Month: October 2020

Journey Back

I was in a state of disbelief.  I had somehow found my way to this weekend women’s retreat at Fiddlehead Grove – located in the same tiny town I was born in!  Five decades earlier my father had raced towards the local Dr’s office in his new Plymouth while my mother and grandmother tended to my birth in the back seat.  I was just a few miles from the home I grew up in.  I stopped in to see my parents the evening before, but used the excuse of a ‘professional conference’ to explain my absence for the day – there was no way I was going to try to explain the retreat and labyrinth that had really brought me here.  I had found this labyrinth only two days earlier, through a general search on the website for the World Wide Labyrinth Locator.  And there just happened to be a retreat this weekend with an opening still available.  My brain struggled to remove the wall between this ‘new age’ approach to healing and the rigid isolated environment I fled from so long ago. In my flight away from one and now towards the other I ended up creating my own circle of twists and turns that did not appear to form any purposeful pattern, until maybe now.

Rocks, varying in size from grapefruits to small watermelons, outlined the now familiar pattern located in a small semi-cleared area in the woods.  Nine of us walked at the same time, some on the inward journey towards the center and others returning on the same 18 inch wide path.  Sometimes I stepped aside to allow another to pass and sometimes others stepped aside to allow my passage.  Sometimes we both stopped and hugged briefly before we continued on our ways in a dance choreographed only by the unspoken flow between us.  Half way into the Labyrinth I noticed we were surrounded by trees of small girth, suggesting this was an old field returning to its natural state, a new growth forest.  I realized I too was in a ‘new growth’ phase.  Parts of me had lain fallow through the business of marriage, family and career in a field shadowed with alcohol, anger and anxiety.  I felt ready to topple; desperate to establish roots deep enough to hold me steady as I swayed with the winds that blew my way.

Following the labyrinth walk, Cathy – the retreat leader and owner of this property – provided directions through the woods to the creek.  I hesitated, but then joined a small group, gradually falling behind, enjoying the peace and wonder surrounding me.  Why had I always been so afraid of the woods?  There was so much life there, often sprouting from death.  Tiny saplings sprang from the upturned roots of blow downs, moss and mushrooms proliferated on dead stumps – the perfect recycling of nature.  Herbal tea and chatter waited on the lawn upon returning to the small home.  Cathy was open and welcoming to everyone, and easily shared her stories, hopes and plans to build and expand.  It was obvious many of the participants were regulars here, but I did not feel left out the way I often did in unfamiliar groups.  Was it the group?  The sense of familiarity with the surroundings?  Or my own opening towards them, towards myself, that made the difference?   

Following an afternoon yoga class Reiki treatments were offered.  I had never had one before but felt open to trying anything.  I had no idea what to expect.  A few minutes into the session I could feel emotions creeping upward, from deep inside.  I tried to hold unexpected tears back without success, apologizing as I wept.  The practitioner softly uttered it was OK, and to allow whatever feelings arose to come out.  A few minutes later an intense tingling moved from the tips of my fingers, up my arms and through my entire body – electrifying, unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I was frightened and told the practitioner about the sensation.  Once again she calmly stated it was not unusual and everything was OK, to breathe and relax as much as I could.  My desire to relax fought against my usual resistance to self-care, until my mind and muscles finally began to soften.  Following the treatment the practitioner stated that my heart had been too open, that I was taking in all the pain and anger of those around me.  She had worked to reduce the opening and now taught me techniques to brush away the emotions that I absorbed from others.  I had difficulty at first understanding that an open heart was a bad thing – contrary to the lore of love.   But understanding grew as I sifted through all the pain and anger that had surrounded me for most of my life; and how it had evolved into the need to ‘fix’ that pain and anger in others – often at the cost of my own well being.

I returned to my parent’s home to spend the night.  I felt confused yet calm.  The house felt familiar yet foreign.  The future felt foggy, but fingers of possibilities poked holes through the mist, letting in brief sparks of light.

To be continued…

Circles

Travels through years of our difficult relationship seemed to wind like a maze, filled with dead ends and double backs that compounded frustration.  I often felt lost or as if I was running in circles – chasing my tail like our white long haired cat.  And if I happened to catch that symbolic tail, success simply locked me into a position with little chance for change or new movement.  Releasing my grip brought the only hope of breaking the pattern, and maybe stalling the beginning of the cycle again.

