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.

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The Plunge: +30 to -30

She is tall and has an intricately patterned tattoo of small raised dots on her face. She smiles, says hello, extends her hand in greeting, and we walk together to the room where we will work on her English language skills. To get an idea of her vocabulary, we begin with some pictures. She knows the colour black, but it’s the only colour she can identify. She identifies some of the items in the pictures I show her in English, but most of them she identifies in her mother tongue, an obscure language that is one of many indigenous languages in her country of origin. I try out her language with each image, repeating after her, which, judging from her smile, seems to either please or amuse her. Then I say the word I’m after in English, which she repeats after me.

Though she has grand-children, she has never been to school. It’s slow work, and the sounds are difficult for her, the shape of our language on paper even more so. But she is eager and determined and seems to like it. In her nascent English, she tells me I should visit her country, that I would be a good student. I feel honored, and tell her she is a good student.

Then, shaking her head, she says, “my country, war. Always, always, war. Bad.”

I ask if she has family. “Husband, dead. Sons, dead. War.”

I try to take this in. I can’t. I feel an immense heaviness though, so perhaps I have taken it in. It has tapped into a feeling I carry around a lot sometimes, a feeling that the world is darker and bigger and crueler than I once believed.

I tell her I’m very sorry, and we resume our work. “What did you have for breakfast?” I ask. She searches for words. I prompt her. “Toast?” She nods. “Do you like jam on your toast?” She looks at me blankly, then out the window, where a small group of men are standing on the sidewalk smoking. The sun is shining, but they are wearing toques and winter coats. “Cold?” she asks. “Yes, it’s cold outside.”

“Cold outside,” she echoes. Pointing, I say, “they are outside; we are inside. They are cold; we are warm. My shirt is black; your shirt is red. This is my bag; that is your book.” They, we, mine, yours, this, that. She echoes me. I ask what colour her shirt is. “Your shirt is red,” she says. “No, my shirt is black, your shirt is red.” Her face lights up and she points at herself. “My shirt is red!” Bingo.

In response to an image of a sea turtle, her eyes widen in horror, and, shaking her head, she says, “bad.” Then she half mimes, half tells me a story of one lying in wait for a swimmer and snapping his toes off, blood everywhere. I’m skeptical, and tell her no, that can’t be, I swam with sea turtles once. Her eyes widen further. They don’t bite, I tell her. She insists they do. I check it out later, and yes, some of them do.

Sometimes when I arrive she is eager and waiting, ready to display her completed homework. She has moved from barely knowing her alphabet, to proudly pulling it out at the start of a recent session and going through it almost perfectly.

Other times, she is tired, headachy, foggy. “Medication,” she says. She shows me her written work. I tell her it’s good. “You tell me, if no good,” she insists. I promise I will.

I show her a picture of chocolate ice cream. “Not good,” she tells me. “Cold.” I tell her I love ice cream in summer. She laughs. “Yes, in summer. February now? Then March? Then… summer in June? Go outside in June, eat ice cream in June. In my country, not cold.”

One day she tells me about the fire alarm that has gone off in her building since I last saw her. “Too cold, not go outside,” she says, “I die.”

We talk about many things over the course of our meetings, much of which neither of us understand fully. But we make progress. She wants to know where I live, and is pleased that I am close by. She is going to be moving, and wants to make sure I will come to her new place too. One day she smiles at me and says “You are beautiful,” and I’m not sure I heard her correctly. She repeats it, clearly. I tell her she is beautiful also. She smiles. “You come tomorrow,” she asks? “I’ll come again in two days,” I tell her. She smiles again, and when I leave, instead of extending her hand as she normally does, she reaches out and hugs me.

Her warmth and courage might just be antidote enough for the heaviness I feel at the random cruelty of the universe.

You are so Beautiful

The flame in our centre wobbles with our breath, but perseveres. The faces in the room begin to soften, skin and eyes seem clearer than when we began an hour ago—breath and focus and careful quiet words must be exfoliating and clarifying agents, I decide, capable of clearing away the detritus, permitting light to pass through, creating an environment in which buried pain and fear might surface, in which color and story might take shape.

Lying in bed afterwards, the memory of the tapestry we’ve begun to weave fresh in my mind, listening to January rain melt chunks of ice and snow off the roof, I felt strength and joy pulsing in my core. It’s a tapestry taking shape from thick rough scratchy charcoal and brown threads, thinner and brighter and smoother gold and purple and red ones, threads of grief and joy and love brought with us into that sacred space.

