Glimmer vs. Trigger
Seeking the shine in the darkness
My baseline is anxiety. I’m the over-inflated beachball bounced by all the boogery pre-K kids in a circle holding the parachute. The parachute, though soft at rest, is precarious and relentless in perpetual motion since it doesn’t let me sit still before I’m—to quote myself in my last post—tempest tossed. In this metaphor, the parachute is my anxiety, and that’s how I feel as a poor ball at its mercy. But truly the anxiety lives in me, is me, and it’s all mine to deal with, though it leaks out onto everyone and everything; I can’t contain or successfully hide it behind any mask. It’s my fatal flaw. Or, to flip the script, perhaps it’s actually my superpower because it propels me to produce, achieve, keep moving. This parachute is the worst and the best of me.
Panning out: places “elsewhere” enter our minds—if we let them in—with a battery of death and disaster. This holiday season is a bad one, again, for the Ukraine, and now from any angle on the Gaza Strip, yet in the midst of the human cruelty and terrible loss and devastation, there are the small (huge) stories of survival, persistence, enduring spirit.
“It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.”
— historian Richard Evans
Isn’t it handy that in the darkest, dreariest month, surrounding the shortest day of December solstice, we have all these celebrations of light. The quiet hope of Hanukkah and a series of candles to heal hearts and history. The over-the-top Christmas displays competing on houses to distract us with their tacky happiness.
When I think of the holiday season, I think of words and materials like tinsel, glitter, glow, joy. But also: stress. Clark Griswold in Lampoon’s falling off his roof in a tangle of cord. Nothing we do or give this month will be enough; we can’t keep up. And should we find ourselves in a rare moment alone without plans, or longing for someone lost, we might get hit with a sudden, debilitating sadness. It doesn’t take much to send any shopper or driver into a rage when the line or lane is so dense and desperate.
Someone online recently alerted to me to the use of “glimmer” in a way I hadn’t heard before. Glimmer being the opposite of trigger. Nothing new, especially if you live more on social media where this has been trending for some years, but new to me who often lives willfully under (heart-shaped) rocks. As it’s seasonally perfect, I’m going with it as this week’s theme.
Much like the tiny yet giant acts of self-love that I explored last week, glimmers are the simple pleasures and moments worth seeking out and basking in.
A HuffPost article explores this here:
All over social media, mental health experts and advocates are posting about “glimmers.” The videos show kids collecting flowers in a field, folks sipping a quiet cup of tea on their porch, or having a swim at the local lake, among other peaceful moments.
Simply put, glimmers are small moments that bring you joy. The term was coined by Deb Dana, a Maine-based licensed clinical social worker whose work centers on complex trauma. The posts are calming, pretty and even awe-inspiring―but do they do anything aside from look or sound pretty?
“Glimmers are these micro-moments of safety, connection, regulation,” Dana told HuffPost.
“It is the tiny moments of joy, the moments of ‘okayness’ that take us away from being stuck in this challenging world we’re in, or our own trauma that’s sitting unprocessed, and it...helps build the capacity to then manage these other things in a different way,” Dana said.
In other words, glimmers are there to help balance out the bad, but should not be mixed up with toxic positivity. Dana stressed that society often only looks at the silver lining, which is not the point of glimmers, they are not here to mute the hard days but are instead here to make the hard days more manageable.
“Glimmers are a reminder that our nervous system is so amazingly able to hold all of the trauma and...notice the micro-moments of joy, of safety, of connection, of whatever the flavors we want to talk about,” Dana said.
While this may lean toward sounding new-agey, the key component here is nervous system. We are nothing if not a chemistry lab, delicately balancing this and that potent homemade drug which when tipped too far in either direction may or may not make us high or harried. A trigger is some sensory prompt that cues negative emotions and a feeling of danger, activating the amygdala’s fight or flight (or freeze) stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol that flood you with fear, sadness, anger, panic and leave you sweating, heart-racing, and shaking. A glimmer—take a breath now—is all calm and joy-sparking. Scientifically speaking, from Choosing Therapy:
Dr. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory can help explain the science behind glimmers. The theory suggests that the body’s nervous system is conducive to shaping a person’s emotional and behavioral responses to their environment. Dr. Porges notes this is regulated through the vagus nerve, which helps control a person’s heartbeat rate.
