Strange Happenings

photo taken in the last year of Paul's life -- with me in braids
photo taken in the last year of Paul’s life — with me in braids

I really don’t trust computers.  My dependence on them feels insidious. Maybe this is why I had such a hard time accepting the idea that my big brother Paul, who died when I was six years old, would suddenly use my computer to communicate with me.

I do believe in encounters with spirits, at least most of me, the part that has moved past my western rationalism. After all, I have been facilitating family constellation workshops for nine years. In this modality we set up representatives for people’s ancestors, and experience repeatedly a startling resonance with the other side. I grew up as a Catholic reciting my belief in the communion of saints at Mass. Of course my Protestant-convert mother scorned such preoccupations, though she did like a good ghost story.

Mom passed on to me both her chronic longing to experience a reality beyond this one, and her difficulties claiming her experiences. She mostly filtered out any mystical encounters that were from any lesser beings than God himself — why not go straight to the Source? We never heard, growing up, of any communications from the three children, my older siblings, whose deaths had ripped Mom’s heart out and left our family shaken to its core when I was a young child.

So I was quite hesitant to claim as a miracle the odd event that  happened when I was editing the manuscript of my memoir, Ollie Ollie In Come Free, one fall day almost two years ago. The editing process all took place by e-mail, back and forth, right through the summer months, interrupted only by my long bedside vigil with my sisters leading up to Mom’s death. My editor Will suggested changes to my manuscript  in colored “balloons” in the margins, and I would write back my responses. We reached round two by September.

Toward the end of my manuscript was a passage where I described a dream I’d had in the 1990’s. The dream had felt like a mystical experience, a visitation from my brother Paul unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It had stayed with me for many years, and I’d decided to end my memoir with the story. Here was the punchline:

Paul of the deep, twinkly brown eyes and impish smile looked straight at me and gave me a wink! And the wink said all that had never been said between us and all that would ever need to be said.

The manuscript that I sent out to Will on September 7 had an additional word typed in blue.  I didn’t know this. Only when he wrote me back suggesting it needed to be punctuated did I look back at the manuscript I had saved on my computer. This is what was written:

And the wink said all that had never been said between us and all that would ever need to be said.  hillo

Will was suggesting in his new round of edits on October 8 that we insert a colon and quotation marks. Reeling with wonderment, trying to take in what had happened, I wrote back:

This word “hillo” showed up mysteriously. I swear I never wrote it. Hmm. The sentence should just read, “…all that would ever need to be said.”

1-IMG_1223
Will, being a left-brained, rational fellow (that’s probably why I’d chosen him, as a foil to my whimsical narrative) was unimpressed by the miracle. Without ceremony or further comment he took out the “hillo,” and that was that.

Except for telling Gerry, who had no trouble believing in such ghostly communications, and my spiritual director, I sat on this incident for many months. In response to my half-joking inquiry, “Do mystical experiences ever happen by computer?” my spiritual director seemed to remember a few other examples among her clients. Brave new world.

I figured if I waited long enough, some sensible explanation would arise. But I was at a loss to what it would be. I no longer had children in the house who might, by some wild stretch of the imagination, decide to insert a fake greeting from the world beyond at the exact point in the manuscript where it made sense. Our cat could not type. Gerry was no practical joker. I myself would have at least spelled the word right (since I am a phonics teacher) should I have suffered some strange, repressed impulse to insert a greeting to myself.

So I waited for the explanation, and a year later, still had none. I revisited the manuscripts with a determinedly jaundiced eye, looking for further clues I had missed. There were none.
Finally, about the time my book was published, I owned the miracle. I decided my big brother Paul (always a poor speller) was proud and exuberant about my memoir, and he wanted to let me know. After all, the book was alive with the love that still resounded between us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rags to Riches?

1-IMG_1209-001Yesterday I stopped at the grocery store after work to buy a few items. The clerk at the check-out counter asked me how I was doing, and I asked him the same.  As he gave me the requisite cheerful answer I noticed it wasn’t true. He was breathless, and shaking his head with an “I can’t believe this” look in his eyes. Tall and balding, maybe in his forties, he carried many extra pounds under his ill-fitting clothes, and I could imagine that standing at the cash register all day would be a nightmare. It seemed to me as he rolled his eyes he was looking for any sympathy the universe could muster, even from a random customer.  I said, “You look kind of exhausted,” and added, “I can relate.” I was thinking back on my own breathless day at work, wanting him to know he wasn’t alone, but then surmising maybe he was, because probably the kinds of stress we were each experiencing were worlds apart. How would I know what his was like?

“This place is relentless, just relentless, ” he said, shaking his head again.

