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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

ROBUSTNESS

I could run barefoot for miles. I could climb stairs three at a time and leap over rock walls with no care to where I’d land. I climbed trees and did flip dismounts from their low hanging branches, and could walk on my hands.

I was skinny but strong; wiry but robust. Like a fast-moving stream being powered by the melting snow, every spring I couldn’t wait to run again. I almost always ran barefoot, even sometimes when I ran cross country during my junior year of high school.

I remember one meet, in particular, that was a pretty big deal for me. I had been making steady progress throughout the season, increasing my training runs from three to four to six and at times eight miles at a whack. This particular meet was going to take place very close to where we lived, so I had asked both my parents to try and be there to cheer me on. In all my years of taking part in any kind of organized sports (which to be fair only included basketball in elementary school and cross country that year in high school) it would have been a first.

“Robustness is not an option in most human lives, to choose its opposite is to become invisible.” – David Whyte Consolations

I already felt invisible for much of my childhood, so maybe that’s why I trained so hard; to stop myself from disappearing altogether. I honestly never thought about it like that before, but the idea has some merit.

When my parents never showed up that day, something inside me broke.

It happened with only a couple of miles left. I remember scanning the faces of the fans that had made their way to that part of the course to cheer us on. I remember searching for a familiar face but finding none.

I instantly went from feeling this robustness coursing through every inch of my sweaty body to feeling weakened and drained of all forward momentum.

My pace slowed to the point where I considered simply stopping. I already knew in my heart that no one would be there waiting to see me cross the finish line so I figured I might as well throw in the towel.

That’s the moment I felt a Neal grab my hand. He was a year older than me, a senior, and we had become quite good friends during our time running together. He knew how much it meant to me, to for once have someone there supporting me, so that’s what he did. Despite having just finished the course himself, he came back for me and ran beside me the rest of the way, cheering me on the whole time.

It meant everything to me, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep me going. I finished that race, but I never ran another meet again.

By the time summer rolled around, I would have a new boyfriend – a young man who I would end up marrying just four short years later. I was still quite thin, but certainly not as robust as I’d been. I started smoking more and drinking more and running less and less.

By the time I had my first child, I had pretty much given up on exercise of any kind altogether. Baby weight packs a punch, and I was slow to get back up. After my second child was born, I became determined to get back into shape. I started walking regularly again and was relieved when the weight finally, albeit slowly, began melting away.

But eventually, the demands of motherhood and later homeschooling, had me working harder and harder just to keep up, which meant less and less time to take care of myself.

“A lack of robustness denotes ill health, psychological or physical, it can feed on itself; the less contact we have with anything other than our own body, our own rhythm or the way we have arranged our life, the more afraid we can become of the frontier where actual noise, meetings and changes occur.” – David Whyte Consolations

My lack of robustness did feed on itself. It was a vicious cycle, and my psychological and physical health began to suffer for it. Since I wasn’t taking great care of myself, my weight started creeping back up. The more weight I gained, the more I began to hate myself. The more I hated myself, the more I squirreled away from society in general, refusing invitations that required me to step outside my front door and leave the safety of the cocoon I had made for myself. Unlike when I was a child, now I was choosing to be invisible. Accepting an invitation to a party meant I might be asked to another, and then another, and I wasn’t willing to take that kind of risk.

At a certain point, my isolation became a real problem in our marriage. My husband started to resent always being asked, “Where’s Amy?” and I couldn’t say that I blamed him.

The guilt I felt over continually disappointing my family, only added to my overall unease.

I was running out of excuses and was exhausted from lying to myself about it. I knew I needed to do something that would force me to change.

I didn’t know that the catalyst for that change would come from having an x-ray taken of my back.

It happened at my chiropractor’s office. After taking a series of x-rays, he called me into his office to have a look. I vaguely remember him saying something about the curvature of my spine, but I was no longer listening. He may have been pointing out the spaces between my vertebrae, but all I saw were shades of gray.

It looked like I was wearing a fat suit over my skeleton, which I guess essentially I was.

I was mortified. I never felt more ashamed of myself than I did at that moment and I have never forgotten it.

Like that day so long ago on the cross country trail, something inside me broke, only this time I let myself feel it. I had no choice; I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.

I started walking every day again, and each time I did, I felt like I was being healed. Being in nature brought me back to my senses, quite literally.

Reconnecting to the ground, grounded me, and reconnected me with all the parts of myself that had been neglected for far too long.

Slowly, over time, I became less afraid to say yes.

“To come out and meet the world again is to heal from isolation, from grief, from illness, from the powers and traumas that first robbed us of that meeting and of a vital sense of presence in the world; to be robust again is to leave the excuses we have made not to risk ourselves and to find ourselves alive once more in the encounter.” – David Whyte Consolations

I can’t run for miles barefoot anymore, or climb stairs three at a time, or leap over rock walls, or walk on my hands.

These days, I often catch myself involuntarily groaning when I sit or stand, and the more I find myself doing it, the more I don’t like it. I long for the days when I had more energy; when I felt bone-deep robustness as I moved effortlessly through life.

But while I may no longer be as robust in the physical sense, I’m now able to engage in robust conversations; conversations that would have scared me back then. Conversations where I’m willing to risk myself that leave me feeling heard and understood, which at times can be no small feat.

 

NEXT WEEK: ROME

REST

A couple of years before my mémère died from cancer, she had a serious health scare that required heart surgery to remove blockages in her arteries.

Until that point, she had otherwise been the picture of health for all of her eighty-six years, so it was a very frightening time for myself and my entire family, being forced to see her so helpless and so close to death.

As the date for her surgery drew closer, we drew closer together as a family. We had a family meeting, something we hadn’t done in a good long while, where we came up with a plan to be there to support her at the hospital around the clock until she was well enough to be released, so she would never, even for a moment, be alone.

The surgery was a complete success, and as best as I can recall, it only took a couple of days for her to recover. I had signed up for the first overnight shift figuring I could sleep the following day since both of my children would be in school. (This was pre-homeschooling.)

I remember sitting by my grandmother’s bedside watching her sleep while listening keenly to every beep, never sleeping, just remaining on high alert throughout the night for anything unusual.

