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.

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Winter Solstice Words

candleWe made beautiful babies together, you and I, and that is—despite how everything has been altered—something to celebrate as we approach this winter solstice, this season of long nights, fear, candles, and hope.

The babies we made were miracles. They had enthusiasm to die for, and possessed charm and beauty and brains and creativity. The first knew he would someday be a doctor, even then. The second loved her many babies almost as much as we loved ours, and I knew she, too, would someday be a healer. The third made us all laugh, and thought doing math over lunch as a four-year-old was fun. We knew he too would find his place in the world and grace all who cross his path.

We worked hard, you and I, as parents tend to, to pay the bills, feed and clothe them, and offer an enriched childhood. They grew, and they inspired us, and made us proud. We listened to their stories and dreams, we played hockey and dolls, and we jumped on the trampoline; we walked the dog and read books and watched movies and made things; we took ski trips and camping trips, we ate and laughed and loved.

There were dissonant sounds. There always are; without them there is no music, and for a long time, it was beautiful music, even with the dissonance. But with time, the faults in the score ripped wide open. The dissonance dominated completely, and the pain between us took a steep toll.

It bent our backs, and finally our knees, and one day we had to lay it all down. I turned away, you turned away, and we all wept, and for a very long time felt nothing but sorrow.  You needed to stop running though, and I needed to stop crying, and so we bid each other farewell.

It got messier then in many ways, for all of us. But for all the dissonance, this remains in sharp focus: We made three amazing and beautiful human beings together.

Also in sharp focus for me is this: Three years ago, just before the winter solstice, I heard the bell that will someday toll for me. It echoes in my ear still, especially at this time of year, and it demands extravagance. It demands I speak of the beauty and mystery and contradiction of it all. It demands truth, it demands love, it demands openness.

What we had was real and good, but it was not the whole story, and not enough to sustain us for life. We aimed for the moon, and it was rich and fun, but too painful.

I see the little faces of our children when they were very young, and sometimes, for a fleeting moment, I miss their innocence with every bone in my body. I see the old dreams, and know I must find new ones. I know the shortest day of the year is just ahead, but that longer ones follow in its wake. I know that morning always follows night.

The season clearly brings heightened nostalgia for me; there is something about anniversaries of major events. Every winter now, my body remembers. It shouts its memory, makes it impossible to ignore. But I’m lucky. Not just to be here, but to have come close, because even though I have hated it intensely, this coming close, it has brought gifts too. I’m lucky to be here to see our children find their way to adulthood and learn to navigate this nutty world. I’m lucky to have so much love in my life, others who don’t mind me putting words to all this crazy messy beautiful and painful business of loving and living and letting go.

I’ve filled our home with greens, and have begun my December habit of lighting the candles. I’ve set an intention, several actually: breathe love and words and peace into all the dark and dusty and silent spaces of my life. Seize the day. Watch the dying light of the season and remember that it eventually comes to all of us one final time, and that until then, it is my task to make space for what I know, to articulate it, to live it and reject the lenses of denial and pretense that flatten and soothe and dull. It is my task to let awareness infuse my days with texture.

Our lives, yours and mine and that of the babies we created, unfolded as they did because there was no other way for them to unfold. The future will unfold as it will also, and I intend to embrace it. I intend to remember that my heart is big enough for the beauty and the pain. I intend to embrace the love that was, the love that is, the losses and changes, the joys and disappointments, the new gifts along the path, all of it.

Lighting Candles

It’s been too cold and too dark for too long now too. The other night, to mark the winter solstice, to remind us of longer days ahead, I lit all the candles I could.

Mom and Dad came. I hadn’t seen them since summer. Mom had made my favourite childhood sweets and brought them with her, along with the loveliest mineral bath salts. She also brought her gorgeous smile, and her enthusiasm for our happiness here, and I remembered that empathy and pure love are the best of gifts.

What would we, any of us, do without these?

Yesterday, after seeing my aunts—those still with us—at Mom’s birthday lunch, perhaps in part as a result of sensing the heaviness of the million crushing losses they have all born throughout the courses of their lives, I desperately needed a nap. I woke up hungry, and my husband offered to warm up some leftover lamb stew. Gratitude.

To my friends who have lost their mothers or fathers or a child or a partner, those whose loneliness hurts: I’m so sorry; I can only imagine the void. For you, for all of us, I light a lot of candles at this time of year. They remind me that though hope at times flickers, it will steady again to, and make us more conscious of the growing light.