“Yeah, my son used to work for them,” I said sympathetically. ” Then I murmured, ” I guess they’re out to make a buck.”

“They’re making lots of bucks,” he grumbled, as we exchanged knowing glances.

For some reason I then found myself compelled to say, rather loudly, “It will be a lot better when the minimum wage is $15.00 an hour.”

Looking at me out of the corner of his eye as he finished ringing up my groceries, he asked, “Do you really think that will make any difference?”

Hm. His question stopped me cold. Was he implying that the powers- that-be would find ways around such a law?  Or was he simply following the conservative line he’s learned somewhere along the way?  I could hardly pursue the topic further, with our transaction complete and others in line. I was worried there were spies around who would report that he was complaining about the store’s cut-throat culture. Wasn’t he worried too, or had he just had it? Ready to walk? Two clerks were checking people out on either side of him, older women who maybe had some loyalty to the company, or not. I wondered about his air of discouragement, or perhaps even despair. I wondered about how we live in a country where people are free to openly complain behind the boss’s back , but that’s about as far as they go. I’ve come to realize we have a fool-proof check and balance system in place, our inherent, blindly loyal, almost universal belief in capitalism. This man, like most of us, didn’t spend much mental energy imagining alternatives to the way things are.

Somewhere in the historian Howard Zinn’s books I read many years ago, he talks about the rags-to-riches myth promulgated by the nineteenth century novelist Horatio Alger.  It’s effectively kept Americans from even fantacizing about any kind of revolt against our inherent and timeless inequalities. I have never forgotten Zinn’s point, and think of it when I meet people like this seemingly fatalistic grocery clerk. Underneath the fatalism, Zinn explains, is misguided hope.  Americans generally nurse a secret belief that they too can make it to the top, if they work hard enough. So they have no interest in toppling the big guy. They are He. The self-made man or woman. It’s the American Dream.

Lately I’ve heard news stories trickling out that dispute the myth. In fact, our society isn’t very mobile at all. Most people who are born poor stay poor, and most people who are born rich stay rich. And most of us spend our lives on the rung of the social and economic ladder that we were born into, more or less. It totally contradicts what we all learned in grade school about how our country is so superior to other countries that have obvious class systems.

When my husband started touting the shockingly simple idea of raising the minimum wage a couple of years ago, bringing the subject up socially to anyone who would listen, I felt embarrassed. Had he properly researched it? Did he know the pros and cons? But now, like many overdue ideas, raising the minimum wage is in the air. It feels to some of us like a no-brainer, though to others in our polarized culture it still sounds blasphemous. I can raise the subject at the grocery store while the President raises it in speeches to Congress. But I wonder about the clerk’s weary skepticism, our misplaced trust in the American Dream, and the tangle of adamant “no’s” and “yes-buts” that still greet every sensible effort to free ourselves.

 

 

 

 

For Love of Animal Spirits

6-IMG_2728My love for the dog we brought home from the SPCA last January has caught me off guard. I guess “dog-lover” never fit my self-image. I’ve only owned two others in my sixty-two years, and I always felt a little guilty for not doting on them. Our last dog, Cinnamon, had to compete with three feisty kids for my attention, and consistently lost out.

Hosea entered my life gratuitously.  I didn’t long for a dog. Still breathing a sigh of relief after moving through some distressing challenges as a parent, I relished my tranquil empty nest with my husband Gerry. Yet idle thoughts of nurturing a “four-legged” slowly gathered a kind of momentum that felt distinctly like a nudge from spirit.  No, I didn’t need a dog, but that lack of need was clearly the whole point. Such a contrast with the fervent longing to nurture that had filled my child-bearing years, surviving a stillbirth, the intense mothering of Jane and Daniel, and four miscarriages. Back then there was no rest for any of us until our family, as I stubbornly envisioned it, was completed, eventually through adoption.

After bringing Hosea home I noticed mommy-guilt re-entering my life. This smallish, anxious creature needed me morning, noon and night, even if he didn’t wail like a child. He followed my every movement. When I left him with Gerry to go to work I pictured him pining non-stop. Surely his high-prancing delight as I came in the front door must be the flip side of immense grief when I left? I wondered what had possessed me to give up my freedom from being so indispensable.

Then I started noticing my devotion to Hosea, the constant thoughts of how to please him, the longing for his mute, soulful company. At first this felt more like steady commitment than emotional love. Finally when I heard myself say one day, “I’m pretty fond of him” with a motherly gleam in my eye, I had to admit it was an understatement.

