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SHYNESS

If I had to describe what I was like as a child using only one word it would have to be shy.

I was extremely insecure as a child, an introvert by nature, always highly sensitive to my surroundings and to the feelings of others, which made me cringe at the thought of being the center of attention for any reason. (It still does.)

So imagine my terror when I was told I would have to recite a speech from memory in front of the whole class for the annual speech contest when I was nine years old.

The memory of my first attempt at it is sketchy at best. I was one of the youngest in my fourth-grade class (I started kindergarten when I was four), so I was already behind my peers in the art of social graces nevermind public speaking.

I’m sure I was trembling, palms sweating profusely as I held them clasped behind my back as we were instructed to do, heart racing insanely as I opened my mouth and tried to speak above a squeak. I have no memory of the poem I chose that year, but if I had to guess, it would have been something from Shel Silverstein.

Somehow I got through it and was told to take my seat. The relief I felt was instant since it meant I would not move on to the next round, or god forbid the final round where I would have had to recite my speech in front of the whole student assembly before going in front of an even bigger audience of parents and teachers had I been selected as a finalist.

I remember my teacher assuring me that there was always next year, and so I shouldn’t give up, which had anything but a calming effect on me learning that I would be expected to go through this all over again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade as if it was something for me to look forward to.

I loved poetry from an early age, so that wasn’t the problem. Nor was the memorization of it since I loved being able to spontaneously summon stanzas as though they were my own. To have had such rich descriptive words inside my mouth left me with a delicious aftertaste wanting for more.

When the following year rolled around, I tried again. And I failed again. I was still very much an outsider looking in, still acutely uncomfortable in my own skin.

My third attempt in the sixth grade was another flop. Still intensely shy, still terrified of being seen or heard.

My fourth attempt was in the seventh grade. As I stood before my classmates yet again, I thought of the advice Mike Brady gives Jan to calm her nerves before a big debate: imagine the audience is wearing only their underwear. I thought about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to imagine it. Instead, I imagined myself dressed in a suit of armor as I readied myself for slings and arrows that were sure to fly my way.

I don’t remember what I choose to recite that year either, but I do remember having the slightest bit more courage when delivering it, enough so that my classmates and teacher took notice and voted me on to the next round.

I would go on to become a finalist that year which meant I would have to stand on the stage front and center and recite my speech into a microphone in front of at least a couple hundred people.

I was terrified and have no memory of that night probably because it was so traumatizing for me. But I did it, and although I came in fifth of five, I felt proud to receive an honorable mention for my efforts.

The following year would be my last and toughest test. I was in eighth grade. I was determined to give it my last best shot. It was now or never.

I chose the following poem as my speech that year to be delivered with a unique twist:

Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

– Oliver Goldsmith,  (1766)

After I had finished reciting it for the first time in front of my class, I joked that it sounded better at home when I was reciting it with an English accent.

Everyone laughed at this, but I was dead serious. I neglected to tell them it was because when I said it with an English accent, it somehow made me feel like I was a different person. I wasn’t the painfully shy thirteen-year-old girl dying inside as she stood in front of everyone to be picked apart, I was a rebellious British girl unafraid to go for it.

“Shyness is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.” – David Whyte Consolations

I didn’t realize until that moment that I wanted to win. I needed to pretend to be someone else to do it, but I didn’t care, in fact, I relished the thought of being someone else if only for a few minutes.

When everyone was finished laughing at me, my teacher agreed to let me have a go at it.

When I was finished, much to my total amazement, everyone started clapping for me, or should I say for the Brit with a bit of a chip on her shoulder.

Unfortunately, when my eighth-grade teacher later conferred with the principal about whether or not I should be allowed to speak with an accent when delivering my speech, the principle, who was as strict a nun as they come, ruled against me.

The fearless Brit in me disappeared. I was back to being me which meant back to feeling the painful shyness I could not shake.

“To feel shy is to look five ways at once: to the beckoning new life in front of us, to the line of retreat behind us, to alternative possibilities of escape to the left and right, and in really difficult circumstances, the hope for a complete and sudden disappearance.” – David Whyte Consolations

I’m sure I looked five ways at once that night.

Five ways times at least five times.

Five ways can last five minutes or five hours.

For all my efforts that night, I took home another honorable mention. This time I came in fourth of the five finalists.

I would never win a speech contest. Not then, not ever. But never had I been so relieved to have that particular kind of test behind me.