As stressful as you can imagine a situation like that to be, and it was, I remember feeling oddly but deeply at rest.

Instead of worrying about how my husband would have to get the kids ready for school the next morning, or what they would have for breakfast. Or if there was food in the fridge or if I would need to go shopping. Or if I would be too exhausted to do the laundry that was piling up, or pay the bills – if we even had enough money that week to pay the bills. Or the dozens of other things I worried about back then on a daily basis. I had one job and one job only. To be there for my grandmother in the event she came to so that she would immediately know she was not alone.

My only other job was to remember to breathe.

Watching her sleep was foreign to me. It was not something I had ever done before.

I remember trying hard to sync my breathing with her own. I remember staring at her face, weathered by life as it was, and holding her hands, hands that held mine when I was a child. Hands that were the epitome of grace and love for me then, and again in that hospital room as I kept her company.

And I remember trying hard to recall every memory we ever made together. Like the time when, for my thirteenth birthday, she invited just me over to her house for dinner (a right of passage when turning thirteen in our family) granting my special birthday request by making me steamed lobster and hand cut french fries for dinner.

Or recalling all of our many sleepovers (she was within walking distance of our house) where she would make big bowls of buttery popcorn for my sisters and I that we inhaled while sitting on the floor of her living room watching Lawrence Welk sing Tiny Bubbles. Often she would set our hair in small plastic rollers before going to bed so we’d wake up looking like Shirley Temple in the morning, even if the effect was only temporary.

“Rest is the essence of giving and receiving; an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually but also psychologically and physically.” – David Whyte Consolations

As I watched her laying there looking so helpless, I could feel the love we shared almost as if it was another physical presence in the room.

When my sister came into the room the next morning to relieve me, the first thing she asked was whether or not I had gotten any sleep. I told her no, I didn’t think so, but that strangely despite the seriousness of the situation, I felt more rested than I had in a good long while. Then I kissed them both goodbye and left as quietly as I came.

She had arrived at the hospital earlier than I had expected, so everyone was still asleep when I returned home.

After greeting our two black labs, I made a beeline for the couch and collapsed. I’m sure I was asleep within minutes because I was awakened only a short time later by my then eight-year-old daughter who had worked her way between myself and the back of the couch before curling up in a fetal position inside my arms.

“To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was comforted by the warmth of her small body next to mine and would have loved nothing more than for us to stay that way the whole day, weary as I was. But there was school to think about, so after allowing for a few minutes of rest that felt like floating on a cloud of my gratitude for her, I whispered that it was time to start getting ready for school. No sooner had the words left my mouth could I felt her body begin to tremble and sense her starting to cry.

I knew she was extremely worried about her great grandmother’s surgery. We all were. But I don’t think I had taken into account how she, too, was probably up half the night worrying about us both.

As I gently rubbed her back to console her and assure her that Mémère was going to be just fine, she asked if she could stay home from school to be with me, and without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes.

I’m sure we fell back to sleep curled up like two cats napping together in the sun on the couch very quickly. At least that’s how I remembered it.

But as I reached this point in writing this post, I realized I wasn’t so sure.

It was the first time since beginning this blog that my memory was failing me. What did we do for the rest of that day after that? Did we sleep a while then get up and make cookies? Or did we stay on the couch and watch movies all day? Or maybe we went for a walk together in the woods? Any of them sounded like something we would have done.

I couldn’t say for sure, so I had to ask my now twenty-five-year-old daughter to see if maybe she remembered.

“I remember that day. I was wearing overalls and green socks,” she said.

I thought, OK, wow. Clearly, she does remember then. Then in the next breath, she adds that she remembers Mémère looking extremely frail when we went to see her.

“When we what?” I asked.

She went on to tell me how, at her insistence, I had driven us both back to the hospital – about a forty minute drive, so she could see for herself that her great-grandmother was indeed okay. She remembered the urgency in her needing to lay eyes on her as if to confirm what I had already told her.

When we then talked about the rest of that day, about what we did when we returned home, neither of us could say for sure.

It still strikes me as odd that I would choose to write about what was such an exhausting day, both physically and mentally, when telling a story about the word rest.

I love my hammock. The screened in porch that houses my hammock is my favorite room in my house. Why am I not writing about long lazy summer days spent idling away the hours resting in it?

Maybe because even though I was facing a serious crisis with my grandmother, I was so focused on her and only her that when everything else slipped away, it felt like rest. Organic, pure, soul-soothing rest. I trusted her doctors, and I trusted that she would be okay, so all I had to do was be in the room with her. That’s it. Well, that and send copious amounts of love her way.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I most often feel more rested when out walking in the woods then I would be if I was lounging away the day in my hammock where I would no doubt feel guilty for not being more productive.

“We are rested when we are a living exchange between what lies inside and what lies outside, when we are an intriguing conversation between the potential that lies in our imagination and the possibilities for making that internal image real in the world; we are rested when we let things alone and let ourselves alone, to do what we do best, breathe as the body intended us to breathe, to walk as we were meant to walk, to live with the rhythm of a house and a home, giving and taking through cooking and cleaning.” – David Whyte Consolations

In this crazy world of constant distractions, how often do any of us ever find an ideal time to rest? Even when I’m laid up sick on the couch all day and all night, I’m almost always distracted by the television. I may be resting my physical body, but my mind will be fixated on how terrible I feel and, if I’m watching the news which I usually am, how dire the future of this planet appears to be.

But when I’m walking alone in the woods with only the company of my dogs, everything else slips away. My body might be feeling the physical demands put on it, but my mind is free to wander. I am conscious of each breath as it fuels me. I am present in ways that are impossible to stay present within the confines of our ever more demanding world. Even if I only have fifteens minutes to walk to the end of my road and back, in those fifteen minutes, it is possible for me to feel more rested then had I never laced up my sneakers.

In the process of telling this story, I am figuring some things out.

Just the other day while walking through a darkened section of woods so thick with hemlocks that it allowed very little light in, I heard a snort.

It was a loud, quick burst of air being expelled by something quite large.

