Friends, I’ve been absent a long time. It’s a season of busy-ness, but also of things percolating. For now, I’ll offer this link, to a short piece I wrote titled “Reincarnation,” on River Teeth’s Beautiful Things:
Our adopted cat went crazy. Having consulted with friends, the vet, and the almighty internet, we concluded she was lonely and bored, and her doting humans were not going to be able to satisfy. We adopted a second cat from a local shelter. To make a long story short, it did not go well. We tried and failed, and we were heartbroken thinking we might have to find new homes for both of them. Thankfully, we found Ingrid the cat behaviorist (fundamentallyfeline.com), and we set about trying to effectively coax oil and water to peacefully mix.
I found myself consumed virtually every day with cat-related activities. They demanded constant vigilance and frequent intervention. To make matters nuttier, I was seeing cats everywhere. One morning I decided I would go to my office early to have some time away, do some reading, and drink a cup of coffee before my day started. I arrived and started to settle in when I heard a small meow. I opened the door to a storage area behind my office. There was a cat. No kidding.
I started to wonder about the symbolism of this. I was dreaming of cats in various forms: house cats, wild cats, feral cats. I read The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption by Marie-Louise Von Franz. Ingrid assured me regularly that we really were making progress and reminded me how far we’d come. I was tired. I had family visiting in August and desperately wanted to be done with this cat project by that time so I could relax and enjoy.
Project cat was not complete. But, the family arrived to help me celebrate my 40th birthday. I stood with friends and family in the back yard beside a small fire. My friend, Kay, handed me a beautiful object she had made, a stone wrapped in cloth, decorated with beads and insect wings. It glittered in the sunlight. “Sometimes life requires sacrifice,” she said. “Throw it in the fire.” So I did. The ceremony progressed with friends and family sharing words they’d prepared. Meanwhile Kay was quietly tending the fire. A few minutes later, she revealed what had happened to the burned object. The cloth and its decoration had fallen away. The stone took on a beautiful, burnished look. Kay had been quietly fashioning it into a pendant.
The birthday ritual my wonderful friends had created was based on a dream I wrote about last year, in which I’d found myself throwing various things into a fire to transform them. In the dream, I accidentally threw in a ring I inherited from my mother and didn’t realize it until it was too late. That’s life, and sometimes, it sucks. The ritual was intended to emphasize not just the sacrifice but the transformation, and the message hit home beautifully. Sacrifice and loss are not the end. There is something lovely and meaningful on the other side of transformation.
The Photographer and I reflected on all we’ve been through the past several years. There had been no point at which we weren’t working on (or through) a major project. Just after we got engaged in 2012, my mother died. The Photographer graduated, we took a trip, planned a wedding, bought a house that we then rehabbed, and most recently, of course, the cat project. (Thankfully, by September, Project Cat was complete, and miraculously our kitties are very good friends. Thank you Ingrid!)
The Photographer wondered what they next project was. “No way,” I said. “I’m done for awhile. No more projects. I’m exhausted.”
I attended a workshop with the remarkable Avis Clendenen, who wrote a book on Hildegard of Bingen. Among other things, she spoke about how Hildegard’s guiding image was viriditas, which literally means greening. Hildegard was acutely aware of the consequences of exploiting and damaging the natural world, centuries before industrialization. But Hildegard’s image also speaks to God as a “greening” force, to growth and lushness in every sense.
The election happened. I find myself challenged by the demands of the Self that holds an intuitive understanding of the darkness of this situation and the depth and breadth of the response it requires, when of course the ego simply wants to repeat “No new projects!” and go back to bed. Friends, I will not pretend to be neutral on this subject. While I will not join with those angry voices who insist that a vote for Trump was a vote for racism, misogyny, nationalism and xenophobia, those votes did open the door to these very dark forces and allowed them a frightening level of power. We all have an urgent new project, and I intend to be very busy. If that means you disengage from this blog, so be it, but I hope you will choose to stick around.
My wise Aunt Peggy recently reminded me of the symbolism of my fiery dream and birthday ritual. We will come through this fire. It is up to us to enact the transformation, to shepherd was it valuable through the flames, and to bring it through to the other side. The force that guides this work must be viriditas, and it must involve reverance for the multitude of forms life, and growth, and the divine can take.
