D is for Death

Jul 9
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

D is for Death

“When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again.”
― Thich Nhat HanhNo Death, No Fear

You’ll think the subject of death a strange choice for someone who is focusing on “vitality” words. I would have thought so too until yesterday.

In the morning I got a sudden flurry of texts with bad news. A dear friend passed away. Suddenly. During the night. Alone in her home. She wasn’t even 60 yet. I want to tell you more about her, but I see that her family hasn’t posted anything about her passing on social media yet, so I’m not going to tell you her name or share identifying stories about her at this time. I’ll only say she’s someone I’ve blogged about before and she’s as dear to me as can be.

I was shocked by the news, and at first I wept for myself with pity that death had visited loss on me again. Too many losses in the last two years have left me raw, dangling at the edge of depression.

As the day wore on, I vacillated between tears and numbness. Then in the early evening, as I loaded my dishwasher and took care of a few other household tasks to give my mind some relief from heaviness, I began remembering several instances when my friend had comforted me during sad moments. And times when we’d collapsed into laughter together. Times when she’d depended on me for support. Times when she’d mocked my seriousness in exactly the right way at the right time. Memory after memory flooded in. Our friendship was an uncomplicated gift from beginning to end. Most of us don’t get many like that.

I felt a sudden rush of joy. Surprised, I sat down and let the feeling in and then I had an experience like nothing I’ve had before. My friend’s energy was in the room with me. I’m not saying her disembodied spirit was there—I’m not claiming she was literally visiting me (who knows?). What I’m saying is that I had conjured her laughter, simplicity, and salt-of-the-earth generosity with my memories.

My friend and I had run A LOT of miles together over the years. Out on the trail we talked about everything. From frivolous to grave, our conversations meandered. I can’t think of many topics we didn’t touch on at some point because we had so much time for wandering trains of thought. Because of this, I knew what she believed about death. I knew she wasn’t afraid of it. Expected an afterlife. Held that she would see loved ones again. In fact, she was one of the few people I’ve ever believed when she claimed not to be afraid of dying. Her phrase was, “When it’s my time, I’ll go,” and she made decisions in her life based on that assertion.

This morning as I woke (unlike yesterday morning when I received the news), I could feel myself making peace with death himself. He visits EVERY SINGLE ONE of us. Usually he comes many times for those around us before he brings us to the end of our own lives. He visits us because it is his only job. Everyone you know and everyone I know will transition out of this life. With my friend’s passing, I’m seeing that I can’t be happy unless I stop standing in front of this ocean, stop trying to keep back the coming tide with my hands held in front of me like a police officer directing traffic to halt. For the most part, dying isn’t in our control, so we waste our precious life resisting it, don’t we?

Something opened up in my chest yesterday. Today I’m breathing in gratitude for what has been instead of grief for what will not be. I know my friend would prefer this perspective. Gratitude is how she guided her life.

C is for Calm

Jul 8
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

C is for Calm

I lay on a beach towel on the warm, white sand and let the sun glaze my skin. Waves wash ashore gently, and I am in a state between waking and sleeping—totally serene, totally at ease. Nothing in my body is activated and ready to defend because THERE IS NO DANGER, real or perceived. This is a state of calm.

I remember these few moments while traveling to Panama. We had taken a side trip to one of the Bocas del Toro islands and I was committed to total relaxation for a few days.  That moment on the beach when, surrounded by nothing but warm air and the sound of palm tree leaves rustling and ocean waves lapping, is the safe place I go in my mind after my therapist and I do deep work to heal painful memories.

The opposite of calm is where I’ve lived most of my life. Oh, I know how to look centered (another “C” word) on the outside, but much of the time I am fighting to keep my equilibrium. Don’t get me wrong, my inner life isn’t utter turmoil and writhing, but my set point has been a certain amount of constant vigilance. Why? Well, not to blame my parents, but the truth is that I was born into a very, very, very activated context. I can imagine how scary life must have been for two teenagers foisted into parenthood before their brains were even fully developed.

My earliest memories were of screaming matches between my parents. Father drinking, mother flailing her arms and throwing things across the room in desperate anger. Chaos. In one fight, my mother threw a full glass of milk at my dad’s head. He ducked, but was doused by the splatter when the glass hit the wall. Then, my usually passive father came after her with a whole carton, set on dumping it over her head. My mother screamed at all of us to run into the laundry room, where we huddled, holding the door shut by shoving the massive piles of dirty laundry up against it until my dad calmed down.

