Still Sewing Together These Remnants of Self

http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=808228

Tonight was my writing group’s holiday dinner. A mightily different crowd of people from my healing class, but a sweet and generous atmosphere all the same. I am the youngest in the group by a good twenty years, with the majority of the women already enjoying a well deserved retirement. There is talk of grandchildren and good therapists and the best female Episcopalian ministers, and, of course, books that change lives.

When asked about how my novel was going, I hesitated because, truth be told, fiction has taken a back seat to my healing work and my spiritual explorations and the words that I scatter here. For all my talk of integrating the self and walking around with a whole perspective, I suddenly found it difficult to marry my worlds.

There wasn’t the luxury of time or space to explain this whole other aspect of myself to a group of laughing ladies sipping champagne. They know me as the girl who writes stories about a painter of churches who struggles with his marriage and his faith. Smiling and nodding, they moved on to talk of waters more easily navigated, more updates on people they had known since their now grown children were small.

It certainly was not disinterest or rudeness that kept them from asking what sort of healing I do. I realized quickly, that for all their worldliness and their fascination with the human experience, energy healing was unfamiliar territory and required an introduction in a different setting. In the same spirit, to a group generally still wary of computers, mentioning that I kept a blog might not mean an awful lot.

Tonight was a valuable lesson for me in the art of carrying around a complete sense of self, but being alright with the fact that some people are tuned into smaller slices of who I am. To walk around constantly needing to flaunt my wholeness and announce myself as a writer and a healer and a spiritual seeker and a person with a library operations manager is just too much stuff – both for a business card and for polite conversation. All of those things are just details anyway – important details that describe how I spend my time, but details all the same that can never describe the true essence of who I am.

Still, I came home with a full belly and a slightly confused head. How will I sew the various remnants of my life together? It is one thing to know that it is not necessary for colleagues to understand the changes in my life – if they notice anything it might be that my rougher edges have been smoothed. But in a social situation, it is a little different to realize that it will be challenging to explain my shifts in priorities and talk about the things that truly matter to me.

I know that it will just take patience, and that I should not expect all of my revelations (understanding myself as a healer, as someone who communicates to people in a space like this) to take root in a week.

Isn’t one of the first lessons of writing “show, don’t tell“? When I walk through life wearing a cloak stitched with the wisdom I have gathered on my new path, I think I’ll find these worries will have flown with the moths that chewed up my old disguises.

A Smooth Landing Back in the “Real World”

When we stepped from the cozy den of our teacher’s home, with its great bellied wood stove and the incense flavoring the air, the coldest winter wind of the season tried to steal the breath from our throats. Naked trees shivered and swayed in the frosty air and the taste of December settled on our lips.

One of my classmates sighed and said, “Back to the real world.”

Buddha in the snow

I swear I spoke from a place of truth deep inside of me, and not from any false optimism when I replied, “But that was the real world.” I meant that though our three day healing artists’ class had been transformational and downright otherworldly, it had actually happened and it was part of the reality our group has been blessed enough to know on this earth.

This feeling carried me through to the moment, a little over twelve hours later, when I walked into my office and managed to still wear a gentle smile. My previous weekend-long classes had spat me into Monday mornings with a sense of dread and discombobulation. Meditation and healing work had nothing to do with balancing budgets and book shifting projects and I had felt lost between the two worlds.

Today, however, I was amazed by the blissful sense of integration that bore me through the day.  I had managed to bring the healer that I know myself to be through the doors of the workplace. At last, I felt a sense of wholeness that was almost always lacking when I sat down at my desk and interacted with colleagues.  I’d had enough of leading a life that was disconnected with itself.

It is time to stop believing that we are more than one person, that we can effectively slice ourselves up into little pieces and give our spirits to God, and our love to our families, and our practicality to our work. We are all complex, multifaceted creatures with our fingers dripping with all different colors of finger paint, but that rainbow is all unified by one hand, one arm, one being who dances in many different worlds.

I have been struggling with a sense of desperation because I felt like a fraud in every part of my life, especially as I tried to reconcile my professional/working self and my healer/writer/seeker self. No piece of me could get my full attention or dedication because I was so busy slicing myself up into discrete portions.

Many months ago, a dear friend counseled me that all of my worlds did have a sense of harmony and did make sense because they all had one essential element in common: ME.

Her wisdom did not take root in my heart until I walked through this workday and realized that my true self really was the fulcrum that balanced my two worlds.

I cannot manage people and projects if I do not come to everyone with an open heart and a belief in the interconnectedness of all beings. I cannot thrive as a writer and a healer if I do not use the organized, disciplined parts of my brain. My different identities have always colored the others in my closet of characters. The diversity of my experiences and abilities have always been a source of power for me, however untapped and unrecognized.

