Friday, October 17, 2014

This Is What You Do the Night Before the Biggest Exam of Your Life

 (Last year, on the night before the biggest exam of my life, I wrote this. It was my way of turning off my exhausted TCM brain and finding refuge in words, at least for a little while. Today, I share it for my friends who will be writing the board exam (part 1) tomorrow. I love you, I believe in you, I am so grateful to know you.) 

You don’t freak out. First and foremost, you don’t freak out.

You have studied all day, all week, all month, reviewing patterns and points, and it is ok to stop now. It is ok. It is 8pm. It is time for a glass of red. There is a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon just waiting to be uncorked. Uncork it. Let it breathe. And as it breathes, breathe along with it. Deep, unhurried breaths, like suspension points.

Yes (…) like (…) this (…). Breathe like an ellipsis.

As you breathe, place your hand on your chest and feel your heart’s rhythm regulate, its pace become slower, less of a thump and more of a throb. A heart throb. Not the kind that makes you swoon, but the kind that keeps you soft and reminds you of the precious, painful gift of being alive.

Throb (…) throb (…) throb (…).


Before you pour your glass of wine, stretch (for stretching with a glass of wine may be messy). Extend your arms high above your head and feel your spine elongate. Elongate, what a beautiful word this is. Elongate: to grow longer. Grow longer. Grow long in four directions, six directions, eight. Become longer than you have ever been. Reach beyond the ceiling, beyond the sky, to the nothing and everything of outer space. Scoop a fistful of the milky way and suck it through a straw.

Elongate your legs. Let them sink through the linoleum floor, through the ground, to the molten rock at the center of the planet, and through the molten rock to the other side.  Your legs are most likely dangling in water now. Saltwater. There are jellyfish nipping at your toes.

Now come back. Contract. And pour that glass of wine already. Drink it mindfully, as though it is the first or last glass of your life. Notice its every nuance, its layers of fruit upon fruit (blackberry? blackcurrant?) and its overtones of spice and wood. Swish it around your mouth, against the inner lining of your cheeks, wake up your tongue.

Your tongue. When you think of the word tongue you inevitably think of diagnosis. Tongue diagnosis: the art of tongue reading. You know this art. You have learned it well. You have practiced it on friends, on family, on Miley. (Yes, that Miley.) This is the part of the exam you will ace.

Ace. Ace. Ace the exam.

Forget about it. 

Sip your wine. Watch your silly cats chase after the lid of your highlighter and laugh. Laugh more. Let your laugh explode out of your throat like an exclamation point shocking your cats into stillness (!!!) just (!!!) like (!!!) this (!!!)


Laugh as long and as hard as you need to, dissolving the tightness in your belly, the tension in your head. Then, pick up your cats, if they will let you. Hold them close, letting their soft bellies rest against your soft belly. Allow the power of the purr to calm your frazzled nerves. Bury your face into their squishy little bodies and feel your heart swell the way it always does when you hold your cats, when you hug your dog, when you look into the eyes of any living creature and notice the kindness that lives there.

Look into your own eyes (use a mirror, use your phone). Notice the kindness that lives there.

Be kind. Don’t exhaust yourself with thoughts of, “I will fail.  I can’t do this.” Be kind instead. Tell yourself you have absorbed this medicine through your flesh. You have sewn it into your bones.  You have poured it into your veins and imbedded it deep inside your muscles. All you must do, at the exam, is unfurl yourself onto the test sheet. Easy.

(No. Not easy. But breathe, keep breathing.)

Now, remember. Remember how scared you were when you left your job and went back to school on nothing but a wing, a bank loan, and a long-winded prayer. Remember how irrational it seemed to many, many people who thought they knew you. Remember all of the hours (thousands and thousands of hours) you’ve spent, leaning over books and charts and diagrams and living human bodies (and, once, dead human bodies). Remember how deeply you have healed.

Be grateful.

