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)

Knowing Ourselves

Shortcuts to self-awareness such as personality typing have their limits, true, but they can also be amazing tools with which to heighten conscious experience. For those of us fascinated by this kind of thing, this blogger knows her way around the Enneagram, has a great page on reasons to explore it, and a guest post by yours truly; have a look.

Women Who Run With the Wolves

I saw you on the street today, and you looked absent, weary, buried, compressed, tense, angry. Take your cue from Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Yes, I am still reading Women Who Run With the Wolves, and it has perfect lessons for those of us who have looked in the mirror to see a face we hardly recognize.

Women, it turns out, women in touch with their souls, their original, natural, untamed true selves, share much with the wild nature of wolves, I’m learning from her—both have strong senses, both are playful, both are very devoted, both are inquisitive, relational, strong, intuitive, adaptive, protective of their young, brave, inventive, robust, life-giving, creative, aware. Both know how to persevere. And both can become aggressive and reckless when starved for too long.

Wolves, when they have for whatever reason, stopped thriving, carry on until they can thrive again. No matter how sick or injured a wolf, how afraid, how alone, how lost, how weak, she will carry on. She will lope with the deepest of wounds. She will outwit, outrun and outlast whatever is tormenting her. She will take breath after breath, drag herself from place to place until she finds a place she can heal. She will seek protection of the pack. She will run about gathering information, tasting a little of this, a little of that. She may look a little crazy for a period of time, as she tries to regain her bearings. Once she has processed the information she has gathered, she will begin moving in a more recognizably rational manner again.

I’ve discovered that I have in fact been doing this for some time now, and that it is okay to be doing this. It is far worse to stay where one does not belong, than to wander about lost for a while, looking for what it is one needs.

I saw it in your face because I now know what it looks like. I have finally begun to accept that a number of my dreams have died, even the new and recent Plan B and C and D ones, the ones I thought would be easy to realize. I am accepting that the soil in which new dreams might grow is not fertile at the moment, and that until I properly bury the old ones, and allow them to decompose and nourish the soil, it will not give rise to, or adequately nourish, new ones.

So if you don’t always understand my bahaviour in the coming months, if I appear scattered, or if you hear me howling—or you know someone else who is behaving in these ways, or you yourself are—remember that the feminine soul shares much with the instinctual nature of wolves, and that we can heal by taking our cues from them.

Estés says that those who have been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, unruly, or rebellious are on the right track, that their true and wild soul is nearby. This is quite hopeful for you and I, don’t you think? May we both soon be running with the wolves once again, strong and clear-eyed.

Revivification

You have, in your own words, shed all the tears you can for now. You feel dead inside. Betrayed, defeated, cheated, emptied out, terrified, utterly exhausted. You know that it is perfectly normal to feel the sorrow you feel. And you also know you desperately want to avoid a next time, though you have no idea how to do this.

Reeling, your mind continues to grasp at words and insights that might potentially prevent a next time. If only you could help the other see it from your perspective. This too is normal. But deep down, though you may be unaware of it, you know nothing you can say will reduce the likelihood of a repeat injury. You become trapped, paralyzed in your mind, your body, your questions and blame and grief. You become unable to act creatively on any aspect of your life.

But no matter how you try to analyze the injustice, and how successfully you make yourself believe you can stay in its line of fire and not be burned to your core next time, you will, in time, be burned again, if you stay in this place of hoping words alone might do the trick.

Is there then nothing that can be done? I believe there is. I believe that surrender to the full truth of the nature of the injury can give rise to your truest and deepest self, the one in possession of strong intuition, one that knows another kind of response, one that will move swiftly to get out of harm’s way. I believe that although you have been burned to the core, the bones of your innate strength and wisdom and resilience are still there. To use the language of the brilliant Clarissa Pinkola Estés, if you are willing to spend some time in the desert sifting through the sand it is possible to find the bones, as well as the song you need to sing the flesh back onto them. You can again become strong, agile, creative.

