Gifts wrapped in Loss

All day yesterday I resisted a powerful urge in my right shoulder to throw something, something soft, like eggs, or words, though something hard might be even more satisfying. I have several targets in mind: The universe, for its random injustice, dishing out a fresh new cancer hell for my friend who has already had more than her share. The power-hungry, determined to remove from their path all with human instincts. The sociopathic entity that is corporate capitalism. The enablers among us, enabling the self-absorbed to continue on their path of destruction. (Yes, I’ve been guilty at times.) Those determined to silence others when it meets their need. Those determined to keep the rest of us a little off balance, unsure of their worth, floundering—even, so often, in the name of love.

I’ve been shushed too often too count, and usually at crisis moments, often after having been silent about things for years. (Yes, this is what one counsellor offered me many years ago when I went to him to pour out my sorrow over my marriage falling apart: “reign in your tongue”. And yes, it was pastoral counsel in keeping with the patriarchy the institution is rooted in.)

This is not unique; the shushed, and those who do the silencing are as common as dirt. (I didn’t, by the way, take his counsel, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.)

Restoring to balance the give-and-take in our interactions is crucial to our personal well-being, and to the health of our relationships. We speak and listen, offer and receive empathy, lead and follow. When our needs conflict directly, we compromise and take turns deferring to each other. And when the scales of giving and receiving are tipped for too long in one direction (the exception being the parent/child relationship), it severely damages the fabric of the thing.

Now that I’ve started this line of thought though, I see that the current impulsive ache in my shoulder is pointless: the targets I have in mind are too numerous, and too powerful. The universe simply holds trump cards we don’t, and the other targets, the human ones, they wouldn’t in a million years get the message or change a thing about their way of being. The action of hurling something their way would simply once again underscore their right to victimhood, and my satisfaction would be fleeting.

Something more constructive perhaps? Like simply refusing to be silenced? Like refusing to believe others have the power to defeat us, and persevering with our goals and desires in spite of the craters in the ground when the floor falls away? And when those who insist on nothing but silent acquiescence finally sever the relationship in response to our refusal to be silenced, it is perhaps a gift. A gift wrapped in loss, but a gift nonetheless.

Advertisements

Women Who Run with the Wolves

wolvesThis is from the brilliant Clarissa Pinkola Estes of Women Who Run With the Wolves, via her Facebook page today.
Dear Brave Souls: For remembering. Even in the swale: love and limits–as each soul is called to whatever works of lovingkindness are picked up within the range of each soul’s callings. Then follow, as called.
Differentiation: It’s not merely the call the wild and wise creatures wait to hear. It’s that some calls are summoning to action: a worthy endeavor of protection, loyalty, inquiry, blessing of those one is called toward.It’s not mere scent the pack waits to pick up. It’s that some sudden scents are somehow like those reported by saints and holy people and those on the journey of loving soul to soul, causing a person, a creature, even a flower, to pause and feel in all one’s cells, the grandeur, the peace and the magnitude in and all around oneself. Simple Being. Simply being.clarissa's rules

May it be so for us all. Regardless of rivers clotted with offal, regardless of clear sky-open blue water, rather because of both of these environs, let us row onward to the best of our loving abilities, each in his own way, each in her own way, as each see fit in the broadcast range of Love.

this comes with love, and also with Love,
dr.e

The Thin Light of the Moment

fireThere’s no better time than this moment right now, while that sliver of love is just barely still present in the night sky, to light a fire, to burn off some of the old and extraneous, and make room for something new.

It’s like our souls know this. It’s time again, they whisper. Or perhaps it’s just the souls of those of us who have always been conscious of the rhythms of the universe, those of us who have bled with these rhythms, those of us who know that it is a good thing to shed that which has become unwieldy and far too heavy. Perhaps it is just the souls of those of us who knew, even as children, the comfort offered by a patch of grass and a cold windy dawn, those who have always ached with the beauty of nature and known our connection to the air and water and soil and the process of photosynthesis, which truly and literally are our essence, our life.

