me thinking about what other words I shy away from or have found more resonate alternatives for. Here’s a short list of my favorite switch-ups:
‘But’ negates everything that comes before it. ‘And’ honors what comes before and it allows you hold two, sometimes opposing, truths. ‘But’ divides. ‘And’ includes.
My math teacher assigned exercises. Exercise feels militant. Exercise feels rote. Exercise feels like it has a right way and a wrong way. Exercise reminds me of all the physical education and compulsive workout trauma of my past. ‘Movement’ feels spacious. You can’t do movement wrong. Movement sounds fun.
Contracted: Overweight or Obese
Expansive: Fat, Larger-Bodied, Plus-Size
Over what weight?! Who says what’s over and under? ‘Overweight’ implies a problem and ranks bodies, yet healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Obese’ and ‘obesity’ have become weaponized words, after all, we’re at ‘war’ against them, right?
If we want to live in a society that respects all bodies without stigmatizing, moralizing, or shaming then these words need to go. Within the size-acceptance community there are still disagreements about what terms are acceptable, but the alternative words I’ve listed above are a good place to start. Yes, you can call someone ‘fat’ without it being an insult. Fat is not a bad word.
Expansive: Could, Want to, Feel obligated
If I have a ‘should’ you can bet I’m going to resist doing it. In addition to inciting rebellion, ‘should’ also carries with it judgment: “If you’re good, you’ll do the ‘should’, if you’re bad you won’t.” Should also doesn’t feel empowered. The hope is, whenever it’s possible, we move from a place of choice, of desire, of hungers seeking to be fed. My response to clients who feel a ‘should’ on their shoulders is “But what do you want?”
Contracted: Food & weight numbers
Expansive: A vague description with no numbers
When we share how many minutes we ran on the treadmill, how many cookies we ate, our new pants size, or how much weight we’ve gained/lost we too easily incite comparison. In a society obsessed with achieving control over our body and under the illusion that if we only apply more discipline we can shrink, harden, and purify our flesh specific numbers are fuel for the fire. Good thing we don’t need them. We can easily tell the story of our morning at the gym, our experience at the pastry shop, or what happened in the clothing store fitting room without including specific numbers.
How about you? What words feel heavy, antiseptic, or robotic to you? What words feel layered with judgment, assumption, and morality? Lastly, what word swaps could you make that would free up energy, create forward momentum, and feel more respectful, more aligned with what you values?
Hop on over to my Facebook page to join the conversation.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.” — Toni Morrison
I grew up just outside Washington, D.C. My dad worked for the government and as lobbyist (not a dirty word all of the time) for most of my life. The paper versions of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal were at the breakfast table every morning (is my privilege showing?).
I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Political science and spent three of my college summers interning in D.C. including in the U.S. Senate. I wrote my thesis on charter schools.
Certainly I wish someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and said “Hey! Rachel! Snap out of it! What are you doing majoring in political science?! You know yourself, you should be a psychology major with an art minor. Obviously.”
Alas, no one held that intervention, it was a slog to the end of those four years, and it took me a bit longer to find my true path. One of the results though is that political engagement remains a core value of mine and never has it been more tested than now.
The truth is that since January I’ve been riding these two waves: periods of intense engagement followed by periods of intense burnout and overwhelm.
I believe that when the ground is shifting underneath us and the aftershocks (or subsequent earthquakes) haven’t ceased, feeling shaky is to be expected. It’s normal is we don’t yet know what the new normal looks like.
That said, I also believe that each of us, especially the privileged among us, needs to be committed to sustainable civic engagement. I say ‘sustainable’ because, as so many have said, this is a marathon and not a sprint. So the question I’m left with and that I pose to you is “What will allow me to be engaged and active in a sustainable way?”
My answer, so far, has been: activism + art.
This equation that’s working for me right now.
This equation is what’s keep burn out at bay.
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
- Attend my local Indivisible meeting
- Paint protest postcards.
- Call my representatives.
- Sewing for my niece.
- Create a fundraiser for causes I believe in.
- Try a new recipe.
- Sing my protest.
- Play with Sculpey.
- Watch Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin break it down. (Then watch Rachel Maddow)
- Sew some more.
This is the dance I’m trying to do: make my activism infused with art or following my activism with creating of any kind. The goal is to fill my tank, which creating does for me in spades, so that I have something to give to the resistance.
It’s worth noting that the label “artist” ignites many people’s imposter complex.
“Who me? An artist? I don’t think so!”
All humans need to make. Creative expression, no matter the form, is available and essential to everyone. The forms of art that I have been playing with (sewing, painting, cooking, etc.) are the ones I’m called towards. Let what you’re called towards, let what you make, be enough. This isn’t about being Picasso. This isn’t about making perfect things. This is about making because the act of making renews us.
On the protest front, if you’re still not sure what actions to take but want to be part of the resistance you can check out this beginner’s guide I put together back in January. It’s chock full of resources and places to start.
I’d love to hear what’s working for you? What’s allowing you to find your path to sustainable engagement? What’s filling your tank? What are you making these days? Pop on over to my Facebook page and share your experience.
