Years ago, while sitting across from my therapist, processing the latest relationship disaster that rendered me a pathetic heap of self-loathing, she explained a pattern that dramatically shifted my understanding and turned me at least in the direction of healing.
Most people, she explained, spend their lives trying to disprove a set of mistaken core beliefs about self, those acquired in earliest childhood: 'I’m unlovable, unworthy, undeserving' of this, that or the other thing. It's what drives toward achieving things like good grades, awards, degrees and certificates. The crazy part is, at the same time as we're trying to disprove our own unworthiness, we are collecting evidence to fuel our deepest fear: that we are, in fact, unlovable, unworthy, and undeserving; which is what drives some of us to engage in unhealthy relationships with people who affirm these fears.
I found this notion difficult to grok. After all, like most of the women I know, I regard myself as intelligent and I really do believe myself deserving of healthy, mature, authentic love.
Here's the tricky part: these deeply held core beliefs can't be healed or resolved by merely thinking. If they could, Narcissus (and any of his modern day pseudonyms) would be hard pressed to find a date. But, because so many of us are still waking up to this pattern and learning how to interrupt it, Narcissus and his buddies have black books filled with the names of smart women.
While I officially passed the midlife mark a few years ago without having achieved the societal success marker of a long term romantic partnership - because of that aforementioned tendency to choose Narcissistic men who have neither the interest nor the capacity for authentic partnership - I have learned to identify the cycle earlier and change course more quickly.
There's the initial hit of chemical attraction that leads to an uninformed assumption of common interests; the seemingly casual brush of a hand and deep eye contact that resonates as familiar; the notion of time stood still in the presence of our connection; the intoxicating sense of infatuation with being seen, really seen, by another; and, eventually, predictably, the desperate attempt to to remake oneself in the image to which the observer had first fallen in love. In other words, to abandon one's own soul for the possibility of being seen and accepted by another.
Could it be that the intoxicating pursuit of "other" is really an exercise in avoiding oneself?
A couple of years ago I wrote a list titled ‘Ideal Mate,’ and have updated it several times since, to remind me of the love that is my birthright. Not surprisingly, the top ten attributes on this list include those that are present in my closest friends, and which I myself possess: honesty, kindness, empathy, compassion, generosity, openheartedness, presence, affection, humor, fidelity.
On a recent stroll through the forest, my friend asked, “where will you be in ten years?” I giggled aloud, recalling the intense flutter in my belly the first time he had posed that question, just after we met. I don’t remember what I said that day because, frankly, my mind was clouded with infatuation at his impressive ability to quote Campbell and Krishnamurti; and his gaze, which felt strangely like home.
Still, my answer rang out loud and clear, like a prayer: wherever I am, I’ll be fully there, present and openhearted; passionately seeking the love that is also seeking me. And doing my best not to settle for less.
This is a time of rebirth, as it springs up in tiny green shoots in the garden or as a sacred anthem of the reborn self.
Such as the one told by a woman on the radio the other day; yet another #metoo story to add to the mountain of stories upon which we stand, as women healing. I listened with rapt attention, as one does when reliving personal trauma through another. Just then my phone buzzed to signal an incoming text: "Hey, love, you there? Still at this number?"
"I passed your exit the other night on my way home from a gig, and have been thinking about you since. Want to meet for a drink sometime? I miss you, baby."
Every few months he pops in to find out if I'm available. Probably, his latest girlfriend has just dumped him and he's fishing for some nurturing, a bit of comfort, and a chance to drink at the fountain of the divine feminine.
Another text arrives: "Hey, sweetie, you there?"
I type "Yes," but actually I'm not, because I'm transported back in time, remembering what it was like to be a member of his present and doting audience, standing by to reassemble the pieces of his latest existential crisis. .
"Are you dating anyone? Just tell me if you want me to leave you alone."
My tummy is in intense knots of nausea now, a signal that I'm dangerously merged with my inner child. Of course I see him; the wounded little boy beneath the fragile facade that fails to shield his rage-filled heart. That's what empaths do; we see. But seeing him doesn't excuse his treatment of me.
I collect myself and typed, "Hey, remember, we agreed not to have contact. I love you and wish you well."
His message came seconds later: "Okay, fine. I understand and I won't bother you again."
That's good, dear. Because, really, authentic love isn't pathological.
