Hush

hushBluebird by Charles Bukowski
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too tough for him
I say, stay in there
I’m not going to let anybody see you
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke
And the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks
Never know that he’s in there
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too tough for him
I say
Stay down, do you want to mess me up?
You want to screw up the works?
You want to blow my book sales in Europe?
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too clever, I only let him out at night sometimes
When everybody’s asleep
I say, I know that you’re there
So don’t be sad
Then I put him back
But he’s singing a little in there, I haven’t quite let him die
And we sleep together like that with our
Secret pact
And it’s nice enough to make a man
Weep
But I don’t weep
Do you?

Sermon: Hush

A couple months ago, my daughter was having an especially hard moment of being in 8th grade.  Feeling awkward. Insecure.    

I decided to show her a picture of me in 8th grade (which I will not be posting here), and I told her that if she knew what I was like when I was her age, she’d never feel awkward or insecure again. 

So I showed her, and immediately, she was like, wow.  You’re right mom.

Especially after I broke my leg skiing in November of 8th grade, and I had a full straight leg cast for four months – “Awkward” doesn’t cut it.

That heavy, clumsy cast experience (plus whatever was going on with my bangs) would’ve been enough to call 8th grade a big year for me.  But it didn’t end there. 

That same year, one of our family members came to live with us while she was pregnant. A lot of my memories that year are related to her pregnancy – rubbing her growing belly, watching her skin move like there was an alien inside her, laughing at her unusual cravings. 

And, looking at profiles from prospective couples, people who would be the baby’s parents, someday. 

See, her mom had decided to make an adoption plan for her child. So alongside all the other parts of that year, I also remember all the dreaming we did to create a future for this emerging human that I already loved.  A future where she would not know me.

I was at physical therapy (my cast finally removed) when the call came: the baby was coming. She came home a few days later – big brown eyes, healthy, beautiful. And for three months, she was ours. 

Until the day came, when we had to say goodbye.  I was old enough to understand, and of course I didn’t understand at all.  

I remember the feel of her head on my lips, the inhale and exhale of her skin. 

And then, I remember she was gone, and my stomach hurt. 

Or rather, I don’t remember my stomach hurting, at least not with my thinking brain. 

I feel my actual stomach hurting while I tell you this story.  It’s not nausea, it’s tension, like a fist in my gut.  

My breathing becomes shallow, and short. It’s not as intense as it was 30 years ago, after we said goodbye.  But I can still feel it. 

My mom, if you’ve met her, you know she’s a talker.  She believes in talking as a cure for most anything. So she made sure, we talked about this experience– before, during, after.  She sent us to a therapist where we talked some more.

So while this is a really formative story for me – and it’s not like I forgot about it, I didn’t actively think of it as unresolved – until 14 years ago.  Which is when we picked up my daughter from the hospital when she was 2 days old.  Because within a few days of Gracie living with us, my stomach started to hurt in exactly the same way it did when I was in 8th grade. 

My kids were both adopted through foster care, so there was about a year with Gracie where we didn’t know for sure if she would stay with us – with Josef it was more like 5 months – still, plenty long.  

During this time, we loved them already, claimed them; and we didn’t know for sure that they would stay. 

My stomach is beginning to clench a little, even now.

Last week, Sean talked about the power of naming our emotions, and taking hold of the story that has attached to them. The power of language to process and heal and grow through our feelings.  Which remains – true.    

And, what we also know, is: language has limits.  Language can only take us so far when it comes to describing our emotions, and even more, language can only go so far in processing or healing our emotions. 

Before the language, and the naming, there is the experience. Before the thinking brain attaches the story to the feeling, there is the body where the experience happens.    

Feelings happen first, in the body.  Before the words, or the meaning-making.   

This is why Sean asked us during the music last week to name the experience we were having in our bodies – first, before we give that experience a name. 

And it’s why my spiritual director asks me all the time, when I’m telling her about an emotional reaction I’m having: Where are you feeling that feeling in your body?

To which I often reply: I have no idea.   Or, I say, I feel it in my head.  I thought it in my brain…so, here….?

Actually, the first few times I first heard this question, I was like: what does that even mean? I thought it was a joke. 

Where do I feel a feeling in my body? Do people actually feel things in their body?

I mean, in the past couple months, I’ve been running again after a few years not running, and I feel that in my body. 