Of course, I continue to be tested in other ways every day.

It is still exceptionally rare for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. One of the very few places I do is when I’m alone in the woods or when I’m underwater, which is why I try to walk or swim every day.

I have had my share of equally terrifying moments comparable to being on that stage all alone with nowhere to hide.

When being brave enough to confront doctors who think they know better. When meeting with inspectors of all sorts while building my house. When going toe to toe – literally – with my school district’s superintendent during a town hall type meeting to stand up for my rights as a mother who homeschooled her children.

Or when I’m called upon to stand up for myself in any way, which is still as terrifying as it was when I was that nine-year-old scared shitless little girl.

I am shy.

I will always be shy.

I will never be able to speak in public without looking five ways at once at least five times.

We all face unique challenges that make us uncomfortable and test us sometimes on a daily basis.

Having had the opportunity this week to reflect on the poem I chose all those years ago is what interests me the most now.

The poem is about hypocrisy. The mad dog is far less dangerous than a phony Christian. The man is a Christian in name only, rather than in spirit, he is toxic – and thus the dog dies from biting the man, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I am shy. That’s the way I am wired. But I am also brave in other ways. Despite how uncomfortable I still am being in social situations, my shyness does not change who I fundamentally am at the core.

It took me a long time to figure that out and an even longer time to be OK with it.

 

NEXT WEEK: SILENCE

SHADOW

One of my favorite things to do with my friends when we were kids, was shadow dance.

There was a newly paved parking lot at our local bank that was located on the other side of an empty lot across the street from the house I grew up in. Late afternoon made for the longest shadows, so sometimes if we were bored after school, we’d wack our way through the wildly overgrown grasses and weeds and various scraggly bushes, and emerge victorious in the empty parking lot ready to dance.

We didn’t require any music; we were a bunch of gangly goofballs back then, unafraid to march to the beat of our own drum.

We danced together and alone, our elongated shadows faithfully following along, step by step, as we glided across the blacktop with legs ten feet long.

Other times, inside dark tents, one of my sisters would flip on a flashlight, and we’d stay up late giggling at the shapes our shadows made across the ceiling. Hands contorted into bunnies and giraffes and fish until we’d hear “Light’s out!” coming from my mother in another tent, which always prompted “the hand” to appear from the holder of the flashlight. Its ominous shadow crept from a corner of the tent, then slowly stretched across the side wall before covering the entire ceiling as it mover closer and closer to the source, until, in its final act, it covered us all, extinguishing the light and letting in the night.

“Shadow is a beautiful, inverse confirmation of our incarnation.” – David Whyte Consolations

I have always paid attention to shadows. The way the dappled sunlight invites the leaves to shadow dance in the tall grass and along my arms and across my face as it turns to the sun, or when a shadow becomes a reflection and tricks the eye into wondering which way is up.

Everything casts a shadow; shadows do not exist by themselves. The long beautiful shadow I cast in the sunlight is the same one I carry with me into the dark where it requires new eyes to be seen.

“To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt.  – David Whyte Consolations

This blog has given me new eyes; eyes that can peer into the dark where my shadow hides unaware that I am feeling my way around, unaware that I am about to shine my light and make my darkness conscious.

When someone or something has hurt you, your instincts are to protect yourself from further harm, but writing this blog requires that I let my stories inhabit me, which in turn requires that I trust not to be hurt again which is a big ask but an important one.

I wrote three novels before I realized that I couldn’t properly write fiction yet because I didn’t have a handle on my own feelings. Feelings of being hurt or betrayed as well as hurting others (it’s a two-way street after all) have been dark shadows lurking in my subconscious, haunting me for far too long.

After three failed attempts, I felt like I was ready to tell my stories by bringing them out into the light of day come what may, not as an attempt to become perfect but as an attempt to become whole.

It’s been painful at times to be sure, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

“Shadow is a necessary consequence of being in a sunlit visible world, but it is not a central identity, or a power waiting to overwhelm us.” – David Whyte Consolations 

Anytime you step into the dark, into the unknown, your first instinct will probably be that of fear. Fear of the unknown overwhelms us and controls us and keeps us paralyzed in place, unable in the end, to transcend the fear of our uncertainty.

Whether it be the fear of what others may think of us, or that what we may think about ourselves (good or bad) might actually be true, or simply the fear of failure even though there’s nothing simple about that, I spent my life believing I cannot or should not confront it. Better to just leave things be the way they are.