My mind immediately went to a time earlier this summer when I startled a doe in my backyard. She was with her fawn and with a series of loud, angry-sounding snorts she let me know I’d better keep my distance.

This was like that, and when I heard it again (this time both of my dogs heard it too), every tiny hair covering my body stood at attention, sensing the something I could not see.

By the time I returned home I had walked just shy of five miles, up some steep hills and across a few streams. Considering the heat and high humidity of the day I should have been exhausted for my efforts, but I felt more rested than I had in very long time.

 

NEXT WEEK: ROBUSTNESS

REGRET

When I began this blog I had no idea of the scope of the journey it would take me on.

I also had no idea how much I might unintentionally hurt people that I love in the process.

Not only my parents who from time to time I talk about when telling the story of my sometimes painful past, but also any of the people who might feel I have overstepped my bounds or crossed imaginary but implied boundaries.

I regret that.

I do not, however, regret starting Relish Your Story.

“To admit regret is to understand we are fallible: that there are powers in the world beyond us: to admit regret is to lose control not only of a difficult past but of the very story we tell about our present; and yet strangely, to admit sincere and abiding regret is one of our greatest but unspoken contemporary sins.” – David Whyte Consolations

I believe with every cell of the trillions of cells in my body that it’s vitally important to follow where your heart leads you and to always trust your gut. Every time I have ever ignored that impulse, I have lived to regret it. My heart led me to write this blog. I needed to tell my story. I needed validation. I needed to be heard.

It has taken courage and determination, patience and persistence and an awareness that I am risking important relationships in the process.

My stories are mine to tell, but it is not lost on me that many are entwined like a vine with others making it impossible to entirely separate them from my own.

I regret that I do not have the type of relationship with my parents that would have allowed me to feel at ease talking about the past with them. I regret that some of what I have written about may have caused them to feel ashamed about the way they parented me.

That was never my intention, but I accept responsibility for any hurt feelings I may have caused or any pain that I have inflicted.

In earlier posts, I wrote about feeling invisible for much of my young life, about feeling neglected and at times unwanted. But in the process of telling my stories, I became aware that those very same stories were not always true. At least not my interpretation of them anyway.

I may have felt that way at the time, as I suspect any child would, but looking back now I can see many things that I couldn’t see then which has allowed me to forgive myself and others for painful actions I sometimes (wrongly) perceived to be intentional.

I have carried these stories around with me like a weighted backpack never putting them down and only now by my releasing them into the world do I feel heard; only now does my load feel somewhat lightened.

I have mentioned several times throughout this blog that I will be turning fifty in December. For whatever reason, I felt it mandatory to reflect on my past with as much honesty as I could muster.

I have shared stories that some people may rather I didn’t, but in doing so, I have given myself what I believe to be the greatest gift I could have asked for as that milestone birthday fast approaches.

I needed to feel my pain so that I could own my past. I needed to tell my story so I could finally let it go.

I will no longer be defined by what happened to me; my life is now my own again.

“Fully experienced, regret turns our eyes, attentive and alert to a future possibly lived better than our past.” – David Whyte Consolations

I also regret that I have not had more opportunities to share any of the so many happier stories from my past.

Stories that would describe every holiday that was made to feel magical – and they all were, even Halloween.

Or stories about our huge family summer barbeques with all the cousins that lasted until all of the kids were exhausted from hours of playing wiffleball or badminton or hide and seek until it was too dark to seek.

Or stories about every summer spent at the lake, sleeping on cots in tents, preparing our meals in an outdoor kitchen and eating them inside a large screen house. And fishing alone in a rowboat every day it wasn’t raining and often even when it was. Campfires and marshmallows almost every night. Epic games of softball and capture the flag with all of the other campers. And the best part – never leaving there from late June until Labor Day, (unless you had the bad fortune of being sick enough to require a trip to the doctors). The effect was that I always felt like I was entering a new home when I returned months later to get ready for the start of a new school year, which added to my overall excitement.

And in those days leading up to the first day of school, the most exciting moment for me was always the same every year. It was when my mother would walk through the door with several large shopping bags in her arms and call us all to our large dining room table where we would gather around and excitedly wait for her to pass out our new school supplies.

For the most part, I had a very good childhood. I was fortunate to have had loving parents that always tried their hardest and did their best. Parents that were and still are devoted to their children and to each other.

I learned everything I know about cooking, not from The Food Network, but by watching my mother slave away at the stove every night and learned how to identify the wild birds that would visit our feeders by my father teaching me each of their distinctive songs.

By basing this blog on David Whyte’s essays in Consolations, I have had to stay within the parameters I established for my telling my stories by using the words he writes about in his book as prompts each week. As a result, I have been accused of taking advantage of tapping into other peoples pain. I have been told that it’s no surprise people relate to my stories because all I focus on is the negative.

The person who said this to me said it as an accusation and meant it as an insult. It hurt to hear it coming from someone I love, but it made me more determined than ever not to quit. Not to throw in the towel the dozens of times I was ready to.

This past week Nike came out with a new ad that boldly states: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

I believe in this blog. I believe that by sharing my stories, I might inspire others to reflect on the stories they’ve been telling themselves all their lives and ask themselves, are they true?

Might they be trying to tell us something different?

Might there be something buried under all that pain for us to relish?

I suspect and regret that many of us may never know.

 

NEXT WEEK: REST

PROCRASTINATION

It’s six o’clock on Sunday morning. The dogs have been let out. Everyone else is still sleeping. The house is still. It’s the perfect time to write. I can no longer put off until tomorrow what could be done today. It must be done today. I am out of time. I am done procrastinating.

Occasionally, after reading David Whyte’s essay for the word of the week in Consolations, I know exactly what I want to write about, and the words flow from my fingertips effortlessly. But more often than not I struggle. And I procrastinate. A lot.

What may seem like a great direction to go in, at times, brings me to a screeching halt and the delete key. I must turn around and go back, only this time deeper into the dark to allow my memories to take me in the direction they want to go, reminding me I’m not always the one in charge. It takes time and patience and yes, procrastination, to get there.

