Moving Towards Wholeness: Summer Online Course

Moving Towards Wholeness: Summer Online Course

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 – Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

What does it mean to have a body, and to accept the body that you have?

To “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”?

What does it mean to be present in the physical world, as a physical being?

To see that “the sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving across the landscapes”?

This course, Moving Towards Wholeness: physical self-care and body narratives, is an invitation to ask, and begin to answer, those questions.

Moving Towards Wholeness is a six-week online course designed to encourage gentle exploration and acceptance of ourselves as physical beings in a physical world. This course is explicitly welcoming for fat, disabled, trans, racialized, and traumatized bodies and selves. Self-love is not required. Awareness, intention, compassion, and presence will all be cultivated in the course, but the elusive ideal of self-love (so often inaccessible to those of us with histories of trauma or marginalization) will be left on the table for you to pick up or not.

The course will focus on encouraging body acceptance, mindfulness and presence, and physical acts of self-care such as staying hydrated, stretching, moving in accessible ways, mindful breathing, and focusing on our senses. We will work on recognizing and being present with the physical body, and on recognizing and reframing internalized narratives about what it means to have a body and to be “healthy” or “unhealthy,” gently challenging our internalized ableism, and bringing an intentional awareness to how we move through this world.

Where Writing Towards Wholeness, our spring online course, focused on mental self-care and the act of writing, this summer course will be much more embodied, and we will climb down from our thinking/overthinking cerebral selves and into our seeing/hearing/tasting/smelling/touching physical selves.

Because this course is running over the summer (July 10 – August 20), and the summer is often full of weekend getaways and vacations and schedule disruptions, the course content will be delivered in the form of a PDF package at the beginning of the course, which will include writing by me (Tiffany Sostar), as well as content by special contributor Emily Goss, the author of Go Wild! and blogger at groweatgift.

The package will include a daily physical self-care checklist (modified from the request made by the participants in the spring course!), as well as a sensory scavenger hunt, with an optional photo scavenger hunt.

In addition to the PDF package, there will be regular emails and an optional weekly Google Hangout chat, as well as an opt-in private Facebook group for course participants.

Course Details

July 10 – August 20 / $125*
$95 early bird pricing until July 1
*$60 for Patreon supporters or returning participants, free for coaching clients
Space is limited

Email me to register!

#100LoveLetters

#100LoveLetters

Every summer, attendance at my Writing in the Margins workshops dwindles as people head out on vacation or hide from the heat. This year, like most years, the workshops will be on hiatus for the summer.

This year, unlike every previous year, I’ve got something planned to keep us writing through the summer.

The #100loveletters challenge starts June 21, and is open to anyone, at no charge!

It’s really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love.

You can join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.

Writing Towards Wholeness

Writing Towards Wholeness

This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. And to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story.  

 – Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing

This course, Writing towards Wholeness: Expressive Writing for Self-Care and Healing, extends DeSalvo’s invitation (and draws on her excellent work, along with the work of many other fantastic writers). The course starts on May 8, and runs until June 19. In these six weeks together, we will learn what expressive writing is, how to use it, and how to care for ourselves through the process of writing our difficult stories.

Each week will include video content, writing prompts, exercises, and a scheduled live chat. The course is designed to be modular – if you’re not interested in the behind-the-scenes lit reviews, discussion of the hows-and-whys, or extra information, you can skip the video content. If you’re just interested in learning about the topic and trying it out later, you can skip the prompts and exercises.

The course is capped at 10 participants, and I’ll be available for individual cheerleading, coaching, and that gentle butt-kick of accountability for each participant individually, in addition to the content available to the group. As of May 3, there are 4 spots still available.

The time commitment for the course is flexible, but you’ll get the most out of it if you can spend 10-20 minutes writing, 4-6 days per week, in addition to the few minutes it takes to read the emails. The video content will be anywhere from 3-15 minutes per week, and the live chat will be 45-minutes per week. With an investment of 1-2 hours per week, you should see some significant progress. And if you do every exercise and read every link and watch every video, you could spend 3-4 hours per week (though I have absolutely no expectation of that!)

The cost for the course is $60, with sliding scale available. It’s $45 for patrons of my Patreon, and it’s free for coaching clients.

If you’d like to sign up, email me!

Week One:

  1. Introduction to the course and the core resource books
  2. How expressive writing works (and the limits of its utility)
  3. Designing a self-care plan

In Week One, I’ll give you a mini review of the current state of the scientific research into the healing effects of expressive writing. Expressive writing has been studied as a tool for healing since the first paper was published on the topic in 1986, and there have been hundreds of studies since. We won’t talk about all of those studies, but I’ll give you a brief overview to help ground you in the science behind the practice. We’ll also talk about the limits of expressive writing, and alternatives to writing. Drawing, dancing, mind-mapping, and other artistic forms of expression are welcome, and we’ll touch on the research that supports their benefits. In Week One, we’ll also bump up against the limits of the research. The fact is that we don’t know why expressive writing does and doesn’t work, and although we’re getting closer to answers, they’re still in the future.