But was I better off for it? I find myself asking that question a lot lately.

Because it’s not just about me as an individual; I am part of a larger community and country. As Americans, our stories are entwined together. They are stories that will seemingly forever cast long dark shadows, no matter how much light we shine on them in our collective effort to dispel them.

Indigenous Native Americans slaughtered, poisoned, driven off their lands, their children later ripped away from them and sent to boarding schools where they were given new names, still waiting hundreds of years later for our government to honor their treaties.

African slaves brutalized, forcibly removed from their families and their homeland, chained together and sent to America to suffer in silence, their children ripped from their arms and sold on auction blocks like animals.

Shadows from the Inquisition spread to our shores as the Catholic Church attempted to do away with heretics by way of torture and public hangings during the witch-hunts.

Japanese Americans forced from their homes during World War II, rounded up like cattle and incarcerated in concentration camps.

Patriarchy’s power was America’s umbilical cord during the birth of our nation, and the ensuing years have been a foot on the throat of women everywhere no matter what color or creed.

Shining a bright light on America’s past brings forth its long dark shadows for all to see and in a perfect world for all of us to learn from.

These policies of the United States government all began with the same assumption: that the idea of family is less important to people of color, that Native Americans and African Americans and immigrants and refugees are less than human, and that white men are born inherently better than everyone else alive.

Because of this, too many people in our country grow up believing it is normal to be afraid of other people who do not look or speak or dress or pray like them. This fear of the other gives them free rein to go right on believing that they are inherently superior to all others.

What we wrongly and dangerously assumed was all this was in the past, but those shadows still loom large and still haunt us today.

Racism and misogyny still run rampant. Colin Kaepernick kneels to bring awareness to racial injustice, while a new Supreme Court Justice accused of sexual assault is confirmed. It’s me too, and her too, and him too, in every town, in every state, and in every walk of life. Sexual abuse survivors brave enough to risk finally be seen and heard are not believed. The Supreme Court now has two justices accused of sexual assault. Our president, likewise accused of sexual assault, is on public display every day, spewing lie after lie after lie as he preaches to his devoted followers. Income inequality is at an all-time high as the one percent make rules for the masses and more and more of the masses eek out survival in extreme poverty. Immigrants desperate to escape the horrors of their own governments risk their lives for asylum in our country and are rewarded for their superhuman efforts by having their children ripped from their arms and locked away in cages. A journalist is murdered and dismembered by a hostile foreign government, and our president is so corrupt he uses this mans violent death as a drum beat to provoke more violence against the “fake” media from his base the very next day.

Despite the capacity for greatness inherent in all and not just a few of us, we keep repeating the same destructive patterns throughout our relatively young history. It’s an endless loop of hatred and fear of the other.

Ironically, when you get right down to it, we are all “others.” We are all descendants of Native Americans or slaves, immigrants or refugees, whether or not we came here or were born here, we’re all more alike in that regard than we think.

I am one woman telling my stories, but I am also part of a much larger story. My shadows are enveloped by larger shadows that shape and make us who we are.

So who do we want to be?

We are at a tipping point, even the future of the earth itself is at stake.

Just as the sun sinks below the horizon and the Earth’s shadow rises in the east every day, we can all be certain of one thing – none of us are getting out of here alive.

I hope when I am on my deathbed, I can die with dignity knowing that I did my best to not hide from these shadows. I hope that I can relish every moment from my life, wise enough to understand there was never any point in trying to escape the inescapable – we are born we live and we die. We don’t get to choose our birth or our death, but we do get to choose how we will live.

 

NEXT WEEK: SHYNESS

SELF-KNOWLEDGE

There’s a big difference between knowledge and self-knowledge, and as the saying goes, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it.

We all start out on the same shaky footbridge, literally taking baby steps and holding on tight as we learn about ourselves in relation to the world around us. Tentatively, we make our way across the precipice throughout the course of our childhood, with our emotions and our feelings, large and in charge leading the way.

But once across, and once in tune with what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling, we begin to ask the bigger questions such as why we think and feel the way we do.

It took the better part of twenty years for me to gain a foothold on the other side. To find a launching off point on my quest to know myself. Maybe I have the fact that I didn’t go to college to thank for getting an earlier start than most in that regard.

