content note: Some tough topics, strong force fields indicated!
The start of the first Gulf War lined up exactly with my first period, announcing itself in blood, an absurd thing to say, yes, I am aware, and also: that’s how I remember both these events thanks to their simultaneity, a synaptic linking in the place where memory points live.
To be clear, if this moment took place in a movie, I would bristle at the heavy-handedness, the unnecessary symbolism, I think we can all agree that the director needs to chill, the director could show a little more respect for the intelligence of the audience, but I swear that is how it happened.
The memory of that evening begins with feeling strange and woozy in an entirely unfamiliar way, a feeling that was deeply unsettling until I saw the blood and then at least I had a reason to which I could attribute the disconcerting feelings which then turned into relief. Or: relief mixed with annoyance.
I was unclear where I stood regarding this bleeding situation, and in that moment became aware of a hubbub of radio and voices in the background. Climbing the stairs I heard my father say to my mother:
This is it, we’re at war, this is war.
How do you know
I was unclear how I felt about bleeding, and equally unclear how I felt regarding this war situation, I remember being very, very scared, but also I just didn’t have enough information.
Even though I was young, I listened a lot, and had picked up in my listening that sometimes the United States really dropped the ball on being a useful ally (cough, WWII), while often the United States caused great harm in other countries (understatement, too many examples to list) and to its own citizens in this country.
How was I supposed to know which situation we were in now? I didn’t know, and wasn’t even sure how to frame the question, and so I kept listening, and the more I listened over those tense months, the more it became clear that the adults didn’t seem to know either.
It was war, and war, even a far-off one, was confusing, anxiety-inducing, everything felt tilted.
Regarding the bleeding: in the moment I was relieved, I was already halfway through my first year of high school, the very last of my uterus-having friends to start menstruating, by a lot.
So this Perception of Lateness (new fake band alert!) had been worrying me, what if something was terribly wrong with me, why was my body not getting the memo?
Haha wow. Had I but known how intensely miserable bleeding would be for me, and that it would still be happening every damn month over thirty years later, an unimaginable distance in time, I assume I would have been furious…
More so had you told me that this far into the future, the United States would only have recently gotten around to trying to extricate from Iraq, suffering terribly, multiple generations, ptsd all around.
This madness has gone on so long that I’ve been in two long term relationships in my adult life with people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and okay, I don’t know where I want to go with that thought so let’s just say that no one is okay.
Can confirm! No one is okay!
Time is a mystery and everything else is a scam, probably
Actually, while we are spilling intimacies, I will tell you that the last person I dated was an actual newborn infant back on that cold 1991 day of [this is war] + [first sign of blood], and it doesn’t even feel like a significant age difference now, that’s how much time has passed, wild.
I maintain that time is a mystery and menstruation is a scam, as is war time, I don’t know where I’m going with that thought either but I remain generally and indignantly opposed to all of it.
It was extremely similar to right now, actually, which is probably why the memory of that day keeps thrusting itself to the scattered front lines of the territory of my beleaguered brain that is still reeling from…from what exactly though, I don’t know.
My brain and I are reeling from everything, from two concussions, covid brain fog, the personality-altering loneliness of the first year of pandemic solitude combined with no steady place to live, an excess of loss, some combination of the above.
Anyway I keep remembering that day from 1991, I remembered it last week when Russia invaded Ukraine and the internet lost its mind, then again last night at midnight while the coyotes were making their howling rounds through the canyon, and again in the morning while sitting in stillness after sun salutations.
I remembered the stickiness of the blood, the strain in the voices on the radio, the rising fear, knowing that some things were going to be different but which ones, curious, apprehensive, unnerved, extremely not psyched…
What do I remember from that winter into spring of This Is War
Everyone was saying it was world war three, that was the phrase you heard over and over, if we’d had social media back then, it would have been the trending hashtag du jour. Kind of like right now, and by kind of, I mean exactly, zero points for originality.
Everyone was panicked about if draft was coming back too, who would be conscripted, who would be lost.
