You know it’s over when they let you enter without first scrubbing your hands.
This ends one of two ways. Only one means coming home with the one you love.
Safety precautions are no easier in intensive care, just clearer.
The ventilator, translucent skin, the unsteady beat of the monitors--all scream vulnerability and so, of course, of course you wash and gown and mask. That’s obvious.
The dying parent. The tiny babies. Every cell in your body wants to shield them from danger, even – especially – the invisible danger clinging to you from outside, hitching a ride closer to them. Looking for a way in; their vulnerability an invitation.
They can’t protect themselves.
Protecting them is obvious even when it’s not easy. You respect the barriers marking the threshold between the menace outside and the relative (hoped for, prayed for) safety here, inside.
When you can see blue blood rushing beneath translucent skin, it’s not hard to wash your hands.
The line used to be hard and sharp. Maybe it was imaginary, but it seemed straightforward. Safety is here: danger is there.
Now, the ink has smeared until that line becomes earth, becomes air encircling each of you and what does it mean to be safe now?
Ah, but you know what it means to keep a distance, so that you can protect.
You remember. It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
How do you love through panes of glass? With a heart beating so hard you’re certain your tiny babies must hear it, too. When you touch them with a gloved hand, is it warm? Do they know it’s you?
Only your voice can touch without danger. The soft lullaby you sing into the incubators when you have to leave them. And the way his heart speeds up when he hears you coming into his hospital room.
On that final morning, they let you in without scrubbing. You touch your father’s hand with yours, unwashed and ungloved, because that line doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how you know it’s over.
All those years before, you got to take your babies home, drawing a new line around them, hard and strong for as long as you possibly could until you cracked it open to take them out. Out there. Unwashed hands and air travel leave them with bronchitis, but they’re stronger now and recover. You gave them time to grow and for their lungs to heal.
And you know it isn’t over.
It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
And now? Now you will stay away for as long as you must if it means they will be safe.
You will love them again through a pane of glass (or a computer screen) when they are six-thousand miles away instead of in your kitchen, cooking and bickering, where you wish they were (where they’re supposed to be) instead.
You will send your voice through the telephone and hug over a video link and listen through a window for the music you know is out there because the line defining dangerous and safe has shattered, and you will protect them with the distance that you keep because this is what you do when you love.
- Visual Media and Poem by Dr. Mara Tesler Stein
I’m sitting here…
And I am not having any palpitations in my chest; my heart is not beating fast.
I am not having any fluttering in my esophagus or my thymus.
I don’t have any painful little bumps underneath the skin on my stomach.
I don’t have any muscle spasms.
I am just sitting here.
It doesn’t feel like someone is choking me. There is no feeling of a hand clasping my throat.
It is not hard to swallow.
There is no electrical impulse near my left shoulder.
And there is no sharp pain in random places in my arms.
My eyes are not seeing double.
I have no vision disturbance.
It doesn’t look like the background is in front of the foreground.
People have only two eyes, not four.
I’m sitting here and I’m not dizzy or disoriented.
My eyes are not rolling back in my head; I don’t see lightning flashes when I close my eyes.
My lungs don’t feel like they are being crushed and sticking together.
I’m not struggling for breath and I don’t have a fever.
I’m just sitting here and there are no rising explosions in my chest.
Nothing feels like it is blowing up; there is no fire.
It doesn’t feel like I’ve broken my jaw, my nose, or my cheekbone.
I don’t have a rash that looks like stitches on my eyebrow.
And I don’t feel like I’ve been beaten up.
I’m sitting here and my whole scalp isn’t broken out in rashes either.
My cheeks don’t look chemically burnt.
It doesn’t feel like someone punched me in the stomach.
And there is no loud ringing in my ears.
There’s not a feeling of water flushing down my neck and back.
My brain doesn’t feel like it’s swollen or floating around.
It doesn’t feel like it is getting so big that it is ready to burst through my skull; there is no pressure.
Every individual hair follicle doesn’t feel painful and sensitive to the touch.
I’m sitting here and I don’t feel too tired to stand.
It doesn’t feel like something is vibrating in my pelvis.
