Carrying Grief

statue of Kwan Yin“Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
Sheryl Sandberg COO of FaceBook

Grief is a burden that many of us don’t even know we carry. It is simply there, like a part of us, the air we breathe, inseparable from our deepest being.

We mostly don’t know that it is there,  welded into our bones, because it is so ancient that it cannot be seen.

We’ve been carrying it since birth, since before birth. We’ve been carrying it from earliest childhood, from middle childhood, from teenagehood, from adulthood. From the first time one parent or both failed us, from the first time we were abandoned, abused, hurt beyond repair, raped, scolded, hit, shamed, ignored, not seen. This is more than the usual childhood travails, though maybe those do us in as well. I don’t know, because I was thrown into the deep end before I was born.

The first grievous event happens and then  we grow up into the world and all the grievous happenings pile onto our core of grief and make it heavier, push it further into our bones, make it more solid and impermeable.

It is a pain that we carry in our deepest hearts, and that stains our being like dye poured into a mixing bowl, completely coloring all.

Sometimes we are able to see it. When we can we may be able to chip away a little tiny bit of it, maybe just enough to take away one iota of the pain. And maybe take away another chip of it before the next grief hits us.

What I have discovered is that grief is mostly always there when I look for it. But I have also discovered that when I have been able to take it out and look at it–look into my bones and the long hallways of my life where grief lurks, sometimes it can start to evaporate, shrink and shrivel. It doesn’t hit as many nerve endings. It doesn’t consume me.

As Sheryl Sandberg says, sometimes what we feel and have experienced can only be carried. And sometimes knowing what we carry can be good enough.

Gratefulness Throughout the Day

crayon heartWhen I was in a very deep, dark space some years ago, I started a gratitude practice of thinking of 3 things at night that I was grateful for. It gradually turned into all the things I could think of at the time. Then, because I was struggling so badly, I started looking around me during the day and saying that I was grateful for the most basic things as a way to focus my mind away from the pain I was in and to train myself to see differently. “I am grateful for grass.” “I am grateful for paint.” “I am grateful for this paved path.” That sort of thing.

Also, because I wanted to have at least 3 things to remember at night, I started paying attention to what was happening during the day that I could be grateful for. That started me being aware during the day of what was happening that I was grateful for. It started me being aware on a daily basis of at least some of what is going well, no matter how small, and I often just say thank you for it, even “thank you that I did not fall when I tripped just now!” (more than once!). I have even sometimes been grateful for the painful, uncomfortable feelings I have, because they are part of the whole human experience and they have taught me a lot.

I know that my days are so different now, for many reasons, but I find an amazing number of things to be thankful/grateful for and that keeps my mood in a better place. It has certainly shifted my anxiety and depression to a much lower state.

The Plants Call to Me, Even in Winter

spruce tree

My friend Spruce Tree

The plants have been talking to me when I go out for my daily walks.

It’s the middle of winter and you’d think nothing would be awake or paying much attention, but that simply isn’t so.

Driven by a recurrence of depression and needing to add a new approach to my coping skills, I have made a commitment to get outside everyday, even though we are in the midst of an extremely snowy winter.

You might think that I, an herbalist, would welcome any and every chance to get outdoors, but that hasn’t been the case. In the past years I have taken more and more to snuggling (um, well, hiding) in bed and reading a book or watching television as my primary modus operandi for dealing with down and uncomfortable times.

This stopped being an acceptable way of coping when I got hit with deep depression a few weeks ago. It was clear I had to do something different. Walking turns out to have been one of the answers.

First I had to walk to physical therapy half a mile away after hurting my hip. Then I set up a plan with a coach for whipping the depression’s ass harder than it was whipping mine.

And then—the plants spoke to me.