“Procrastination when studied closely can be a beautiful thing, a parallel with patience, a companionable friend, a revealer of the true pattern, already caught within us; acknowledging for instance, as a writer, that before a book can be written, most of the ways it cannot be written must be tried first, in our minds; on the blank screen on the empty page or staring at the bedroom ceiling at four in the morning. Procrastination enables us to understand the true nature of our reluctance.” – David Whyte Consolations

The true nature of my reluctance comes from knowing that people close to me, friends and family as well as complete strangers, are reading what amounts to my diary. The strangers I’m fine with, but for the people that know me, I am often reluctant to follow in the direction my writing wants to go precisely because it’s so personal and makes me feel so vulnerable.

I remember when I was younger and still in high school, I would often be criticized by my English teachers for my reluctance to write anything too personal. I could tell a story well enough, but the reader would be left unsatisfied. My stories were like a bland meal without any interesting or juicy details, leaving the reader still hungry.

At the time I didn’t care. I didn’t see my writing as I do now – as a way in – as the key to unlocking doors that have been locked my whole life.

“What looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavor to which we have set our minds.” – David Whyte Consolations

Looking back at the whole of my life – almost fifty years – I see a pattern emerging. My whole life can be seen as an endeavor. All the (many) times I procrastinate, put things off, lack commitment, or am just plain lazy, were times when for whatever reason I just wasn’t ready.

Like a tight bud, I needed time to unfurl into flower and be pollinated by life before becoming fruit, only ripening when I had something ready to offer.

And like the ripe fruit that falls to the ground, my seed has also been passed on to a new generation, a generation that given enough time and patience and maturity may germinate and eventually give away its own fruit one day.

Often I am impatient with this process; impatient for an imagined future to arrive. Impatient to see my kids walk down the aisle someday. Impatient to bounce my grandbabies on my knees and hold them close to my heart. Or, instead of focusing on whats right in front of me, I might dwell in the past to a time when they were young and playing in the hot sand at the beach or picking ripe round apples at the orchard.

Thinking about life in this way by extension makes me think about death. It reminds me of how fragile it all is and how quickly it all passes by.

It also makes me think of my sister, Karen, who died unexpectedly more than five years ago from complications of MS.

She was a nurse who gave everything she had to give to everyone who ever knew her, her family, her friends as well as her patients. When she became sick, she suffered in silence. When she was unfairly let go from her job two weeks before Christmas due to physical limitations from the progression of her disease coupled with the hospital’s bottom line, she never let on how devastated she must have been.

After learning that she had lost her job, I began thinking about her every day. She only lived about fifteen minutes away, and I wanted very much to set aside some time to go and see how she was doing and if there was anything I could do to help her out even if it was just to spend time together in an attempt to brighten her spirits.

For whatever reason, I kept putting it off. I kept procrastinating.

I remember coming across this poem and copying it down for her in a letter. I should have delivered it to her in person, but for some reason, I opted to mail it to her instead.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-Rumi

It said what I couldn’t find the words to say. It said that she shouldn’t lose hope, that the situation she found herself in was only temporary. That as much as it sucked to have been betrayed by the people she worked so hard for, for so many years, something better was waiting for her in the future. That maybe she was being cleared out for some new delight.

Every single day after I sent her that letter there would come a moment when I would stop whatever I was doing and think to myself – I should get in my truck and go see her right now. I felt a weird sense of urgency coupled with fierce resistance.

“Procrastination does not stop a project from coming to fruition, what stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not got to the heart of the reason we are delaying, nor let the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the way ahead.” – David Whyte Consolations

Reflecting on this now is still difficult. It is my single greatest regret.

At the heart of my delaying going to see her, of procrastinating to the point of self-hatred for my unwillingness to confront what made me deeply uncomfortable, was knowing in my heart that I could do nothing to make her better. I was too scared to come face to face with her pain.

She died unexpectedly about a week later. I had waited too long. I would never feel the warmth of her beautiful smile or get to spend another precious moment with her again.

My reluctance to face her illness and bear witness to her pain had me procrastinating about going to see her for weeks, and now it was too late.

But as painful as this story is for me to tell, reliving it through this particular lens has gifted me with a new perspective on it. I cannot rewrite it. I cannot go back and edit anything. But perhaps now I might finally be able to forgive myself.

It’s what my sister would have wanted.

 

NEXT WEEK: REGRET

PILGRIM

I have traveled to many different places in my life but my solo journey to South Africa in August of 2005, was the only genuine pilgrimage I’ve ever undertaken.

It was a sacred journey for me, one that at the age of thirty-six, I had waited my whole life to embark on.

From my journal, August 2005:

…I am about to board my flight. Why does it feel like I am going home when I am traveling to the other side of the world, to a place I’ve never been?

The week before I left, I cut off my shoulder length hair and gave myself a buzz cut. It was also something I had always wanted to do, so the timing felt perfect.

When I arrived, I was a pilgrim on the other side of the planet.

Leo, making me feel right at home.

When I then met all of the other volunteers, I immediately felt like I belonged.

“We want to belong as we travel.” – David Whyte Consolations

My entire trip was a genuine pleasure. It was everything I dreamed it would be and more.

Daily drives before dawn and again every evening around sunset to find and track the lions were the highlight of my time there, as was seeing all the other magnificent creatures running free across the vast wilderness.

But it wasn’t until I boarded a bus for my return home that my real African adventure began.

…My last night here has arrived. Full blood red moon. Jesus, this is going to be hard tomorrow. I’ve got nothing left to distract me from feeling my feelings and that terrifies me. I don’t want to leave this place yet. I don’t ever want to leave. How on earth will I? Africa is the missing piece of the puzzle called my life…

It’s my last morning in Africa. I just watched the sunrise for the last time (well hopefully not for the last time haha), then I said my sad tearful goodbyes before setting off for the bus station in Tzaneen with Hendrick and Janine…

It became apparent pretty quickly that Hendrick (one of our guides at camp who was charged with dropping me off since everyone else on the reserve had that Sunday off), had no idea where he was going, and it didn’t help matters that the low gas light came on about a minute or so into our drive.

I was starting to get pretty nervous, but we eventually found a petrol station that was open, topped off the tank and were once again on our way.