It doesn’t feel like my chest is caving in.
And it doesn’t feel like every breath will be my last.
I’m sitting here and I don’t have a migraine or a headache.
It doesn’t feel like I have black n’ blues where there are none.
There is no feeling of a lightning bolt in my foot; no electrical impulses in my body.
It doesn’t feel like something is crawling under my skin; there is no “bug” on my lip.
I’m sitting here and I don’t feel overstimulated by everything I see, hear, taste, feel and smell.
My shoulders are not rounded forward for protection, nor are they creeping up to my ears with fright.
My neck muscles are not tense and painful.
My lymph nodes are not swollen.
There is no phantom pain moving all throughout my body.
In fact, I have no pain at all…I’m finally just sitting here.
There were so many different doctors. So many tests. They all said nothing was wrong; that it was all in my head. Now I know why. These were the effects of Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal. Many do not think it is serious or believe it exists. I wish I knew then so that I didn’t worry.
I wish I knew when I could barely even sit there.
For as long as I can remember, I have adored flowers. Looking at wildflowers in the fields or noticing several varieties alongside houses in my neighborhood are some of the first pictures that come up in my head when I float my memory back. I remember having to ask my mother’s permission before picking them in my own yard or my grandfather’s yard nearby because I once got in trouble for plucking some of the neighbor’s tulips. I’ve only recently started to appreciate the awesomeness that my mother is named Rosie (which she prefers to Rose)—and that literally makes me a flower child!
I can’t remember when I first received flowers—it was likely when I made my first communion around age seven. I fondly recall getting flowers from my friends and family when I was in my first big stage show at twelve. The confirmation name I chose for myself when I received the sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church is Marie-Therese. I selected the name to honor St. Therese of Lisieux, also called the Little Flower. The first tattoo I got was of a flower (a peace lily on my hip). Even though both of my marriages ended in bitter divorce, I still have several fond memories from both relationships that involve receiving flowers. On a recent pilgrimage to India, one of my drivers—a lovely man named Ratan—climbed a tree to pick me the state flower of Uttrakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas. This gesture had me beaming from ear-to-ear and made me realize just how much I love receiving flowers.
So what better way to honor the sacredness that I am than to practice buying myself flowers? We can put so much weight, especially as women, on what it means to receive flowers as a gesture of love or appreciation. But who is to say that for flowers to have such appreciative value, they have to be gifted by someone else?
Although I’ve picked flowers for myself over the years, I do not consciously recall buying myself a bouquet of flowers until about two years ago. I purchased a beautiful dozen of pink roses to celebrate my separation from marriage number two and all of the pain it represented. After that marriage ended, I entered into a period of deep inquiry to investigate and ultimately heal the remaining layers of relational trauma that kept me in this loop of unserving relationships. And in my sadhana (spiritual practice), my guides led me back to a favorite poem from which I’ve drawn great strength over the years, After A While by Veronica A. Shofstall. After my first divorce, I wrote a song called “Grace of a Woman” (which became the title track to the last album I recorded in 2012) based on a line from this poem. The repeating line in her poem is “after a while you learn”… During that period in my life, this line most resonated for me:
And you begin to accept your defeat with your head up and your eyes ahead
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child
Clearly that was the lesson my foolish heart needed at the time. Yet with one of the classical definitions of foolish being “slow to learn,” there was still more healing to be done…
Within a few weeks after my second husband and I parted ways, I remember standing at the entrance to the grocery store near my home where the florist is located and Veronica’s poem came back to me like a lightning bolt. Specifically the wisdom:
After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much
So you plant your own garden, and decorate your own soul
Instead of waiting for someone to bring your flowers
Thus, as a ceremony representing the new phase of healing that life was bringing me through, I bought myself that bouquet of the most beautiful pink roses. I brought them home, put them in a vase, and all felt right with the world.
“I can do this,” I resolved, “I can be okay by myself, as I am.”
