Oxygen to say Good-Bye with

“It’s going to be an awesome winter,” I said to my husband in early October, which it has been, weather-wise, but the gloriously rare warm fall temperatures have belied the internal chill and fatigue some of us were feeling: Months and months of running from our ghosts by way of working too much, playing too hard; filling our brains, emptying our brains—anything at all to distract from the giant, full reservoirs of dark, cold water lapping at our feet, ready to knock us completely off our balance.

Planted squarely in the centre of each of the women’s stories in my mind this morning—the stories of good and generous and amazing human beings I care about deeply—there lies a fresh experience of trauma, of physical pain, of toxic words from pivotal figures, of freshly fed, strong, quickly-burrowing brain worms.

Then, an open valve on the dam, a little overflow, a foreshadowing of something new, a series of key events. For one of the women on my mind today, it was a weekend shared with a small group of women who understand something absolutely essential about her recent experience, and who were able to remain fully present to it with her, help her hold the weight of it, massage it, and change its shape profoundly.

For another, it was another vessel—a quiet, warm, wood-fired retreat, again with a circle of women keen to bear witness to her experience and to understand deeply—a vessel and period of hours during which something deeply lodged beneath her ribs was put into words and images and emotion and a thousand blood-red rose petals.

For others, it was other vessels still—dear, familiar ones of church and family and home that resonated and healed most deeply.

And for others of us yet, it was a hot little fire in the river valley on the night of the winter solstice and the dark moon a few weeks ago. A small circle of like minds, a bundle of fragrant sage, and in our hands, little keys in the form of words on paper, images, artifacts, all meant for the fire. We smudged ourselves and our circle. We spoke in turn, placed our representations into the fire, and then stood and watched the flames. We felt some space open up around us, and inside of us, making room for something new to spark into flame.

We returned to our families, to holiday preparations, festivities, love, and apple cider—apple cider, which this year, with that Cognac and those million sticks of cinnamon and little foreign things my daughter brought from her specialty spice store, was divinely none like any I’d ever had. We ate exquisitely spiced squash and utterly gourmet not-steamed Brussels sprouts and festive foods of all kinds. We played and laughed and celebrated.

Darkness is only utter blackness when the candles won’t stay lit for lack of oxygen, when we can’t find our way to the truth and look it squarely in the eye. Hope, goodwill, peace, and cheer become genuine possibilities again only when everything moves from life underground to a place in free-flowing oxygen.

Nothing is different, and yet everything is, too. What makes it different: Being able to breathe again without boulders beneath our ribs. Holding in the palms of our hands and with our eyes wide open the truth of what we know about ourselves in this moment, about what is inevitable and what is not. Seeing clearly what has gone up in flames and lost its charge. Recognizing that which was a lie, utterly false. Seeing that which needed to be, but no longer needs to be: I am not what she said; you are not what he said; none of us are what we fear. We are all so much more.

We will walk into the New Year tonight with more clarity, more muscle, more freedom to express our truth, whether that truth is laughter or deep grief or anger or all three. And even when that clarity spotlights the juxtaposition of joy with a million unrelenting cruelties of the universe, we will walk into it with an infinitely deeper ability for the simple and profound gift of pleasure and love.

Night Skies, Fires, Songs, Remissions

fire“We must sit at the fire and think about which song we will use to sing over the bones, which creation hymn, which re-creation hymn,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “These are some good questions to ask till one decides on the song, one’s true song: …What are the buried bones of my life? In what condition is my relationship to the instinctual Self? When was the last time I ran free? …The old woman sings over the bones, and as she sings, the bones flesh out.”

This sitting by the fire takes time, and ideally, includes the warmth of fellow travellers. And it isn’t something that needs doing only once in life, or twice, not unless you’re infinitely luckier than most.

I am so thankful. For the many, many good things in my life, yes, for remission status confirmed again, yes, yes, yes! But perhaps even more so for the bright stars and warmth so often around the fire with me. For those who understand that the waiting period preceding the verdict on my remission status is a time of (to use Victor Frankl’s term) provisional existence—a time for sitting by the fire. (Thanks to my friend Ike for the reminder.)