On a trip to visit a friend I was introduced to a new kind of circle, one purposely designed to slow running to a walk – a labyrinth.  Within the outer boundary a path meandered in a specific pattern of tight turns that twisted back and forth until the walker arrived at the center.  The path towards the middle represented the journey to one’s own center, and the same path back to the beginning represented the return to the world.  There were no dead ends like those in a maze.  The minimal attention required to follow the single undivided path could allow the mind to calm, and perhaps detect a path for the heart to follow instead.

I entered the Labyrinth for the first time.  There was no need to unravel a thread to find my way back, as in the epic myth of the Minotaur.  But the tightly twisted threads of my thoughts did seem to loosen as I walked.  Midway through the convolutions a deep sigh escaped from my lungs and a sense of relaxation flowed from my head to my soul.  Hmmm, what was that all about?  Arriving at the center I saw a large rosette design containing six petals, each big enough for one person to stand on.  Starting from the left and moving clockwise the petals represented the six realms of creation: mineral, plant, animal, human, angelic and the unknown.  I stepped into each briefly, then turned and started the trip back out.  As I returned along the path I noticed lightness in my steps and a quieter brain.

After my initial experience with the labyrinth I immediately began a search for more information.  The book Walking a Sacred Path by Dr. Lauren Artress was soon in my hands and the ancient origins of labyrinths and their uses through the ages were revealed.  Her description of her experiences propelled me forward in my own search.: “I moved from curiosity to skepticism to profound respect for the uncanny gifts of insight, wisdom, and peace the labyrinth offers. It connects us to the depths of our souls so we can remember who we are.”

I learned labyrinths were ancient designs found all over the world with no known origin, dating back to 4000 BC and found on cave walls, coins, and in written history.  Their structures varied from simple mounds of dirt to complex exacting constructions. The design was based on the circle, the universal symbol for unity and wholeness.  Dr. Artress went on to describe walking the Labyrinth:  “…clears the mind and gives insight into the spiritual journey.  It urges action.  It calms people in the throes of life transitions…”  Now I knew I needed to continue this exploration; to find a way to calm my life as I faced the transitions around me.  She explained why the action of walking could be helpful in this process:  “Movement takes away the excess charge of psychic energy that disturbs our efforts to quiet our thought processes.” I needed to pay attention to this tool I so desperately needed, that had entered into my life so unexpectedly.

And so it began, a journey that continued across several years, and continues to this day – a search that crossed several state lines and many states of mind.  Whenever an occasion for travel arose I consulted the online World Wide Labyrinth Locator to scout out nearby structures.  Once the seeking began I was amazed to find labyrinths everywhere, several within a few miles of my own home!  What else had I missed in my travels through the world; my focus initially narrowed by isolation and then by my own need to fit in and feel ‘good enough’?

Labyrinth sizes ranged from barely five inches (a finger labyrinth) to over 50 feet in width.   They were fashioned from all kinds of materials: painted canvas, rocks and boulders, grass, gravel, sawdust, straw, simple clay bricks, extravagant quarried paving stones, temporary outlines of masking tape on carpet, or even drawn in the sand.   Some were smooth and level, some demanded cautious steps to avoid roots and stones, and others required intense concentration to distinguish the path from its surroundings.   They were located everywhere from open fields and deep woods to paved parking lots and – like the most famous in Chartres Cathedral in France – on interior floors.  They also ranged from meticulous and formal to rough and rustic.   No two were ever quite alike, but almost all shared the specific design of either seven or eleven circuits that led to the center and back out.  Some were public and others were private.  Some were open to people around the clock while others required permission to use.  Each offered its own unique experience and many yielded unexpected revelations.

My feet led me through labyrinth after labyrinth.  The sigh released along the path, along with the relaxation as one foot was placed in front of the other, became familiar –yet somehow always surprised me!  Sometimes I entered with a specific question that was begging for an answer.  Other times there was no question, just an open heart looking for clues as to how to remain that way.  Some days there were answers or hints of directions.  Other days there were none in the form of concrete thoughts or images, but there might be a shift in mood or an ease of movement on the trip back out.  Occasionally my feet danced upon the surface on return trip for no reason other than notes of joy playing in my head.

Dr. Artress described the pilgrim as one who: “seeks to follow the spirit’s compass which guides us to find an inner openness to the outer world of people, places and events that become the fabric of our lives.”  She also described: “The shift from tourist, who comes with an interested eye, to pilgrim, who comes with a searching heart….”  I knew I had became a pilgrim; using moments of opportunity as well as planned excursions to seek my heart’s experiences within the labyrinth’s path, sensing a growing connection to something greater than myself with each walk.