Everyone was suddenly a newly minted geopolitical expert, a specialist in the Middle East and in oil, everyone including ninth graders, repeating the same overheard opinions like gospel (“We should ally with Syria! We should ally with Iran!”), the faux-expertise and over-simplification was exhausting, does any of this sound familiar? Have you been online this week? Uh huh.
I remember trying to explain to some kids from school why “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not in fact sound political strategy, an ally you can’t trust is not an ally at all, and failing completely to make any headway. There was no common sense, no curiosity, just a frantic hum of anxiety.
Similar and different
So it was basically the same as right now, if you’re Very Online or even Mildly Online and watching the invasion unfolding in Ukraine, you are familiar with all those themes, and with the immersive energy of the Big Fear.
Thankfully we did not have social media then, so there were respites, there was ebb and flow, we were scared and also there was some room here and there to experience other emotional sensations outside of the fear. As opposed to All Anxiety All The Time Turned Up To Eleven, which is how things are these days, if you are a sensitive person and all the more so if you spend time on the various apps.
On my mind, more often than not
Here are two themes I find myself thinking about regularly:
- how our nervous systems are simply not designed or equipped to handle being flooded with the exhausting amount of high anxiety input we are inundated with from being online
- how very different historical events of the last century might have been (or would they?) had we all been anxiety-connected and information-connected as we we are now.
The boat that was turned away
I think a lot about the boat, the MS St. Louis, full of terrified Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany in 1939 fleeing to safety, and how we failed them utterly and completely, how this journey became known as The Voyage of the Damned, some unintended victim-blaming there, the voyage was damned by the countries who would not take them in.
They made it to the United States, to almost-safety, and were shut out. This country I am in right now. That was us. We said no thank you, we said we can’t help, by which we meant: we can but we won’t. We said no offense but fuck you.
They risked everything to make it here and we didn’t care.
So close and not close enough
Hey yeah sorry, no room in this enormous country for nine hundred Jews bound for death, we couldn’t possibly, gosh even Montana is just soooooo super booked right now, and yeah we said that thing on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming “your tired, your poor” but you know how it is, we definitely didn’t mean you, anyway good luck out there, in the ovens and everything!
The United States
The job of the lamp is to be lifted. Our job is to lift the lamp.
Emma Lazarus, Jewish poet and anti-nationalist, wrote the words on the statue:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And there they were, at our shores, tempest-tost, and we did not lift the lamp.
And that terrible thing is only an example of the terrible things
We did other terrible shameful things too. Gruesome things. My god. Rounding up Japanese Americans, internment camps, what we did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It hurts to breathe when you think of it.
Not a great time.
Anyway, that was the reality of the time, antisemitism, xenophobia, isolationism.
Awful orders were given to the coast guard ships who followed orders and wouldn’t let the ship run aground, a last-ditch attempt in hopes the refugees could jump ship and make their way ashore. The ship had no choice but to turn around.
The almost and the not enough
To think you have a chance at survival, to be so close you are basically there, then left to wait and sent back to die, it’s so cruel that it hurts my heart to think of it. Imagine.
The desperation, the hopelessness, the terrible betrayal of it all.
I am lighting a candle for them right now, because that’s what I do when I don’t know what to do.
One person survived, if that’s the word, in an unlikely way, via a suicide attempt while the boat was docked in Cuba, in limbo, waiting for us or anyone to let them in.
By choosing towards death, this person was declared a mental health crisis exception, and therefore allowed to disembark from the doomed boat, to remain in Cuba and live. But by choosing towards life, the others were sentenced to return to die. Make it make sense.
I would like to know what happened to the passenger who disembarked in Cuba and got that second chance to live, but also I fear that I don’t want to know.
Brave and stalwart
Good job surviving, I wish that wasn’t what it had to take.
There were other survivors too, who disembarked in other European countries and escaped death through however many thousands of small and large miracles, I doubt they were okay though either, trauma compounded with trauma, such a wounding. God knows I have been absolutely shattered from much smaller betrayals than this one.
Candles lit now for everyone, those who made it and those who didn’t, and for us.
