or “Learning to Speak”
I was way, way into adulthood. Yes, I was surely still distraught – my husband, Tom, had died of a heart attack just one year earlier at age 42 – but what’s puzzling is how typical this moment was for me. Here I see myself starkly, I feel my frozenness, I feel my own present puzzlement looking at that past moment. Something is wrong with this picture. How did I come to this?
I wanted to go back, even alone, to the field in the woods where Tom and I had gone together on the motorcycle, to the great field with the six-or-seven-deep circles of pine on the far side of this openness. The field was so big we’d hardly seen the trees at first. We’d parked the motorcycle, took off all our clothes as the day was hot and we were way off in the backwoods; we wandered toward the only interesting thing in the field, this far-off grove. Upon arriving there I walked all through it and finally stood in the middle to feel the energy. I remembered Carlos Castaneda’s writings about places of power, and particularly he’d said that a warrior must find their own specific Place of Power where their spirit will go after they die, where before leaving the earth they will do their warrior’s last dance. I decided that this would be my Place of Power when I die.
Tom was wandering around somewhere and came back saying it was time to go. We headed back to the motorcycle, put on our clothes, and drove off through the endless quiet woods of the Manistee National Forest to my family’s cottage on the little lake.
Now here I was two years later trying to pull together some new life. After twenty years together Tom had been taken from me to another world. I had come to the cottage alone. I wasn’t able to drive the motorcycle, but in the tool shed I found an old bike – no gears at all. I took one of the old Indian blankets that had been part of my family’s picnicking all through childhood, wrapped a can of bug spray in it and somehow put it on the back of the bike. I wasn’t sure how to find this field; all these sandy trails through the woods looked the same, but I headed off as best I could remember.
Riding the heavy old bike on trails of sand was hardly easier than walking, but I pushed forward slowly. Finally, to my surprise, I came to the field. As I got off the bike I realized I’d lost the Indian blanket. “It must have fallen off somewhere farther back,” I thought. I stood by the bike looking back down the road, trying to decide what to do. Head back down the difficult trail for an unknown distance? There was sentiment with the Indian blanket, besides wanting to sit on it in the circle of pines.
As I stood there, weary and unsure, a pickup truck came down the trail. Two men sitting in the front drove slowly by me, so close we could have shaken hands. Their window was open; they said nothing. And I, too, said nothing! I hoped they would stop and offer me what I’d lost: “Did you drop something on the trail?” they might say. But they did not. They looked at me but all was silent as they continued slowly on.
Frozen. I remember my mouth feeling sewn shut, forbidden to speak.
They were men, this was part of the situation.
They seemed men of power and I was a small woman of 43 who still felt like a girl-child.
They were strangers. I had never seen my parents talk comfortably with complete strangers. I did not feel permission to do that.
It was not that I felt the men were dangerous, it was not that at all, though they looked like men of the woods, surely hunters in the fall, surely ignoring regulations when they didn’t like them. Was it my mother inside me? “Hold everything that’s you inside, silent and unshown.” My earliest real memory as a child is of looking up and seeing her crying quietly, as if she were trying to hide this show of true feelings. “Take what Life and men give you; you cannot have what you want,” she had told me with her example of silence. The Depression had taught her this stoicism, as well as the general culture of her times that left all decisions to the husband.
What else? Was it something I’d been taught or was it just something missing in my experience? Why could I not ask for what I wanted?
The question brings up other memories. I’m maybe five or six, standing on a beautiful wooded hill in autumn that slopes steeply down to the Muskegon River. My dad has just said to Mom that his dad, Grandpa M, has some old wooden skis in his garage. Excitement rises up in me; I can see the skis in my mind’s eye. Wouldn’t it feel grand to go down this steep hill on skis? But how does one get up the hill again? How does one stop and not run into trees? Would they ever let me try Grandpa’s skis? Would it be dangerous? I wanted to try skiing, try sailing down this steep hill in the winter snow, but I stood there silent, small between the grown-ups, quiet as I always was, no bother to them. I never asked about the skis, or how does one do this skiing, and they never even knew I was interested. A desire unspoken, silenced at the gate – the closed mouth.
A few years later it’s Christmas and we’re at my maternal grandparents house for dinner. “Uncle Moe” (we couldn’t say “Melvin” when we were little) was still living at home as a young quiet bachelor. Upstairs we’d get to tiptoe briefly into his room and he showed me his ham radio, through which he could talk to people far away, even in other countries. I was excited by this! Wouldn’t that be fun to be able to do that? But did I ever ask him or anyone if I could learn it? No, of course not. No one ever knew that interest in my heart.
Do not ask. The family policy: We will give you all you need, all we can. We give and give abundantly, but please do not ask for something from your own heart. Somehow I had learned this..
