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Recovering a Sense of Time

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Recovering a Sense of Time

Words don’t always come easy. Sure, there are times when they flow on to the page.

But, there are other times that the words we want to write are simply hijacked, by the words we need to write.

It is a reminder that writers are a conduit for words to take form in reality.

The words on my mind are not light. They are not easy.

That does not make them any less important or true.

I shiver as I think about writing something so deeply personal.

About something that makes me so distinctly different from many.

But these words, they have been residing in my mind for far too long.

It is time they become part of my pages.

It is time to let go of the illusion that, “Because I am not like others, then that must mean there is something wrong with me.”

It is time for me to share what it is like to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It is not pretty, but it is what I struggle with everyday.

It is my reality.

This is the work that I do.

This is what consumes my energy and time.

Though my reality is not always clear.

Day to day, year by year-

My sense of time is scattered and fragmented, split, and ill-defined.

Hours, weeks, months, they seem arbitrary and seemingly linear.

They are not viable representations of the time that exists in my mind.

Once yesterday becomes part of the past, I plunge further into the future and my history becomes a bit longer.

Yet, the memories are free floating in time.

With no anchor.

Such memories emerge throughout the year.

Some come through as emotions or physical pain.

Some are triggered by emotions or sounds.

Others make it through as a vivid reel of memories with no emotion attached.

Each sensation is haunting.

Like a manifestation of misunderstanding.

These struggles, I thought had overcome.

I thought I had overcome the fear of being awoken in the middle of the night by violent outbursts.

I thought I had overcome the rage that comes along with being a survivor of sexual assault.

I thought I had overcome the sadness that is so real in losing a home.

I thought I had overcome the confusion that surrounded the chaos.

I thought I had learned to talk, accept, and forgive.

I thought I had gotten better.

But I had only shoved each experience away as a fragmented collection of features.

Quickly shoving it deep into my baggage, straightening my shirt, standing up straight, and choking out: “I’m fine.” “Really I’m fine.”

Over and over again, until I believed it.

And so the cycle continued.

Each traumatic memory is unique.

Like the time that I found myself in solitary confinement.

Or the time that I saw my mom get thrown to the ground, heard her skull crack, and had to fight with all my might to keep the same (or worse) from happening to me.

Or the time I hid with my brother and sister, trying to keep warm after the electricity was purposely cut, trying to convince them everything was okay.

Or the time that I was called a slut, pushed down onto a pile of someone else’s dirty laundry, and had to use every bit of martial arts training to get the hell out from underneath that sorry excuse for a boyfriend.

Or the time our house was on fire and I called 911, only to be redirected to the local fire hall… who’s line was busy.

Or the time the police broke down my door, guns drawn, only to find that they had the wrong house, and the suspect next door was already on the run. 

Each of these happened.

And they are only a brief fraction of the chaos I speak of.

Each event was real.

Each one is in need of excavation and repair.

Because the common thread running through all these incidents is the fact that I did not feel the emotions that were a natural response to the trauma.

I disconnected, but continued to move forward.

I did what I needed to do.

Without feeling.

Working through through these events is not as simple as setting aside time to do so.

Recovery does not happen in real time.

A certain stance, movement, phrase, sound, or smell can trigger the sensation that an event is indeed happening now- complete with a full set of physical responses.

Escalated heart rate, shortness of breath, hot chest and face, cold hands and feet.

The urgent need to respond, sweating, dry mouth, ringing ears, a full heightened sensitivity, intensified reflexes.

Sometimes for no reason at all, in the current reality. For everyone else, everything is okay.

For me… I become consumed by the displaced anxiety, fear, anger, despair, sadness, and rage, each living out its shelf life in the wrong place and time.

No matter it is an inaccurate interpretation of reality- it feels real.

And it is TERRIFYING.

Each day is new, even if it feels old.

Old feelings and responses need to be sorted, assigned to their appropriate site of origin, and be contained.

Filed away in a safe place for later reference.

It is almost certain that it will be connected to another incident in space and time.

As each displaced memory is restored, categorized, and filed away, new path ways open.

New possibilities emerge.

New perspectives allow me to experience the now.

With a crisper and clearer lens.

And a better sense, of what was then.

And what is now.