Discovery

Many of my days were driven by my need to get more done, or do things ‘better than’ – as a screen to mask all my perceived imperfections.  But procrastination also visited on a regular basis.  How could I persevere with such intensity in one moment and stand immobilized in another?  In week 9 – Recovering a Sense of Compassion  -Julia explained that being blocked was not a result of laziness, but of fear.  The truth made me uneasy.  Fear followed me everywhere.  Fear put the whip to my back, but also pressed the brakes to the floor.  Fear of not being acceptable fired my drive, but I began to realize that fear of being ostracized for being too successful also kept my actions small.  Plans that initially dawned with excitement often never made it into the full light of day.   So I wrote, and I recognized a familiar, disapproving voice: “You’re no better than anyone else…”  It was my father’s voice, criticizing my use of the ‘F’ word in a conversation as an adult.  The rest of his sentence: “when you use language like that!”  – a statement about my word choice, not about me as a person – was conveniently dropped from my recollection.  I remember thinking ‘But I never thought I was better than anyone else.’   The part of his statement that clung to my memory summoned a fear that had followed me since leaving home – that my family thought I considered myself better than them because I had chosen a different path.  If only they knew the truth about my daily struggle to feel ‘good enough’.  I realized the origin of those words was located in my own head; neatly filed with all the other negative self-talk, ready to douse sparks of growing belief in myself.  Through writing I was beginning to thin out those files and send them to the shredder.

 “Examining perils that ambush us on the creative path” and “search(ing) for the toxic patterns we cling to that block our creative flow” were focused on in week 10 – Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection.    I was beginning to see patterns in my morning pages; patterns that while preventing me from moving ahead, also provided comfort in their familiarity.  There was a sense of control in the familiar, despite knowing it was not where I wanted to be.  But comfort hit a rough patch of road when I recognized myself in the next words: “Obsession with painful love places choice outside (my) hands – obsession blocks fear and prevents risk.”   Was I obsessed with pain?  Was that even possible?  But there it was, in black and white – and the shoe fit.  Writing about this was difficult.  I did not want to claim such a pitiful state of being.  But it was true that I knew this pain.  It allowed me to focus on Ron’s problems instead of our relationship problems, cleverly blocking examination of my own role and my fear of life without my marriage.  The pain was intense, but the risk was minor – he had never been the one who threatened to leave; that was my tactic.  A bit further down the page was another element I saw repeated in my pages – my constant sense that all I did was work, at both my job and at home, there always seemed to be more to do.  “Workaholism – an addiction…jams the creative signal with self -induced static… very often working to avoid ourselves, our spouses, our real feelings.”  Another possibility I did not want to look in the eyes.  Another feeling of truth in my gut.

Finding acceptance for the many parts of myself that fell into the ‘inferior’ category, was an ongoing challenge.  When week 11 – Recovering a Sense of Autonomy – suggested that I nurture and accept myself as an artist, it was no surprise that ‘artist’ was not even on the list!   But one sentence caught my attention: “To be an artist is to … allow a sense of play in your relationship with accepted standards.”  And there it was – my intense need to meet some standard that lurked just out of reach.  I did need to play, to lighten up and enjoy moments without worry, to ease my rigidity.  Play had always been limited to a bit part in my story.  I had recently started kayaking and hiking as an attempt to expand my world outside of work and home.  But my role within the wall of our house felt heavy and humorless.  Ron was the jokester.  I was the serious one who took care of everyone’s needs, often at the cost of my own.  And I started to see that I was also the one who needed to value my own needs enough to make a change.

Heavy handed parental control throughout my first 18 years fed resentment and sent me running as soon as I could.  When I left home I swore I would never be controlled by anyone again.  That proved to be more difficult than I ever could have imagined.  In my relationship with Ron, I fought the control his drinking had over our family by taking command of what sometimes felt like a sinking ship.  In week 12 – Recovering a Sense of Faith – Julia stated: “Creativity requires faith.  Faith requires that we relinquish control.  This is frightening, and we resist it.”  Letting go of what little power I felt I had was a tall order.  But that sense of control did not lead to change.  If anything it led to more pain, and certainly wasn’t helping my blood pressure – as evidenced by the need for multiple medications.  Maybe it was time to have more faith in myself, to loosen my grip on fear of losing control of circumstances around me – something I really didn’t possess anyways.  What would happen if I stopped listening to the ‘what if’s’, and the ‘be carefuls’?’ Maybe it was time to take the leap towards belief and away from fear.

Epilogue – “The road is never straight.  Growth is a spiral process, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.  …progress is often dogged by rough terrain or storms.”  I continued journaling, even after completion of the book.  Writing became an essential part of most days.  It became my true voice, even if no one else heard it. Some days pages were filled with bits and pieces that felt unimportant.  Other days some of those bits roared into fiery anger fueled from hidden reserves; or tears flowed with the ink onto a page of pain.  There were days when I reread what I had written and wondered where the words had come from.  They were a mystery, as if they had flowed through me, rather than from me.  Writing evolved into a tool for exploration, examination and discovery.  Writing gently guided my focus away from the turmoil that surrounded me, redirecting it to the turmoil within me.  But the inner turbulence was different, springing from seeds I could choose to cultivate or discard in order to control the only thing I really could – my own thoughts and actions.  In Julia’s words,: “The Artist’s Way is a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage home to the self…. The point is that you will hear something if you listen for it.”  I was learning to listen, and to trust what I heard.

Exploring

The Artist’s Way – Week four – Recovering a Sense of Integrity, focused on sorting through “the differences between our real feelings, which are often secret, and our official feelings, those on record for public display.”(pg 79)  It was not always easy to distinguish my real feelings from my official feelings.  The ‘secrets’ seemed to be eluding my own recognition.  The ‘real’ feelings had been locked away for so long it seemed the key had been lost, or at least misplaced.   I wrote, and wrote.   Slowly, achingly, my real feelings began to seep past the locked door as I gave myself permission to get mad, really mad; or feel sad, really sad.  Increased clarity did not arrive with euphoria. Illusions did not leave with a wave and a smile.  But as my eyes opened so did pieces of my heart, revealing feelings that had rarely been illuminated by the light of truth.

I was warned that: “Dreams will become stronger and clearer” (pg 84), but I didn’t pay much attention, until…  One night I had a vivid dream about being in a very tight spot and needing to be rescued, having to be extracted from a tight tunnel, possibly getting stuck there, having to call upon all my energy and skill to relax and remain flexible enough to make it through the tight twists and turns, needing to ask for divine intervention and accept what came – even death.  When I woke I immediately understood that the tunnel was a birth canal of sorts, and I was in the middle of birthing a new way to look at and live my life.  But in order to begin I needed to give in to death.   Death of who I thought I was.  Death of my primary role as mother when my children moved in their own directions.  Death to the fantasy of the power of my love to repair parts of Ron’s life that were broken long before we met.

Readings often referred to some form of a greater power.  I had not been brought up practicing a religion, and these references unsettled me; unsettled my concepts of why and how I had come to be me.  It was not that I did not believe in, or had not witnessed, forces beyond my understanding.  But I had never examined what they might be or where they might come from.  The stories of guilt, and even repulsion, I heard voiced by others who had childhoods filled with religious images and doctrines, pushed me away from any desire to learn more.  I often felt awkward when asked my religion, or when discussions about religious beliefs arose.  I used a claim to atheism as a reason to duck participation, knowing that neither belief nor disbelief occupied the nook in my brain labeled ‘God’.  I began to explore my concept of something more powerful than us humans at the top of the food chain.  The fact that the ‘God’ nook was empty emerged as an unexpected gift – with nothing there to hold me back or color new thoughts and ideas as they entered my awareness.   It occurred to me that disagreements between belief systems could be part of the ‘bigger plan’.  Maybe by forcing us to acknowledge and explore our differences we could discover answers to difficult questions that made our hearts hum with harmony – not limited by the dictates of a particular doctrine.  I explored, but more importantly, I opened to possibilities previously unrecognized.

Perfectionism was an accusation I vehemently denied whenever it was thrown my way – based on the obvious non-perfect state of all areas of my life!  But that didn’t mean I hadn’t tried!  And obviously failed.  But when week seven described perfectionism as “a refusal to let yourself move ahead, a loop, an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details…losing sight of the whole.”  I felt more than a twinge of recognition.   I often became stuck in tiny details in an effort to control some small piece of my world – like organizing excessive ‘stuff’ in neatly stacked and labeled bins in various corners and closets.   Honing in on details blurred the view of the much larger convoluted mess – like what void was I trying to fill with all that stuff in the first place?  I needed to break out of obsessive loops to move ahead – even in just one small way.  But I didn’t know where to start.  Which, of course, led me to week nine – Recovering a Sense of Compassion – and an exploration of procrastination…   

To be continued….