By the time the three of us arrived at the bus station, my bladder was about to burst. There was no terminal there, so Janine (my fellow volunteer and bunkmate for the week) and I, set out to see if we could find a public restroom somewhere in town.

What we found was a communal open pit tucked behind one of the buildings. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I did what I had to do.

A few minutes later we were back at the bus where I said my final goodbyes and watched the two of them drive away, then hauled my bags over to the luggage compartment on the side of the bus, and boarded.

The exact moment I stepped on, something didn’t feel right. Jesus was on the radio, that was my first clue. My second was the looks I was getting from the all-male occupants scowling at me.

Before I knew what was happening, the bus driver made his way back to confront me, demanding that he see my ticket.

When I hear him say, “No, no, no, no, lady, you’re on the wrong bus,” my heart sinks, I break out in sweat and begin to panic because I have no good idea what to do.

I am quickly escorted off the bus where I see another man – a man that had been talking with Hendrick moments earlier – approach me. He exchanges words with the bus driver as the driver roughly tosses my bags out of the compartment and onto the rich red earth, then turns to me, takes my arm gently and says, “No worries,” (a phrase I was well accustomed to hearing from every South African, by then).

“I know where your bus is,” he says. “It’s at the Translux station not far from here. I’m sure it hasn’t left yet. I’ll take you there. No worries.”

I don’t have time to think. Henrick and Janine were the only ones left at base camp for the day, and it will be almost an hour before they make it back. This kind man is offering his help to me and is the only other person near as I can tell in the whole town who also speaks English, so I accept his offer to drive me there.

When we arrive at the station, there isn’t a single bus in sight. I have missed my ride to Johannesburg airport which is still more than seven hours away from where I am.

When he turns to look at me, he asks what’s wrong with my eyes. Asks why they are leaking. Hot tears are pouring down my cheeks. Technically I am not crying, but I am powerless to stop the flow now that the dam has let go.

He asks me where my husband is. I tell him I am trying to get home to see him. He tells me everything will be OK. He tells me he is going to help me. “No worries,” he says.

He tells me he’s going to take me to a taxi service and explains how I can take a taxi to the next bus stop in Pietersburg where I will be able to intercept the bus I should have been on. He tells me it will cost me 35 rands. I tell him I have no more money. No more rands anyway, only American. He tells me to wait in the car while he goes into a small store next door. His friend works there he says. She will help me.

She does. She says she has never seen American money before, but she feels like I am trustworthy, so she exchanges my $10 for 60 rands.

He takes me to the taxi station, but before he leaves me there, he explains my predicament to the taxi driver who assures me (halfheartedly) that he will get me there in plenty of time. I thank him profusely for the kindness he has shown me, shake his hand and give him what is left of my money after I pay my fare, then say goodbye.

Now that I am on my own again, I realize there isn’t a single taxi in sight. I ask the driver how soon before the next taxi gets there. He points at an old, and I mean very old VW bus. My bags are crammed in as opposed to being tied to the top of the bus along with everyone else’s. All that is missing is a chicken strapped to the roof. I am asked to sign his book. Once again the driver is the only person who speaks English. An hour later we are finally on our way.

“No worries!” he shouts over the seventeen other passengers.

I am sandwiched in between two enormous old women; I secretly dub them the grandmothers. There is a small child sitting on one of their ample laps. I am sure this little boy has never seen a white person before. He is mesmerized with me. Every time I look over to smile at him, he shyly turns away. The engine sputters, threatens not to start, then backfires loudly, and we are off flying up and down and over and through lush green mountains. I can’t see the speedometer, but I know we are going fast. Very fast. Much to fast for these mountains.

Suddenly the bus slows, and I see everyone craning their necks to see out the tiny windows. We pass another VW bus laying on its side apparently having flipped over while navigating the narrow turn. The two grandmothers burst into laughter. Not surprisingly this does nothing to set my mind at ease.

By the time we arrive at the Translux station in Pietersburg, I cannot feel my arms or my hands and have to work hard to get my circulation going again as I watch the driver toss my bags to the curb and speed off.

I am in a daze as I wander around looking for the bus I was meant to be on. Another bus driver spots me and opens the door of her bus to ask if she can be of help. When I show her my ticket, she tells me my bus has already left but that as luck would have it, she is also driving to Pretoria and offers to take me to the next stop to catch my bus or continue on and take me there herself if I miss connecting with it again.

I thank her profusely and climb aboard. I am the only passenger on the bus which makes my heart sink. If I have to wait for this bus to be full, I will never make it to Johanseburg airport in time to make my flight. Sensing my panic and seeing that my waterworks have been turned back on, she laughs softly and explains that she’s ready to go when I am. She tells me that she was supposed to be transporting an entire football (soccer) team but that their game was canceled so I will be her solo passenger. “No worries!” she says.

As soon as she starts driving, she turns on some beautiful African music, and I lose it. I have gone from being crammed into an African taxi with sixteen other people to having an entire bus to myself. The music isn’t just pulling at my heartstrings; it is plucking them out violently one by one.

An hour or so later, we are at the next stop where I finally meet up with the right bus. My bags are transferred for what will be the last time as I make my way up the stairs and take my seat among the rest of the crowd. Unlike the last bus, on this bus, every other seat is spoken for. The bus is full to capacity, and we are soon on our way for what will be the last (bus) leg of my journey. When I finally arrive in Pretoria, I am met by someone from the volunteer organization who will be driving me the rest of the way to the airport.

When I get there I am told that the catering company that would normally be serving us a meal on the flight, is on strike, so I am given a voucher for food at the airport, but because I am vegetarian, I can find nothing being offered to eat with the exception of candy bars.

Since leaving the reserve early that morning, I have had a single orange and a peanut butter sandwich that I packed to take with me. I am ravenous and am forced to wander around the airport asking for help to find some real food.

Before long, I spot a large door on a lower floor that’s marked for British Airways passengers. I open it slowly and tentatively and am met with a friendly smile from a woman who appears to be in charge. She explains that I am in the first class lounge, so I apologize and am about to leave before she takes my arm and says, “No worries. I’ll make an exception for you but just this one time.”