Once the secret desire in my own heart matched something dad wanted too, and without asking I received a gift that matched my secret longing! I’m still surprised to remember this. One surreal day I was sitting in boring Spanish class when someone knocked on the classroom door. I was called down to the school office. On the way my best friend fell in step beside me as she, too, had been called out. The superintendent greeted us in his quiet stiff manner and invited us into a little room. As we entered I saw a circle of men around the table and recognized one, our friend Mr. V, the only Catholic on the school board. Yes, this was the school board. Then someone explained to us that they had been thinking it would be enriching for the school to send some students to other countries as exchange students and have foreign students come here. Would we like to go abroad as exchange students?
Oh my! Would I like to travel abroad as an exchange student?? Would I like to …
This had been in my heart for several years. I had never asked my father; I wouldnever ask him. I had three younger sisters; to spend such money on me would take too much from the family pot, I knew. Dad had already taught me this when I had sent for mail about a Catholic girls’ school in Miami that I longed to attend. He must have seen the mail because out of the blue one day he said “I pay taxes for public schools; I’m not sending you girls to private schools.” Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
But now the School Board had “chosen” me! And they had already talked with our parents and received an OK. Later I learned that they had picked five students out of our class of 44 and visited all their parents: any student could go whose parents would pay for it: the School Board was not giving any financial help at all. We were the only two whose parents agreed to pay for the trip.
So I spent a summer in Sweden, an experience that jerked me out of my small town life into a much larger view of the world. If I had asked for this experience, I’m sure the answer would have been “No,” but the honor my being “chosen” gave some kudos to my dad, so for once my heart’s desire matched what the world offered me.
In hindsight now, I’m thinking perhaps this was not good. This experience seemed to feed my passivity, this principle by which I was living that adults would give me what was good for me without my asking. The right to ask for what I want, the responsibility to ask – these have been missing in me for some reason.
There is the possibility that it all began as Freud, from his own neurosis, would have predicted, – with the mother. Dad told the story more than once about that long drive from Michigan to Georgia when he was in the Air Force. There I was an infant lying in the back, crying and crying to be fed. “Feed the kid – she’s hungry!” Dad would say. And Mom would answer, “I can’t! The book says she can only eat every so many hours!” The mother separated from her own good instincts by theories of control over nature. I cannot remember this experience but I can only imagine what a baby would eventually figure out when crying for all she’s worth gets no response. “Speaking out for what I want is not the way to get what I want. What isthe way?” She would search. “I can only watch these two big people and see what pleases them. They have what I need and it seems that dancing for them is the way to survive.” This, I surmise, would be what a baby figures without words or thoughts when crying out for what one needs gets nowhere.
Perhaps gratitude, ironically, has also been part of the problem. Our major income was Dad’s work doing tax accounting for individuals, so of course he worked like a dog from January through April 15th. Then in the summer he really played when he played. But seeing him work late at night, night after night, month after month, gave me pause if I wanted to ask for something that cost money. He was already putting out lots of money to give us as much happiness as he could. To ask for more felt like adding to his burdens.
But still, here I stood at age 43 wanting my Indian blanket back and unable to open my mouth and ask for it. Something is not healthy in this picture.
I have receivedmy life. For much of it I’ve felt like a tiny boat pushed around this way and that, sometimes in calm waters in shady coves of loving trees, often out alone feeling winds heartlessly whipping me around, the world wanting things from me, trying to form me into what others needed me to be. In all these desires of others pushing and pulling on me, I’ve still and always felt a compass inside that kept me peddling, swimming, in a crazy zigzag way, trying to pull myself back onto a course that I would recognize as ‘truly me’ where I could feel comfortable with myself.
Often the best I could do was to say “No” to what I would finally recognize as Not Me. In so many of my life’s experiences I would finally come to see that this was not IT, not what I was looking for, did not feel right and I needed to get out of something and continue searching elsewhere.
Perhaps finding “no’s” was like a sculptor with a large chunk of stone. They say the sculptor must find a form that’s there inside the rock by chipping away everything that’s not the form. I’ve learned to recognize what doesn’t feel like “It”, like “me.
I remember in college I’d decided to minor in speech and drama because I loved a particular prof and was growing a lot in oral interpretation and public speaking. I had to take an acting course but acting felt impossible for me. I could not let go of myself and pretend to be someone else. How could I let go of myself when I hadn’t yet found myself? My direction was that of a person desperately trying to hold onto something very fragile, small, tenuous but essential – still trying to stand firmly in “me.”
One of my strange zigs or zags was the two years I spent in the convent.
That adventure was the result of a “Father Knows Best” moment. I really, really wanted to go to the great University of Michigan for my college studies. Perhaps there’s never been anything I wanted more than this: to do serious studies in a place that adequately challenged me. When I did ask my dad about this precious wish in my deepest heart, he said “No” so quickly he never remembered it. “You’d get homesick like my sister did at Michigan State. You’d be just a little fish in a big sea,” he said. I had asked for what I most dearly wanted. Thus silenced, I began an intense religious search for some guidance: now, where to? How to find a future that felt like “me”, especially in a world that still expected girls to marry and spend their lives raising children? Eventually the convent seemed the only thing to try, so I could live a dedicated life without marrying.
