During graduate school, there were many weeks of being so overloaded by assigned reading that I couldn’t do it all and felt constantly behind. I recognized that the goal was to learn to skim and to put my hands on more and more research, even if I couldn’t savor many pieces. The trouble was that the more I couldn’t savor what I was reading, the more I associated reading itself with feelings of being overwhelmed and behind.
When I shared with a mentor how stressful reading had become, she smiled knowingly and related her own experience of knowing that there will always be more to read than time to read it. More than her sympathy, though, I remember what she shared about choosing to read for inspiration:
“Yes, I read for my research (to answer burning questions), but I also read for inspiration (to keep the questions alive). Be sure that you’re reading what inspires you, what fires you up.”
For too long (in my faculty position), I read primarily for work: for courses I was teaching, for articles I was submitting, and for committees I was serving. I could feel the excitement when reading an article or book that really spoke to me, and increasingly, I read blog posts and sought out podcasts as sources of inspiration. Still, I wanted to prioritize “reading for fun,” especially books that could light my imagination and help me imagine more just worlds, more equitable relations.
Now that I’m creating new habits and work priorities, I’m reading again. I’m reading for research, for fun, and especially for inspiration. I’m reading books and audiobooks as well as continuing to learn from blogs, podcasts, essays, and articles. Now, instead of stress, I’m experiencing joy that there will always be more to read.
I’m certainly not the quickest reader, nor is that my goal.
I’m certainly not the most focused or studious or careful reader, nor are those my goals.
Instead, I’m reading to learn and love and light up with inspiration.
I’m choosing to read—a little each week—and it’s adding up to reading new books.
In what’s been some tough days—from feeling beyond messy and upside down to grieving and raging at outright injustice—these books are helping me see beyond this moment and into movement space. They’re keeping me inspired for the long haul, toward building and sustaining momentum. They’re helping me tap into my embodied self and the histories, emotions, and trauma it carries, while imagining ways forward—pathways to healing.
I plan to keep reading, not because I have to but because I want to. I choose reading, and I choose it for the future.
As a practice, the use of oracle cards helps me see patterns and seek guidance, slowing down to notice and reflect when I’d otherwise move too quickly through the day. I don’t pull cards for fortune- or future-telling, but instead as a sort of meditation on life. An openness to listening to what I might be blocking. A willingness to open my heart to divine guidance. A reminder to expect miracles in everyday life.
Over time, I’ve become frustrated with this deck’s mythical-norm representations of people (gender, race, size, and more) and its reliance of Christian symbolism (another part of what Audre Lorde so aptly named the “mythical norm”). At the same time, this deck has taught me a lot about trusting wisdom when it comes in unexpected ways. It continues to teach me about sifting through complicated emotions, imperfect situations, and kernels of truth.
While asking these questions, I’ve had several conversations reminding me that I’m not alone in feeling upside down at this moment. I’m not alone in wanting a different way to live that honors life and builds justice rather than seeing some beings as valuable and others as expendable. I’m not alone in grieving and desiring deep change. And I’m not alone in struggling to see this moment of possible change as a “blessing.”
So, in the midst of grief and anger and fear and trauma, here are some questions this oracle card raises for me, as I seek “blessed change”:
How might the pain (vast injustice) of this moment be prompting changes that too many of us might be too comfortable to confront otherwise?
Postscript: One thing I know from years of practicing yoga is that literally getting upside down (inverting the body or getting the feet above the head) does wonders. Legs-up-the-wall pose is both calming and stimulating, both quieting and energizing. It’s both deeply embodied and deeply contemplative. What I realize when thinking about being upside down is that changes, similarly, are full of both/and qualities. Perhaps it’s the recognition of both/and that will help move us toward blessed change.
Still, if I’m being honest with myself, the past few weeks have felt messier than I’d like to admit. I’ve had a piece of a broken ceramic bowl in my foot, a mostly mild but sometimes excruciatingly painful attention-getter. My podiatrist tells me to be patient and let my body release the piece naturally. Yet, I’m impatient and complaining about this regular reminder that I’ve got broken pieces within myself to heal and release before moving forward.
What I’m realizing, as I work the healing process that requires patience with pain, is that I’m in the midst of chrysalis, or the gruesome transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.
In the past year, as I’ve announced career changes, moved cross-country, and continue to reflect on and refashion my identity, I’ve been seeing many caterpillars and butterflies and excited to think of myself as “in transformation.” Now that I’m fully in it—in the midst of big changes—I’m remembering that caterpillars essentially digest themselves, dissolving their past bodies while creating new ones. They transform into another being that moves so differently, eats so differently, and experiences life so differently that they aren’t recognized as the same being. How much disintegration, discomfort, and dis-ease must be involved in that transformation?
So, what does chrysalis (this time of mess, mess, and more mess) look like for me?
More days that I’d like to admit …
I’m spending many hours in one place, curled on the couch.
