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.

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.

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.

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.

Blueberry Hazelnut Chocolate Afternoons

It’s a blueberry hazelnut chocolate afternoon. Work will have to wait a moment.

I know. I’ve had a number of (fairly brief) purist stages in my life, but as they have never really yielded the desired results I no longer have them, and anyhow, chocolate and weather go together.

The rain outside the open window is drenching and gorgeous, the open windows in my mind stimulating, energizing. The memory of last night’s deeply restorative sleep is equally as gorgeous as the rain, as is the memory of the day we spent together yesterday, you and I, talking and reading and lunching in the warm, moist, soft summer air.

We’re bigger inside than we thought, wiser, stronger. We only sometimes, as when we have temporarily lost our grip on the things that have anchored us in the past, need to be reminded of this by another. And thank goodness for those who do remind us, and who can help us create new anchors for ourselves in our new realities. Thank goodness for the power of validation, for the medical doctor and the mental health professional who simply say, Yes, what has happened to you is familiar to me, and it is utterly debilitating; you are not crazy or weak, and I have a few tricks up my sleeve that have helped many others in your shoes.

Nothing is lost forever, just altered, and change is always pregnant with potential.

It’s still raining hard, gorgeously. There is nothing like drenching rain to bring to mind images of the seashore, images of ropes and anchors. I think I’ll go buy myself a new piece of jewelry.

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?

A Hint of a Smile

No amount of bright paint or floral wall décor can make the place feel less frightening to me. None of the cheery smiling faces can really take the edge off of simply being there.

Sure, there are amazingly beautifully brave people all around—inspiring—as the staff who love working at the Cross Cancer Institute is quick to say. Still. All I could think about was those whose news today—or yesterday, or last week or last month—wasn’t good.

Cancer is a thief.

But you go through the motions, almost robotically, answering the faces behind the desks “how are you” with “fine”, even though you’re not. (I did append my “fine” once today with “that’s a lie,” which registered just a hint of a smile on the face of the clerk.)

But I am fine, now, and very, very thankful.

And I’ve forgiven myself for being short with my husband this morning, telling him that no, I’m not interested in what Chris Hedges is saying, not today, and yes, I know we’re normally on the same page, but I can’t think about political and corporate corruption, not today.

The tears came when I got home, within the safety of his hug. Then the joy: I can tell my family the good news. And the kids are coming for dinner.