With the exception of my father, I am the only one in my family of twelve that did not go to college. For a long time, I let that story define me. I allowed it to feed my insecurities, allowed it to stop me from loving and pursuing knowledge for its own sake until it dawned on me that that notion was ridiculous. I could still learn about any damn thing I saw fit to learn about by devoting as much or as little of my time becoming knowledgeable about things that actually interested me.

Because I worked from home as a painter, I was able to listen to books on tape and averaged one or two a week, so I caught up fast.

But it wasn’t until I had kids, and perhaps more importantly began scheduling time away from them to be alone, that the urge to get to know myself, began to grow with some urgency.

“Self-knowledge is not clarity or transparency or knowing how everything works, self-knowledge is a fiercely attentive form of humility and thankfulness, a sense of the privilege of a particular form of participation, coming to know the way we hold the conversation of life and perhaps, above all, the miracle that there is a particular something rather than an abstracted nothing and we are a very particular part of that particular something.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was like a tight bud ready to unfurl once conditions were optimal for my growth.

Time spent away from my family, away from the rigors of motherhood, and working and keeping the details of day to day operations running smoothly was like being gifted a magical key that would unlock any door.

Before long, just walking in the woods alone on a deliciously warm day, was no longer enough. Every silent stride left me aching for more. More of what, I couldn’t even tell you. All I know is that I never ran out of questions despite how rare it was to be given the answers.

Every question I had about myself seemed to lead to a new question, an unbroken chain of unknowing and I followed them like a trail of breadcrumbs knowing intuitively they would lead me home.

The first time I attended a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, was the first time I got a taste of my own soul, and it left me hungry for more.

It’s hard to put into words what spending that much time in silence did to me other than to say I learned more about myself during that time than perhaps at any other time in my life.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied.

It was precisely that lack of ever feeling satisfied with my life and not knowing why, that eventually led me to my next adventure, Holotropic Breathwork.

From their website:  http://www.holotropic.com/holotropic-breathwork/about-holotropic-breathwork/

The name Holotropic means literally “moving toward wholeness” (from the Greek “holos”=whole and “trepein”=moving in the direction of something).

The process itself uses very simple means: it combines accelerated breathing with (loud) evocative music in a special set and setting. With the eyes closed and lying on a mat, each person uses their own breath and the music in the room to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing the seeker a particular set of internal experiences. With the inner healing intelligence guiding the process, the quality and content brought forth is unique to each person and for that particular time and place. While recurring themes are common, no two sessions are ever alike.

One of the most unique and powerful dimensions of Holotropic Breathwork is its revolutionary expanded cartography of the human psyche described by Stanislav Grof. Experiences occur, and transformation happens, not only in the biographical dimension – our life history from birth up to the present moment. But they also encompass what Grof calls the perinatal and transpersonal dimensions of the psyche.

The workshop was being held in upstate Vermont, about a four and a half hour journey from where I live.

Driving there into the night in the wind-driven torrential rain did little to settle my nerves, and coming upon a downed live wire across the road (just as a cop was arriving at the scene) meant an additional half hour detour, which had me seriously contemplating turning around and calling the whole thing off, but I was determined to go through with it, so I kept going.

Along the way, I thought a lot about how I had come to be on that road during this stage of my life, both literally and figuratively. I’d been searching for answers about myself for years by this point, and the long dark drive getting to the workshop gave me the opportunity to reflect on just how far I’d come in my journey.

I still felt tremendous amounts of anxiety surrounding certain areas of my life, but by this point, I trusted my intuition more than I ever had in years prior, and I knew in my bones that every time I risked following my heart, it led me where I knew I needed to go. My then-recent decision to homeschool my children as well as to stop eating animals were both perfect examples of what I could accomplish once fear was not a factor.

It was still raining when our first session took place the following day. My new roommate would be my partner, and we both agreed that I would go first.

In a Breathwork session, each person has a partner (sitter), who is there to provide water, tissues, blankets, etc., but most importantly, focused attention to their breather. Then, in a subsequent session breather and sitter exchange roles.

I remember stretching my body out along the length of the mat before being covered with a light blanket, then pulling the silk eye mask I had brought along, down over my eyes in an effort to focus my attention on my breathing.

I was told a typical session lasts anywhere from two to three hours, and I remember thinking, what if this doesn’t work? And how am I supposed to remember to keep breathing as fast as I possibly could for all that time? And if it doesn’t work, am I just supposed to lay there and fake it?

