The Sacredness of Beginnings

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If we are to have a culture as resilient and competent in the face of necessity as it needs to be, then it must somehow involve within itself a ceremonious generosity toward the wilderness of natural force and instinct. The farm must yield a place to the forest, not as a wood lot, or even as a necessary agricultural principle but as a sacred grove - a place where the Creation is let alone, to serve as instruction, example, refuge; a place for people to go, free of work and presumption, to let themselves alone.
— Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

I stood four feet from beauty yesterday. A young doe somehow missed my coming down the path in the woods and froze solid only feet away from me. She was nearly within arms reach. I was walking my dog and because the deer was so still, he didn’t notice her. The doe and I made eye contact. Her ears twitched. And I stood still for a moment between two creatures whose instincts were at odds with each other. Run towards and run away.  I took in as much as I could, though it was only moments. And then I had to move on before the dog and the deer recognized each other.

And I think that is how it is with all new things in our lives—we come upon them suddenly—we barely recognize them in the mix of all we are looking at. And when we stop, we can see clearly. The new thing staring at us, requiring us to be still and quiet just to see it.

But it’s just not that easy. We try to observe the new thing and meanwhile at the end of our leash are the old habits, the old instincts and a constant familiar tug toward what we know—what has felt comfortable—what wants to continue. What wants to chase that new thing away because the quiet and stillness and openness required to let it in is just too scary—too unknown.

Growth requires these moments of stillness and anticipation. Of simply not-knowing. Growth requires that you can be lost between these two states of yourself—the old and new, your inner hound and the young deer, and just be still for a moment. This state of in-between is so necessary, and so unsupported by our culture. Even for the healthiest, happiest among us, this is not an easy place to find or to stay. Our culture wants to fill that place with things, with achievement, with judgments and busy-ness. If you take the time to do nothing in order to sort out what your next move or idea is, you will likely find yourself feeling badly for ‘not getting anything done.” Our dayplanners and calendars have slots for every hour which imply that every hour must be equally productive. But it just doesn’t work that way. Especially with beginnings.

And if you have a history of trauma or significant loss, beginnings can be even harder. Trauma is about being overwhelmed and caught off guard—and so the precious open state of beginning—the quiet, still place that is necessary for growth—doesn’t feel nourishing, it usually feels terrifying. Trauma survivors hate to be caught off guard, so rather than actually taking in what is new, they anticipate the old, scary experience of the past—even if it is nowhere near them, even if it is long gone. Better to know what is coming, even if it is bad, than be surprised.

And this is why healing from trauma is so important—not just because you want to heal the wounds of the past—but because healing allows you to grow again. It allows you to have a new relationship to beginnings, to openness, to growth. This healing can take a long time—and even when the terror or fear has subsided, you will still struggle with the newness of the experience, with the feeling of being lost in the unknown.

Most beginnings don’t look like much at all. Like the doe, they blend in to their surroundings so perfectly you almost miss them. The beginning of a trail head for most hiking trails are not easy to spot—they are a break between trees, maybe a rock outcropping, nothing more. Which is why beginnings need our help. They need our attention and care.

The thing about growth is that it happens in cycles, think circles and not lines. Beginnings don’t stand out at the front of anything, they happen after endings. Beginnings are really an 'in-between.' The beginning of a butterfly happens in-between the caterpillar and the butterfly. The beginning of the frog happens in-between the tadpole and the frog. Beginnings are easy to miss because we expect to be somewhere else.

So beginnings need our respect.  There will be time ahead for the hard work and gratification of moving forward—for seeing things get done. There will be plenty of time for the challenges that you can see and share and wrestle with. But in order for all of that to happen: you need to be able to be still. To honor and witness the young and innocent as it appears in our life over and over. To trust the experience of not-knowing long enough to find the ‘new.’  And they need our protection. We need to protect the forest of quiet so the new can show up. We need to protect the hours in our day where we can integrate what was finished and allow the new beginning.

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD


the healing power of the ordinary

A traumatic experience is by very definition extraordinary—it is defined as an experience or event that overwhelms your capacities to depend upon or protect yourself—something that you experience as totally out of the ordinary. But repeated trauma is different. With repeated trauma, long term trauma, intergenerational trauma—the extraordinary becomes utterly and completely routine—trauma becomes what is expected.  When you are healing from trauma there can be such a wish for something extraordinary to happen—some big shift the way things happen in the movies. In the movies, people change their whole lives in an hour and half. You want to believe in the one conversation that will change things, the one cathartic meltdown. The scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’s character tells Will “It’s not your fault.” and Will is healed.