I have a practice called Wild Writing. I learned it from the inimitable Laurie Wagner and I attend a Wild Writing group with her most Friday mornings. The group practice goes something like this:
1. Laurie reads a poem. A good poem. A grounded poem. Not an abstract, hard to deconstruct poem. A poem about dirty dishes in the sink or a poetic list of life regrets. Then she pulls one or two lines from that poem and offers it up as our prompt.
2. We use the prompt, or not if we don’t feel like it, and we write for fifteen minutes without stopping. The pen never stops. We write too fast for the inner critic or to sound smart. We just go. We try to find the vein of what really wants to be said. No performing. Just truth.
3. Then we go around the table and we share what we wrote. No one responds. We are just witnessed. Then the next person reads.
4. We repeats this two more times.
5. We go home cleansed.
Today was my first day back at the Wild Writing table in a long while. The holidays, a wedding, and political upheaval had pulled me away. I returned, as I often do, doubting whether I have anything to say or if I will even remember how to do this (despite it being so simple). Below are two of the pieces I wrote this morning. Unfiltered.
May they inspire you to get it out, write it out, speak it out. May they call forth the messy truth, the contradictions, and the part inside of you that knows what’s needed now.
Advice to Myself
Go the flea market. Spend $8 on clip-on earrings of mini bingo cards. Spend $3 on poster board for protest signs — have a wardrobe of signs at the ready.
Sew like your life depended on it. Sew like the world will come apart at the seams if you don’t stitch it up.
Measure the pillow insert and remeasure and remeasure and even though it says 19”, ignore it. Pretend it’s 20” in a world where facts are debatable. You can decide it’s 20” if you don’t mind a slightly oversized pillow case.
Pray to the light of cute babies and dinner parties where you pull animal spirit cards and share whose husbands have trouble getting naked and whose have trouble staying clothed. Pray to the light of French onion soup and a life free from wedding planning.
Pray to the light because you have no choice but to bury your fingers—no, your arms—in the blackest of dirst and dig. Dig like a chain gang. Each of us sentenced to hard labor for the foreseeable future. If you sit this out completely you’re a traitor.
Make granola. Toast the oats and the coconut and use the last bits of crystallized ginger, the sesame seeds, the sour cherries—the ones you bought in Germany for plane snacks but never ate.
Advice to myself: get on your fucking yoga mat. Your neck and shoulders and hips are a few of the most trustworthy sources of information there are right now.
Go out for thai food, slurp noodles in between glances of the basketball game.
Roll lettuce cups while too-calmly explaining that you’re just at the “impeachment” stage.
[This writing was inspired by Lousie Erdrich’s Advice to Myself poem]
What kind of times are these?
These are times of picking battles. These are times where so much that used to ruffle feathers falls insignificantly, weightlessly by the wayside.
It doesn’t matter that he needed one typewriter ribbon but ordered four to get the free shipping. Or that she’ll have to take a cab because you’re running late. Your weight doesn’t matter, it didn’t then and it really doesn’t now. It doesn’t matter that you have two turnips in your vegetable drawer that have been there since October.
Kellyanne Conway’s frizzy hair, the President’s tiny orange hands, or Mike Pence’s repressed homosexuality don’t matter.
No, we have to keep our eyes on the prize, eyes on the bloody Syrian baby, eyes on The Constitution, eyes on our community, eyes on what our dollars support, eyes on the times that we blindly checked the box for the incumbent or didn’t check the box at all.
What doesn’t matter is if the cleaning lady sees your vibrator or you forgot to eat a vegetable today, or this week. It doesn’t matter if you called your grandmother out of obligation or if you haven’t cancelled that unused gym membership yet.
No, what matters is the friend with seizures who may lose his health insurance. What matters is the sixteen year old who, like you, had sex with her boyfriend, and unlike you got pregnant. What matters is the life she wants to live. What matters is that, as painful as it is, we read the news every day. What matters is that nice white ladies put their bodies visibly out there in support of black bodies.
It doesn’t matter if people call you radical or you make a mistake. It doesn’t matter if the NSA taps your phone and hears you saying almost daily how comfortable you are with someone committing assassination.
No, this is a time of stark contrast and we must pick our battles. If we’re not fighting to protect what we hold dear, we don’t deserve it. We might not deserve it.
Is this boring? All this call to arms? Are we already jaded, already too overwhelmed, already too confused about what’s happening and who’s in charge and “How could he say that?” and “How could he not know that?!” Are we there yet?
What matters is that’s what they want: to exhaust, confuse, and lull us.
What kind of times are these?
[This writing was inspired by Adrienne Rich’s What Kind of Times Are These poem]
During extremely stressful times, our internal challenges can become magnified.
The current political crisis in America has lead everyone I know to react in a different way. Some are channeling their anxiety into activism. Others are burying their head in the sand — or the refrigerator. Some are circling their community for comfort — others are putting themselves on punishing exercise plans.
If you are struggling right now with your relationship to food and your body Feast will give you the tools you need to navigate this particularly uncertain moment in history: self-compassion, intuitive eating, effective emotional coping, and self-trust.