Be grateful you are writing this exam at all, for it means that you have listened to the guidance of your heart. Be grateful that, everyday, for the rest of your life, you will practice a medicine that you are madly, deliriously in love with. Be grateful that you can place three fingers on a person’s wrist and speak the language of the Lungs. Of the Kidneys.  Of the Heart. You understand Heart-speak.  How amazing is that?

As you get up to refill your glass of wine (or to pour a glass of water because, yes, maybe now is a good time for water), feel your feet firmly planted on the floor, your soles pressing against the surface that connects to ground underneath. Notice this feeling of being connected to Earth, and tomorrow, when the thick exam booklet is placed face-down in front of you, uncross your legs, and root your feet. Feel solid, supported, steady. As steady as an ancient maple tree. 

Tree. Tree. Tree is like Wood, which belongs to the Liver, which manifests in the Spring, which responds to the colour green, which reacts strongly to Wind, which houses the Ethereal Soul called Hun, which lives in your Blood.

(See? You know this.)

Now dance, if you want to. You’ve had some wine and you’re feeling loose, and the kitchen offers a decent dance space, so dance.

Or call your Mom, if you want to. Or read, if you want to. Or write. Maybe write a piece about what to do the night before the biggest exam of your life.  Maybe write the piece and then take your own advice.

Then rest. Definitely rest. Make some tea (chamomile or valerian or lavender or kava kava). Dim the lights. Settle.  Settle into your body, settle into your nest. Close your eyes.

And know, in the deepest part of you, that this exam does not determine your worth, as a person or as a practitioner. It is a man-made attempt to assess, in three hours, what you have learned in three years of full-time school. It represents nothing but a snapshot of your healing and learning journey. It is nothing close to the whole picture.

It cannot assess, for example, how aware your fingertips have become, how electric they feel when palpating down a person’s spine, and how accurate their knowing is. It cannot assess what a present listener you’ve become, how you are able to sit in stillness with another person and provide a safe and loving space for them to share their story. It cannot assess the goodness in your heart and the way you pray at night, for all of the people who have walked through your doors that day, and how you ask God to guide and protect them on their way.

(These are your gifts and this exam knows none of it.)

Now, give yourself a hug. Tell yourself you’ve done well and you will continue to do well, regardless of the outcome of this exam. Walk upstairs. Change into the most comfortable sleepwear you own (tonight is a good night for satin) and fall into the softness of your pillows. Say a prayer, if you want to. Greet the moon, if you want to. Invite the stars into your bed, into your head, with their messages buried in dreams, if you want to.

But only if you want to.

Because tonight is about you. It’s about honouring the work that has brought you to this place. It’s about honouring the inner strength that has carried you this far. It’s about honouring the heart that has continued beating through the exhaustion and the fear and the doubts and the grueling schedule. It’s about honouring all of the moments of the past three years and trusting the moments to come.

Trust. Then sleep. Then wake.

Then walk into that crowded room, find your seat, line up your pencils, place your analog watch directly in front of you and unfurl yourself onto the test sheet.

You can do it. You know this medicine. You live this medicine. You are this medicine.

Ready? (Breathe.) Set? (Breathe.)


Monday, July 14, 2014

Place Your Hand On Your Heart and Know

(Originally published on elephant journal on July 11, 2014)

Artwork: Light Spirit Touching Heart by Adam Perry

Know that you are loved.

You are madly loved, not just by the glowing hearts who share the journey with you, but by Mighty Mother Earth who carries you upon her shoulders and bears witness to your odyssey.

She has held you in her saltwater palm since before you were born, since you were but a secret twinkle in your other mother’s eye. As soon as your daredevil soul made the decision to return to Earth, to continue its karmic unraveling through the courageous act of breathing, she began to make space for you, to carve a little plot of land that you could call home.

When life overwhelms and knees buckle and stab-wounds bleed, she remains stable, unwavering under the weight of your hurt.

She holds you.

Day after perfect day, Earth holds your feet and rumbles, “Walk, little one. Kiss me with your toes. Rediscover your preciousness. Soak me with your woes. You can, you can, you can, you can because you are loved.

Know that you are strong.

