The other day my husband said to me, “Your memories are always with you.” My dear friend used to say, “your mind is a steel trap,” when I would bring up some long ago memory. I started pondering this. Then I remembered what my best friend told me in the 1980’s, “Don’t look back at the past, the only way to get to the future is through the present.” I work so hard at decluttering and letting go of “stuff,” why is my past right here with me?
Let’s be clear, I have a natural tendency to look back to inform the present. I majored in History, I am a genealogist, and I love stories, the older the better. I believe we can learn from the past and I believe reflecting on the past can provide insight into navigating today. I also live in the same city and the same house I grew up in. But that’s not exactly what my husband and friend were referencing. It’s about the mental clutter and the emotionality tied to it So, why is my past right here with me? The answer, as always, was more complicated than expected.
I was born with pneumonia and spent an extra week in the hospital. When I finally went home, I was sent back to hospital in an ambulance for another stay. At some early point thereafter I began to have night terrors. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital explains:
“A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but is far more dramatic….During a night terror, a child might:
- suddenly sit upright in bed
- shout out or scream in distress
- have faster breathing and a quicker heartbeat
- be sweating
- thrash around
- act upset and scared
After a few minutes, or sometimes longer, the child simply calms down and returns to sleep. Unlike nightmares, which kids often remember, kids won’t have any memory of a night terror the next day because they were in deep sleep when it happened — and there are no mental images to recall. Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep…We have dreams — including nightmares — during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. A night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep stage to another.” That fear reaction is the night terror.
As is the case with night terrors, I don’t remember them, and I don’t know how often I had them. I know I was terrified and I know the episodes were disruptive to my parents. The episodes were frequent and disruptive enough for my parents to seek medical intervention.
The doctor my parents worked with decided that medication was the solution for my night terrors. Dilantin. Dilantin is the brand name for Phenytoin. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Phenytoin is used to control seizures (convulsions), including tonic-clonic (grand mal) and psychomotor (temporal lobe) seizures, in the treatment of epilepsy. It is also used to prevent and treat seizures that occur during brain surgery. This medicine is an anticonvulsant that works in the brain tissue to stop seizures.” Dilantin reduces neuron activity in the brain. Its a powerful medication that alters how the brain functions. I can only guess that the doctor approached my night terrors similarly to seizures and prescribed the Dilantin to interrupt the neuron activity that he suspected was causing the night terrors. The prescription commenced, and then, the dark period began. I don’t know if there is a correlation between the two. The timing certainly make me curious.
I remember naming it “the dark period.” No dreams. Few memories. Little creativity and imagination. In junior high my parents would ask me if I remembered some incident or occasion from earlier in my life. I would simply say, “no, that was during the dark period.”
To this day, I have no answer when someone asks me my earliest memory. Was it when I saw the boys tormenting the Doberman when I was 5? Or when I hit a golf ball across a major road when I was 5? Or accidentally dropping my pen in the storm drain at school when I was in kindergarten (age 5) and trying to get it out? Was there anything earlier? By fifth grade (age 10) I could sleep without a nightlight and without Dilantin. And, there were no more dreams of any kind. I have lots of photos of things that happened from age 4 to fifth grade that I should remember and don’t. Imaginary play and costumes with a friend. Horses. Halloweens. Birthdays. Weddings. But I don’t.
What I do remember, was feeling a pull to defend and protect . The doberman. Students who were teased and bullied, including myself. At this time, dogs roamed the neighborhood and ones needing assistance to get home would end up at our front door or would find me on my way home from school and follow me home. I remember anger. I also remember being happiest in the garden, the water, or the nearby woods.
Once seventh grade came so too did my passive compliance to expectations set by society and others. This was the state of things for the next seven years or so. But a funny thing happened along that seven year journey. I began to meet people and have experiences I wanted to remember. Beginning in 10th grade the most amazing individuals entered my life. These are people, who together, we created unbelievable experiences and adventures. We grew up together and, most importantly, we grew.
In 10th grade I also began journaling. Some entries were recounting our adventures. Some were daily lists of what happened. Some were creative entries. Some were sleeping dreams. What I discovered was that the more I wrote, the more I remembered and the more dreams I had while I slept. To let go of the memories that no longer serve me is to confront the fear of going back to the dark period. Of not remembering. And not remember means losing track of myself and my journey.
My word for this year is freedom. When I selected it I was thinking about my retirement and the freedom being awakened by it. It also applies to this. Memory is just our interpretation of events, and the narrative we create about them. The present is all there is. There is no guarantee of tomorrow. The past does not determine the present or future. It may inform my decision-making, my approach, but just because it was, doesn’t mean “it will be.” It can be inspiration but that doesn’t make it reality. There is freedom in letting go of the emotionality of memories. And, that is what I have decided to do. I have decided to go for the goosebumps. The goosebumps that come from the daily act of living, and diving into each moment with the full breath and awareness it deserves. I’m going with Henry David Thoreau:
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.“
Here are some of the ways I am doing this.
Part of living in the present and going for the goosebumps involves paying attention through my hands and feet. At least once a day, I walk barefoot outside in the grass or in the garden as a way of grounding and connecting to the Earth. It recharges my spirit as I absorb the energy the Earth and Sky offer. Even in the first few moments I feel the shift, my breathing eases, I feel calm, light. Sometimes it is early in the morning while still dark, and sometimes it is later in the day. I try to notice all I can with as many of my senses as possible. If you are interested in taking a deep dive into how connecting feet to the Earth impacts our autonomic and parasympathetic nervous systems, this is a good starting place: Journal of Environmental and Public Health.