Just like our bodies fight off diseases, the body’s nervous system has the capacity to fight off negative emotions by engaging the ventral vagus. Glimmers represent brief moments of engagement with the ventral vagus and indicate the body’s ability to regulate its mental state.
Now that we know about these glimmers, let’s gather them. I think of the song in The Sound of Music, these are a few of “My Favorite Things.” It’s been a fun exercise to coat my week—in the midst of haphazard holiday planning, too many parent-teacher conferences, and the tedious formatting of colleague end-of-the-year retirement proclamations—with the serene sheen of images, senses, and memories of…
Some of my many glimmers, such as:
Eliciting a smile from a stranger
Discovering a heart-shaped rock on a beach or a four-leaf clover in a lawn
The sun and wind touching the tips of meadow grasses (“amber waves of grain”) in our favorite camping spot on a certain Hudson Valley farm
The cranky croaking of a murder of crows on the power lines outside my house
The morning mist coming off the Catskills—it’s as if the mountains too are exhaling
For me, oddly, driving by a brief smell of skunk
A book in a sunny hammock
Finding that phrase in writing, or hearing a song lyric, that makes me gasp
Placing that coveted lost puzzle piece or finally achieving the trickiest word in a crossword
Floating a satin-surfaced lake
The morning coffee in my Sleepy Hollow headless horseman stein
The sound of water
Turning food prep into an opportunity for rainbows
Catching a glimpse through the suburban houses of a surprisingly enticing sunset
The underpinning sense in these is mindfulness, presence. Noting your surroundings. Finding beauty in what’s before you. Attending.
Let them accrue and then these magical moments can further resonate and become more impactful with the generous act of sharing. You can store photos, or lists, or audio recordings of your glimmers to revisit. You can talk about them with friends and loved ones. Holiday conversation starter: what are their glimmers? What are yours?
Merriam-Webster defines “glimmer” as:
verb: to shine faintly or unsteadily; to give off a subdued unsteady reflection; to appear indistinctly with a faintly luminous quality
noun: a feeble or intermittent light; a subdued unsteady shining or sparkle; a dim perception or faint idea; inkling, hint, spark
A glimmer of intelligence. A glimmer of hope. But also, most interesting to me, the words thread through this of “faint, unsteady, feeble, intermittent, subdued, dim.” There is a subtlety to glimmer (so quite the opposite of most Christmas lights), and a fleeting quality to them. A wavering.
There is a reminder built into them of their demise, of our temporary nature, vulnerability, delicateness, weakness. That, like life itself, this too shall pass. Not a candle flame ongoing but more of a match. Glimmers aren’t presents under the tree or tangible objects to collect necessarily, like my actual heart-shaped rocks, but the act of finding them, feeling the vibration and warmth of the moment, the small joy the discovery, the seeing, solicits. The immaterial things these holidays should be about, and in lieu of that, at least a handmade card.
A prompt: focus on doing something free and fleeting with yourself/your family this month. Put your name(s) on the spacecraft—deadline Dec. 31—launching in Oct. 2024 for Jupiter’s moon on behalf of investigating under Europa’s ice for signs of interstellar life. In my Message in a Bottle essay, I shared Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s lovely watery poem that will be onboard virtually along with me and my girls, “In Praise of Mystery.” We get occasional updates now on our future mission. Each one gives me a glimmer. A glimpse into a world where we remember we are united not just here on earth but universally, all made of stars.
We are creatures of constant awe,
curious at beauty, at leaf and blossom,
at grief and pleasure, sun and shadow.