You’ll also begin to design a personalized self-care plan in Week One. We’ll talk about how to identify your needs, and set yourself up for success.

Week Two:

  1. Narrative trajectories
  2. Personal anthologies

In Week Two, we’ll introduce the narrative side of the project. Drawing on David Denborough’s work with “everyday narrative therapy,” you’ll start to identify and explore your own life story. We’ll talk about personal origin stories, and how to create an anthology of your own formative positive moments. These positive story will work with your self-care plan to help give you a solid grounding in self-compassion and non-judgmental self-awareness. For many of us, the negative stories are easier to believe and easier to call to mind, so although this week is focused on the positives, it’s definitely going to be a bit uncomfortable at times. Good thing we have a self-care plan in place!

Week Three:

  1. Writing and trauma recovery
  2. Externalization
  3. Other benefits of expressive writing

Week Three will dig deeper into the specifics of how writing can be used to work with trauma and other issues (such as focus at work or school, or managing depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues). We’ll talk about how trauma impacts the body, and some of the research into the health effects of trauma. We’ll also talk about externalization, and start practicing seeing problems as being something outside of ourselves, rather than something inherent to ourselves. If that sounds weird and counterintuitive, don’t worry. I’ve got exercises and simple explanations to make it more accessible and engaging.

Week Four:

  1. Expressive writing
  2. Self-care

This is it. We’re doin’ it! In Week Four, we’ll put our self-care plan into full effect, and engage in four days of 15-20 minutes of writing about an emotional topic. If you’re a trauma survivor, don’t worry – you don’t have to write about the scariest or most challenging – we’ll talk about a wide range of potential topics and you can write about whatever feels right for you. You will have access to all of the course materials even after the course wraps up, so you can always come back to it as many times as you want.

Week Five:

  1. Reframing, reshaping, recovering

We’ll take the body of writing (or drawing, or talking, or dancing) that you’ve generated over the last month and start thinking about how it fits into our narrative trajectory – the path we want our lives to take and the path we see ourselves having already taken. We’ll talk about how to use the skills and tools we’ve gained so far to reshape and reframe our stories, and to use these narrative strategies to recover from traumas and difficulties.

Week Six:

  1. Tools for a sustainable practice
  2. Discussion and wrap-up

In our final week, we’ll talk about how to use these tools going forward.

I am so excited about this course. I have used writing as a coping and healing tool for decades, and writing has gotten me through some of the worst times in my life, and helped me appreciate some of the best. Telling our stories intentionally, compassionately, and wholeheartedly has the potential to change the way we see ourselves in the world, to help us feel centered and strong in the stories of our own lives.

Using Tarot (and other woo) as a Self-Storying Tool

Using Tarot (and other woo) as a Self-Storying Tool

This is a companion post to last week’s Tarot, oracle cards, and other woo. This writing is supported by the amazing people on my Patreon, and access to these posts is a week early for patrons. If you enjoy my work, please consider supporting it!

Last week’s post was about how I developed an interest in tarot, and how I used it as a self-care and survival strategy during a difficult time in my life, and have continued to use it since.

Today’s post is about how you can use tarot (or oracle cards, or runes, or whatever other visual or tangible or guiding woo you’re into) to help you understand and heal your inner narratives.

This is also something I offer coaching clients, so if it interests you and you want some help with it, that’s a thing that can happen! Send me an email if that’s a think you want to arrange.

But this post is about how to do it yourself.

First, and critically – it doesn’t matter if you believe the cards are magic or not. This exercise isn’t about telling the future or anything supernatural – it’s about using cards as prompt generators to help you tell your own stories, and creative lenses to help you view your own experiences.

I am not going to judge you either way – you can see this process as connecting to something mystical and spiritual, or you can see it as connecting to your own subconscious, or you can see it as some kind of blend or blur between the two, and that’s between you and the cards (or runes, or whatever. I’m going to keep saying cards for the sake of simplicity, and also because tarot is the most easily accessible method for most folks).

This is an introduction to some exercises focused on claiming your narrative, and centering yourself within your story.

It’s all about you, the author. You, the protagonist. You, the hero.

So often, we do not see ourselves as the main characters in our own stories and we do not hear our own voice within the story. Especially if we are marginalized and subjected to a constant stream of stereotypes and toxic narratives, it can be very difficult to find our way back to the centre of our own stories.

This is one narrative tool that can help centre you in your own story.

So, choose your deck.

If you don’t want to spend any money on it, and don’t have a deck already, there are tarot apps (I had the Golden Thread app on my phone for a while but I like physical cards better), and there are lots of random tarot card generator websites.

If you’re buying a deck, spend some time in a bookstore or online shop (I love Little Red Tarot‘s shop, myself). Pay attention to how the artwork feels. Read a little bit (or a lot) about what the deck creator was hoping to accomplish. The artwork has a strong influence on how the deck feels, and a steampunk deck tells different stories than a manga deck, and they both tell different stories than a high-concept art deck. Try to find a deck that feels comfortable, with artwork that feels welcoming.

