We take care of each other.
I remember reading – or perhaps writing – that healing comes in waves, or rather, in spirals. It’s the rare healing that happens all at once – we tender-hearted humans tend to heal a little at a time.
With that in mind, I open my notebooks to you today to share some of what’s been going on in my world – and some of the ways that I think about it.
I am feeling: wild, worked up- as if the bottom of the soup pot has been stirred to the top. As if every scarred, broken, wounded bit has suddenly pitched a tent on my front doorstep.
For the past eight years, I’ve been the designated daughter to both of my parents, who live in two separate nursing care locations, 40 minutes apart.
In the beginning, as these stories go, Mom and Dad were in pretty good shape – able to walk around or, in Dad’s case, wheel around in a power wheelchair – with the mobility to engage and enjoy their lives.
They are both very frail and helpless now and, as I run back and forth, attempting to help ease their suffering, I find that I’ve slipped across a line in myself. I had been thinking that it was my job to save them. I came by this idea honestly. They (especially mom) taught it to me.
Still, I know better. I teach this stuff.
I know that… (unless I am an actual rescue worker – a doctor in a life-or-death emergency, a policeman or a firefighter carrying someone from a burning building or a superhero (or an angel) performing miracles),
… when I attempt to save anyone I am potentially,
a) interrupting a natural process – we must all meet, respond to and learn from our challenges;
b) attempting to outsmart death (a game of shadow and illusion that never works out well);
c) using their suffering as an excuse to abandon myself. (and interrupting a natural process of my own).
It’s item C that has me concerned.
I tell my students that stories are psycho-spiritual structures made of thoughts. They’re containers, contexts out of which we organize our lives; and family stories are a particularly complex sort of container. They’re like birds’ nests, woven of the twigs and branches, which our parents and their parents collected from the world.
When we are baby birds we live comfortably inside of these nests – we NEED them to feel anchored and safely held in the world.
When a family story is working, it supports fledglings through the critical developmental stage of ‘leaving the nest’. When it’s not working – perhaps the adult birds haven’t taught the babies the survival skills they need to meet the wider world – that cozy nest soon feels too tight. Those who should be flying solo may feel enclosed in a net – as if something they cannot see is holding them in a ‘space’ they’ve outgrown.
I’m discovering that it helps to stop trying to see the net. To stop going back to what happened when and, instead, to turn my heart and attention toward the nest – and the life – that I want to live NOW.
In this way, the net of family story becomes more spiderweb – intricately designed but lightweight. If you happen to walk through a family story on your way out the door, it may stick to you but, ultimately, if you understand what it is – and what you are – pretty easy to brush off your jacket.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t find a therapist/healer/shaman who can help us see our childhood issues. That step may be imperative to getting to the point where an old story can be easily brushed away. We must be able to SEE the net of stories that hold us hostage but, once they’ve been seen, we need to do the courageous work – and spiritual alchemy – of transforming our nets to spiderwebs, our lead into gold.
We must walk through them.
Earlier this month, just before I left home to lead a heart-opening (and tender) workshop with Julie Daley, I had a series of powerful dreams which heralded a kind of melting –
I am in the backseat of a taxi moving through a broken-down city where people huddle in the shadows and wind blows tumbleweed trash down the streets. Inside the cab, I shudder: Why must we pass through this neighborhood at all? This is not the way to the airport. We stop at an in-between place – an open air courtyard where travelers wait to make connections. The driver carries my bags to the center of the courtyard and leaves them there. I am about to engage with someone when I notice my father, sitting in his wheelchair at the top of a steep hill. Suddenly, he is plummeting down the hill. I leap to my feet and save him just in time. I push him to a safer place and sit beside him. Looking up, I notice that my luggage has been torn open and a band of gypsy children are rummaging through my belongings. I run toward them but I can only run in slow motion as they escape, with my best things, at normal speed. “Help me!” I beseech the driver but, “I can’t help you, he says. “I don’t want to get involved.” I can feel how guilty he is as he turns away.
I am at a party where people are celebrating a remarkable 13 year old boy. Yet, I can see he’s nothing special. He’s just a boy! I realize but I don’t say anything, Instead, I go into the kitchen and taste the chocolate he’s made. “You tasted my chocolate!” he shouts, and he chases me outside. It’s deep winter. I hide between snowdrifts and ice floes as men on snowmobiles chase me. Then, I fall – the snow gives way beneath me and I sink into a crevasse, dropping into a warm rushing river. I float downstream where people happily picnic on the riverbanks. Hello! I call but they can’t see or hear me. Oh no! I realize that I’ve turned into a statue – a political candidate dressed in a navy blue suit with blonde bobbed hair and a frozen smile. I can’t move. I can only hold this torch over my head. I sink, the water closes over my head. Suddenly, I’m swimming through a bright tunnel in a new body, dressed in a white sleeveless gown. As I pass through the tunnel, a gentle wave lifts me onto the shore. I am on my hands and knees, coughing up coins of every world currency. A businessman, holding a set of scales, stands impassively watching.