I gave this strange way of life a try but this didn’t feel like “me” either. Among other frustrations, there was this: that all day long, day after day, I could never make a decision about anything. How could I know who I was without making choices and decisions? I longed for the freedom that every young adult longs for – to begin to try to make my own life – by choosing. No, after all, having someone tell me every small and large move to make did not feel like “It”.
Getting out of the convent was not easy for someone as unassertive as I, but some survival instinct kept me hunting till I found the way out. This experience – finding my way out – was a little step in learning to trust my own inner knowing of what was right for me.
But once I left the convent – discerned that this was not It – I still felt the pressures of what the world expected: marriage, then children. How did I know this? I remmeber my dad talking about two female remote cousins in mymother’s family who weren’t married. He always referred to them as “the old maids”, even though they were teachers and had traveled around the world. This was all it took; I picked up from this that marriage would be required of me. And back in those days children went with marriage for Catholics.
I fell into line and married and raised children, experiences with so much joy but still, there was still that part of me that was towing the line rather than expressing my true self. I did what other interesting work and study I could do with whatever energy and time was left. Finally now at age sixty two I feel myself relaxing a bit, smiling, feeling I’ve found a free enough place where I can be my simple self.
My simple self! That’s what I’ve been looking for all along! Not trying to live up to what others need or want from me. Imperfect, unglamorous, gentle, content with an ordinary little life. “It’s OK to make mistakes,” I write on my learning board. “It’s OK to choose differently than my parents and family.” “It’s OK to be unseen;” “It’s OK to be seen.” “It’s OK if not everyone likes me.” “It’s OK to want what I want.” Healing words. My body breathes as I say these and other words I’ve learned. My whole being relaxes. I have worked hard to find these words.
I feel my feet; I feel my butt against the chair. I’m in my body unafraid. I can talk with men now. How did this happen? I can usually say what I want and dialogue over it, listening to the response of the other. How did I finally get here? Wrangling with the two great guys I married – that certainly changed me! Even the two widowhoods brought me gifts of warmth and connectedness with others. Having babies, raising children – I didn’t wannna do it, but it put my feet on the ground and certainly kept me in my body. And raising children was fun! It’s been a real heart-warmer that connected me with every other parent on earth. And living in the big city with neighbors of every race and nationality has been delightful and enriching.
I’ve found good friends whom I respect and by whom I feel respected. I found a spiritual family that feels true for me, where I can speak, even haltingly, without censure and feel respected. As a Quaker in The Religious Society of Friends I learned to trust an Interior Guidance, that Something loving and wise leads me forward if I trust myself to listen and hear it. I did much interior work: spent years reading and thinking and talking with others, trying to figure out what I’m made of and how to be a human being. I learned to write my thoughts out truthfully. One small book I read on Assertiveness Training said I have a right to speak up or to ask for what I want, even when I can’t explain myself. That concept opened wide a door for me.
And then, – counseling others. For several years I counseled adults in the Literacy, G.E.D., and English as a Second Language programs of a community college. I was honored to have every imaginable variation of men and women share with me the insides of their hearts and guts and minds. I smile as I remember one of the very first problems presented to me: a Kurdish woman whose father had two wives and twenty children, now adults, who hated each other. She wanted me to tell her how to get her father to write a will so the two families wouldn’t kill each other when he died. To my amazement, I found a way: her father sounded eerily like my own father and I told her what I had learned from my own life… Then I counseled an old Mexican gambler who’d lost his wife and house to his addiction, and a Puerto Rican mother who was trying valiantly to free herself from heroin so she could keep her children. Two separate gay Mexican men came who had each tried to kill themselves. A fine young African doctor was busing tables while trying desperately to pass the licensing exam in English. An Iranian woman whose husband beat her every day for twentyone years as he drank became a big part of my life asI helped her through a dangerous divorce. A middle-aged black man who could not learn to write no matter how he tried was scared to death his boss would find out. Well-educated Muslim women came with their husbands speaking for them. Young black men now with prison records from drug associations asked me to help them find a path for their future. A Thai woman had had to drop out of school in third grade because she was a girl; she’d been taking classes to learn English for nine years but still could not pass the written nurse assistant test. Many medical doctors and college professors came, engineers, storeowners, plumbers, truck drivers, prostitutes, mothers on welfare, homeless people. I remember the Iraqi youth who came to me with his face half frozen: he’d been fired from his hospital job immediately after the September 11th tragedy because he was Iraqi. Two weeks later his face was normal again after he found another job. A young Mexican gangbanger (his words) was heartbroken when his girl took their baby and left. A mother came to me whose son had been murdered in El Salvador; black parents came whose teens were getting into drugs. There were marriage problems I was not trained to counsel, but without money, to whom else could these people go? Legal problems came to me that were hopeless for illegal people with no rights, and my heart felt sad that I could not help. Sitting at my desk I traveled breathless all over the world and into the corners and houses of every neighborhood. How could I be afraid of anyone now? I‘ve completely forgotten what the word “stranger” means.
Though my life has felt so unacceptable to me in many ways, my heart has been opened and connected by all this experience. It must be this connectedness that enables me, finally at sixtytwo, to speak and ask for what I want or need.