We all carry around an entire universe of possibility. How many of us have trouble finding the compatibility that truly does exists between the different corners of that universe? How much more powerful can we be if we stop drawing lines in the sand of our consciousness and embrace true integration?

What new forms of harmony and understanding might thrive in this world if we can first find a way to create such a sense of balance within?

My Witness is Shaped Like a Bottle of Guinness

A new visitor, Lauren from Earthy Yoga Mom, made a brilliant comment on my post from yesterday about the “Woman at Head of the Table.” She offered that this Woman, a being she has met in meditation in the form of her “inner Buddha,” actually is transcendence. Lauren says that this transcendent force “has all of the wisdom I need to respond to whatever random challenges my mind is manufacturing.” Perhaps she was telling me that I don’t have to discount the Woman at the Head of Table as a mere human resources lady just because I want to connect with an other-wordly part of myself that talks to God. This is a comforting concept, and one I am very grateful to consider.

With all of the different sources of spiritual knowledge out there, it is easy to be overwhelmed by which strategy or symbols or prayers I should employ on any given day. I tend to forget that so many of them are using a different vocabulary to move you to a similar point along the spiritual journey. Once I allow the Woman at the Head of the Table to be like an “inner Buddha,” then I can associate the Woman that helps me in daily life with a seemingly more sublime power, the Witness, the being that presides over the dialog of my soul.

Stephen Cope talks at length about cultivating the “Witness consciousness,” the pure awareness that is always there, watching, and which serves as a calm in the mind’s worst storms. I conceptualize this Witness to be like Lauren’s little Buddha. It’s meant to be a metaphysical entity, not a person or a place. The thing is, I always picture my Witness as a bottle of Guinness. Yes, Guinness, as in really dark beer.

When I was studying in Ireland in 2001 a huge music festival called Witness was being advertised everywhere. Guinness was the sponsor and every beer mat and bus stop was plastered with advertisements that featured the silhouette of a bottle and simply the word “Witness.” I worry about the queen who rules my mind and instead turn to a container of stout for spiritual guidance! (I am sure that Guinness has surely lead to its own sort of spiritual revelations, but that is for a different blog on a different day).

It seems that it may be more important to look at the end rather than the means as we try to move along the spiritual path. I could spend all sorts of time critiquing the vehicles that get me into those places of stillness where real wisdom can be gathered, but maybe I should use the symbols that I have been given and trust that they will fall away when I actually arrive in that transcendent state to which I hope I am headed.

Or maybe I should just relax and buy the Woman at the Head of the Table a pint…

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, there is a great deal of mathematics to be done.

Did I cross enough off my to-do list? Did I treat everyone I encountered with respect? Did I eat foods that supported my body? Did I clean up the messes I caused and pitch in to help with those I did not? Did I write, practice yoga, meditate, give the cats enough attention?

During a writing workshop a couple of years ago I met an Irishwoman who is one of my wise women role models. She said, as I sought guidance in the months before my wedding, “at the end of the day all that matters is that you are together and in love.” When I can remember it, “at the end of day” is the phrase that helps me put things in perspective. At the end of the day, all that matters is that I cultivated love in all that I touched. Only when I am being too hard on myself does that nourishing phrase turn into a sort of edict about attainment and success.

While I think of the brief time I was able to tale in this wise, wise woman’s warmth, I continue to play with the idea of identity and how split ourselves into countless pieces so we can cover all of the bases. Another gem from this woman from Cork was about turning to “the woman at the head of the table,” the noble creature who keeps order over all of the other characters that make up the personality. One needn’t worry about being swept away by the part of herself that is too bossy or too conceited or too insecure when she can trust one woman to sit regally and keep everyone in check with a kind, firm hand. That woman at the head of the table, of course, is the finest expression of yourself, the one with the clarity and the discipline to show your best face to the world.

I love this image, and rely on it when I want to become the queen who can master her emotions and do what must be done – be it heading to work or writing another page. At the same time, I wonder if giving the different aspects of yourself a table to sit around and treating them like a bunch of crazy relations gives them too much power.

Depending on which tradition I want to ally myself with today, I can either look at this as a great technique for finding the most ideal part of myself or I look it as a way to perpetuate the false dramas of humanity. If this world is just an illusion, maya, adding extra players to my inner world hinders me from realizing Wisdom. How many mystics and Eastern teachers say that one enters true union with the Divine when she recognizes that possessions and creeds and personality traits are mere details?