My own personal advice would be to find a deck whose creator has politics you agree with. For me, that means I want decks that are, if not explicitly queer, then definitely queer-friendly. Knowing that the deck’s creator is queer and/or feminist, and aware of issues of cultural appropriation, is really important to me.

Gender is also a big deal. There’s a lot of gender essentialism in a lot of woo spaces, and if that bothers you, or if that will trip you up by hooking into some toxic internalized narratives you’re struggling to clear, keep it in mind.

This is why you’ll never find a Rider-Waite deck in my hands, because I struggle too much with cis and heteronormativity in my own life, and that extra step of reinterpreting the cards outside of their normative origins is just too much for me. (The exception might be for Trung Nguyen’s reinterpretation of the Rider-Waite, but I don’t own that deck yet.)

Although there are a lot of people doing amazing work around queering the tarot, it’s an active and ongoing process. Make it easy for yourself.

Similarly, a lot of tarot decks are full of people who are very white, and very thin. Racism and cultural appropriation and normative beauty standards and ableism, just like gender essentialism and sexism, are all over the damn place. This is meant to be a practice that centres you, not one that further marginalizes you.

There are some great tarot blogs written by QTPOC tarot folks, and they are worth seeking out. I particularly love Brownstargirl Tarot and Asali Earthwork.

Whatever you need to see in your deck, seek it out. You do not need to force yourself to tell stories with a deck that doesn’t represent you, and this is a practice of self-storying. Be demanding. Take up space.

And keep in mind that your deck doesn’t have to be full of humans. The Wild Unknown is one of my favourite decks because it’s all animals. Sometimes we’re able to see stories more clearly when we get a little bit outside of our anthropocentric framing.

Think of your deck as a collaborative coauthor in the stories you’re going to tell for yourself, to yourself, about yourself.

Find a coauthor whose voice you enjoy.

(There have been decks I thought I would absolutely love to tell stories with, and then just couldn’t. The most notable, and in my opinion tragic, example is Egypt Urnash’s Tarot of the Silicon Dawn, which is amazingly and delightfully queer and trans and full of delicious diversity, but for some reason it just never resonated for me. I gave that deck away to my sister, and they sass-talk each other regularly.)

Once you have your deck, start flipping through the cards. Which ones really appeal to you? Pull them out, and read up on them.

I’m pretty picky about where I get my tarot interpretations from. I have a couple books I really enjoy, but mostly I head over to Little Red Tarot, or I read the guidebooks that come with the cards, and offer the deck creator’s own spin on things. (The exception to this is for my Wild Unknown deck – I prefer Carrie Mallon’s interpretations over the guidebook.)

Google around, and again, be picky. You don’t have to settle for anything less than decks and interpretations that fully and clearly acknowledge your relevance and presence.

Trust your intuition, too. This is your story. If there’s something in the imagery of a card that really jumps out at you, that’s worth noting, even if no other blog or book confirms your interpretation.

Once you’ve found the cards that really sing for you, try arranging them. Can you tell a story with those cards? Do they connect to memories or experiences or feelings?

Think of the cards as doorways into your own personal library, recommendations for which of your personal books to read next. They don’t tell new stories, but they might suggest taking a look at things from a new angle. And what you see in the cards can tell you a lot about what you’re focused on, worried about, or needing to process right now.

Play around with various spreads.

Try pulling a card a day for a week or two, and see how it feels. You can either do a random draw, or you can flip through the deck and pick the card you like best for the day, or some combination, depending on your mood. Do you notice a theme? Do you have a strong emotional reaction to any of the cards?

Try a simple two card spread – the situation, and the commentary.

Try my favourite three card spread – the situation in the centre, the right path on the right, and the wrong path on the left. How does that feel?

If you want a book of spreads, I highly recommend Beth Maiden’s PDF, available in the shop linked above. One of the spreads in there (the complete circle spread) was actually designed for me when I commissioned a reading from her. It’s really lovely.

Once you’re familiar with your cards, and with yourself as a reader, start telling (and exploring) your stories.

Think of a question you want to answer for yourself, or a situation you want to explore.

Shuffle your cards, and start laying them out.

You can do a past-present-future spread for the situation, and see how it feels. Are those the right cards for you? Spend some time with it. How does it feel? How do you react to the cards?

Does the future position reflect your fear? Your hope? Neither? Can you use that card as a prompt to write a vision statement for your hopes, dreams, fears, or anxieties about the future?

Does the past position reflect your pain? Your joy? Neither? Can it be used as a prompt to jog your memory, and help you reframe experiences?

Pull more cards if you need to, switch cards around, and engage in the conversation.

What do you need to know?

What does your reaction to the cards tell you about yourself in this moment, thinking about this situation?

Keep a little tarot journal to document your process.