So now if I stood at the trail it would be easy to smile and ask the men, “Did you see my blanket on the trail?” They would smile and give me my Indian blanket, and with ease I would turn around and walk toward the field.
But here the ending of this story cannot change. Someone else took control of the end and it’s not in my power to change the way it actually happened.
In fact, I turned around and headed across the meadow to the pines. Something seemed different as I approached – something wasn’t right. Then I stood there at the edge of the grove, once more completely silenced. There had been a fire. Almost all the trees were charred and bare. I walked through row after row, dumbfounded. I walked to the middle, puzzling. I stood in the middle and gazed around. Then suddenly I knew. Tom had been here. Big Tom, man of power. Somewhere in those forty days after his return to spirit and before I saw the rainbow on the fortieth day, his spirit had come here and he had done his warrior’s last dance, burning the trees to tell me he’d been here and that he, too, had been a person of power.
I smile; how right. He was a great person and I was honored to know him well. He had laughed at those New Agey ideas, but he respected me and was open to new interpretations of life.
Now I would have to find a new Place of Power for myself. I turned around slowly and gave a respectful bow to all the trees, and then walked back to my bicycle – now today I would also have my Indian blanket – and I peddled slowly back alone to the little cottage on the little lake to live my contented little life, connected comfortably with other imperfect and marvelous people just like myself.
“You can’t take it with you”; we’ve heard this many times. These words are so old they fly past with little power, just a small shove to sort and toss a little more and try again to get organized.
At age 72, I suddenly realize – THESE WORDS ARE TRUE! I’m realizing that I’m now somewhere on my finish line; maybe it’s still a long way off, or not. But I’m peering down a path where I can see it in the mist – the cliff’s edge! And I REALLY, TRULY, CANNOT TAKE ANYTHING WITH ME OVER THE EDGE!
NOTHING! Not even one outfit of clothes!! Not even my body itself!
Now I see more clearly. The only thing I’ll be able to bring with me with is:
1) Anything I’ve learned,
2) Any growth in my personhood, like, power from inside myself,
3) All my memories: loves, hates, mistakes, successes, joys, heartbreaks; disappointments and
4) the people who live in my heart will be there still, forever.
This is what I can carry with me when I drop my body and return to being pure consciousness.
This certainly makes it easier to sort and toss! All I have to do now is check with those who I’ll (probably) have to leave behind about what THEY WANT of all the “precious” junk I’ve accumulated.
They have their own junk; excuse me, “treasures/mementos” , to stash and enjoy again in their later years. How many of my treasures are treasures to them? Would they even know the people I think of when I pick up this little chotcky or that? Even if I write on each object what it is, it won’t carry for them the heart-touch it carries for me. And they will have all my boxes to stash away somewhere and move from place to place.
How many belongings of my parents’, grandparents’, great grandparents’ have I chosen to keep, or been able to keep? I do have a very few precious things that belonged to one great-grandparent and these I treasure. A black friend was surprised when I brought something out of my great-grandmother’s: he has nothing from his ancestors at all. But most of us don’t even know the names of our great grandparents; not even their names endure over time! At some point, all traces of us disappear from the earth!
I do have a few stories that have been past to me. What I would treasure most would be traces of the thoughts of my ancestors: any writings, journals, letters, precious books make me feel like they were real people and give me clues about their struggles and strengths, what they learned and tried to do while they here before me. I hope I can leave as much as possible of these kinds of treasures from my life to endure for as long as they’re helpful to those who follow me.
But what to do with my many, many “things” which probably no one else wants to hang onto indefinitely? I first check with my progeny about any possible “family treasures.” Failing that test, I take my treasures and some I bury in the back yard, some I burn in the fireplace, doing all with proper last respect for whomever or whatever they symbolize to me.
And then I feel lighter.
Of course, if there’s any useful value left for others, I give them to my favorite resale shop. Letters from my old friends I give to their children. Pictures – some I toss and others I mark; digital pictures I’m developing and sending to those who are in them. Printed pictures endure; digital pictures seem to float off into folders on a computer that become overloaded and unmarked and get lost in cyberspace.
This is a unloading is a strange process. But even should I live a long life yet, being able to live in smaller quarters will lighten my burdens, too. In Hinduism, the third stage of life is called something like “the forest dweller”, when one goes off to ponder and become wise and live with neither responsibilities nor many needs. I think women have not traditionally done this as we never stop feeling responsible and caring toward family and friends, but we too, move toward simple living and gleaning some wisdom from our lives. My friend Joyce told about the brother of her Indian friend, Maya. He was giving away everything to move to the United States. He brought nothing but one suitcase with him and everyone thought it strange. While traveling here to his destination, he was caught in a train accident and his life was finished! It seemed to his family that he had known this was coming.
For me I don’t feel that my end is close, but I simply know I own way too much and I can’t just junk it without looking at each thing once more, enjoying it as a treasure of my living, and then remembering that I’m responsible to clean up after myself. I’ve spent many years of my life cleaning up after other loved one’s who died unexpectedly; I don’t want to leave a burden for my loved ones while they’re trying to live their own lives.