We had candles lit for each of us present, and for those powerfully on our minds. Your good friend, gone now, forever and far too soon from her babies, your own grief fresh on your face. The grand-baby that was supposed to arrive in this world this Christmas and didn’t. The baby lost at birth all those many years ago, and still somehow present now. The child struck down by a car, the parents and friends laying down their torch to illness or old age, the ordinary women living with the ghosts of common cancers. The fierce love and protection mothers feel for their babies, and the fear and denial it can give birth to. The strength it can also give birth to, strength and intuition that eventually puncture denial and know when enough suffering has been enough. The fear of knowing deeply there is much beyond our control, that we have little choice as to when we must say good-bye to a mother, a father, a friend or husband or wife, a son or a daughter.

So many threads of our souls added to the tapestry that evening. It’s a good gathering though when we can bring these with a mind to cover the walls and floors of our lives with colors and textures as rich as this. You are beautiful and unusual and brave, my fellow sojourners, and these threads have added so much.

All Hallows’ Eve

I held you in my dreams that night, like I used to, when you were afraid long ago. I didn’t know yet exactly the features of the thing that had broadsided me, and then you, but I had seen it’s shape in the dark, and it brought tears even before full impact. And you were so kind, giving to me that afternoon before you felt its full impact.

I’ve known for some time this day would come, a very long time really.  And though I didn’t know its features exactly, not like I know the features of your face, I knew its shape, I knew it would come and land in our house. I thought my fear might stop it, but fear stops nothing.

Now that it’s here, it helps a little to see its face more clearly, its features, its origins. Still, it hurts as much as I feared. How can it not, when the patches have just come from your eyes, the skin off your flesh, and it has reminded me so much of how my own came off? How can it not when I know how it has all come to be, and that it could not be any other way?

But I have to thank you for being the one to hand me the floodlight to see it all clearly this time. You amaze me sometimes.

A good floodlight, in the form of words on a page, or the face of another who is intimately familiar with the features of the thing that broadsided you, can be a wonderful thing. It is how we see fully the dynamic that injured us, and the exact nature of the injury, which of course is necessary to know which bones to set, which medicines to take. It is what is necessary to help us get our bearings, to see exactly where we are, and where we must go next. It illumines the ground on which we find ourselves in the wake of the collision, and helps us recognize exactly what we must mourn in order for our souls to regenerate.

We, all of us in one way or another, stand on a ground of so many losses. They comprise our foundation as much as does the solid, good beauty beneath us. And the losses are as worthy of traditions that honor them as is the bounty we celebrate at Thanksgiving—it has been my experience that it is only in properly honoring them that they can transform from something rigid and toxic into something fertile and sustaining, something firm enough to support both the laughter and the tears.

You have surveyed other crash sites by other floodlights, I know, but this floodlight is perhaps the brightest and most painful yet.

This lingering on what has come into sharp focus, I can hear some of you saying, is unnecessary; focus on the positive. I disagree. Because without the searing honesty of the floodlight at the scene of the collision, none of the truth of it—not our fears, nor the ways we found to survive, nor the injuries sustained—will be laid out bare and naked, which is essential if we are going to be able to discern exactly what has been broken, where the flow of blood needs stanching, what needs mending, and later, which muscles need exercise.

This is the reason I need to put into words the darkness and the fact of the collision scenes we sometimes find ourselves sitting at. Words have the power to bring to the surface the tears we need to shed. Words have the power to take that which is within and lay it out where it can be seen, where others can help us pick up the shards and help us mourn. And unless we mourn, we cannot grow the soul and resilience we need to live fully.

It is by the illumination of the floodlight that our resistance is disarmed and we can begin to honor that which we find in the dark and transform it into something new and life-sustaining. It is how we can begin to see that things could not have been any other way, how we let go of resistance, shame, and blame. It is what enables us to stop saying If Only. It illumines exactly how our flexibility and bounce have been eroded, how our backs and kidneys have become fatigued, and how we might heal. It is in the light of the floodlight that suffering can begin to ease, that we find the strength to bury that which must be buried.

Our nights are getting so long now. The ground is spread with red and yellow as striking, in their own way, as the blooms of spring. It’s a good time to honor that which darkness read and yellow leavesrepresents, a good time to be coming up on All Hallow’s Eve, a good time to remember that life and death, joy and sorrow are hallowed, worthy of honor. And it’s a good time to be thankful for light that illuminates the darkness.

And you, heart of my heart, will not be alone as you do this work; you too have an entire tribe of us who have gone before you standing there with you.

