Pain is an important signal. We feel something hot and pull our hand away. A knee hurts and we ice it. Pain is the body’s way of telling us to pay attention to something and give it some attention. But what if pain also tells us about our emotions? Mad in America recently published my essay entitled “Learning to Speak the Subtle Language of Pain.” My hope is that someone with an experience like mine will find comfort and resonance in my story.
Here’s an excerpt: “It gradually dawned on me that my back pain was another mask that depression wore. Instead of crying and feeling overwhelmed or giving up, my body was sending distress signals to help me realize that I was in a difficult spot.”
I’d like to welcome Mindy Abbott to my blog. Mindy and I met a few years ago at Howard Community College’s Blackbird Poetry Festival, the college’s annual celebration of poetry held every April. More recently, Mindy and I have worked together in an informal critique group, punctuated by homemade meals shared across our kitchen tables. Mindy brings a wealth of experience as a counselor, teacher, writer, and of course, a wonderful friend. Welcome, Mindy!
“It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.” Billy Collins ~ On Turning Ten
In my earliest memory I am sitting in cool, soft grass on a hot day, peaceful in a big, white tent. Big kids’ voices sing. I am too young to know all the words, but these I remember: “Yes, Jesus loves me…” I am safe, part of a community, and loved.
My educator parents, adorable younger siblings, and extended family made my young life beautiful. Mom created my hand-smocked dresses. Both my father and grandfather cuddled me while reading books of rhymes and fairy tales. I lived my life with my senses, playing among lilies of the valley, inhaling their scent, exploring their tiny white bells and surprisingly sturdy little stems. I stretched out with my dad on the beach of a Maine lake, naming the constellations and seeing, for the first time, the dancing pink and green aurora borealis – the northern lights. Life was magical. Our family was not fancy, but was rich in things that really mattered. We gave thanks.
As I grew, life became more, well, life. That freckled kid down the street stole my hat and threw it in the highest branches of a maple. I learned to climb tall trees. Sometimes my mother’s body was present while her mind traveled circular paths, but the reading she modeled let me instead travel by tesseract, feel the sting of paint from Michelangelo’s ceiling in my eye. Later, when a real big, bad wolf waited for me on a path one night, I discovered ferocity, and a strong, loving man who would be there for me. So how is it that, when I married and started my own family, I somehow believed that I could keep us all in the big white tent?
“Life is brutiful. The brutal and the beautiful cannot be separated, we must embrace both or neither.”
~ Glennon Doyle Melton, Momastery, 12-23-2011.
I laugh a lot. I thrive in nature, literally stopping to “smell the roses”. That’s the way I was as a young mom. But I believed myths: bad things wouldn’t happen if I were good enough; if I experienced pain, I should “tough it out”; and the big one, that I was in charge. Ha! I picture God laughing at this, saying “Isn’t she just the cutest?” I thought that diligence would protect me and my little family. But, of course, life came along, not as I had pictured it, but the way it really is: surgeries, loss, heartbreak, being transferred by employers from the people and places we loved. I tried to foresee and prevent pain for myself and my family, but it still snuck in, no matter how hard I worked or sincerely I prayed. I tended to react with “well, could be worse!” That was true but, finally, constantly discounting stress and pain wasn’t working for me. Nor, actually the people I loved. Some pain is too important to be cheered up. It needs to be heard, held gently, and honored. There had to be a better balance. I couldn’t control life.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
As a sailor, I know that I do not control the winds, nor the waves; I can only adjust my sails. I was introduced to mindfulness meditation as a pain and stress management technique. As a teacher, the science of mindfulness results appealed to me. The formula “pain x resistance = suffering” made sense. For example, the first sensation when I lifted a stubborn rental car headrest and heard something in my shoulder pop was pain! But why add worries about future activities that might be affected, images of a year with a non-functioning arm, or self-blame? It just makes things worse. Applying self-compassion to the shoulder, then doing a meditation on the rest of the body parts that were doing just fine, helped me keep my physical pain in perspective, reduce my blood pressure, and relax.
Mindfulness turbocharged my religious beliefs with deeper awareness, and a stillness that lets me better hear the holy guidance that sometimes comes in a whisper or a nudge. Mindfulness helped me learn patience, acceptance, and peace.
I have retained my childhood sense of awe, adventure, gratitude, unconditional love, and the seemingly paradoxical senses of belonging and independence. I still laugh, bury my nose in roses, and draw on nature the way that deep roots draw nourishment from the earth. But pain has helped me grow. I found and released my myths. I no longer expect prayer to “fix” things, but feel the Holy Spirit with me through the most difficult moments. I listen more intently. I am more sensitive to the way that my energy affects others. My prayers now include a blessing:
May we all be free of suffering;
may we remember that we are truly known and deeply loved;
may we give and receive compassion and respect;
may we laugh; and
may we be at peace, come what may.
Melinda “Mindy” Abbott, BSW, M.Ed., worked in adult and pediatric long-term care before teaching public school in three states. An award-winning teacher in Maryland, she later co-taught mindfulness for children, trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in Mind-Body Medicine, and published poems as Melinda Bennington. Her heart resides in family, friends, and nature.