There are two pieces of advice I would recommend, whether you approach the tarot as magical or metaphorical –

First, try to stay focused on a single question or theme at a time. You can follow that theme down a rabbit hole of related questions, and that can be very productive (ask a question, then realize the card has piqued your interest in another question, etc.) but don’t ask ten questions at once. It gets overwhelming and confusing, and, often, when we are trying to ask a whole bunch all at once it’s because we are frustrated, feeling out of control, and uncertain of ourselves.

Use the cards as a way to narrow your focus and gain a sense of self-direction. This is your story. You are the protagonist of this story. You don’t have to do it all at once.

If you’re really struggling with finding a single question because you don’t know how to narrow your focus, do a single card draw and then just sit with that for a few minutes. Make yourself a mug of tea and think. Is there a single question that card could connect to?

And second, pay attention to how the process feels for you, and make sure that it is bracketed in ways that help you feel safe and stable. Bracketing is a practice of having some sort of ritual that starts the process and ends the process – for me, with tarot, it’s the shuffling. I shuffle when I start, and I shuffle again when I’m finished. I also keep each deck in some kind of container – a purple cloth for my Shadowscapes deck, the boxes they came in for most of my other decks, and a little plexi case for my Tea and Empathy cards. Taking them out and putting them back brackets the process for me.

I have noticed in my own tarot-enhanced narrative practice that, at certain times, the cards feel less like a coauthor of my story and more like a dictator of my fate. Particularly when I’m feeling out of control and anxious, my superstitions get in the way, and I start scanning the cards for some magical truth and a message from the future. Rather than feeling centered in my own story in those moments, I feel completely separate and silent – waiting for some supernatural hand to author my story for me. In those moments, pulling random tarot cards is not the most effective or holistic self-storying tool. Recognizing that I no longer feel centered in my story, and that I no longer feel like it is my story, is important (but difficult!) It requires a lot of self-awareness to notice our superstitions taking over. It is more effective, and gives me back a sense of agency over my narrative, to draw cards intentionally rather than randomly, or even to use other methods (like free-writing in the my journal, or talking things through with a friend or counselor). Using tarot as a narrative tool doesn’t mean you can only use tarot. You have many stories, and they can be told in many ways.

Good luck, my friends! Go forth and tell yourself your own stories.

Resources for further reading:

Tarot Reading For Skeptics, Cynics, Nonbelievers And Side-Eyers – this post by Lesley Kinzel explores the history of tarot, answers some common questions, and offers a few suggestions for decks (including the Gummi Bear Tarot, which sounds hilarious and adorable).

Beth Maiden’s Favourite Tarot Decks – My favourite tarot blogger talking about her favourite tarot decks.

#TarotSoWhite: A Conversation about Diversity in Our Cards – Another Little Red Tarot post, introducing and beginning to explore the #tarotsowhite hashtag and the important conversations happening around the issue of diversity in tarot.

Gender Essentialism in the Pagan Community – A short but insightful Tumblr post that highlights some of the gender essentialism that shows up in a lot of woo spaces.

Everyone’s Spirit Animal Should be Cultural Sensitivity – This post by Samantha Gross is a brief intro into cultural appropriation and respectful alternatives. It’s written by a white person for white people, which is important because people with privilege need to take responsibility for educating other people with privilege. However, if it’s a topic you want to learn more about (which I highly recommend), it’s worth seeking out Indigenous writers sharing their wisdom and experience. Native Appropriations is a great place to start.

Autostraddle’s Tarot tag is full of great posts by queer writers.

What Makes a ‘Feminist’ Tarot? – this post from Autostraddle is a great introduction to recognizing and finding feminist tarot decks. (And it’s by Beth from Little Red Tarot!)

Smashing into Walls: Self-Care in Post-Secondary and Professional Contexts

Smashing into Walls: Self-Care in Post-Secondary and Professional Contexts

Dressed up as a Gloom Fairy – one of the self-care strategies that got me through university.

This is a Patreon reward post. At $5 per month, you, too, can have a personalized post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month!

Red Davis (one of the first people to back my Patreon! *heart eyes*) is a current student and good friend. He asked for “a post relating to disabilities and mental health disorders within a university, professional, or social context; recurring themes of self-shame, embarrassment, and self-imposed solitude often debilitate many in higher learning or work situations.”

I will admit, I struggled with this post.

I wanted to write it, of course. Helping people navigate these hostile contexts while existing on the margins is exactly what I want to do in my coaching and self-care resource creation. Not only that, but it’s a reward that I’ve committed to providing for someone who is dipping into a tight student budget to support me, and make this work possible.

But, wow.

Every time I sat down to work on the post, my own feelings of shame, embarrassment, and self-imposed isolation flooded through me.

I remembered, specifically, one afternoon in 2012, standing in a hallway at the U of C, probably the Social Sciences building. One of the little ones, too brightly lit, with old computers on white tables, and plastic chairs, and a few students wandering. Wearing my winter jacket, dragging my backpack on wheels because the fibromyalgia no longer let me carry all those books, on my cell with the campus dental office cancelling an appointment because I was having a panic attack.

