Healing Home – My “Messy Beautiful”
About three weeks ago, we announced to our patients and community that we’re moving out-of-state.
There’s freedom and beauty and excitement all wrapped up in this decision. As a result, my heart feels expansive and winged – not manic wings that flutter so many times per second that they’re a blur. Instead, these feel like strong, fearless, soaring wings – bird of prey wings that belong to a creature who will, if it must, eat the eyeballs out of evil and doubt. It’s lovely.
And yet, I also feel a bit raw and exposed, somehow. I think it’s because this tiny town is my home; when I say tiny, I’m measuring it about right. I can stand on top of graveyard hill and see the whole thing.
Frankly, I never intended to come back here to live. But three years ago I did, bringing with me my infant and my husband and fellow acupuncturist. We set up shop and I commenced to stemming an internal freak-out. Who was I to run a business? Would anybody come get acupuncture in this conservative town of 350 people? (Well, 353 if you counted us.) Who would drive from surrounding areas that are perceived as so far away? Would people think we were peddling snake oil? Would they talk about us in line at the bank? Or worse, would we be such a non-event that they wouldn’t talk about us in line at the bank?
In short, I felt very vulnerable and very small. I was also not at all small, because I was the first-time mother of a nursing 3-month-old. None of my pregnancy clothes fit, and none of my pre-pregnancy clothes fit. I had begun to fully appreciate the extent to which my body had transformed. It’s not simply that it was a bigger body than the one I had before. It was a completely different body. To the casual observer, all parts were still in the same places, but to me – the inhabiting presence of the body – the change was discombobulating.
This was fine. Poetic, even. I’m good with the idea of shifting into a different state of being after giving birth. It’s kind of like a badge of honor for growing and fetching a baby from the ether. But still, it ain’t easy. Knowing that parenthood changes people and experiencing that transformation is like the difference between looking at a picture of a stargazer lily and smelling one. Big, in other words. And visceral.
My viscera were getting a pounding, for sure. Our daughter was born in our final few months of a four-year grad school program, and in order to graduate I was back at classes full-time when she was two weeks old. We had achingly generous help from corners unlooked upon, as well as corners well-traveled. We got our diplomas, got our licenses, and got on with it. Outwardly I was more or less together. Inwardly, I was more or less a wiggly-legged colt, excited and quivering to try out my new life.
And it turned out that people did come for acupuncture. The beauty of helping one person is that word-of-mouth becomes unclenched, and it travels. I watched with fascination as the schedule filled. Lots of the names belonged to people I’ve known casually all my life. These were people whose faces were part of my childhood backdrop. They were the grown-ups when I was little. I had called them Mrs. Ma’am and Mr. Sir, and now I was doing things like asking about their bodily functions and putting needles in their toes. Just as treating them let me know them in a fuller way, preparing to leave is helping me understand more about healing and being present to the things that are hard – and how those two are related.
Presence and healing are ideas I consider often. If I didn’t, I should have a different job. Being an acupuncturist means that I am routinely sitting in rooms with people who are, to varying degrees, suffering. And who have, also to varying degrees, made themselves vulnerable.
Just by being there, they have admitted something’s wrong, and they have opened themselves to a medicine they don’t understand. People come to see me because they are hurting in some capacity. Maybe they have constant knee pain, or panic attacks, or nightsweats, or a rash that came on after the death of a loved one. Maybe they’ve been written off as crazy or incurable in another form of medicine. Maybe they cannot reconcile their actual lives with the lives they yearn for.
In some way, something isn’t right for them, and they’re coming to me with the hope that we can sort it out. And most of the time, they have absolutely no idea what I’m fixing to do, or why it works. Or even if it works. Some of them wonder if it’s magic or all in their heads.
But there they are – asking me to put teensy pins in their bodies and talking to me about their bowels, their dreams, their menstruation, their anger, their cancer, their fears, their various appetites, their allergies.
The trust this demonstrates continues to humble me, and though it is indeed my routine to be in rooms with people in this way, there is nothing rote about it. It’s part of my self-imposed duty to genuinely engage with people through their suffering. This isn’t work to do on an empty stomach or after a terrible night’s sleep. Nor is it work that is always taken very seriously by others. But it’s work I’m honored to do. And when people can tell me about their well-being and challenges without having to first say, “You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but…” I feel like doing a little celebration dance for us all.
Being an acupuncturist is my venue for exploring what it means to be human. I’m thrilled to have found it. I remember sitting outside as a child, quite literally contemplating my navel and lying very, very, very still on the grass because I thought I could feel the earth move. In other words, the world is fascinating to me, and I thrive when I find sincere people to examine it with me.
At their initial visit to the clinic, people often say apologetically, “I’m a mess.” That’s a judgment, of course, and in some ways is completely irrelevant. In other ways, though, it’s highly pointed and informative, because it tells me that this person has an expectation that life should be tidy. Anyone who has ever had urgent diarrhea, or given birth, or possibly done both around the same time is aware that life is messy. Life leaves its traces on our bodies. To see these traces as ugly scars that mar our perfection is to deny life’s right to be messy, and our right to live it fully. This creates suffering on top of whatever pain was already there.
For healing to be profound and sustained, something has to change. And nothing can change if we’re stifling the process because it’s not pleasant to behold or doesn’t fit into our schedules. Transitions from sickness to health are usually messy and often unpredictable. Old patterns of disease and ways of life have to crumble and fall to make way for the fresh, live ones pushing up from underneath. And that’s not pretty. It often feels like disaster at first, and it always requires letting go.
Healing can show itself in innumerable ways. It may mean breaking free from a toxic relationship. Or having regular bowel movements after a lifetime of constipation. It could be in the form of releasing an addiction all over again everyday, or draining pus from a wound. It can mean dying without fear. It can be understanding when the body needs to sleep, rest, and move – and letting that happen, regardless of whatever else is demanding attention.
In my job, forms of this are happening around me all the time. There remains a part of me that wishes I could leave like Mary Poppins – satisfied that all the people I care about are healed and happily flying their kites together on the hill in town, getting promoted and basking in the warmth of their familial love. But I keep coming back to the beautiful truth that healing doesn’t work that way, and that leaving isn’t the end.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!