Moments like that—especially when many such moments are strung together over a childhood—change a child’s brain, you know? Her emotional thermometer will be set for “watch for anger, stay out of the way of danger.” And CALM becomes illusive.

Since my first foray into a therapist’s office thirty years ago, I came to understand that my neuropathways were formed around fear. Never mind blame, okay? I don’t blame either of my parents for their unskillful approach to childrearing, and I know they did the best they could, but that does not change what happened to the brain. The brain doesn’t calm down just because we forgive. The parasympathetic nervous system learns its lessons young and, though we consciously make efforts to gain insight into the past, insight does not change the body’s clenching when someone throws something or when an angry face scowls at you.

What then? How to gain calm?

Picture yourself on a beach with the sun glazing your skin. Nothing to be afraid of. No place to go. See the serenity of your surroundings and direct the shoulders, chest, forehead to relax.

Calm, I am FINALLY finding out (bummer I didn’t learn this in therapy school), comes through the body, not the mind. Polyvagal theory explains this: that perceived danger first activates fight/flight, then shutdown. But if we can regulate the response of the nervous system through self-soothing or what is called “co-regulation” with a trusted other person who is present to support, then calm is the result.

Nowadays, I am regularly taking time away from everything (even if it means some things don’t get done) and regulating my breathing, relaxing my muscles, and lying on the beach.

Try it. Can you feel the calm?

B is for Beliefs

Jul 7
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

B is for Belief

I used to be a person of faith. There was a time when I knew what I believed: The Four Spiritual Laws, the Five Points of Calvinism, the Apostle’s Creed. My beliefs were assents to doctrines I was told would save my soul. And I believed those who told me this.

I believed because I was young when I encountered these doctrines and because my heart was broken with my parents’ divorce, my father’s easy slip into addiction, and my mother’s quick remarriage to someone who was a stranger to us. I believed because I wanted someone to be present for me and to love me and to give my life structure. God did that for me, as did His Bride, the Church. I had a family with them for many years.

And then I lost my ability to believe. What happened was that I lived with a constant pall over my head about hell. Not believing the doctrines properly would mean my soul would be in hell for eternity. And I thought this was true for all of my friends who didn’t believe them too. Every day for almost twenty years I vibrated with a quiet terror that my beliefs might not REALLY be up to par, and certainly that some people I loved were guaranteed to suffer forever in a lake of fire. The pressure to proselytize was a constant stress. I couldn’t sink into restful appreciation for my own salvation while everyone else was facing eternal execution. I couldn’t even hold a “regular” job spending 8 hours a day doing tasks unrelated to bringing my “good news” to the world with terrible guilt.

In graduate school, something changed. I encountered the term “social construction.” Stay with me here; I know this is heady. A socially constructed “truth” is an idea that a bunch of people agree on SO much and SO hard that everyone begins to believe it and accepts it as real. Money is a great example. Money runs our world, but only because we all agree that paper stamped with our government’s symbols (or numbers on a bank statement) are valuable.  It serves us to construct a reality that allows us to buy and sell using money exchange instead of making direct trades (a therapy session for a basket full of veggies from your garden, for instance).

I started really, really thinking about the things I believed and began to understand that the doctrines I held were literally decided on by groups of men sitting down to agree on what was true (hello Council of Trent and thanks).

And I lost my beliefs (not my faith, you understand, but more on that when we get to F).

Over the ensuing years (about 15) I’ve wished I could believe specific things about divinity, intelligent design, the afterlife, etc. But I’ve remained largely agnostic about these things. Why pretend to know something that isn’t knowable? (I have my suspicions, you understand, but they don’t rise to the level of beliefs.)

I’m ready now, however, to reclaim a creed. And the last three years of loss and death and grieving have given me some experiences to base my beliefs on. So here’s my new doctrine. I call it the Five Points of Cami:

  • Real friends who know you well can and often will make space for you to be messy, crabby, and confused. Don’t take advantage of this, but be grateful when you f*ck up and they let it go.
  • Dogs are the only real source of unconditional love but some cats and some people can provide supplemental connection, support, wisdom, and cuddles.
  • The practical stuff you need for living can always be replaced if you need to start over, but self-respect is something a person must never walk out on.
  • “Salvation,” if there is such a thing, ONLY exists in this present moment. Being alive to what is true RIGHT NOW inside your body is the only eternal aliveness there is.
  • Kindness, compassion, and curiosity about the experiences of others are sacraments. Even practiced imperfectly and infrequently, they will expand a person’s capacity for connection with others and for joy.

