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.
We live in a time when we expect to have control over a lot of things. I’m not sure why, but I suspect Googling has a lot to do with it. Never has so much information (and misinformation) been so readily available to so many, and this has left us with the impression that we ought to be able to do know more, do more, have fewer (or perhaps no) limitations.
I see these ideas show up in my therapy practice the way memes show up on my Facebook feed.
One person is concerned with diet: nothing processed, all local, only the most nutrient-dense foods will do. Spinach is out because kale is better. He doesn’t understand why food has suddenly become so stressful and feels “not good enough” because one night he was exhausted after working late and ate pasta for dinner. Another person reads constantly about parenting and child development and fights terrible anxiety about the fact that she’s not home schooling her five year old. She feels responsible for personally controlling every aspect of her child’s education. Meanwhile, she’s sure she’s not good enough at her job, and she has a Pinterest board full of ideas for improving her marriage and feels bad about never having done any of them. A grieving person says her sister died three months ago, and she should be “over this” by now. She wants to know how to make herself feel better, because she should be able to, and somehow she must have just missed an important piece of information because she can’t seem to do it. These clients ask me to work with them on how they can do better, make sure they eat healthy all the time, be a better Mom and wife and professional, get over grief. Now. Today. Ok, maybe that’s not reasonable, but surely we can do it in 6 sessions or less?*
Buying into the control meme sets us up to fail. People come to therapy looking for “tools” and “resources” when the very last thing anyone needs is more tools or more resources. The very landscape in which we’re trying to live is where the problem resides. Often, trying to have that conversation is bewildering, and I simply run out of both words and energy.
So friends, today, a simple thought: What if we are not always supposed to be in control?
*Hopefully it goes without saying: Therapy is confidential. These are not stories of real people but amalgams intended to summarize the various manifestations of this phenomenon I see people struggle with.
There is an old story about a woman who lives in an ancient cave, who weaves a garment of incredibly beautiful design. Every so often she stops her weaving to stir soup in her cauldron, and when she does, the black dog who also lives in the cave unravels her whole design. So the old woman begins again. But of course, she never quite finishes.
Looking back on the last year, it feels like a year of a lot of unraveling — horrible violence, destructive prejudice, a changing planet — often a sense of being at a tipping point where it seems the world might fall irredeemably into one darkness or another. Many people seem to feel a renewed sense that they are fighting a war and must double down on their efforts. Many others seem to feel a strong sense of despair and want to retreat inward instead.
It is easy to be seduced by either way of thinking. But the black dog has visited before, and the world has yet to go to hell in a hand basket. Friends, the job seems clear. Whatever it is that you do in the world, pick up the threads and keep weaving.
In my dream, I was standing next to a tall tree. On the ground, very close by, was a stump. I said to the tree, “That must have been sad, to lose a fellow tree standing so close to you.”
“Yes,” said the tree. “It was there my whole life. When it was cut down, I felt the sun on that side for the first time. It was far too hot and too bright. Light fell on everything. It was so uncomfortable. All the shade loving plants that had stood in the space between us died.”
“I understand how that is,” I said. “It isn’t just the loss of a person. It is loss after loss after loss. It continues.”
“Yes,” said the tree. “Now there is a meadow on that side, spacious and green, but empty. Also, there is this.” It showed me several newer branches that had formed on one side. “These could not have been here before.”
“Oh,” I said. “I had not thought of that. New branches growing.”
“Yes,” said the tree. “And what will eventually grow in the meadow now that the sun reaches the ground? I still don’t know.”
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.
Recently I had a poignant conversation with a friend who experienced a major loss. In the midst of a long term creative project with a mentor, that mentor died, very suddenly and unexpectedly. They’d both been passionate about the work, and they’d believed this would be a multi-year project. Now she finds herself at an unexpected crossroads, still believing in the work, but not feeling equipped to carry it on solo.
A theme seems to be emerging among my cohort over the last few years, and it needs a name. It’s a phase in which our elders seem to be making their exits, either through retirement, or death, or simply a new chapter of their own, and we, while certainly adult, find ourselves with feet still a bit too small to fill their very substantial shoes. Jungians talk about midlife as a time in which a certain depression and a feeling of “what now” may descend, or about the second half of life, when one has built something and survived a great deal, but begins to feel that time is not unlimited and that attention must be paid to something more, even if we don’t know what that something more is. Both of these concepts are useful, but the theme I’m sensing feels a bit different from this, like something still unnamed.
Last night as I was falling asleep, I had a song from a Christmas movie we used to watch going through my head. I have no idea what brought that up, but it made me think of my mother, of the theater and film she filled our lives with during that era, and of her influence in general. I was reminded how much I miss her creativity and joy.
As I fell asleep, I dreamt I had put a lot of things in my life into a small fire. My intention was to transform them into something else. This would require me to let go of them in the form they had been in all my life to this point. I suddenly noticed that one of the objects in this fire was a ring I inherited from my mother. Damn. I had not meant to include that. I reached into the heat and pulled it out, but the stone was already gone and the frame half melted. So I threw it back in. I had no idea what was going to come out of that fire, nor did I know what I would be able to do with it. I just watched it burn.