This is what I wonder: would or could this tragedy have gone differently if information traveled the way it does now (hashtags and memes, retweeted, reposted, regrammed)….?
Would there have been enough social outrage and fury to pressure President into changing his mind, into saving the people on the boat? I used to think so but now I don’t think so.
Obviously we can’t know this or anything. Things are different now, and also they are the same in some ways. In the way of bigotry and xenophobia, and also the way of anxiety, anxiety, more anxiety, add some anxiety to the anxiety, this is the air we are expected to breathe now.
Lighting a candle for all this too.
The big and little lies
Similarly, I think about the great American pretense that we supposedly did not know about the mass murder, the horrors of the death camps until they were liberated by American soldiers, a wild lie of conscience-soothing, of course it was known.
That was how they told the story in high school American history class, but the horrors were and are very much known. Maybe people hadn’t seen the photographs but they knew. It was known. Certainly President Roosevelt knew.
I learned an untruth. Many, many untruths.
It was all known, just like we know now about the camps at the border.
The camps are still here. We voted in a new administration but I still see the Border Patrol thugs roaming around Arizona and New Mexico, smug in their white pickup trucks, resting a hand on your windshield at their fake checkpoints (traffic stops not at borders), where they ask you inappropriate questions and detain you if you don’t agree to answer, even though legally you are not required to answer.
That’s because they have a loophole: they can detain you for “suspicious behavior”, and refusing a search or not answering the questions you are not legally bound to answer is itself “suspicious”. Get it? Yeah.
Anyway. The horrors are still the horrors, the cruelty is still thriving and intact, we are still letting it happen right here, in part because so many things are falling apart at once that our attention is pulled in too many directions, and in part because we don’t know what to do.
My mother visited me last night in a dream, in the dream she was alive and in a kitchen, we were in a kitchen, I don’t know where this kitchen is.
I was organizing the refrigerator, and found a pot of hard boiled eggs but some of the eggs had exploded while cooking. Then my mother walked in and said, “Oh, good, hard boiled eggs, what a good idea!”
And that was the dream. Thanks for the visit, mom.
This morning I was thinking about how, in 1991, she told me about the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, telling me about moments from her life in much the way I am telling you about 1991.
Probably for the same reason, the familiarity of it all, these moments in a lifetime of oh dear god a terrible thing is happening that could lead to even more terrible things, maybe the end, maybe. The fear, and the continuing to do daily life things.
You can’t know until you know
What do you do when you find yourself in one of these possibly the end of the world crisis situations that sometimes are and sometimes aren’t, you don’t know, you can’t know in the moment, you’re just in it.
You clean what you can clean, you do what you can do in your own domain.
You make hard boiled eggs and you find the good. Small grounded pleasure-moments, grounded and grounding.
Memory is funny
I wanted to tell you about another memory, this is a memory from the Second Gulf War.
So maybe 2003, I think, I haven’t looked it up because of how memory is funny and how I am not ready to be surprised again by what happened when. But let’s say we’re in the general area. Close enough?
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, or so goes the baseball saying, thanks Frank Robinson. Horseshoes, hand grenades and long-range missiles.
Mooshon & The Muppets
I was tending bar in south Tel Aviv, and all the discussion among the clients and in the kitchen and between the servers was the Scud missiles, would Iraq send them our way again, maybe, probably, did they have the capacity to wipe us off the map or was that just threats, and was this World War III, probably, maybe, and this is how we die, or not, too soon to call it.
It was early evening, 7:30 maybe, the bar had temporarily emptied out, a lull between the daytime regulars (hard drinking, chain-smoking) and the arrival of the evening clientele (twenty-somethings, hipster-ey).
I was doing the usual things, emptying ashtrays, wiping down the bar, lowering lights, changing the music, when Mooshon walked in. A well-known Tel Aviv character, a contractor of some kind, eccentric but generally warm, someone who somehow knew everyone and made the rounds between every bar in the city, or at least all the ones I’d worked at. He appeared in his own time. I hadn’t seen him in a couple months.
“Nu, l’an neelmu hachabubot?” he asked as his greeting, raising his eyebrows in the direction of the empty bar. Where have all the muppets disappeared to.