I also make sure I connect my hands to the Earth as often as possible. Gardening has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I planted my first garden when I was a little girl. I had two gardens – a sunny garden and a shade garden. My sunny garden was filled with forget me nots, rabbit ears, and other sun loving perennials my magical gardening neighbor Mrs. H shared with me. My shade garden was more of a secret space. Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Virginia bluebells, hostas shaded by evergreen trees. My mother had a flower garden and my father grew tomatoes. My grandfather had an amazing vegetable garden. Gardening is just something we did, and I still do. Flowers, vegetables, herbs, native plants are all members of my garden community. Getting my hands in the soil, the Earth, provides an opportunity to dive into each moment with the full breath and awareness it deserves and to the future growth that will result. Digging. Feeling. Smelling. Listening. To notice the colors, images, sounds, smells, words, all the details, while gardening. If you are interested in how gardening benefits a range of general, physical, mental, and social outcomes, I recommend starting with “What is the evidence for the impact of gardens and gardening on health and well-being: a scoping review and evidence-based logic model to guide healthcare strategy decision making on the use of gardening approaches as a social prescription,” by Howarth M, et al. in BMJ Open 2020, with particular attention to Figure 3. From this article, it is possible to dive into other studies.
I have a dear friend who shares his dreams with me; his actual sleeping dreams. For him it is part of the process of honoring the dream, the persons in the dream, and the message. I am profoundly honored to be in these discussions with him. Nobody is an expert here, in this life, and it often takes us coming together to find our way. After our discussions of his dreams I find my self wishing I had dreams again. I do occasionally dream but I often do not remember them. I am often left with a feeling from my dreams but nothing real to dive into. So, in my effort to live in the present and launch myself on every wave, I have decided to delve into dream work. Not only to learn about dreams, but also welcome dreams back into my daily life. To notice the colors, images, sounds, smells, words, the details, in my dreams. To do this I am taking my usual nighttime practices and fortifying them with additional practices. This is my process:
- Tracking my sleep habits. Since vivid dreams typically occur during our REM sleep cycle, my sleep analytics provides me with valuable information about my deep and REM sleep, how long I was restless, amount of time awake versus asleep, all of which can clue me in to the quality of my sleep.
- Ensuring healthy sleep habits. I cannot control REM sleep, however, I can adopt habits that will support REM sleep. Habits such as, no alcohol three hours before bed, no blue lights (i.e. cell phone) one hour before bed, regular sleep time and wake up time, etc.
- Practicing yoga nidra for sleep. “Yoga Nidra is a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation. The term yoga nidra is derived from two Sanskrit words, yoga meaning union or one-pointed awareness, and nidra which means sleep…..yoga nidra is often referred to as psychic sleep or deep relaxation with awareness,” explains Swami Satyananda Saraswati (Yoga Nidra, 1998). Yoga nidra involves resting and listening, no physical movement at all. Swami Satyananda Saraswati did not intend for yoga nidra to be used to induce sleep. Since yoga nidra is “a state of mind between wakefulness and dream,” Swami Satyananda Saraswati reminds that “the most important thing in yoga nidra is to refrain from sleep.” Yet, practitioners have evolved ways to use yoga nidra to support sleep. Yoga Nidra Network has a free Yoga Nidra Library that I often use. For those new to Yoga Nidra they have a section called Yoga Nidra Made Easy Audio Files that has 13 audio files that take the listener through the yoga nidra process.
- Reading about dream work and experiencing dream circles.
- Dream Tea before bed. My tea includes rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), peppermint (Mentha × piperita), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), skull cap (Scutellaria lateriflora), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), damiana (Turnera diffusa), and rose (Rosa spp.) petals. All of these herbs support memory and relaxation. Some folklore suggest that mugwort encourages intuition and dreaming. To learn more about these herbs, visit The Herbrarium.
- Rituals to enter the dreamscape. I keep a doomahitchie on my nightstand. It doesn’t matter what it is. Its nonsensical and really doesn’t even belong there. Before I go to sleep I tell the doomahitchie that in the morning I will tell it my dreams from the night. Then, in the morning, I look at it as I get out of bed, before writing in my dream journal, as a cue to remember.
- Placing a dream pillow over my eyes. Since I am focusing on my dreams I have made a new dream pillow, one that contains mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), lavender (Lavandula spp.), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Mugwort for dreams, lavender for relaxation, and rosemary for memory.
- Dream journaling. When I awaken each morning, I lie in bed and stretch and breathe a bit. This gives my mind time to process any dreams I had the night before and to prepare my self for moving. Then I get up and write in my dream journal, even if there isn’t a dream I make a note of that so that I can notice emerging patterns.
There is a new moon and solar eclipse on April 20th. The combination makes for a great time to focus on transformation, planting seeds for new personal growth. As I am striving to let my heart be free and wild this year, I will be lighting a candle and taking a ritual bath that night to support that intention. Ritual bath’s were part of my ancestors celebrations at various times of the year and I have been exploring adding them into my practices.
Here’s my process:
A green candle will be set on the windowsill near my bath. Green represents sowing seeds and growth. I will write my intention, to let go of the emotionality of my memories and to dive into each moment with the full breath and awareness it deserves, on a small piece of paper and fold it three times. I will light my candle and set fire to the piece of paper. The candle will then burn while I take a hot bath using a homemade bath salt blend which includes sea salt, pine (Pinus spp.) needles, juniper (Juniperus spp.) berries, violet (Viola spp.), cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) essential oil, fir (Abies sibirica) essential oil, and a splash of new moon water collected during the last new moon. These plant allies are a nod to my ancestors as well as supportive of emotions, relaxation, forgiveness, self-acceptance, and grounding. To learn more about these herbs, visit The Herbrarium. After the candle burns out I will bury the residue by the Juniper tree in my garden.
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