Survival, Grace, and the “Poetry of Hope”

wolfAt first, it was like a faint whisper, barely audible.  And even when it grew a little louder, I almost didn’t want to hear it.  Or at the very least, was doubtful: “That can’t be it, it was probably just the wind…”  But then I felt it – deep within my stomach, like a butterfly trying out its wings for the first time: surprised and tentative.  This soft flutter, this shift, was inspiration moving through me.  Something I had not felt in several months.  Something beyond and bigger than myself, but of which I garner a great amount of self worth and personal identity: living life in a way that I am moved by it.  The give and take of intentional contribution, joy, and wonder: a collaborative exchange.  

There are many people and things that supported me two summers ago, during a particularly challenging time, that helped this shift take place.  But sometimes, as often is the case for me – the thing that ultimately helps turn the light back on, has to be self-driven.  Even going to (albeit “self-driven” in the larger sense) yoga, massage, therapy (fill in the blank…), often isn’t enough.  Getting support from  my closest family and friends…even the ones who truly, gutturally “get it” doesn’t always do the trick either.  Not that there really is a “trick,” and there is never just “one way…”. But most often, just like those infamous ruby slippers, the match that kindles the initial spark has to be struck by my own fingers.  Wobbly and shaky as they may be, amid persistent and harsh winds determined to snuff it out…but by my hands, and my hands alone.  

Now, make no mistake about it, I’ve made a vocation and career out of building and nurturing safe relationships.  Healing cannot take place in isolation.  The therapeutic alliance and space that I share with my clients (and many people in my life) is of great significance to me – created through intentional listening, honoring, processing, and a commitment to showing up with authentic presence.  The yoga community I’ve found, my wise and insightful colleagues, my “healing support team” (my psychotherapist and physical/massage therapists), my dear fellow mamas, and family and friends, all offer support in ways deep and true.  And there is an unquantifiable value to all of these supports.  No doubt, they helped “set the stage” for me that warm day by the shore in late August,; each in their own way, slowly encouraging the retracted parts of myself to consider opening again.  And for all I know, it could have simply been because all those planets decided to get out of retrograde in the middle of August – but something did shift.  Art had something to do with it.  Reading a particular passage of a particular book, at a particular time; finding a new piece of music you’ve never quite heard anything like before; becoming absorbed by a painting that just calls to you in some way.  There is something quite powerful about art (however you may define it) – in whatever shape or form it may take: paper, canvas, speaker, screen, or stage.  And if you’re drawn to creative expression, yourself – when that drive to “create” is birthed again after sometime on the sidelines, something is restored.  

So for now, at least, I’d like to give a little shout out to Barbara Kingsolver.  Reading her book of essays, High Tide in Tucson, lit something back up for me, and actually ignited the inspiration for writing this piece.  I had been experiencing some of the thoughts and feelings she wrote about, but hadn’t been able to communicate them in any substantive way – as if invasive vines were tamping down any existential explanation of the inner vacancy I was experiencing.  And reading those essays (a few very special ones in particular) provided the concrete structure and scaffolding of beautifully crafted language that put words to some of my experience.  The things I kept running up against and stumbling over that I couldn’t quite articulate; the pain and the fear; the mere bafflement of it all – suddenly had integrity, logic, and meaning that made sense to me.  Not only because someone felt them too, but because they offered enough objective distance from my visceral reality so that I could interact with the sensations and fears in a different way.   

Anais Nin said “the personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself.”  A beautiful sentiment and possibly quite true – but one that has gotten me into trouble a few times over.  A prolific writer and artist who deeply contributed to the fabric of our culture, Nin inspired me when I first came across that quote sometime in high school.  And I think I’ve adopted, or strived to adopt the way of living she described, for most of my life.  To be introspective, deliberate, sensitive and “deep” in the ways I live and relate to others.  But when Kingsolver posed the question, “What does it mean, anyway, to be an animal in human clothing?” I started to wonder…         

My husband is a self-proclaimed “New England stoic.”  A quality, I’ve admittedly seen as less desirable during parts of our relationship.  (“What do you mean you don’t feel every fiber of every moment like little knives of electricity stabbing your heart??”…)  At one point during the struggle that was summer 2018, my husband said “You know love, sometimes it’s OK to just be an animal.”  Kingsolver’s inquisitions left a mark on him as well. Having last read this particular collection of her essays in college (quite some time ago), he searched for the book in his childhood bedroom, flipped through the pages and found the exact essay he was referencing.  Needless to say, it left quite the impression on me as well, and acted as kindling for that spark I was so desperately needing.  Kingsolver offers:

“We carry around these big brains of ours like the crown jewels, but mostly I find that millions of years of evolution have prepared me for one thing only: to follow internal rhythms.  To walk upright, to protect my loved ones, to cooperate with my family group – however broadly I care to define it – to do whatever will help me survive.”

