when the press of everything threatens us
one of the amazing truths of being a human is that, aside from small temporal details, there is nothing new under the sun. one of the problems of being human, though, is our very, very short memory, both individually and culturally, and our tendency to forget that other people both contemporary and historical really have been-there-done-that. not only have they been there, they've in many cases left us wise reflections, cautionary tales, and sometimes, if we're lucky, instructive templates on doing the things that we so often feel rudderless attempting to do.
one of the great gifts to me, of these lean times since the school where i worked closed, has been the time it carved out for me to begin reading again. to read what i wanted to read, not what i was assigned to read. when i started graduate school in 2007, i probably had 1000+ pages of assigned reading each week of english literature from beowulf to milton, of the copious and usually dry, old-white-dude academic commentaries thereon, of feminist theory and its discontents, of anthropological study, of pedagogical theory... i was delightfully swamped, but i had zero time to read for pleasure.
all of that rolled right into midwifery school, where helen varney burst, susan tucker blackburn, ina may gaskin, and robbie davis-floyd filled my days (i guess having three names gives you more birth cred? hey, i'm set!). still, no time to read other things. when i finished midwifery school, i thought that would change, but i soon found myself drowning in both doing and teaching the work, and all i could justify doing with my free time was getting out of the house and onto the trail.
in that swamped space, i fell in love with audible, downloading and listening to books in my car on long drives to and from appointments. (i still call them "audiobooks", and think about those horrendously expensive, squeaky, white clamshell packs brimming with 18-30 cassette tapes whenever i mention it.) that filled the gap a bit, but it meant enjoying content in little bursts rather than as binge-reading (kids, this what the 40+ crowd did before netflix--coming out of a blanket-burrito-wrapped haze on the couch after a completely-engrossed 18 hour marathon, because there wasn't a page halfway through that said "do you want to keep reading?").
all of that changed when the school where i worked closed in january. because the last push of the work had been so intense, i'd taken on very few midwifery clients, so when the doors closed, i was left without one job and without most of the other. i'd had several months' heads-up and had been able no squirrel away some of the fruits of my massive overwork to carve out a hibernation healing time, which is where you currently find me, two months in.
without a doubt, next to sleep, my ability in this hibernation to devour a stack of neglected reading has been the most powerful part. i've found so much wisdom and solace in what i've chosen to read (or should i say in what's chosen me, because that's what it feels like). one of the reminders to me, presented both in all of my overwhelm and in all of my literary exploration, is that we have been here before, we will be here again, and there are stories and tools available for healing.
today, i'd like to share one of those with you: laura van dernoot lipsky's the age of overwhelm: strategies for the long haul. this was another of my absolute impulse buys. the title showed up in the "books you might like" section of a sales website a couple of weeks ago, and i think i actually cackled out loud as i hit the "purchase now" button.
"yes. please. of course. that! what could be more timely?" i asked, swilling coffee, and in desperate need of a shower.
the book arrived a couple of days later, and as i held it in my hands, i thought, "laura van dernoot lipsky, how on earth did you know this was what people would need exactly right now, two years into the pandemic? bravo to you to reacting to THAT timeline!"
and then i flipped to the copyright page.
and then it hit me. right in the solar plexus.
copyright 2018. this was an artifact of the beforetimes.
i don't want to at all minimize what we're collectively experiencing when i say, folks, we've been here before. some of us more than others. some of us more intensely than others. some of us more often than others. i remember the crushing despair i felt before falling asleep in the wee hours of wednesday, november 9th, 2016. i remember the overwhelming rage that abled me to drop the "important" work that i was doing and fly down to washington on january 21st, 2017, for the women's march. i remember crying on my front porch listening to the brett kavanaugh confirmation hearings on npr.
i remember it all.
