Change and the movement of life – flow and motion - energy passing through places and phases. Here I sit in an old house with the shades drawn and the ceiling fans going fast, aware that the heat index is at a level that prompted my employer to call most of the staff and direct them to stay at home. It’s hot and humid…but only for now. This is what my street looked like in February:
I have been reading through some letters and journal entries that I wrote in the year 2007, the year before my husband died, when my teenaged girls were in serious distress and the entire family was in deep pain. Here’s a list of feelings I wrote about:
depression, disappointment, hurt, shame, guilt, disgust, loneliness, despair, anger/frustration, regret/sorrow, fatigue, pain, inadequacy, fear, fragility, helplessness
Here’s a list of feelings that I decorated with a jagged black boundary and labeled “Off Limits, Not Allowed”:
Beauty, Happiness, Joy, Love, Health, Excitement, Passion, Rest, Pleasure, Peace
I wrote: “What do you do with feelings? They’re supposed to have ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’, but when you’ve had the same feelings swirling around you for a half a year, a year, several years — they aren’t just feelings anymore. They become a way of life. I feel like Job — afflicted with boils. These hives on my legs itch like crazy, and I have no clue why I have them. I just keep hoping they’ll just go away.”
When you attempt to stop the flow of energy and movement and turn your present feelings or thoughts into a way of life, it may seem like you’re taking control and choosing something you want. It may turn out to be something that mires you in suffering, however. That’s something of which to be aware. You could apply that to the physical environment: attempting to regulate the temperature and keep it at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit as a chosen way of life may cause you to suffer inordinately whenever the temperature is much lower or higher than that. Aversion and attachment causes suffering. Letting go of them allows the dance of life to swirl you into new places. If you find joy in the movement and change of life, you will not be disappointed. If you insist on sitting in the same pile of ashes for years, you will inevitably feel itchy and uncomfortable. You can hope that changes miraculously, or you can get up and move. As Jesus said to the man sitting at the Sheep’s Gate Pool complaining and making excuses, “Wilt thou be made whole?” (John 5:6) Do you want to enter the flow of life? It’s your choice…
Here endeth my sermon to myself.
The windows are open; a warm breeze floats through the screen and caresses my cheeks. Sunshine brightens patches of my orange bedsheets and makes a heating pad for my aching back. I feel old today. Probably because I am allowing myself to. Today I do not need to greet visitors with a smile and pleasant conversation. I can curl inward and feel the aches I have acquired in living. I have a living history, too. It involves struggle and fortitude and being foreign… like those German immigrants I talk about at work…though it is very different in its particulars.
The art of self-comforting. Breathing. Slowing down. Searching for health in the interior of being. Acknowledging tender spots. Bathing them in warmth. And perhaps in tears. I feel the love of my children, my husband, and of summer, wafting around me like a vapor of dreams in dappled green light. I hang on by my toes to a branch of substance, and rock myself to sleep.
There are a million wonders along the path, many of them missed if you’re traveling too fast. You have to slow down to catch life in close up. Our culture resists this vigorously, of course. So I choose to live differently than most. I suppose this difference has been highlighted this week while I’ve been filling out government tax forms, listening to party politics and preparing to step back into the 19th century for my new job at Old World Wisconsin. I am not trying to move “up and to the right” like the business graph. I want to follow a different trajectory.
This morning I’ve been reading some blogs written by women who are caring for their aging mothers through stages of dementia. My father died two years ago from Alzheimer’s, but I was not a care-giver in his life because I live halfway across the country. I was a care-giver to my husband who died 4 years ago from coronary artery disease, kidney failure and diabetes. The perspective of life across different physical, mental and psychological ages intrigues me, and provides the inspiration for today’s poetry and photos. The photos are again from our trip to Wyalusing State Park. The first one was something Steve noticed as we walked. “Look,” he said, “little teenaged Priscillas!” He was looking into a stream where some water striders were sheltering between the rocks. My mother used to refer to me as a water strider when I was in high school. The poetry prompt from NaPoWriMo was to write a sonnet, 14 lines because today’s the 14th. I did not attempt to compose anything with a more formal frame than that. No iambic pentameter or rhyming scheme, just 14 lines. So, here we go with the pictures and poetry!