She references these “rhythms” a few times over, and her bewilderment in the denial of the “tribal past” that “dance[s] down the strands of our DNA.”  Noting that “it feels strange…to be living in a box, hiding from the steadying influence of the moon…absorbing strength and rhythms and a trust in the seasons.”  She goes on to unpack the notion of survival, offering a distinction between want and need.  Want is a thing that unfurls…opening large upon itself, stopless, filling the sky. But needs, from one day to the next, are few enough to fit in a bucket…”  What we actually need may not be much at all, but we so often loose sight of it.  Although our brains and bodies have evolved, for good reason and with generally adaptive consequences, when we rely too heavily on the “human” cortex that took millions of years to develop, we forget about our “animal” intuition.  “It’s starting to look as if the most shameful tradition of Western civilization is our need to deny we are animals,” Kingsolver admits.  

So what do we loose by forgetting we are, indeed, animals?  When my husband offered the insight he did, it almost felt as if he was granting me permission to be the “animal” that I already was.  And though things were still quite hazy and internally painful; when he gifted me that reminder, I can assuredly say that I breathed a deep, guttural sense of relief.  “You mean…I can just breathe for a second?…eat…bathe…put one foot in front of the other…love my son…do my job…not have to say or think or feel anything with abounding clarity…perhaps just feeling the really shitty feelings I’m feeling without having to make so much meaning out of them…or feeling that I need to do something with or about them…that I could just, exist, for a little bit…and that that could be enough?…”  It was the first time in a while that I felt a subtle, but distinct slowing…a gravitational pause and quelling of the inner rapids, of which every frigid drop spraying from its fury, had felt like razors of self doubt, uncertainty and fear.  After all, it’s our “advanced,” human forebrain that strives to make meaning and attach language to our experiences, where the more “primitive” parts of our brain may just be trying to intuitively guide us through life without so much fuss.  There’s a difference between dissecting and digesting.  When we dissect, we pick and prod, analyze and obsess.  When we digest, we allow and abide, slow down and surrender to our natural intrinsic processes.   

When I’ve found myself drawn to live as “deeply” as Anais Nin suggests, many times, it’s felt wonderful.  Significant.  Full.  But sometimes, I’m left to feel as if I’m either not doing enough…or not feeling inspired, passionate, and purposeful in the ways I’d like to be.  And the truth of the matter is that we can’t feel that “in sync” with life all the time.  Those “eureka” moments where everything makes sense and all the decisions you’ve made feel right, and every relationship is flowing effortlessly, and feelings are felt with intensity and vibrance that don’t overwhelm or paralyze.  The lustful drive toward mystery, awe, and romance (in the broadest sense of the word) can sometimes leave us empty handed.  But what if we’ve just been moving too fast – or have become conditioned toward a certain pace and expectation of life – longing to be “moved by it”… that we may be missing what She has been offering us all along?  Kingsolver posits that “nature does not move in mysterious ways, really.  She just moves so slowly we’re inclined to lose patience and stop watching before she gets around to the revelations.”  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to live life “deeply”…to want to contribute to life’s majesty and be moved by it.  But expecting that intensity at all times just isn’t sustainable.  Striving to find a balance in it all is probably advisable…knowing, too, that sometimes it’s OK to “just be an animal,” as Kingsolver presents:

“In the best of times, I hold in mind the need to care for things beyond the self: poetry, humanity, grace.  In other times, when it seems difficult merely to survive and be happy about it, the condition of my thought tastes as simple as this: let me be a good animal today.  I’ve spent months at a stretch, even years, with that taste in my mouth, and have found that it serves.” 