No, not actual words from some anthropomorphized rose bush. But their energy and the quiet messages that can be felt in paying attention to that came through clearly.

snow-covered mulitflora rose vines

Snow-covered mulitflora rose vines

First a multiflora rose snagged my sleeve as I was walking back from the compost heap (I put my compost there all winter long). I unsnagged myself and walked on past the black locust trees and past where the ground ivy and cleavers grow in great profusion in summer. I suddenly felt so much love and affection surrounding me, coming from the plants. The message I received was how much they love me, and need me to be here in this world for them, all of the plants.

Another walk a few days later and the same message. And then a walk down a long patch of turf where the grass never gets that tall and there is much moss and lichen mixed in (this was before the snow began). It is a long, tongue-shaped area, bounded on either side by trees. Near the tip of the “tongue” is a big old spruce tree who contributed needle-filled twigs a couple years ago to make spruce syrup with my apprentice.

Spruce suggested I drink a tea made of its needles, and perhaps partake of that spruce syrup as well. I took some fallen twiglets home for tea.

The trees also suggested that I come visit every day for a week, and I have, those that I can reach wither through the snow, or near the plowed road.

The glory of a walk, even in winter, is the beauty of the plants, whether evergreen trees, bare trees, seed stalks, or finding the mosses and “weeds” and plant friends that stay green throughout the coldest months.

Seeing the stands of seedstalks I remember what grows there in summer. Looking over toward the pond, I think of the skunk cabbage under the layer of icy snow. Approaching the filmy-barked white birch I admire the ethereal creams and peachy-pinks of its trunk.

The plants call to me, even in winter, and I am learning to listen and answer.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland…

It’s been snowing here in the Northeast. That’s a bit of an understatement right now, as we have huge piles of snow by the roads, are busily shoveling snow off the paths, and are buckling down for more to come. Yikes!

But I have been enjoying the snow in ways I haven’t in years, if ever. Perhaps because, without a car, I don’t have to drive in it. And I live where they shovel and plow the sidewalks for me. I am very lucky!

frozen river with hare tracks-2-10-14

The small river is frozen with a half moon of hare tracks in the snow.

I have just recently started going out for a walk every day. A dive into severe depression has meant that I have to add new coping skills to the ones I already have in place, and walking is one of the easiest things I can do that helps.

So on many days you will find me crunching through shin-high snow, leaving a small trench of trodden snow in my wake. It is exhilarating and fine aerobic exercise.

snowy tracks-1 2-07-2014

My snowy trail

I have been discovering wonderful things, and paying attention to the plants and the outdoors in whole new ways.

We have both hares and bunnies in our neck of the woods, and the tracks they leave differ from each other. Who knew?! They trail along through the top layer of snow, swerving here and there or making a sharp zig-zag turn, and mostly go from one area of covering trees and vines to another.

What I have really been seeing for the first time is the absolute beauty of the trees, vines, dried seedheads, and other plants in the snow and winter landscape. With all the snow, of course it looks like the quintessential winter postcard or Christmas card. But beyond that is the sublime glory of each plant, twig, or bare stalk outlined against the snow, or simply being itself within the fullness of the land.

I have been paying attention to the bare trees, which allow me to see details and learn about the trees which are hidden or invisible in a way when the leaves are out and all the other plants are flaunting their own foliage and colors.

bare black walnut tree in snow 2-2014

My friend, the black walnut tree.

For instance, on one walk I saw the pods, with tiny seeds still inside, of the black locust tree. I had just been reading about these in a wild foods forum I’m in, and lo-and-behold, suddenly there they were on the snow, and later in another walk, clinging to the bare branches of a tree! Then I looked at the tree itself and noticed the very deeply textured bark, so different from the other trees nearby. Except that several trees had that same texture of bark, and when I checked their branches, they had the little pods still attached. So I noticed a community of trees I have completely missed up until now.

black locust branch

Broken branch of black locust tree.

My walks are not silent. The birds are very vocal, and it is amusing to occasionally hear what sounds like a spring song in the midst of this wintery snow. No longer a harbinger of spring in our neck of the woods, there are flocks of robins in the trees and hopping on the snow, their bright breasts flashing in the sun. I can hear the cardinals before I see them. The sparrows and chickadees are everywhere and other birds come winging by or hop around on bare branches or in the yew bushes.