Turns out I was worried for nothing. Within what felt like only a few minutes of hearing and feeling the extremely loud music which was reverberating off the floor straight into my spine, coupled with intensely fast breathing, I was in an altered state.

I immediately sensed my left hand going numb while contorting itself into strange shapes and positions before settling in a twisted position up around and under my head.

I was extremely uncomfortable as I tried desperately to move it, but it was as if my arm and hand were cemented into place. Strangely, throughout it all, I was still somehow conscious of my surroundings despite being in a trance-like state, and within only another few minutes of feeling this pain coursing through my arm, came the realization that I was stuck in the birth canal until suddenly, I wasn’t.

With my arm now freed, I managed to roll over onto my right side, and when I did, I immediately felt the impact of being thrown onto the hard earth in the middle of the same field where I had landed (on my right side) after being thrown from my horse years earlier.

I could smell the grass and felt a sense of peace wash over me just as it had then, as I laid there contemplating what I believed to be my imminent death. But in my next rapid-fire breath, I was now holding my dead dog who had died in my arms many years before, and I began sobbing uncontrollably when I realized there was NO part of me that was ever okay with me dying.

I have no idea how long I laid there weeping on the floor, but I remember having to remove my mask (while keeping my eyes shut) since it was now soaked from my tears.

A short time later (?) I sensed a different rhythm, both in my body and in the choice of music they were playing.

I was immediately transported once again, only this time I had a guide.

I don’t understand how I knew this since this guide had no physical body, but somehow I sensed what I guess I would call the essence of this (person) and understood (him) to be my grandfather, a grandfather that in real life, I had never met.

The music in the room took a tribal turn just as (he) took my hand, and together we rose up a totem pole where I became the eagle at the top after he let go of my hand and I began to fly.

I was aware that I was in yet another realm, a vast emptiness that paradoxically seemed to encompass everything that ever was or ever would be.

It was in that moment that I felt the essence (again, no physical body) of my mémère who had recently passed, as she collided with me, came through me and into me, becoming part of my body. Becoming one.

Becoming love.

It was all love. Love was everywhere and everything. It was the most overwhelmingly beautiful experience I had ever had and one that I will never forget.

I could feel more hot tears rolling down my face, and I let them come.

After a few minutes, I came back to ground, back to my rapid breathing, and then felt my hands begin to tingle.

My hands – that in reality were now flat on the floor beside my body – began to grow roots. Thick roots sprouted from my fingertips down into what was now the rich red earth below me. My whole body felt rooted, and I began to sense that there was something or someone buried beneath me.

Somehow I knew it was Inkanya, the injured wild lion we had attended to during my time in South Africa. I learned that he had died a short time after I left the country, and now he was rising up through the earth below me, then through me and straight into my horse, Chico, who was suddenly by my side. I was sure he’d be spooked by this, but strangely he had zero fear. He simply laid down beside me as peaceful as could be. Predator and prey, now bonded in this bizarre world I’d been transported to.

A world devoid of fear.

Like waking from a dream, the spell was broken a short time later. I was unaware at the time that I was the last one left still laying on the floor. The music was still playing over the loudspeakers, but softer now. The woman “sitting” for me had been relieved by one of the people in charge of the workshop when she became concerned about my physical wellbeing, I’m guessing because of how often she had seen me break down.

I slowly opened my eyes and assured her I was okay, then mentioned that my neck and back did still hurt quite a bit, so she told me to relax and breathe and let go.

As she began massaging my back, she explained how it’s not uncommon to store pain deep inside our bodies, pain that we remain unaware of until triggered, and no sooner had she said those words had her fingers found it, and once again I dissolved into a puddle of tears.

When I finally emerged from that room a short time later, I felt like a new human being. I took some time to write everything down in my journal then stepped outside to find that the rain that was predicted to last all weekend had stopped, so all I felt was the warmth of the sun across my face.

All I felt was love.

“What we recognize and applaud as honesty and transparency in an individual is actually the humble demeanor of the apprentice, someone paying extreme attention, to themselves, to others, to life, to the next step, which they may survive or they may not; someone who does not have all the answers but who is attempting to learn what they can, about themselves and those with whom they share the journey, someone like everyone else, wondering what they and their society are about to turn into.” – David Whyte Consolations

For so long, I had been searching for the path that I thought would lead me to some preordained destination, never realizing there was never a path other than the one I choose to make.

Be who you are.

