Reminding our confused/doubting selves to stop doing, thinking, talking, figuring; remembering, instead, to take breaks, to make time to be still, to listen inward for the knowing in our belly feelings.
When you feel confused or in doubt…
Stop: doing, figuring, thinking, talking.
Take: a breath, a break, a nap, a walk.
Listen inward to your "belly" feelings!
It was 1973, my first year as a 32-year-old dropout from my former life as a feminist activist clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. I spent the year being on the road. Living in the off-the-showroom-floor empty shell of a commercial van that I'd bought and set up as a cozy bed-sitting room, I was a roving vagabond. Like a turtle, I traveled around with my house on my back. In this safe womb-like space I was self-sufficient, surrounded with the few important-to-me possessions that I had taken from my last life and some bare bones, improvised kitchen and bathroom facilities. (See Pirouettes for more about how this unfolded.)
First and quickly that chilly March, I drove the southernmost route across the country to California. Then I wandered up and down the California and Oregon coasts, exploring and drifting. I spent my time working on my tan and listening to the – till then – unheard parts of my self. Lazing and napping in the sun, I sometimes crocheted cotton bikinis, silly hats and later chunky sweaters. For some part of every day, I rode the racing bike that I'd hung on a rack on my van. I walked on the beaches, sometimes on trails and, in Big Sur, along endless miles on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Over time I narrowed my roving range, moving back and forth between campgrounds and safe roadside nooks in Santa Barbara and Big Sur. From the first time I'd seen them on a solo vacation in 1967, these two geographies had felt, in some indefinable way, like home to me. Though at first I kept very much to my self, I felt a sense of belonging and an inner peace in each of these places.
Sometimes I took breaks from my footloose, solitary life and went north to San Francisco. There I had a kind of family base. I'd park my van outside the home of my oldest college best friend. Each night I'd retreat to my van-womb to sleep and ground my self. During most days, I'd become part of the family's complex, busy world. As an eccentric quasi-aunt, I slipped easily and seamlessly into the fabric of life with my friend, her husband and their three amazing young children.
Some months into that first year on the road, I began experimenting with being a little more plugged-in and connected in both of my geographical home-places. For a while, I shop-sat a couple of days a week at a small boutique booth in a 1970s style indoor marketplace in downtown Santa Barbara. There I sold my growing collection of hand crocheted bikinis, hats and ski sweaters along with the fabric creations of the two other women with whom I collectively rented the space. In the marketplace I met several alternative artisans. Occasionally, I spent time outside the marketplace getting to know a few of these lively women.
A while later, I signed on for a couple of early mornings a week as baker's helper at an organic bakery collective in Santa Barbara. Acting as the bakery's sales rep bringing samples to the local health food store on my frequent jaunts to Big Sur, I began meeting some of the previously invisible to me locals. They were yet another community of alternative/drop-out folks.
As I got to know people in both places, I began to sometimes park my van in their driveways rather than on the streets of Santa Barbara or the pullouts on Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. And, I started being less solitary.
For nine months I lived mostly on the roads in Big Sur. I got to use the mineral baths at Esalen during the nighttime hours they, in those years, set aside for local residents' access. I explored the local trails, hung out occasionally with some fascinating women and some very odd men. Sometimes I did stints as a guest-baker in Esalen's kitchen. I picked miners' lettuce, mustard and horseradish greens and even some watercress growing wild in the mountains and creeks for wild-salad-picnics alone or with friends. I did odd jobs as a carpenter's apprentice.
After a time, I started feeling disenchanted with life as I was living it in Big Sur. The social/sexual scene, when I plugged into it, felt way too incestuous and weird. Coming from the East Coast's high feminist consciousness, it was upsetting to watch the same-old same-old tired sexual politics playing out between the strong, otherwise independent women and the generally adolescent men in that tiny enclave. I was interested in exploring becoming part of a community again and Big Sur no longer felt like the right place for me to be doing that.
