For now, a sapling: processing through a year of trauma and joy

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Is it possible to experience joy–robust and authentic joy–without experiences of true suffering and/or trauma?

This is the compelling question which Dr. Amy Hollywood of the Harvard Divinity School raises at the end of her The Mystery of Trauma, the Mystery of Joy. Hollywood’s work on trauma and joy is an exploration–through historical psychological and hagiographic lenses and with particular attention to The Life of Christina the Astonishing–of the ways in which human understandings of trauma and joy have been interpreted in relationship to one another by thoughtful communities over time. She invites her audience to consider these relationships boldly and intelligently, inspiring a thirst to know whether and/or how the connections between trauma and joy might be re-imagined, re-theorized, and reworked.

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Referencing theorists from Foster to Freud, Hollywood’s paper explores the question of how the ethical injunction to “believe” trauma victims who seek to tell their stories seems to conflict with the ways in which these cases may not actually be “real” as they are reported, as is evidenced in cases of dissociation and Freudian repression. Such ideas imply that the trauma victim stands outside of his or her traumatic experience, or distorts or is not able to accept it. This discrepancy troubles Hollywood insofar as it seems to conflict with our ability to hold trauma narratives as sacred. Out of this impulse of being troubled, she probes the connections within trauma and between trauma and joy via her work with medieval texts.

These questions about trauma come to life when applied to hagiography, accounts of the lives of saints. Using the medieval text of Christina the Astonishing, Hollywood explores the implications of this narrative, in which a desire for God results, for Christina, in a desire for death. In Christina’s story, dramatic bodily suffering gives credence to her words. Insofar as this text has been interpreted in the past, Hollywood posits that Christina might not be seen as capable of bearing witness to the joy of Christ without the backdrop of her traumatic experience. It is this very assumption that she questions. In keeping with the way in which Dr. Barbara Newman of Northwestern University reads texts like this, mental disturbance often gives way to bodily pathologies in women, and this gives them a closer relationship to the divine—they are able to gain, via their sensitivity, a glimpse of another world as a result of the fact that women’s bodies are (as seen in medieval times) weaker and more porous than the bodies of men. In this kind of discourse, the implication is that the trauma these women experience gives them a space in which they may authentically experience divine joy.

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Hollywood has serious reservations about Newman’s interpretation, because as a result of such a reading, Christina’s hysteria is only seen as “the real thing” in relationship to the trauma she undergoes during her time as a holy woman deeply suffering. Hollywood is interested in the implications of turning this assumption of intimate relationship between trauma and joy on its head. Even as she is familiar with the ways in which previous scholarship on Christina’s joy (and indeed, joy in general) is seen as dependent in some fundamental way upon trauma, these lenses of analysis also concern her and make her wonder whether this connection is indeed essential to experiencing joy. She questions the necessity of the relationship between the two, and asks whether it might be possible to have true joy without a traumatic element or counterbalance.

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Particularly provocative and inspiring is the way in which Hollywood fuses theoretical and literary work with the everyday, namely with the implications that this literature and theory has on ordinary human lives in plausible circumstances. As a pragmatic extension of her questions, one cannot help but be drawn into a private self-discourse regarding whether an individual person’s joy is dependent upon his or her relating this sense of joy to its antithesis, trauma. Is it only by inhabiting our moments of trauma and coming to fully inhabit the pain and sorrow of this trauma that we are able to experience the fullness of joy that we experience in circumstances not dictated by woe?

Hollywood’s question has become my own.

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In order to start working on that question, I’ll confess that last week I received a postcard from New York with a picture of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night splashed across the front, and I burst into tears.

“Dear Bea–” it read. “I concelebrated the Mass today at St. Patrick’s with Cardinal Dolan, and also with Cardinal Tagle, visiting from the Philippines. Then we went to brunch & then to the Museum of Modern Art. Saw this famous painting. Love, Dad.”

My father–the professor in his bow ties, the priest in his chasuble, the confidante in his listening skin–knows me better than almost anyone else. And after an academic year of trauma–illness, broken relationships, Incompletes in classes, and seemingly interminable times of pain spent three thousand miles away from him and the rest of my family–even something as simple as the kindness of a postcard written in his elegant hand (with his standard emerald green ink, naturally) can make me thankful enough to cry.