That panic attack cost me $100 in a late cancellation fee, and I never rebooked. Now, 5 years later, that memory still sparks shame and anger, and an icy-gut feeling of humiliation over the fact that my panic attacks cost me so much money at a time when I had so little, and that they kept me away from necessary healthcare. (And they have continued to do so! That appointment would have been my first visit to a dentist in years, and when I said I never rebooked, I mean that I never rebooked. It’s on my to-do list for this week. Seriously. I’m gonna do it. For real. I swear.)

The memory is about the money, the shame of “wasting” money on a “ridiculous” mental health issue. Sort of. Maybe. I mean, the money is part of it.

But it’s also about the voice on the other end of the phone, the impatience and irritation of the receptionist, and the feeling of shame when I started to cry and she cut me off. “Sorry, no exceptions to the cancellation fee, if you were going to be unable to make it, you should have called yesterday.”

These feelings are deeply physical. Shame, humiliation, fear – these are all visceral reactions, gut feelings. 5 years after that phone call, I still feel the twisting in my belly as the shame winds through me.

And when Red touches on self-imposed solitude, this twisting shame belly is part of that. Shame, after all, is an isolating emotion. It pushes us away from each other, drags us off into dark corners to hide ourselves.

How do we reach out when we are captives of our shame?

But shame is not the only factor.

Time and energy are also factors.

How do we maintain our social circle when disabilities make the work of school or professional life take longer, and take more out of us?

When fibromyalgia arrived on the scene, stealing my energy and my reading comprehension, and for one horrific semester, my ability to write… everything took longer. Everything took longer. Crossing the street took longer! Reading a paper took longer, and took more out of me. I was tired at the end of a page, exhausted at the end of a chapter. I deferred coursework, missed deadlines, spent endless hours in doctors’ offices and at the disability resource centre – hours that were then not available for schoolwork or paying work or socializing.

The anger at no longer being able to operate as I had was immobilizing, and embarrassing. The shame was overwhelming. The exhaustion was beyond comprehension. It triggered a depression… or did the depression precede the pain? Those years are a dark smear of distress across my memory.

How do you make it through post-secondary or professional contexts when dealing with disabilities or mental health issues?

How do you survive?

How do you continue, knowing that your brain and your body are working against your ability to fit into these contexts?

In 2013, I did my first Year of Self-Care.

I needed it. Even through the blur of my distress, I knew that I needed it. I was falling apart. I was a wreck – physically, emotionally, mentally, financially.

I don’t honestly remember much from the beginning of that project.

I know that I was desperate.

When I was 18, at another desperate point in my life, I had done a Year of Independence in an effort to heal some relationship trauma. It was one of the highlights of my youth, remains one of my favourite experiences. I leaned on that, and set out some plans.

It wasn’t easy.

But one of my founding principles for that year was compassion for myself. The act of compassion and care, even when the feeling was unattainable.

I needed to start there, because at the time, my body and my brain felt like my enemies. I think that’s a common experience for people dealing with disability or neurodivergence. It’s hard to practice effective and sustainable self-care when you feel like your own enemy.

The Year of Self-Care included a lot of hit-and-miss experimentation.

During that year, I discovered how much I enjoy the ritual of tea, and that’s the year I learned to make London Fogs. I still make amazing London Fogs (though not as often as I used to – I need a new milk frother).

I also experimented much more intentionally with using outfits as armour and as a self-affirming tool. Gloom Fairy, The Pirate King, and Elf Commander all have roots in those Year of Self-Care experiments.

How do you continue, knowing that your brain and your body are working against your ability to fit into these contexts?

It was the year that the Wall of Self-Care went up, white boards with anxiety bubbles, and self-care lists, and my inspiration board.

It was the year I learned to swim, in order to challenge a phobia, and get my fibromyalgia pain under control, and prove to myself that I could.

It was the year of endless struggle, and I was lucky because it was also the year of infinite support.

It was a hard year. But it was a good year.

A list of self-care to-do items posted on Facebook in 2013 with the comment: This afternoon took a sudden, unexpectedly intense turn for the worse, so I hung up some stick-on white boards (expanding my wall of self-care) and made a list. Intentional self-care! For those of us whose default position is ‘the unfortunate person crying in the stairwell.’ Sigh.

A badge given to me by my friend Patti when I successfully managed to tread water.

A love note from my little niephling.

The biggest lesson from that year was that self-care is fucking hard. It’s hard. Making a cup of tea when you’re exhausted, and ashamed, and embarrassed, and feeling lonely despite your community – it’s hard. Reaching out for help? Holy shit, that is not easy. Doing anything other than wallowing is just really hard.

Making choices intentionally, and choosing compassion and care, it takes effort. And you fuck up, a lot. You fuck up all the time. It took a year and half to complete my Year of Self-Care (my “Year of Whatever”s are almost always a year and a half – either the new year to my birthday the next year, or my birthday to the new year. I like some wiggle room.)

In that year and a half, I made plans and failed to complete them. I made the same plan again and failed. I made a slightly different plan and failed in a different way. I made a totally new plan and still failed. I tried again and failed. I made schedules and failed to stick to them. I set goals and didn’t meet them. I dropped more balls than I kept in the air, and that’s okay.