LOVE

Today is my mémère’s birthday. She’d be one hundred and four years old were she still alive today. She will always be alive in my heart. I dedicate this post to her.

 

NEXT WEEK: SHADOW

RUN AWAY

“Go ahead. Run away! That’s what you’re good at!”

I can’t tell you how many times my husband has said these same words to me over the course of our twenty-nine-year marriage.

I am about the least confrontational person you’re likely to meet, (though that’s changing rapidly the older I get, coupled with the current administration). I keep things bottled up inside to my own detriment, ever fearful to say how I feel about things at the risk of being hurt more than I already am. When I do finally summon the courage to say what’s in my heart, I almost always put pen to paper to do so.

So every time I would hear those words coming from this person whom I love deeply, it hurt me terribly, yet I continued doing it for more than twenty-five years.

“Strangely, we are perhaps most fully incarnated as humans, when part of us does not want to be here.” – David Whyte Consolations

I did not want to be there. I did not want to share a space in the same room with him whenever we were arguing about something since it always followed the same script.

HIM:  You always do this. That’s right, run away. What else is new? It’s the same every time. I’m so sick of this. I can’t do this anymore.

ME:  Silent. He doesn’t understand me. He will never understand me. I can’t keep doing this. Nothing I can say will make him understand how I feel. It’s not worth it. I know I’m going to say something that I will regret. I’m outta here.

I literally could not stand there and take it, whatever ‘it’ was going to be. As soon as I’d hear him begin speaking, I’d get fidgety and make my way over to a window always in another room and stand there stoic with my back to him staring at whatever might catch my attention. Like a squirrel burying an acorn in the lawn or a swallowtail in the butterfly weed or an oriole in my apple tree or the contrails of a plane overhead. It didn’t matter what I happened to be looking at just as long as I could focus on something other than what he was saying, but even that I could only do for so long. Within a few minutes, I would always leave the room or in many cases the house. I would always run away.

I did this for more than twenty-five years, and in all that time I never thought to ask myself why.

When I finally did a few years back, I saw that no matter what we might be fighting about – which thankfully, despite how it sounds, did not happen all that often, I was making things decided worse by running away, and I desperately wanted to change that.

Change does not come easy for any of us, that much is obvious. I knew that in order for me to change I would need to do some serious soul searching not just in the moments or hours after we’d argue, but while it was happening.

In the heat of the moment, I was going to have to keep my cool.

As hard as that might sound, that was the easy part. I was already good at that. I was already great at keeping my composure never letting on when it felt like I was dying inside.

Except, in the past, as I stood stoic, I wasn’t thinking about why I felt so defensive, all I was thinking about was getting the hell out of there; I was thinking about running away.

When that started to change, I started to change, or maybe it was the other way around.

Instead of tunning him out and thinking about all the things I wished I had the nerve to say, I tried hard to be a better listener. I tried to let my defenses down long enough to hear his side of things. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Not because all of a sudden whatever he happened to be saying started to make sense, (many times it still doesn’t) but because my reactions were starting to make more sense.

Slowly, I began connecting the dots, and by doing so, the big picture finally started to come into focus.

It took almost thirty years for me to understand just how ingrained this behavior had become, and just how much it continued to be a major problem in my marriage. That’s when I knew it was time to descend into darkness. I knew all this shit was lurking in the shadows and didn’t want to be found. I knew I’d have to feel my way around in the dark before my eyes could adjust and when they did, I knew I would once again see the world as a child.

I also knew there would be pain involved and I was right. Not only the long-buried pain that was finally rising to the surface but the pain and the guilt that came with knowing how my actions as an adult had been seriously testing the bonds of my marriage for a very long time. Too long.

I am small, still just a child, and I have somehow gotten myself into trouble again. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t. I already understand that no amount of defending myself, however passionately, will make any difference. I cannot talk my way out of being punished any more than I can talk my way out of going to school the next day, but for once, I finally have their attention, so I try. I always try.

I protest. I explain. I argue. I apologize. I tremble. I cry. If I am feeling indignant, I shout, “I hate you!” to whichever parent was doing the punishing that day. I leave it all on the table then I run away to my room and slam the door, accepting my punishment. Accepting that nothing I can possibly say will ever make any difference.

The one time I vaguely remember trying to physically run away, I didn’t get far. I climbed a tree and sat there for what felt like hours before eventually climbing back down. By that time I was good at backing down. I came back because there was no point in my staying away. I came back and learned that no one even realized that I was gone.