This winter with its seemingly endless snowfalls has been an unexpected gift. I am so grateful for its beauty and the presence of creatures and trees and the Spirit of our Mother Earth.

Using My Plant Medicines for Depression and Anxiety

detail of flower of Lysichiton americanus

Detail of flower of Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)

Three years ago I went to visit one of my herbalist friends, Sean Donahue, who has an intuitive connection with the plants that truly awes me. We were talking about tinctures, trying various ones, and he gave me a few drops of Western skunk cabbage to try. All well and good, until a little while later when I found myself weeping with the rawness of another piece of past trauma surfacing. This was completely unexpected and quite embarrassing.

I’m not sure what Sean thought, but he reacted by calmly asking his partner to bring him various tinctures, which I put under my tongue and rubbed on my wrists (this latter was something I felt prompted to do intuitively). Within a short period of time I was feeling calm and cushioned mentally and emotionally, much better than when I took Xanax (generic name: alprazolam) for anxiety and emotional upset. It was like all the benefits of the drug with none of the annoying side effects (sleepiness, bodily twitchiness, residual anxiety).

This was around the time I started working with my plant medicines seriously and consistently to help deal with my depression and anxiety. I started with 3 to 5 herbs from my own garden (I love growing the plants and making my own tinctures) and took them daily, trusting that they would do something eventually, though not sure what.

The first thing I found was that my anxiety decreased. I only took alprazolam once or twice every couple of months, and then I stopped altogether. My anxiety was manageable for the most part without taking anything and when I needed something I used my herb tinctures and they worked as well as the meds and better.

Then I found that I hadn’t been depressed in months. This was a very strange feeling, as depression had been an almost constant companion since my early twenties. I understood that the plants I had been working with had gradually shifted both my physical and psychological foundation.

After a summer, fall, and then winter where I didn’t dip into depression I decided that I could finally start to take myself off the antidepressant I had been on for over 24 years. That, though, is another story that I will write about at another point.

 Beginning with Nutrition

Before I got to the point where I could consistently work with my plant medicines, though, I changed my diet in major ways. I learned about and started adopting a nutrient-dense way of eating and preparing my food. I soaked my grains and legumes, drank fermented beverages such as kombucha, and started avoiding overly-processed foods and any oils other than coconut, olive, and animal-based oils. I also took cod liver oil and a few supplements.

Until I shifted my diet I did not have the energy, physically or mentally, to work with my plant medicines. After I had been on the nutrient-dense diet for a few years, I had the energy to add the plants into my daily routine. Even before that, though, the fact of eating the way our ancestors did had lessened the severity of my depressions.

The journey out of depression and away from daily anxiety has been long and there have been many pieces to the healing journey. Plant medicines and diet are two big pieces, but by no means all. In healing from depression, anxiety, and PTSD, there are many avenues to healing and many things that can and do help. I recommend finding and using any and all that bring you help and healing, provided that you are taking care of yourself in doing so.


Flower Friends

Flowers and plants have always been part of my life.

When I was a young girl, living in South America, I would make garlands of flowers to wear in my hair.

When I was a bit older, I would take the local kids and introduce them to plants in the neighborhood gardens.

Iris WeaverIn my late teens, when depression became a frequent visitor in my life, flowers and plants became real sanity-savers for me.
I was living in New Haven and didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere.

I would walk with my head down, which meant that I got a good view of the ground. I found myself one spring noticing the first crocuses, and then the daffodils and tulips and other flowers coming along. Across the street from the house where I rented a room was a magnolia tree that blossomed gloriously. I got such pleasure looking at it through the window while I sat working.

Seeing the first flowers and plants coming up gave me joy and somehow lifted me out of my pain for a while. I don’t know what spiritual chemistry plants have to do this, but I have experienced it ever since.