But – connecting emotional “ideas” from my brain – into a felt body experience – what does that even mean?     

My very patient teachers have helped me to break the question down a bit – first by offering some options – for how you might answer….    

For example, as you focus in on an emotional experience, in your body, you may notice an expansiveness. An ease.

Or, you might find numbness.  Floppiness. Weariness. 

Or, you might notice constriction.  Tightness. Pain. Energy. Warmth.

If a feeling is pretty alive, you might notice your heart beating faster, your breathing intensifying – or the opposite, like, you start to slow down, check out. 

All of these experiences are the work of the vagus nerve – the place where we first experience all emotions: Love.  Fear. Grief. Hope. Belonging. 

All of the things that make us human start with the vagus nerve. 

Which is maybe why somatic therapist and activist Resmaa Menakem calls it the Soul Nerve. 

The Soul Nerve connects to literally everything in us – from the throat to the lungs to the kidneys – everything – except the thinking, rational brain.  The Soul Nerve does not do “thinking.”  Instead, it does things like alerting the body to danger – especially by initiating the flight, fight or freeze response, regulating our breathing, our heart, our blood pressure.  Its other job is to do the opposite: to say to our bodies, you’re ok. You’re safe. 

Instead of consulting the thinking brain to decide: danger, or safety – the soul nerve mostly consults – our guts.  Literally, the soul nerve is all about “gut feelings.”

Which means my stomach ache was my soul nerve being all:

DANGER, DANGER!

 A lot of the time when my spiritual director asks me: where do you feel that in your body?

I have to say, honestly: I don’t.  I connect in with my body – and there’s just, nothing.

 This whole struggle can seem funny- I’ve spent many hours laughing with my sisters about it, they struggle with it too….but it also brings up a lot of shame, and judgment.    

I think: I should be more connected, more integrated – I’m a minister, a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I should’ve gotten over these anti-body messages that are clearly at the root of this disconnection, messages from my childhood, from Catholicism, from the culture. I am fully grown, queer, feminist – a mom of two middle schoolers.  What is wrong with me?   

These were the very loud messages in my head at the workshop I attended last year about this time, with Resmaa Menakem, as he was telling us to locate our feelings in our bodies. 

The silence in the room was thick and expectant, and I waited.   But – nothing.  Except my head, and the voices saying I should be better. 

But then he said:  If you’re struggling right now, I want to tell you, that you’re not defective, you’re just protective. Your body, probably across generations, has learned to protect itself; your mind has learned to protect your sense of self – by disassociating yourself from yourself.  These feelings you are trying to feel were at one time – truly dangerous. And the body will do anything to ensure its own safety. Including putting a hard barrier between your mind, and your body –  it’s not defective, it’s protective. 

Hearing this, draws me out of judgment, and lures me instead into compassion even for myself – a feeling I can almost feel in my body. 

When we remember, as in Charles Bukowski’s poem – all the ways we say to the bluebird in our heart: “I’m too tough for you, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you” – 

We’re not defective, just protective.  

Especially for men, in our culture – when we say: “stay down, do you want to mess me up?….You want to blow up my book sales in Europe?”

Not defective.  Protective. 

Remembering this opens up compassion, starting with ourselves. 

Resmaa tellsthe story of his grandmother’s hands.   He used to rub them for her, when they hurt.  Her hands were rough, and hard, too big for her small body.

One day he asked how they got like that. She explained: she started picking cotton when she was four, “the cotton plant has pointed burrs in it. When you reach your hand in, the burrs rip it up.”

When she first started, her hands were torn, and bloody; but then her hands got thicker and harder and bigger – until she could reach in without any bleeding. It had been a long time since she’d picked cotton, but her hands didn’t ever change back.  

I try to remember this story when someone is being particularly cold, short, calloused – I try to imagine that maybe sometime in the past, this same behavior was helpful, maybe it even saved their life. It moves me out of judgment, into compassion.

Especially when I pair it with another insight –this one from psychologist Noel Larson – he says, “If something is hysterical, it’s usually historical.” 

He means: if someone is having a reaction that has far more (or far less) energy than what the situation seems to call for, it’s likely because it’s bringing up un-processed – or what Resmaa calls “unmetabolized” feelings from the past….if it’s hysterical, it’s usually historical….the soul nerve in its unthinking ways, often seeks to repeat whatever has been left unresolved, it tries to find healing – for things from our past, and from even farther back than that. 