Nothing worth having is easy,
but if you leave before the final act
you risk losing the gift you had waited so long to receive,
the answer to the one question you came to ask.
You risk losing the moment of twilight
or glimpse of daylight
in which the wish fades into reality
and you realize you are already home.
Today's sacred capture: Ivy, the beautiful plant that is often called "weed" because of her aggressive, binding nature. Her delicate cordate blooms grow into a new form and wander anywhere they wish, sometimes attaching so firmly that the host dies a death of neglect.
Her lesson is one of caution; beware of beauty's entanglement. She speaks of possibility, and of the path that is revealed as the vines are woven.
Despite living almost directly in the path of totality, and having procured special eclipse viewing glasses, I didn’t choose to directly witness what is being called the great American eclipse.
I did, however, perform a quiet solitary ritual in the early morning, in honor of the intimate eclipse of sun and moon. And as the light began to shift, I snuggled into meditation position and began adding my mantra recitations to the collective prayers for peace. At some point I fell deeply asleep, and later awakened to discover that the eclipse had come and gone.
As I read magical accounts of those who put themselves on the path of totality, standing shoulder to shoulder with faces pressed into boxes and colanders and heads wrapped in tin foil, peering out into space through pin holes and paper glasses; I wondered if I’d later regret “meditating” through the most anticipated cosmological event of my life.
I had very intentionally chosen to follow my inner voice and allow my instincts to guide me, to honor the totality of the dark moon in darkness and quiet, alone. I thought about the phases of the moon, and earth’s revolution around sun as a measurement, marker and milestone of human existence; of the intimate dance in which the moment when one celestial body fully obscures the other is known as totality.
Totality means the whole of something; oneness. How can obscuration be viewed as oneness? I realize I’m hardly qualified to be picking bones with scientists, but this is where my mind wandered off to as most of America squinted through paper sunglasses to witness the stunningly brief union of Lune and Soleil.
Could it be that our witnessing of the event, the convergent awareness of our connection with the larger whole that creates the totality experience? Or perhaps it’s enough to tap into the collective hope and anticipation that what is hidden in darkness will soon be bathed in light. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in praying to the celestial beings overhead, for the unveiling of concealed truths and for a much needed healing of earth and her people.
Sometime later in the day I realized that, despite not having viewed it directly, the energy of the eclipse reverberated throughout my body. Bringing quiet attention to that vibration and settling deeply into it, evoked several poignant memories of personal brushes with totality.
The first occurred during a near-drowning when I was nine years old. Terrified, I choked and struggled against the downward pull of white water until, unable to fight any longer, I let go and my body floated toward an incandescent light that twinkled with the warmth of home. Years later, when I held my newborn son for the first time, I recognized the same shimmering light in his eyes. Finally, I watched in awe as each of my parents, taking their respective leaves of this temporary earth home, stepped into the same portal of warm light through which they had once escorted me. And ever so briefly, there was something resembling wholeness.
Truth and totality are moving targets, widely open to interpretation. Yet, a few fleeting moments of grace have anchored a connection to something larger than me, and in some inexplicable way I believe yesterday's eclipse did that too.
Still, next time I might wear the glasses… just for shits and giggles.
Yesterday I walked out into the yard to discover my favorite rose bush awash in crimson. Her name is Pumpkin Patch, and she has a story to tell.
In early October 2011, less than a week before she died, my mother stood at the bedroom window staring out at her beloved rose bushes. They were planted in whiskey barrels and, even so late in the season, were covered with blooms.
I wondered if the faraway look in her eyes belied sadness, or if she was lost in the mental fog caused by the cancer pressing on her brain. "What are you thinking, Ma?" I inquired. "We need a rose for that empty barrel, don't you think?" She said, pointing to one that had stood empty for many months; an indication of her decline.
By this time Mom was incredibly weak and unstable on her feet, even with the walker, so I was surprised when she yelled to my dad who was resting nearby in his easy chair, "Ole, get up! We're taking Sis to the nursery to pick out a rose!"
Dad and I tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't be dissuaded. Dad drove and I sat in the back with Mom, whose eyes scanned the landscape along her favorite county road. "Remember that nice farm stand, Deed?" I nodded, recalling many times we traveled that road together in search of an estate sale, or explore the antique stores in Coburg, or walk through the pioneer cemetery. I squeezed her hand as the memories washed over me, hoping she didn't notice my tears.
