Mending a Broken Heart

It’s a gloomy day in a gloomy spring. Rain is pouring non-stop in what appears to be our new local temperate rain forest.

I’m lying in bed, recovering from a leg injury, trying to “be have” myself, resting my leg on a pillow. I’m “supposed to” be paying bills and such, but my heart isn’t in it. My heart is in a lot of other places apparently.

My heart is with Anne, my mentor, teacher, wise woman and companion in the healing profession, who will undergo a bilateral mastectomy tomorrow, on her path to reclaim a long life of vibrant health. Something about this grips me to the core. Her courage, her spirit, her choice to embrace all the positive aspects of this experience, leave me awestruck. But I am railing about the unfairness. Why? Why her? Why anybody?

A mastectomy seems like such a maiming, such a violation, such a shattering of something so powerfully symbolic of the feminine—the first bloom of the path to womanhood, the seat of our ability to nurture new life.

According to legend, Amazon warriors used to cut off a breast to permit them to be better archers. And so it is that as we lose parts of ourselves, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, the ensuing process of loss, grief and recovery, allow us to develop new skills, habits, attitudes, that will serve us better in the days to come.

Oh Anne, my prayer for you today is that your sacrifice will ultimately be worth the cost, and that when all is said and done, your arrows will fly true.

My heart is with Michelle, our pastor of the past six years, moving today to Mankato in the rain. She has served us well, and is called to move on. I am thankful for the crossing of our paths, for the miles we have walked together. We are at that crossroads where our ways must part, at least for the time being, that fork in the road marked “God be with ye”, the origin of today’s simpler “goodbye”.

My heart is with my artist son, bound today for Tennessee, for a gig doing airbrush tattoos for–as he put it–” hillbillies at NASCAR”. It’s the millennium, in what would some say is post-racial America, yet I worry  for his safety as a young man of color traveling in the South.

My heart is with the people of South Africa, as Nelson Mandela’s light begins to flicker. The man whose life has been a testament to persistence, forgiveness, hope, and freedom, will undoubtedly soon finish his earth’s journey. When we lose our leaders and teachers, our pastors, or parents, it’s a frightening prospect—the mantle has passed to our shoulders and we understand that carrying on the work is now up to us. We pray that the seeds they’ve planted have fallen on rich soil, and have had time to root deeply, so that we’ll be strong enough and equipped for the task at hand.

My heart is with a couple of little girls I met last week at the overflow shelter. I spent some time reading to them on a saggy couch in a church basement. They liked my earrings and told me I looked like a rock star, high praise from a four and a six year-old, (and music to the ears of one whose last birthday just made her eligible for the Goodwill’s senior discount).   One of them asked me if it was ok to take her shoes off. I said “of course”. “That’s ‘cause this is my house” she replied, then asked me, beaming “are you my auntie?” “I’m your auntie for tonight”, I said, but went home troubled, thinking about all our children, and how we can be better aunties.

My heart is in so many places today, it feels splintered, if not shattered, and I struggle to hold onto enough of it for myself. I hold these people in my heart, and perhaps they hold me in theirs as well, but does that mean that a part of my heart goes with them, and a part of their hearts get left behind? Is that why people end up being heartless, because they get spread too thin? Or is it part of the mystery of life that the heart continually replenishes itself, that as much as we give away and share, more grows to replace it?

The Bible tells us that “God hardened Pharoah’s heart”, which has always seemed a dirty trick, a heartless play by God, if you will, which I have never understood. Dr. Suess, on the other hand, tells us that the Grinch’s heart “grew three sizes that day”. This gives me hope that, given the blessing of a non-judgmental, loving community, small-heartedness is something from which we can ultimately recover.

And how does the heart work, I wonder? I don’t mean the physical, blood-pumping, life-sustaining heart with which we are all too familiar. I mean the metaphorical heart, the one the Bible tells us to guard since “it is the wellspring of life”.   The ancients understood the heart, rather than the mind, to be the seat of the soul, and they may well have been right. Besides, theres just no poetic ring to “I love you with all of my brain” or “I hold you in my cranium.”

And my dreams, oh those dreams. They just keep on a’comin’, wave after wave after wave—I need some dreamless nights to catch up and incorporate the lessons they bring:

Little girls that need tending, girls bitten by tigers, or riding camels, or afraid that they are not beautiful enough.