That’s okay.

It doesn’t feel okay at the time. It feels awful. But that process of failing at self-care is an important part of the journey. Self-care has to involve deep compassion for your broken, aching self. It can’t all be celebrations and successes. It won’t be. If it was, you wouldn’t need it so badly.

In order to get to a place where you have effective and sustainable self-care practices in place, you need to go through the process of pushing against the resistance. The internal resistance, sure. The shame, the fear, the feelings of selfishness and the anxiety over failure. But mostly, mostly, the external resistance.

You have to smash your fist against the cost of self-care. That $100 penalty for a panic attack. The cost of admission to the pool. The cost of white boards. The cost of missed work hours. The cost of healthcare, even here in Canada. The cost of therapy. The cost of nourishing food. These costs that you cannot always afford. You have to run into that wall over and over and over until you find ways under, or through, or around it. And sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can’t. Self-care cannot belong only to the financially secure. Those of us who are disabled or neurodivergent or otherwise marginalized are much more likely to be dealing with economic insecurity, to be living in poverty, to be stretched too thin, to have ends that not only don’t meet, they don’t even make eye contact. We deserve self-care, too. But it takes time to find those tools, because it’s much quicker and easier when you do have the money for it.

And you have to smash your fist against the unreasonable and inhumane demands of post-secondary and professional institutions. Deadlines and dress codes and disdain. I dropped a course I really loved because handwritten notes were mandatory for a huge percentage of the grade, but my hands hurt too much to write long-hand. More bitterly, I dropped out of the Arts and Sciences Honours Academy because the professor in third year required mandatory attendance, with no more than two exceptions for medical issues. “Breathe deeply and drink a mug of tea” doesn’t wash the salt from those wounds. Getting to sustainable self-care means feeling that sting, doing what you can with the resources that you have, trying to find ways around it. Finding the understanding professors, begging with the disability resource centre, paying the $25 to have a doctor write a letter saying that yes, you really do need these accommodations. It takes time, and it takes energy, and it takes a lot of permission to just be angry and bitter on your way to being calm.

And doctors… another wall, another round of smashing and smashing and smashing until you find the way through. Get the diagnosis, get the prescription, get the help. Or, sometimes, you don’t. Find other ways to cope.

The systems are not built for us.

It hurts to contort ourselves to fit within them.

That pain is real. That injustice is real.

There are ways forward. My Year of Self-Care made a huge difference for me. I’m not meaning to downplay the importance of doing that gritty work of developing more wholehearted self-care and self-storying strategies. But I get frustrated at resources that don’t acknowledge how hard this is, and how much the odds are stacked against anyone who differs from the straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, class privileged norm.

When I started working on this post, I did what I always do at the beginning of a writing project. I opened a new Chrome window and I googled this shit out of my topic. I started with “self-care for students” and I found dozens of posts. Every post-secondary institution seems to have some kind of self-care guide for students. (Perhaps because post-secondary institutions are set up in such a way that any student who doesn’t have an extremely solid base of socioeconomic stability is pretty much fucked when it comes to mental, emotional, and physical health? Dunno, just a theory.)

These resources place a huge emphasis the individual doing everything possible to maintain their self-care

This resource from the University of Michigan is a perfect example.

“Taking steps to develop a healthier lifestyle can pay enormous dividends by reducing stress and improving your physical health, both of which can improve your mental health as well. Students with mental health disorders are at a higher risk for some unhealthy behaviors. You may find it challenging to make healthy choices and manage your stress effectively while in college.  This section of the website will help you find ways to take care of your health, which can help you to feel better and prevent or manage your mental health symptoms.”

Look at that language! You’re at higher risk for unhealthy behaviours. You may find it challenging to make healthy choices. Gross. Gross! There is nothing there about how the structures and systems and expectations and normativity around you are the source of that distress, and put stumbling blocks in front of your movements towards “health.” It pushes the responsibility entirely onto the student who is struggling, and then wipes its hands clean. There’s good advice in that resource, but it comes in bitter packaging.

Even posts like this assume that the identity of “student” is also normatively able-bodied and neurotypical.

“College students’ ability to deny basic needs like sleep can oftentimes seem like a badge of honor proving we are reckless and young. At my school, it can seem like a competition to see who can stay up longer to study, and pulling all-nighters seems like proof we are true UChicago students. One’s talk of working grueling hours in the library is met with solidarity and sympathetic laughter, while taking a break or decreasing course load seems to be associated with weakness.”

College students who can’t meet that expectation are, I guess, not “true students.” When the article concludes that:

“If we want to improve our psychological and emotional health, college students could perhaps benefit from changing their mindsets and relationships to work. Taking breaks and letting our minds rest could be an effective strategy for achieving our goals in the long run, because stress or lack of sleep can hinder productivity. Maybe the next time a friend bemoans having to pull an all-nighter for a class, we can think about how our response may perpetuate a culture that idolizes self-destructive behavior. Perhaps rather than laughing or saying that we understand their struggle, we can gently encourage them to take a break. Or, if it’s you who’s putting in those late-night hours, maybe go home for sleep rather than the campus cafe for coffee. You deserve it. You matter, and your health matters.”

