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What resources you? On embodied resilience and ancestral toughness

I have taken great pride throughout my life in being, for lack of a better phrase, “a tough cookie.” (see also: Total Badass.) I was raised to understand myself as a force to be reckoned with, someone who gets back on the horse when she gets bucked off.

I have tried to reconcile this tough part of myself with the part of me that feels vulnerable and fragile all the time.

This is at the heart of resilience: this ability to hold all of these pieces of myself. To be highly sensitive, to be an empath, to feel everything so intensely. And also to be courageous, to be fierce, to be willing to put that heart of mine on the line. I am the person who gets back up.

I was always very close with my grandmother — I worshipped her, really.

I hoped that I was just like her. Any similarity between us tickled me. I loved the smell of her law books and running my hands through her boxes of costume jewelry. I would spend hours staring at the sepia photographs on her bedroom wall and dressing up in her old nightgowns as though they were ballgowns.

I learned to make some her recipes meticulously, but they were never the same after she died. When she stopped making pot-roast and fried chicken, there was no longer a point to my eating meat.

While I miss her very much, I spent years quite disconnected from her, except as she related to my personal remembrance.

I missed watching Wheel of Fortune in her heavy wooden kitchen chairs. I missed her laugh. I didn’t really consider who she was, where she came from, what went on in her inner world. She only existed as she was in my memory, not as an autonomous person who was a lineage carrier

But I didn’t feel connected with her lineage, only her perfectly preserved memory as I had interacted with her as a child. I felt lost without her physical presence — forgetting, or never learning, that we can lean on our ancestors, energetically, whenever we need to.

We can find resilience through lineage, in addition to physical presence.

About a year and a half ago, I was on a leadership retreat and in the opening circle, all the participants had to introduce themselves. It seemed basic enough. But one of the questions posed for the introductions was, “Who are your people?”

Immediately, images of my grandmother flooded my mind. Not the attorney she became, or the mother to my father, who would travel with us to the beach every year in her giant maroon Oldsmobile.

The one who endured the Dust Bowl. She, who migrated from Oklahoma with her family when she was a teenager, who endured disappointment, and finished school at night.

“Who are your people?”

Dust Bowl people are my people. I am made of that kind of toughness. Even through years of chronic pain and mental illness, I still have that. The people I belong to are people who have that kind of Dust Bowl toughness baked into them.

The sort of folks who get up when they’re knocked down.

This has always belonged to me. This has always been a part of who I am. More than that, I have always belonged to that. It is a well to which I may always return. When I do not feel it within my physical body in this moment, I can pull from it energetically.

Having this relationship with my ancestors resources me.

It gives me permission to step into a kind of power that I might not otherwise be able to access. This has been a winding, unraveling, unfolding process for years now. I receive these messages from what I call my spirit helpers, unseen forces who have my back.

I am still learning to hear everything they have to offer me. I am still learning to receive those resources with both hands.

Years before the leadership retreat, I’d had another experience with my grandmother. It took me years to fully integrate it — maybe not until I was asked who my people were. 

The coyote showed up.

In 2012, when I was on retreat studying Thai Massage in Santa Barbara, I was up early one morning, before any of the participants. My love, D., was teaching in the Czech Republic that summer, and I was up talking to him on Skype, 7 hours ahead.

I stood barefoot in the doorway of the retreat center, as the sun was coming up, the day already getting warm. As I looked to my right up the driveway, I saw a large coyote jogging down the path, toward the live oak in the center, right in front of the building. It didn’t break stride as it turned its head to look at me and smile, as it strode down into the embankment and into the thicket.

My only thought? What. the. heck. And then immediately questioning whether it had happened.

No one else saw it, or any other coyotes that week. Everyone else was asleep.

The coyote was only there for me.

A few days later, I was receiving a Thai Massage one afternoon and sensed a presence. A coyote was sitting at my feet, right next to the woman who was giving me a massage. It just sat on its haunches, front legs straight and regarded me: head cocked to one side, then the other.

Occasionally, it would scratch an itch or nuzzle its own fur, but mostly, it sat at attention.

The coyote’s eyes observing me. It’s spirit watching over me.

Obviously, this was not a literal coyote, but a spirit. I had never raised my head or opened my eyes, apparently. For those moments, I was able to see the unseen. But it appeared to me as vivid — not just visual, but tangible — as the chair in which I’m writing now.

This visit was very clearly my grandmother in another form.

There, for me, is no disputing that as an absolute fact. It was her. She was there. We were together, sharing space again. We exchanged no words, but there was no need. In that liminal space, between ordinary and non-ordinary reality, on the hill in Santa Barbara, we sat together. She offered up healing and protection.

Since then, I’ve been interested in the unseen parts of our self-care, well-being, and resilience practice. How do we resource ourselves with what is unseen? How can we learn to trust what others cannot see, but we know to be true in absolute terms?

We already know that self-care isn’t all bubble baths, bon-bons, and yoga retreats. For the practicalities of everyday life, it can’t be that.

What this experience offered me, instead, was a glimpse into the layers of resources we have access to, should we choose them. I know that I am privileged, and that not everyone has such a direct, loving, and intimate connection with family — with blood ancestors — as I do. But I believe that everyone has spirit helpers.

Who or what resources you?

What are you drawn to? Has it always been water? Or is it animals, stones, or plants? What about a deity, a saint, angels, or goddesses? Do you look to archetypes? Your helper could even be a favorite author or a historical figure.

When we look to what feels meaningful, we can forge this relationship with spirit helpers we may not have known existed.

We might rekindle a relationship we had set aside after childhood.

This spirit helpers can support us in moments of decision, overwhelm, transition, or difficulty. We can rely on them, and draw the particular qualities we need in that moment. And because, as spirit, they are infinite, these spirit helpers are happy to give generously.

In this relationship with our helpers, our resources for trying times come from within.

We need not rely on external systems or regimes. Resilience doesn’t come from “doing” self-care, but the interior relationship we cultivate *through* self-care. Through spiritual practice, we scrub away what does not belong to us any longer — what does not serve us. What is left is the residue of our glimmering us-ness: our spirit-stuff.

Through cultivating a relationship with spirit helpers, we can access this kind of embodied resilience. We begin to know ourselves in a new way: as precious spirit-beings who have access to extraordinary strength in any moment. This comes from understanding there is something beyond us that has our back.

Which is not to say that everything goes perfectly once you tap into this guidance.

Au contrair. In fact, sometimes stepping into a new layer of understanding is what brings all of the crap and challenges to the surface.

It also means that when things really, really hit the fan, we have backup. We can fall apart a bit and rely on the wisdom that comes from these spirit helpers.

When things get difficult: in grief, in illness, in transition, we can lean into that relationship and our trust in those helpers.

Creating this new kind of relationship with my grandmother has been an incredible blessing. I will certainly never look at coyotes the same way.

The newfound connection I have with her led me on a pilgrimage recently to the town in which she was born. It’s a one-streetlight town in Oklahoma with a disused train station, a town newspaper and a Sonic just up the road. To the random person passing through, it would have appeared to be nothing special at all.

Instead, I was able to experience it through a new lens: a place that informs who I am, gives me strength, and is available to call up at any time, when I need to find my unshakable roots again.

For me, it was full of voices, of spirit, of nourishment I can draw from any time.

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