In the normal course of things, writing comes to me like breathing. I do it without thinking. When I sit down to write an article or a post or a letter, I am more mindful of writing, just as I am more mindful of my breath during a yoga class or meditation. But it is still an involuntary process, flowing through me, requiring little of me.
Lately this has not been so. It’s been a tumultuous few weeks: last week I traveled to Indiana with my parents and children to visit our family matriarch, a powerful woman of 95 years who ran a dairy farm alone after her husband dropped dead, leaving her with three small boys and pregnant with a fourth. From all accounts, Grandma’s early life was pretty joyless: an unhappy marriage followed by an even unhappier widowhood, constant struggle with poverty and endless hard work, a tornado that destroyed her entire town, hopes for a second marriage that were cruelly dashed, an unsupportive and judgmental extended family and church community.
As an adult, I can see all of this. Yet as a child, my experience of Grandma was her ever-present gravelly chuckle, her bustling busy-ness as she baked and crocheted and painted, utter delight in her work as a hairdresser and in her family. Grandma always sent buckets of presents for Christmas, and her house was full of art and candy. Her hair was always perfectly curled and colored, her eyes were always sparkling. She gave me my first “permanent” when I was 12 years old, treating me as a co-conspirator in my endeavor to be beautiful despite the disapproval of my staunchly anti-chemical-hair-enhancement parents (the heathens!)
Spending time with my Grandma last week made me wonder about genetic memory. I cannot help but believe it is because of my Grandma that farming comes so easily to me, canning and painting and thrifty resourcefulness. Just as my four-year-old son learns the words of Gaelic songs with instantaneous ease although he cannot remember the words of the Japanese or Indian songs he hears far more often (our family originated in Scotland and Ireland), I believe that somehow my grandmother’s experience, and the experience of her mother and grandmother before her, are somehow right there in my cells, far beyond what she’s taught me directly. One moment in particular comes to mind: a college housemate had taken up tatting, something I’d never even heard of. Cleaning up the table one day, I accidentally knocked her work to the ground. Quickly, without thinking, I picked it up and reworked the stitches that had come out, proceeding with the pattern as though I’d tatted lace all my life. That’s my great-great-grandmothers coming through me, don’t even try to tell me it’s not.
These thoughts were on my mind as our circle gathered last night. Thoughts about the knowledge that arises within us, and the knowledge that we absorb from without. Thoughts about why we value external knowledge so highly and are so dismissive of intuitive wisdom.
As an herbalist, so much of what I do is intuitive, but it doesn’t do to let on. If someone approaches me to ask what herb I’d suggest for them and their whole body screams “DANDELION”, I generally spin out the impressive sounding latin names and clinical actions of the herb rather than simply admitting that it “feels” right. Sure, part of why it “feels” right is because I’ve lived with herbs long enough to develop a knowledge of which people certain herbs tend to have an affinity for, but it’s more than that. It’s another way of knowing, a legitimate source of knowledge for all we tend to disparage it.
Tara Mohr wrote about this recently in her excellent post Expect to Be a Revolutionary:
“…whether you signed up for it or not, you will be a revolutionary. You will be a revolutionary whether you love that idea or whether you’d prefer to just do your thing quietly – to be a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a businesswoman, an artist, a mom, a grandmother, a volunteer, an entrepreneur.
You will be a revolutionary because any woman who is being authentic in her work will bring forth ideas and ways of working that run counter to the status quo of her company, industry, community – a status quo defined by masculine values and masculine ways of working.
…So if you ever start to doubt or hold back or silence yourself because the questions you have, the ideas in your mind, or the way you work are so different from the status quo, remember that difference is exactly what is meant to be. You are here to bring forth a different way.”
Reading this, something inside of me unbent and released. I had been holding this disapproval of myself for such a long time—disapproval that my strengths as an herbalist and as a counselor don’t come from advanced degrees or impressive courses of study, but are based on ways of knowing that are so—well—illegitimate. Which is to say, don’t originate from the known dominion of a man. Huh. I could just dive into that word, illegitimate, and not surface for a long time. What that word, and all that it connotes, has done to us!
So, as the circle gathered, I spoke about this internal knowing, this intuitive wisdom, and how it can guide us in ways that feel too easy to be right. In my life, anyway, I have resisted it and fought it because life is meant to be a struggle, isn’t it, and if it comes this easily it must be laziness, and there must be another cross I should die on somewhere. And yet. The most beautiful moments of my life, the most heartfelt triumphs and joyful discoveries, have come about easily and intuitively. They have never been a nose-to-the-grindstone struggle. In fact, when I take the nose-to-the-grindstone approach, the results are ALWAYS decidedly unlovely. I keep doing it, though, because that’s in my genetic memory too: life is a struggle, and if yours isn’t, something is WRONG. I’m sure this attitude must have served some great-ancestor well as they struggled to cope with the hardtack and the scurvy of an overseas voyage, but that doesn’t mean I need to keep welcoming that particular viper into my nest.
We started with yoga, as always, using the kundalini elbow-and-knee walk, throat massage, and ear massage to start clearing the mind and opening into the body. These particular exercises are wonderful for regulating the hormones and balancing the emotions. Then we meditated. I asked the women gathered to remember a time when they felt close to Source, completely connected and blissful. With every breath we amplified this sensation, drawing it through the body like light, taking its sound and color and scent and sensation into every cell. When we came back into the present, I lit candles and offered paper and pen so that each woman could describe that inner bliss, what her life looks like when she is that strongly herself. (I subdivided the paper into the categories of Relationship, Career/Vocation/Mission, Health, and Spirituality, to encourage as much detail as possible.)
When we had finished writing, we danced this vision in. To me, this is part of that external/internal knowledge divide. External wisdom holds that when you have a vision, you set goals and make it a reality with hard work. My internal wisdom suggests, however, that when I have a vision of what I want, it comes to me quickest when I dance. So we danced. We bedecked ourselves with hip scarves and bangles and belly bindis and we danced, hip circles and rib circles and shimmies and snake arms. And then we ate cupcakes, and drank tea, and laughed, and shared brags, and listened.
And just being in that circle, dancing and writing and listening and laughing with these women, brought me closer to my vision than anything else I’ve done this week.
Take that, depression-era internal voice!
And now the writing is flowing again. Now that I am writing from what is true inside. That alone tells me I am on the right track.