Over time, running away became my defense mechanism. Instead of standing my ground and fighting to be heard I allowed myself to be silenced where I stood. If I couldn’t physically run away, I ran away in my mind. I shut down. I swallowed my anger to the point where I could no longer speak, then past that to the point where I no longer had any desire to. I no longer saw any point. In my mind, it was and always would be, an exercise in frustration.

“To understand the part of us that wants nothing to do with the full necessities of work, of relationship, of doing what is necessary, is to learn humility, to cultivate self-compassion and to sharpen that sense of humor essential to a merciful perspective of both self and another.” – David Whyte Consolations

I knew it was time to cultivate some self-compassion, which for me has always been a big ask. But I also knew that if I didn’t, nothing would ever change. I began by simply observing my behavior and over a relatively short a period of time, I was able to see that my longing to flee was a learned behavior deeply rooted in my childhood during a time when I had little or no control over what was happening.

By being kinder to myself about what was happening in the heat of the moment, and being mindful of the fact that I was being triggered, things started to change. It was a very old script, a very old story I’d been telling myself forever where the ending was always the same but I knew it was time for that to change. It was time for me to change. That change did not come easy for me, just as writing this blog every week isn’t easy for me, but in both cases, it has been worth it.

I am worth it. I have a voice. I don’t have to run away. I can stand my ground and speak from my heart knowing that in the end it no longer even matters if the other person is hearing me or not. What matters now is I’m no longer afraid to say it. What matters now is that I stop running away.

 

NEXT WEEK: SELF-KNOWLEDGE

 

ROME

While I have never been to Rome, there are still many old cobblestone roads I could travel down for this story.

Like, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”… and neither was my house. I could tell you a story about what an adventure that was.

Or, “When in Rome do as the Romans do”… I could tell you about that one crazy sexy night in Sint Maarten. On second thought, maybe not.

No, the story I know I need to tell about Rome, is a story I am reluctant to tell. Reluctant because, in light of what’s going on in our country right now, it’s not something I will relish diving into with open wounds.

When I think about Rome, I think about one thing and one thing only: the Vatican, and its thorough subjugation of women over the past several thousand years.

Photo by Johann Kleindl (Klettermaxe)

I grew up in a devoutly Catholic household. Strict adherence to our father who art in heaven was expected from each of my siblings and me.

From a very early age, not much of what I was taught in any of my many Religion classes (I survived thirteen years of Catholic school, from kindergarten through twelfth grade) every rang true for me. I may have been a child, but listening to stories about heaven and hell and limbo and Noah’s Ark, and God being an old white guy in the sky, was enough for me to feel in my bones that I was being lied to.

The more time I spent alone, in nature, the more I knew intuitively that nature was the only thing that deserved my worship. I also knew intuitively that it didn’t matter. I was expected to be a good Catholic girl and do what I was told to do.

Over the years it was ingrained in me that women were essentially powerless and that men controlled everything and rightly so if we are to believe the teachings of the church. But what about before that I wondered – constantly. That was the burning question (no pun intended) I held in my heart during all those years, what came before?

We subscribed to National Geographic, and I would spend hours reading through the stories inside and gazing at photographs of far away much more ancient places, and think to myself, where was “God” then? There was no Jesus, no Moses, no Muhammad, during those roughly two hundred thousand years, that much I knew for sure.

I wouldn’t get my answer until many, many years later, when, after graduating from my Catholic high school, I began the monumental undertaking of educating myself on the matter by reading extraordinarily enlightening books like, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor. To quote the author, Alice Walker – “One of the most important books I’ve ever read.”

It was then I discovered what I think in my cells I already knew to be true. That for all that time society was matriarchal and God was Goddess, and humans worshiped the Great Mother and her body the earth.

That was before thousands of years of anti-evolutionary, life-denying patriarchal cultures rose to power, raping and ravishing and polluting the earth, breaking down its immune system, exhausting the soil, the atmosphere, the plants and the trees and the animals, and exploiting women past our breaking point.

I learned that Rome had started the struggle to be free of nature, that the glory of its city was that it separated its men from the fields and defined them as political animals. Among Rome’s first edicts was the subjugation of women and children to the complete control of the father. Any traces of matriarchal societies were erased (wiped out) with patriarchy rising in its place.

Millennia of women’s work was taken over by men who in turn dominated women with it, controlling grain storage, turning metal work into weapons, and turning women into slaves all the while claiming they created civilization.