The muppets were his name for the regular-regulars at the bar, with their cranky old-man arguments, repeated jokes and ongoing bets. I made a clicking sound with my tongue which is Hebrew for “I can’t be bothered to explain, you can figure it out”, moving my head in the direction of the clock on the wall. “Marcello,” I added.
“Ah, got it, Marcello the Romanian had to go walk his dog, and that’s how the party ended,” Mooshon surmised, nodding, putting his cigarette out in the ashtray I’d just cleaned and immediately lighting another one.
This is how everyone at the bar referred to Marcello, even though this Marcello was the only Marcello anyone knew. Marcello himself would get slightly irritable and then apologize for his irritation if you wrote “Marcello” on his bill and not his full name as he was known at the bar, Marcello the Romanian.
Marcello the Romanian with the dog who needed walking by 7:15, and he reminded us every day, so everyone knew, and he wouldn’t let you forget.
You could set your watch by Marcello the Romanian, or most of the daytime regulars for that matter.
“That’s how the party ended”, I agreed.
The end is near, or it isn’t
“You know the muppets will still be here every day, scud missiles or no scud missiles,” Mooshon said, “They’ll have a new name for the show: Chabubot Im Kasdot!” (Muppets with Helmets, but in Hebrew it rhymes.)
“Chabubot Im Masechot,” I suggested. Muppets with Masks.
Mooshon laughed. “Did you get yours?”
My latest government-issue gas mask had arrived that week, outside the door of my tiny studio on the top floor of an old asbestos-filled clothing factory. A sheet of paper with instructions had been pushed under the door.
“Sure,” I said, “but it’s at home, which means the missiles will land while I’m at work.”
“Right? That’s how it goes,” said Mooshon.
“Eh,” I shrugged. “In my line of work I’m more likely to be killed by a suicide bomber.”
“Good point,” agreed Mooshon. “Or an exploding bus on your way to work.”
“I don’t take buses anymore,” I said.
“You just have to be walking by one when it happens,” he pointed out.
“Didn’t happen today.”
“Well,” Mooshon said, “It’s still early.”
It was a good laugh that took me by surprise because I hadn’t realized how much I needed it.
When he left, he said, “See you next time, whenever that may be, if you haven’t exploded by then, or the SCUDS haven’t arrived.”
“Ditto ditto,” I said.
And now memory fades, and I don’t know if that was before or after the suicide bombing at our bar, but I do know I was less scared than in 1991, even though I was in considerably more danger. At that point I was so jaded that nothing felt real or meaningful, including imminent destruction.
Bartender-me slept well, unconcerned in sleep about suicide bombers or SCUD missiles, bartender-me had no expectation of reaching thirty anyway.
But we did make it
Guess what, babe, we were wrong, we made it and then some, in a few days we’ll be forty five years old, if the gods favor this plan, how’s that for an astonishing miracle.
Though I will be the first to say that we don’t sleep as deeply as we used to, that’s for sure.
There are many frantic muppet-discussions taking place online right now, I find most of them draining. The takes. So many takes. And then the takes about how you should be handling the takes and interacting with the takes, and how you are definitely doing it wrong.
There’s you have to practice self-care versus it is selfish and entitled to pretend that ignoring tragedy is self care, there’s coping with humor is the prerogative of the overly privileged versus actually you cope how you cope.
It’s all partly true and not the entirety of what is true, and I can’t even remember the rest because I had to go light candles. Let’s light another one.
A candle is lit, the lamp is raised, inhale, exhale, okay, where were we.
The Currency of Attention
Here’s what I know for sure:
The world we live in operates on a currency of attention: how many clicks, how many likes/shares/re-whatevers, how much time people spend on a page, how much urgency, how much outrage.
The more upsetting something is, the more takes we consume, and the more we doom-scroll, the more attention-currency to Zuckerberg and co. Attention-currency eventually translates to real currency, and that’s why they hire the best brains in the world to keep us clicking and pushing for pellets.