At the first nursery they told us their rose crop had been wiped out by a pest. Dad and I exchanged worried glances through the rear-view mirror. "Drive to Bloomers, they'll have what we want!" Mom directed. Dad had barely stopped the car in front of Bloomers Nursery when Mom flung her door open, heaved herself out of the car, and began pushing her walker across the gravel driveway. I ran ahead to clear a path. Dad followed behind, anxiously pushing his own walker over the unsteady ground and yelling, "Sis, stop her before she falls!"
But there was no stopping her. In what would be a final burst of energy my mother, with her signature tenacity, hoisted her walker over a railroad tie and came to a stop in front of a bush covered in gorgeous deep orange blooms. "This is it, don't you think?" she said, grinning and glancing at me for approval.
She appeared to sleep on the ride home, but as soon as Dad pulled into the driveway Mom sprung back into action, barking orders from her perch on a rickety bench: "get my trowel from the wheelbarrow; bring that bag of garden mulch and there's a box of bone meal in the shed; be careful as you remove her from the container, her roots are fragile; fill the hole with water and fertilizer before you put her in; take your time, don't hurry, give her roots time to settle."
Everything I know about roses, I learned from my mother. She'd walked me through the steps of planting, transplanting, pruning and feeding many times before. This time she recited every detail as it if were the first time, though I imagine she took such care because she knew it would be the last.
Later, I came into the bedroom to find my mother once again standing at the window, peering out at the patio. "She's a beauty, isn't she?" she said, motioning to Pumpkin Patch. "She's just perfect," I replied.
"Afterwards" she said, "you'll take her home with you, okay?"
And every time she blooms I'll think of you, Mom.
On a quest for magic in plain sight, I embarked upon an informal little experiment to explore the relationship between presence and perspective.
I began with an intention to notice when I am present (and when I'm not) and to record at least one daily experience of presence.
I have several weeks worth of words and images to represent these moments within which I experienced the Divine. As the days went on it was more difficult, because there were so many sacred moments from which to choose.
The more deeply I peered into places I’d only glanced before, the more I noticed finite details that seemed to grow and expand to fill the space of my witnessing. I began to realize how much I miss when I'm peering through the lens of the mind. Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of Spirit’s enchanting, seductive presence in every corner of my world. I'll share a few...
One Saturday afternoon, my friend and I meandered through a tag sale at local farm, perusing antiques and sipping cups of soda infused with lavender; served by the farmer who had grown it. The air was thick with dusty nostalgia. I recognized the dandelion pattern on an pitcher like the one my aunt poured from during childhood visits; blue Ball jars just like the ones my ma used to store flour and sugar; and delicate embroidered doilies like the ones draped over the arms of thread-bare chairs at my grandparent’s house.
I picked up a bell jar and carried it around for awhile, cradling it in my arms like an ghostly baby doll. I realized that my attention had slipped into the past. On my way to return the jar I spotted the Sacred Heart of Jesus in statue form, draped with an antique rosary and nestled among other religious trinkets in the yard. The owner, having noticed my interest, explained that an old lady down the road had died and this was the last of her statuary collection. “You must be Catholic?” I explained that I'm a collector of hearts.
That sacred heart statue now stands guard among the fir and fern in my little front yard forest, greeting visitors with a message of love for humanity... and evokes a smile every time I pass. As did the dandelion seed "wish" that landed in my hand on another recent day, and the visit to my beloved childhood cottonwood tree, where my little girl spent many a dreamy hour observing the antics of crow and squirrel and occasionally joining in their games.
I reveled in the metaphors that appeared at every turn; the perfect Mandala of the artichoke, razor-sharp petals forming a geometrical fortress of walls within walls to shield the delicate, delicious heart hidden at her center. And ivy, weaving her path of destructive beauty around the trunk of a tall fir, warns of the dangers of entanglement. The intensity of her attachment, if the connection is not broken, will eventually kill her host and leave her homeless.
In these moments of presence, I noticed myself taking in slow, deep breaths to fully experience the earthy aromas and gentle messages of Spirit.