There is still the assumption that this is a choice, and that is not the case for every student.

So, in conclusion, it’s fucking hard. And it’s not your fault. And you can figure it out, but it will take time. And you will continue to run into walls.

Being your own ally is not easy. It’s even harder when there are complicating factors like disability, pain, depression, anxiety, or other chronic issues that aren’t going away. And it’s even harder when you’re in hostile environments like many post-secondary and professional contexts.

But I believe in you. There is a way forward. There is always a way forward.

Ocean Currents

Ocean Currents

 

 

 

 

This post was available to my Patreon patrons on Feb 11. If you would like to see posts a week early, visit my Patreon.

This week was challenging. I say that most weeks, though. There’s so much change. I don’t know who I am within these new roles, and everything keeps shifting.

I’m not actually an ocean navigator, despite the wave in my logo. I’m terrified of water (that’s one major reason we picked the wave, and that will be another post). I navigate a metaphorical ocean, but still, I think that the best metaphors are grounded in some reality. And so I sometimes read about the ocean, and how currents work.

There are all kinds of different currents in the ocean.

There are surface currents, driven primarily by wind. Rip currents that happen when a large volume of water funnels through a narrow gap in a sandbar, or between rocks. There are upwellings and downwellings, which happen when the wind blows across the surface of the water and either deep water rises up to fill the displacement, or surface water accumulates if the wind blows it against a shoreline.

And there are deep water currents, too. Like the “global conveyor belt,” a deep-water current that circles the globe and is the foundation of the food chain. It moves more slowly than surface currents, and it takes a thousand years for a section of the belt to complete its journey around the globe.

And there are tidal currents, which switch directions and respond to the gravitational pull of the moon. Flood currents and ebb currents, predictable and cyclical and strong.

Metaphorically, and in reality, these various currents have a significant impact on the whole – whether it is the ocean influencing life across our planet, or the inner ocean influencing the self. The tides, or the deep water ribbons that move slowly and forcefully, or the surface with its rip currents, and its upwellings and downwellings (and the rich metaphor of algae bloom and anaerobic suffocation in the downwelling – the choking off of life when there is no connection to the deeper water – and in the further stretch towards recognizing how downwelling, even though it creates areas of reduced productivity, is necessary for the ecosystem because it allows for deep water ventilation – there are times when lower productivity is necessary for survival).

The sun setting on the ocean.

All photos in the post, unless noted, are copyright-free photographs via Pixabay

So these metaphors, and these currents, and this difficult, difficult week.

Deep water currents change slowly. Climate scientists are worried about the global conveyor belt because increased rainfall and polar melt will change the salinity of the ocean, and therefore change its density. If the belt changes, everything changes.

And there are changes in my own deep water currents. They change everything.

My work life is changing. I have been aware, for almost a year now, that my steady day job is not guaranteed. The economy, changes in management, the nature of my role. It’s been almost a year of nearly constant low-level stress, with monthly peaking moments of intense anxiety (usually when my student loans come out of my account – lolsob). My day job – boring, predictable, reliable, and one that I am exceptionally good at – has been a constant for me for almost a decade. I’ve been with the same company, in various roles, for ten years. And I’ve been in this particular role for almost six. Seven? I don’t know. A long time. It’s been an anchor. Sometimes weighing me down, but also keeping me stable.

My work life is changing, too, because of this. The coaching and the self-care work, the workshops and resource creation and writing and trying to shape this into a career. The desire to move from work that is reliable and that I am reliably good at but uninspired by, to work that I am passionate about and personally invested in. I will be good at this. I will make a difference. But while I move towards that, there is chaos and uncertainty.

Uncertainty especially in my financial life. I have not been truly financially stable since I was married – my husband made a solid lower middle-class wage, more than enough to allow me to run my dog training business and weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, and to buy clothes and food and craft supplies without worrying about it, and to have hobbies and go out for dinners and have adventures. I didn’t worry about money, when I was married. And I have worried about money constantly, since divorcing. It is, like the work stress, a constant low-level hum of anxiety with regular surges to the surface. These tidal currents – the huge gravitational force of capitalism pulling deep fear to the surface.

And that financial anxiety is also tied to my relationships. This deep current originates in my family of origin, in watching the dynamic between my parents when it came to money, and agency, and independence, and reliance. Who earns it, who spends it, who makes choices about it. And then, my divorce and the year after I left, with months of rent on the credit card and groceries paid for by my best friend – a level of vulnerability and insecurity that I had never previously experienced, and one that still trickles icy through my memory, makes me wary of taking risks. And then time spent supporting a partner, who now supports me, and another partner who also supports me. And the vague sense of unease I have every time I require help, ask for a loan to bridge a financial gap, make a choice that may impact someone else.