When she pulls open the next set of double doors, I feel like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are buffet tables on each side offering dozens of different dishes, hot rolls with butter, stacks of fancy desserts, more food than I am prepared to take in, visually or otherwise.

I am tentative and shy at first, but when I spot a mound of steaming hot rice and vegetables, I go for it and fill my plate. She laughs and instructs me that I am welcome to make myself at home. She tells me everything is free, the food, the bar, the stacks of ice cold water bottles, the spa.

The spa? Could I have heard her right? I’m told I have time to shower if I like, that there are robes in the adjoining dressing room.

I make my way over to a very comfortable couch and inhale my meal then chug down an entire bottle of water before heading to the spa. Once inside, I use the bathroom then splash cold water over my face and neck before quickly exiting. This is clearly not my world. I do not belong here. On my way out I stop to grab another bottle of water to take with me then thank the woman for her unexpected kindness before heading back upstairs and back into the chaos of the airport.

From the time I left the reserve that morning until I reached my final destination (my front door) the next day, I had been traveling for thirty-three hours.

Despite spending almost every day before that with wild lions and hyenas and dozens of other dangerous animals at our doorstep, my last day in Africa was more thrilling (and exhausting) by far.

“Most of all, a pilgrim is someone abroad in a world of impending revelation where something is about to happen, including, most fearfully, and as a part of their eventual arrival, their own disappearance.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was a pilgrim, all alone abroad, relying solely on the kindness of strangers.

I never asked the kind man who helped me, for his name. I will regret that always. But I will never regret one moment of my pilgrimage to Africa, and I will forever be grateful for the kindness extended to me by complete strangers. I’ve often wondered whether or not that kindness would be reciprocated in the states if our circumstances were reversed. They may say, “No worries!” but I do. I worry about that a lot.

From the end of the first page of my journal:

…My longing for Africa is my longing for the place that leads me back to myself, back to a sense of genuine pleasure to be alive.

When I opened my journal to refresh my memory before writing this post, I was reminded of this:

It’s 50 rands. More than enough to cover my taxi ride that day, but I never thought of it. It was safely tucked inside my journal, a treasured souvenir of my beloved lions to take home with me.

Africa has so many stories to tell. This one is mine, and I will treasure it – I will relish it – always.

 

NEXT WEEK: PROCRASTINATION

PARALLELS

What if?

It’s the first question I ask myself when developing a new story idea but it’s also a question I find myself asking as I prepare to write this post.

Like what if maybe somewhere, in a parallel universe, America has already taken action to save our home instead of destroying it.

Maybe in that parallel universe, actions were taken decades ago when the first alarm bells started to ring, and we were all wise enough to heed the dire warnings and do something about it so that future generations would inherit a planet healthy enough to sustain them.

“Parallels are not what we think. They do not really exist except in a mathematical sense and except as an idea to play off.” – David Whyte Consolations

While it might be fun to imagine a utopian parallel universe, the reality is this is our reality.

“In the human imagination a parallel world is not a world that replicates the one in which we live or its exact opposite, but one that turns and flows through many other possibilities and dimensionalities; all the while keeping company and somehow referencing the one it shadows.” – David Whyte Consolations

Thinking of parallels in this way makes me think about my dreams. How my dreams often parallel my waking life, often in some very strange ways.

No matter who we are or where we’re born, we all share one thing in common; we all dream.

Ever since I was a very young child, I have always enjoyed having a strong connection to my dreams. I can remember them in great detail, even dreams that dovetail from one into the next, and I can usually reliably recall them without much difficulty upon waking. Also, every night just as I’m about to fall asleep, I remember the last dream I had the night/morning before. Often, if it was a really good dream, I can crawl back inside of it, and if I wish for it to continue, I can sometimes pick up where I left off.

I can still remember many of the dreams I had when I was a child, especially every dream that I ever had that involved flying. Whether it be from a standing position at the top of the stairs and soaring down them and out the front door to go for a spin around my neighborhood or flying my helicopter over tornadoes simply by sitting down on the seat and saying “Up!”

Many of the themes in this parallel universe are universal, occurring across cultures and genders. Like an inability to find a toilet when desperate, or discovering a new, beautiful room full of floor to ceiling windows in a house I’ve lived in for years but had somehow never noticed it was there before. Or another universal favorite, dreaming about water.

As a child, I often dreamt that I lived underwater among huge sea creatures that I had no fear of, and upon waking, be disappointed that this parallel universe didn’t really exist.

Other times when dreaming about water, a pleasant day at the beach might suddenly turn into a nightmare when out of nowhere an enormous tidal wave heads straight for me. I might wake up feeling panicked just as I am being tossed under then feel relieved that I was able to come up for air.

Then there are the dreams where I am driving from the back seat. Usually, in dreams such as these, I am driving very fast around treacherous winding roads and have no idea where I am going and no ability to slow down or pull over. These are the dreams that most closely parallel my life during times when I’ve given over control to someone or something else.

I also dream about animals, a lot.

When I was very young, I used to have a recurring dream about a polar bear that would come to our back door when everyone else was still asleep, and I would climb on its back and off we’d go for a jaunt around my neighborhood.

But the older I got, the more my dreams about bears changed.

Instead of riding my polar bear around the block I was now being chased by grizzlies and black bears. I would be outside playing at my childhood home (even though I had long since moved out) and would spot an enormous bear coming towards me in the distance. Before I could even register what was happening I’d be running for the door, the bear hot on my heels, somehow making it inside just in the nick of time, but always having to fumble with the lock first.

In another dream about a grizzly, I am in a huge plastic hamster wheel/ball and am the size of a hamster, and I am trying to roll the ball towards the front door of my childhood home without drawing attention to myself from a giant grizzly bear that is sleeping in the middle of the road right next to me.

Every time I try to make a “run” for it and roll myself over to the door, the bear wakes and starts batting me around inside this plastic ball, toying with me. In the dream, this goes on for what feels like hours until something finally wakes me, though even after I’m awake, the panicked feeling resides in my body a little too long.

It’s not unusual for me to feel panicked in this parallel universe. For whatever reason, every time I dream that I’m urgently calling 911, I can never get through. Never.