Skimming the surface, supported by tension
Riding the tide of everyone’s angst
A mere shadow in the depths, a dimple of contrast
Slender legs splayed out, weightless, of no consequence
A teenaged water strider, this youngest daughter.
What rock will plunge her universe,
Reverse the level of her lens and fasten her,
Securely, where the current flows and tugs?
In the wet of things, completely drenched
Attending top and bottom feeders, gasping, flailing,
Always moving, face in the water with wide opened eyes
Until another metamorphosis, an aged knife,
Severs the lines and sets her adrift
Above the ripples once again, that much closer to the sky.
My very astute sister once pointed out to me that all stress is not created equal. There’s daily stress, the normal result of a body functioning without rest for 16 hours or so, which is alleviated after 8 hours of sleep. There’s distress, which gives us the feeling of being overwhelmed or upset by the amount of stress we experience, and then there’s eustress, which according to Wikipedia is “a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye which is defined…as stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feeling. Eustress is a process of exploring potential gains.” Examples of eustress could include climbing a mountain, running a marathon or sky-diving. Or surviving a nautical disaster.
I was intrigued by a comment I read from one of the survivors of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that sank in the Mediterranean this past week. ABC News reported:
‘Australian miner Rob Elcombe and his wife, Tracey Gunn, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun Newspaper they booked a spot on the Concordia as a last ditch effort to save their marriage. Instead, the couple found themselves trying to save their lives when they boarded the very last lifeboat to leave the ship with survivors. “This has made our bond much, much stronger,” Elcombe told the paper. “Who needs couples counseling, when you survive a Titanic experience?” ‘
An adventure. Stress worked into a feeling of gain. Is it possible to turn your distress into eustress?
Another news story I ran across came under this headline: Wife Slips Into Madness As Husband Dies of Brain Tumor. (ABC News) Catherine Graves wrote a book called Checking Out: An In Depth Look At Losing Your Mind describing the distress of caring for her husband. The headline rather sensationalizes an experience of overwhelming stress that is shared by a lot of people who find themselves in the role of caregiver. I can relate. I went through depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome during my husband’s illness and after his death. Like Mrs. Graves, I was widowed at 45. But did I lose my mind? Not irretrievably, I don’t think. Maybe what I’m doing now, being unemployed, slowing down, is my way of turning that distress into eustress.
There’s an old hymn that I’ve affectionately heard referred to as “The Playtex Hymn” (after the girdle). The first line is “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word”. It was written by John Keith in 1787. My favorite verse goes like this:
“When through the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”
For some reason, singing that verse always causes me to choke up with emotion. I know how it is to feel like I’m drowning. I have a gasp reflex that reminds me of this almost daily. It shows up lightning fast in moments when my reptilian brain senses danger. It first became noticeable when I was trying to teach my kids to drive. I would gasp and grab the handle above the passenger side door at the slightest correction of the steering wheel or touch of the brake. It happened to me again just this morning. I was stacking packages on the table and the tower toppled over. I gasped. “I must be drowning!” I laughed. It’s probably a rather annoying habit for those who live with me. I appreciate their patience.
There’s another hymn that follows this theme. “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. The story behind it is quite amazing. In brief, according to Wikipedia:
“This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sailing ship, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone . . .”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.”
And here’s the lyric:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
I am trying to re-train my brain to believe that my deepest distress can be sanctified. I don’t think this is an exclusively Christian perspective at all. The Noble Truths of Buddhism are all about addressing the suffering (distress) of this world and how we think about it. I hope that as I “explore potential gains”, my drowning will become floating, and all will be well with my soul.