Hosea is as exuberant and buoyant a creature as has ever been created, “half-rabbit,” Gerry jokes admiringly, as we shake our heads over his mad dashes around the house, paws skittering against the wooden floors. My greatest preoccupation from the beginning has been finding places where he can run free and wild, off leash. Watching him sprinting through the woods and meadows, leaping high in the air, fills me with joy and primordial awe.

I signed Hosea up for obedience classes hoping that I could learn to keep him from jumping enthusiastically on every stranger that walked through the door. Unexpectedly, though, the classes transported me straight back to painful years of seeking help from therapists with parenting our youngest child.  Years of feeling weak, wishy-washy, and wrong. “Your philosophy is getting in the way,” one counselor told me. Philosophy? What did he mean? My resistance to various smug regimes of behavior management flowed from a much deeper place I could not name.

And now I noticed, with the new-found clarity of my “crone” years, that when Hosea’s trainer taught me to “break” his wildness, curb his ability to “manipulate” me, tame his excesses, I felt torn in two. I agonized over quelling his vibrant animal spirits, just as my heart had ached unbearably when dealing out “consequences” for my son’s behaviors. Viscerally, secretly, I’d rooted for that child’s passionate nature, even as I knew I could not live with it. “You have to understand dog psychology,” Shana reminded us. Yes, I learned a lot about human psychology during the years we struggled, but never could stomp out my admiration for the animal spirits I had never quite owned in myself.

During one such obedience class I was flooded with an overwhelming longing to protect my baby from this big- bad- wolf of a teacher. Yet Shana’s voice remained so potent within me, when I got home I crated Hosea as a time-out from chasing the cat, and forgot to release him for our meditation time. On most evenings during those winter months he stayed with me during this quiet half-hour and I would admiringly stroke his sleek, furry snout nuzzling my knees. Sitting alone that night, trying to ignore his whimpering, resurrected a painful memory of one pitiful night so many years ago, when I felt shamed by the internalized voice of an authority figure into depriving my rambunctious older son of his bedtime story.1-IMG_0866

And, alone in the darkness, I drew in my breath, suddenly exclaiming inwardly, “I love this creature for no reason at all!” And the love hurt, reminding me that the call to keep opening my heart anew,  no matter how much it forces me to tangle with the unhealed stuff , is always worth listening to.

Another Vantage Point

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

–Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Such a tantalizing invitation. I have wandered into Rumi’s sun-dappled field often enough now that its fragrance stays with me. But as someone who has been soul-crushingly preoccupied with “getting it right” all my life, such a place of moral freedom sometimes feels as far away as the moon.

Publishing my memoir, Ollie Ollie In Come Free, created more challenges for my good-girl self than I ever imagined. Its honesty transgressed unwritten laws I’d internalized as a child. To complicate things further, writing about my inner world, my childhood grief and longings, I inevitably exposed my family’s world as well. I had painstakingly discerned the rightness of my book as a loving offering to both my family and those beyond it, but how natural it has been for me to get lost in the constricted energy field of shame and guilt, far away from Rumi’s meadow!

I should have expected an unleashing of self-chastisement with publication. After all, every time in my life that I have spoken boldly, I have suffered a backlash. I am truly an expert on shame. I’ve read a lot about it, to see what professionals have to say, but I don’t think most of them have explored it from inside out. It’s generally defined as the affect that serves to hold us back from any self-expression that might disconnect us from those we care about. Bert Hellinger, founder of the Family Constellation work that so moves me, speaks in similar terms of guilt, which he feels arises when we violate the “family conscience.” Whatever actions a family condones or shuns creates an individual’s sense of right and wrong, much more than any moral absolutes from on high.Yet didn’t we learn in Sunday school that guilt was the voice of God?

I think the powerful conscience of a family, church, culture, or any system where we need to fit in leads to a blurred distinction between shame and guilt. Thus behaviors each family considers “inappropriate” carry the full weight of sin.  In my family, like so many others, revealing our private, inner lives creates a visceral sense of “wrongness” just as much as lying or stealing. But why?

Through doing family constellation workshops I have seen again and again that shame and guilt are seldom the simple product of our personal childhood experiences. Their burden flows down through generation after generation. The terror of being exiled from the family may be based on historical reality. Most of us never test the family conscience to find out what will happen if we violate it. Most of us never realize it exists. It is the sea we swim in. So it is likely that for the young girl-child I once was, the shame I often felt, and grew up immersed in, was in fact an intimate energetic resonance with generations of mothers and grandmothers shaking their fingers at their reflected selves: “Bad girl. Bad girl!”