It is also not unusual to experience pain there either. Emotional as well as physical.

Like when I dream that I’ve just watched someone I love die and wake up feeling broken as if I’ve been sobbing for hours.

Other times, I realize that I’m dreaming – while I’m dreaming. In a recent dream, I picked up what I believed to be a small empty wasp’s nest. Only it wasn’t empty. A wasp flew out and straight into my face. When I pulled it from my cheek, I was aware that I didn’t feel any pain which in turn made me aware (inside the dream) that I was dreaming, so I shrugged it off.

But the worst dream I have ever had in my life was when I dreamt I was someone else.

I had just returned home (early) from a five-day silent meditation retreat. It was late afternoon on the last day when we were permitted to speak again that I decided to call home and check in. When I did, I learned that a dear friend of mine had just died.

After meditating for ten or more hours every day for five days, I was empty. Scrubbed clean of any and all thoughts if you will. I remember hanging up with my husband and nearly bursting into tears in front of everybody. But I somehow kept my composure and excused myself telling everyone I needed to take one last walk in the woods alone before we’d all be leaving the next morning.

As soon as I reached my favorite spot (above) and sat down on the bench, I began sobbing uncontrollably. The shock of her death felt like I’d been hit by a truck and before I knew it, I was hyperventilating and had to put my head between my legs.

By the time I made my way out of the woods, the bell calling us to our last group mediation had already rung, so everyone should have already been inside, but I saw that my very concerned roommate (whom I had only just spoken to for the first time in almost a week) was standing outside the doors waiting for me. She knew something was wrong and wanted to be sure that I was okay.

I was not okay. I asked if she could find the course manager, which she did, then said my goodbyes, knowing that I couldn’t stay another minute. I needed to go home. I needed very much to be with my family.

That night I had a dream unlike any I’ve ever had before or since.

After returning home and having another good cry after seeing everyone again, my kids went out for the night, and my husband and his cousin went out to have a few beers, so I had the house to myself and was thankful for the time alone to decompress.

It’s always a challenge coming back to reality after being in silent meditation for days, so my choice to go online and catch up on the news was not a good one. I should have known better. I should have grabbed a good book and taken a bath then gone to bed.

Instead, I watched in horror as Lara Logan relived her violent sexual assault during a 60 Minutes interview. https://youtu.be/bO12X1nhzzk

I remembered hearing about what had happened to her while reporting from Eygpt, but to hear her speak and watch her live through it all over again, was a devastatingly hard to do. By the time it was over I was emotionally and physically spent and wanted nothing more than for the day to be over, so I went to bed.

At some point in the middle of the night, I woke up screaming at the top of my lungs while crying out for help, scaring my husband half to death in the process.

I remember him trying desperately to console me as I described what I’d been dreaming about to him in detail.

In my dream, I was Lara, and I was the one being assaulted in precisely the same way she was. It was terrifying and felt terrifyingly real.

After a few minutes, once I could accept that it was only a nightmare paralleling what I had just watched earlier that night, I was able to calm down, until seconds later another wave of grief washed over me, this time taking me under with more force than any tidal wave I’d ever dreamt of.

My husband held me in his arms as I cried my eyes out, for Lara and what she had experienced and somehow survived, but also for every single woman on this planet who has ever experienced rape or sexual assault. Their overwhelming pain and suffering was all I could think about, all I could feel, and being that I felt so open after emptying my mind in meditation, it allowed me to feel their pain in every square inch of my body.

It is a dream that I suspect will stay with me forever and turned out to be a catalyst for me becoming more involved with women’s rights and speaking out about violence against women.

This parallel universe of my dreams has been telling me stories for as long as I’ve been alive. I am grateful to have always paid attention to them.

 

NEXT WEEK: PILGRIM

PAIN

There are two things I know about pain. One is that no matter how long it takes, it demands to be felt. The other is that to know pain is to want it to end.

I was born a pain. A. Paine, technically, but definitely a pain, too. But only towards people who abused their authority. Like the nuns at my Catholic elementary school and high school, or the adults that ran the United Church of Christ Christian summer camp that I attended for all of July and August every year from the age of seven until I stopped attending in my late teens.

In the eyes of the nuns, I guess I was never a good enough Catholic, so I was often made an example of by way of humiliation. As for the adults running the Protestant UCC Christian camp, I would never be good enough for them precisely because I was a Catholic. They resented the fact that as a family, we were allowed to attend in the first place, so they often took it out on my siblings and me.

Over the course of many years, the cumulative effect of both situations made me feel small and weak and inherently worthless. And being that I was still a child, I was powerless to do much about it.

I still have the scars to prove it; you just can’t see them. And I know that I’m not unique in that regard.

We all carry invisible scars from hard-fought battles inflicted by demons that don’t always make themselves known to us, at least not right away.

That is the nature of pain.

Emotional pain is almost always invisible to others. If someone breaks their leg and needs the aid of crutches to get around, just looking at them allows us to feel empathy for them. We can imagine how much pain they must have felt the moment their limb snapped in two.

But our emotional pain may only become visible to outsiders when we no longer care who sees us using other kinds of crutches. When we keep eating even though we’re full or we no longer care who sees us drinking every day.

Whatever it is, we don’t want to feel it. We want to be numb.

That’s pretty much how I felt every day by the time I graduated from high school.

Graduation night, age seventeen, drinking champagne straight from the bottle. I wasn’t thrown a party, so I partied with friends, polishing off an entire bottle of Kahlúa that night on my own.

I was already drinking most weekends at the start of my junior year. I was fifteen years old. I was beyond painfully shy throughout my entire childhood. I had one best friend, so I was known and referred to as her shadow. Everything and everyone around me was a perceived threat to my wellbeing, so I did my best to hide.

Over time, I discovered that drinking took the edge off during certain situations where I felt like I was walking around without skin. Over time, it became my pain medicine.

I had more than one close call with alcohol. The first was at a graduation beach party in late spring of my junior year. I was now sixteen and was drinking vodka – by the end of the night, straight from the bottle. I woke up the next morning, the sun hot on my face, covered in sand, my head resting on a frisbee. I have no recollection of how I ended up there.