Perhaps this sitting by the thin light of a sliver of a moon and a bonfire is only for those of us who know the only hope for our sometimes deeply-eroded and polluted joy is exactly the same one we hold for our broken oceans and lands: take a step back from immediate gratification and remember our origins: We are made of the earth; we are divine cosmic miracles, with an innate ability to renew and heal and create.

So light the fire, and exhale, exhale, exhale. Exhale the heavy particles that have for so long robbed you of vitality. Inhale hope. Trust the alchemy our bodies and souls are capable of in the dark of the night, alchemy that has turned rage to courage and joy before, and can do it again. Trust our enormous capacity to tolerate and survive and gather up the scattered pieces of our lives. We need not fear the ache in our bones and mitochondria; we need not fear our rage; we need only compassion for it in ourselves, and in each other. Though it may be a craggy high place we have climbed to, we need only to keep returning to oxygen, to our hearts, sore as they may be, and we’ll find that even at this altitude we can light a fire, and find enough air to breathe.

So by the light of the fire, we wait. We wait for the sliver of love hanging in the sky to grow into bright and pregnant fullness again.

And as we wait, we’ll find that, even here, our voices can remain both strong and gentle. We’ll find that the words so often stuck in our throats can return to facilitate the transformation that takes place in our bodies when our truth reaches the ears of an empathetic human being who too has sat often by this same fire. We’ll find that as our words land upon the soul of that other, it becomes possible to integrate a little more of what we know in our minds and our bodies. We’ll see that those scattered bits of soul lying all around us are still glowing, waiting to be loved and reintegrated. It is here in the soft darkness that we, like the naked infant in the incubator, grow strong.

Here, in the firelight, we know deeply that we are not kings of the universe, but rather keepers of it, part of it. We know deeply that we carry within us an ultimately indestructible divine essence. We begin to know at the level of our mitochondria that there is no shame in not having filled the soul of another by reflecting exactly what they wanted us to reflect, no shame in not fitting a convenient template. It is here we learn that there is no shame in the ways we’ve found to carry on, and there is no shame in our needs, our thoughts, our creativity, our desires and dreams and feelings. There is no shame in putting an end to mirroring what others are begging us to mirror, no shame in asserting that this, what we are putting forward now, though not what they had hoped, is in fact who we are. There is no shame in having thought for too long we might fill their emptiness. There is no shame in being female, and there is no shame in saying no. There is no shame in the rips and patches in our party dresses; we’re still coming to the party.

It is here, waiting by the fire, that we know the pointing fingers of others simply mean they have forgotten how to see and feel and feed their own souls in the thin light of the moment.

(Photo credit: Marcus Obal, Wikimedia Commons)

Invisible Loyalties

me babyThey took her baby, a beautiful, blue-eyed baby girl I’m told, to the infirmary for medical care. It appeared to be nothing serious at all though in the end, so she told them she thought her little girl was well enough to be with her, rather than in their care.

They told her to come back in the morning; they would discharge her then. She went back in the morning, and they told her that her infant had died in the night. They never did produce a body though. I can’t imagine the horror.

Many decades later, a Family Constellations therapist tells me my grandmother suffered the loss of a baby, possibly two, one of them definitely a girl. I resist the statement, argue a little with him, tell him he could have no way of knowing this. But afterwards, I call my cousin to find out.

He was right, and suddenly my grandmother’s life—the magnitude of her losses and their impact on her family, on all of us in her tribe—came into focus. She’d lost her firstborn too, to SIDS or childhood illness of some sort, and then years later, was taken into a prisoner of war camp and separated from more of her children, not knowing whether they were dead or alive, utterly helpless to protect them or feed them or reassure them in the ways mothers are desperate to do for their children.

The story explains the tidal wave of pain that landed in our home when my grandmother moved in to live with us for a number of years. It explains what split her in two, what kept much of her soul hidden beneath a brittle, impervious, irritable outer layer. Why she saw not so much the unique beauty of her grandchildren when she looked at us, but rather only loss.

The story explains why she wandered the hallway outside my bedroom in the night when I was a child, why she’d stand in the shadows to watch us sleep, and why she turned gruffly away when aware she’d been noticed. It explains why she accused me of stealing things from her bedroom, even though I was too afraid to go into it, and why she disliked me utterly, for nothing more than having a runny nose. It explains, at least in part, why I wanted so desperately, even back then, to protect my mother. Why I loved her fried potatoes, but disliked my grandmother’s.