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A Page from the Past

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A Page from the Past

This week I will be going to high school. I’m a bit nervous and it feels strange. It is for a student’s assignment. She was required to interview someone and present a speech about them. Some how, she chose me. I will go to listen to her speech and answer any questions.

In ways, I am looking forward to it. So much of our interview led to conversations of success: what I studied in college, what some of my favorite past times include, how I enjoy spending my time, and what I do for a living. But it also triggered something within. I was surprised to find myself in a surreal sense of being after the interview. Had I really lived this life of mine? How did it all seem to work out so well? What about all the craziness and uncertainty that led me here? Did I really tell her that the best thing I did for my career was quit my job!? Did I really agree to go to a high school class!? Shit, I did.

My experience of high school still haunts me. By no means where those the best years of my life. I began working during my sophomore year, and was living independently by my senior year. School was a daily obligation in which every else seemed to be living a normal life. Mine seemed to be caving in on itself- and I was struggling to get out alive. That is where my addiction began.

I have known it for some time, and it remains difficult to reconcile. In fact, over two years ago, I wrote a letter to my seventeen year old self. Every word of it still rings true today. I think my seventeen year old self is a little frightened to share her story with other high school kids. It is hard to believe that such success can emerge from and be part of truly difficult struggles. They are not separate. They belong together. And amazingly enough, they are a part of who I have become. And it still feels strange.

Dear Self of 1999,

I’ve seen the work you are doing. You are working so hard- to make money, to be accepted, to understand, to dream, to forget, to hide. I see how stable you look on the outside. You hold yourself as a professional, yet you are a child. You work long hours and have profound insights to how things could be better. You see the world with wide eyes and a strong heart. You commit yourself to excellence, as if you are trying so hard to prove something. And yet, you are not able to appreciate how young you are. I know you feel far older than 17, but that is because you had to step up. You have an ability to take charge on a moment’s notice. It is as if you set fear aside. Or perhaps you let fear become your motivator. Either way, it has gotten you far in just a few years.

I remember how scared you were. How alone and worthless you felt. Rejection doesn’t even scratch the surface.

It is no wonder acceptance feels like a god send.

It is no wonder you are delighted to get to know people who might give you some sense of what “success” might look like.

It is no wonder you cling so tightly to the arms of your boyfriend.

It is no wonder that his arms are so strong. He tries so much to protect you and provide you a place that feels safe. He offers you a space you can rest your head after nights of on-going battles. In his arms, you can rest easy. You can let some of that fear go. You can express your frustration, shed your tears, and let go of shame. He helps you stay strong.

I know it is hard for you to understand, but as “normal” as this spot feels for you, it still is not healthy. You cannot depend on your parents, even though you are still so young. Instead you depend on someone else, someone who seems more stable. Yet you are desperately trying to take hold of your life by saving money, planning furiously, and trying to prove that you are “worth” something.

You see though, you don’t have to try that hard to prove it. Because your worth is based on who you are, not what you do. But I understand, what you do defines you as separate from your family- because when you are part of the violence, control, dependency, despair, and illness you feel shame and embarrassment. You feel as though you are bad. But you are not. I promise.

The praise and acceptance you get at your jobs tells you different. It tells you that because of what you do, that you are good. You mitigate these disparate messages by dissociating- splitting your self in two on your way to and from work. Shuttling your mind toward and away from cycles of struggle and success. As you build this defense, ruin continues. Chaos ensues and with great intensity. You feel it all around you and fear what the world knows of it. You fear your scars will be noticed, detailed and all.

The saddest part is that by employing these defenses, you are putting little pieces of yourself away in a box- hidden and misunderstood. Soon you will begin to miss these pieces of yourself. You will blame the one you love for not letting you be you. You’ll become scared again and feel unstable again. You will think you are free from your familial responsibility. It will be good, you need to know you can stand on your own two feet. You will need to know how not to let others drag you down. In time, you will learn so much.

I am proud of you. You are brave. You are strong, compassionate, sincere, creative, insightful, beautiful, and talented. This is who you are- appreciate the world around you. Each moment. Each person whom you admire. Each taste of egg drop soup from your favorite restaurant. Each conversation with your grandpa, each time you harvest blackberries. Enjoy your words, your art, and your gift.

I think of you often.

Self of 2011

Zucchini: In Abundance and Scarcity

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Zucchini: In Abundance and Scarcity

If Mother Nature has taught me anything, it is that success cannot be rushed.