I stand on a balcony above a steep, sandy beach where people in the distance swim and sunbathe beside a quiet sea with gently lapping waves. Julie Daley appears at the top of the hill. As she descends toward the water, a huge wave rises to greet her. Waving to me, she walks directly toward it, unafraid. Behind me four young girls (our daughters) hide, peeking out to watch her. As the wave engulfs Julie, we watch, amazed, as she tumbles happily inside the aquamarine curls of water. Then, the wave rises and delivers her onto the deck beside me. Though dripping wet, she seems perfectly fine. “The water is rising,” I say. “We should get the children inside.” Julie agrees. Then, she turns to look back at the wave and smiles.
I am sensing that three is an order to all of this. I am aware of a presence, an ancient and profoundly loving caretaker, which seems to be rising to meet me.
At the same time, a vine of energy energizes the soles of my feet and winds itself around my ankles. I feel drawn downward, even as this wave flows upward, penetrating muscle and bone. This wave is a kind of wisdom, which I can only understand with my body.
It feel as if I am coming back to life – as if some forgotten interior wiring is being reactivated. It feels nourishing; filling and … familiar. It’s also making me cry a lot as we reconnect. I feel that I’m remembering someone that I knew and loved deeply as a child when, alone a lot, I’d venture out into my mother’s garden. In Her wordless language, She’d welcome me: I’m here, She would pulse – through the soil, through my skin. Often, to punctuate her presence, She’d send a butterfly to dance on my nose or a crown of bees to encircle my head.
These days, when I remember to remember Her, she always sends a sign – like the spider crawling across my pile of books about the sacred feminine as I am writing this post.
This brings me great comfort and also, bittersweet memory as I remember how lonely I felt as a child and how, when my parents did not – or could not – take care of me, She was there.
Two weeks ago, I drove my son to college to sign up for the last course he needs before medical school.
While waiting for him, I parked my car and walked out into the small patch of woodland between the campus and the busy road.
There, I encountered a tree. She was spindly, bent and twisted, a story of accommodation. I could see where she’d had to shift her roots to accommodate a drainage ditch, and how she’d made it work, moving the roots up out of the soil and thickening them. I could see how she leaned away from the power lines – and how her upper branches had been cut away. Yet she was alive, her branches in full leaf. She’d worked it out.
I placed my hands on her trunk and stood with her, listening for the wordless pulse. Listening until I picked up her unique ‘voice’ – her pulse and there it was: I’m here, I heard, a voice as subtle as the rustle of wind through leaves.
So am I, I pulsed back. And I laughed, my body filling with the joy of recognition. I’m here! I’m back.
She greeted me and, I love you, she told me. Pressing my cheek to the rough bark of the willing tree, I whispered, I love you, too.
I am aware now, of a split in myself: I am deeply engaged with the world, certain of where life is flowing me, connected to ancient wisdom. At the same time, I often run parallel to myself – a cold and frozen ‘statue’ holding the torch of some ‘truth’ I think I’ve discovered instead of sinking into the story I am actually in – a story of rebirth and renewal that has nothing (and everything) to do with worldly success.
I am letting myself simply not know what to do.
When I resist this, I exhaust myself. When I resist NOT knowing, I find myself on my yoga mat with tears leaking out of my eyes.
As things shift around, dissolve, reformat the part of us that’s invested in those patterns is gonna feel unmoored. I am practicing NOT reaching for the torch. I am asking for help. These depths are not meant to be plumbed alone.
I am letting myself feel:
- the enormous sorrow of losing both parents at once – while also praying for their easy passing.
- the bright joy of the return of parts of me that I thought were lost
I am letting myself feel:
- the sadness (and the outrage) about all the things I could be doing instead of taking care of them
- the certainly that there is plenty of time
I am letting myself feel:
- the overwhelm of watching people suffer and feeling completely powerless to help
- the knowing that what I can do, and what I AM doing, matters.
I am letting myself feel:
- the loss of foundation, as it goes.
- the new ground and the (awkward at first) new footing it requires
One tearful night, these words sheered off of the glacier of my melting heart and floated up: Take care of me. This voice, hidden in a partitioned-off part of me, was another reconnection, a message from a desperately sad daughter – she feels like she’s between 8 and 12 years old – who, as I am taking care of everyone around me, also needs my care.
I scribbled down her words and promptly, forgot about them until, a few days later, while leafing through my journal, they found me again: Take care of me.
This time, I tore the words from the page and placed them in the pocket of my sweater.
I knew that I was not losing my mind – but sometimes, it felt that way. Like when, a month ago, Dad’s physical condition took a nose-dive.
He started talking about an intense loneliness and sobbing each time I walked into the room. “I gotta get out of here,” he kept saying, shaking his head. I knew that he thought he was talking about ‘getting out’ of the nursing home. I knew, also, that his spirit was talking to me, telling me, “I gotta get out of this body.”