During the period of initial healing I bought myself flowers regularly to keep reminding myself of this lesson. Truthfully, I fell out of the practice after about six months. I started to feel much better. And then, about a year after the separation, I started seeing someone. Although not to the same extent as in earlier seasons of my life, I noticed some of the same patterns about needing to be wanted pop back up and disturb the peace in my life. Even though I’m slow to learn when it comes to my personal healing, I do learn and I’ve been able to nip much of this potential destruction in the bud.
Getting my latest book Process Not Perfection prepared and ready for publication happened alongside me doing some deep therapeutic digging about the remnants of relational trauma. Healing those wounds has proven to be the greatest process of my life. The day that the book officially released, I allowed myself to sit on my couch, breathe, and take it all in. And then the wisdom inherent in Veronica’s poem came back once again—go out and buy yourself flowers. Celebrate you! Celebrate not just all that you’ve accomplished, celebrate the wonder that you are! Indeed, decorate your own soul…
We can decorate our soul in a variety of ways along our healing path in ways that are not entangled with attachments to others. Even if you are in a committed relationship, please consider nourishing yourself in this way. Perhaps planting a garden is more your style than buying flowers. Do it. Do whatever is going to help you celebrate your own wonder while cultivating beauty in your life. I am worth it, you are worth it. And perhaps if we deepen into this practice of gifting ourselves with the beauty we deserve, we will indeed spread that healing like wildflowers through this suffering world desperately in need of that colorful energy.
I wrote my first Poem of Instruction “As a Daily Prayer” at the invitation of my expressive arts therapy teacher and mentor, Dr. Christine Valters Paintner, in 2015. My poem was first published by Yoganonymous (a now discontinued website) in 2015 and later in Christine’s own book, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women (Sorin Books, 2017). The poem still serves as a reminder to me of what I need to do for my health and my growth, and I read it regularly as an accountability check.
Eat greed foods
Drink fresh water
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Ask for God’s help
Call upon the earth’s healing energy
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Laugh heartily from the belly
Move the body with joy
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Breathe deeply and fully
Connect with kindred spirits, or the silence
Repeat as often as possible,
As a daily prayer.
Know that if you are ever too busy
To take part in these daily sacraments
Then you are too busy…
Ask yourself—what keeps me from
eating green foods
drinking fresh water
asking for God’s help
calling upon the earth’s healing energy
laughing heartily from the belly
moving with joy
breathing deeply and fully
connecting with kindred spirits or silence…
Listen to your breath, listen to your body--
The answer will arrive.
I would now like to challenge you to write your own Poem of Instruction. These do not have to be long; a few lines will do. If your first reaction is “I can’t write poetry,” consider that what makes a poem a poem is that you determine when the lines start and stop. In prose writing, the natural endings of the lines on paper or in the word processing program determines that for us. And poems do NOT have to rhyme.
When I teach the Poem of Instruction, I generally recommend that you set a time for about 10-15 minutes of free writing in response to the question: How can I best care for myself today? After the free writing period concludes, go back with a highlighter or your favorite colored pencil, pen or marker, and notice which lines resonate the most with you. My teacher Christine often uses the word “shimmer” and I am a big fan of that word for these purposes. What lines, what words shimmer for you? Let those become your poem and if you are so inspired, you can even make some visual art or an accompanying playlist to help you further connect to your Poem of Instruction. You are free to share yours here in the comments, although that is not required. What I most suggest is that you leave your Poem of Instruction somewhere that you can readily access it, even using it as a daily reading if possible.
Photograph by Dorit Drori
I majored in history as an undergraduate at Youngstown State University, and was privileged to take several classes with noted Jewish scholar and author Dr. Saul Friedman.
When I took his course on the Holocaust as a nineteen-year-old, he asked us one day, “How many of you have ever heard of Anne Frank and her diary.”
Every single person in the class raised their hands. I was especially eager to put mine up since I played her on stage when I was fourteen!
He then followed with, “How many of you have ever heard of Hannah Senesh and her diary?”
“I figured,” he said, before launching into a lecture that would impact my life unlike any other during my undergrad.
“No disrespect to Anne Frank, whose influence as a historical figure cannot be denied. But if you want a much more interesting diary that tells a much more interesting story—the story of a gutsy young woman taking a stand against the Nazis—read Hannah Senesh.”