You asked me, “what would you do?” This is my answer: Find someone who can help you plumb the depths and collect the bones and create a new song with which to sing your deepest self back to life.

Innocence

English: A bit of barbed tape behind some chai...

She is six years old, and it is her first day of school. Some of the children cry, but not her. She is not afraid, at least not that she can remember, even though it is all so strange, and even though she barely speaks their language, and looks different, and wears different clothes, and a different hairstyle. She isn’t afraid. She goes in, trusting.

The girls mostly disregard her. The boys laugh at her hairstyle and dress though, and at her unusual name, her strange quietness. They chase her. She climbs the chain-link fence to escape, and her panties get stuck on the top, and tear. It’s funny, to them.

Sometimes, it is the teacher that stuns her. The first time, it was a picture of a clothes iron with the word IRON printed in bold letters beneath. The teacher asks who knows what it is. The strange and not-yet-timid five-year-old raises her hand, then remembers that she cannot read the word after all—it is in English. The word in her mind—Bügeleisen—will be incorrect, she knows suddenly, so she retracts her hand. Mrs. B. calls on her, after she has retracted her hand, tells her not to play games, and to step forward please, to the front of the room and extend her hand.

The child does as instructed; the teacher pulls out a large heavy leather strap. It comes down hard on the palm of the child’s hand. She returns to her desk. She will not speak of it to her parents; her shame has already determined this. She will trust many, many more times after this experience; her shame permits it, demands it, and she knows, though not in words, that she is resilient. If she is good, her shame says, she will be safe.

She isn’t always safe though, and eventually must work hard, very hard, not to let fear contract her completely. And sometimes, without being conscious of it, she’s frightened and angry, and shuts out good things, good people, because it feels safer.

 

 

Culture of Positivity

The room is bright, and feels like it can breathe. We talk, and within minutes, I know this: it is a space big enough for honesty. A space where it is okay to talk about what it means to be expected to paste on a smile and a good attitude during those times when reality is horrid. It is a space that understands the destructive side of stoicism.

The space exists because the woman seated in the chair opposite me knows just how well the body remembers. She understands that poorly digested and hurriedly and improperly stashed-away pain gives birth to ghosts in the night.

I go back a few years. Why this particular experience comes to mind, I have no idea: it is neither the most recent painful experience, nor the most traumatic, nor the most incompletely processed event I have in memory. Perhaps this is precisely why my mind chooses this one to remember just now: it is a safe one to revisit. In any case, I’ve gone back to an early visit to the Cross Cancer Institute. I am surrounded by smiling nurses and fellow cancer travelers, some of whom are chatting and laughing (likely thanks to the steroids they’ve been given with their treatment), but most of whom are dozing and appear to be oblivious to the beeping and background noise, the IV’s in their arms, the staring eyes of first-time visitors.

It’s my second visit here, and I’m still working hard at not seeing those whose hair has disappeared from their heads. I silently thank those wearing wigs; their choice softens my own still-fresh trauma just a little. I watch and wait. A man about ten or fifteen feet away from where I’m waiting is suddenly in some obviously serious trouble, having some kind of seizure. A Code Blue team rushes in. I try not to look.

I hear my name, and am shown my bed, poked, and hooked up to liquid-filled bags the staff wear protective gowns and gloves to handle. It will go directly into my veins. To save my life, but still.

But why are these treatments rooms so crowded, I silently protest. I don’t mean why literally, as in why aren’t we exactly winning the war on cancer, or why is there not enough money for a little more privacy, but rather, why in the sense of being resistant to the crowding. Now is not the time for vanity or pride, I know, but it could well have been a colleague or an ex-husband in the next chair or bed.  It seems wrong to be so exposed when there’s already so much stress and vulnerability.

The Ativan is helpful and lovely though, and my anxiety dissipates.

Then my head is hot, my chest is tight, my heart is racing, my lower back in painful spasms. I know what this is; I used to work in a hospital, I’ve seen allergic reactions. My husband has gone to get a little bite to eat, so I reach for the call button, which I knock off its perch. For what feels like an eternity I cannot find it swinging below me, nor can I find my voice to call someone. I persevere, find it, and am then quickly baptized in enormous doses of Benadryl.

