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The Power of Working in Fits and Starts

Garden with dirt and flowers.

Years ago a client who told me about her angry sponge lady—that part of her that feverishly scrubbed the counters (and then the handprints on the door jambs, and coffee spills on the floor…) late at night when everything felt out of control in her life.

She said she often mumbled to herself as she scrubbed, kvetching about how messed up things were, how no one seemed to care, and how it never seemed to end.

I remember relating to her immensely in that moment, my angry sponge lady bowing deeply to her angry sponge lady with knowing….respect. I got it.

I thought of that earlier this week when I got out my super-powered Bissel carpet steamer and went to town on all the carpets in our house that were caked from a pandemic’s worth of wear and crumbs and dog hair. Not really, but it felt like it.

This is where I’ll admit to you that we are not particularly tidy people. Organized and clutter-free, yes. But clean? Um, no. Our home is lived in hard and put away sweaty most days, and we kind of like it that way. Until we don’t. Then my angry sponge lady comes out and she has lots to say as she scrubs feverishly about the state of the container we’ve all been living in.

But it felt so damn good to Bissel my heart out the other day—so satisfying to suck all that brown water from the carpets. Immensely soothing to see the color and brightness return to our world after a long, hard winter of living. I kept walking from carpet to carpet with a smug look on my face, and spent the next 24 hours fiercely defending their purity—until the moment passed and the footsteps and fur encroached once again.

You get that this is not about our house, right—our my angry sponge lady?

It’s about OUR house being a mess—and OUR angry sponge ladies as the headlines, news reels and media feeds just keep spewing $hit all over the place with bullets, violence and blatant disregard for basic human needs, like safety, equality, respect and dignity for ALL.

All week long, I heard the voices of angry sponge ladies— many of whom are no longer mumbling, but roaring making me think of Greta Thunberg’s 2019 angry call to action:

“Our house is on fire. I don’t want your hope…I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel everyday. And then I want you to act.”

And also? The exhaustion, the tears, the despair and the bone-marrow grief for a world of feelings that feel like they are living inside us.

I am no exception to this. I came home from work last night and went straight up to the shower, stripping down, got in, and scrubbed off the stories and emotion and thoughts from the 16 clients I worked with over the previous two days, and countless more that I’d been emailing and texting and witnessing over the past week when the news hit hard Tuesday night.

“Hold your boys, Lael…”
“Yesterday’s news, Lael…”
“WTF with the mass shootings, Lael…”
“Beside myself, Lael…”
“Cried and cried and cried, Lael…”
“So full of rage, Lael…”

Wednesday night I came home and had dinner with my family. After everyone left the table, I stayed, unable—or unwilling—to move. I sat at the head of our table and waited for whatever wanted me—a thought, a feeling, wisdom, an idea—to arrive.

I felt like a matriarch, an elder stateswoman, a crone. Ready to hold counsel with myself.

I pulled out my phone and typed in Valarie Kaur TED talk. I need her wisdom right now, this American activist, civil rights attorney and faith leader born from Sikh warriors, she famously said after the 2016 election:

“What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our future is not dead, but still waiting to be born? What if this is our great transition?

And then she goes on to talk about the work of revolutionary love—the choice to enter into labor for others who do not look like us, for our opponents who hurt us, and for ourselves. She talks about the process of birthing something into being from the “ring of fire” moments when you feel like you’re going to die.

But most importantly, she implores us to do as the midwives tell us to do….PUSH! and then? BREATHE.

I’ve thought of this as I heard so many leaders (executives, activists, mothers, business owners, partners, and citizens) this week talk about feeling like they were working in fits and starts…as if it were a bad thing.

Fits and starts is how things are born.
Fits and starts are how plants break through the soil each year.
Fits and starts are how our children grow.
Fits and starts is how we all live—and die.

Even as we value and do our best to maintain the illusion of our actions being consistent, steady, unrelenting.

Machines can do that—until they break.
Humans cannot—try as we might.

Last night I came home from work, took off my shoes and and went straight to my vagina garden to bury my feet in the dirt. What’s a vagina garden, you ask? Ha! If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said I had no earthly idea, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want one.

But then Sunday afternoon, as I dug up a crescent of lawn to plant a beautiful curve of three lilac bushes and then tucked in one of those rubber garden edging strips, artfully (or so I thought) undulating it, I stepped back and said, “Huh, I’ll be damn if that doesn’t look like a vagina.”

So of course I placed a large round rock at the top of it—like an exclamation point, highlighting a very pleasurable part of the female anatomy to drive home the point that yes, this garden was, in fact, what you thought it was.

I brought in a couple of my favorite women neighbors and their eyes danced with delight as they saw it—a not-so-secret garden was born. I know you’re dying to see it, so here it is…  Garden with dirt and flowers.

But I have learned I am not the only woman craving the dirt this week for medicine. I have gotten texts and emails and had conversations with women about how they are ripping out the weeds (yet another metaphor…) with their bare hands, and taking their tears and their exhaustion and rage into the gardens to bury their hands deep in the soil to do what they can to bring forth new life.

Like Bisseling the carpets inside, it just feels good.

So here’s to pushing and breathing our way through these times together, my friend. Here’s to doing the emotional labor for people we have never met by feeling the big feelings. Here’s to tending to the wound as we bring forth new life in fits and starts.

I will leave you with something Valarie Kaur’s mother whispered into her ear when she was in the throes of labor, delivering her son through the ring of fire—feel me here with you now:

You are brave.  You are brave.


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