There are gifts in everything–in the two hour walks with my favorite Religious Studies professor, Dr. Telford Work, on Tuesday afternoons, in fresh, warm apricot chamomile muffins and bottomless foamy chai at The French Press with my best friend, Ryan, in that feeling I get when my bed is made and I’ve just climbed under the covers to sleep, safe and completely relaxed. They’re everywhere–in the flowers that grow beneath the springtime haze of the marine layer, the memories that burn (but burn because they were good and harsh and true), the brand new record waiting to be played.

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Trauma–the ER, the back of a hand, the end of a relationship, academic failure, the inability to breathe. Drowning.

Joy–Cinnabon coffee in the mornings, a day full of laughter, toes in the sand, a date at the Biltmore with one of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met, listening to The John Butler Trio or Victor Wooten while folding laundry that smells of lavender. Rising to the light.

Trauma–emptiness, loneliness, depression, cold.

Joy–letting myself be filled by the things that bring me life, intentional community with others, Strawberry Häagen Dazs, sudden warmth navigated while meeting the eyes of a stranger.

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Would I feel as much joy about these things that warm my being if I had never gone through the aggressive freeze?

Although I am still searching for a satisfactory theoretical answer, it seems possible after thinking about it that the connection between trauma and joy could be a function of the world’s current imperfections, but not a necessary condition of existence for all time. In other words, perhaps this connection between trauma and joy as indispensible is not “the way things are supposed to be” or indeed “the way they must necessarily be,” but rather something temporarily broken, something capable of being restored. It seems plausible that we might as human beings one day experience joy without the necessary backdrop of trauma as a means by which to fully and robustly identify and experience this joy talis qualis.

I will hope. And for now I will do my best to live. Joyfully and thankfully I will live. Lightly, in the butter-yellow sun. Growing–ever growing. I will bathe myself in this warmth. I am a sapling. For now, a sapling. I will focus on growing into myself. I will take my time. Trauma after trauma will unravel me and I will allow myself to heal after each one. I will cultivate joy. All, in the words of Julian of Norwich (my favorite British mystic), shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. I believe her.

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We whisper our narratives everywhere we go. Here’s to bends in the path and embracing the unknown. Cheers.

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Writing rituals: no panacea, but a short stack of idea-pancakes piled high with raspberry jam

UNAUTHORIZED WRITING ADVICE FROM THE MOUTH OF ONE WHO DETESTS CANTELOUPE

“If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing.”

–Samuel Beckett, Molloy

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Ti–, To–, Silence.

I wear a watch that doesn’t work.

Not only does it not display the right time–it doesn’t tick at all. Dead battery. My older sister, Emily, gave it to me as a hand-me-down in…2007.

I especially tend to don my poor old Elkon (Albert is his name) right before an epic foray into the terrain of God-Awful Writing Projects, as a clarifying gesture to those misguided souls who expect me to work on a timeline. You thought…..But you were mistaken. I’ll take my time. 

The defiant stillness of Albert’s worn band around my wrist is something small, reminding me that delineating a specific time isn’t as important as paying attention to the quality of the moment in which I find myself. Albert works because he symbolizes my conscious choice to tune out the voices vying for my time-oriented attention and give my attention to quality–to sit down and write organically, in the orange-peel freshness of Right Now. He challenges me to be fully present in each moment as I wrestle and dive. I churn out better thoughts when he’s by my side.

Try finding your Albert.

You always huff and puff hardest on the first long run. 

Call me the ostrich.

One of the grandest, most menacing challenges I face as a writer is deciding how to frame my arguments and ideas at the onset of a new project. I’m awkward. Occasionally I start scribbling with an image or other paradigmatic tool already in mind, but quite often I feel as though I’m racing out of the starting gate stumped, feathers malaligned. Cue asymmetrical gallop.