Item by item I am lightening my load. Trying not to add much, subtracting more. If there’s anything I have that my friends might want, I invite them to speak up! I’m happy to find a new home for all the treasures of my interesting life, which has been so full of surprises and riches. I must empty my trunks…
“Nothing can guarantee a miracle. Nothing stops us, however, from seeking one,” wrote Dr. Ed Tick in his book, The Practice of Dream Healing. For a thousand years, sanctuaries from Asia Minor to Rome called upon the Greek god Asklepios for improved health. Though the services were free to all, seekers were required to be active in their healing. First came ten days of centering and purifying: massage, hot baths, herbs, meditation, counseling, nutrition, exercise, rest, plus music and drama, which the Greeks saw as therapeutic. When a dream or natural event showed that the god saw them as ready, the seeker went into the abaton, an underground chamber. There they fasted and
lay still until Asklepios came in a healing dream and showed the underlying cause of the problem.
I read Dr.Tick’s book with fascination as I have a curvature in my lower back for which I’m always seeking help, and also because dreams have become a reliable source of guidance for me. Occasionally I’ve been given explicit instructions in dreams. I often awaken in the morning with a songline in my head which seems to summarize my dreams, as if some Power-behind-my-dreaming wants to be sure I get the point.
Dr. Tick says that whenever six people are ready to go to Greece to do their healing work, he’ll guide them. “Am I ready to be healed?” I asked myself. “Yes!” answered my heart. I contacted him to make this trip.
In March 2005 a group formed. I worked furiously to prepare. When April arrived, I experienced puzzling dreams. On Easter Sunday I awoke with an alarming songline:
”Beat the drum slowly
”Beat the drum slowly
Play the fife lowly,
Play the death march as they carry me along.
Take me to green valleys
And lay the sod o’er me
For I’m a young cowboy and know I’ve done wrong.”
Startling! Especially the lines “I know I’ve done wrong” as I don’t see death or suffering as punishments but as moments of change. Perhaps “I’ve done wrong” referred to a wrong decision.
Three days before departure, I awoke with this songline:
“Um ummm …freight train.
I’m leaving today,
I’m going and I’m not coming back.”
Tuesday morning, April 11th, departure-for-Greece day.
4:26 a.m. Again:
“Um ummm …freight train.
I’m leaving today,
I’m going and I’m not coming back.”
4:35 a.m. Dream: I’m trying to kill an intelligent, mystical Byzantine priest. Unable to do so, I contain him in an egg. Eventually I discover he has listened to music on a radio inside the egg, which relaxed him and enabled him to survive.
7:39 a.m. again, the songline: “I’m leaving today, I’m going away, I’m going and I’m not coming back.”
I arose with a dilemma: leave for Greece? Or not? The time pressure was intense. These messages could have just been about transformation, which can seem like death, but their explicitness affected me. I began to think about not going.
I asked myself, “Why would dreams of warning come to a person?” These seemed to give an option, as if I might die but I didn’t have to. I felt clear that I did want to live.
Then, “What do I truly believe about the purpose and power of dreams? If I don’t take my dreams here seriously, why go to Greece to pretend that dreams can be powerful and significant?”
I remember one thing I’ve learned from Quakers about discernment of leadings from God: clarity is possible. I kept trying for clarity. Many people try various forms of logic for decisions, but logic had often led me into regrets. What about “fatalism?” The Greeks believed in destiny. If it’s time for me to die, perhaps I should just let it happen. After thinking and feeling, I decided if I was going to err, I’d err in favor of staying alive.
The dream about the Byzantine priest in the egg was still mysterious. Was it some part of me that I’ve tried to kill and not succeeded? Maybe the intuitive part that can act without understanding? The Byzantine tradition loves symbolism, does not analyze it but honors it as contact with the sacred. In that tradition, rational analysis does not interfere with faith that we are upheld by Something. And dreams and songlines, i.e. “the radio,” had kept this intuitive part of me alive!
I called Dr. Tick. He said he’d respect whatever I decided; he knew that dreams may bring messages from our Higher Guidance. I asked how to reach him should I change my mind, but even as I spoke the choice was made: there’d be no trip to Greece. I’d have felt worse to go than I felt bad to not go. Peace came.
The effort and stress left me exhausted. I napped deeply with no idea of what should come next.
Wednesday 4:01 a.m. songline, and again upon arising:
”I saw the Light, I saw the Light!
”I saw the Light, I saw the Light!
No more darkness, No more night.
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.
Praise the Lord! I saw the Light!”
I began days of centering and purification. Friends thought I was in Greece, so the phone was quiet. I built a fire in the fireplace, rested, journalled. I got a massage, went to the Japanese spa, avoided coffee and sugar, spent time in prayer and meditation. By the fire each day I did whatever I felt led to do. I allowed myself to be bored, to see what might be in that space I call boredom.