Some years later I was living in Salem and again dealing with deep depression. As spring came on (I was now in school and again without a car), I found where on my everyday routes the crocuses and daffodils were, later the violets and then the roses.
That’s when I realized that I’d been looking for the flowers every spring wherever I lived.

As I got to know a great many more wildflowers and wild plants (commonly known as “weeds”), as well as their cultivated relatives, I would watch for the appearance of all these friends as well.

Now I watch for their arrival in summer and fall as well, and watch the plants that keep some greenery throughout the winter.

I have found a few flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring and I especially adore their color when all else is still so bare.

This spring look down at the ground and around you to see what flowers are coming up. Watching the process of plants grow and change is a wondrous experience. Bring some fresh flowers into your home, either cut flowers or blooming plants. If those are beyond your financial means, learn to identify wild flowers which are free for the picking and just as beautiful in a vase as cultivated flowers. As a matter of fact, many of our weeds are actually plants that once were grown in gardens and escaped to become common roadside sights.

Plants have given me companionship and joy and helped me through dark times. I hope you find your own form of that connection.

February 2003

Beauty is in the Eyes (and Heart) of the Beholder

I’ve been doing a lot of gardening this summer, and a lot of standing around and admiring plants.

I get such pleasure from seeing plants and their flowers. So many of the plants I see are my friends that I am always greeting any number of them by name: “Hello, Clover. I’m so glad to see you! I’m so glad you’re in my garden! Hello, Lavender. You look gorgeous today with your purple buds, and you smell so delicious!”

One of the most wonderful things plants can do for us (and it doesn’t cost a cent!) is to offer the healing of their presence. Their beauty, forms, colors, scents, their feel, all can give us delight and sooth our spirits not only at a surface, physical level, but also at a deeper, heart level.

When I was in my late teens and living alone, I was very depressed (though I didn’t realize it at the time). Many times of the year were bad, but one of the worst was the end of the winter, because of the darkness and the cold, rather bleak landscape. I discovered that walking down my street and watching the crocuses and then the daffodils and tulips bloom soothed a hurt inside and would lift my spirits at least a little.

I walked everywhere, and over several years got to know many little nooks and crannies, as well as large swaths of lawn, where the spring flowers bloomed.
I made a point of looking for them, and would be cheered by them. It became my spring habit to look for the first blooming plants wherever I lived.

Each street around my home, in whatever city I was living, would have its little areas that I would map out and check on to see what was blooming when, and to linger over my favorite spots.

Why did simply seeing flowers bloom cheer me so? Why did they help to lift the pain in my heart? I’ve never quite been able to figure that out.

I have thought of the colors and the effects they have on the human brain and psyche.
There are theories of what colors represent and I’m sure studies have been made of how people’s brains react to different colors. I know that at different times I crave certain colors in my life, and they can make me intensely happy.

Another really important aspect of flowers is their spirit.

I believe, as do many indigenous and spiritually connected people, that plants have spirits of their own. They are beings with awareness and connectedness to a universal all.
The spirit of a plant can touch our own and have a profound effect.

Plants, at a basic level, are energy. Each plant has its own unique energy, as do we. That energy can touch us and interact with our energies to change our moods and our perceptions.

I believe much healing happens when we are simply around plants, whether we have a geranium on a windowsill, a few potted plants on the patio, or a whole garden. The spirit and energies of plants, as well as their colors and scents, can affect us deeply, even without our conscious awareness.

So take a walk around your neighborhood or around a public garden, come home with a few flowers to put in a vase and cheer up yourself and your home.

Sans Depression

smiling sun faceGoing out into the sunlight this morning and feeling the warm air on my skin made me glad to be alive. I was joyous.

So different than I have been so many hundreds of days in past springtimes.

I felt that there was no way not to feel delight and joy in the weather, greeting the plants, feeling the sun. How could I not feel uplifted and cheerful?