The house I grew up in was mostly unremarkable. It was like any number of one story ranch houses in our neighborhood, in a decidedly unhip, pre-TV show Nashville. My parents bought the house when I was on the way. We added on when I was about 11, at which time I got my own room. With a great deal of help, the Engineer built a deck that was to be one of the most well used parts of the house for years to come. We planted a garden. The Nurse got very proficient at tricks on a rope swing that hung from a favorite tree. We rehearsed plays for a community theater in the backyard and in the den, and we hosted cast parties and Christmas Eve open houses. Friends came and went via the backdoor and were told never to knock.
When my mother died in 2012, there was much talk among friends about memories of the house: eating pop tarts and watching MASH reruns, favorite plays, and of course parties. At the funeral, one friend spoke movingly about there being a sense of a church in our home, something that in large part I think my mother created, but that we all participated in in our own ways. It was a place people felt welcomed and cared for, a place people wanted to be.
I wrote some time ago about the house next door, which was torn down not too long ago to make way for something much more grandiose, what we call a McMansion. The conversion of this neighborhood has been going on for years, and at this point, our old home looks like a little out of place speck on a large lot, sandwiched between giants. The market is good, the time is right, and the Engineer needs to move on to a new sense of home, created elsewhere, for a new phase of his life. It’s sad to see the old neighborhood virtually disappear, and especially to see it becoming a place I would not necessarily want to live in.
It also has me thinking about that sense of home, church, welcome, and care. As much as the house was a symbol of it, steeped in it, felt through it, it is not in the house. Those intangible things as much as anything are the roots that I grew from. Those things stay with me
When I got the news that Frankie had arrived at last, I was in a training class on a particular method of couples’ therapy. The instructor had just been telling us of a study in which women were given small electrical shocks while they were in an MRI machine and then asked for a subjective rating of the level of pain and stress. In the first group, research subjects went through it alone. The second group held the hands of doctors or nurses during the procedure. The third group held the hands of their partners. The study found that the pain and stress was almost completely mitigated for the third group by the simple act of being connected to their partners while the experience was happening.
A major theme of the training was that emotional connection with loved ones is a tremendously healing force. I’ve witnessed its power many times during the era of aunthood that has been the past several years. Kids get hurt, either emotionally or physically, and the fact that someone is there for them makes it bearable. Something wonderful happens, and they reach out to share that too. Because we’ve been incredibly fortunate as a family, these kids generally have multiple someones available at both the good and bad moments. I’m honored to be one of those someones. As she grows, Frankie will be one more someone in that tribe, and this is a remarkable thing.
So, some promises to Frankie: I promise to celebrate the good with you and sit with you through the painful stuff. I promise to help you find your own unique way of doing that for other people. I promise to teach you everything I can about the world we live in, and to pay careful attention when you have things to teach me. I promise to remind your family that you really are a grown up when you are 22 and they are still referring to you as “the baby.”
I attended a workshop with Dennis Slattery, who writes on the nature of personal myth. His book, Riting Myth, Mythic Writing, uses a series of questions to get at the issue of what personal myth is and how it unfolds across a lifetime. In the workshop, Slattery asked us to explore a two part question that has stuck with me: What assumption (about yourself, the world, or the day) gets you out of bed in the morning, energizes and motivates? Also, what assumption is like an albatross around your neck, stopping you from moving ahead, or making you hesitate to get out of bed at all?
Responses to this were incredibly varied. Some people wrote about feeling they can make a difference in some positive way, that their presence matters. Some of those same people wrote about the pull of depression or inertia, or a sense of unworthiness, a “why bother” sort of feeling.
Personal myth sounds like a big concept, but on its simplest level, it’s the assumptions we make, which inform the terms on which we meet the world. The assumptions that inform personal mythology can be subtle, complex and contradictory. For my part, I wound up writing about the assumption that it does make a difference whether I’m in the world or not, and therefore, it’s important to be here as fully as possible, to not hold anything back that could be given. I know it makes a difference to the people I love. I know this all the more clearly because I’ve suffered the absence of people who couldn’t see how much their presence mattered. I aspire never to make that mistake.
I also wrote about the feeling that comes just on the heels of that, that there is so much to do in this world that no matter what I can finish, it will never be enough. Friends, that thought is enough to make me want to stay in bed some days. It’s certainly enough to keep me from writing some days. But apparently, not today.
