Pain, Grief and Showing up Anyway

Pain, Grief and Showing up Anyway

So here’s the thing…  I feel a whole lot better when I show up even when I feel awful, even when I feel things are rough and I’m tired, even when I don’t want to.  I’ve also learned that showing up anyway is the single best remedy for not continuing to feel that way. Except that it’s also really hard to do.  That’s the thing.  It’s really, really hard and sometimes… sometimes it feels impossible.  I know it technically isn’t, but it sure feels that way.

Marcus Aurelius wrote about pain a great deal.  And in his writings about it he consistently focusses on choice and responding, rather than reacting.  I’m a huge fan of Marcus Aurelius, not just because he was wise, but because this guy was one of the most powerful men in the world and yet he continued to do his best to remain humble, to avoid arrogance, to nurture self awareness and to treat others with respect and kindness.

So yeah, showing up anyway.  Easier said than done, so I have found ways to do so that aren’t quite so laden, that make it a tiny bit easier.  I call it setting myself up to succeed.

Here’s what I do:

  • Thread up a whole bunch of needles with different types and weights of thread.  I use both Chenille needles and Milliners Needles.
  • Grab a needle, any needle, it doesn’t matter which one, and begin stitching.  I have a couple of mindless go-to stitches that don’t require any thought.  They are the meditative stitches like french knots, bullion knots, colonial knots, seed stitch, chain stitch, fly stitch, straight stitch and then I riff on them, which means I start exploring every aspect of that stitch.  How many wraps can I make on a french knot before the whole thing begins to fall apart?  (It turns out a lot more than you might think!). What ways can I stitch a straight stitch to create different patterns?
  • Exploration
  • Investigation
  • And before you know it, I’m playing!

Stitching, more than anything, changes everything, even grief, even pain.

If you’re curious to know how I did this, I made a video about it and you can watch it here:

This Too Is Grief

This Too Is Grief

Stitch, put on the design wall, evaluate, consider, take down, add a new element, stitch, put back up on the design wall, take a photograph, consider, have an idea, take down, thread up a new color, take a chance, take a risk, take a breath, stitch and then the tears arrive.  Not a few drops at a time, but a torrent soaking the fabric and the thread I’ve just stitched.  In the midst of this I briefly wonder whether the thread colors will bleed. They say grief comes in waves.  The threads don’t bleed, I’ve learned.  At least not yet.  Stitch anyway.  Stitch through the grief.

It catches you off guard.  That’s the thing.  That’s what makes it hard.  It’s unpredictable. Erratic.  The violence of it when it arrives, unannounced, suddenly, swiftly; how do you prepare for that?

You can’t.

“How are you?” people ask.  I’m surprised because I’m just fine.  I’m busy, I’m working, I’m teaching, my old energy levels are returning, they aren’t back to what they were, but really, I’m just fine! 

“I know you had a strong bond with her” or “I know how close you two were”  or “I know…”  And the pain slams into me, taking my breath away. No, I’m just fine, I think, but I’m not.  I’m not fine.  I’m grieving.

In Answer to, “How Are You?”

The headaches begin with a tightness. It’s like a shadow, looming just to the side. I can feel a tingling behind my eyes, at my temples, a scratchy sensation at the back of my head. It’s similar to when you sense someone’s looking at you before turning to meet their eyes. This is when I pull out the ice pack, the neck pillow, rub tiger balm onto my forehead and temples and turn the lights down. Waiting. Waiting. Will it get worse or can I ward it off? I breathe in slow rhythmic breaths. I center my energy and try to relax. I lean into the pain. I try to find its center and breathe into it.

Two days ago I had four or five hours without any pain at all. Amazing! It was a beautiful few hours. I couldn’t believe I’d spent most of my life without pain. Without headaches. Without fear of when or if, just living my life. Pain is like that. Suddenly it’s here and if it lingers or worsens we do our best to adapt and adjust while trying to find the source. Was it something I ate, drank or didn’t eat or drink? Am I feeling more stress than usual? I turn to google: “what to do when one gets a headache?” “What’s the difference between a migraine and a headache.” I read up on the various horrors that may or, usually, may not await. Meditation, medication, massage, acupuncture, get my vision checked, go to the doctor, check, check, check, and on the “to do” list.

Meanwhile life goes on. Right now the pain isn’t bad. It’s a 1 on a scale of 1-10. A few days ago it was at a 7 or even 8. We’re not supposed to talk about this publicly. We’re supposed to be stoic. We’re supposed to remain silent. Expressing this sort of thing is a sign of weakness. We can’t let anyone know. It shows we’re vulnerable. So we say nothing. People casually ask “how are you?” We’re just being polite, we don’t really expect the truth. If we answered truthfully that question might not get asked so casually. So we say, “I’m fine. Thanks so much for asking. How are you?” Politeness wins out and we have done our part to maintain the fragile equilibrium of societal niceties.

There is something unseemly about writing about this. Particularly as the pain is slight and manageable right now. And anyway I don’t want people to worry. It’s probably nothing. Headaches are like that, they evidently can come in clusters and it’s often finding a way to break the cycle that does the trick. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Still I will call my doctor and get a vision test today.

That’s how I am today. How are you?

Coping by Stitching

Coping by Stitching

People often say to me things like – “You’re so patient” or “I could never do that, it’s so tedious.” What I want to tell them is that I am so NOT patient. I am incredibly impatient, so much so that as a child my impatience was something often commented on by others, not just my parents! I would like to report that I’ve made massive inroads with this since then, but the truth is, I tend towards impatience rather than the other way around. However life has a way of throwing things at you, and over the years I’ve had to dig deep to find ways to temper my impatience. One of those ways, ironically, is through stitching.

Stitching is like meditation. It calms my mind, gets me out of myself and my often whirlwind thoughts that can ricochet from one crises to the next if left untended. Tending to my ragged nervous system requires vigilance and a whole series of things that I must do each day so that I have a chance at making sane, calm choices. Stitching is something I must do. It doesn’t feel like an option. It feels like a necessity. I must have material, needle and thread in hand or I feel off, the day is destined to be more difficult, life’s problems feel more acute, small problems take on a razor sharp edge, things begin to feel increasingly chaotic and impossible. Stitching gives me some semblance of order, a feeling of being a part of something much larger; a feeling that I am part of something inexplicable and unknown.

As I design and look at each shape, consider which thread to use, what stitch will best compliment that shape, those colors, that idea – it feels like I am inserting a little beauty into the day. And so this is how I cope. This is how, when everything feels impossible, when I am overwhelmed by life, through stitching I feel some semblance of calm in the midst of, what otherwise feels like, a tsunami.

Bullion Knots, Picot, Running Stitch, Backstitch & Beaded Backstitch on Wool & Velvet
Bullion Knot, French Knot, Backstitch, Running Stitch on Wool, Cotton & Dupioni Silk