Saturday 2:16 a.m. I scribbled in the dark: “Hawaii, the place of healing.” In the morning I recorded, “All night I dreamt about Hawaii and heard its music.” I tried to keep myself in obedience, even while I felt enthusiasm for this place of natural beauty that I love. (“Enthusiasm:” Greek, meaning “to be possessed by a god”.)
Sunday 12:11 a.m. Dream: “I see a road going up to a beautiful outlook over the ocean, but at the top the road curves around and comes back.” Quite a contrast with the songlines about Greece and not coming back.
Monday p.m. April 23rd Falling asleep, it occurred to me that tonight I might have my Asklepion healing dream. By the ancient tradition, the god would come to me in the form of a snake or dog or cock. If I were in Greece at Epidauros, Dr. Tick would wrap me in blankets and stay beside me all night till I’d had a dream of healing significance. Here I made myself as still and cocoon-like as possible.
2:48 a.m. I see a caricature of a snake telling me to “pay attention now.”
4:47 a.m. The dream ends with “Go to the ocean, but first…” Then long scenes about continuing this work. Then a marriage scene with a big party: maybe opposite characteristics in myself coming into balance?
And finally, Thursday, 6:58 a.m. “I am dreaming plans for Hawaii.” Usually I awaken and make plans resulting from a dream, but now I had made plans within the dreaming. The comic snake had smiled on me. I accepted that Hawaii was a natural healing place for me and began arrangements for a wonderful trip to that place of health.
Many years back, I felt the impulse to learn French. I didn’t have time to take a class. I also knew that pronunciation is the big challenge in French so it would be best to wait till I could study under someone. Then for two nights in a row, I dreamt whole dreams in French! I didn’t know what I was saying, as my conscious mind doesn’t know French, but I knew I was talking in French all night as my dream adventures moved on.
So, I figured that perhaps it was safe for me to try to teach myself as I seemed to already know French at some level. I had a little tourist book that had common French phrases with a phonetic description of how to pronounce words and I began to work with that. I should say “play” as I promised myself this would be a hobby and not something I make myself stress over. The French phrase book became my bathroom study. My grandfather had kept his Bible by the toilet so I figured anything was fair game for quick reading there. And this was supposed to be “play.”
I was enjoying this diversion for a couple weeks when I came upon something I couldn’t figure out: the pronunciation of the simple common words leand la; these both mean the article the in its masculine and feminine forms. The description in the phrase book of how to pronounce these came out the same for me.
Then one night I had this dream: I saw a little boy. Then I saw the inside of a mouth. The tongue was touching the roof of the mouth towards the back of the mouth. Thus the sound would come out more in the throat, like luh. Then I saw a little girl and then the inside of a mouth. The tip of the tongue was now touching the top of the mouth toward the front of the mouth. The sound would thus come out more like lah.
To this day I do not know from who or where this information came to me, but it greatly encouraged me to ask for help and advice before I go to sleep. Many more times I’ve received responses like this, where a dream has clarified something for me.
Perhaps I should add that I often wondered “Why does it feel so important for me to learn French?” There was no practical reason. But I noticed that one has to hold one’s face and even body in a slightly different way when speaking French than one does when speaking English. There’s a demeanor required in order to speak French properly. I think there’s a demeanor to every language. This demeanor felt like “not me,” very foreign. It felt more self confident than I usually felt! It was an assertive stance. I began to think something in me was trying to strengthen my personality a bit! To this day, that’s my interpretation of this phenomena in my life. And, incidentally, I taught myself French well enough to pass out of first semester college French!
A very slight shift it was, but it put me on a new path that began to diverge away from exterior obedience and increasingly towards hearing and trusting my own inner guide.
I was raised a Roman Catholic, a warm world full of symbols and color and ecstatic images of devotion, love, and noble aspirations. But there were some traps. The idea that had its jaws around me was the teaching called “original sin” and the consequent need for salvation. This belief tells us that as soon as we’ve taken a breath into the world we are sinful because our ancestors ate an apple when they were told not to; that the almighty creator-of-all required the horrible death of his son to make amends for this; that suffering is a noble way to show our love to this almighty power who is still said to be loving and merciful. The glorification of suffering was the spider web that had me trapped.
For various reasons, by the time I was a teenager my mind was a mess. I lived in a dual world. During the schoolyear my life was a small farm town, high school class of 44 students; summers were spent at a camp for rich city girls, a camp whose mission was to make Christian leaders out of us, champions of great deeds in the world. I felt I was unable to succeed well in either place, but that I did have something to give to the world. My talents seemed in academics. I loved to learn, and felt especially attracted to subjects like literature, philosophy, theology – instinctively searching for ways to look at life that might help me feel happier. I had not yet discovered psychology, and any self-help books I encountered were based in the Christian trap-story (sacrifice, unselfishness, noble suffering).
My one hope, what attracted me, was to go to a great place of learning – our state university – where I could be challenged academically as I felt capable of doing. With trepidation, I placed the secret longing of my heart before my father. He quickly said “No. You’d just be a little fish in a big sea. You’ll be homesick like [his] sister was at a big state college” (though she stayed and finished there!). Thus quickly my dream was snuffed out. I knew nothing about scholarships, there were no counselors in our high school, there weren’t even jobs in our town of 500 people! So now I had to find another path to a future.