I’m eating irregularly.
I’m waking from vivid and sometimes-scary dreams.
I’m crying often and at unexpected times.
I’m all over the place, teeter-tottering as I walk, carefully balancing on my injured foot, and yet feeling completely off balance.
I’m creating art and climbing and falling and calling friends and seeing a counselor and writing, writing, writing—all toward processing big changes and even bigger legacies of personal, family, and social trauma and wrongdoing and lingering hurts.
I don’t know yet who I’ll be when I emerge from the messy and often-painful chrysalis, but here are two embodied experiences from inside it:
Experience #1: On a day of bingeing sugar and TV, I find myself pulled into a documentary on hooking up via dating apps, which highlights rape culture, sexual violence, and the ways in which systemic racism and intersectional oppression manifest in technological innovation and intimate relations alike. It’s not until a headache gets me to turn off the TV that I recognize that my body is incredibly tense. I’m physically holding onto, remembering, and witnessing anew this violence. I need to hold myself, quiet my mind, and notice my body’s wisdom before I can process my own experiences and reactions to what’s surely shared (collective) tension.
Because I can’t look at another screen when my head is pounding, I walk around the block and meet a postal worker who acts with such gentle kindness that I find myself crying. In the exchange of mailing a package, I feel energetically how the person before me holds hope and good will in the words, “Have a bless day.” I’m lifted by human connection, and I’m blabbering about the beauty of this brief loving interaction, as I’m still releasing through tears the heartache of how much we, as humans, hurt one another.
Experience #2: I find myself fidgeting and biting my cuticles as I struggle to find words to write about complicity within systemic violence. I’m remembering several recently painful interactions in which I see myself contributing to harm (scenes for another blog post), and I’m turning that harm inward while writing. It’s not until I draw blood that I realize that I’m literally making myself bleed from my fingers—the instruments of writing expression.
Again, my body offers such a clear message about the relationship between personal (internal, self) and collective (systemic, shared) harm. My counselor uses language that’s familiar to me after years of writing about the relationship between the micro and macro. She tells me that processing my own lived experiences involves looking at broader family and community dynamics as well as social-cultural-historical conditioning.
What this means is that binge-eating sugar and binge-watching TV, as two examples, aren’t only about my actions. These “bingeing” experiences are also about cultural scripts that make “sweets” and “favorite TV shows” soothing salves for a harsh world. Sweets and shows stand in for or serve as reminders of good memories, loving relationships, special occasions, self-care, and much more. Streaming services like Amazon and Netflix start next episodes before previous ones have finished. The examples go on and on, pointing to the need for personal healing in the context of larger collective healing. For changing personal habits in the context of changing current conditions and cultural scripts.
Within the chrysalis—when experiencing headaches and bleeding fingers—I am lifted by human connection and the possibilities for personal, ancestral, and collective healing. And being lifted, inspired, and guided matters.
Grounding matters, too, which is why I suspect my foot has manifested the consistent, not-easily-forgotten reminder to keep releasing broken pieces. Pieces internalized and unseen. Pieces under the surface and buried deep. Pieces asking to be released if I’m to be transformed.
More than self-care, however, hiking—and perhaps any meaningful time outdoors, with the self—invites contemplation, which is so greatly needed for more mindful communication, for more emotional resilience, and for more equitable relations. Slowing down to reflect on ourselves, our responsibilities, and our response-abilities is needed regularly.
As recent hiking experiences have reminded me, time outdoors invites contemplation and communion with the self, with other humans, with non-human animals, and with the natural world. It strengthens, for me, the commitment to ecofeminism and the need to intervene into brutally enacted hierarchies (represented as a pyramid pointing upward) that place god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.
Though not typically articulated in explicit terms, hierarchical belief systems provide justification for so much oppression: not only sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also racism and other -isms. Such hierarchies justify dehumanization and devaluation of the earth, as the lives and voices of powerful men (those ranked as closest to god) are expected to take priority. Hence, the “mythical norm” is reinforced in multiplying subtle, socialized, and systematized ways.
Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to learn from the natural world (along hiking trails) how all life is related, of value, and part of the whole. Though I’m small within the desert landscape, I still take up space, neither shrinking nor puffing up.
Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see the historical-cultural-social construction of this and other oppressive hierarchies (e.g., hierarchies that rank people according to race, nationality, and other constructed identities). While I understand how I’m (expected to) function within such hierarchies, I can push back and create other understandings, much as I choose to walk differently.
Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see myself as deeply embodied: not only experiencing life in my body but also having a body that carries historical meaning and present privileges. As an embodied woman (white, middle/upper-class, cisgender, adult, able-bodied, U.S.-born woman), I feel the anger flush through my body at sexism I experience and perpetuate. And at the related racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, nationalism, and other sorts of -isms I’m conditioned into, take into my body, inevitably perpetuate, and yet want so desperately to undo.