But I have found that some of the best healing is not the extraordinary—it is the utterly and completely ordinary. It is the daily dog walk, it is the morning coffee, it is the routine of food shopping or doing laundry. It is the smile that the cashier at the store gives you, and the one you give the woman walking in the door of your office. For many of my clients the daily-ness of caring for grandchildren was immensely healing. For others it is ordinariness of planning for life’s typical events—birthdays, Halloween, staff parties. The chance to live out the normal events of their week—and to know that they were part of the fray.

When I am having a bad day one of my favorite people to talk to is my brother-in-law. He loves sports, and he loves to sail. I could listen to any of these conversations for hours—and it’s not because I share his interests—I don’t love hockey and I don’t know much about sailing—but I love listening to him talk about them because his joy is simply contagious. They are easy, flowing conversations that aren’t trying to get anywhere in particular. They are about the ordinary—and they allow for something extraordinary. My other favorite healing conversations are listening to he and my sister-in-law talk about their kids—they love their kids and listening to people talk about their kids can be one of the most healing conversations of all, because kids, regardless of age, are the gurus of ordinary. This is, of course, why children drive most parents nuts—the relentless ordinary that goes with them. When people like my in-laws or my best friend tell stories about their kids they are mostly tales of a peaceful ordinary.  The ordinary frustrations, the ordinary school bake sales, the ordinary struggles of growing up and moving. There is nothing quite as soothing as the peaceful ordinary. A peaceful ordinary is the necessary and healing antidote to the violent ordinary. So never underestimate your ordinary days, or your ordinary support of others. It is what helps the healing happen.

Originally posted © Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014






In Praise of Being Grounded

 © 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer Lake Windermere, UK

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer Lake Windermere, UK

“You’re grounded!” Two words no teenager wants to hear. These words are the sign that your plans are sunk and all possibility of fun is gone. Being grounded means being disappointed. It means missing out. It means being stuck at home with everything and everyone you don’t want to be stuck at home with. And truth be told, it is no fun for the parents either. When parents ground their kids they are also stuck at home with an angry teen who will spend the entire time in a state of sulking silence, maybe not trying to make their parents miserable, but doing a pretty good job of it anyway.

I’m 53 with no one to really ‘ground’ me, but that’s what I did this last weekend. I grounded myself. I’d been on the road for most of this spring, coming home, dumping my suitcase, and repacking it and moving on.  Keeping up with things enough to avert a crisis, but not enough to know what was actually completed. My life was starting to feel like a professional version of the fairy tale, The Red Shoes—where I was dancing as fast as I could—and mostly staying upright— but my life had an energy that was starting to feel quasi-maniacal.

I arrived home at midnight on Wednesday looking towards another fast turnaround to head out for the weekend on Thursday afternoon. I had planned on this weekend for months and I had been looking forward to it through the early part of the week while I was working. But on Thursday morning I stared at my suitcase with exhaustion and began to wonder aloud whether going away was a good idea.

Immediately I argued back. Of course I needed the weekend! I rationalized that the weekend would really help me—I could ‘chill out’ and ‘recharge my battery’—but even as I said these things out loud I knew the words didn’t feel true. I knew I felt untethered and off balance.

For the better part of a day, I sat in a standoff with myself not entirely unlike any scenario of a parent and teen. There was the part of me that wanted to go away—that argued and rationalized that, no, really, I would definitely get to everything that wasn’t done next week—that I really, really needed the time off—and there was the part of me that stood there in the doorway of my room as the inner ‘mean mom’ and said, “Nope. You are grounded sister.”

As disappointing as it was, it was just time to stop. It was time to stay home. It was time to regroup. It was time to ‘be grounded’ so I could actually ‘get grounded.’

And did I hear that inner voice of wisdom and say, “Oh, thank you. That’s so helpful.” NAH. I did what any self-respecting teen would do in the situation of being grounded: I called my best friend. I wanted my emotional wingman, I wanted someone on my side. I wanted someone to trash talk the inner mean mom and make it possible for me to do what I wanted, so I could go back to that inner voice with just the slightest bit of snark and say, “See, Jane thinks it’s a good idea.” And Jane did her job perfectly— she tried to help me figure out how to go away—because that’s what best friends do—they want you to get what you want.

But the problem with true inner conflict is that there really is no bad guy—no one to take sides against. Because for better or worse—you are actually both sides. You are the angry teen. And you are the mean mom. And that’s the beauty of it really—when you finally drop the end of the rope in the tug of war with yourself. You are both. And in that moment of stopping—you have all aspects of yourself in one place—but not yet together.