So that’s it. My new set of beliefs. And when I re-read them, I don’t feel a vibration of anxiety that other people might not agree with them. I only feel relief. Like, “Yeah, these beliefs can guide my life and inform decisions I may need to make. Good enough.”

Do you have a creed? Would love to hear it.

 

 

A is for Adventure

Jul 5
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

For the past several years in April, my friend Pam has blogged through the alphabet. I’ve usually followed along with admiration that she’s been able to crank out a coherent piece of writing for 26 consecutive days. Even in my most prolific blogging days while I was running all over the world, I only averaged one or two blogs per week. But I was out for a run yesterday and had a train of thought that has made me decide to blog through the alphabet. Let’s say it’s certainly my intent to finish A through Z, and I’ll do my best to crank these out before the end of July.

Here’s what I thought about on my run that led me to this commitment:

The past three years have been hard years for me. I mean f*cking super hard, like the kind of hard you hope doesn’t happen more than once in your life. I left a relationship that meant a lot to me but was not working for me; I moved away from my home and my community; my grandmother who helped raise me passed away; grandpa died of a brain tumor shortly after she passed; my cat of 16 years, Bronte, died a few months after that; I started two meaningful but time-consuming and expensive businesses to get myself back up to my earning potential and to support my life in Seattle; I got shingles; my little pug Jane was sick for a year and then died; my remaining pet, Fuji, has had a series of expensive and painful illnesses that has left her bladder leaking everywhere, plus she’s a basket case after everything we’ve been through and she has panic attacks when I leave her alone.

You see what I mean? It’s been a hard three years. Some of this I’ve had control over, obviously. Some of the choices I’ve made have felt like the best choices I knew how to make in difficult circumstances, but they were my choices. Other items on this list are things that just happened. Old people and animals get sick and die. The fact of this doesn’t make the loss hurt less, but it does mean I had a reasonable expectation that those deaths were likely to happen sometime soon. Maybe that helped alleviate even MORE pain than I might have experienced. I’m not sure.

But anyway, lately I’ve been telling my therapist (um, yeah, for SURE I’ve been seeing my therapist through all of this) that I think I’ve forgotten how to be happy. Even the travel I’ve done during this time (England once, France twice), the support I’ve had from good friends (a ton), the marathons I’ve run in the past three years (2), and the fact that my businesses have been successful have not led to much relief from my grief and acute anxiety. And I’ve been grieving for so long now, that I’ve started to get worried I forgot how to feel anything nice. Worry, rumination over my choices, sadness, and strategizing to get back on my feet have taken a toll on my energy (and my weight—I gained 15 pounds, which I’ve never done in my adult life before).

Two weeks ago S__ (my therapist) and I made a list of the feeling states I can’t seem to muster. Things like joy, calm, optimism, playfulness. And we started to hatch a plan for me to generate these states of being in my mind/body experience through meditation, thought-stopping negative trains of thought, self-soothing, and visualization. Unfortunately, the “vitality” emotions go underground when you experience a lot of trauma. There seems to be some evidence that the part of the brain that generates joy, for example, takes a backseat when fight/flight/freeze is repeatedly stimulated by sustained adrenaline.

Yesterday while I was running, something that used to give me enormous joy, I thought, “How could I get this to make me happy again? Maybe I could focus on one vitality state a day for the rest of the month—really drum it up in my memory, thoughts and in my somatic experience.” And then I thought of Pam’s blogging through the alphabet, and I realized I could share my process with you, dear readers (are you still out there?).

I don’t mind being vulnerable with you because I know you’ve had sh!t times in your life too. I know you’re on this metaphorical marathon with me. That you’ve lost a lot, failed at love, wished you could feel happy, and wondered how to get yourself back from tough circumstances.

There are 26 letters in the alphabet, so let’s call this 26.2 States of Vitality. Are you with me?

I’m reading through a book right now with my therapist that I’ll share from as I go (Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past by Sharon Stanley). I’m sure I’ll add ideas from other books I’ve read, too, since I’m a bit of a self-help junkie. And maybe you’ll share what you know with me and together we can generate widespread somatic experiences of vitality—otherwise known as happiness.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (From the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3.)

I’ve had enough of the die, kill, weep, mourn, lose, rend, keep silent, hate, war business, haven’t you?

Let’s start with A.