By the time I finished writing Ollie Ollie In Come Free, I felt no judgment for any one of its cast of characters, only a gentle, grateful, and even transcendent love. So I was caught off guard when family members winced at my portrayal of them. I was flung back into an agony of self-doubt and wonderment at my naivete. How had I dared to expose our family’s life to the outside world? Yet it was my own mother’s voice that actually answered my question one day from deep inside me. Her words, often spilling out in exasperation when she was alive, took on a new context. “Because there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of!” For any of us. This is my mother’s enlightened vantage point, now that she is able to see clearly.

As a child I learned to lean over backward, so backward that I contorted my whole being, not to hurt people.  And so it was that I sacrificed my voice, my truth, my desire to be seen, my yearning to be an active agent in my life. The habit of protecting others at all costs from feeling hurt or shame has carried into my adult life; it has sometimes prevented me from being an effective supervisor at work, and has often led to timidity in situations where boldness is called for. So I am grateful that the challenges of publishing my memoir are teaching me my deepest lessons about truth-speaking.

In this act of releasing my authentic being into the world, I have come to see that both my guilt and shame emerge from my smaller self. And this is not the self I am meant to offer as a gift to the world.  I want to live in a larger reality, in a more expansive, more loving energy field which I know is our real home.

Why blog?

Today our twenty-two-year-old son announced he’s joined the crew of a traveling carnival. What do I do with this news? Should I be happy he’s no longer earning part-time wages at a dying K-Mart? Should I be terrified of all the peculiar dangers awaiting him on the road? I can’t wait to take the news to my renegade fringe-Catholic community of fifteen aging souls,  where I can count on everyone’s prayers, chuckles, and authentic love.

What else do I do while on my own wild carnival ride?  Perhaps explore my responses with unflinching honesty, perhaps blog about them. My passion is for what lies beneath the surface of random events and encounters: the complex emotions, the not-so-obvious layers of meaning, the spiritual dimensions. I have journaled for many years, and have recently published Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time. My lens for exploring life is colored by depth psychology, my spiritual practice, the communities I belong to, and the family-system healing workshops I lead.

When I was in psychoanalysis three decades ago, I was always told, “Follow your thoughts.” It was astounding where my free associations led, down circuitous paths deep into my psyche. I got to know my own human soul, and began to recognize how much I have in common with others.  In meditation I am told to “let go of the thoughts.” And that too is phenomenal. Sometimes it lands me right on the lap of the Divine. Either way, moving past distractions to the core of my being has given great richness to life, and I like to converse with others who have experienced this deeper reality.

So much of what I have learned is about paying attention, and trusting the significance of what I notice. In facilitating Family Constellation workshops, I take in the shifts of energy in the room when certain words of truth are spoken out by members of the group standing in for the client’s ancestors. When I receive body work, I bring to my awareness the tiny, subtle changes in sensations. And during the years when I was writing my memoir, I allowed my young girl’s voice to well up from deep within, knowing it was authentic. How? Because authenticity for me has an unmistakably clear, vibrant energy. The challenge is to open myself to what is real and present in all circumstances. This is how I want to live, to write, and to be of service to the world.

I notice, for instance,  how at the breakfast table I have increasingly been shielding my eyes from newspaper articles about crime and punishment, because they make me ache too much, not just for the victims but even more for the perpetrators, for the system that locks people up and wastes entire lives. And so as I take the reform of the criminal justice system very seriously,  I wonder at the same time what experiences make me a “canary in the coal mine?” What accounts for my almost unbearable distress over something others  are just beginning to question?  Does it grow out of my experiences of panic as a child? Out of a surplus of compassion? Do I identify subliminally with an ancestor who committed a crime? Was I imprisoned in a former life?… Is there a former life?…Why does reincarnation not appeal to me, but it does to others?… Perhaps  tangling with such random,  intriguing personal questions together can open up new energy for social change.

I have spent my adult life learning to attune myself to spiritual reality. It was through paying attention to what wells up from Spirit  that I made difficult decisions in parenting my three children. It is also these promptings that have given me in recent years the courage to publish my memoir, to try out for a selective choir at age 60, and to carefully observe from day to day the opening and closing of my heart in my relationship with my husband.

I want to explore the evolving world from deep within my own witnessing self. As the daughter of a historian, I marvel at how societal consciousness seems to shift in crazy quantum movements, yet like Teilhard de Chardin I see the world as a “divine milieu” slowly gathering critical mass. So suddenly in my own country people can marry whoever they like; mass incarceration is being called “a failed experiment”; the Confederate flag will come down, 160 years late. Maybe people just get tired of old ways they never noticed were old. There is a burgeoning of new possibilities, even in the midst of serious backlashes, that fills me with hope. I want to explore the nature of my hope.

I look forward to writing about small events and large ones, always noticing how they are infused by grace. In expressing myself vulnerably about what really matters, I hope to inspire others to do the same.