I am left to wonder what to work on first – ordering the various pieces of my identity or trying to transcend everything that I believe defines my identity. Much of the time, I am marooned somewhere in the middle, feeding myself on a combination of pop psychology and mysticism. I guess this tension is part of what it means to be alive and seeking in the 21st century…

Re-membering the Divided Self

One basic tenant of Wise Woman Working is the dedication to personal integrity. By that I mean recognizing the seemingly disparate parts of the self – the lover, the worker, the writer, the philosopher, the dreamer, the cynic, the timid child, the warrior queen – and realizing that they are all just part of the universe that is you.

To make such a statement is still a kind of magical thinking for me; if I say it aloud maybe it could happen for me as well. This sort of unification is exactly what I would tell you stops me from emerging from cave of own dramas into the open vistas of the True Self.*

I don’t want to eke out my life like a resource in short supply. The only selfish life is a timid one. To hold back, to withdraw, to keep the best in reserve both overvalues the self and undervalues what the self is. Here’s my life – I have to mine it, farm it, trade it, tenant it and when the lease is up it cannot be renewed. Here’s my chance. I’ll take it.

from The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

In my pursuit of some sort of idealized self I have shattered my being into tiny shards. I send one version to work; she is wraith-like and incomplete. Giving all of myself to something as unenlightened as the pursuit of a paycheck may somehow diminish the real me who is meant to be extraordinary, who is meant to create and to heal. Another version of myself exists in a marriage and learns how to keeps pieces of herself in shadow so that she does not appear too selfish, so that my husband will not think that I value the written word over a good clean kitchen (because this incomplete version of me forgets that our love is forged on a lot more than sparkling counter tops). The me that sits and types in the early hours of the morning and meditates and chants Om on a yoga mat is meant to be the truest expression of who I am. I rely on her when the other characters in my cast cannot provide enough sustenance. She must be constantly ready to conjure something wonderful, even if I have been starving all of the other aspects of who I am by telling them they are not enough.

The thing is, the idealized version of me who has fairy wings and a halo and a yet unwritten book that will eventually change lives can never support the dreams of a complete person because she herself has been winnowed away. Every day I forfeit too many parts of my being to ever pretend to have the sort of integrity that can lead to real wisdom.

And so I dedicate myself to the task of re-membering a self that was never meant to be a prism, refracting the light and bouncing colors in a million different directions. Instead I will be the rainbow itself – brilliant with different hues, but still a united spectrum that cuts across the sky.

Wise Woman Working

When faced with the impossible problem of what I want to be when I grow up or who I want to be for the next twenty minutes I often panic at the multiplicity of options. Sometimes I am crushed when I realize that whatever path I choose will inevitably eliminate a host of other equally attractive, urgent possibilities. So often I become completely mired in all that I cannot do; I just freeze up and let the night dissolve into television for fear I might waste time chasing after the wrong star. I suppose this is one reason why many passionate people who really want to affect positive change end up being stymied by the weight of their own potential. The vastness of the universe, with all of its beauty and ugliness, is devastating in its scale and the abilities of one person seem laughably inconsequential.

Of all the causes that call to me but do not seem to fit into a single lifetime, I think I have finally distilled my raison d’être to one articulable goal: I want to be a wise, wise woman.

For some time I have been sitting behind my eyes, watching as I move through the world, keeping an inner score card. My awareness has been heightened and I surf from epiphany to epiphany, so often conscious of this phenomenal world with its limitless possibilities. But I constantly find myself forgetting all I know about the life of the soul and the love of the Divine and the power of healing. The epiphanies all turn to dust as I find it impossible to practice all that I know when I am confronted with another unenlightened day at work or a quiet night when I am too tired to think.

And so I am ready to introduce a second stage to all of this shouting about revelations: it is time for Wise Woman Working. The pursuit of wisdom seems a relentless one that takes dedication and conditioning. At the same time, I think there is a need to let the world pass through you and allow the knowledge to pool at your feet, but I think that certain groundwork must be laid first. All those books I have read, all the classes and seminars I have attended – their brilliance dulls and I just find myself becoming an enlightenment junkie dying for a new hit. Wise Woman Working is about practicing what I have heard preached and letting all those lessons marinate until they are not airy-fairy icing, but the real sustenance one can build a life upon. It is about living through these flashes of insight and distilling them to their essential stuff so that I can blossom into being that wise, wise woman who contributes something to this miraculous, fucked up world.

Because the Ego is a Fragile Thing I Have to Waste

I started blogging a year ago as a result of one of those allegedly profound conversations in which, yet again, I experienced the ultimate breakthrough and uncovered an enlightened new relationship with Self and the Divine, and pretty much the entire planet.

Wryly, I scoffed to my friend, “Listen to me! I’m the girl who cried epiphany! Why do you even listen to all this narcissistic drivel?” And so I started committing these thoughts to writing and explored a public voice.