This sitting by the fire is never easy, not for anyone, no matter the reason for it. Not when it’s our own new song we’re searching for and learning to sing, nor when we are present to another trying to find and learn theirs. And I sometimes have to be reminded that not everyone is comfortable with sitting by the fire. It is however, in my view, a wonderfully rich experience, at least as wondrous as it is to be present for the light of day that follows night, the joyous times that come in the wake of discovering even the first few lines of the new song with which we’ll begin to sing flesh back onto our stripped-bare bones.

There are, if we keep our eyes open, always others ready and willing to sit by the fire with us as we search for new songs. The humility and patience and emotional vulnerability, the generosity and grace and courage and compassion of these bright stars make them the most miraculous of human beings to me, the kind whose very presence is healing. My night sky has often been brilliantly lit, and kept the fires of gratitude stoked. I hope I am this kind of star for you too—now, tomorrow, whenever.

Dad

dad baby carriage

“I have to get my pacemaker replaced,” my father told me the other night on the phone, “the battery only lasts so long.” I, being strongly averse to needles and knives breaking my skin, immediately murmured an empathetic “oh no, I’m so sorry,” to which he responded with, “Oh it’s not a big deal, just a local anesthetic, and I can watch the whole thing on a TV screen. It’s more fun than going to the dentist or watching a football game.”

I laughed, and decided that his perspective may have a little something to do with things like having lived on potato scraps from the garbage cans of the elite when food was nearly impossible to come by in Germany all those years ago. Or with his beginnings here in Canada: a menial job, an utterly foreign language, dinner out of a can placed directly on the heat source.

He graduated to a better job, got married, and took out a loan to build his growing family a home, which he spent his evenings building, and which he paid off entirely in eleven years. He rode his bike to work in southern Alberta hurricane-strength winds and frigid temperatures. (Now, at almost 85, he still rides his bike around town.) He’d known deep, deep hunger, and, determined that none of his children ever would, he planted a garden big enough to feed an entire village. He taught us the joys of simple things: a sun-warmed fresh ripe tomato off the vine for a snack, sweet peas, crisp cucumber, corn-on-the cob.

On holiday Mondays, he and my mother took us all hiking at Waterton National Park, and, on hot summer weekends, on picnic suppers and to go swimming in the local pond to cool down. When I was ten, he bought me a bike, which I adored. In winter, he pulled us to church on a sled. Eventually he bought a Valiant, in which we went camping every summer after that, all seven of us piling in, alongside an orange canvas tent the size of a hotel and everything else we’d need for two weeks. We were sardines in the back seat, wedged in on top of sleeping bags that filled all available foot space, but we loved our time at the lake.

After he’d taught me how to drive that Valiant with its moody clutch, he once forgave me for parking it on a hill without putting it in gear or engaging the parking brake, landing it squarely in the branches of a tree while I was in City Hall taking care of something I now have no memory of.

He taught me to love pickled herring, dark heavy bread (which my mother baked weekly), potatoes drizzled with oil or butter, fresh garden vegetables. Together with my mother, he taught me the value of community and faith, of visiting the sick and the imprisoned. He taught me the value of hard work, of honesty and integrity. (For as far back as I can remember, he’d refuse a glass of wine based on principle: for his insurance rate or something of that nature, he’d said he didn’t drink, so he never did, the only exception being the tiniest sip of communion wine at church.) He taught me the beauty of books, classical music, hymns sung in glorious four-part harmony. He taught me that there is a story beyond our own, and showed me what it looks like for a man to love a woman unfailingly and deeply.

For this, and much more, thank-you Dad; I love you and happy Father’s Day.

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.

What Can Happen in a Second?

What can happen in a second? You can take a risk, and be glad you did. You can go from searing pain to locking eyes with your newborn and never be the same again. You can set aside your anger and shame and go to that meeting and meet someone who will last the rest of your life. You can learn you have cancer. You can learn you are in remission. You can decide to make contact with the stranger who happens to know something of your experience and end up forging a wonderful friendship. You can permit fear to paralyze you and make the biggest mistake of your life and almost lose everything. You can forgive yourself. You can let go, or hang on. You can reject, or embrace. You can argue, or listen. You can put on pause your racing mind and legs, and for a moment feel deeply alive. You can give, and you can receive. You can remember to breathe, and be surprised and see clearly and swim in gratitude and love.

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