Recently, like many people alive during these tumultuous times on our beautiful, fragile, resilient planet, I have felt the tug of despair. So many of Earth’s family members are suffering because of extreme weather events and extreme human reactivity. In this atmosphere of frightening instability, I’ve found it tempting to slump into the false belief of my impotence in the face of so many overwhelming challenges. In these moments of fear and discouragement, I forget that I can reach out to others, offer prayers for those whose needs I recognize, or simply read or listen to something that reminds me we are as capable of offering kindness as we are of doing harm. In performing these small but restorative acts, I contribute to the Love, Joy, and Peace that are the antidotes to despair.
Since my adolescence, whenever despair threatens, I have asked for a story to remind me that darkness dominates only half of our Earth experience. Light, both actual and figurative, informs the other half. Countless times my requests for spiritual support through a story have been answered with a narrative that makes me glad to be alive.
Most recently, my request for a tale to shift my despair was answered with a beautifully told story called Strays: A Lost Cat, a Homeless Man, and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins. This story caught my eye because its introduction is written by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a writer who has consistently informed and moved readers with his studies of the emotional lives of animals, both wild and domesticated. It turns out I was right to trust my guidance regarding Masson’s endorsement of this story. Strays is a tapestry of light and dark, fear, courage, and adventure, but most of all, it is a chronicle of the tender healing that awaits us when we open to another’s need for comfort and care even when we are suffering with our own challenges.
Strays is about the relationship formed between a homeless middle-aged man and a traumatized cat. Collins, documenter of their adventure, is, like Masson, a long-time friend to animals. Her work as a writer has led her to cover many stories about rescue, friendship, and the healing that comes when we allow ourselves to imagine and feel the suffering of an animal then step up to do what we can to alleviate that suffering. The failure of far too many people to empathize with other-than-human creatures has created an isolating lack of connection with animals and the habitats that nurture them and us. This lack of empathy has led to unspeakably cruel environments in which animals designated as “food” and “sport” are treated as if they do not suffer and exist only to meet our needs.
The gentleman who rescues the lost cat, Michael, aka Ground Score, has endured hardships of his own from a very early age. Far from making him indifferent, he and his fellow homeless friends are consistently kind, to one another and to the animals who brighten their lives. The suffering revealed by so many in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), is everywhere evident among the homeless friends who support Michael in his decision to help a lost, terrified cat. Cold, wet, thin, and injured, this young cat, called Mata Hari by her original owner and Tabor by Michael and his friends, inspires her adopted guardian to manage his alcohol addiction in order to better care for her and keep her safe. At the same time, this delightful little creature expands Michael’s connection to kind strangers who offer food, clothing, and affection to the pair. Tabor’s and Michael’s shared story inspired me to write the phrase, “Story Me Whole.”
The words “Story Me Whole” came to me as I sat down to write this post. This is the first time I’ve used this phrase despite the fact that I’ve been inching toward wholeness through listening to and telling stories for my entire life. As a fellow ACES survivor, my trauma (caused by a medical quarantine for seven months when I was two years old), connects me emotionally and spiritually with all other early trauma survivors. Like all the members of my global family of early trauma survivors, I have had to work hard to find my place in the world.
Broken emotional and physical connections can occur when we are beginning to form in utero or when we are ten and feel like we are kings and queens of the world. The common factor in infant and childhood trauma is the violence and/or neglect we experience during the period in our lives when we are helpless to defend ourselves. No one thought when quarantining me in a sterile room without any comforts from my previous life that they were creating the circumstances that would lead to my secret suffering for the next thirty or so years. They thought, rather, they were saving my life in the only way possible.
According to the wisdom of the day, quarantine in medical institutions and away from family members was how children and adults returned to health. Medical staff are trained to focus on physical health, and so concerns over emotional and spiritual damage caused by isolation were non-existent when I was a toddler. While this practice was devastating, it did serve to isolate potential carriers of disease. As well, even as a toddler, I was not entirely without resources.
During that terrifying time, as young as I was, I knew to watch and to listen. Before quarantine, in my family’s home, I watched, I listened, and when I didn’t want whatever was coming my way, I ran. Running away from adults and older siblings is a toddler’s first taste of delicious power. At two, we laugh when we run, or we scream, or we shout, “No, no, no.”
In quarantine, because of mandatory bed rest in a six sided crib – a cage in effect – my sturdy legs couldn’t help me to climb out and make the getaways I’d been making at home for a year. Still, that cage couldn’t stop my resourceful watching and listening. These two skills kept me wary, and they also kept me interested in my environment. Everything I heard and saw while in my small prison became a story that helped me to make sense of an incomprehensible world.
That early experience of story making is, I’m sure, why I continue to depend on stories to provide comfort and meaning when I’m distressed. Along with time in the natural world and dancing, stories are my lifeline to a sense of belonging and wholeness. It is empowering to know that when the news focuses on what we get wrong and what we fear, I and so many others can find our way back to the beauty of the world, the constant harmonies of connection, reconnection, and healing, through story. This is why a story that describes the best of our abilities and intentions, even as it admits the worst, is vital to our mental, and physical, and emotional, and spiritual health.
Early trauma survivors especially need stories to remind us of the ongoing process of healing. Stories such as Strays that describe hardship, pain, and the antidote for these inevitable life experiences, forge a place for us in a vast network of unbreakable interconnectedness. Without a sense of inseparability from others who are triumphing over despair, we sink into the belief that all is lost. This is why the phrase “Story Me Whole,” is such a potent phrase for me during this time of political, social, and environmental trauma.
While I cannot end wars, famines, social injustices, and climate crises, I can cultivate kindness toward my Self and all other Beings. To this end, I continue to open and encourage others to open to the stories that suggest, even in the darkest times, the possibility of healing and wholeness regardless of the early traumas we have experienced and the current traumas we are sharing on a global scale. When situations appear bleak and incomprehensible, we can ask for a story that contributes to our sense of belonging to an Earth community that is in the process of evolving into a greater and greater ability to foster loving interconnectedness. In my experience, our requests will be answered with stories as inspiring and tender as Strays.
Until next time,
with love, Jane