those bleak years were wave upon wave upon wave of overwhelm, and i say that from a place of privilege as a white, middle-class, 21st-century american woman who often has the benefit of not needing to feel "personally affected" by a lot of what goes on in our country in years past. those from 2017 on were humbling years when i was invited to feel what many americans have always felt, and to really, deeply experience what many have always experienced, and to learn to carve out a larger space for grace and a bigger heart for activism. what i learned was that my empathy wasn't complex enough. it wasn't active and reactive enough.
it is now. thank you. i'm sorry. i will do better.
from the collective sense of overwhelm that grew from and intensified after the 2016 election, through the abhorrent acts of police brutality and racial injustice that continued to spring up like wildfire, to the (i hope??) now horrendously undeniable reality of human-driven climate change (and its actual wildfires), to children in cages on the border (to anyone in cages on the border), we've all of us been frogs in dangerously warming water.
add to this powder keg the start of the pandemic in 2020 and the ensuing chaos (i won't enumerate it here--you are intimately acquainted with both the systemic and the personal effects of the pandemic on your life), and you have one massive recipe for total system shutdown. i don't mean the government. i mean our bodies.
but we can't. we have kids who depend on us. aging parents who depend on us. jobs that depend on us. mentees who depend on us. communities that depend on us.
so what on earth do we do?
in previous pieces on if women rose rooted, by sharon blackie and wintering by katherine may, i looked at, respectively, some solutions for long-term reimagining of our stories after a crisis point, and a medium-term suggestion for the incorporation of cyclical healing (lest we be forced by our bodies to do so) as part of the natural rhythm of life. these things are critically important to us as humans, but i really felt like i was receiving wisdom and instruction from the macro towards micro, and the micro "today me" really wanted solutions for the day-to-day overwhelm of *gestures wildly at everything*.
what i found in the age of overwhelm was not only an acknowledgment of the complex reasons that we're feeling the way we feel, but also a boots-on-the-ground approach to encountering each day and doing the best we can while in intense states of overwhelm. when life and everything is piling up, says van dernoot lipsky, one of our first tasks is to figure out what, out of all of it, is under our control. (that can be a tall offer!) after that, she says:
"when we're overwhelmed, we must, must determine how to metabolize and internally transform whatever is arising within us. otherwise it erodes us, or we cause external harm, or both” (pg 4)
those things which we encounter must be metabolized, meaning they must be first catabolized (broken down into their component parts) and then anabolized (rebuilt into something functional). this is the optimal system, but what happens when a body becomes unable to metabolize stress and trauma because it's at or past capacity because of what the author calls "saturation"?
at a point of saturation, like a cup that's running over or a medical patient that's hemorrhaging, we have to go into damage control mode. it doesn't matter so much what blackie tells us about mythologies of place and purpose and their ability to help us shape our future realities, or what may tells us about strategic healing breaks and how they can help us, over long spans of time, rebuild capacity--we need help NOW.
"now help" is what i found in van dernoot lipsky's book, and i want to share my reflection on just one tiny part of the toolkit she presents. i want to talk about relieving saturation through curious, open examination of our day to day routines, though figuring out what tiny things we can control by looking at them curiously and then experimenting with them, and through making the changes we know intuitively, based on our findings, will help.
question: take a moment, and play out in your mind, down to the tiny details, how the first 30 minutes of your day goes each day.
take a breath. close your eyes. see the day from eyes opening to 30 minutes later. what does it look like? what does it feel like? stop here and do that work.
now adopt a non-judgmental spirit of curiosity about each of those things, each of those steps to your day. i don't mean non-judgmental as in non-investigatory--i mean without shame or applause--just noticing. why do you think it is that you do what you do? and for each part of your morning, what feeds you (provides opportunity for anabolism or building up capacity) and what distresses you (provides opportunity for catabolism or break-down of your capacity)?
allow me to tell you what i found, and allow it to be mine and not a moralizing tale for what you should or shouldn't do. what you find might be very different. the following, simply and plainly, is what i discovered in my own investigation of one of the points of curiosity the books suggests.