A is for Adventure. Throughout my entire adult life, adventure has been crucial to my sense of well-being in the world. Next to “being of service,” something that I’ve been committed to since I was small, seeking adventurous experiences through travel and risk have given me immense joy and have made me feel expansive.

I remember the trip I took with my dear grandmother to Norway in 2002. We planned it during my divorce.  She wanted to get my mind off my sadness, and I wanted her to see Norway. Her father came over to the new country as a young man, and she had done a bunch of genealogy to find family she hoped to connect with. I was 35. She was 75, and I knew we ought to get this trip done before her mobility failed her. I also knew I was the most likely person in the family to take her since I was the person who had done the most international travel, and it was already like second nature to me.

When we got to Norway, we settled in with a cousin of hers who graciously agreed to host us. Each morning I took a long walk through the countryside in an area outside of Oslo while Gram talked with her cousin and recaptured her ear for the Norwegian she’d heard spoken as a child.

Maybe the elders were worried I would be bored, because our host arranged for me to take a motorcycle ride with a friend of his.

Ingar showed up dressed in leather and riding a sleek crotch rocket. I was VERY reluctant to don the red leather suit he handed to me and to climb on the back of his motorcycle for a zip through the Norwegian mountains. But I’d recently promised myself that I would embrace new opportunities put before me as much as possible, so I tried on the suit. It fit perfectly.

I’m not going to lie to you. That day on the back of Ingar’s motorcycle was an uncomfortable day for me. I didn’t want to wrap my arms around a stranger’s waist, so I held onto the little bar behind my seat all day and made the muscles in my arms ache with gripping as we swerved left and right through the countryside.

Finally, near the end of the day, Ingar said to me, “Do you want to see how fast my bike can go?”

Um. No, I thought.

I should mention that Ingar was not a young man. He was twenty years my senior and someone I couldn’t peg down with a clear judgment. Was he an older man who wished he was still young or a kindred spirit who enjoyed taking calculated risks? The answer to that question would help me decide whether or not to see how fast his bike could go. Was he foolish? Or fun? I took the chance he was the latter.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, you’ll have to put your arms around me so the center of gravity is right. Then we’ll go as fast as we can on this straightaway.”

I did. And we did.

Ingar took us from zero to one hundred on a mountain road while I hung on for dear life.

And I felt my heart open.

At the end of the day, I knew I’d let life happen. I’d started out controlling it. Deciding I could keep myself back from full engagement, that I might give myself away too much (which I certainly have a habit of doing). But by the end I’d felt something new. Adventure had crept inside me.

So what’s this feeling in my body I want to experience now, informed by that memory?

Open.

Deep breaths.

Awe of beauty. A sense of bigness in my heart cavity.

A letting go into the possibility of death. An absence of a pressure in my forehead that I usually carry around when I’m trying to protect myself from bad things happening.

Heart flutters.

No thoughts of the future for one beautiful moment of time.

Can you feel it my friends? I can. I can feel the openness. For one day, let’s live here. I will if you will.

 

Charlottesville

Aug 13
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Reflections

I didn’t know what happened in Charlottesville. I’ve had my head in the sand the past few days. Sometimes after a long week of therapy, sitting with people struggling with deep sadness, I bail out of life and stick my head in a book.

Today I was planning a walk with my friend Jason, but when I called to confirm, he told me he was going to a march downtown. I asked him what it was about and he filled me in on the recent news (without scolding me for my ignorance, for which I’m grateful). So I got online and started reading. I moved from news sources to Facebook to see reactions from friends on both sides of the aisle. I was almost more disturbed by  some comments on FB than I was by the news.

Honestly, dear ones, I can’t understand how anyone cannot see the institutionalized racism and white supremacy here coming from the highest office in our land and trickling down through all of our institutions.

 

Listen, I’m one of the least political people I know. I don’t say that proudly. In fact, I’m embarrassed by how little I march for what I believe in. To be completely honest (and I’m sure I will be judged for this as a weakness—but that’s okay), I am someone who has always been overwhelmed by the pain in the world. I used to cry as a child when I saw homeless people. When I finally got a job working with Seattle’s homeless population, I cried after work many nights. I became a therapist 20 years ago because as a high school teacher (my previous profession), I felt CRUSHED by the pain of the 150 adolescents I spent day after day with. My intuitive nature means that I take pain into my body and stay up at night when I know someone I care about (sometimes even someone I encounter briefly) hurts. Becoming a therapist, I hoped would give me a sense that I was bringing healing into the world one person at a time instead of simply ingesting pain through less intimate contact.