This Advent season the overwhelming theme has been injustice. Living in the city where Mike Brown was shot, I’ve been working hard to understand more and more fully all the aspects of injustice at work as events unfold around me. I’ve been challenging myself to try to have difficult conversations with people about it. As a member of the white community that has been so problematic here, I have no right to just give up and walk away. White people have been doing that collectively here for a very long time, and that, among other things, needs to stop. In the midst of a heated group argument about racism recently, a friend described how seeing the depth and breadth of it is like seeing the image in a magic eye picture. Once you see it, it seems so obvious it’s difficult to imagine how people can not see it. And you yourself can never choose not to see it again. For some people, that picture still has not come into focus, and even after all these years and a lot of work, I have no idea what to say to people for whom that is the case. I feel utterly useless.
In the midst of that uselessness, my brother, the Deacon, shared something a friend of his had written about the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She imagined “home” in the song as a feeling of truly being at home, safe and cozy, pre-trauma. If only we could go back to that feeling. I suspect that has a lot to do with why we don’t want to allow that magic eye picture to come into focus. If we are fortunate enough to live in a safe, cozy, pre-trauma world, where we can still imagine that the world is just, of course we want to stay there. Who wouldn’t? A wise friend of mine who engages deeply with difficulty spiritual questions and knows the sense of loss one encounters upon realizing the answers we once held to no longer work, “I really envy people who have never left the garden. For me, it wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t able to stay.”
Advent is about asking ourselves once again, for another year, what it is of the Divine that wants to be born in (or through) us. It’s about waiting in the dark, and saying yes to the incarnation. That is more difficult to do once we’ve seen the magic eye picture, experienced real loss, or trauma. I have a vague kind of faith that it is possible to find a new sense of “home” again, even from this place of such difficult awareness. I’ve seen glimpses of it. In the meantime, there is something meaningful about waiting in this particular darkness, in the aftermath of death and of riots, calling out for the Divine.
The Photographer and I are working on a house that we expect to move into soon. As anyone who has ever done any sort of home improvement project can tell you, no matter how carefully you plan, everything takes longer and costs more than you would think.
This is not an easy process for me, and coming across something I wrote years ago about the alchemical process Coagulatio gave me some clues as to why. Coagulatio is about coming down to earth, and setting things in stone. I am much better at the abstract – ideas, words, theories, intuition. The concrete scares me. I wrote, “I wondered what in my life I could possibly want to make that permanent and how I could trust my artistic skill enough to make this work.”
Working on this house, I find that that is still the question. I have rented the entirety of my adult life, yet here we are moving our lives (and a large chunk of our savings) into a very particular little bit of stone that we are working to fully inhabit. I don’t know if I have the artistic skill, or the comfort with the physical world, to make this home. The Photographer is very at home in the physical world, taking things apart, putting things together, making things work according to his vision. His innate understanding of power tools never ceases to amaze me.
As I read what I wrote years ago about the value of bringing ideas down to earth so that new steps can be taken, and the concept of stepping stones as an antidote to being lost, it occurs to me that some part of me keeps making these choices of permanence, and earthiness, in spite of all my hesitation. I wonder what she knows that I keep forgetting.
Most of us at one time or another indulge in consideration of what we might do if we suddenly came into a large amount of money, say, by winning the lottery. What would it be like to be able to do anything, money being no issue? Recently I’ve talked with several friends going through life changing experiences, and yesterday, having just gotten off the phone with one of them, I had the thought that if I won the lottery, I might like to stop working and just be there for my friends and family. For instance, if someone had surgery, I’d be able to go and wait with the family in the waiting room, run errands and cook meals. If someone lost a loved one, I’d be able to drop everything to go to the funeral, even in a distant city. I think I could really appreciate the job of being there for the people I love professionally. I hate it when something major is happening and I’m not able to be present for it.
In a way, I kind of have that job already, though the people I get to be there for are my therapy clients, and I don’t typically get to know them before they’re struggling, since they come to me often when things have reached some sort of tipping point, and we dive in together. Often when I ask clients about their social supports, they talk about their hesitance to talk to friends and family or ask for help because, after all, no one wants to be a burden. Usually when this comes up, I ask them to recall a time they were there for someone else in a time of need, and what that felt like. It’s generally a very good memory, often something that led to a closer relationship with that person, or something that called them to delve a little deeper into themselves and find something really valuable they didn’t know they possessed. I have never once had anyone talk about what a pain it was, or how it required them to leave work early, or how they didn’t get as much sleep that night because of it.