It explains why my grandmother and I never bonded even though she lived with us, and why I never thought to go to her funeral at her passing when I was seventeen years old. It explains why it took almost four decades for me to experience her as a human being, to weep for her losses, and for the way they have continued to ripple out into the lives of those who have come after her.

My grandmother was one of thousands who suffered this, I’ve learned—12,000 perfect babies were taken from their mothers during this time, to further the supposedly superior Aryan race. Many thousands of families on all sides were torn apart in a million ways during that horrible war. The aftershocks that have continued to impact so many are difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

But somehow the psychological legacy left by these experiences now makes perfect sense to me. It explains my inordinately powerful desire to protect children, parents, anyone that seems vulnerable. It explains invisible loyalties to vague but powerful feelings of guilt and failure. It explains my terror of being charged with negligence somehow, and potentially having to live with an unbearable sense of shame and self-recrimination. It explains the ever-ready flight-or-fight response so common in the family, the energy that goes into avoiding pain and conflict, my resistance to systems that claim authority and demand allegiance.

They say, in the simplest of epigenetic explanations, that our genes literally show the famines our grandmothers suffered. Do these tendencies then, present in so many variations in so many of us in the extended family, not make perfect sense in light of the fact that my grandmother was utterly impotent in the face of the thieves that tore apart her family and life?

In the weeks since my family’s story has come to my awareness, I’ve felt sorrow, but I’ve ironically also been basking in a warm glow of something I can’t quite find words for. It involves, of course, admiration and gratitude and love for my parents, for the courage, determination and resilience they have so tenaciously clung to.

But it is also a warm glow of gratitude and affection for the woman who has lent her professional skills to help me unravel some of the knots of my life, my family’s life, and who has held out hope that no matter how many and large the knots, no matter how strong the hold of the reflexes that have carried us, there is a way to undo them. I understand the term transference, and though she’s not mentioned it, I’m sure it’s apt for how I feel right now. But I also don’t know anything more appropriate than gratitude and affection in response to the depth of my experience with her.

Being deeply understood by another is profoundly moving and hopeful. And the experience of having my story move her—though it is one of countless many she has heard—is equally profound. How can I feel anything but gratitude and affection?

Mother and Child

me momIn the hours before coming back to consciousness, I was aware of one thing only: the warm and bright glow of love that belonged to a world in that moment removed from me. It came in the image of plump, small-child arms around my neck, those of my babies, all three of them in this moment babies again, their smooth and perfect faces burrowed in my neck. My husband was present too, his beautiful warm hands in mine. It was the most vivid and powerful sweetness—love, love that called me back to consciousness.

It was an anesthesia and morphine-induced trip, and exactly two years later, during the deepest of winters, it has come back to help me.

Winter this year brought with it a psychic winter for me, a slowing far beyond my normal northern-climate hibernation tendencies. I was fully aware that I was mourning the losses that accompanied my cancer treatment, but I slowly became aware that it was more than that. There was of course the abrupt withdrawal of estrogen and all hormones once gloriously energizing. There was the aching and wasting of muscles that once carried me easily, the passing of my youth, the passing of an acceptable quality of hair on my head, an empty nest, and underemployment. It was a feeling of having been tossed into a scrap-yard of sorts, one filled with elderly people lacking the vitality admired by society, the stamina required by employers.

But it was more than that, as my restless insomniac nights and the therapist I’d found slowly taught me. At her suggestion, I added to my toolkit the practice of meditation. What came to me as I stopped for a short time each day to focus on bringing warmth to the sore pocket within was a variation of the vision that had come to me in my post-surgical morphine-induced high two years earlier.

Now, my babies were on my shoulders again, their arms around my neck, but, as is possible only in these deeply relaxed altered states, I was at the same time present on my own mother’s shoulder, my arms around her neck, as was she on the shoulders of her mother, and she in turn on the shoulder of hers, as far back as the eye could see.

We inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers, always, I’ve now learned, and much strength and healing lies in that long, long line of mothers that has gone before us.