Sometimes locating my rhythm–embracing my even stride–is as simple as sitting down with jasmine green tea (or an espresso, as mood permits), taking a few deep breaths, rolling up my giant sweater sleeves, and beginning somewhere. Anywhere. The first word is always the hardest, I remind myself, and you can always change it later. If you just show up every day, you’re miles ahead of everyone who doesn’t. 

Be at peace with the awkward.

Add patience. Self-gentleness. Rinse, repeat.

When it comes to prep for the process, be bold like Arabica coffee.

Put on your black turtleneck, eat your tomato basil soup, listen to Arcade Fire’s Song on the Beach. Pace along the patio, sautée mushrooms and onions, carve an image of a polar bear into a hunk of driftwood. Pick dandelions or take a chainsaw to something. Dance to The Smiths or The Knife, pull out your ballet shoes and throw on a recording of Chopin, or make amends with your neglected banjo. Blow off the dust. Blow off the steam. Do what works for you. Make intrepidness a lifestyle. Get into the writing mode by finding those things that dazzle you into believing that you can do it. Then (the command you’ve been waiting for) do it.

Take those tributaries. That journey.

I don’t feel equipped to tell that story, narrate that history, take that journey. Just not that one. I have nothing original to contribute here. 

When my mind spins that way, I try to ask myself the question “Why do you feel ill equipped?” before trying strategies via which to feel better equipped. I try to get to the core of it all. And while I expect to realize that I’m attempting something too ambitious–too foreign–the honest voice that almost always echoes back from within after the hard work of my soul searching goes something like this: Too close to home.

In response to that ever-present fear, I’ve found it helpful to think about this:

“Your soul has been spinning stories since the day you were born. And these stories are not yours alone. They belong to your parents and ancestors. They belong to your hometown and region of the country. They are best told in their original dialect, and only someone from the area can do that successfully. Your creativity is likely to thrive and be especially productive when you are willing to face your life at many levels, understand your roots and embrace yourself in the most intimate ways. This doesn’t mean that all of your creative work will be about you. But its power and relevance come from your well. Sooner or later you must go home again. You must face the depths of that well. The parentage, the family story, the tribal story, the story of the hometown or region–all of it contributes to who you are now.”

-Vinita Hampton Wright

Take it home.

A benediction.

May your days overflow with vigor and with ink stains. May you use your energy to sprinkle creativity liberally on all that you touch–liberally like lime juice on your pico de gallo or rainwater on your upturned palms. May you eat toast and nectarines for breakfast, and vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. May you run high and loose in your body and your mind. May you take the time–your time–to do the good work of saying what you want to say without worry and without fear. May you find your rhythm. May you get it down. May you wait to edit. May you tell your own story using the cadences of your very own native tongue. May you believe with your whole being in the urgency of it. May you rip the words out of you like tangles buried deep in your soul-roots. May you expose them. May you hold them out as a still-beating offering for the world. May you unveil with intentionality precisely what you mean to unveil, and protect what needs protecting. May you unravel. May you be willing to bleed. There is grace in both the bleeding and the healing. May you jump. Jump.

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Ireland in black & white: a taste

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Call something like a million miles of memories

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Summer sunset in my hometown of Spencerport, New York.

Lanterns flamed in the crisp night air that summer. Forget-me-nots and lingering lilacs, birdsong and afternoon creek-side musings were my May. The Rochester International Jazz Festival—euphoric chaos taken with Gregory Porter, Kat Edmonson, Ravi Coltrane, steaming Artichoke French, and kinky reggaes from Java’s at sunset—was my June. Native American Literature was my July. Working for a charter school in the city of Rochester was my August.

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I etched my days in Black Currant iced tea and grilled sandwiches brimming with fresh arugula, melted Swiss, avocado, radishes, vine-ripened tomato, and hummus. Every Friday night, I cooked dinner for my family.

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I started a composting system in my backyard that summer, in hopes that my family would become just a little bit more ecologically conscientious. I shopped at thrift stores. I made homemade dandelion mint tea and went around barefoot. I put basil on everything. I scribbled. I bought books. I became a vegetarian. I felt like I was growing in all the best ways.