You are a living fortress, standing your ground in a world full of earthquakes and landslides and gaping mouths waiting to swallow you up and gnaw on your bones. You will not be gnawed on.

You live in a city that has forgotten about the holiness of trees, a city that desiccates parks to build more concrete towers to make more money to pay more fools who think that money means success.

You make little money, but you make other things: you make peace with your actions and love with your words. You make songs about Internet dating sites that soften the sharp, lonesome edges; you make art by the way you move and stand and curve in the world.

Through it all, you hold your head high, and your clenched fist—that enduring symbol of I-will-not-be-overcome-ness—even higher.

You grow babies in your own body and birth them in your own home and you are strong enough to know when to hold on and when to push push push and let it all go. You are the mess, the sweat, the growl, the howl, the busted-open hero.

Know that you are not alone.

You feel alone, a lot of the time. I feel alone, too. But loneliness (that cunning crone) is a gift, a guide, a way out of our own anxious heads and deep into our own loving hearts.

We must sit in silence with loneliness and peel off her fear-studded cloak, layer by prickly layer, until the spark of recognition ignites within us and we can clearly see the inter-connectedness and the sacredness of it all.

All things stem from a single sacred cell. All of your favorite nature miracles (like the forests of British Columbia and the Arizona desert) are entangled in your DNA; you are the forests of British Columbia, you are the Arizona desert. “All is one” is not just a thing people say to encourage action and reaction; it is fact. All is one and we are all in this together.

Know that your body is your friend.

Your body is the flesh-home you need to exist as a meandering, temporary earthling. It is neither too fat nor too thin nor too tall nor too small. It is exquisite. It is the mask you wear when you need a mask to wear and, when the mask comes off, it is your brazen Truth.

It conceals your secrets between the folds of its skin until your heart murmurs, “Speak me now. I am ready to be heard.” It bears the weight of a thousand daily heartaches without being crushed. It holds the throbbing in its muscles and the frazzled in its nerves.

It is your shield in a cruel world, keeping you safe, and it is your pleasure temple, keeping you moaning and groaning for more.

Your body wants nothing but to keep you well and its every pain, every strain, every break, every blemish is a message telling you to “pay attention to this” or “stop doing that” or “please oh please get some rest.” A body ignored is like a letter unopened, but a body acknowledged is the most enduring ally you will ever have. It is always on your side.

Know that you are enough.

You are enough pretty and enough kind and enough talented and enough smart. Everything you need is contained within you. There is nothing missing at all.

Know that you will know none of this.

That, some days, you will roll your eyes at words like “karmic unraveling” and “temporary earthling.”

That you will feel the grasp of your own impermanence pulling at your ankles and that you will sink deep and fast, into your quicksand bed sheets, and weep for weeks. Know that you will become lost, inside of your own maze-like mind, and that you will hate everything about your body and everything about this broken, brutal world.

Know that this is okay because it is what makes you so very, very human.

Know that you are brave. Know that you are worthy of all things good. Know that you are fierce, that you are gorgeous, that you are wise. Know that you are built to bend and bow and arch and flex, to deviate from the straight and create your own adventure. Know that you are the adventure, the belly-dancing Universe, the embodiment of light.

Know that the knowing that takes place in your head is not real knowing at all. Be wary of ego and its desire to know and its desire to win and its desire to be right. Forget about being right and just focus on being here. Be here, right now, awake in your awesome human life.

See! See the sun and the moon and the stars and how they beam when nobody’s watching, expecting nothing in return. See the long-legged spider and how tenderly she swaddles her prey. See the sparrows in the springtime, building nests, choosing to be neighbors. Love is everywhere and to notice is to know this.

To notice is to know this (so open wide your sparkly eyes and see).

Know that you will not be you forever.

Someday, you will gaze into a mirror and see an old lady gazing back, an old lady with paper-thin skin marked by a hundred different wrinkles and a dozen different spots. You will pause for a moment and think, “I thought this was a mirror…” and then you will look a little closer and recognize your eyes. You will be amazed at the life that has drawn itself all over your features.

