It’s all Good, even the Dark Side

I discovered Miriam Greenspan only this afternoon, but am already very sure I’m going to like her. She takes on our fairly robust cultural aversion to “negative” emotions, preferring to call them dark emotions instead, because dark captures perfectly the image of dark, rich, fertile soil from which something unexpected can bloom. I like the optimism inherent in this. It’s positive thinking of the best sort.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly this topic over the past year, and recently found myself sitting among a small circle of women with a shared intention to turn our faces toward the suffering of others—an intention to take it in, transform it, and return it to them as compassion.

We had a lovely guide, and it was a fitting meditation for Maundy Thursday. She had us visualize ourselves at a peaceful, safe, happy time in our lives. With each breath we then began to focus on the suffering of another, tapping into the alchemist within our souls to return it to them as something pure and strong and life-giving.

I’d arrived that night a little unaware of my vulnerability—I’d been coping quite well with some current turbulence after all. But between the intensity of the meditation and a tendency toward a somewhat porous psyche, it didn’t take long before I came undone. I was infinitely fortunate to have an empathetic other bear witness to my coming undone. She validated the dark emotions that broke over me with the force of Hawaii’s North Shore, and reminded me, when I insisted there was something pathological about my response, that intensity does not always indicate pathology.

Though we tend to see emotions such as fear, grief and despair as signs of weakness or failure, they are actually gifts when we become conscious of them and attend to them. I learned so much again that night and in the weeks since. Conscious suffering deepens our connection to others and to ourselves. It makes us less afraid and judgmental, and more compassionate with both others and ourselves.

Greenspan is honest about the chaos involved in attending to and befriending dark emotions. They can be intense, and staying with them rather than running from them is no easy task. It’s not a linear process either. I have been committed to it for some time now, but on that night fell into a very old and familiar hole whose walls scream guilt, shame, failure, weakness.

So, for myself, and for my beautiful friends also doing this work right now, a reminder–productive grief isn’t for the timid or easily fatigued. It is circuitous and demands we allow dark to exist alongside the light. But I think I’m beginning to understand that we can tap into grief’s full healing power only once we know deeply that there is no need for blame or shame, once we stop judging and abandoning ourselves, once we accept that what we feel, however difficult, is a goldmine.

The Alchemist

My daughter, looking a little vulnerable to my maternal eye, greeted me with a hug despite my warnings about a nasty virus I’d given refuge for the past week. We’d met for a bite to eat before the show, and talked a little about the mountain weighing heavily upon her, and for a moment I feared her sorrow might take away from her evening. But an hour later, less than thirty seconds into the show, she reached her arm around me to squeeze my shoulder. I squeezed her hand in response, she smiled widely, and then Brandi Carlile, as always, gave us her soul.

How do I describe the experience of her voice and guitar-playing and foot-stomping alongside the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra? I thought nothing would top the acoustic experience she gave us last year, but I was wrong. Almost immediately, her honesty tapped into something deep inside, and she seemed more grown-up somehow, and then she was no longer just singing, she was soaring miles above an entire symphony orchestra. She takes you with her, and then she drops you and you’re surfing a giant ocean swell about to break on the shore, and she’s laughing, and pouring out all this love, her voice magically soothing one minute and then shredding both the song and your heart in the next, and it’s much more than entertainment.

It’s wild, and primal, and a deeply spiritual ride.

With or without amplified sound (their unplugged acoustic piece sent chills down my back again), and with or without the twins’ voices and guitars, and with or without the entire symphony orchestra, she filled the auditorium and those of us present to overflowing. She can out-sing a thousand cellos, and she did, and I just have to put my thank-you out there to the universe. We’re born for connection and joy; they are deeply spiritual and sacred experiences.

Nights like these change nothing, and yet in deep unseen ways, they change everything again.

Spirit Line

I cracked open Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home a couple of days ago, and, thanks to tonsils the size of small plums in my throat, loud drumming in my ears, and Benadryl, I finished this lovely, lovely memoir quickly. It left me deeply envious of Caldwell’s writing skills, and deeply in awe of the power of love and friendship. It’s the story of her friendship with Caroline Knapp, and about the strength, self-awareness and meaning intimacy brings to our lives. It’s about what they shared, about what they lost, and about the ocean of grief Gail was thrown into with Carolyn’s death. It’s about the losses we think we can’t bear.

Caldwell, much like my therapist so often has, reminded me that we only think we can’t bear our losses, that we can in fact bear them gracefully when we put our minds to it. And though life goes on, we never really get over the losses–we absorb the holes left behind into our very cores. They shape us profoundly. Our task is to embrace the core sadness of life without permitting it to keep us facedown in defeat. Our task is to allow the ordinary and quotidian joys and sorrows to be more heavily weighted and more alluring than fear and grief.

The rugs of Navajo weavers, I learned, carry a mismatched thread intended to release the energy of the rug and the story it holds. It is called a spirit line, and it paves the way for the next creation. It is the flaw that reminds us about hope. All stories worth holding on to contain a dissonant colour, a thread that points the way to the next story.

We lose so much over a lifetime, loves and dreams and hopes and abilities. Some die. Some corrode in acid rains, and remain like that on the edge of our awareness. Some become geographically difficult. Some are meant to be only for a short time. Some, unable to withstand the weight inherent in so much, fade into ghosts over the years. Some, genuine but infinitely complicated, live best deep within. Some sleep for a season, and then bloom again.

What matters is the love, whether tangible and present, or lost and now carried only in our hearts. What matters and fortifies us and gives it all meaning are the shared vulnerabilities and misunderstandings and naked honesties of friendship and love, because these, when handled with gentleness and generosity, cement us to each other, and to ourselves, and to the earth.

It was perfect timing for me to read this wise and beautiful memoir. It is April after all, and April in Edmonton isn’t exactly pretty, or conducive to pretty moods. It is April in which I most need to be reminded that I live here not for sunny days or the promise of sap, but for the roots I have here.