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In mid-July, Oliver drove from Tennessee to New York just to visit me. We stopped measuring time altogether and breathed—in the hammock, on the front porch with iced tea and Tennyson, with fresh snow peaches and laughter and trips to the shore of Lake Ontario. We were living our lives, and we were full of joy.

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And somewhere, between the pages of John O’Donohue and Boris Pasternak, I began unpeeling the onion of Belonging. I craved a deeper sense of oneness with the world and people around me. I wondered, night after night by Chai Tea scented candle, what it would take to fully invest myself in community with others, and, furthermore, whether it was worth it.

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I will toast to these memories, strung out over worlds of time and space, for they have changed me. I am still building. I am still building. As the times disappear into the Horizon Behind and the memories blur like paint blended on a canvas, they brush their way into the painting that is my life.

Pass the peace.

Call something like a million miles of memories.

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And it’s funny how

I first wrote this list last summer in upstate New York, having just returned from three and a half months living in Ireland. I was tired, I was discouraged, and I was surrounded by things that made me anxious.

Home felt unfamiliar. I saw gaps everywhere, it seemed–in people, in things. Each passing day seemed chalk full of tensions between intentions and actions, dreams and fulfillments, experiences and appreciation. I was thinking a lot about unfulfilled desire and what it means to embrace life. I wasn’t coming to any conclusions.

This list is an exercise in acknowledging some of that unfulfilled desire and those unanswered questions I have about life, love, and the world around me. I can’t articulate very many of the answers to the “why is this so” question, but I can say “it’s funny how,” and that, for me, represents an initial kind of partial, visceral liberation from the unspoken power of these things. “It’s funny how” is my head nod to some of the realities of life (beautiful and bizarre), but beyond that, a springboard via which I started thinking about bridges for these gaps, gratitude for these gifts, and trailblazing for these terrains of desire.

And it’s funny how…

  • things that we never thought would come to fruition are happening
  • much the things we never thought would matter…matter
  • love saves people
  • our pasts remain a part of us but we keep moving forward
  • we feel so empty and so full simultaneously
  • the future makes us shudder and sigh
  • people change, remain the same
  • we keep searching for the one escape that will last, when we actually have the power to choose a life which we might not want to escape after all

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  • the bittersweet things still taste the same after all these years
  • people who we thought would always stay leave
  • people who we thought left come back
  • many books remain untouched on our shelves
  • we spend our entire education complaining about its demands instead of relishing it while we have it
  • we crave VHS tapes and Honey Nut Cheerios and tangible reminders that we were just as real then, in childhood, as we are now
  • we spend hours envying other people’s lives online instead of just living our own
  • we choose social media over the world that is all around us
  • many double standards have developed within us since we have last thought to examine ourselves for such things
  • the pursuit of happiness so often destroys us, but the full embrace of our already-present resources frees us to be happy—how long it takes for us to really get this, regardless of how many times we have heard it said or seen it writtenImage
  • we believe the lie that we need to measure all of our time, that time can never just drift by as we participate in something that means something unique to us
  • afraid we are to change things
  • a small cup of tea or coffee or a small word of kindness can turn entire days around
  • much gratitude means 
  • often we look forward or back instead of focusing on this very moment that we have been given
  • we so frequently smother creativity in favor of practicality
  • quickly we forget to get involved in the basics—tasting, smelling, seeing, touching, and hearing
  • deeply in love our culture is with ideas, and how averse we often are to actually acting upon them in meaningful ways
  • watching a sunrise or sunset from the top of a mountain can suddenly put some things into serious perspective
  • lucky we are to be alive

The next stepping stone I envision (after this list) is one on which I am able to name not just the gaps but the bridges themselves–the forests of gratitude, the trails for the journey. I want to contribute to the cartography of reconciliation and healing that will help mend the gaps between people and the gaps within ourselves. I want to step in the forks of the rivers Whole and Alive and be healed by them.

I crave an active niche in the restoration of the world. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled and my mind open. I’ll be curious. I’ll be wandering. I’ll be writing. I’ll be sketching mountain ranges on this borderless map alongside much better artists than I. I’ll be seeing you along the way. I can’t wait to meet you. Let’s make a way together toward Entire.