I became ever more religious, praying for guidance. In those days (the 50’s-60’s) women did not choose to live unmarried. My dad referred to two single sisters in our extended family as “the old maids,” even though they were teachers and had traveled all over the world. Perhaps because neither of my parents had ever seemed happy in their marriage, I did not see myself getting married, and even less did I have any interest in raising children. How to avoid the pressures to get married?
I often heard mention in passing of a holy spirit, the “Holy Ghost”, who was said to bring us wisdom and comfort, guidance and courage, but our religious practices did not relate much to this promising presence. Most of our practices emphasized our sinful state and the incredible suffering it took for Jesus to rescue us from this. I thought “If God is the almighty and loving father, he would help me see a path, like my father would if he could, imperfect as he [was].” Becoming a nun seemed an option, a possible but unclear path to the academic and service work I longed for. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of wearing odd clothes and being separated from the world that so interested me, but it was a path that would protect me from pressure to marry. Another appealing feature of the convent at that point of my life was having someone else responsible to make decisions for me!
I looked over the different orders of nuns and chose one based on their lifestyle, not their work. One goal I had identified for my future was to try to be a saint. Saints were the best! The path of the saints had been laid out before me as the example par excellence of a person dedicated to doing good. Another trap door? The saints not only did great deeds helping the poor and suffering, but to qualify for sainthood one had to suffer a lot oneself, maybe die for the cause, sacrifice much, be misunderstood and humiliated. If the saints were happy and their lives went smoothly, it was not advertised.
This order was a missionary order, teaching and healing in Africa and South America. I had no interest in being a missionary but I didn’t notice this at all. These nuns lived the simple life like St. Francis of Assisi: they got out there and mowed their own grass, chopped down trees on the wild wooded hills around them. They did not have private swimming pools and roller rinks as some American orders did but they recreated by singing (they were Italian), applepicking and whatever simple joys they could create.
The summer before I entered I took college credit classes through my longed-for university in a camp-like setting. My roommate was a wonderful friend but some kind of atheist or agnostic and this was a surprising experience for me. In addition, I dated all I could. With every guy I kept thinking “This is my last kiss, – forever!” It was just some kind of luck that kept me a virgin to the end of the summer.
By the time I entered the convent in the fall, I hardly knew if there was a god or not. But I thought “I committed to try this, and it will at least be an ‘interesting experience’ to add to my list of interesting life experiences.”
However, one does not trifle with God. Once there, I found that everyone else took my “calling” seriously, and took “God” seriously, and I did not see an easy way out.
The thinking about vocations to the religious life was another trap. It was felt that God calls us, not that we chose Him. One enters the convent feeling that perhaps she is being called to do this. It is, of course, a great honor to be called to this special life; sometimes nuns are called “brides of Christ.” And how could one say ‘No’ if God himself were calling? If after all, God is not calling one to this, God will make his will known by a sign: one might get sick, or one’s parents die and one must go home to take care of the siblings. I kept watching myself for sickness but nothing happened. No sign came that God did not want me here.
We were allowed to “consult” about our calling. There was a nun in our nearby house who was considered wise and holy so I asked my superior if I could go talk with Sister Angelica. Mother Superior approved.
I went. Sister Angelica asked me, “Do you like to pray?” I answered truthfully, “Yes.” I loved to pray at that time, to have quiet time from emotional pressures, to try to find a clear path, asking for guidance from that Father and/or Son who I was told loved me so much. “Do you want to spend your life serving God and helping other people?” she asked. “Yes. Yes, I do,” I answered. “That’s exactly what I want to do with my life.” “Then it sounds like you’re called to be a nun,” she told me.
You see, there was a general thought among Catholics at that time that lay people were called by God to populate the earth and carry on commerce. Anyone called to a life of prayer and service was being called to be a nun or priest or monk.
So I returned and continued to try to answer the call to be a nun. But life in the convent was hard for me. A severe curvature in my lower back has always made it difficult for me to stand on my feet for long; kneeling is particularly painful. Being young, I just did whatever I had to do, but convent life was exhausting and painful for me. Also, I was only the third American to enter this order, and no other girls entered at that time with me, so I was alone in my classes and training. This was especially hard the second year when I had become a novice, wearing the habit, and spending most of every day alone with my novice mistress. The nuns were wonderful people but the life was hard, lonely, and tiring for me. I quietly past my twenty first birthday in the convent.
Every now and then I’d see another wise, holy person and ask if I could go consult with them about my vocation. They would always ask the same kinds of questions: “Do you like to pray?” (Yes….) Do you want to spend your life serving God and helping other people? (Yes…) “Then, it seems you’re called to be a nun.”
At one point we were all doing a silent retreat; I asked if I could talk with the retreat master about my vocation. Of course this was approved and I went in to try again for some clarity in my endless feeling of confusion. This priest was experienced in counseling nuns. He just asked me one question: “Are you happy?” This was easy to answer. “No,” I said. “Then you’re not called to be a nun,” the priest said simply.