And I remembered those hundreds of days when no amount of sunlight and joy could move the stubborn depression that sat on my heart and dimmed all I saw outside. No amount of sweet, warm air could blow away the heaviness sitting in my body. No matter how many flowers threw their colors and scents at me I couldn’t catch them, they fell uselessly at my feet.

I could tell you in great detail how I rose from the depths of the Netherworld, but that would take more time than we have on this gorgeous day.

All I will do today is give thanks that on this day I can see and feel the delight of what is around me.

Learning How Plants Heal Me

When I’ve been most depressed in my life, I’ve turned to flowers. They could reach inside my darkened spirit and touch my heart. They lifted me up just a little, enough to help me carry on.

I’ve always been connected with plants.  My earliest memories include plants: smelling gardenias (we lived in South America), eating mangoes and tangerines right off the tree, watching a miniature-cucumber vine twining up the side of my house. I adored the way tomato plants smelled. By the time I was five, my mom had taught me the European tradition of making flower garlands to wear in my hair.

All of this was really good, and important, because in the midst of what might have seemed a semitropical paradise there was very nasty abuse going on. I lived in a community that was ostensibly Christian, but their version of Christianity was authoritarian and punitive, and hid a deeper, very damaging cult within it.

Growing up as a young child in this environment was hellish. The plants that grew all around me were a saving grace. They were safe, hospitable, beautiful, and undemanding. They couldn’t hurt me (even if they had thorns) the way humans could. Their energies and their spirits were a haven for my soul and spirit.

I wasn’t consciously aware of this, of course. I just gravitated toward plants, any and all, and spent time with them. I loved walking in woods and fields, down city streets, greeting the plants and looking at gardens. I always knew the names of some plants, and in my teens I started teaching myself about them, getting to know them better.

In my teens I became aware of the power of flowers to reach inside me and change something fundamental. I didn’t even know I was depressed, I just could barely function and get about. When I walked down the street from my house I would look at all the flowers popping up in the spring; I knew where all the crocuses were, the daffodils, the tulips and forsythia, the budding magnolias. I cannot give you an explanation, but seeing them was vital to my continuing to struggle on.

In my thirties, in another city, I again would note where all my plant friends grew, following the succession of plants, flowers, seeds from spring to fall. They were dear to my heart.

When I moved to that city 26 years ago, I wanted to put down roots, both figuratively and literally. I planted a rosebush in the yard next to my building. It didn’t make it, but my gardening chops did. Well, they developed, let’s say, with a lot of coaching from the plants!

Along the way I learned how to do all sorts of wonderful things with plants. How to get colors for my yarn and fabric, how to make medicines, what wild plants are good eating, how to decorate my house with wreaths and bouquets made from my favorite plants. And I learned to listen to what the plants have to tell me, by their colors and form, by their whispers in the wind, by the energy they share with all of us. I learned how to let them bring their healing into my heart and body and life.

The ways that connecting with plants have helped me are myriad. Sometimes it’s been just lifting my spirits by seeing a plant friend. Sometimes it is the taking myself out of myself while working with the plants—preparing a dye bath, making a tincture or oil or vinegar, putting plants to dry for later use, making up a tea blend in the morning.

Other times it is the involvement with the plant world and nature. Walking in the fields or woods or down the street, greeting my plant friends, collecting flowers, leaves, roots, for medicine or dye or wreaths or my dinner-plate.

Digging in the earth in a garden is life-changing. It puts you in touch with the earth and earth energy, and brings you into your body.

When I first began gardening professionally, which meant a lot of time with my hands in the dirt!, I was terribly uncomfortable in my body while gardening. I hadn’t spent much time connecting with my body in my 40-plus years of living, and the connection with earth brought me into my body. It took time for me to get comfortable being more in my body and aware of it. I’m glad I allowed myself to do that, because I am much more comfortable in my body now, and I really love having my hands in the dirt and feeling that very visceral connection with Nature.

I feel like plants helped save my life. They certainly helped rescue and maintain my sanity. I am deeply grateful for the gifts of the plants in my life. I hope that you may find a way to bring their healing presence into your life.