Then I stopped posting because my obsession with whether anyone was reading seemed unhealthy, I started writing fiction again, and it didn’t seem that inspired spiritual progression should invite voyeurism. Now, six months later, I think I have found my way back to the original purpose of these pages – to name those little epiphanies, both pedestrian and profound, that inform and spice this business of living, and could, with a bit of attention and intention, lead to an expansion of consciousness.

This need to start writing here again came to me today while I sat through a conference of librarians. I had organized the event, yet sat at the periphery because I am not really one of them, but instead a creature who lacks the information science credentials, and, frankly, the interest to truly engage in the conversation. For two days, I had been trying to explain to the participants my role in the college library at which I work – I’m a professional with an assistant of my own and I do actual intellectual work when I am not worrying about caterers and janitors’ schedules, honest! When I took a moment to listen to myself I realized that the lady really did protest too much. I balked at the fragility of my ego, that I had to allude to the novel I am writing and my graduate work in Ireland and actually say “yeah, but I am not actually a secretary.” See, I even had to include my credentials here so that my readers will realize that I am not just some hack whining about her day job!

My difficulties with position and title have plagued me for years both in the professional and existential sense. I think I am finally in the place where I can admit the tyranny of this need to prove myself and the longing for a ready-made description of who I am. Of course, being able to recognize that this brittle shell of identity I feel compelled to defend and describe is light years from my true self is only the smallest of initial steps. Still, it was epiphany enough to stop and hear my story as it spiraled from my lips and realize that the tale I was telling had nothing to do with me.

After such silence, I certainly have not begun to fulfill the mission of what this blog was meant to do, but perhaps remembering the long, arduous process of self expression is revelation enough for one evening.

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.

Finding My Fins at the Foot of a Mountain

http://www.flickr.com/photos/joebackward/I was born a Cape Cod girl with salt water in my veins (though I would not realize this until the ocean was no longer a mile from my door). I discovered my fairytale soul and soaked it in romance on Prince Edward Island (not recognizing until later the dangers of treating my teenage self with such painful earnestness). I became a Galway girl and parodied the Normans to be “more Irish than the Irish themselves” (not that I would have owned that dubious distinction at the time). As the shine of childhood and collegiate entitlement began to dull, I resigned myself to be someone caught between being a chameleon and a fish out of water and lived in a few landlocked spots that meant nothing to me at all. I have tried on more than a few guises and landscapes trying to find my own true home. Now, after nearly four years in a little town in the Hudson Valley at the foot of a ridge that leads to the Catskills I am beginning to realize aspects of myself beyond ocean and nation and alienation. At the same time, I am also able to recognize that the identity I forge is still built from the stuff of sand dunes and sea grass.

More and more I am coming across references to the essential nature of place and the way that location is an active participant in the events of one’s life. In so many ways this is a quaint notion that seems to apply to people who find joy in composting or who hail from a line of wisewomen and men stretching back to time immemorial. It is a luxury that seems to apply to people with large families in spots that are either too idyllic to leave or too destitute to escape. As I read about the vibrancy of some seem to see in their homeland I wonder at the privileged and the blighted few who enjoy such intimate knowledge of each stone and leaf.

Somehow in reading such texts I forget that I grew up with a list of my top five favorite beaches – one had the best waves, another the best sandbars, another the best rocks upon which to figure out the allure of sunbathing (this redhead has still to sort out that mystery of adulthood), etc. I was raised by people who chase across our peninsula on the three or four most perfect nights of the summer to see the sun set and the full moon rise on opposite sides of the sky over different faces of the sea. Just last weekend my mother and I rolled a busted buoy far further than might be considered sane to enhance a driftwood and debris sculpture and make part of that Chatham shoreline our own.

Woods Hole Research CenterI spent eighteen years on a world famous arm jutting into the Atlantic with parents who love to sail and collect heart shaped rocks and still don’t mind if the dog jumps into the water minutes before getting back into the car, and somehow I have managed to feel disconnected from an authentic sense of belonging, from a place that seemed to know my name as well as I knew its.

Now we can point to a global society riddled with modes of communication that has afforded us the ability to eat strawberries in February and play Scrabble with friends in Budapest in the middle of the night as the source of this separation from the land. This new parallel existence has also allowed us to trade organic “place” for self-determined “space” so that we get to define our world rather than letting it define us. I know that I gain infinite wealth from this wired world, just as I profit immeasurably from the first frontier that separated us from the earth around us, the printed page. At the same time, I am beginning to realize the reciprocal relationship that exists between me and the corner of the planet that gave birth to me as surely as my parents did. Nature is calling out to cradle us as sweetly and as strongly she always did, if only we are willing to listen.

The next mystery to sort out is how loudly the waves are calling me home…