The Mulching Machine

There’s a giant mulching machine parked outside my house, and the lovely smiling woman who operates it has invited me to bring the debris that has been clogging the air ducts of my home to her. She is beyond kind and understanding. You can leave it here, she tells me, we’ll mulch it, there is nothing that can’t be mulched, and you can use it to fill and cover that giant hole you keep falling into. And maybe with time, it’ll fill in enough to hold and nourish and keep moist some flowers and a nice little shade tree.

So I try it out, and little by little, the rooms of my house are being fed fresh air again. I’ve been building some new muscle too, carrying the debris out there.

Sometimes the short-term result of exposure to the pretty potent dust being stirred up has been deep, deep aching and swollen red eyes in the morning. Some of my dear friends have thought perhaps the debris, whatever its nature, better left in the ducts. But though it’s potent in the mulching process, it is all organic material, and perhaps not as potent as it might initially seem? Perhaps even less potent than left in the ducts? And besides, where would I live once all the fresh air has been cut off, and how will I ever have a party again without fresh air and heat flowing to all the rooms of my house?

When the ducts have been cleared and the mulching machine has moved on and the aching has receded I will water and enjoy the shade tree. I will enjoy the fresh air inside too, and perhaps have a party. And I will savour the image and words of the lovely woman who invited my offerings of ancient duct-blocking debris. She will remain forever etched in my memory as beautiful.

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?

Rain, New Life

new growth 2I saw it in her face the second I saw her today—heartbreak. I remember a day exactly a month ago when she’d been on my mind all day. I remember staring out my sixth floor window that day, past the large building that obstructs much of my view of the street below, through the space between buildings, at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre below.

We were one day away from May then, and it was snowing. I was warm and comfortable in my little cave, but imagining those lying in the beds across the street, those in need of palliative or hospice care, those whose bodies have in some way betrayed them, I was uncomfortable too—my friend was at another hospital that morning, the Cross Cancer Institute, for yet another follow-up scan. I’d offered to accompany her, but like me, she mostly prefers to make these trips alone.

Images of my sojourn at the Cross two years ago made their inevitable march through my mind: Beautiful young women with full heads of hair just beginning their foray into the terrifying world of treatment. Young children with not a strand left on their heads. Pale and frail and thin men, women and children who had been all but defeated, and who looked resigned to feeling betrayed.

The mere thought of the place lands in my consciousness like a meteor, always. We are, in part as a result of modern medicine’s promise to keep death at bay indefinitely, a death-phobic culture, true. But it is more than that. Wanting to live is a fact of being human. Wanting to remain present in the body to those we love is powerful. So is the desire to live well. But the amazing new interventions that we gratefully chase in our desperation to buy some grace and time, can, little by little over time, should our cancers return, take from us our autonomy, vitality, comfort, dignity.

These are the things we think about sometimes, those of us who have been inducted into the world of cancer. We work, and we play, and we eat and laugh and dance with gratitude, but we are also very aware that sweetness is ephemeral.

We know that it is more important to live well than to live forever, but we fear we may not always be able to live well, and that we may be nowhere near ready to say good-bye when our bodies determine we must. We notice life everywhere, babies and vibrantly bright green poking through where months and months of snow and ice have finally melted. And this heightened awareness of life’s sweetness comes with a heightened awareness of the grim reaper hiding in the shadows.

We think about these things not because we’re guilty of choosing negative thinking over positive, but because we must, because the scare we got was enormous, because our cancer or chemo-rattled mitochondria remind us as often as our inboxes alert us to new email that we have been altered. This can be a very deep hole to climb out of, and it can leave us a little vulnerable in other areas of our lives.

This is what I saw in my friend’s face today—her vulnerability, but with some kind of new crushing blow clearly added to it. When she was diagnosed they’d told her it was too late for chemo, it was metastatic and too far gone, to which she responded by taking matters into her own hands, which is another story for another day.

But two weeks ago when the results of her scan returned, she learned she has no active cancer sites left in her body. All’s well that ends well, right? Not always as quickly as that, not from what I’ve observed and experienced. For my friend, the emotional punch of being told it was hopeless remains active, and the million receptors for hormones that once empowered and energized her remain hungry. And now, a new layer of grief: her engagement has ended. She knows it was probably inevitable, but still—saying good-bye to a best friend from this vulnerable place is almost impossible for me to imagine.

We walked out into a spring downpour after our visit, no jackets, our bare feet in bare little summer shoes, but the sound and smell of the rain was beautiful and soothing to me somehow, and carried a little hope that it might, with a little time, wash away some of what has died in my friend and feed new life again. I’m not sure she felt it just yet, but she will, I know she will. There are many ways to be loved, and many ways to regain strength.