Hannah Senesh (the commonly anglicized version of the Hungarian Szenes although you see her name appear both ways) died fighting Nazi persecution at the age of 22. She trained as a paratrooper with the Royal British Air Force to take part in one of the only known rescue missions into an occupied country at the end of World War II. The purpose was to save Jewish lives. The entire story of Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust is fascinating, and you can watch a beautiful documentary of Hannah’s life in this context called Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, directed by Roberta Grossman (2008). I will offer you a very rudimentary summary here to better explain my relationship with her.
Hannah was the daughter of a famous Hungarian playwright, born at a time when the Jewish population in Hungary was very assimilated. Hannah was not really aware of what it even meant to be Jewish until the rise of Nazism in Europe and its first impact on her—being told she was no longer allow to go to the school she had been attending. To cope with these increasing experiences of anti-Semitism in her own life, Hannah made a choice to dive fully into studying Hebrew language and Jewish teaching, and she neutralized her initial shame by learning to take great pride in what it meant to be a Jew. Hannah emigrated from Hungary to Palestine in 1941 to study farming. Her mother originally protested because Hannah was a brilliant student and saw farming as a waste of her academic talents. She eventually consented, sensing the rising instability in Europe. While learning to work the land, Hannah also began writing in Hebrew, specifically in the genre of poetry. Hannah joined the Women’s Auxiliary Unit of the British Royal Air Force in 1943, training in Egypt for her ultimate mission: to parachute into Partisan Yugoslavia alongside other Jews living in Palestine with the intention of crossing into Hungary to extract as many Jews out as possible.
Hungarian Jews were largely spared during the earlier years of the World War II, yet by the end of the war the Nazi tide swiftly moved through Hannah’s own country. When she went on her mission in 1944, her ultimate motivation was to spare her mother and as many Hungarians as possible from the fate of Auschwitz. Hannah was arrested and exposed as a British spy soon after crossing into Hungary, ultimately being tortured, “tried,” and ultimately sentenced to death by firing squad in a Gestapo prison. In an interesting footnote that is better explained in the documentary, Hannah’s stand ultimately saved her mother’s life. Instead of being sent to a death camp, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned alongside of her on suspicions that she was a co-conspirator. The trial of Catherine Senesh, Hannah’s mother, kept getting delayed and the war eventually ended before she could be tried.
After Dr. Friedman told me about her, I read her diary, her poetry translated into English, and everything written about her—I felt that the bravest young woman of my age I had ever met came alive for me! I was not raised Jewish although studying Anne Frank at an earlier age and studying Hannah in college began my interest in learning more about Judaism. I wondered why history had not granted Hannah the same reverence as Anne Frank? Was it because Hannah was considered a Zionist and is still largely heralded as a hero in the Zionist movement? In the open blood sore of trauma and traumatic reenactment that defines life in much of the Middle East, Zionism can be a dirty word.
Although Dr. Friedman entertained this conjecture, his ultimate contention rings prominently for me to this day, “History usually loves the good girl who believed that deep down people are really good at heart. Anne is safe. Hannah was a rebel.”
When he put it that way, I found what in EMDR therapy or other trauma-focused therapy terms we may call a protector figure. Historical figures can be used as such protector figures, and we can sense their presence, their support, and use their example to guide us into our deeper work. Hannah was my first historical protector figure before I even knew the jargon of that therapy term I now use so readily in my teaching! Her most famous poem, Blessed is the Match, which she gave to one of her squadron members just before she crossed into Hungary, became a guiding prayer through those rough undergraduate years when I was struggling to claim my own identity.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
If you want to know why I resonate with Hannah’s story and life so much, take in this poem. I made a poster of Blessed is the Match and hung it up in my dorm room. As I struggled to learn how my heart really worked around issues like my faith, my sexuality, and the clash between my learned self-hatred and an innate belief that who I authentically am could bring about some good in the world, Hannah’s poem sustained me. In the throes of my most active addiction that lasted from age 19-23 (the ages where Hannah had set off to redefine herself and change the world in her own way), I believe that reciting Blessed is the Match kept me alive quite a few times. My heart never stopped beating, even though I wanted it to many times in that era, because as it turns out, my Higher Powers and the world were not yet done with me.