catabolic realization: my relationship with my phone
this one is a tough and very complex piece of investigation for me, because, as an on-call midwife, my phone is an extension of my body. it comes in the bathroom with me to shower, i sleep beside it, it always has to be fully charged. if i'm going hiking on call, i'm limited to the few places that i have uninterrupted service. i have to have it on in places where's its rude to have it on. and that matters because it's how my pregnant clients get ahold of me when they need me. when i'm on call, i'm waiting for someone to be in labor. when i'm not, i may have incoming calls from obstetricians and radiologists and labs and any number of other entities tied up in the care and keeping of my clients. and then there are early babies, and miscarriages, and false alarms, and colleagues in distress. i am, for better or worse, always available and always "on".
i try a thousand different ways to set boundaries with clients around when to call versus text versus email to respect my life, role, and capacity, but this is rarely totally effective. i imagine that's a result of their inability to imagine that i have a 1-on-1 relationship with 10-20 people at a time, versus me being their only midwife (they're my 20, i'm their 1). i've had a plethora of "6:30am on a sunday morning" texts about "which prenatal vitamin is best", but i can't turn off my phone because someone might call in labor or with an emergency. i gently remind, and sometimes it works. even if i don't answer, it still wakes me up.
this, plus the culture of smart phones in general, means that i interact with my phone a great deal on any given day, and the sneaking, creeping, all-encompassing part of this is that my phone is, by default, the first thing that i interact with every morning and the last thing that i interact with each night. every day. without fail. the in-between is a relationship that i would probably class as a light to moderate addiction. and given the nature of the news, with the pandemic, and the invasion in ukraine, and eroding body rights, and legislative harm perpetuated against trans kiddos, and police brutality, and gas prices, and, and, and... it means i start my day with crisis. every day.
every day starts with crisis.
my eyes open, and literally the first thing i do is check my phone.
what time is it?
did i miss any calls? (of course i didn't, but this is a midwife compulsion)
what horrible news did i miss?
who's been invaded?
who's been killed?
who's right have been trampled?
what emails came through?
what benign social media events occurred?
the personal, social, and professional parts are my own, but the really insidious bit about world affairs is that i've been programmed to think, as have you, that i'm somehow a complacent "bad citizen" if i don't engage to the max all the time, and i, like many people, have let this trickle into the the false idea that engagement with a 24 hour news cycle is a very basic requirement of activism.
tough and tender news flash: it isn't.
read that again.
because i like to use metaphor to illustrate points, i'll ask you do imagine something with me. imagine two scenarios:
scenario 1: you're a camper asleep on the banks of a raging river. you've had the longest of long days, you're weary from your hike, you've been across treacherous terrain, you've fallen and injured yourself, you've forded whitewater, and you are WIPED. you're so tired that you don't even take off your pack when you get to the campsite, you don't eat, you don't settle in and process your day--you just fall over and go to sleep right on the riverbank.
now imagine that first thing the next morning, just after you open your eyes, you startle and roll immediately over, backpack in tow, right into the rapids, and you're pulled swiftly downstream, unable to get your bearings, unable to feel where you are, unable get a grip, unable to catch your breath. banging into rocks. completely overtaken and overwhelmed. you survive, and you wash up a mile downstream. imagine that's how you start your day, in fight or flight, disoriented, injured, and a mile off course.
scenario 2: you're a camper asleep on the banks of a raging river. you've had a long day, you're weary from your hike, you've been across treacherous terrain, you've fallen and injured yourself, you've forded whitewater, and you are WIPED. luckily, you prioritized setting up the basics of camp before you fell asleep, away from the riverbank, and now you're dreaming hard and your body is recovering.
now imagine that first thing the next morning, just after your eyes open, you take a breath and carefully roll up to a seated position. the water is higher and raging pretty close to you, so you back up a bit and sit up. you wrap your sleeping bag tightly around you, yawn, and take in the absolute beauty of your misty surroundings. deep, cool, refreshing breaths in. you notice that your body is sore from the day before. you note your scraped knee and tender ankle, both swaddled deep in your sleeping bag, and you think to yourself that you've got to take it easy today. your stomach growls. all that hard work means a big breakfast is in order.
