Returning

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A flock of geese cut across my piece of sky as I walked into work this morning after five days away. Five days wrapped in a hermit’s cocoon of fatigue, an illness that bubbles up from the very place where body meets spirit, where mind confuses physical and emotional realities.  I am left to piece together whether it is more a sickness of the soul or if I can fall back on the diagnosis that can be found in a typical physician’s handbook.  What is really lying in wait – a series of dark nights that I must withstand or a virus in my bloodstream?

The geese were flying northeast, finding signs of an approaching spring that sent them over and beyond what still might look to be a hopelessly icy Hudson River.

And so, there are always signs of return and the recovery of the sort of life that is enjoyed in warmer and sunnier times.  And so I am grateful that I remembered to turn my face up to see nature’s messengers and wait for my own internal messengers to reveal their secrets.

Write Your Own Story of Strength and Resilience

Yesterday, I arrived at a deeper sort of realization about my own resilience. After all of the restorative work I have done – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – I am not nearly as fragile as I imagine.

dsc00757After years of pushing myself to the limit, I came to accept that my body was screaming “enough!” (An easy message to receive while lost in the exhaustion of the Epstein-Barr virus.) I responded by paying attention to my body in previously unimagined ways and began a discovery process about health and spirit that will continue for the rest of my life.

This heightened awareness was and continues to be amazing. For all that I have learned, however, there is one major drawback: I became more conscious of my limitations than I was of my own strength.

I was obsessed with the food I couldn’t eat, the yoga I was too weak to practice, the events I couldn’t enjoy since I needed such an intense amount of rest. The worst of this illness was three years ago, but the legacy of lack still haunts the edges of my perspective.

Somehow it was largely impossible to recognize the incremental improvements that I was making because I had become so addicted to the story of my own illness. I came to realize how afraid I was to expend any energy for fear I would either crash and burn or feel like a failure and an invalid.

Only in the last year have I been able to step back and watch myself weather one physical, mental, or emotional storm after another. Life has been happening around me with all of its attendant ups and downs, and I am finally coming to realize that I have actually been riding the waves in grand enough style.

We live in a world plagued by contradictions and polluted with mixed messages. We are at once shown powerful women so worthy of respect and emulation (Oprah and Hillary immediately come to mind) and yet we are also barraged with ad campaigns about only finding your true worth if some man buys you a diamond or if you drop a few pounds.

We know in our guts that we need our strength, but the selling of fragility as the way to love and safety infects us all to some degree. I don’t think this is only a woman’s problem – all people, regardless of gender are subject to a market that thrives on keeping us weak. (Give in to you cravings. You know you need that drink/candy bar/trip to the casino. Resistance is futile.)

dsc00749Was my preoccupation with my weaknesses the direct result of a misogynistic media or the capitalist machine? Not likely. But it did help me understand how so many people are constantly unwilling or unable to acknowledge their own power and resiliency and instead become invested in their own limitations. We all get caught up in the stories that society hands us and the ones that we then personalize for our own journeys.

Our stories are vital, personal bits of narrative that connect us to the experience of our own lives. They can be beautiful, epic descriptions of strength that help reflect back to us our greatest traits. All too often, however, they are little scraps of fears and disappointments that have been woven together to become a dark fable of the futility of life.

The nice thing about stories? Someone gets to make them up based on the facts and the dreams that lay before her. Can you look at some of the stories that you tell yourself about your life and choose to turn the tales about resilience and strength into your own lived epic?

Healing Through Questioning

Listening to the podcast of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith the other day, I was introduced to Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has pioneered the “integrative medicine” movement that pulls the modern medical establishment’s attention to the mind/body connection. I was reminded yet again that holistic healthcare is actually considered quite radical in most circles and that many well meaning doctors have been (and continue to be) surprised by the fact that a person’s experience of her illness is as important as the clinical symptoms she may demonstrate.

The airing of this radio show is yet another instance in which the Universe seems to be conspiring to make me think about wellness and infirmity, and the place of health and illness in my own life and the lives of those I touch every day. When I was trapped on the couch with another sprained ankle last week, I plunged into a bout of self pity while speaking to a friend, listing all of the ways that my body has betrayed me over the last handful of years, including six months when I was reduced to debilitating exhaustion most of the time due to a nexus of calamities. She suggested that I might be taking good enough care of myself that none of these health issues became insurmountable, long-term issues. That is a nice thought, but I really think that I am being taught what it is to be temporarily unable to meet the days’ challenges so that I can allow that knowledge to become empathy that will eventually be transformed into the power to help others heal. These days, I am working on developing my sense of perspective on the moments when my body does not perform exactly as expected, hoping to realize that I should just be overcome with gratitude for all that she accomplishes each day.

All of this is merely meant to be an introduction (that I will surely explore later) to a passage included on the program from Remen’s book’s Kitchen Table Wisdom:

The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.

At this moment, this quotation gives some shape to my thoughts about what I talked about yesterday, my struggles with conforming to the fullness of any particular church. I think one of the elements of the Catholic Church that I grew up with that leaves me so conflicted is that claim to the Truth with an absolutely knowable capital “T.” I am still in a place of delicious, torrential questions. Perhaps the reason we have religion in its modern sense is to find solace in a monolithic entity that seeks to comfort its flock with creeds and commandments and promises of the ultimate wisdom. The only answer I have received to all of my questions so far is that this is not my path.

From my reading of the Christian mystics I know that the tradition that has its most obvious manifestation in the one-way communication of Sunday mass (all priestly answers, it seems), also has guided centuries of questing souls who have interrogated issues more deeply than I can possibly imagine. I am just left to wonder how to reconcile these two expressions of communion with the divine.

Reconciling, ever reconciling…