I write this tribute, this letter of love and thanks to Hannah, on my first journey to Israel. I had the chance to visit Hannah’s monument at Sodt Yam, the kibbutz near Caesarea where she worked before joining the British Royal Airforce. Blessed is the Match appears in Hebrew on the base of her statue. After a day of moving through clogged traffic, the tension evident to me in Jerusalem, and other sites packed with noisy Western tourists, I sat on the kibbutz in Sodt Yam the only visitor. I admired her monument, which struck me as a classic embodiment of a Divine Feminine, the sun of the Mediterranean setting against my back. Although I appreciated the quiet and quickly realized why she loved this place so much (honored in her poem Eli, Eli that was eventually set to music), my solitude as the only Westerner around made me rethink Dr. Friedman’s question: How many of you have ever heard of Hannah Senesh? It’s a question I’d like to yell out at the top of my lungs to everyone at the tourist sites and if the answer is no, why haven’t you?
This tribute is my small way of sharing a major influence, a protector figure, with people who are likely to read my work. I know it’s a risky piece to write as I fear that it may be quickly politicized because of who Hannah was. As much as I’d like to say, keep politics out of it, I know that may be impossible for many, regardless of where we stand or how we feel about the cause of tensions in the Middle East. Whenever issues of identity are at stake, it’s difficult not to feel issues personally or become enraged by injustices. I would like to think that Hannah’s heart is breaking to see what is happening in this part of the world, her homeland that she loved so much. So, I end my tale by telling you specifically why I thanked Hannah at her beloved Sodt Yam—because she never once left me or the nineteen-year-old self who still lives within me. The match she lit for me all those years ago recently helped me to be brave, strap on my parachute and fly.
I’ve not publicly announced this yet in any of my writing and will keep the details limited since healing is still a work in progress. The last three years were particularly turbulent for me in realizing that I had to live my life as fully and as authentically as possible to be my healthiest self—and I wasn’t doing that. The deaths of several people close to me made me realize just how much of myself I was hiding, both with my professional voice and issues around personal identity. The shameful remnants of the religions in which I was raised clashed up against my sexual identity. My renewed drive to be an unapologetically feminist voice in a country where disrespect towards strong women still abounds toppled many of the internal messages I still carried about the importance of being a nice girl. And I came to a place where enough was enough. I was playing it safe, not speaking up nearly enough about issues that mattered to me, for the sake of being too diplomatic. In a country where strong females are still regularly mocked with pejoratives and insults, my fear of not being liked or making too many waves kept me silent on issues in every area of my life . This surprises many people who have long seen me as outspoken. This meant I had to make the difficult decision to leave my second marriage, wading through the negative self-talk around, “Oh what will people say? She helps so many other people and can’t keep her own shit together.”
Hannah helped me torch this script. Literally.
One night during a therapy retreat with my personal EMDR therapist, I was also reading work on the four elements by Christine Valters Paintner, one of my spiritual teachers. In doing a meditation on fire, I felt Hannah’s presence so strongly and Blessed is the Match, a poem I hadn’t consciously prayed in years, ignited my heart. I had not yet left my marriage but was getting close, and using my trauma healing knowledge to strengthen the resources that Hannah gave me all those years ago helped me to leap with both the fear and excitement she may have felt jumping out of that plane. When I sensed into that resource, I literally felt like she was giving me her parachute.
Hannah’s parachute represented and continues to represent Spirit/Source or my Higher Power, the assurance that even in the face of risk and maybe even eventual fallout, there’s a larger purpose in everything and I am loved. Her match represents validation that my heart and all its complexities are sacred just as they are, and can play some small role in bringing warmth and light to a world that is cold and dark. Being myself this fully is a risk, and it’s one that is worth taking!
Through all the difficult days and battles that were ahead of me in the year that followed, I carried an unlit match with me for grounding. A tangible reminder of her gifts and her role as a protector figure. She is one of many forces, in this realm and in the realm of spirit, who has my back, and for their light and their lineage, I am immensely grateful.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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