My mother’s pain originated in large part with the tanks that rolled through her long-ago home in Germany. These tanks mercilessly scattered the family, leaving a bright-eyed, beautiful, playful young child without the safety and warmth of her mother and her large and safe family, and instead, on the run with one older sibling.

For months they slept in barns and begged a little food, and watched as soldiers poked their rifles into the hay, looking for beautiful young women. In the end, there was simply nothing for them to do with their trauma—they were mere children. So they stored it deep within, in order to survive. And much later, when they’d finally been reunited with their parents and siblings, they left it packed away, and boarded a ship to a far-away country, where they knew nobody and no way to communicate, and for a long time, only years of hard, hard work.

This is what my mother and I, without understanding it, were for so long afraid to see when we looked at each other, this was the substance of a veil that has at times obscured clear sight. What she survived had left a potent biochemical imprint, and the veil through which we looked at each other was a protective one, born of love.

Hope is, as we all know, resilient. My mother married, and her traumatized self gave birth to me, and then to four more children. She and my father made a new life for themselves in sunny and windy southern Alberta. They loved and cared for us and for each other with every ounce of energy human beings can possibly have. They worked endlessly to make ends meet. They built a home with their own hands, quite literally, and grew everything that could possibly be grown in the backyard, and then canned or froze enough to feed us all through the winter months.

We picnicked and went to church and sang and camped and spent long-weekends hiking in Waterton National Park. My mother baked and cooked and hosted guests and learned the language and ways of the new country. She let us make play-tents in the living room, and nursed us through chicken pox and measles and other nameless fevers. And after years and years of babies and growing bodies and hungry mouths, happy times and frightening times and sad times, and finally faced with an empty nest, my parents rallied once again and threw themselves into making blankets for those with none, sending food to the hungry, visiting those in prison. They volunteered at the second hand store, and took care of the babies in the church nursery.

The cold heartless machines that stole childhood from my mother took from my grandmother almost everything too. She came to the new country, but was too tired to learn the new language, and too tired to know where to begin with her vastly altered psyche, and so it, to a large extent, remained raw and sore.

A number of years ago I heard the term epigenetics, and learned that our genes reflect the pain our parents and grandparents lived. And then, in this dark winter that ironically followed a full eighteen months after going into remission from my cancer, I became ever more conscious of how desperately I loved my mother and my own children, how much the protective veil between us has at times blurred our vision, how much I missed looking into their eyes.

What these images were about—the one of the veil, and the one of my babies and my mother and all those many, many mothers and daughters and sons before us—was hope. Hope that on the shoulders of those who came before us, breathing in the divine essence of creation we become able to bear anything and heal those sore spots within.

My mother’s blue eyes have always held nothing but pure love.

Spring

spring 3I’ve been reminded, not just cerebrally, but in the shape of deeper knowing and experience, that spring is a most glorious gift. And that it often comes on the heels of deep, deep sleep.

And sleep, another of those most glorious of gifts, comes on the heels of a decreased stress response, on the heels of the hard, hard work that facilitates how we respond to injury. It comes on the heels of acceptance and peace, and a rise in anti-stress hormones.

To wake in the morning deliciously and deeply relaxed, to feel at one with your bed, to stir with gratitude and gentle anticipation of the new day, these are not things to be taken for granted. They’re truly not, though we tend to, until they’ve become elusive for one reason or another.

What just may have the potential to bring spring, that return to the budding of new life, can be many things, but it often involves persevering through something that is utterly exhausting. It involves a stanching of the bleeding or weeping that has long been sapping our energy, leaving us depleted and anxious and paralyzed.

There are many levels to this, in my experience: Insight into the origin of the wound beneath the weeping, yes, but insight that must finally translate into wisdom, a deeper knowing, right down to the DNA of our cells.

How this takes place is a little mysterious to me, but I do know there are many avenues to this transformation, and many key ingredients.

Key ingredients include courage, patience, resolve. The willingness to take risks. Investigation into the reasons we have lost our resilience, or voice, or ability to take action. It involves refusing defeat. It involves accepting that which cannot be changed at this particular moment, but determinedly pursuing happiness nonetheless. It involves knowing our essence is indestructible, no matter how injured or fatigued our body and psyche may at times become.

Change of this sort ends up changing us chemically also, at the level of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones, and physically, in the new paths our neurons forge. And I believe the reverse is also true—the raw materials of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones must be present to work synergistically with the psychic ingredients to facilitate the process of healing and deep change.

Once we’ve persevered through this process, and not given in to fatigue or the temptation to take the easier path, we begin to see more clearly. We become less vulnerable to further injury. We become less naïve, stronger, more creative and resilient. We remember again how to nurture and affirm ourselves. We counter negative messages with messages that though we are imperfect, we’ve been devoted and given our best. We take back much of what has been lost. We are no longer caught off-guard by the thieves within our own psyches, nor by those events and people around us bent on putting our lights out. We begin to register their presence early enough to take a different path, one bordered by tiny buds of promising new growth.

I’m so honored and happy to have been given much love through the winter, and to welcome spring again, and to be on this path with a small but brilliantly shining tribe of human beings.

Knocked Down, But Not For Long

beach 2You, my friend, have been knocked down by a giant wave, a hard and cold one that stole much, but you can start moving again. I know this, even if it’s only a crawl for now, and the second you begin, you will feel stronger and more optimistic. You’ve only temporarily forgotten that it’s okay to take risks, but you have, deep within, a healer that remembers. Moving and tasting new experiences aren’t things we ever forget how to do, not fully. Trying and failing is in our genes; it’s how we learn everything.

And while sitting on the shoreline taking stock and getting your bearings for a while serves a purpose, there is no point in thinking too long and hard about which single action will be safest and most sure to fix that something you desperately want fixed. We find our way and strength again by roving, tasting, trying, and failing. There is no other way to make it to the burial ground we need to find, no other way to gather the ingredients we’ll need to nourish a new plot of soil in which to grow new dreams.

What we sometimes temporarily forget is this: trying new things doesn’t have to translate into a permanent new hobby. Creative work doesn’t have to be marketable to be therapeutic. Work doesn’t have to come with a big paycheck to be meaningful and valuable. Courses don’t have to lead to certification to be beneficial. Meeting new people doesn’t have to replace old friends. Movement doesn’t have to be pain-free to bring strength. All of these however, enrich and expand life. There is joy and strength to be found in a million things, even in the face of great loss.

There’s a reason they get us out of bed quickly after surgery: despite the accompanying pain, it gets blood and energy flowing again. Neither psychic nor physical muscle can develop the strength it needs to withstand the next wave while we lie there with the old injury.

So cry, yes, but don’t forget to keep moving. Swim in some really great music. Sing along or dance if you can. Create something. Hold a baby. Cook, write, paint, plant some seeds. Play a game. Watch things that make you laugh. Meditate. Go for a walk or to a yoga class. Love somebody. Lose yourself in a great story. Volunteer to help someone. Try something completely new. Take the first step toward something, anything. Feel your pain, but don’t spend too much thinking about the how and why, just embrace it, and begin moving. All of these actions have at various times in the past effectively brought me back to health and balance. They will work for you too.

Anything and everything that can bring us out of our heads—out of the past and regret, out of the future and magical thinking—and rather into the present, is of inestimable value. Being present to the moment involves seeing, noticing, listening, paying close attention to things outside our heads. The color of another’s eyes, the fatigue in her voice, the changes in the room, the air, the crowd, what tastes good right now, what gives us energy, all of it. It involves paying close attention to what is, both that for which we’re grateful, and that which we need to mourn. Gratitude and mourning are not, by the way, mutually exclusive. Both are the antidote to fear.

We have, since the advent of pharmaceutical medicine, been conditioned to believe in magic bullet fixes for all that ails us, but there are no quick fixes for real healing, only the hard work of acceptance and remaining present to all of life. Nor are healing and strength and joy something we arrive at permanently. There’s always another wave, and balance is fluid, and requires muscle.

So stay at the shoreline for a short while, yes, but begin to ask yourself what small thing you can do today that will nurture and fortify you right now for the tasks of laying to rest dreams that have died, and of cultivating soil that will grow new ones. And then move, even if it’s only a couple of inches. It is, after all, spring.