In some ways I think I was right and I’ve helped people heal. When it comes to the grown woman who was repeatedly raped by her father, I feel I can offer safety and warmth. For the man whose parents abandoned him, I can offer connection and mirroring. But for my clients of color, or GBLTQI clients, the perpetrator of their pain is represented in my skin color, my cis-genderedness, and my class. The healing I can offer, though it may be minimal, is both personal and much more than personal.

When Txxxx was elected, I thought my own heart would break. I couldn’t believe so many people could think he was the better choice, and I was afraid of how the United States would look to the rest of the world. And then I went into work and sat with client after client who cried through our sessions for many weeks. The brown-skinned political activist, the Indian immigrant, the Southeast Asian mom, the middle Eastern dad raising daughters alone, the MANY gay or gender-nonconforming teenagers… My god, pain and fear after the election was so thick. So deep. What could I do for my clients. Even the therapy room cannot be neutral.

As the damage continues to deepen, ONE thing I can do is to listen without defense. When whiteness, white privilege, and class privilege are the causes of pain, I DO NOT defend myself or anyone else. I do not tell people to “get over it” or demand that they be more “fair.” I don’t accuse anyone of reversing prejudice or racism. I don’t encourage my clients of color to move beyond their “hang-ups” about white people or call people ungenerous. When people are angry, I don’t demand they settle down to make me feel more comfortable.

Listen, would you tell a rape victim she should look at both sides of the story? Would you say that the rapist has a right to self-expression and accuse the woman of being unforgiving?

I would not. I hope you would not. If you wouldn’t do such things over an individual perpetration, why do it when the perpetrator is a wide-spread and often-unconscious worldview (unconscious to those who hold the worldview, I should say)?

Dear white friends who feel defensive, please deal with it by digging into your own reactions with curiosity and fearlessness. When a friend who is not white challenges you, notices you are short-sighted or leaning on your privilege, do not speak. Listen. Don’t speak of forgiveness. Please do not ask for fairness. Please do not use the term “reverse racism.”

I’m talking to white friends here. YOU have nothing to lose by listening and eschewing defensiveness. YOU have something very important to gain. Humility. A new perspective. The opportunity to see your world from a different angle. A chance to change.

Ultimately, though I hope so very much that presence with my clients brings healing, I KNOW my time in that space with them changes me, deepens me, makes me a better ally.

I didn’t go downtown and march with Jason today. I wish I had. Instead I sat and stewed and wrote this blog. I’m thinking about my own inactivity, how my own head-in-the-sand avoidance actually makes the world a LESS safe place. I’m thinking about what I don’t know that I don’t know, and how that is not an excuse, and how none of this is about me, anyway.

 

I’ve been mulling over the words of my friend, internationally renowned speaker on racism and white identity, Robin DiAngelo:

The default of this society is the reproduction of racial inequality. All of our institutions are set up to reproduce racial inequality, and they do so with profound effectiveness. Our schools in particular are highly efficient mechanisms for sorting children into the racial hierarchy. We all know this or we would not care what schools our children went to (but good lord do we care what schools our children go to). There is no neutral place in this society. To not speak up is to silently support. We now have open white supremacists in the highest level of government. We all knew exactly who they were before they were elected. No surprise there. No subtlety there. I cannot uphold white solidarity by validating the claim that racism – and deep anti-black resentment in particular – had nothing to do with the last election. In the same way that cameras and social media have only made visible to the white collective what has always been going on – the state sanctioned murder of Black people – Trump’s presidency has made visible what has always been there but was barely concealed under the thinnest veneer of decorum – deep white resentment at absolutely any Black advancement (read Carole Anderson’s White Rage). Trump only gave permission to more openly express it. I feel sickened and discouraged by this ugliness and the structures of power that feed and support it, but as a white person I cannot succumb to these feelings, for white hopelessness only serves to sustain the racial order and my position in it. To my white friends: I urge us to get in touch with that racial resentment that lives within us, work to recognize how it manifests in our daily lives and relationships, and fight to uproot it. To my Jewish friends: I commit to keep struggling to see the connections between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. I am so sorry that you have yet to find rest from fear and violence. To my friends of Color: I see the continual terrorism perpetrated against you. I AM SO SORRY. I will not be silent and I will not stop pushing, however inadequate and confused my efforts may be.

 

I want to echo Robin’s words: “However inadequate and confused my efforts may be,” I will not stop listening and hearing. I will speak up and challenge others. I am so sorry.