On Friday night, I heard a talk by Belden Lane, who told a wonderful story about a stream that tried to cross a desert. This stream was young, and before this time it had been able to flow wherever it wanted to flow. But the desert with its dry heat was too much. What stuck with me the most about the story was that a voice told the stream, you cannot remain what you are. You either give yourself to the wind, or you dry up. So the stream gave itself to the wind and became a cloud that floated over the desert.
My fire dream feels like the best description I’ve come to so far for this time of life I’m struggling to name. It’s a kind of Calcinatio, in alchemical terms. Things fall into that fire, whether we want them to or not. We cannot remain what we are. In the case of my friend with the lost mentor, the project cannot remain what it was either. Something new has to happen, and we do not yet know what that will be. But as the poet Galway Kinnell reminds us:
“On some hill of despair
you kindle can light the great sky—
though it’s true, of course, to make it burn
you have to throw yourself in …”
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.
Some time ago, I wrote a post about a former teacher of mine who was facing some adversity. Actually, that may be an understatement. She was essentially fired. I found this upsetting for a variety of reasons, but as I expected, she landed in a good place, teaching a different subject in a different school. And while I’m sure that would not have been a career move she would have chosen otherwise, I have no doubt that it benefitted a lot of students.
Recently, I found out she decided to leave public education altogether. This news actually made the local newspaper in my hometown, which cited standardized testing as the reason for the decision.
I’ve only loosely followed the debate over the past decade about standardized testing, and more recently, common core. I have friends whose opinions I respect who are very passionate about it, many of them parents and/or teachers who are, as a result of their roles, far more invested than I. I am not terribly well informed about this myself. However, as I’ve followed the debate, a story I heard a long time ago keeps bubbling to the surface.
The Artist once took a course in herbal healing from a wilderness school known for teaching a variety of indigenous skills. Her teacher told a story of one plant that was scientifically studied and its benefits debunked. The study involved analysis of the chemical compounds in the plant itself, as it grew in the wild. What the researchers failed to realize was that indigenous healers would actually chew the plant before using it. Enzymes in their human saliva broke the plant down in a certain way, transformed it, and made it of use, unlocked the healing power, as it were, made it biologically available to the human body. Thus the debunking was itself debunked, for anyone who cared to pay attention and consider the human factor and the training and skill of the healer.
In healing and teaching (closely allied professions), we are in an era in which we seem to collectively discount the most important factors. We are obsessed with knowing “what works,” as if there is a set of actions any automaton could perform that will teach, or heal, a standardized person in a standardized way, with standard and measurable effects. After all this time, we really ought to know better. We have somehow failed to consider the human factor, the training, skill and intuition of healers and teachers, the human relationship, the enzymes in the saliva that bring about real change. How limited and small. How very sad.
When I was young, we lived next door to a woman named Mrs. Marker, who I remember as having been very old. When we are four or five, of course, everyone seems very old. My older brother and I would walk over and visit Mrs. Marker occasionally, and she was always happy to see us. A very generous woman, she gave us a radio that I listened to while falling asleep throughout most of my childhood. Mrs. Marker died when I was in the first grade, and hers was the first funeral I ever attended. I don’t remember being particularly sad. I’m sure it was explained to me that people die, and I’m sure that I accepted that Mrs. Marker had lived a lot of life and that things were as they should be.
When I got older, my mother told me stories about her that I remember to this day. Apparently when Mrs. Marker’s husband died, she went into a deep depression. One day she woke up and saw Jesus sitting at the foot of her bed. He told her to get up. She replied that she didn’t feel like living. He told her that he understood, but that one day she would, and she needed to get out of bed now. My mother also told me Mrs. Marker used to chase the devil out of her house with a broom. This may sound odd to those not raised in the Bible Belt, but to me, it has always sounded like a perfectly valid way to deal with depression.
The Engineer sent the above picture today and told me that her house (we still think of it as Mrs. Marker’s house even though a steady stream of people have lived there over the last 30 years) was sold to a development company and torn down to make way for new construction. It’s happening a lot in my old neighborhood. Dad’s house is now surrounded by new, monstrously large houses, and it being on the corner lot, I’m sure that as soon as he decides to leave, it too will be replaced with something massive.
Meanwhile in the Midwest, the Photographer and I are doing some house hunting, and we would love to find something along the lines of Mrs. Marker’s house – not too big, in a good neighborhood, on a nice sized lot. It’s proving hard to come by. There seem to be very small houses and very big houses, but finding the in between is not so easy. I love older homes and have always missed the fireplace in the house I grew up in. We’ve seen a lot of homes with the fireplace bricked up, for energy efficiency of course, but it’s hard not to think of that as a real shame. The Photographer grew up on land where they raised sheep and chickens, and while we don’t aspire to farm life, he finds the many backyards in our area with no more than five square feet of green rather sad. It’s hard not to feel like something we care about – a picture, our history, something unnamable – is disappearing. And yet today when I saw this photo, what came to mind was the image of Mrs. Marker in her bed, feeling that the future she was in was not one she wanted to be a part of, and Jesus, at the foot of it, saying that one day, things will feel different.