To put this more simply, hiking helps me dive deeply into systems of oppression that I’m striving to understand and intervene into. It helps me see myself not only as I self-identify, but also as I’m identified and constructed within the collective (within social hierarchies that do injustice to people, animals, and the earth). And it helps me linger over everyday interactions and actions, with time along trails to think and talk and turn over possibilities.
Unlearning what’s wrong, no matter how deeply socialized and internalized.
Affirming, holding up, sharing out, and amplifying work that helps with envisioning more just futures.
Studying and teaching histories that are largely suppressed, yet hanging over us as specters shaping life (e.g., histories of enslavement, genocide, colonization, and forced/blocked immigration in the United States).
Learning about, leveraging, and working to deconstruct my socially constructed whiteness (part of white supremacy) toward truer ways of showing up in the world.
Bringing joy in the midst of struggle (pure delight in the midst of physical pain) off the trail and into everyday living/striving for justice—holding onto and creating more intense love and possibility.
Making more explicit the connections between everyday actions—like eating, moving, and speaking—and structural hierarchies (systems of oppression and injustice) that limit that love and possibility.
As an everyday action, hiking invites intrapersonal self-work that’s so needed alongside interpersonal work-with-others and institutional work-within-institutions. To engage in intrapersonal work is not to turn away from other responsibilities and interventions needed in pursuing justice. It is to do this work more mindfully with attention to one’s own positionality and to what learning and unlearning are needed.
May I continue to engage in self-work through hiking and other means.
May this self-work allow me to show up more fully and fiercely for myself and others.
May I show up ready to work within families, communities, workplaces, and other spaces.
I hold this advice close because I’m so often scared, and recently I’ve been looking deeper into fears and noticing how much they influence (and limit) my life.
One example involves a recent hike in which I had an amazing experience walking on my own through twilight into dark. I strolled more than hiked, paying attention to my breath, senses, and the scenes around me.
I noticed, for example, how sound changes along the trail, especially when walking next to bushes alive with insects and crossing from one side of the mountain to the other. I could feel the ground—packed dirt, flat stones, and jagged rocks—and how each traveled up my body: from feet to ankles to knees to hips to my back. I experienced day turn to night—witnessing not only the sunset but also the twilight and darkening of night. My eyes adjusted, my perceptions changed, and the moon became more and more pronounced.
Truly, I love being outdoors at night and in the wilderness on my own, but I so rarely allow myself either experience because fears are driving more than back-seat riding. For a number of reasons, this evening was different.
To begin, I’d already thrown caution to the wind: riding across Phoenix to get to the trailhead during rush hour traffic. On a typical day, I’d give up hiking to avoid a car ride. Perhaps being out of my routine helped me open to what I too-often restrict.
The conditions also helped me feel secure. Though hiking in 105-degree heat, the trail was crowded with hikers every few feet, so I felt sure that rattlesnakes would stay far away. I had companions on the trail—people I knew were walking slower and faster than me, making me feel that I wasn’t out “on my own.” I had water and a cell phone, too. Sturdy boots and a hat helped me feel prepared.
As I strolled, I witnessed the beauty of the moment, wanting to soak it all in and linger in the possibilities. I found myself thinking about fear and its partner, trust. What if I trust not only snakes but also myself? What if I trust my feet to be sure-footed? What if I trust that I’m prepared to speak, write, and stand UP when action is needed? What if I trust that I’ll learn and recover from the riskiness, hurts, and whatever else fear is warning me about?
To open my heart and trust more boldly and bravely, I’ll need to do it scared. In this time of vast injustice and needed resistance, Docta E’s advice is what I need to hear and to say to myself time and time again.
As I did back in January, when recovering from a concussion, I’ve written a spell of mantras to help ease the shifts (the letting go and calling in) that I’d like to experience in my new space. This spell now lives under my bed and again taped to my bathroom mirror.
I share this spell here as an accountability practice—holding its potential not only in physical space but also in digital/online space. I hope it might motivate others to write. I can already see that it’s inspiring me toward further writing to make commitments to justice actionable in everyday life.
I make decisions based on my “strong YES,” asking regularly which way brings me closer to my divine purpose, listening for what’s next, and engaging in discernment, even/especially when the answers don’t seem to make sense.
I get comfortable working on my own and enjoying my own company, while noticing who shows up as accomplices, companions, and guides in the work for social justice.
I read “for fun,” and I learn through reading-listening-witnessing how to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), especially feminists and womanists of color.
I nourish my physical, emotional, and spiritual self: heart, head, and hands. In doing so, I invest in my relationship with food, building a relationship that’s full of integrity, consistency, forgiveness, appreciation, and love. I absorb nutrients and release inflammation. I show love to myself through the foods I take into my body.
I learn more about what it means to show up as my authentic self, getting to know Beth.
I treat myself gently, with tenderness and humility. I open my heart to forgiveness and peace. I allow myself to receive and give love.