Writing is one way of gathering one’s thoughts. When those thoughts are scattered, you are not necessarily going to write a book or even a post card. Here are three short meditations on the vestiges of trauma. I keep thinking that I should, should, should be over it by now. I am not and I am only now beginning to understand why. ~ mark gardiner
KNOWING WHAT I’M DOING
“Trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition…It has to do with your body being reset to interpret the world as a dangerous place….It’s not something you can talk yourself out of.”
“…mindfulness practice…is a cornerstone of recovery from trauma”
– Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
“You can’t do what you want until you know what you are doing.”
– Moshe Feldenkrais
So what am I doing? Sitting at a computer, rereading my excuses, clenching my jaw, and pouring myself another cup of coffee. My jaw hurts. My head aches. My feet are cold. There are no natural sounds, plants, animals, or movement in my solitary office.
I am reminding myself to extend my exhalations, but I am holding my breath. Exhaling and allowing my shoulders to droop—at least I am feeling something. Threads of magical thinking drift in and out of my awareness.
I remember that my wife, a therapist for children, has told me about cookie breathing, a technique she teaches her young clients: those triple-A kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism, and anxiety. Cookie breathing: First you smell the imaginary cookies coming out of the oven with a deep inhalation through the nose, then you blow on the cookies to cool them with a full elongated exhalation. You have to be in your body to do it, alternately activating the sympathetic (arousal) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous systems. So rhythm is good. Breathing is good.
When I quit smoking years and years ago, I decided that it was actually the deep inhalation and the relaxing exhalation that I had been seeking. The drug cocktail mixed with the tobacco and the tars were things I needed to wean myself from.
If you are an ex-smoker try this brief experiment with me. Place your index finger and second finger parallel, as though holding a cigarette, touch the tips of your fingers to your lips, and inhale thru the narrow space between them. Take your hand from your mouth, and after a suitable time, tilt your head back and gaze upward into the middle distance while exhaling audibly. Take about three drags this way on your imaginary cigarette and then snap your wrist with an imaginary rubber band.
So, what’s next? Switch on the audio—one of those four hour long recordings of the sound of rainfall or surf or birdsong. I’ll wait while you do that. What did Randy Newman say? “It takes a whole lot of medicine / for me to pretend to be somebody else.” So, now the womb sounds of surf are kicking in. No adulterants, please, not even a Moonlight Sonata sweetener, just nature sounds. Maybe if you live in the desert as I do, you would rather listen to rain. I imagine a warm gentle rain (more like a shower, really) coming down onto the top of my head, onto my shoulders, and then I notice that I am aware of the movement of my ribcage and diaphragm syncing up with the waves endlessly lapping the shore.
I start to think that I have been feeling fucked up a lot lately. Why? What’s that about? Nothing comes and I let the thought go. Just a thought, then it’s back to the imaginary beach.
I wonder, you don’t suppose it is all this time in front of screens? I spend a lot of time in front of screens, typing, clicking, flitting, tabbing, and linking while listening to the music of the Great American Songbook online as a defense against what Van Der Kolk calls the world seen as “a dangerous place.” I am a Time Lord. I can escape to the past. I have an imaginary friend there named Jonathan Schwartz who is the host DJ at WNYC-FM. He has his own radio show, his own bumbling, kind-hearted way of keeping me company, teaching me songs, spinning his stories, praising his friends.
These old songs send me messages from my unconscious. Snippets of lyrics raised out of the depths as commentary on the moment. Do you ever wake up with bullfrogs on your mind? You’d be so nice to come home to. Moon river wider than a mile—no, no, no, stop! It is just that I often wake up in the morning with a song already running in my mind. Songs… Too confusing, back to the surf.
THE ELEPHANTS’ GRAVEYARD
when love congeals
it soon reveals
the faint aroma of performing seals…
I wish I were in love again.
Lorenz Hart, 1937
It is strange the touchstones
we hold to make meaning of our lives
We watch a movie in black and white
once or twice in childhood
Tarzan & The Elephants’ Graveyard
about white hunters who are
trying to coerce Tarzan into revealing
the hidden location
of the valley to which ancient
elephants invariably retreat
at life’s end
It’s a compelling story for the young
I don’t identify with the ivory-seeking
westerners (I get it, you’re not supposed to)
or loin-cloth wearing Johnny
Weissmuller oiled and gleaming
I identify with the resignèd downcast pachyderm
knowing that it is time to go, like the Inuit
into the arctic night alone.
And following that stream
sometimes I think of Jamesville Creek
where I waded in running water and diapers
while my father looked on protectively
hunched shirtless in moccasins and shorts
in the wet gravel.
And then I identify with Jane
played by Maureen O’Sullivan—frail and frightened
(I get it, as a guy, you’re not supposed to)
and so I see this is a poem about my absent father
after all, not old movies, heartbreak—
and I wish I were in
A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR
Whenever I turn despondent, on the path of male maturation, thinking of absent teachers, I turn to the sound of Robert Bly at the height of his powers, to the vitality, humor, friendship, and wisdom of the man who unlocked so much of the mystery to me.
With that in mind I draw to your attention the extended recording of Robert Bly teaching circa 1991 at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center, in Bangor, Pennsylvania. His topic is W.B. Yeats and His Father: The Development of Personality In Men. This program is Robert Bly at his best, powerful, comprehensive, and energetic, taking us through the steps or stages of Yeats poetic development, providing the familial and social context of his relationships with mother, father, the divine feminine, and Ireland itself. Much tangential material is included that will be of interest to those studying what has come to be called “men’s work.” There are excerpts of the recording online. Just wind up the Victrola, check for dust on the needle, and there’s Robert or at least an audio facsimile faithful as the sound of surf.
But, why do I habitually promote my catalog of cure-alls? I don’t understand that at all. Tell me. Do I think that sharing magical remedies I have found is my responsibility to other wounded healers, other imaginary friends? Or an alternative to adopting these worthwhile remedies myself? I don’t know and it makes me sad. But, I am slowly learning this over-eagerness is grounded in fear, the vestiges of trauma that is onboard for the duration. It’s a nervous tic. Maybe just the caw of an old crow flying overhead crying out, “Be careful.”
– Mark Gardiner
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. © 2014 http://www.traumacenter.org/about/about_bessel.php
Jonathan Schwartz, Glad to Be Unhappy, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/04/glad-to-be-unhappy
Robert Bly / W.B. Yeats and His Father: The Development of Personality In Men https://www.betterlisten.com/products/the-development-of-personality-in-men-with-robert-bly
Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center http://kirkridge.org/index.cfm?e=inner2&itemcategory=61931