Our outrage-anxiety is what allows them to steal our attention and our time, it’s how they draw power, the currency of attention is how they continue to exist.
The requisite parenthetical disclaimers!
(I am not at all suggesting that we shouldn’t be outraged, or anxious, those are extremely reasonable reactions to what is happening, the most reasonable, and, as the saying goes, if you aren’t outraged you aren’t paying attention!)
(I am only suggesting that we do what we can to be conscious and discerning when it comes to where we put our attention, for how long, and in what ways, and consider to whose benefit it might be when we do.)
What else is known?
I said this before but it feels too important to not repeat for emphasis: Our nervous systems simply cannot handle the pheromone rollercoaster of being flooded with new stressful data points all day that comes with the levels of news consumption we live with today.
Yes, sometimes you are in an actual terrifying situation (being in the war, in the bombings, on that boat turning around), and that’s trauma, and also there is this passive consuming of trauma that we can’t do all the time and maintain our ability to be grounded and stable, which means we also can’t help.
Yes, this is more severe for some of us (I am waving to you right now from the corner of Autistic and Highly Sensitive Person), and still we are all reeling from scary-update-overload, including people who are much less impacted by The Big Fear energy of the collective, or impacted in less immediately obvious ways.
And, at the same time, however we choose to spend the currency of our attention, the more conscious and intentional we are about those choices the better. Sometimes making those choices feels impossible, we are just being pulled by the stream, so we practice acknowledgment & legitimacy, we pay attention, we keep trying. You win some, win some later.
We Do Grounding Things
For me, maintaining my ability to function or cope both in the world and in my world demands that I steady myself, that I practice the practice of We Do Grounding Things, a practice of tending, a reminder.
I don’t turn away from the hard things, and I also don’t agree to give the currency of my attention to the constantly streaming timeline of The Huge Panic.
In other words, I tend to myself, so that I can also tend to what is happening, and maintain enough steadiness to support the greater good and help where I can to the best of my ability.
It has become fashionable to take a mocking tone towards self-care, it’s seen as self-indulgent, there is callousness directed at the idea that some people take on the pain of the world more than others, but here’s what I know and where I begin…
Where I begin
The best thing I can do as a highly sensitive and witchy person is to not add to the collective pain energy, and to do what I can so that I can add to the grounding strength energy.
Here is where I start: right now, in this moment, I am lighting a candle for the situation, for you, for us, for steadiness, and I am going to steady myself, and when I am ready to take in more information, I am going to do it in a boundaried way that meets what I am capable of.
I am going to make sure I don’t migrained by the news or give myself internet hangover (a phrase I invented for a friend’s course), I am going to practice We Do Grounding Things for myself and the good of the collective, I am going to be careful and conscious, notice which patterns I’m getting sucked into, and where I am putting my attention for what reasons.
We Do Grounding Things
I am lighting a candle for the reality of how we live, and how the constant streaming of The Big Fear is a thing. I am lighting a candle for Ukraine, I am lighting a candle for the courageous Russian protestors, I am lighting a candle for Safety, Protection & Sanctuary, a candle for best outcomes.
Is this enough? Of course not.
Does it have meaning? I hope so.
Is it where everyone should start? I don’t think that’s even close to being the right question. It’s a starting point that works for me.
For me, the practice of We Do Grounding Things is about returning to a sense of stability that exists outside of the twenty four hour anxiety stream.
When I start from We Do Grounding Things, I make better choices, I am better equipped to be a good friend and a good citizen, and I am able to think creatively about how to be of service.
For me, the practice of We Do Grounding Things is not about shutting out the world or disconnecting (it is not isolationism). It is about gathering my powers, calling up my strength, so I can be discerning, intentional, so I respond to the genuinely scary situations in life from wise-self mind, or really from wise-self body-mind, and not in reactive panic-mode.
Do I have advice?
I don’t, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t give it, because I think people assimilate learning better when they come to their own answers.
What is We Do Grounding Things for you? What might it look like in your world? I don’t know, because I don’t live in your body or your life.