One evening, whilst snuggled in against my favorite fir, a waxing crescent moon hung high on the dusky horizon; playing tricks on my eyes as celestial goddesses danced nearby. I said a prayer of gratitude for Luna and her luminous cradle of creativity. The next morning, upon discovering a brilliant blue feather and two empty nut shells atop a stone adorned with moss, I wondered if Jay and Squirrel had arranged their sacraments by the light of that Goddess moon.
For the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with being present. The deal is, when I catch myself rushing to dampen the intensity of some feeling with a mood-altering "fix"-- a glass of wine or game of solitaire or chapter of fiction--I wait. And I attempt to stand fully in the presence of the thing I wish to avoid, to put a name to the internal conflict for which I seek an external remedy.
What I've often noticed, in such intentional moments of quiet awareness, is that some deeply held belief left over from childhood bubbles to the surface as the chaos-making culprit.
That's what happened recently, when a dear person in my life abruptly ceased communicating. After a long period of being MIA, he sent a vague, cryptic message to let me know that he'd be returning some books I'd loaned him. I'd been stuffing my sadness for weeks, but when a large envelope appeared on the front porch labeled with his distinctive scrawl, the familiar story of abandonment (mine) washed over me, signaling the urge to pour a big glass of wine. Corkscrew in hand, I remembered the promise I’d made to myself and set the corkscrew aside in order to feel the full weight of my disappointment.
Truth is, the dance was familiar to me; he had disappeared before. So, I had enough awareness to let my friend (and my expectations) go, but not before speaking the truth that seized in my throat. I told him of the emotional pain I felt at his leaving and he replied that, by sharing my own pain, I had overwhelmed him and challenged his healing. Sometimes life events chart a course that cannot be corrected, he said. On the road less traveled, he said, that is to be expected. And he withdrew.
It's important to mention that the man I had romanticized him to be bore little resemblance to the actual object of my affection. My imaginary beloved, in a grand epiphany, would have shown up at my door offering genuine apologies for his emotional ineptitude. Of course, such delightful narratives bear no resemblance to real life. They are the projections of an unhealed self, destined to crumble beneath the harsh realities of human relationship... but my, what a lovely distraction from the real work.
Willing myself to stay present to the reality of the package in my hands, I invited the feelings to come. They tumbled out in a sort of jumbled mass that filled my belly with nausea and my throat with a choking sensation. I took a deep breath and named those feelings confusion and disappointment; I acknowledged their presence and invited them to speak. In my mind's eye, I saw a sobbing little girl who knew with dismal certainty that the contents of that envelope signaled the loss of something important. And I saw that it was her pain churning in my belly.
I finally tore the mailer open and started to unpack the books – there were more than I remembered having loaned, plus a short message scribbled on the back of a postcard bearing the image of a Mandala: "with deepest gratitude." How ironic that he had chosen a symbol of life never ending on which to write his brief parting message.
I had loaned him the books--simple stories with spiritual metaphors about trees and turtles and gardens, and one about a little girl with a very brave heart—as read-aloud material for his loved one, who had cherished children and books before her terminal illness, carefully selecting them with that in mind. So I was surprised to open the cover of one to find pages stuck together and stained with mildew. I checked the envelope for a note of explanation; none was given. Why hadn't he cared enough to wrap them carefully or deliver them personally? It doesn't matter, I thought--and then came to a deeper conclusion: I don't matter.
It was as if the tenderness, caring, and love I'd given so freely had been tossed in a heap on my doorstep, completely discarded. Emptying that envelope was like unpacking one childhood core belief after another: I'm not lovable, not worthy, not enough. I don't matter. They tumbled forth accompanied by the overwhelming emotion I've spent most of my life avoiding, distracting myself from, and reciting endless verses of "I'm okay" over: GRIEF.
Now, reaching down into a pool of tears, I grabbed the shaky hand of a tiny girl drowning in fear and imagined putting her firmly on my lap. “Of course you feel abandoned,” I said aloud to her. “You have a lot of source material for that belief! I'm so sorry for all those disappointments you suffered. Every little girl deserves to be loved and cherished." I assured her that I would always stay, that she would always have me; that she would never be abandoned again.
Determined to stay present, I allowed myself to feel the impact of all her losses. My heart ached for her never having felt like enough, grieved for those who left too soon or never really showed up, bled for her fruitless search for love in all the wrong places. I felt the desperate intensity of her desire to be held and protected, and her recklessness and self-destruction when the world felt entirely unsafe.