so you take your time, you listen to your body, you feed your body, you stretch, you tend to injuries, you repack your gear, you put on your gaiters, you carefully eyeball your path across the raging river, and you proceed, mind clear and body tended and strong, to strategically rock-hop across the water to the trailhead on the other side. you make it unscathed and prepared for the tough journey ahead, knowing what you need and how to listen to your body.
what did you feel in each scenario? how would you describe the difference physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
what i realized from following just one piece van dernoot lipsky's advice on approaching life curiously with an aim to change what you notice needs changing, is that checking my phone very first thing upon waking put me squarely into scenario 1. it meant that before anything else, before checking in on or tending to my own health and wellbeing and my own capacity-building, i was opting to tumble straight into the whitewater.
eyes open. no bearings gathered. no nourishing done. bladder full. american journalist killed. trans youth shares her devastating experience not being able to access hormones while her family is being investigated by cps. gas prices hit an all time high. political divisions increase exponentially for XYZ reasons. you "can't say gay" in florida. one of your childhood heroes is dead. hell, even tiktok is on fire.
STOP. deep breaths. there's another way. all you have to do is try it.
this will be different for all of us, as we gently investigate what we each can control in our own lives and start to curiously approach and potentially modulate those things that surface, but the curiosity that van dernoot lipsky invited me to through her suggestions in the age of overwhelm led me to a very strong personal revelation.
a way that i personally can regulate saturation leading to overwhelm in my own life is to make tiny changes to my relationship to technology. maybe this is not the same for you. in order to take control of overwhelm, one of the few definitive actions i can take is to question and experiment with my relationship to my phone and its tendency to help me tumble myself into the rapids before any sort of self care.
i experimented with this for the first time this morning, and this is how that went:
eyes open. think to reach for phone. don't reach for phone. UHG. want phone.
check in with body. what am i feeling? what hurts? what feels ok? stretch. think to reach for phone. don't reach for phone.
center on gratitude (a practice VDP suggests). list 5 things i'm grateful for. dwell on those. smile. think to reach for phone. don't reach for phone.
wonder what time it is. wonder why i'm wondering. realize it's conditioning to "feel bad" for sleeping late on a weekend. smile and go back to sleep.
wake up half an hour later. think to reach for phone. don't reach for phone. reflect with curiosity, not judgment, on how may times the thought has come up and why.
get out of bed.
go to the bathroom.
make coffee. have coffee.
for me, this morning's experiment let me reflect on a relationship that i've had, and it allowed me to choose curiosity, gratitude, more sleep, and body-tending before the onslaught of the day. while it was weird at first and took reminding and re-reminding to not pickup my phone, the result was that i was rested, stretched, grateful, relieved, and caffeinated before dialing into troubling world affairs. that little wait did nothing to hamper my impact on the world and it did everything to hamper the impact of the world on me.
prioritizing self care isn't disengagement.
read that again.
prioritizing self care is NOT disengagement.
self care is capacity-building for more useful, thoughtful, and sustainable engagement.
examining our relationships with tech was one of many suggestions that laura van dernoot lipsky makes in the age of overwhelm, but it was certainly the one that called out to me. she also addresses, sleep hygiene, cultivation of presence, breath work, fostering curiosity, and many other avenues for examining and potentially inviting in change where it feels like it might be useful.
when i finished this book, i turned to my husband and said "two thoughts: i can't believe this was written pre-pandemic, and this is something that everyone should absolutely read to navigate life right now."
two more thoughts: i recommend checking this book out to anyone and everyone, and if you want to talk through your own personal wisdom about how to improve capacity and what changes you think you might need to make if your own life, don't hesitate to come talk to me. i don't have the answers for you, but i guarantee you do.
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain
resources from the trauma stewardship institute: