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Posted in Adventures With Humans

Christmas lights

One winter’s night, shortly before Christmas, I had gone out to deal with a difficult string of decorative lights at the front of our old Victorian house. Our kids were in bed, my husband was home, so I thought I would take advantage of the time to sort out this jolly puzzle. There was snow falling on top of the already significant amount on the ground, but since I am one of those freaks fond of winter, the weather was no deterrent. There was only one convenient electrical outlet, and I was trying to create a seasonal winter wonderland without burning the house down using the careful, and mysterious use of extension cords, hiding them behind the snow-laden shrubs. I plugged in the strings of lights and then went about arranging, enjoying the cool and the beauty of the falling snow. The scene was quiet, almost magical, and I was tucked in under my hat with my own thoughts, listening to my breathing, and the crunch of snow. When close to finishing, I noticed a neighbour walking across the road towards me. Our paths had never crossed much, so I didn’t know her that well. She carried a piece of paper–some kind of brochure in her hand but I didn’t work too hard to see what it was about, as I didn’t assume that it was meant for me. We exchanged pleasantries, and it became clear that I was, in fact, her target. I kept tending to my lights, but let her know with physical cues, that I was listening. I don’t remember exactly how she lead in, but she began telling me about her father who had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance after collapsing at his home. It was discovered that he had had a heart attack, and the family gathered as he was not expected to survive. The neighbour described, in great detail, how the family had prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and how they felt that God was with them there in the hospital room. The father did survive, despite the initial grim prognosis and all were grateful that God intervened. I offered my congratulations and commented on how wonderful that must have been, especially with Christmas so close. She thanked me and in almost the same breath, asked if I wanted to donate to The Heart & Stroke Foundation. My lights flickered. I paused, wondering how she did not see the irony in her request. Yes, it was all God, but also could you help with research and equipment, just in case? I would never challenge anyone on cherry-picking spiritual views, but here, I said I would take the brochure and think about it. I didn’t want to be rude. She wasn’t a monster, but I have never felt any intrinsic need to defer to the whims of evangelical devotees in their rousing hallelujah when it never seems to apply across the board. The lights stopped flickering. I went inside.
Several decades later, I found myself sitting with a group of people, each of whom had lost a loved one to suicide. I had lost my father in 2004, and the facilitator, her husband in 2002, but everyone else was within four years or less since their particular terrible day. All of the people held a special place in my heart, each one broken and struggling to surface, to even begin to contemplate healing, but it was one young man whose battle crushed me. We still had to wear masks, so were dependent on body language and eyes, but that was more than enough for me to see just how much complex pain this man was holding for the person he had lost. He was weeping with such sadness that it seemed that his physical frame might not hold together, as if his grief had weight and form that wanted to break him from the inside. It wasn’t just my ‘mother’ muscles kicking in, but my awareness as a human being witnessing someone in such deep pain. I wanted to leap across the room and hold him; I sensed others felt the same impulse. Nobody mentioned anything about any great, overarching power.
I struggle with the idea of grief making us strong. That’s the last thing anyone wants to hear while they are still brushing the dirt off of their hands after burying their dead, but I must say, in my own case, grief has changed me, given me more breadth of spirit, more patience. The thing is that it has taken me close to twenty years to get to this point. I wanted the young man to be able to stop suffering right then as he sat in that chair. I didn’t want him to have to slowly heal ahead into his timeline, but I knew that was not the way things worked; nobody is suddenly okay with everything unless a wizard turns them into a goldfish, and then there would be other issues. In an interview with the American journalist, Anderson Cooper in his podcast, “All There Is,” Dr. B.J. Miller, a hospice and palliative care physician and speaker said, “I’ve met people who have not had much pain in their lives, who haven’t suffered much and they seem to be the more miserable people that I’ve ever met.” I sat with this, fully agreeing but wondering why what he said was true, and what came was that the experience of grief cultivates a ‘depth of self.’ When you begin to grasp your suffering, explore it, give it texture, it is as if it roots you into the ground; you are feeling you. You’re suffering is inside of you, and it opens the deeper part of you to your place in the world–the wonder and innocence of your birth, and the delicateness of your mortality. Without this profound feeling–an experience of the most excruciating pain, you have no idea of how deep you are, how resilient. How could you? You can read about it until the cows come home, but all you’d have would be a living room full of Herefords, and still no working sense of your strength. It’s like reading about swimming, but never diving into the water.
There is no pill to ease this pain; whatever happened is now part of your story and the only way to get through this, without getting a tumor, is to tell it. If you want to throw if off to a greater power, you can do that, but you still have to tell someone. There’s something about voicing it, shaping the words that helps to move energy to both keep the essence of your loved one thriving with you in the present, and to shift your grief away from being trapped in fascia, or stuck in bone–freeing it so that it can transmute into something dynamic, and therefore with potential of some ease. The body is threshold, like a doorway, but even an open door is meaningless unless you walk through it.
 There are times during the healing process where you might find you want a distraction–something outside yourself, so you try things like meditating which is good. The dangers are addictions of food, alcohol, or drugs–all understandable reactions to an unbearable scenario, and often judged as weakness by those undeserving of having any opinion. On the lighter end, there are crystals, and let me tell you that if I could get my money back for all of the crystals I bought over the years, I’d go buy myself something nice. I knew it was ridiculous, but when your life seems perplexing, you try things. “Here is a purple stone. This will solve my troubles!”  It was all harmless, but I still feel like I was a chump. If crystals are so wonderful, why didn’t I have an orgasm every time I walked into a new age store, past the baskets full of glinting, colourful whatevers? They’re pretty, and from a geological perspective, they’re impressive. When I walked past the basket of citrine, or whichever ones are good for abundance, why didn’t I discover a trove of Spanish doubloons in my boots, or receive a text message that my rent has been paid for a year? Shouldn’t those places be hotbeds of epiphanies, karmic clearings, and where you meet your soulmate? Perhaps there’s a placebo affect sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If wearing a bracelet made out of crystals feels helpful, calming, then why not. There are worse things to surround yourself with as I previously listed.
Eventually, you will run into someone who believes that your suffering, everyone’s suffering is part of the overall design of the great planner in the sky. Me, I have a spiritual bent but so far, it’s fluid and shifting, nowhere near sure of the vector other than there is no patriarch at the helm. It’s hard for me to imagine any benevolent and almighty show runner after watching the young man suffering there in his own skin. Anything is possible, but if this is the case, I’d like to meet him out in the parking lot. I do want there to be ‘something.’ The story about us coming down from the trees and walking upright makes good scientific sense. It’s possible that even these guys were like, “Oh man, is this all there is?” until one of them ate a magic mushroom, and went, “Nope! There’s more!” Just because something is quantifiable doesn’t mean it can’t be ‘woo-woo’ at the same time. I still don’t know what electricity is. I know how it’s made, and what it does, but what IS it? And don’t get me started on velour. Actually, when I think about it, I don’t really know how electricity is made, other than the static kind where you rub a balloon on your head so you can stick it to the wall. I know the men in the trucks move it around through the wires. I’m not a complete idiot.
Speaking of electricity, there was none where I was, on a summer day in 2001, out in the middle of the local public schoolyard, in a hole, with a pile of rocks and some cement, and orange construction fencing around the perimeter. I had made a stone bench for the kindergarten area, and I was in the process of making another installation for the rest of the school. I had dug down a bit for my foundation and was starting to assemble rocks for what I initially intended to be a car made of stone, with a payload area that would be a raised garden. Oddly relevant was the fact that this was the year that the first Harry Potter movie, ‘The Philosopher’s Stone,’  was slated to come out and our family was excited. We had been reading the books and were all looking forward to seeing Harry and his pals on the big screen. I wasn’t expecting to get into a conversation about Potter–there with my wheelbarrow full of wet cement, but a man approached. I recognized him as the father of a couple kids who attended the school. My husband at the time wrote a column for a local newspaper and must have mentioned something about the Potter books and the coming movie, because this schoolyard man had a concern about our bubbling, muggle glee. He wasn’t angry, but he explained, and I’m paraphrasing, that the whole wizard thing was going to result in cults and people running around wearing black capes, riding on brooms and disappearing into soup and such. His deal was that only God could do magic. I kept at my work, because cement waits for no one, but like the winter night and the snow drift lady, I listened. I don’t remember exactly how I replied; I don’t like confrontation so it’s unlikely that I called shenanigans on him directly, but what I thought was, “And? If God is the only one that can do magic, what are you so worried about? It’s a nice day. Climb a tree!” There was no onslaught of cults, or legions of odd people running around casting spells on random, found feathers trying to get them to raise up off of the ground like Hermione did in the movie. Where was this man’s faith, I wondered.
Neither schoolyard man nor snow drift woman were bad people, not even close. They both had the best of intentions, but it seems to me that they were missing the point and trying to shoehorn religious dogma for the benefit of their cause. Schoolyard man didn’t really have a cause; it was more of a gripe, because if his kids didn’t get to read the books or see the movie, they might have a tough time at recess, and maybe he had foolishly blurted out his case in front of his family at the dinner table while passing the buns, realized his mistake, and now couldn’t backpedal without losing face. He came to me, hoping to make himself feel better somehow.
My car installation didn’t turn out like I wanted, but I came up with the excellent idea of putting in a sundial and a pendulum as if it was the plan all along. I hoped that the kids would take to it like I had imagined that the young philosophers of Greece might have: Here, while little Timmy contemplated the shifting arc of the pendulum, he would have an epiphany, understand the mechanics of the universe and go on to answer the great questions of mankind, all because of  my little offering.  I don’t know why I though this. I had set little stone figurines into the lines of mortar on the Kindergarten’s stone bench. The mortar had barely finished setting before a friend of mine witnessed some little spawn kick them all in, and this was before Harry Potter. My pendulum succumbed to the same time frame as my figurines, so, less than five minutes before it was wrecked. The sundial lasted only slightly longer. I was disappointed. I remember being within earshot to hear the swelling yell of the rabble as they destroyed. There was a sick feeling in my stomach; the grit of reality tore through my good intentions. This had nothing to do with any spirit, only the stink of crummy parenting; apparently not everyone descended out of the trees at the same time.
My Christmas light arrangement turned out to look nice. Nobody wrecked it. So there was one win.
I look forward to the young man rising a little, healing enough to begin to unfold back into the world, because I feel that he is going to help a lot of people once he regains his footing. I wonder if snow drift woman was able to appreciate how beautiful that evening was, there with the lights, and the quiet snow falling. And was schoolyard man ever tempted to try mushrooms, or even eat Nestle’s Quik chocolate powder from a spoon? There is nothing more powerful than a commitment to living, simply being present in a moment so that you can appreciate the beauty that is around you. Things happen; this I know. In times of overwhelm, it’s tempting to reach for something, to depend on that thing outside of yourself, your purple pendant, or the transiting  planets, or the lines on your palm, the tea leaves in your cup, or scripture, or poetry, and none of it is wrong if it helps you to deal with your fear, your rising questions. In time, after wrestling with grief itself within the question of an uncertain universe, there can come a welcome throwing off of that exhausting effort around defining, and figuring, and an emergence of an almost erotic feeling of choosing to simply ‘be,’ to feel the flow of things and to resign yourself to fully inhabit whatever that brings. In a February 28, 2008 ‘On Being’ podcast with Krista Tippet, the now late John O’Donohue, Irish poet and philosopher said, “…the soul choreographs one’s biography and one’s destiny.” I love this. To be clear, I don’t interpret this as meaning that your soul planned your trauma, but instead is the inner potential that helps you tend to it and move past, guiding you into your integrity, your richness of character. You just need to stop looking elsewhere for your strength, because it’s not outside of you. It’s deep in, there as you stand in your boots.