Life happens at its own pace. It is up to us to try not to force it through commitments, deadlines, and expectations. Sometimes all we can do is our best, with what we have to work with.

Such as I am at this moment. I find myself riding in the back of the vehicle with two kids, who are happily enjoying their snacks. My husband is giving his mother the grand tour of small town North Dakota.

For the moment we are in Harvey. I admire the gardens that we pass by- gauging the height of the corn, the weight of the peppers on the plant, and color and ripeness of tomatoes. I am reminded of a request by the new local foods marketing specialist at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to participate in the Specialty Crop Blog Challenge.

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I am a bit delayed, just as so many things have been this growing season. July’s challenge topic was Zucchini, perhaps one the most prolific specialty crops. In fact, if I ever met any one who made a career of growing this green summer squash, I might question their sanity. But then again here I am, tucked in the backseat, writing my July assignment in August on my iPhone… so feel free to question my sanity as well.

But for the common vegetable grower zucchini is like a promise, never to be broken. There will be an abundance.

At this time of year, abundance can come in the form of boxes of bounty, jars of pickles, and loaves of bread. It is a time of year that takes me back to my childhood– back to my grandparents’ garden.  Their garden was one of my happy places as a child. I was always at peace there, comfortable in the scent of dill and tomato plants. Delighted by the textures of concord grapes, the sounds of the birds, the abundance all around.  My grandparents never let me leave their home without a box of tomatoes, and cucumbers, and of course, zucchini.

When I have the opportunity to visit now, I still seek out the garden, even though Grandpa isn’t there to make sure I notice the radishes and keep me from stepping on the beans. Also, I seek out the stories. My grandmother is a wonderful storyteller, even though she sometimes gets a little distracted.

Seeing as I live more than 1000 miles away, I more often opt to hear her stories over the telephone. Our conversations are sometimes scattered, working in bits about children, chickens, and gardens in such away that I can’t help but smile.

We discuss the garlic and the chard. I tell her about the rhubarb festival we went to. DSCN9151She is so surprised that my youngest loved the rhubarb. And she tells stories about how when she and grandpa were poor and living in Montana, that they would always be on the look out for rhubarb along the roadside that they could harvest.

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It is hard to believe they once lived in a time when food was scarce. As they started to build their home and raise their family, having a garden meant something entirely different than it does to me now.

I have a garden by choice. Because it keeps me grounded.

Because I like growing my own food.

My grandparents grew a garden so they could eat.

But even with scarcity, they never ceased to be generous.

Three years ago when I began growing my garden, I had such a bounty of everything– corn, potatoes, eggplant, basil, tomatoes, and squash. I wanted to waste nothing, but was up to my ears in everything.
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I began to take a preventive approach, especially with the zucchini. The tricky thing about this squash is the more you pick it, the more it produces. It is all too easy to bite off more than one can chew. But rather than let the fruits grow to monstrous sizes, I began harvesting the blossoms.

I had read about fried zucchini blossoms in many cookbooks and often thought them to be a fine culinary pursuit. Zuchinni BlossomsI selected both male (above) and female (below) because at this point, I wanted to prevent more zucchini from coming on.

Female blossoms (not the minature fruit at the base)

Female blossoms (not the miniature fruit at the base)

We stuffed the blossoms with mozzarella cheese and basil. Then dipped them in a batter and fried them. The result was amazing!

As I told my grandmother about the culinary adventure and the crop management techniques, I was surprised to hear her voice calling up memories of a time when she had enjoyed zucchini blossoms,

Now long ago, before your daddy was even born, I think, we had zucchini blossoms deep-fried. Your grandpa and I had been building the house. It was early in the summer and we had planted a small garden, but of course we didn’t have much time to tend to it. We wanted to get the house done before the winter. So we were busy and all. I think we had planted some zucchini and tomatoes, and maybe some potatoes. Things that wouldn’t need much attention.

Well one day we got notice that the new pastor for the church was coming into town. At that time, your grandpa had been delivering the sermons and doing much of the work. So the pastor was going to come visit us before he got settled in.

And remember, in those times we were poor, but it was early in the summer and we didn’t have much in the garden. And of course we had some of the staples in the pantry. So I hurried out to the garden to see what I could find. The zucchini were blooming, but the fruit had not yet set. So I harvested the blossoms and served this new pastor fried zucchini blossoms. 