I was out of there within twenty four hours. I thought I was just obeying the priest. But as soon as I was home, I could feel my body relax and my spirit begin to lighten. I felt health and strength coming back. Then it began to dawn on me that I had known all along that I did not have this vocation. Even my body knew. Something in me had kept me searching for the way out; I would never have stopped asking wise, holy people until I found one that said what I knew but could not say – this was not the life I was called to.
It would be many more years before I found my way through all the ideas that supported exterior obedience: to people, beliefs, practices, ideals, that did not give me strength to be true to myself. It was like swimming through underground channels trying to find an open path, a way that felt natural, joyful, and affirmed me. I did at last find my way up to to the sunshine.
While I don’t expect to be happy every day of my life, I’ve learned that a general sense of well-being is a sign of doing the right thing, and conversely any situation that drains and pulls one down is a “sign from God” to change something. Never in my life was I taught this – that to be happy was a sign of doing the right thing.
For me, God the father and God the son did not save me but kept me ensnared, focused on them. It has been that quiet Holy Spirit who has been with me all along and still speaks inside my breast, affirming and nurturing me with the unfaltering dedication of a mother, She has guided me home.
– Published in Acupuncture for Your Soul, Wheatmark, Tucson Az, ed. Rae Jacobs, 2016.
“Let us not demean the dead,” my grandfather said quietly, his head turned slightly toward my father at the head of the table. We were all silent, holding our breaths in shock at the whole scene. No one ever spoke up against Dad. But today at Thanksgiving dinner, where we were all gathered as a supposedly happy family, he had spoken without thought about his deceased mother-in-law, our grandmother, whom he had never liked. I forget what he said, but he was not thinking with any respect that Grandpa was here with us.
Dad never showed respect to Grandpa. Perhaps there was a jealousy under all; in his own house Dad was top dog. Grandpa, on the contrary, former state senator for ten years, respected all over western Michigan, invited to speak at commencements, churches, public ceremonies, always spoke respectfully to my dad, as he did to everyone. Dad had married the senator’s daughter and that was all he needed from his father-in-law.
During the Depression, the Republicans of western Michigan were looking for a senatorial candidate who would stand up for education. Grandpa served on the School Board, the County Welfare Board and the bank board. They asked him to run and he won. He was paid $2 a day as a senator, only when the senate was in session, so between sessions he worked in the general store he owned with his brother. His brother began to drink, claiming he had too much work, so Grandpa agreed that he would quit the senate if Lowell would quit drinking, and that was the way of it. Grandpa returned to being a small town grocer with complete cheerfulness and grace. Lowell eventually returned to drinking but Grandpa never spoke of him with bitterness. He looked back at everything in his life with gratefulness as if all was a gift to him. He’d tell with relish of tromping through the bitter snow in northern Russia during World War I and learning a few words in Russian which he can still remember, to speak to the locals.
Mom was raised a Lutheran and stayed a Lutheran when she married Dad. When Dad proved that Martin Luther had been a Catholic priest she opened to joining the Church. Twenty years after her marriage, an old friend told her that when she married Dad, the Lutheran minister gave a sermon that Sunday about the wrongness of parents who allow their children to marry Catholics, with Grandma and Grandpa sitting in the front row as they always did. Grandpa had never said a word about this. When Mom had asked his opinion about marrying Dad, Grandpa had said “I’ll respect whatever you decide.” Mom was furious to learn about this story from the past but the pastor was long gone.
Grandpa’s library spoke to me of a different set of values. To begin with, he owned and treasured books! A whole room of walls quietly filled with inspiring books – biographies and autobiographies of great people, books of quotes and jokes he used in public speaking, Bible study books he used in his fifty years of teaching adult Sunday school. In my house, though we had money, I cannot remember seeing any book around the house except an unused Bible on the coffee table of the parlor. For Christmas we got hair dryers, petticoats, roller skates, nice things for teenage girls but not books. When I went into Grandpa’s sunny quiet library I felt my body lifted in surprise and delight. Grandpa let me borrow from his books and these were food for me in a way our family kitchen didn’t provide.
One Easter morning I was home from college when Grandpa stopped on his way to his church. He didn’t usually do this. He said in his cheerful simple way, “I’ll be teaching the adult Sunday School this morning!” I froze. It was Easter. How special! What I heard was an unspoken invitation to come and hear him teach. I longed to say to my parents, “Can I go with Grandpa?” But such was my fear of my parents’ disapproval that I did not say a word and Grandpa cheerfully hurried on.
I’ve lived under the shadow of my father’s temper and opinions most of my life, though I followed Grandpa’s path into the world of religious studies, spiritual practice, and service. I endured a lack of understanding and support from my father because I never earned much money on this path. But I’ve come to see that Grandpa has been the father of my adulthood, the example of walking humbly and cheerfully over the earth doing worthwhile things. I know my grandfather’s mentor was Jesus Christ and Grandpa did his mentor proud. I hope in the end I may also do Grandpa proud.