I want to say this clearly because it’s easy to forget: It’s a privilege to be able to be there for the people we love. It’s an absolute privilege.
A few years ago, I had a dream that the Nurse and the Artist had a baby, and it was a boy who had a very particular name. I dreamed the full name, first and middle. Several years later, when the Artist was pregnant with her second child, their first boy, they had several possible names picked out, including the one I had dreamed. They asked soon to be big sister Nora what her favorite was. She said the baby’s name was Jim, and she never wavered. Every time someone asked her about the baby sibling she was going to have, it was, “I’m having a brother, and his name’s Jim!” And so, Jim it is. In fact, his full name is the exact name I dreamed several years ago, before Nora was even here.
It could be that I was dreaming all those years ago about the Jim that would be born this year. Or it could be that the Nurse and the Artist, people wise enough to take both dreams and the pronouncements of children seriously, made a conscious decision to name their second child in just such a way. It could be that the idea of us is fully formed before we are born, and it could be that we create ourselves and are created, simultaneously and perpetually. I prefer to think it’s the latter, and if that is the case, then I have a sense of responsibility to those I love to participate in their self-creation. In the service of that, I have a few promises for you, Jim:
I promise to keep dreaming for you, to listen to the wisdom of those dreams, and to be there to listen when you want to tell someone about the dreams you have. I promise to ask great questions. I promise to tell you lots of excellent stories about your grandmother. I promise to help you find your own space and shape in the midst of your wonderful and raucous cousins and your playful and wise sister. I promise to remind your Dad about the roundabout and sometimes dangerous paths we took to becoming who we are the minute he starts saying anything that sounds like “Kids these days…” in your general direction.
After a long season of planning, talking, family-communicating and decision-making, the Photographer and I got married this Labor Day weekend.
Like all such intense, life altering events, it takes awhile to process everything, and we will be doing just that for a long time to come, which says to me that the wedding was everything it should have been. It grew out of our story and solidified the parts of that story we want to build on as our foundation.
Also, like all such intense, life altering events, it was a struggle to stay present to everything that was happening, because there was so very much going on in every moment. Not everything went as planned, but that’s part of the deal also. A few years ago I wrote about how plans and ideas belong to the realm of air and sky, but our path must still be walked on the firm ground of the Earth, which contributes its own messiness to the way things go. That was true of the wedding weekend events also, and I reminded myself of it often. At a certain point, we let go of plans, and what happens is what happens. Our only job then is to experience and make meaning.
Both ceremony and reception were held at a beautiful place where, as a young person, my family did community theater productions. It felt surprisingly like those days of children’s theater outside, in costumes and makeup, attempting to look more put together and less wilted than we felt. We had lots of kids in attendance, so it felt important to make the event kid-friendly and playful, and it was that.
One amazing and unexpected part of having the kids there was seeing how they reacted to everything. Two reactions were particularly telling. As I walked towards the improvised outdoor aisle with my father, before anyone else had turned around, a very young one held over the shoulder of his mother on the last row saw me and lit up with the biggest smile imaginable. At the reception, another little one brought me her doll, her doll’s bottle, and anything else she could think to offer, with a huge flirtatious smile and lots of giggles. They were reacting to the archetype, to the “bride” that I had not even been fully aware of embodying, the celebrity of the moment in the white dress.
I realized that in the months leading up to the wedding, I was subject to a lot of advice and a lot assumptions, mostly about what being a “bride” meant. One of the biggest tasks of this time was to figure out how to “be myself” while also stepping into this archetype. It’s not an either/or sort of thing. It’s about figuring out where the intersection is.
In truth, as wonderful as the weekend was, it’s a bit of a relief to get to step out of that balancing act. In looking through pictures friends have shared with us thus far, my favorites are from the time before and the time after, like the photo above where I’m sitting with my father, out of costume, watching friends and family have a good time in the space we created together.
Another favorite moment is one I don’t have a picture of, the night of the wedding, waiting for our ride, still in my wedding dress and sitting on the ground with my four year old niece in her flower girl outfit. “Aunt Kat,” she said, “Come here – I have to tell you a secret.” I leaned in, and she cupped her hand to whisper in my ear. “Booger!” she said, and erupted into hysterical laughter. It was wonderful.
(Note: All photos in this post are courtesy of the incomparable Jill French of Jilly Lane Studios)