It serves.  Well, I’ll be.  For something to just be enough.  Quite a notion.  And maybe it doesn’t have to be like this all the time…but adopting a belief that, for now – this can be enough – is powerful.  There’s a release of expectation that frees up space and creates room for breath to go – room for presence: room for what is, and hope for what may come.  But ultimately, just being here now, exactly as we are, all gnarly and animal-like…may, in fact, be OK and be exactly what is needed in this moment.  And maybe the balance between mere existence and “living life deeply” isn’t as hard to seek as we may think:          

“It’s not such a wide gulf to cross, then, from survival to poetry.  We hold fast to the old passions of endurance that buckle and creak beneath us…to carry us onward.  To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another… If the whole world of the living has to turn on the single point of remaining alive, that pointed endurance is the poetry of hope.”    

I started this piece in August, 2018 and something kept me from finishing it.  It kept evolving.  It is now May 1st, 2019 (my birthday) and I just gave birth to my second son 6 weeks ago.  And now I know why I waited until now to “finish” it.  I so desperately needed this reminder again.  Because man oh man am I living my animal life right now.  And fighting against that was causing me suffering.  The “it should be like this…” and especially, “I wanted it to be like this this time around, not like this…” create wounds that form very particular kinds of scabs – the itchy and uncomfortable kind.  The ones you can’t help but scratch and re-open (sometimes over and over again)…. And scratching I was.  

Until I remembered.  Until I gave myself permission, again, to “just” be an animal.  To eat and nourish myself as much as I can so I can nourish my growing baby; to bathe (occasionally); to start to slowly move my new and constantly evolving body (and self) again in new and different ways; to love my children and allow time for this huge family growth and adjustment.  Slowly.  And sometimes its been hard for me to allow for the space, tenderness, curiosity, and patience required for such an immense transition as this one.  Not only creating a new life, but living into a new life that has been birthed 4-fold (is that a word?) – effecting and changing so many relationships along the way.  My relationship to my self, my husband, my eldest son, his relationship with his brother – and all the interwebs there-in.  We are growing and changing as a family through this new life.  Here again, Kingsolver honors these times of transition:        

 “Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life.  A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it’s impossible to think at first how this all will be possible.  Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.” 

The ebb and flow.  Movement.  ”Life is change.”  And maybe most especially in times of major transitions, tapping into our animal-like qualities can serve us.   But I know for me, it has been a lot easier to grant myself permission to do that during this postpartum period…or when I had the flu at 1-month postpartum (the how-to’s of nursing my 4-week old baby while wearing a face mask and getting an IV at my doctor’s wasn’t in any of the baby books I read… ).  In those circumstances, it was “ok” to give myself time to heal. It was “expected” that I may need to move slowly.  But could we consider being more generous with this permission slip throughout our lives?  Not just when it’s socially acceptable to be metaphorically and literally crawling on the floor or howling during child birth.  Could we let ourselves tap into these adaptive evolutionary traits with more regularity and ease?  And maybe without judging or condemning ourselves when perhaps for a few hours, days, weeks or even months or years at a time we just need to be the animals that we are.  

Almost one whole year later, in late August, 2019 – I find myself with a few moments alone on our family vacation to finally “finish” this piece.  I returned back to work after a 5-month maternity leave 2 weeks ago.  Then I went on vacation.  There’s been a lot of starts and stops lately (it’s eclipse season).  But I’m doing OK with them all.  Welcoming them even.  Offering myself reminders of my animal self.  Learning to live into flexibility and lowered expectations (vacationing with 3.5 year and 5 month olds, anyone?).  And it feels good.  I want it to continue to feel good.  Not just when I’m on vacation, or maternity leave, or at a coffeeshop alone for an hour (but yes please for these moments especially!)….but just when I’m living. When I’m walking, breathing – maybe with a heavy heart, maybe with a light one.  Hopefully with a whole host of gratitude, regardless.  For all of it.  The Grand Rapids of my emotional landscape; and the soft flutter of my full heart.  [Life got full again; we moved into a new home and are very much in transition again – luckily, I found this piece and now am finally “posting” it – almost 1.5 years after I started it].

Thank you for reading and resonating as you may.  I keep many of you in mind when I write – and hope that my words, like animal tracks, may allow our paths to cross at staggered points along this journey…maybe when you needed to find them, just as I did a year ago almost to the day and then 6 months after that.  Thank you Barbara Kingsolver.  May many continue to find the nourishment your (and other’s) words provide to ease some of those growing pains – the ones we’re sometimes dizzyingly aware of, and the ones that may just ache a bit – both wanting to be softened and filled all at once.  

Surrendering to our animal instinct.  To what we intuitively know…if only we could give ourselves permission to listen.