A young man, driving erratically (I hope he at least has his permit)–I am riding in the backseat, leaning forward, calmly speaking into his right ear as he careens the wrong way down a divided road, coaxing him past obstacles until he can get back on the right side of traffic, making sure he slows down before he goes over a big bump.

 A woman I meet at a retreat house tells me she was at the funeral of a mother of three children—I don’t recognize the dead woman’s name. I wonder–did I know her? Her partner has already remarried; I think that seems a little quick, and hope she’s taken time to do her grieving.

As I heated my coffee this morning and the haze of sleep finally started to lift, I was startled to recognize that the dead woman was me, as was her remarried partner, as was the young driver, as were the little girls–pieces of my psyche that have separated or gotten left behind along the way. I understand that I have to be kind and gentle to myself, to invite back and incorporate these missing pieces of me, honor their journey, tend their wounds, embrace them back into my current life. I need to take good care of myself and pace myself, and make space for the frightened little girls, for the young man who’s driving through scary territory, to grieve for that young woman who died, and rejoice for that somewhat older, slightly wiser woman, who’s still taking a chance on life.

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Stepping off the Hamster Wheel

My soul spoke up the other day.  I was logging tasks at work, and it unexpectedly popped in and finished my sentence:  “I tidied bathroom, ran a load of laundry, ironed handkerchiefs, started dishwasher…and sat down to spin straw into gold”.

I had been struggling to find a metaphor to help me solve a personal problem, and had fairy tales on the brain. “Wow,” I thought after my soul weighed in, “so THAT’s my fairy tale–every time I do the impossible, they bring me to a room where there’s more impossible to do, and it’s never enough. And if I get it wrong, I will be killed, and if I get it right, I will be married to the dolt who would have killed me if I got it wrong, and where’s the happily ever after in that story?” Just to be clear, that dolt I’m married to in the aforementioned fairy tale–it’s me. I’m my own worst taskmaster.

Doing, doing, doing, always doing, doing more, doing faster, doing better, doing constantly. And whenever you stop doing, there is the thinking. The thinking about the doing, about what’s next, about what’s six months from now. When you try to sleep, the thinking takes over, and it NEVER quits, never gives you a moment’s peace. It’s beyond ridiculous. So one day you decide to get off the hamster wheel, stop doing for a minute, and take the time to ask yourself “what am I feeling in this moment?”

And that is when the healing can begin. Because under all that frantic doing, beyond all that compulsive thinking, lie the keys to joy that you have been trying to pursue by doing more, by being perfect, by achieving others’ definitions of “success”. And after months or years of unwinding yourself from all the shoulds and have-tos, at last you understand that true success (your authentic “happily ever after”, if you will) lies in creating for yourself an authentic life, one that’s tailor-made to fit who you are–your gifts, your passions, your needs.  And the doing finally becomes pleasurable instead of reflexive. It’s not so frantic and is truly connected to your heart’s desire, whatever that might be.

And all because you stopped doing long enough to stand still, take a deep breath and ask “What am I feeling?” “Who am I really?” and “Where do I belong?”

Wing Dust

The sun is streaming in my window, warming my face on a chilly November morning.  It is Tuesday, and I leave for Europe on Thursday.  Two of our college children are taking their semester abroad, and against all practical advice, I’m tapping heavily into my retirement account to finance this adventure.  I know it’s an incredible splurge, and I’m aware of how tremendously blessed I am to have this opportunity, yet on some level it feels like a deep need rather than a luxury.   I’m trying not to panic, since panic never helps much anyway, and ends up being a colossal waste of both adrenalin and brain space.  Instead, I’m just trying to plug away at things, focusing on one task at a time, and trust that everything will come together in the end.

I want to tell myself that this is “just a trip to Europe”, (as if “just” could ever modify that phrase) so that my body will settle down and stop feeling so jittery, but my body knows better, and tells me so. This is a spiritual pilgrimage, the middle-aged me searching to take up where the adolescent me left off.  On some levels, it feels as if I’m twenty-something again.  On other levels–catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, for instance, or acknowledging my need for support stockings for the transatlantic flight, I come to grips with another “reality”–in human years, I am now fifty-something.  Yet my spirit, if not my body, feels young and light again, full of possibility and longing, trusting and open, excited to be alive.  It’s looking forward to discover whatever adventure might lie just around the corner.  I feel blessed that my spirit feels safe enough to come out again, that the vicissitudes (or “dings” as we might now call them) of my earlier adult life have not been able to keep this girl down forever.  I gingerly dust off my roadweary wings, and tentatively prepare to soar.

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