I am five years old, sleeping next to a window inside an old apartment in an old Victorian house.
Outside, it’s that brief magical period called spring, which happens a couple days before summer up in Maine. The first green blades of grass have poked through the remaining thin layer of snow. The yellow sun appears and shines a ray through the paint-chipped lattice of the thick glass window. The warmth on my face wakes me and I feel relief.
The long, dark New England winter is over. I am comforted by the fact that it’s early enough to be quiet in the house. My mother is most likely downstairs with a neverending coffee mug in one hand and a cigarette that never burns out in the other, up since 3 or 4 a.m. because her nightmares about losing me to drowning or kidnapping or murder kept her up.
I inhale deeply, feeling the soft flannel Mickey and Minnie sheets against my skin. I stretch and feel energy pulsing from my toes up through my fingertips. I revel in the few moments of peace I have left before entering the heavy chaos of my mother’s world.
These small moments of presence throughout childhood, and up through adulthood, have saved my life. Especially now that I know how to intentionally access the source of such perfect moments. By perfect, I do not mean good or easy or bad—I just mean perfect, when all that exists is right now and the mind is empty of shame (past) and fear (future).
Children are naturally “good” at meditating, before they even know what it is. It’s because they do it without even trying. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve looking at moss in the thick, damp woods, and listening to the sounds of a loon calling for her mate as the sun disappears and turns trees into silhouettes against the gray sky.
“Kendra!” she yelled with a rasp, then switched to a sing-songy voice. “Time to get up, my darling.” My morning moment of peace was over. I sprung from bed and went straight to the kitchen to get her favorite green, plastic octagonal cup and put ice and water in it. It started as something I liked to do for her, then quickly became an expectation, in that she was upset if it didn’t happen. This then turned into me making coffee for her through my teen years.
I nervously stepped toward her down the hallway, then tripped spilling water and ice all over the floor. By her reaction, you would have thought I set the apartment on fire—on purpose. Her green irises burned with intensity against the bulging red veins in the white of her eyes. After the eruption, her eyes turned into the ocean. Hot lava cooling into a green and black sea of “I’m sorry,” smearing her Maybelline Great Lash and black eyeliner over the puffs of her lower lids.
I learned to watch her emotions come in waves, ready to hide from her tsunami and then float in her apologies. This is how I first learned to let things unfold as they will, trusting that the waters would be calm again.
It is also how I learned to be quiet.
Learning to be quiet can be powerful. An inner quiet can make outward expression more potent. There is a difference, though, between biting your tongue to be quiet out of fear and letting your tongue rest inside your mouth to find quiet. The chaos that came from living with my mother wasn’t always the loud kind; sometimes it was a silent volcano, heat bubbling and building beneath the surface. I learned to recognize the intensity of even her quiet moments but could never quite predict when she would erupt.
Even at five years old, I knew my mother’s reactions were not always proportionate to the events. It wasn’t even spilled milk—just water! At this age, I still believed everything she said and placed it on the mommy pedestal. Because there are moments when she sang me to sleep with my favorite Christmas song, “Oh Christmas Tree,” or woke me up with “The Florida Song.” I’m not sure if that’s the name of it or if that’s just what she called it, but the only line I remember is: “When the sun comes a-peepin’ into where I’m a-sleepin’ and the songbirds sing hello.”
I felt love when she sang me those songs and I think she felt mine. Her love was just as intense as her anger. I learned early the approaching signs for all emotions, in her and then the rest of the world. I am skilled at analyzing people’s posture, facial expressions, word tone, and space in inches from me when I am in a crowd. I’m so good at this I barely know when I’m doing it, searching for safety in each brow and jawbone. Sometimes I even stop breathing so I can hear vocal inflections over the sound of my breath.
I did these things for a long time in my life before I knew I was doing them. I’m nearly 40 and I still do. Yet now, I am aware of it, and I know to invite deeper breath into my body and check in.
I ask: “What is here?”
There are many pieces of my woodsy Maine upbringing that helped me to be okay. Growing up, I lived for camping trips, always counting down the days to when I’d be surrounded by trees and covered in dirt with hardly anyone paying attention to me because camping was a party for the adults. For me, it was access to nature and escape from crowds. My favorite parts were the quietest moments at the beginnings and endings of each day. Staying up with the fire until the last ember went dark, when the crickets got louder, and when the owls ask who’s there, every flashlight and lantern has been turned off, just me and the stars and the mosquitoes, with nothing but the bare earth to hold me up.
And in the stillness of early morning, I woke up before everyone, listening to the earliest birds begin chirping before anyone else stirred. This is still my favorite time of day. I would unzip the tent window to reveal one of my favorite colors. It’s the color of the day when darkness lingers as the sun gives its first glow before it appears above the horizon. It’s like looking at the world through a drop of morning dew. As kid, I did not realize this was meditation or why I always felt so much better “upta camp,” as we say in Maine.
I didn’t realize it at the time, the reason I counted days between camping trips as a kid. I was craving the medicine of meditating on my senses and connecting my body directly to the earth. I am grateful to live in an age when health hacks are not only a trend, but they also work and are taking us all back (and forward) to a holistic view of ourselves and the earth. Shoes have separated us from the earth for thousands of years, thought of as protection. However, thick soles have blocked us from free healing frequencies that come directly from the ground. There is a movie called, “The Earthing Movie: The Remarkable Science of Grounding” that explains the science behind this notion. The earth has natural electrical charges that can help reduce pain, inflammation, and even stress. Since most of us rely on shoes outside, we are missing out on free medicine provided by the earth.