With the rise of the church came the rise of even greater male power, with devastating consequences like the rape and murder of millions and millions of mostly women during the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch hunts, all of which gave the church the ability to seize land (which they did) from the dead women in order to grow their empire. Misogyny, sexual abuse, and the environmental crisis would come later with equally devastating consequences.

It took 1,500 million years for life to become possible on this planet and only about 2,000 years for patriarchy to destroy it.

“Rome is eternal only in the sense that disappearance is eternal – the sun roasted city on an August afternoon, a living testament to the way nothing lasts in the form it was first constructed or understood.” – David Whyte Consolations

I tried very hard to understand the religion I was raised with, but as soon as I was out of the house and on my own, it didn’t last. Almost immediately, I stopped looking to an outside moral authority for the answers and started to trust myself instead. In the process of doing so, I got to know my soul and as a result felt a stronger connection to God/Goddess than I ever had before. A natural spirituality was born and grew within my heart.

All religion is about the mystery of creation, so our true religion can be seen as our original umbilical cord connecting us back to our original universal self. But we’ve been made to forget our own bodies cultural history, while the powers that be deny that it ever existed. But that history is stored in our bodies.

We are all connected by the root to our mother; we are all offshoots from her taproot.

This past week was incredibly painful for me, and for the millions of women (and men) who have had their lives permanently altered by sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of men.

Men who, bolstered by religious dogma, were taught they are inherently more valuable than women. According to the church, women exist solely to reproduce, so it’s no wonder women are feeling so threatened right now. Women who demand access to abortion and contraception and equal pay are seen as a threat to civilization which goes against everything their male God stands for. The church doesn’t invite participation they demand obedience and priests rule by fear; fear of death, fear of nature, and most especially fear of women and their bodily functions which is ironic since every human being is born from a woman.

By teaching people to be afraid of death, they instill a false hope that salvation can only be found in the hereafter, where there will be no suffering or sin, just heavenly bliss as we float around with angels. But we are here to experience it all. That’s kind of the whole point of being human. By repressing all that is instinctual, especially the pleasures of the body, what is repressed gets expressed in many unhealthy and often criminal ways. Fast forward four thousand years to today where we live in a type of hell on earth where some men (including hundreds of priests) believe there’s nothing wrong with raping a woman or a child.

And as we’ve seen this past week, the majority of women are too afraid to come forward when they are sexually assaulted for many valid reasons, not the least of which is that even when they do, it almost always doesn’t matter.

Even when women are in healthy relationships having consensual sex, the Vatican, as well as all other fundamentalist religions, oppose sex without punishment. Premarital sex is a sin. Birth control is a sin. Abortion is a sin. Homosexual sex is a sin, and all sins are like food for the church which it depends on for its very existence. If the whole concept of sin were abolished, organized religions would starve to death.

How dare women (who are the only ones being punished) assume they can have sex and get off scot-free, only the men can do that. But imagine for a moment, a world where a woman is allowed to control her own body, control how many children she will have, like every other female species in nature. A woman being forced to bring a child into this world against her will is the ultimate act of violence against women.

We have a choice: either we live with sexual autonomy or sexual fascism. As I write this, the Violence Against Women Act is set to expire, and we are being told that the old white republican Christian establishment intends to vote against it. Failing to extend it confirms what millions of women fear, that curbing violence against women is not a priority. And confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after all is said and done, would only solidify the fact that women do not matter in our society.

A lot of suffering in the world is preventable but knowing that hasn’t stopped us from repeating this vicious cycle over generations and we can all see where that’s gotten us.

I do not wish to attack anyone’s faith or religion. I understand how vitally important having something to believe in is to any human being. I have seen firsthand how faith is what gets people through their darkest of days.

But if we do not work at the root of the problem that is patriarchy, we only make it worse. The reconstruction of women’s ancient history has revolutionary potential equal to any political movement today, and we need it now more than ever before.

In the words of Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International: “Stronger women build stronger nations.” https://www.womenforwomen.org/get-involved

“In the city of splendor, pomp, power and empire, the spiritual materialism of the Vatican or the Coliseum find their temporary specifics, have their moment and then are gone or will be gone.” – David Whyte Consolations

I wish I could believe that would happen in my lifetime, but I fear this story will go on repeating itself until there is nothing left, not even Rome.

 

NEXT WEEK: RUN AWAY