The passage of time can radically alter a story—a story of thoughts hijacking experience and of missed connections and missing out. Time broadens the scope of what is known and understood. A wide-angle view and some creative reaccounting can erase hardship and rewrite trauma. I know all of this because it happened—it happened to me.
Until recently, I worked part-time in the Twin Cities as a marriage and family therapist. In my practice, I taught the philosophy of work-life balance and that we are all capable of healing ourselves. I taught that mind, body, and soul are in a self-healing, interconnected loop and that they constantly help each other grow and improve, whether or not we pay attention. I taught my clients to allow themselves to live a heart-centered, joy-filled existence.
Then two events changed my life: a traumatic brain injury after a fall from a horse in 2007 and a diagnosis of malignant melanoma in 2012. Those two events helped me realize that I hadn’t been living by the mind, body, soul standards I had set for my therapy clients. I was not practicing my own beliefs. I was trying too hard and living too little.
After diagnosing the melanoma, my doctors told me I needed a second surgery, to make sure we removed all the cancerous cells, and a lymph node biopsy, to assess whether the cancer had spread. But aware that I had been working too hard to compensate for the brain injury, I sensed that what I really needed was rest. I needed to get out of my body’s way and let it do the healing. I skipped the surgery and biopsy and investigated what changes I might need to make in order to heal.
Beyond the body’s rest, I also needed to take care of myself spiritually and emotionally. I learned from online investigations into alternative cancer studies that most cancer patients gravitate to type-C personality traits as a way to cope; they fail to share their own feelings, attend to their own needs, and generally put others first. I learned of specific attributes and immediately saw them in myself: represses both positive and negative emotions; takes on extra duties and responsibilities, even when they cause stress; becomes easily depressed or has feelings of hopelessness; and feels the need for approval and to please others. I was the epitome of the type-C—Cancer Prone—personalities I was reading about. I knew I needed to pay attention to this.
Some bit of intuitive foresight told me I could rest and take care of my spiritual and emotional self best in a rural environment. I had just purchased a 1930s farm in Milltown, Wisconsin. In this neglected, overgrown farm was the potential to reconnect with nature and animals, meet others who share my holistic way of thinking, and grow my own food. I referred my clients to other psychotherapists who I felt could better care for them while I focused on myself. And I traded the work of a private practice for the work of cleaning up this overgrown farm and making it livable and comfortable.
After the diagnosis, and this gem of a realization that the farm could help me take care of myself, I cleared out my garage and the recesses of my heart to make room for new life: adopted baby goats, Leo and Orion, gifted by a friend who had an 80-goat herd and dairy in Cumberland, Wisconsin. I picked them up from the farm, loaded them into a dog carrier, and drove the 30 miles back to my farm on Highway 46.
Their abrupt change of residence was, no doubt, a shock. As the goats were transferred from dog carrier to garage on adoption day, they were dubious of their new surroundings. I’m pretty sure a garage and a wire wrap-around fence enclosure were not on their bucket list of places to stay—a barnyard prison, so to speak.
They made mental notes of security weaknesses to leverage as a means of escape. Captivity and confinement could be tossed aside as soon as they had a good plan. Frequent sidelong glances towards my dog, Gobo, and me added to their arsenal of tactical information.
Their plan to spring from the farm seemed to recede from their consciousness around day four. The nipple-clad coke bottles delivering warm goat’s milk helped their newly manufactured brain cells erase everything but hunger signals. Thoughts of returning to Cumberland and reunification with their clan had all but disappeared.
I delivered the “goods” twice daily. The twin kids would climb over each other to get to the bottles. A three-minute duet of staccato sucking noises followed. Whichever finished first would shove the other out of the way and latch onto his brother’s bottle to get the drizzle of remaining milk. Under the woozy influence of rich goat’s milk, the inside of the garage became less prison cell, more beloved childhood home; their “jailer” became someone to love. Leo, who wouldn’t have anything to do with me on adoption day, would now climb onto my lap and gaze dreamily into my eyes, the farmyard version of Stockholm Syndrome. I, too, fell in love—direct access to the heart via livestock ownership.
Time moves on and a story changes—a story of a “C” missing out on life’s joys now living within them and a story of goats whose prison becomes a beloved home they wouldn’t dream of leaving. Time broadened the understanding of living with cancer; time broadened the goats’ understanding of “the prison” and the “woman who runs it.” Hardship fades from memory, brains rewire, and trauma gets revised.
Both stories change more and more as the days fly by. Backing away from the moment of reckoning expands our time lines. Details become more numerous and characters more fleshed out; the complexity of it writing a richer story.
When the doctor told me the second surgery and the lymph node biopsy were necessary, panic led me to see a surgeon right away. When asked what would happen if I didn’t have the surgery, he said that the cancer will come back. Not could, but will.
The presence of a single word (and it’s forced certainty) made me strangely curious. There seemed to be an absence of the context that time (or a good rewrite) would provide. A shift, changing the word “will”–to “could”–and “could”–to “won’t.” I wanted to live in the story of “the cancer won’t come back.” A warm glowy home instead of a prison.
Eventually, my story, like the goat’s, received an edit. I added my “inner expert” to the cast of characters. I skipped the surgery and followed my heart. I read book after book, igniting in me what panic had erased. Trusting my own ability to heal.
Walls of a garage changed from “prison” to “home” with a slight change in story structure—a slant. Following this wizardry as best I could, I rewrote my story to give it a better slant, too.
Jumping to the end, past all the twists and turns, I thought about how goats, garages, and scary cancer news might shift and change over time.
Scrambling the beginning, middle and end, I grabbed onto the “happily ever after.” With a tightly closed fist and a determined spirit, I started living the ending as if it is now; I started living the “ever after.”
We usually think that life happens to us, and then it becomes a story. But turn this on it’s head and we get closer to what I believe is the truth—that we become our stories. (Or, maybe, our stories write us.). Through a selective focus of thought and retelling, we build stories from our experience. And out of those stories, new experience is birthed.
We often forget that we can’t hold all of the details of our story at once in our minds. We have to choose what to focus on at any one time. The slant I mentioned above? This is that same kind of slant.
But why is “slant” so important? Because it creates our experience. Plain and simple.
Humans often pick the “wrong” slant. We as humans tend to focus on what’s “wrong.” We’re wired that way. It’s what alerted us as a species to danger when we hadn’t yet figured out how to build the homes we live in today, with thick walls between us and dangerous predators.
It takes some work to find a slant that works for us. And what works best for us is a slant made up of what’s right. This “what’s right” slant creates more powerfully and positively.
That’s not to say that we want to do away with those unnerving (and traumatic) things that happen to us, or even our darker thoughts. They are life’s course corrections. It’s the role we give these course-corrections in our stories that’s important. If we make course-corrections the villain, if we banish them, we usually see even more villains joining in. (They must figure that if we ignored a course-correction of one, multiples should get our attention.) But if we see course corrections as a positive catalyst for change, our slant will create in a greater alignment with how life works best. In areas of life where we haven’t interfered—in nature, for example—everything has its place, and one thing exists for the benefit of the next.
I wished away a number of course corrections in my 40s and 50s. They went underground, where I wasn’t aware of them. Eventually I couldn’t ignore them any longer. That is how I ended up at the farm.
I developed the Elements to help people become aware that what is underground—both under the soil and below our conscious level—is important. Grounding in the natural world can bring us around to the present, so that instead of mindlessly living our thoughts and beliefs, we can get some distance and observe them. This increased perspective allows us to create our lives from a more conscious, peaceful place.
Learning and using the Elements is a kickstart to a whole new slant.