And now the “someone else” is so complicated by the addition of two little elses. The new relationship of stepparenting. And knowing that my choices now are not just going to impact my financial stability, but also the financial stability of my relationship with my nesting partner, and rippling out from there to affect my stepkids, both neurodivergent, both requiring additional supports. And in addition to the worry about being able to provide materially there is also the worry about being able to provide emotionally and mentally. To heal the old wounds that I still carry so that I don’t pass them on, to adjust to this new role in a way that doesn’t place emotional weight on the kids as I adapt. The shift, such a huge shift, from knowing in a deep and fundamental way that I would never be a parent, to knowing that now I am a parent. And also, the drive to learn enough about the unique needs of these two specific kids, individuals, amazing little humans, to be able to help them, and to help my partner.

And that’s the key, that’s the deep water current that is changing right now – my very sense of self, in multiple areas.

And so then researching. Reading Understanding Stepfamilies: A Practical Guide for Professionals Working with Blended Families (in this, I am both the professional and the family – approaching my life, as I always have, from an academic perspective), reading Family Therapy and the Autism Spectrum: Autism Conversations in Narrative Practice, reading The Whole-Brain Child and The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children. Learning a whole new language, a new area of knowledge. And finding gaps in it – both when it comes to stepparenting and when it comes to parenting neurodivergent kids. Gaps filled frustratingly with the assumption of heterosexuality, monogamy, and cisgender identity, gaps filled with transantagonism, ableism, normativity and social pressure in so many bitter flavours it overwhelms my palate and leaves me gulping for fresh water in the form of writing, reading, trying to find connection and community and incorporate this work into my coaching because if I am falling into this gap, other people must be, too.

And also reading about coaching, about relationships, about narrative therapy – Opening Up by Writing It Down and Retelling the Stories of Our Lives and Levels 1 and 2 of the Gottman Institute ‘Gottman Method Couples Therapy’ and half a dozen other books and courses. And underneath all this research, which I love, is the slow tug of grief at leaving academia, because I decided not to pursue an MA in counselling psychology and instead started on this endeavor and it’s the right choice, and I will make a difference, and I will continue to be an academic and a researcher and a writer (writing a book! And learning how to do that). Independent scholarship is a real thing, and I will do it, but still, the changes.

Some of the books that I’m currently reading.

Photograph by Tiffany Sostar

And this change, this shift away from academics, is huge. Because deciding to finally go to university was a big deal. I had always wanted to. And I had been told, shortly after I graduated high school, that I didn’t have what it takes. I believed that story. That story became part of my core set of beliefs about myself. I was smart, I was a good writer, but I was not persistent. I did not have the “sticktoitiveness” to get through university. So I read academic theory on my own time (this essay – Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation, by Mitra Emad, was my first academic love), and wrote nerdy papers about feminism and gender on my own time, and didn’t believe I could hack it in post secondary. Until I started dating someone who said “why aren’t you in school? You’re sending me links to feminist theory because you’re reading it for fun – apply to the University of Calgary.” And I trusted him. So I did it. And I graduated with a First Class BA Honours in English and a First Class BA Honours in Women’s Studies. I did it. I challenged that core story and I changed it. And I miss academics. As broken and abusive as that ivory tower is, still, I miss it.

And I miss myself within it.

And that’s the key, that’s the deep water current that is changing right now – my very sense of self, in multiple areas.

Who I am.

Who I am as a labourer – emotional, domestic, social, and other. Where and for whom and how I work, and how I get paid, and where my money goes and where it comes from, and how I spend my time, and my intellectual energy, and what I write and when I write it and who I write it for, and who judges it, and who judges me, and how I define my value and my worth, and where I find myself, and what I call myself, and who sees me and how they see me, and how I see me.

These are the ocean currents of my life, and myself. The deep water currents and the surface currents and the tidal currents. The core self, and the self in relationship, and the self in society.

So, these weeks are challenging. As I move through my life I am aware of the currents shifting, and I don’t know what the ecosystem looks like once they’ve shifted. Who I will be, how I will be, what I will be.

But change is constant, and it is not the enemy.

The Earth has experienced changes before, and I have experienced massive change, too.

I have faith in my ability to survive the chaotic betweentime, and I have faith that I will eventually settle into new patterns and find new wholeness and new peace.

I’m happy with how things are changing. I love coaching. I love this work. I love my kids. I love my partner, and my entire polyamorous pod. I love researching, and I love finding subversive ways to inhabit liminal spaces – bisexual, genderqueer, invisibly disabled, neurodivergent – I was made for the liminal spaces and the betweenings. Independent scholarship feels like an exciting new liminal space to step into. Just like stepparenting feels like an exciting liminal space to explore, with rich potential for writing and researching and offering help and hope to others. Just like parenting while queer, and parenting while non-binary, also feels liminal and rich with betweenness and both/andness.

This is an upwelling – the wind has blown hard across my surface and there is space now for deep water to rise, and bring new life to the surface.

It’s scary, but the ocean always is, for me.

I love it anyway.