Of course I have ideas about some things that are known to help, and that might need to be another piece. Let me know in the comments. Do we want a how to stop/reduce doom-scrolling manual?
And, also, this is maybe the most important part: you are wise and capable, you know yourself, and you can brainstorm with Slightly Wiser You until you get clues on next steps.
Do I have poetry to share?
Yes, because that, for me, is such a good door into We Do Grounding Things, returning to words, letting words do the work.
I am going to translate a bit of a song by Israeli artist Shlomi Shaban, who is exactly my age, I remember listening to his first album on repeat in the late 90s, we are the last of bitter, apathetic-from-trauma Gen X. This is as a duet with Chava Albertstein who was already getting in trouble back in the 70s for activism. An odd-interesting pairing.
The song is a surreal dreamscape conversation, and the name of the song is Targil B’hitorrerut which I would call An Exercise In Awakening but could also be translated as An Awareness Exercise. Translation is always tricky, but then again so is meaning.
This is the part I wanted to share: If this is just an exercise, it’s certainly a successful one…
If this is just an exercise, it’s certainly a successful one
Here is a snippet from the conversation in the song.
He: Tell me, are we winning?
She: Mm when exactly is all this taking place?
He: At the time when you (plural) wrote the songs.
She: And what of them, if we’re already talking about it?
He: They have been left to those who remember.
He: If so then essentially nothing is wrong, if so then everything is as it should be..
She: You were always given to compromise, you’re breaking my heart, I am right beside you
Together: If this is just an exercise, it’s certainly a successful one. The sky is painted vanilla, the horizon is filled with soot. Everything returns more red, on stretchers and in flowers. Tell me, are we…???
One more candle
If you are inclined towards candle-lighting, please light one for Laurie, family friend of my childhood bestie, who had to flee Moscow this week after twenty-something years of teaching at an international school there, may she and her animals have safe passage, arrive in safe harbor, the lamp lifted, safety safety safety for Laurie and everyone else who needs it right now.
Sanctuaries within, too
This piece is getting very long, and I am noticing some urgency-feelings to finish up in some way, but I keep thinking about the early 1940s, how my parents were babies when their parents were learning the full terrible truth, that pretty much the entire extended family had been lost in death camps, that there was no one left to find.
I think about the anxiety and grief they were steeped in before they even knew how to differentiate between what is personal and what is collective, and sometimes it gives me some understanding and sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes when I am feeling exhausted from the companionship of my own anxiety, I think about how it is honestly miraculous that I ever have times without it given that I was brought into the world by the most high anxiety people that I have ever known.
And also I am thankful in my thank-you heart, where I lift the lamp beside my golden door for myself. For myself and my sad, scared, anxious selves.
Thankful for, for example
Thankful for my practice, my training, inhale and exhale, hand on heart, tree friends and animal friends, my porch-bobcat who taught me so much, for luck and privilege and clues, for right-place right-time.
Lighting a candle for easing and releasing, and for strengthening and fortifying inner sanctuary. For the ongoing practice of We Do Grounding Things and then We Do More Grounding Things.
I wish for us to stay brave and stalwart, friends.
Breathe, light the candle, breathe, touch the earth, take comfort in something alive. If this is just an exercise, it’s certainly a successful one.
Come hang out with me in the comments, I LOVE COMPANY!
You are welcome to share anything that sparked for you while reading, notice what you’re noticing, think about what We Do Grounding Things might look like for you, light a candle with me, or several candles.
If you received clues or learned anything or just want to send appreciation, I could definitely use some miracles right now with an emergency situation I’m in.
I will happily accept support in the form of Appreciation Money to Barrington’s Discretionary Fund. Asking is not where my strength resides but Brave & Stalwart is the theme these days, and pattern-rewriting is the work, and it all helps with fixing what needs fixing. As always, I appreciate you for appreciating! And I am still giving my beautiful Book of Qualities in ebook form to anyone who contributes.
And if you can’t support in that way, you can light a candle for support or light one in your mind, share one of my posts with people, that all means something too, and I appreciate it so much.
Thank you for being here, it means so much to me to think about these things in companionship. ❤️