You can’t get grounded until you stop, but how do you ground yourself? At its most basic level, it is about stopping, and, as one of my wise mentors says, ‘being where your feet are.’ But the act of stopping is usually not enough. Getting grounded takes work. And it takes different kinds of work at different times—depending upon what feels untethered or disconnected.  First, you have to have some sense of your physical and emotional state and ideally connect your brain to your body. Marsha Linehan, who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy writes about grounding yourself in your five senses. Using the warmth of something like hot tea, or a cool washcloth. Or the sound of music you like or the smell of something that soothes you. This is a handy practice because your five senses are always with you and if one doesn’t seem to help, perhaps another will. Other grounding practices are mindfulness and breathing which can help you connect your body and your brain. And some people need more activity—like walking or biking to bring themselves in to the present.

Another thing that can be amazingly grounding are routines. Slowing down enough to reestablish and connect with routines that help you feel healthy and more solid: bedtimes, meals, walks, reading—routines that can offer some consistency and constancy and help you relax and settle in to yourself and your life. They can be especially effective at grounding you when you have become ungrounded by crisis, loss or trauma. And sometimes things like tidying up and putting everything away, or organizing something (anything) can help you feel like you and your life is more in order.

Once you have reestablished a physical connection with yourself —and a connection between you and the rhythms of your life, you can also ground yourself in your values and your noble purpose— ground yourself in the motivations that drive you and the reason you get up in the morning. Connecting to your values and purpose can recalibrate your inner compass and remind you where you are headed or where you want to go.

Being grounded is not a quick fix like penicillin or a pain pill—it’s a feeling that needs to work its way back into the fabric of your being. It needs some time to settle, to knit, to mend. One you regain that feeling—you need to steep in it a while. Take some time to feel the ground underneath your feet, and your feet underneath your body. Take some time to feel your breathing, your values, your purpose and your relationships. And take time to have all the pieces of you get to live in the same place for a while—long enough to find common ground.  The common ground of steadiness and sturdiness – a platform from which you can leap again—when you are ready.  

 © 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

The Letter Your Teenager Can't Write You

Dear Parent:

This is the letter that I wish I could write. 

This fight we are in right now. I need it. I need this fight. I can’t tell you this because I don’t have the language for it and it wouldn’t make sense anyway. But I need this fight. Badly. I need to hate you right now and I need you to survive it. I need you to survive my hating you and you hating me. I need this fight even though I hate it too. It doesn’t matter what this fight is even about: curfew, homework, laundry, my messy room, going out, staying in, leaving, not leaving, boyfriend, girlfriend, no friends, bad friends. It doesn’t matter. I need to fight you on it and I need you to fight me back.

I desperately need you to hold the other end of the rope. To hang on tightly while I thrash on the other end—while I find the handholds and footholds in this new world I feel like I am in. I used to know who I was, who you were, who we were. But right now I don’t. Right now I am looking for my edges and I can sometimes only find them when I am pulling on you. When I push everything I used to know to its edge. Then I feel like I exist and for a minute I can breathe. I know you long for the sweeter kid that I was. I know this because I long for that kid too, and some of that longing is what is so painful for me right now.

I need this fight and I need to see that no matter how bad or big my feelings are—they won’t destroy you or me. I need you to love me even at my worst, even when it looks like I don’t love you. I need you to love yourself and me for the both of us right now. I know it sucks to be disliked and labeled the bad guy. I feel the same way on the inside, but I need you to tolerate it and get other grownups to help you. Because I can’t right now. If you want to get all of your grown up friends together and have a ‘surviving-your-teenager-support-group-rage-fest’ that’s fine with me. Or talk about me behind my back--I don’t care. Just don’t give up on me. Don’t give up on this fight. I need it.

This is the fight that will teach me that my shadow is not bigger than my light. This is the fight that will teach me that bad feelings don’t mean the end of a relationship. This is the fight that will teach me how to listen to myself, even when it might disappoint others. 

And this particular fight will end. Like any storm, it will blow over. And I will forget and you will forget. And then it will come back. And I will need you to hang on to the rope again. I will need this over and over for years.

I know there is nothing inherently satisfying in this job for you. I know I will likely never thank you for it or even acknowledge your side of it. In fact I will probably criticize you for all this hard work. It will seem like nothing you do will be enough. And yet, I am relying entirely on your ability to stay in this fight. No matter how much I argue. No matter how much I sulk. No matter how silent I get.

Please hang on to the other end of the rope. And know that you are doing the most important job that anyone could possibly be doing for me right now.

Love, Your Teenager

© 2018 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD, original post June 23, 2015

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