You will know, then, that you are closer to the end than the beginning and you will know, too, that “end” is but another word for “beginning.” You will feel intimately connected to the God of your dreams and your angel wings will grow.

You will smile at the life you were gifted with, at how short it was and how long it seemed at times. You will not remember most of it, but you will remember some: the day you said “I do” under an eclipsing moon to a man you barely knew; the night you spent with Kerouac and an oil lamp, drinking wine from a Tetrapak and catching falling stars. You will hold your grandchildren close to your bosom to smell the newness in their hair. You will use words like “bosom” and you will not feel old at all.

Know that you are not old at all. That time is not running out. That dreams come true, in their own ways. That the miracle you seek is seeking you. That the miracle you seek is inside you.

Know that a hand gently placed on a thump-thumping heart is the only compass you will ever need. Know that my hand is placed on my thump-thumping heart, right now, and that I feel a flame burning there. Know that I am typing these words with one hand because my other hand is touching fire and my whole body is getting warm, as I move closer and closer to the real.

Place your hand on your thump-thumping heart. (Go on, join me.)

Place your hand on your thump-thumping heart and feel. (You’re getting warmer, warmer.)

Place your hand on your thump-thumping heart and trust. (Feel the flame, trust the flame.)

Place your hand on your thump-thumping heart and know. (You know all of it already.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Return to Words

(Originally published on elephant journal on June 19, 2014)

Artwork: Print by Trista M.

I used to trust my own voice.

I used to believe in the words that flowed from the hollow at the center of my heart (for this is where words are born) to the pen I gripped in my crooked little fist of a hand. I used to grip, not hold, the pen because there was a torrent of words pouring out of my fingers and I had to hold on tight and be quick in order to get them all out before the word-water reached my neck, my mouth, my nose and caused me to drown in a sea of unexpressed verbiage.

This is how I wrote, when I was 12.

I wrote like a wild animal chasing its prey, or being chased as prey, always running towards something, or away from something, never stagnant.

I wrote all the time, every day. There were words living inside of me, filling me up with sentences and wordplay and stories. I felt them pushing and pulling and swelling, demanding attention. I remember asking my Mom once if there were words living inside of her too and she paused for a moment and looked at me like maybe I was a strange little girl and answered, “No. Not really.” (I later discovered that there were numbers living inside of my Mom—mathematical equations and Sudoku-like puzzles).

I remember thinking maybe I was a strange little girl. Maybe I was the only girl in the world with so many breathing, pulsing, yearning words living inside of her. And that thought frightened me, but only for a second, because I was a brave 12 year-old and knew I could survive the terrible fate of being a bearer of words as long as I kept writing them out of my body and into the world.

I wrote.

I filled journals and scribbled on pads of legal paper and spent hours and hours (whole days, whole weekends) sitting up in bed, warm and safe under my pink, ink-stained comforter with stacks of books as companions (for I read as much as I wrote) and leaky pens and blank sheets and stories born between heartbeats.

When I was 13, I wrote a novel. It is called Donna Jill’s Unforgettable Birthday Bash and the main character’s name, Donna Jill, was inspired by Candace Cameron’s DJ in Full House. She resembles her too: blond, blue-eyed, the eldest of three sisters. The story revolves around DJ and her three best friends and the adventures they encounter on DJ’s 13th birthday (they meet Luke Perry, for example).

It’s a terrible story and I read it now and cringe. But it was fiercely hand-written, all 60 pages of it, and it stands now as a snapshot of sorts, offering a glimpse into the dreams and fantasies of my 13 year-old self. It reminds me to be daring.

I was a daring 13, 16, 19-year old. I dared to write poems and letters to the editor and journal entries so scorching it burns to read them. I dared to be open, to be fragile, and to love. I loved the same way I wrote: ferociously and without hesitation. I wrote love letters to boys, to girls, to friends, to authors, to pen pals who lived halfway across the globe. I wrote a love letter to a bee once, sitting in a field of wild daisies, under a sky so blue it pierced my eyes to look at it.