When it subsides, I want to cry, because it was frightening and because I’m relieved, but they, the nursing staff, I quickly discover, don’t want me to cry. Really, really don’t want me to cry. They are justifiably eager to avoid distressing patients just inches away from me, and masterfully tamp down and chase my emotion into a closet. This irritates me enormously, but the Benadryl quickly makes me compliant. A very short time later they resume my chemo.

I have a Benadryl-infused nap, and then resume my Scrabble game.

Between turns I listen in on the conversation occurring behind the curtain two feet away from me, a conversation between two young lovers. I ache for their loss at their age, and wonder if the gorgeous red hair I’d noticed when she walked in was her own, and if not, whether she’s let her boyfriend see her without it yet. When I learn it’s not her own, and he hasn’t seen her without it, I am, having stubbornly refused to be caught without mine, comforted about my own vanity.

Seven hours later, closing the unit down, my husband announces the results of our endless Scrabble game, played, on my end, through a drug-induced fog. He won, achieving a new high score for himself, 427. I can be a bit of a sore loser even on good days; today I don’t even try not to be.

“Well aren’t you special,” I say.

“You could congratulate me,” he says.

“Well forgive me for not having the energy to celebrate today,” I say curtly, and then quickly wonder if I’m being unreasonable, or if his expectations of me at this moment might be a little high.

He takes a little while, but—perhaps because he loves me, or perhaps because he has to share a bed with me later—will come to understand my mood.

My nurse on the other hand, when I apologize for not being more cheerful, does nothing to validate the stress of the afternoon, simply tells me my attitude had been “a little off” today, and something about trying a little harder for a positive attitude.

This week, nearly two years later, in this sunny room that breathes and has made space for reality, this experience all but forgotten, I remember it fully, completely. Multiple and blunt blows to my person, both physical (in the form of the treatment and my reaction to it), and psychological (in the form of being silenced and then judged for what was deemed a bad attitude), were quickly and wrongly put out of sight for efficiency’s sake. And I’m struck by the difference between the dismissive and judgmental approach of my nurse that day, and the honoring and validating one here now. The latter has offered hope that perhaps it is not yet too late to properly process the many things my body remembers and currently carries around.

Might it be true that the injunction to smile in the face of cancer might not be the best after all? That it encourages repression of valid emotion? That it unjustly puts the responsibility of getting well entirely on the victim’s ability to muster the right attitude over a period of months or years of dealing with major stresses and losses? That it adds to the victim’s burden by asking an already-burdened body to simply store an entire series of traumatic events?

Having coffee with a fellow cancer victim yesterday, who like many of us has a resident darkness ready to whisper the worst in her ear, we talked about the value of realism. Positive thinking and faith are good—I’m not advocating ruminating on our darkest thoughts—but honesty alongside hope and cheer is essential, and friends who provide space for this are invaluable. Our culture of positive thinking has a dark side.

Honesty is the only way in which we can truly make peace with the losses, with facing our mortality.

And, in the face of (in my friend’s case) being told you will not survive your cancer (which she is in fact currently doing), are sadness or anger not infinitely more normal and intelligent responses than a perma-smile and forced perkiness? It is, in my mind, completely appropriate to be sad in the face of losing body parts and organs and once-taken-for-granted energy levels and pain-free functioning. It’s appropriate to be anxious and troubled in response to the suffering or death of fellow cancer victims. (One long-time friend died the week I was scheduled for my final treatment; the response of my oncologist was simply to say “oh, well, she did pretty well, lasted longer than average.”)

We’re a fix-it-quick, don’t-be-sad kind of society, I know, and I am at times as guilty of this impatience as anyone. But I have promised myself to make a little more space for what can’t really be fixed all that quickly, space for me, and for those around me. Our culture of positivity isn’t always helpful.

