|“Día de los Muertos” isn’t Mexican Halloween,” the presenter said, with a half grin.
A writer friend and I were standing on the steps of Charlottesville’s McGuffey Art Center while the presenter explained the real purpose of this Mexican holiday, which is to welcome back and celebrate departed family members. In Mexico this is done through the creation of family altars, community gatherings, and decorations placed on loved one’s graves.
I’ve been to several Día de los Muertos celebrations in Charlottesville. Every time I walk by the grand altar created for this event, I’m surprised by the hopefulness and positivity of the messages people place on their luminarios, or the paper lanterns created for the altar. Some say things like “It’s so great to see you again. I hope you’re having a wonderful time with us.” More than one includes a Modelo for their loved one.
This year, my friend and I watched a group perform the Dance of the Tecuanes, or the dance of the jaguar. In this traditional dance, eight masked dancers representing the animals kept by a group of villagers dance along with several hunters, and the Tecuan, a mighty beast who tries to kill them with his whip. The hunters must work together to kill the Tecuan so they can keep the village and its stories safe.
The dance reveals the pre-Colombian, indigenous influences on this celebration and the brilliance of this culture which many Americans know far too little about. For indigenous cultures, dance is a way to pass traditions and oral histories down to future generations.
In this way, the body is the vehicle for the story that must be told.
In her book Voice First, Sonya Huber says, “our speaking and signing voices emanate from our bodies.” She references Jill Hackett, “who describes three voice centers within our bodies.” They include “the voice of our head (the rational voice: ideas strike us and set off thoughts and plans), the voice of our hearts (the motive voice: feelings, memories, longings, and passions), and our body voice (language of the gut, hunches, intuition).”
When it comes to the three voices, she believes the body is the most honest. When she spends time with it, her ideas and sentences become simpler and truer.
Yet accessing the voice of the body isn’t so simple.
“We live in a culture in which bodies are edited and critiqued, so hardly anyone has an unproblematic relationship with their body.” Sonya cites health problems, societal judgments, and trauma as some of the reasons why we struggle to get out of our heads. She believes “our disconnection from our bodies affects the power and range of [the many voices living within us].”
Trauma can separate us from the essential truths in our writing. Many trauma survivors live in their heads, or even outside their heads through the process of dissociation. This is especially true for those whose traumas involve violence or physical violations.
Sonya lifts a quote from Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, to address this struggle: “Our sense of agency, how much we feel in control, is defined by our relationship with our bodies and its rhythms: our waking and sleeping and how we eat, sit, and walk define the contours of our days.”
“In order to find our voice,” she writes, “we have to be in our bodies—able to breathe fully and able to access our inner sensations. This is the opposite of dissociation or being ‘out of the body’ and making yourself disappear.”
After reading these words, I cried for a little while.
If you’re familiar with the ACEs Test, my score is a solid 8.5.
Trauma is a legacy my DNA inherited. It was perpetuated through patterns of abuse perpetrated by some very broken people who didn’t know how to love themselves, let alone me. That trauma etched a single message on my bones: You are not worthy, so shut the fuck up.
I’ve spent a lifetime undoing these patterns so I can free the little girl inside me who has a lot to say. As a trauma-informed coach, I also help others find safety in their bodies so they too can free the voices past harms have caged.
Yet when therapists tell me to remain in my body, I immediately check out.
That inability to stay in my body can easily turn me into a perfectionist, because the head wants to get everything right. (Perfect is safe, after all.)
Yet safe doesn’t help us write the stories that transform the world.
I’ve spent the past five months working with a somatic reprocessing expert who specializes in ridding trauma from the nervous system. The work looks weird as hell and involves way too many invitations to “make a noise that expresses what my body has experienced.”
I don’t want to do any of this, but I trust my therapist and the process, and more importantly, I believe that little girl is worth it. I also know this part of the walk needed to serve all of you.
Reading Sonya’s words helped me understand what my therapists have been trying to get me to do and why it’s so crucial.
The benefits of my half-hearted attempts are a complete book and proposal. The more I free my voice, the easier my work becomes.
Sonya says, “some voices are a doorway or fulcrum. We use them to access things we can’t get to otherwise.” From the space of our body, these voices run, jump, walk, and dance stories into existence, and in doing so, they tell us something that’s viscerally true.
So how do you access the voices in your body?
Spend time watching your breath. Notice what it feels like. Then try to control your breath by using a specific breath pattern, like four-square breathing. When you stop, notice what happens.
Focus on a simple experience within the body, such as whether your hands are hot or cold, or the feel of your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
Notice the patterns happening in your body, such as the rhythm of your heart.
Go for a walk.
Practice this “ass and head in the same chair” technique. Every few hours, touch something nearby, like a coffee cup or doorknob, and then note where you are. Next, name three things happening outside of yourself, and three sensations within your body. This will make sure your ass and head are in the same location.
If it feels unsafe to spend time in your body, notice your surroundings. Name the items you see. Stop and listen to the sounds around you. Being in the here and now can serve as a precursor for the work you’ll one day do.
So, which voice do you regularly call on? Do you have any interesting strategies for getting in touch with the voices in your body? Send me an email with your answers. I’d love to hear what works for you.
As you walk through this week, befriend your body, and let it free that deserving, powerful voice inside you that most needs to write on.
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