He thought they were the most wonderful thing. He was from Chicago and hadn’t had anything like that before. Oh my, he loved them. And you know, years later when he moved on, when he delivered his final sermon, those zucchini blossoms were still on his mind. He thanked us for our hospitality and the wonderful meal.

I think of this story often and how much it reflects our perspective of abundance, and our ability to make the most out of what we have. Whether we have too much, or not enough– there is always something we can offer the world. Male Zucchini Blossom

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Nearly all my writings are memoirs. I write about a variety of topics: nature, culture, food, community, emotions, professional options, art, creativity, entrepreneurship, recovering addictions, making life changes, family, loss, and growth, all from my perspective. I don’t try to be an expert and provide definitive information. I try to convey a point of view.

I began to wonder if there was something wrong with this kind of writing. After all, who wants to read about me? I’m not really that narcissistic, am I? But then I realized that I am a vehicle for the words I write. In reality, very little is about me. I’d like to think it is about humanity, as I am learning to understand it. It is just as much about you. If not now, then perhaps at some other point in time.

My chosen genre of the written word is creative non-fiction. Perhaps it always has been, but it was hidden for sometime.

In high-school we are taught not to write what we think. We report. We regurgitate. If we are lucky, we create. The use of the first person is discouraged. Undoubtedly, this carries over into college. I remember taking my English class at a community college. It was taught by this wonderfully inspiring and creative young hippie-chick. One of our assignments was to write a narrative.

I came back with a fictional story with characters inspired by the archaeological lab work I had been doing near Cahokia Mounds. It wasn’t exactly what she was looking for. She wanted a narrative of our life. I was baffled. I didn’t want to write about my life! Writing was my escape from my life! Luckily she allowed for revisions and helped me develop the narrative to be about the work I did cleaning artifacts and how certain details of ancient life could be interpreted from these pieces of the past.

Image from cahokiamounds.org

I cherish what she taught me. It opened up a whole new world of writing. Sadly, accepting writing from my own experience did not transfer over to the university. I shared before about the trauma of my first writing assignment at the university level. I may forever blame that professor, with his full beard, thick glasses, flannel shirt, and overly critical ways for the blow to my self-confidence. From then on, I stuck to the acceptable way of writing. No use of “I”. Write about the subject as an expert would. Be authoritative. Be clear and concise. Use proper paragraph structure with at least five sentences to support the topic.

It worked, through courses in anthropology, ecology, wildlife biology, geography, and American Indian Studies. Even into graduate school, I stuck to the strict method. Even in my field of study (American Studies) which was, as an Anthropology professor described, “Heavily reliant on narrative rather than analysis.”

I remember the day when that all changed. I was half-way through my third semester of graduate school. We had just made our way through an intense unit on cultural theory. We had an open-ended assignment to write a response paper on the theory unit which was full of works that questioned authority and power. I had an idea that had nothing to do with my prospective thesis topic, but everything to do with my life at that moment. I was five months pregnant and, for the first time in my life, facing physical limitations.  So I ran it by the professor, who interestingly enough also had a beard, glasses, and might sport a flannel shirt from time to time. But let me tell you. This professor was a thousand times cooler than the other professor.

He listened to my thoughts on the assignment, but was stunned when I asked the question, “I can write this in first person, right? The use of “I” as the subject is okay?” I think his response went something along the way of, “I don’t see how it would be possible not to.”

The whole world opened up. I wrote a paper entitled “Redefining Pregnancy through Expressions of Agency”. The opening quote read,

Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility.              -Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs

I do believe from that moment on I continued to enlist the possibility that rested in the use of “I” in my writing… even my thesis became part memoir, part cultural-environmental history. What a powerful thing to be able to do when thesis writing coincided with bed rest!

Writing my thesis “The Coyote in Kawuneeche: Story, Relation, and Experience in a Rocky Mountain Landscape”

What a delightful thing for me to revisit now, as many of my emerging perspectives are influenced by multiple-versions of physical well-being. Something I was just beginning to explore in that assignment. And what a wonderful way to reflect and appreciate that the greatest things we learn are about our own abilities, even in graduate school!

The Cooper House, home to students of the American Studies program at the University of Wyoming

The Cooper House, home to students of the American Studies program at the University of Wyoming