As I acknowledged her presence, affirmed her feelings, and offered myself as the healthy adult in whom she could trust, I began to recognize some deeper truths.
I think that grief over losing his loved one rendered my friend's heart incapable of fully opening to me or to anyone. But having carried the weight of my own grief for so long, and having let go of my expectations—often not reality-based--I could finally conjure some empathy for him and his little boy within.
And I promised to stay with my little girl self, even when I'm afraid. Especially then, I promised her, I'll stay.
In August, 1988, I moved from Portland, Oregon to Dallas, Texas, where I began my career as a Montessori guide. A couple of months into the experience, I hit an emotional wall of heat fatigue and home-sickness. I phoned my parents and tearfully recited all the reasons I’d like to quit my job and come back to Oregon, including; oppressive heat and humidity, aggressive insects, an overabundance of fried foods, and a serious shortage of trees and mountains. “Now, c’mon sis…” consoled my mother before quickly passing the phone to Dad, who responded to my whiny diatribe with a stern invitation to "tell me about the blessings." I thought he was being insensitive when he told me how daily gratitude had transformed his life. "I begin and end every day by giving thanks," he said and, with a tone of mild annoyance, suggested I give it a try.
A few weeks later, an envelope arrived. It was the one and only letter I would ever receive from my father. Inside, on a sheet of yellow legal paper, the kind he always had on his desk, Dad had written his gratitude prayer. It began, “Thank you, Dear Lord, for this day. Thank you for all of my blessings;” and ended with, “Bless my efforts that they may be good, that they may be productive, and to thy glory.” I put that paper by my bedside as a reminder to recite the prayer morning and night, until at last the words came automatically without thought. Then, I tucked it in my wallet where it stayed for years; until the yellow paper began to disintegrate. I still carry a copy of the original. And we had a copy printed on the order of worship at Dad’s funeral, scattering his blessing a bit wider and further.
A few nights ago I awakened from a dream dialogue with my dad but, by the time I’d located my journal and pen in the dark, only this fragment remained within conscious reach: “You have only one responsibility in life and that is to listen intently for the still quiet voice of God, and allow it to show you where you are needed most. It is only in the care of others that we evolve as souls.”
In life, my father was all about service so his sage advice echoing across the veil wasn’t surprising; I hear from him now and again. Still, I found it quite profound to receive this particular message in the early morning hours of my 54th birthday. Particularly because the night before, slightly in my cups, I’d written a very long journal entry about my wishes, hopes and dreams for the year ahead.
It is only in the care of others that we evolve as souls.
It’s easy to fall into an internal dialogue around an unrealized desire; or to become attached to a romanticized notion of a person, place or experience. Such notions may distract for a moment from the reality that what tethers us to this place is neither the gravitational pull of earth nor the hands we are blessed to hold along the way, but rather the invisible thread to the Divine home from whence we came and where we will soon return.
And if we are very, very blessed, we may experience fleeting moments of sheer bliss in relationship to another, or to nature, or to art. In the presence of this kind of love, one cannot help but want to hold it close; letting go feels counter-intuitive. Bless my efforts...
Near the end of my father’s earthly journey, in 2011 my son and I were able to capture a few moments of him on videotape while sitting in the office where he continued to go almost every day until he died. He was shy about the recorder, but reluctantly agreed when I said it was important for his grandchildren and their children. In that dialogue, Dad recited a list of guiding tenets which he credited to his own father and other mentors along the way. What follow is that list as well as a brief excerpt from the interview:
1. Work hard – nothing worth having comes easily
2. Be grateful for what you have – even if it doesn’t seem like enough
3. Tell the truth – even if it means losing relationships
4. Invest in people – join with those who share your values
5. Avoid going into debt – be a good steward of what you have
6. Allow relationships to grow – and take time to nurture them
7. Don’t be afraid to say no – clear boundaries are necessary
And give thanks every day, at least twice.
Recognition dances in your eyes;
Tentatively, I reach out.
You turn away, daring me to follow.
Promising nothing, giving little;
Just enough to test my devotion.
Evasive and afraid,
You ache for hope, dodge trust;
Reason fights with desire, and wins.
Melancholy takes her rightful place;
She is a familiar companion.