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Translate me desire: walking away and celebrating deeply, pro re nata

“May you live every day of your life.”
―Jonathan Swift

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Perhaps it’s time, I thought. Perhaps it’s time to create something new.

Amidst tall, slim glasses of lavender lemonade and mugs heaped high with ginger beer, I felt it.

Amongst the warm scarves and pearl earrings on overcast afternoons spent with avocado melts, three-bean soup, mango vanilla black iced tea, and steamed vegetables tossed in light, zesty tofu sauce at Redondo Beach’s The Green Temple with chai gelato to follow, I knew.

It came slowly, sliding between stacks of Norwegian pancakes with Bergeron apricot jam and piping hot Irish oatmeal with blueberries, brown sugar, and raw milk. It had been building ever since the smoked Gouda on fig-and-olive crackers and the blackberry sheep’s milk yogurt and the latest issue of Vogue read beneath soft, warm covers in a guest room in Palos Verdes. It had brewed inside sunset canyon walks with an Australian Shepherd named Libby, taken along chalky trails lined with elderberry trees and passion fruit flowers. (The sky that night was the color of champagne lifted before a clean slate.) In buckets of Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar, in the spicy fragrance of Thai pulsing into my dear friend Ryan’s Toyota Rav4, and in the throes of feeling (really feeling) the rugged beating of my own heart through mile after mile of seaweed-scented sand sweat along our coastal jaunts, I realized it. As I talked late into the night by espresso-drenched candlelight with the people I love about our dreams for the future, I realized that there is nothing I want more than to live.

I have been so afraid to live.

Unfulfilled dreams and broken promises had me motionless at the side of the road, shattered. I’m strong enough to walk away from a wreck when I need to, but sometimes when I’m fractured, I lie alone, prone, refusing for a while even to reach for the glue.

And now it’s time.

Here is my creed, swept like Elmer’s across the surface of a fresh collage layer with shaky, determined hands: I will live simply. I will give. I will love well. I will allow myself to enjoy my life.

The questions on the table: What do I value, and how can I give those things true priority, a sense of urgency that I won’t let the unimportant things claim? 

I will search out the answers to these questions. I will experiment. I will lighten my burdens. I’ll sell my sweaters if I choose. I’ll change my look and become a connoisseur of local craft beers if I choose. I’ll make amends if I choose. I’ll fall in love again if I choose. I’ll go to culinary school if I choose.

I am going to apply. And, further, I am going to apply myself.

I am going to write something better.

I’m crafting a novella.

Spring is almost here.

Cheers to real life.

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A letter to a friend who questions her self-worth

I want to sit with you in your pain. I want to just be present with you and not tell you that it’s going to be all right or that everything is going to fall apart. I want to say nothing for a long, long time, and feel with you in that space as you, too, feel.

When you said that you’re too broken to be fixed, I thought about what that meant. I thought for a while. I thought to myself: What does that mean? What does it mean to feel irreparably broken? Does feeling that way mean that we are? Is there actually still hope in that? If there is hope even when we feel irreparably broken, I thought, then what is the key to accessing it? That made me think about love, because love is a deep source of strength from which to draw. Might self-love help us access the hope that remains within what we consider to be irreparably broken? If so, what can we do to help ourselves love ourselves? How can one actively love oneself?

I’m hearing that you want a relationship. I’m hearing that you feel beyond ready for it. But I’m also hearing that you don’t love yourself. I’m hearing that you’re identifying that you don’t love yourself because you have been rejected and that has caused you to profoundly question your worth. But it also sounds to me like you don’t love yourself, period, and that these feelings of rejection are serving as triggers to make yourself dislike yourself more acutely. In other words, I’m hearing a cycle.

I think I could make a good case as to why self-love is a path to hope, and basically to anywhere good and solid. When we are taking good care of ourselves, we are able to stand on our own. We can balance and we can thrive. We can stop just existing. We can move forward. We can be confident enough to take the risks we want to take. We can live our lives.