When the bee perched on my writing hand I whispered, “please don’t hurt me because I love you,” and I do think she heard me because she flew away, leaving me stunned, but unstung.

I trusted in the truth of my words. I didn’t judge what ended up on the page, or wonder if what I wrote was worth writing, or worry about the reception it may or may not receive. I just wrote and, then, I shared what I wrote. I shared it with whoever was interested in reading it, in hearing it. I remember being 16, hanging out with my friend RenĂ©e, and her asking me to share with her family a fictional piece I had written for English class. So, I did. I pulled The Myth of the Seasons out of my backpack, stood up, and read to her family as they sat around the table drinking tea after dinner. This felt comfortable to me. I felt comfortable–writing and sharing, writing and sharing. It felt as natural as breathing.

Then, somewhere along the rickety road of growing up, my pouring of words slowed to a leaky faucet trickle and nearly stopped entirely. When I did write, I did so only for myself, not willing to share the inner workings of my soul with even my closest of friends. I grew timid. I grew quiet. I had suffered my share of irreparable heartache and, in my tender state, had begun to build a flesh-and-blood barricade between my heart and my fingers, between my heart and my throat. I shut myself up.

This happens.

We grow and we fall and we ache and we become cautious. We slice open our hearts and reveal the shiny messy insides to people who take those shiny messy insides and crush them and we promise never to slice ourselves open again. We start to doubt. We doubt we had anything worthy to say (or to draw or to paint or to sing) in the first place. We drink, we smoke, we party all night and sleep all day, quieting the calling that resides in our cells, convincing ourselves we were no good at it anyway.

But the calling never dies, not entirely, and there comes a time (in our thirties, or forties, or fifties, or later) when the words (or the drawings or the paintings or the songs) that live inside of us can no longer be suppressed and we start to feel the cracking of the flood barriers and the rising of the tide. It rises and rises and, like an old beloved yet terrifying friend, it asks us to be brave again.

We must bravely express what lives inside of us because we must make space inside of us–space to hold (fear, grief, pain, longing, love) and space to let go (of fear, grief, pain, longing, love). We must bravely express what lives inside of us because our bodies and minds and hearts are not meant to be stagnant waterholes (things fester there), but flowing waterways connecting the outer world to the inner world, emptying and filling, transforming all the time. We must bravely express what lives inside of us because this is how we set it free (it is the only way) and this is how we set ourselves free. And this is how we heal.

I returned to my pen in 2010 by starting a blog I expected nobody to read. But people have read it, do read it, and some even like it. Last week, I received an email from a complete stranger expressing gratitude for my words and asking me to please keep writing as my perspective on things has shifted her world a little.

And here is the thing, friends, here is the kernel: We must bravely express what lives inside of us because what lives inside of us has the power to shift worlds a little.

After months of neglecting my blog and barely writing at all, I have recently picked up my pen and felt my confidence grow with every ink stain, every hand cramp, every nine o’clock sunset that tells me I have written the whole day away. I have broken my own promise of never slicing myself open again and I have stocked up on Band-Aids for I know there will be blood. I have submitted my words for publication, to an elephant I know, and it has responded like a happy trumpeter. I have asked my heart for forgiveness, for all those times I forced her to sit in silence, and I have started humming away the lump in my throat (which has almost completely dissolved).

Every morning, I write. I stretch and bow to a new day, make some tea, take deep breaths and write.

I write to connect to my own brokenness and I write to help others connect to theirs. I write ferociously and without hesitation. I write like my health depends on it (because it does). I write because it is one of the things I am meant to do, in the time that I have here on Earth. I write because I love it, because I hate it, because I have to, because I choose to be brave.


Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.” ~ Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

This Tree & Me

(Originally published on elephant journal on June 9, 2014)

Artwork: Lost by Emily Newman

Pick a tree,” he says.

Pick a tree and go to it. Be with your tree.

I pick a tree, not with my head but with my feet (there is a difference).