The second happened later that same summer when my girlfriend and I were partying and decided it would be great fun to run down the street in our underwear. I was close to polishing off a whole bottle of vodka by this time, so not surprisingly I only made it about a hundred feet down the street before I came crashing down on my face. (Thankfully I had not taken any of my clothes off yet.) I was too drunk to brace my fall, so the pavement split my upper lip open. I was carried inside and put to bed. I have only a vague memory of people later dragging me into the bathtub and turning the shower on me to wash away the vomit. I was lucky not to have choked on it. I remember very little of any of this. Major gaps needed filling in. I do, however, remember waking up the next morning with someone else’s (thankfully) clean clothes on, an ugly, purple, swollen upper lip and several of my teeth being loose.

My parents were oblivious to my drinking. If I’m wrong about that and they had any inclining, then they remained silent about it.

There would be other close calls but thankfully none quite as bad. It wasn’t until I was forced to move out at seventeen and find an apartment and a full-time job, that I began to sense I had a problem with the way I managed my pain.

There are times I still reach for that particular form of liquid painkiller, times that have nothing to do with just wanting to relax and celebrate with friends. Old habits are hard to break even when there’s nothing you try harder at. Maybe I should try harder to be kinder to myself instead.

The only time I can remember being able to kill the pain with kindness instead of alcohol was after each time I miscarried. My husband took time off from work and never left my side. His kindness and love was what saw me through the roller coaster of emotional and physical pain I felt in every square inch of my body and my soul every moment of every day.

But when my mémère died on my birthday, and after my sister died unexpectedly at the age of forty-seven, there was no amount of alcohol that could take away that kind of pain. I know because I tried.

In the days following my sister’s death the only thing that moved the needle in the pain department was laughter.

Somehow, as a family, we would all be sobbing uncontrollably one minute, and without warning, a funny memory of her would spontaneously trigger someone’s laughter and instantly ripple through us, providing us with a brief moment of exquisite relief from the pain.

“With the grand perspective real pain is never far from real laughter – at ourself or for another watching that self – laughter at the predicament or the physical absurdity that has become a daily experience.” – David Whyte Consolations

We’ve all been in that situation before. We witness someone hurting themselves, wait a couple of seconds (if we can control ourselves) to make sure they’re alright, then burst out in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

I once walked straight into a tree while vacationing with my family in Aruba.

My husband and kids were walking in front of me, and I asked them to stop and pose for a picture in front of a divi-divi tree. After I had taken it, I paused to look at it in my camera as I began walking again. When I looked up – a moment too late – I walked smack into the same tree I had just photographed.

My family thought this was hilarious. As we continued walking (to the liquor store go figure) my daughter could not contain herself. By the time we got there I had blood dripping from a gash in my forehead which only made her laugh even harder.

I was standing there in a good amount of pain and serious embarrassment, but her laughter was so contagious before I could stop myself I was laughing at myself right along with her. Her laughter eased my pain to the degree that I even posed for the above picture afterward to prove I could be a good sport about it.

Other times when I’ve been more seriously injured I’ve had a hard time finding anything to laugh about.

Second and third degree burns on my chest, arm, and leg, as a result of a boiling pot of water tipping onto me. A car accident that sent my head crashing into the windshield, shattering it. Another, a rollover, sprained my neck, did a number on my back and kept me out of work for a year. A bone bruise to the shin after being kicked by a horse, required two types of crutches: six weeks of hobbling around on the wooden ones along with a new addiction to Percocet thanks to a very liberally prescribing doctor.

Years later I would be thrown from my horse when he started bucking and rearing while at a full gallop, which landed me in the hospital for a week. Broken ribs and torn muscles in my back resulted in my not being able to move my legs. When the physical therapist that was assigned to me became impatient and picked them up roughly, swinging them back up on the hospital bed after I told her I couldn’t move them, the pain was so intense that my mother still remembers the way I screamed to this day.

Thankfully during that stay, I was given morphine at the push of a button. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take it home with me. I was also not allowed any Percocet to take home with me since, upon arrival at the hospital by ambulance and thinking I might die, apparently I instructed them not to give me any, explaining to them how I’d been had addicted to it in the past.

The only time I ever laughed (which made it hurt even more when I did) was when I attempted to sleep in my own bed for the first time after sleeping on a futon in our living room for more than a week. My husband had to prop me up with so many pillows in our bed that night in an attempt to alleviate my pain, that once I was finally settled in we realized we could no longer see each other which was really quite comical.

Having to ask for help every time I was in pain was almost as painful as the injury that caused the pain in the first place. Each time all I had to give back was my gratitude.

“Pain’s beautiful humiliations make us naturally humble and force us to put aside the guise of pretense. In real pain we have no other choice but to learn to ask for help and on a daily basis. Pain tells us we belong and cannot live forever alone or in isolation.” – David Whyte Consolations

Physical pain demands that we ask for help when we need it. Emotional pain not so much.

With emotional pain, we develop coping mechanisms like I did. We find ways to numb our pain and sadly, we may spend our entire lives doing everything in our power not to feel it. Instead, we bury it. And when you bury something that’s still alive you will be haunted by it your entire life and every single time it haunts you, you will feel that pain and when you feel that pain you will do whatever it takes not to feel that pain. Not to feel, period. It’s a vicious cycle.

But, “Pain is the doorway to the here and now….pain is a way in.” – David Whyte Consolations

As excruciating as that may be, the only way out is in.

I wrote (almost all) of this post in one sitting. As I typed each word, I could feel the long-buried pain rising to the surface demanding to be felt. It hurt like hell and had me questioning whether or not to publish it. Although I was still a child when I first began drinking, it’s humiliating to tell those stories now. But throughout my life no matter how painful my experiences have been, whether physical or emotional, I am always reminded that someone, somewhere, is in much greater pain than I am. Knowing this makes me appreciate my otherwise healthy life that much more.

Bearing witness to the events of my life that shaped me into who I am is often times painful, but like the Soloflex poster I had above my bed when I was a teenager states: “No pain, no gain.”

NEXT WEEK: PARALLELS