Over the past few decades, neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda has been studying the physical effects of our biggest feelings, by studying veterans, and holocaust survivors, and survivors of 9/11. In each of these, she found very similar physical manifestations of their stress, and trauma – memory loss, muscle weakness, chronic anxiety and depression – all of which she found, they pass on to their children, and grandchildren.

As she says, “the trauma itself is inherited.” 

Inherited first through the embodied behaviors of those whose bodies carry the original trauma. The ways their bodies express all that depression, anger, anxiety – the impact this has on their children – the new trauma the children experience. 

And also, trauma is inherited literally in the body – through biology. Yehuda’s work discovered that grandchildren of holocaust survivors –show the same genetic markers as if they experienced the holocaust itself. This same pattern is seen across generations in African American communities, Jews, Native Americans, and although it hasn’t been studied as extensively, surely it is present in today’s immigrant community. 

Still, Yehuda is quick to point out that the impact she’s describing is not confined to large scale traumatic events – whenever any of us experiences an overwhelming change that floods our system, our bodies, our soul nerve – it can take up residence in our systems in the same ways. 

Overwhelming feelings like this, she says, often “reset and recalibrate multiple biologic systems in an enduring way.”  

Feelings happen in our bodies, and when they are overwhelming and under-processed, they are passed on person, to person, across generations – biologically inscribed, inherited – like a contagion –which we should not take to mean that these same feelings are our destiny

Actually, it’s just the opposite. 

The body does not just contain painful, traumatic feelings afterall; the body also holds resilience.  Intelligence. Joy. Hope.  The capacity for growth, and change.  In our bodies lives a visceral longing for freedom.  

With practice, we can engage the soul nerve in its wisdom – rather than only its wounds. 

Especially through the use of ancient practices in a community setting – practices that somatic teachers call “settling.”  Things like singing, or humming.  Swaying, or rocking our bodies. Stuff we do in church – I mean, “ancient practices in a community setting” !!  

Settling the soul nerve so that we are not perpetually in in flight, fight, freeze – or flood – is not in and of itself healing.  But is a pre-requisite to healing. 

This is important, let me say it again.  

Settling ourselves – becoming calm, feeling safe, peaceful; remaining connected, and present – this is actually not healing. We often seem to think it is – that if we can get to serenity, peace – that we are healing.  But really, it’s the pre-requisite to healing. 

Practicing settling when we are not in distress or discomfort, allows us to more easily feel settled when distress and discomfort arises.  We learn to tolerate discomfort, without shutting down. We teach our soul nerve to trust that even when we are uncomfortable, we are OK.  

Which in turn allows us to go towards what might otherwise see, TOO MUCH, TOO PAINFUL…we build a capacity to feel the feelings as they actually are, in our bodies – and by feeling the feelings we metabolize them, heal them.

To do this, we might use ritual, art, movement… likely many of the things we named in community time – these practices that engage our bodies. Remembering that it’s not just trauma that gets transmitted, but healing, too.   

One more story.

My father’s father – his name was Gus, was 7 when his father took a train ride across the country, promising to bring him back a special toy.  But while he was gone, he got an infection, and he died – so he never returned.  A few months later, my grandpa’s mother also became ill – she died.  My grandpa had 8 siblings, and when their parents died, within a few short months of each other, all 9 were sent out to foster families, across three states – they didn’t meet again until they were adults. 

When we brought Gracie home, and I loved her immediately, and my stomach clenched with anticipatory grief – I didn’t think about my Grandpa, or the loss he must have held in his body his whole life.  Any more than I thought of myself in 8th grade. 

And yet right there, as my stomach tightened, I was given a chance to heal not just for myself but for two generations back. To stay present there, to feel the anxiety and the grief. 

And even now each time I choose to lean in to the experience of loving my children -which is, even now they are middle schoolers, often an embodied experience….to feel all all the feelings, to not shut down, or close off from the risk, the grief, the fear – it feels like small way to metabolize at least some of these experiences of grief and overwhelming loss that live in my body -like the bluebird longing for freedom – feelings from my own past, and from the past I have inherited. 

We all carry in our bodies feelings like this, our own, our inheritance – stories that words cannot help or touch.  In the silence, and in the space between us, our bodies have everything we need to heal, we have everything we need to release everything in us that longs to be free. 

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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