With little inner turmoil, I pulled up the tentative roots I'd put down there. (I actually kept just one friendship from that time.) After a trip to San Francisco to regroup, I headed south to explore life in the feminist/activist community in Santa Barbara.
When I came back to town that late November of 1974 – at 34 and after almost two years of my transient, van-lady existence – I checked in with two women I'd met and gotten particularly close to earlier on in my travels. These women had been willing to develop open, intimate friendships with me despite my peripatetic habits and non-reciprocal accessibility (no phone, only an occasionally visited post box and periodic, unpredictable departures for indeterminate sojourns in Big Sur or San Francisco).
Both of them were active in the alternative/feminist healthcare community. (Those were the still early days of legal abortion/birth control clinics.) The afternoon I arrived, they colluded to present me with a high-pressured proposal that I apply for the opening as Health Education Coordinator at one of the three local free clinics. The position was part of an existing five-woman collective in which one of these two friends was already a functioning member. I'd arrived in Santa Barbara the day before the deadline for applications closed, so they were very pushy. It seemed an intriguing possibility.
I stayed up that night handwriting a letter of intention/ application by the light of the battery lantern in my van. On my way back from submitting the application the next morning, using a friend's address, I signed up for a Santa Barbara library card. It was an act of prayer and a commitment to putting down firm new roots.
Within three days I had been interviewed and offered the job. The same day the offer came, I found an ad for a small affordable furnished apartment down near the beach, just a block away from one of my safe overnight van-parking places. I moved in two days later. After adding some plants and rearranging the furniture (covering the worst of it with Indian print bedspreads from the thrift store), I was suddenly a quasi-normal, locatable person again. For two or three months, as I transitioned from having been in total charge of my accessibility (or inaccessibility as the case might be), I chose not to have a phone. I coped, instead, with unpredictable arrivals on my doorstep, learning to say a face-to-face "no" when I wasn't feeling available for contact.
Two weeks after I'd accepted the offer, I began my first real job in almost two years. It was exciting, challenging, hilarious fun and crazy; high-pressured, contentious some of the time, operating in crisis mode most of the time: the so-called full catastrophe. Oddly, the transition from full-time drifting-freedom into 5-day weeks and full-on people contact doing free health care education at the Freedom Clinic went smoothly. I loved it. It felt exactly right for where I was at that particular moment.
Under the banner of "Health care for people not for profits!" the clinic was a radical health care delivery system dedicated to educating people about their rights as patients/consumers of medical services. The clinic was committed to demystifying illness and medical treatment, to providing people with useful, user-friendly preventive mental and physical health care information and to providing essentially cost-free health care services. Our support staff of patient advocates, counselors and clinic receptionists were trained volunteers. All of our services and much of the medication prescribed were provided without cost or by donation. County funds, foundation grants and private donations paid the salaries of our coordinating and medical staff.
As the job took shape, my primary responsibilities involved giving talks as well as developing recruiting/training/coordinating procedures for staffing a speakers' bureau for presentations at public high schools and junior highs. We offered talks on contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, alternative lifestyles (usually a lesbian and gay speakers' panel) and preventive mental/physical health care.
There were also countless meetings with the coordinating staffs of all three free clinics in town. There were various trainings coordinated or participated in by all of us that addressed preventive mental and physical health care. For the three of us who were not directly involved in running the medical clinics, there were pamphlets to write and a weekly public radio talk show to produce on similar topics. There were columns for our newsletters, fund appeals letters and letters to lobby our County Supervisors for the governmental funding necessary for our projects and programs. There were peer counselors and patient advocates to oversee. And, too, there was a training program to be developed and implemented to provide trained peer mental health counselors for the three Santa Barbara free clinics. All five of us paid coordinators regularly rotated staffing what were then called "bummer squads." At local concert venues, we "bummer squad" staffers were available to talk people down from bad drugs and bad psychedelic trips.
In addition to our own weekly coordinating meetings and the interminable grant writing, all of us in the collective shared the grunt work of secretarial support, janitoring, go-foring, mimeographing (those were pre-computer days) and preparing mailings. It was a lot of dedicated, socially conscious work that kept on growing and expanding week by week.