I received a piece of sage advice a little while ago, one that I’d like to pass on if I may. It goes something like this: Loving ourselves isn’t about trying to feel differently about ourselves. That’s not the core of it, even though that’s a spectacular side effect. Loving ourselves, in reality, is about responding to our intrinsic worth as human beings by taking steps to “love” as a verb–taking care of our bodies, minds, and spirits regularly, methodically, hopefully–on the days we feel like it and on the days we don’t. When we can honestly look at ourselves and say that we are loving ourselves with our actions, we are truly loving ourselves. And although we are not always cognizant of the power of this active love, our whole being experiences it, which means that we are infusing its effects into our lives. That has the power to change things.

Teaching ourselves how to participate in self-love equips us to grow, to expand, to lead. It also equips us to deal with both negative feelings of rejection and positive feelings of vulnerability and intimacy, because when we’re self-loving, we cultivate the wisdom and strength to care how we need to care when the situation demands it, whether for our own well-being or for the well-being of another.

Sentimental bullshit, you’re thinking? I was, too. I’ve been thinking about why I automatically want to reject that in practice, even though it sounds nice in theory. Perhaps we have heard “love yourself first” in a certain context. Perhaps we have heard “Love yourself first–then you’ll be desirable, and be ready for a mature and lasting relationship, one that doesn’t become a case study in codependency or one-sided reliance or unhealthy dynamics” again and again, but we’ve never heard what we’ve really needed to hear (or we’ve heard it, but have never listened). We’ve never heard “love yourself because you are worth it. Love yourself for a lifetime because your love is inherently worth receiving, especially from yourself” from any of the mouths that mattered growing up. And that’s destroyed us. We’re just now learning that loving ourselves intrinsically and without a different ultimate agenda or goal is even a THING.

DISCLAIMER–THIS PARAGRAPH IS ACTUAL ADVICE FROM ME. YOU DIDN’T SPECIFICALLY ASK FOR ADVICE, AND SOMETIMES IT FRUSTRATES ME WHEN SOMEONE GIVES ADVICE WHEN I DIDN’T ASK FOR IT. SO IF YOU DON’T WANT IT, FEEL FREE TO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH. YOU WILL SO NOT OFFEND. I JUST WANTED TO BE A FRIEND IN ANY WAY I KNEW HOW, SO I INCLUDED IT, BUT YOU’RE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO READ THIS PART. I know that you don’t want to hear focus on you. I know you want this is what you can do to get the relationship you want, or men suck, or I know a guy…. but I’m not confident that you’ll even know what you want until you’ve become adept at loving yourself (body, mind, and spirit) with your actions. Spend some serious time (months) loving yourself actively, with NO set agenda in mind–not a relationship, not casual intimacy, not celibacy, not lesbian partnership, not drunken one-night-stands, not castration. Nothing. Once you’ve detoxed by allowing yourself to fulfill your own core needs and desires for some time (Love on your body by lotioning it, cleaning it regularly, making it feel healthy, working out, whatever you need/whatever feels right; love on your mind by processing through your emotions with gentle honesty rather than repression or harsh rumination, complimenting yourself, steeping yourself in beautiful literature and thought-provoking music that causes vivacity to pour forth from inside of you; love on your spirit by praying, searching, spending time in nature, engaging with the divine in any way that seems life-giving), with no agenda, reassess what you want. Be willing to ask yourself what that truly is. Be willing to dig deeper. Don’t think about what you should want or what you have wanted. Think about what you want now that you have begun this journey of true engagement with self-love, now that you are standing on your own. I guarantee that with the backdrop of your commitment to loving yourself and bringing yourself life, your answers to these questions will have the potential to surprise you.

Done with the advice part. Now sobriety and hope in the same paragraph. Maybe you’re not going to survive this. Not as you are. But maybe a different you can. Maybe the you you will be can. Maybe the you you can be can. And maybe it’s not about changing yourself to have different hair, a new tattoo, or more eye makeup (although these could all be a part of your journey). Maybe it’s not about constant, exhausting efforts to make yourself better. Maybe it’s about changing your perspective by steeping yourself in your own love, and then reassessing what seems good to you.

I love you so, so much, and I’m looking forward to keeping in touch.

Hang in there.

You are ever in my thoughts and prayers.

Elizabeth

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