Fast-forward from camping as a kid to the year I am 17. I was fed up with the yelling, the crying, the getting shut out, the extreme punishments that never fit the crime, like getting grounded for an entire summer for riding in a minivan with upperclassmen and being seen by someone in our small Maine town. The. Entire. Summer.
It was the only time when Maine weather was uplifting and desirable, and I was stuck inside. To this day, it is hard to keep me contained indoors. My bedroom window opened to the roof over our porch with a conveniently placed gutter drain I shimmied down once my parents were asleep. I rarely did anything bad, aside from the sneaking out part. We lived a block from the boat landing on Maranacook Lake. There was a place where the land came to a point to meet the water, just beyond the piers where everyone parks their boats in the summer. A giant eastern white pine stands at the apex of this pointed land. I would step carefully through my neighbor’s backyard and across the parking lot to sit in front of this towering pine and listen to boats bump against the buoys that line the docks.
I loved the cool, moist air as it gently pushed against my skin. I can still feel the cool damp grass against the bottoms of my bare feet. With my time outside limited that particular summer, I soaked up every moment of being roofless. These visits with the night saved that entire year. It was healing to simply feel the earth beneath my feet, to hear the water slapping against the rocky shore as I watched the dim orange glow of the streetlights bounce off the tips of gentle lake waves. This is how I survived a summer of being trapped in the house of tension and tears. I found a way to tap into the sights and sounds of my town when it slept, which was a lot more relaxing than being out during the day anyway.
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea for my sensitive self to go after one of the most social careers out there. I went to the Aveda Institute in 2011 to become a hairstylist. I had been working front desk and managing salons for a few years when I decided I wanted to be on the artist side of things. Art is another meditative activity that got me through my younger days.
During my cosmetology program at Aveda, they offered free yoga at the end of each day. I’m not sure I could have lasted this long as a stylist without the balance in mind and body that yoga and meditation has brought into my life. I learned to start paying attention to my body, noticing where I felt stuck and why certain classes made me cry. Those hour-long classes were a break from the noise. It was a break from studying and caring for people to the point of exhaustion while learning all new skills. Today, yoga continues to serve as balance for the repetitive motion of physically doing hair. My growing meditation practice serves as balance for holding space for all types of clients and all types of news. My hair school experience and introduction to yoga also taught me that I could care for others best if I cared for myself first. This is where I learned to take my keen observation skills (or hyper-vigilance) and turn them inward, versus stressing myself out by seeking safety outside of myself.
Observation, when turned inward, can bring peace. Looking outside of yourself for peace will show you how scary the world can be. It is only when I learned to seek stability from my own center that I truly began to feel safe. While I was unconsciously scanning crowds for safety in their postures, my own posture suffered. When the volcano erupted, I learned to crawl inside myself, shoulders curling forward, knees hugged in, my back ribs a cage to protect my tender insides. This was a protective pattern that came into play early on in childhood. This posture, along with other protective habitual behaviors went unnoticed, until they stopped protecting me. Eventually, those postures and anxieties turned on me, and instead of protecting me like they did was I was a kid, they hindered me. I have learned to observe these protective patterns and say “Thank you for protecting me when you did but I don’t need you anymore. You may go now.”
My first job as a hairstylist was in Evergreen, Colorado, which was about an hour drive from my house in Denver. I downloaded the book The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, as suggested by one of my favorite yoga instructors. As I drove through the towering tree-filled, rocky cliffs of Bear Creek Canyon, I listened to the author talk about internal thoughts in a way I had never heard before. He said to treat your thoughts like they are a roommate talking while sitting on the couch next to you. A lightbulb went on. It was the first time I learned I could be separate from my thoughts. A silent observer just noticing. It’s the first time I understood what freedom from my thoughts could feel like. I still practice this type of observation without judgement, and sometimes I am successful.
In addition to touching the bare earth with my bare skin, and listening to my thoughts as the observer, I have adopted a meditation technique called R.A.I.N. After I came across this method, I even drew a raincloud with a crying eye and had it tattooed on my right shoulder. It is an acronym for instructions to check in with yourself. R stands for “recognize,” as in name the present emotion. A stands for “allow,” as in saying to yourself, “It’s okay for you to feel this way.” I stands for “investigate,” as in checking in with your body and where this feeling causes the most physical tension. N stands for “nurture,” as in saying to yourself, “It’s okay, Sweetheart” (which is tattooed on my right forearm).
I first came across this technique when I read Tara Brach’s book, Radical Compassion (another client-recommended read). I also listened to this book in my car, and the way Tara Brach says, “It’s okay, Sweetheart” melted me. I could picture little Kendra, sitting in spilled water and shame getting yelled at. “It’s okay, Sweetheart” I said to her in a meditation.
This technique can be used time and again to heal past aches or current ones. When revisiting the water spilling incident from when I was four, I applied the acronym. I recognized the shame and allowed it to be there. I investigated by breathing in deep and noticing my breath got caught up in my stomach. I released my breath, then breathed in deeper, expanding my entire abdomen, saying, “It’s okay for you to be here. And it’s okay for you to go now.”
As I sit and type this personal essay at a small desk in a small condo in Durango, Colorado, I am filled with gratitude for what has protected me and what has freed me along the way. Every moment I sat connected to the ground listening to the birds was how I self-medicated. Every deep breath, every intentional moment of reset with R.A.I.N., every pause in the present has led me here: sitting on an exercise ball chair, my sleeping beagle at my feet, mountains in view, typing a paper as part of my path to becoming a therapist.
I am taking this moment to breathe it in—what it feels like to be a student who is not in fight or flight mode with access to the ever-flowing peace of the present moment.