In the earliest days, it was exhilarating to be in the middle of such a radical agenda for helping build a healthy community. It was exciting to be both engaged with these activist women colleagues and part of the extended family of the staffs at all three free clinics.
After a few months though, things began to slip. Everyone who'd been there before I came had already been running on overload for a very long time. Two of the co-coordinators were financially struggling single moms who were also going to school part-time. The other two were RNs who carried the major clinical responsibility while also working toward nurse practitioner degrees. I was fresh blood: rested, with no other commitments, excellent verbal skills and some credible amount of political savvy.
While I wanted to share my skills and support their process, they wanted and needed desperately to offload some of their tremendous burdens. "It would be so much more efficient/faster/easier if you just would do it rather than walk me through it" was the more and more familiar drill. It proved nearly impossible for me to say no to these requests despite my having worked so hard to become adept at saying no in all other contexts.
It was a slippery slope right back into the kind of super-responsible, super-achieving, perfectionist and exhausting life I'd dropped out of in New York City just a little more than two years before. I felt lost, confused, paralyzed. I kept trying to talk about it with my colleagues. They tried to hear me but they were immersed in that same over-doing way of being as if it were the natural and reasonable way to be.
I spent many hours trying to think the situation through, trying to figure out how I might redirect the flow, drop some of what seemed too much for me. Every strategy I'd start to design foundered when I recognized the burnout everyone else had been dealing with and enduring for so much longer than my own short few months.
I cried a lot while walking along the beach or curled up at night in my little apartment. I was feeling frustrated with my predicament. I couldn't believe that I had locked my self into something like this all over again, after all the work I'd done with my self in my two years alone. Feeling hopelessly muddled, I tried, without any success, to figure out ways to go part time, ways to divest at least some of the burdens.
Finally, my back went out and I was reduced to a quivering puddle of pain. Sleeping on the floor in my bedroom, barely able to care for my self and no longer able to think at all, I gave up the struggle. My body forced me to take a complete break.
As I slept and rested and hurt and cried and breathed through all the pain, both physical and emotional, I began at last to simply listen to my belly-feelings. I gave up trying to figure anything out. I gave up trying to make the whole thing work. I gave up feeling bad and wrong for needing desperately to say no to all of this important political work. I gave up feeling bad and wrong for not being willing to sacrifice my well-being in the same ways my colleagues had been doing for so much longer. I gave up feeling like a failure because what I'd worked out in my by-my-self space hadn't readily translated into the working-with-people space.
Listening to the truths of my belly-feelings, I could refuse to feel bad and wrong because I needed to drop out yet again. I could refuse to feel defeated because I now understood that I needed to go inward, back to the drawing board. I knew that I needed to learn from this devastating experience, to learn about how to support my not sliding into these old habits whenever I might again engage in a committed way with work and other people.
Listening to and trusting my belly-feelings, it became apparent that there wasn't a way I could make it okay both for my colleagues and for me; that I had to exit as quickly and cleanly as possible. Listening to my belly-feelings, I was able to craft a care-full and careful letter of resignation in which, from outside their system, I promised to support the collective in its transition and its search for my replacement.
The whole excruciating process taught me an unforgettable lesson: most often, when we're frozen, paralyzed or stymied by confusion and doubt, our minds are the least likely source for getting clarity. In these moments and the moments when we feel trapped in predicaments where there seem to be no acceptable choices, the only possible path is to listen inward for the truths and knowing in our bellies. Listening to those truths gives us the courage to move forward in ways that take the best care of us.
And, the only way to be able to hear those feelings is to stop the noise of all the thinking, figuring, talking and doing. Taking a break, a solitary walk, a nap if we can (for dreaming) or just slowing down to breath deeply and to watch our breath – any of these can be a doorways into that deep knowing place. That place is always there inside of us. If we can focus to listen to it, it will always show us the way that's right for us.
Consider listening inward to your belly-feelings when you feel confused or any other time you remember that they're a source of knowing that is constantly available to you.