My feet are walking towards this tree, the one not directly in front of me but slightly off the path, to my left. There is no thought involved, just the movement of my rubber-boot feet on wet earth, the slow and gentle tread to the tree that picked me.

(We picked each other, you see.)

I greet my tree. I know it isn’t my tree. It belongs wholly to itself, as it always has and always will. Its soul is very, very old and very, very free. It will never be anyone’s tree.

But right now, for now, it feels like my tree. I wrap my arms around its trunk and, by doing so, I let my burdens go. We are alone in the world, this tree and me.

I lean against my tree and feel the roughness of its bark against my cheek, the glass marbles of its sap beneath my fingers.

And there is a memory.

I am eight years old, wandering the forest with Grandpa. He stops next to a towering pine and uses his fingernail to scratch sap off the bark. He tells me (in that voice I hear in dreams) that sap drips from the wounds of trees, their cracks and broken places. He tells me sap can fix our own wounds and rubs a bit of sticky on my scraped and scabbing knee.

(This tree is my Grandpa—old and tall and rough and wise. He is so very much alive.)

My tree has branches. I look up—towards the blue—and there they are, like long, crooked, primeval fingers growing (but not reaching) towards the sun. These branches don’t reach for the sun or the moon or the clouds, don’t try to touch something that cannot be touched or hold something that cannot be held. They simply do what branches do: grow up and out and around, in order to feel the light.

My tree has roots. I look down, towards the ground, and sense them underneath my rubber-boot feet. There they are, ripe with water and dissolved particles of past, present and future. They wind their way into the depths of the depths, intertwining with the roots of other trees, creating a living web that holds Earth together.

Trees hold Earth together.

I listen, ear pressed against the scarred bark of my tree, to the sacred silence that exists when all is known and there is no need for noise. I hear it: the nothing, the everything, the eternal truth that simmers in the deepest and darkest part of my tree, in the holy wood that exists at its center, the one we call heartwood.

My heart beats. (I, too, am so very much alive.)

I take long, unhurried breaths, my lungs expanding to let in all of the quiet, all of the knowing, the rush of remembering.

(To remember, a teacher once said, is to put the pieces back together again, to return to a state of wholeness, to literally re-member.)

The remembering glides over me like resin, slides into me, like a sweet syrup trickle. My heart beats against my chest in a slow and steady yes-yes-yes.

I remember:

That the sap that feeds my tree (yes) is the blood that feeds me (yes) is the rain that feeds Earth (yes).

I remember:

That there are bits of stars in our eyes (yes) and in our flesh (yes) and in the seeds that grow people and in the seeds that grow trees (yes).

I remember:

That the ancient ones returned (yes), that they are here now (yes), that they are you and me and my tree and all trees and all people and all beings of Earth and Sky and Sea (yes-yes-yes).

I remember not with my head, but with my bones (there is a difference).

I allow the remembering to seep into me, to soak into my cellular memory, which is more than a billion years old. I feel solid and grounded, growing (but not reaching) towards the sun. I feel like a tree, but I am not a tree. I am very much a human being on a journey of remembering, a journey thick with suffering and sorrow and beauty and love.

There is so much love here.

A prayer, soft as a pussy willow, buds in my mouth and tickles my tongue. I carve it on the bark of my tree with tender lips:

May I be graceful.

As I continue along this chosen human path, as I become lost and found and lost and found and lost and found and lost and found, as I dis-member and re-member again and again, may I be graceful.

As I live and give and teach and learn and hurt and heal and age and die, may I be graceful.

As I struggle to root myself in this in-between space (my home, for now), may I stand tall and strong, gently swaying in the breezes of change without breaking. And if I break, when I break, may I be graceful.

I thank my tree. It’s been a good friend to me for five minutes (or was it one minute? or was it one hour?) I’ve been a good friend to it too.

(We held each other, you see.)

Now, we let each other go and it is not easy, but it is not too hard either (because there is remembering and there is trust). I bow my head, I walk away. I feel very, very young and very, very old. I am aware of the birds greeting the spring with song.

And the forest feels like home.


Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” ~ Hermann Hesse