It takes all kinds

I’ve been occupied drawing inspiration and immense pleasure from the lovely eleven-year-old visiting us this week, but being a somewhat more earnest and analytical personality than my little houseguest, I do miss the somewhat weird, solitary and quiet activity of writing. So here I am, to sort out and integrate my observations.

I think I’m pretty social and adventurous, but along with that (contradictory as it may sound), also pretty serious-minded, timid, and somewhat averse to the frivolous. (One kind friend says I’m deeeeeep.)

Our young houseguest embodies the sense of confidence and mischief and charisma I’ve often wished for over the years. This is for her, and for all who have at times longed for the more carefree and charismatic personality traits she displays. (A friend once told me that of course, and understandably, people will always be more drawn to my charming and funny husband than they will be to me. I have always believed that a true friend values who we are. She is no longer a friend.)

To give you an idea of the level of self-assuredness this eleven-year-old is in possession of: At the airport, her luggage not showing up in the baggage claim area, she has it under control before I even wonder where we might go to register the problem—she’s already approached the appropriate baggage counter and reported the lost bag. She promptly calls her mom to announce her safe arrival, gives her the delayed baggage news, and tells her not to worry, it’s happened to her often and it won’t be a problem.

We get caught up and make some plans, plans that include some visits with some of our friends, which she readily agrees to, even though they include nobody anywhere near her age. She remembers them from last time, and says they’re fun. Keep in mind that we, and most of our friends, are four or five decades older than she is.

At dinner, she’s quick to tell one of my friends how much she likes her glasses (they’re trendier than mine, and she definitely knows trendy), and is happy to explain exactly which phone is going to be the next big thing, and why. She picks up my Blackberry, and within minutes has the password cracked (yes, I now have a better password), and sends I LUV YOU text messages to a number of my contacts.

She’s not yet on Facebook, but, my husband agreeably looking the other direction, she quickly hijacks his page and posts a mischievous status update on his behalf, something about how disappointed he was about being unable to get out of some dreadful meetings on time to go pick up his wonderful and amazing granddaughter at the airport.

At the invitation to join my daughter at a pool party in the home of people she doesn’t know at all, she agrees without hesitation, and when I pick her up, I see that she’s been her usual charming self and has both contributed to and enjoyed a nice time. She asks about my relationship with my ex-husband and his wife (who hosted the pool party), and suggests I befriend them on Facebook. They’ve also introduced her to Enneagram personality types, and now she is quick to explain to us, with a giant smile, exactly where her personality overlaps with her grandpa’s, and why they sometimes have minor altercations involving boundaries.

Monday morning marks the beginning of theatre school. Despite our busy weekend and late nights, she cheerfully gets up to the alarms she’s set on both her iPod and phone, and though she admits to a bit of nervousness and knows nobody in her class, she bids me farewell with a smile. Later, she tells me she volunteered to lead the way with the first acting exercise, not because she wasn’t nervous, but because she figured she might as well just jump in and break the ice. When I pick her up at the end of the day, she cheerfully waves good-bye to one of her classmates with a “See you tomorrow, Wife.” She has several, she explains, it’s a game she plays at home too.

When after another full day our current heat wave brought more houseguests wanting to sleep in the cool of their old basement bedrooms, she jumped up, instantly ready to socialize and chat and play.

I admire and utterly adore this young woman. She chases mischief and fun, but watching a movie depicting a young woman’s bullying at the hand of peers, she’s very quick to express empathy. I wish I had her mind and her energy, her talent and confidence. I’d love to be in possession of a personality as spirited as hers. But the good news is that, despite our society’s seeming tendency to value the more assertive, high-energy personality traits above all else, I think I may have finally, at midlife (for today at least) come to embrace the somewhat more hesitant, thoughtful, nurturing and earnest qualities I have always been in possession of.

Because it takes all kinds—both the spirited charismatic ones who provide laughter and respite from life’s harsher realities, and the more reflective, loyal, in-the-wings kind—to make the world a better place.