I felt moved and afraid. I hate that he’s suffering. I do what I can. Yet I feel that his needs will overwhelm my life.
I resist visiting him. It’s so hard. When I do visit, I felt disconnected from him, as if I am backing away.
Love. Not love. Love. Not love.
I’ve made up all kinds of stories ABOUT him – and bought into family drama around whether or not he deserved the love that I felt for him.
Then, last week as the heavens started doing whatever it was they were doing I began waking at 3:30 a.m. Startled and upset, I felt compelled to leap out of bed and drive to the nursing home to sit with Dad in the middle of the night.
When I didn’t because I couldn’t (it was 3:30 am!) I felt crazy with guilt.
Guilt. Sorrow. Guilt. Anger. Guilt. Worry.
All the while that little note: Take Care of Me, kept floating up to the surface of my life.
One day, my husband came into my office and, wordlessly, slipped a rubber band onto my wrist. On it, he’d written MATTHEW LOVES ME.
Another day, my son visited Dad with me. That day, Dad didn’t recognize him – and snapped at him.
“I’m so sorry, Max,” I said.
My son took my hands in his. “Mommy, I am here, visiting Grandpa, to support YOU,” he told me. With tears in my eyes, astonished, I felt another wall of glacier sheer away.
People were taking care of me. I was letting them.
My sisters. My friends. My daughter invited me to sit and be normal together, sipping tea, eating salad.
This is important. I’m not just listing all the people who love me. I’m demonstrating – for myself and the sad little girl inside of me – that love is here.
And then, one morning, I awoke once more at 3:30 a.m. but this time, instead of guilt, I felt a whoosh, a pulse, the passing of silk-over-silk and I knew what to do.
Take care. Of Dad. Of yourself.
The words were more than words. They were infused with grace. I understood things – deep things. I understood that I’d been holding myself separate from my father because I am afraid. I know that my heart will break when he’s gone.
I would try not to do that any more but if I did – when I did – I’d take care of ME.
And that was that. And the visits to my father suddenly fit into my daily routine like puzzle pieces clicking into place.
Here’s the thing.
We’re designed to take care of each other. We can’t help it. Our hearts are programmed to do this – it’s our go-to setting, the automatic pilot of being human. When we resist it, we suffer.
When we let ourselves move toward our natural inclination, right in the middle of the sweet and salty opening of the heart, even as we encounter floods of melted grief, there is also the greatest joy.
Oceanic joy. Because of this opening, this presence – this taking care, this love.
For me, the shift from frozen to flowing is ongoing. It’s subtle and quiet. That silk on silk movement from resisting love to flowing love – the gentlest micro movement. It happens every day. And so does resistance.
It’s all micro movement –
My mother’s friend Esther and I were talking last week. She’s, a psychiatrist (and lately, a proponent of Feldenkrais body technique). She told me that she’s learning (at age 80) that the body can always heal. (So can the heart. So can the mind. There are no time limits to these things.) She told me that working with her Feldenkrais practitioner, a body genius named Larry, she un-did the childhood habit of holding her toes pulled in toward the soles of her feet.
“I had to buy new shoes!” she said. “All of my life I’ve been wearing the wrong size and painfully holding my toes back.” Now that her toes are uncurled – and unclenched – patterns in her psyche are also uncurling, unclenching.
Healing happens over time, in spirals. We adjust the micro movement of a foot and our heart opens a little more. We open our heart and our toes uncurl.
Dad asks me to take him outside. I push his wheelchair, he navigates.
“Take me to the edge,” he says. “Let me look out.”
I wheel him to the end of the patio where he can see the expansive green lawn, studded with sculptures. A cobblestone path leads down to the river.
“Let’s keep going,” he says. “Off the concrete onto the grass.” He positions us in the middle of the grass, overlooking the Hudson. We don’t say much. He has told me that he wants to sit together in silence – so that he can hear the world. “It’s quiet but you hear a lot – a lot that you ordinarily wouldn’t pay attention to,” he says.
So we listen to the world. Birdsong. Someone sawing lumber. Wind rushing around in the trees. I wind my scarf around Dad’s neck. A white boat goes by, pulling its wake behind it like the train on a bridal gown.
A trio of robins hop closer, their red breasts puffed pridefully. Dad laughs. “How cute,” he says. “They have their own personalities, don’t they? Each one is unique.”
They do. I never noticed this before.
So I ask Her, silently – it’s a prayer, a conversation.
Please let me know that all is well. Please let me know that you’re here with us.
I wait only a moment before…
“It’s so much better to be outside than shut in a room,” Dad says. ” I love the air. I love the world.”
Dad is speaking the message now. Tears are streaming down my cheeks as my father looks out at the world. “I love the world,” he says. “It’s a constant giving and… ” He pauses for a few beats, fishing for the right word. “A constant giving… and receiving,” he says. “It’s a pleasure.”