There’s a storm rolling in this evening and I have box seats with a sweeping view of the mountain range circling the Stockbridge Bowl from my bunk bed in the dormitory at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.
The dorm was empty when I arrived back from the crowded dining hall and the world outside suddenly stilled, amplifying the humanity I’d left behind. It was hard to pull myself away from the dinner conversation, with the evening concert about to begin, and cafe and the gift store humming—But it was necessary. Residing, as I do, on a dirt road in Vermont, Kripalu is much like a city to me—with all its people and energy—magnified by my expanded role this week—assisting not one presenter, but a team of 9.
There was a time when I thrived on this kind of action, depended on it really—to distract myself from myself. The complexity still gives me a thrill–attending to presenters & participants, surround & sound, timing & content. I do this a little more than a handful of times a year and it allows me to resurrect capacities I’ve long since disowned (the restaurant I managed, the classrooms, the non-profits), but it’s also a resurrection of a deeper familiarity, I fear, of a childhood parentified, overwhelmed and traumatized.
By the time I left home as a young adult, the sound of silence terrified me, and in the absence of something to occupy my mind, I’d turn up the radio to drown out the noise, inside. I felt this familiar tensing when I arrived back to the dorm in the calm before the storm. Twice, maybe three times, I stood up from my bunk to go in search of something more interesting to do; it seems the more amped up I get, the more stimulation I crave. But in the hush around me, I found a deep exhale, and with that, a surrender, and a homecoming, consciously embodied, where I most belong.
There was a storm on my first weekend at Kripalu back in 2006, a wild, wintry one, taking down trees and power lines. I was a guest then in a program held in the cozy Orchard Room with its line of windows through which I watched the branches of apple trees collect snow. Almost a decade later, I was in the Orchard Room again just after I turned 50 and rounded the corner on a work of memoir whose corners alas are still rounding (at 55!) in what had become a spiral path instead of the linear one I had in mind.
Which is to say, I shouldn’t be surprised that on my way from the crowded dining hall to the empty dormitory, I passed the Orchard Room, and recognized there, somehow for the first time, three iconic representations from my childhood of which I’ve gone to great lengths to describe in my work of memoir centering as it does in my grandmother Lila’s home.
“…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” wrote Mary Oliver, “I do know how to pay attention…”
One of the presenters spoke that verse, and it’s lingered as a guidepost for me though I’m not sure where it’s pointing. I’d volunteered as the program assistant for Radical Listening: Narrative Medicine for a Polarized World out of curiosity and desperation and hope—not just for our country—but for my path forward. My youngest graduates this week and so it is that the day-to-day vocation of 25 years (or a lifetime—as the oldest of 8) comes to a close.
I’m after a new beginning, and I’ve long thought that I might find it in the medicine of narrative, finally claiming the legacy handed down through generations of family physicians before me. But alas after a 4-day immersion among those described as the “Mount Rushmore” of the field (including its founder from the program at Columbia), I am pointed back home where I am finishing this piece, in the quiet morning air beside the rock outcropping off my writing studio, attending to the slightest movement among the ferns, as the thrush sings and the balsam wafts, and I wait to see the return of my spring friends the fox kits who must have grown so much in the 5 days since I’ve been gone.
I can’t say that writing saved me when I began the practice at 18, but I know for certain that it was my companion through pain and loss and overwhelm, and I know it helped/helps shape my path forward.
“The quality of attention shapes the story,” the presenters said to the participants, and I imagine this is just as true with life.
I’m a spiritual junkie so I feel left out when there are holidays that I don’t know how to celebrate. Take Mardi Gras for instance. I’ve never been to New Orleans so I just don’t get it. Then there’s Ash Wednesday. For the three years that I went to parochial school, they put ashes on my forehead, and I liked it, even though I wasn’t Catholic.
But Lent is the holiday observance that I just can’t let pass me by. It’s such a cool club–40 days of abstinence from something you love–with participants all around the world! Thanks to Facebook friends, I’ve been inspired to think outside the Lenten box. After reading the posts of those who have given up “sobriety” or those who have decided to “add” something rather than giving up, I’ve decided to create my own twist:
For Lent, I’m giving up “self-reliance”
and I’m adding:
Communing with the Angels!
Due to self-reliance, I’m not very familiar with communing. In fact, I typically commune only when I’m feeling especially good, never when I’m down and out. So I put a challenge to myself: What if I communed with a different angel for each day of Lent:
40 days, 40 angels?
Even better, what if I let those angels come to me–in an even greater display of forgoing my characteristic self-reliance. And so I’d like to honor each of those arriving angels with you here. Each day, I’ll add another, enlarging the circle of love.
~MEET THE ANGELS~
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. ~Michelangelo
On the first day of Lent, I stepped up to my dresser and was suspended by the tiny oval photo of my mother. Her eyes locked mine, and held my gaze for minutes, until I felt her presence, and realized that she was:
The Angel Bonnie is renown for her gentle nature. Like Kuan Yin,the Goddess of Compassion, Bonnie brings grace and softening to any struggle. Her kindness is legendary as is her place by the sea.
ANGEL # 2
Just after midnight, I heard my own voice saying, “Ow, ow…”
“What is it?” my husband asked, disturbed from his own sleep.
“Charlie horse in my foot,” I replied without fully waking.
“Stand on a cold floor. That’s what my grandmother always said.”
And despite my own dreamy state, I realized that my next angel had arrived:
The Angel Anna is a companion of Mount Greylock in the Berkshires. Bringing surprise to each day, Anna shows you that you can even excel in that which you don’t understand. And if all else fails, she adds laughter and an Oreo cookie.
The roads were wet and I was rushing to make it home from work for a meeting. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly woman with several bags waiting to cross the street. I didn’t want to, but I stopped, and painfully waited as she… ever…so…slowly made her way across the road.
What I hadn’t seen were the three others on the opposite side of the street who had also been patiently waiting to cross in this downpour. Just as they passed in front of my car, the one with the cane stopped to look me in the eye… with a beatific smile of gratitude.
The Stranger’s timing is no doubt a “Godsend,” offering a smile or some other unexpected gift of sweetness just when you didn’t know you needed it. Each of us is this kind of Angel for the other, never knowing when our good nature serves as healing balm at just the right time.
Despite my decision to let the angels “come to me,” I began to anticipate the arrival of my next guest.
In the afternoon, I went for a walk down our mountain road to see what the rain had washed away of winter. Soon the chatter of my mind was silenced by the awesome current of the stream. My thoughts turned to Japan as I stood transfixed by the force of the water rushing through the dam, carving away the frozen banks of snow. And then I turned…
50 feet away, a dog stood starring at me…
I don’t have a single pet, but over the years other dog “angels” have appeared to me–usually near water. They serve as companions for a short while and then are off again to grace others. Dog angels serve as protectors, keeping us connected to the earth and focusing our attention on the “now.”
Who can make any sense of the tragedy striking Japan? How will those who survive ever relate to earth or sea or fire again with peace? Nothing makes sense at times like this. Until everything does…
“The All That Is…”
The “All That Is” Angel presents herself in the face confusion and despair and fear. Suddenly everything makes sense, the kind of sense that transcends the mind and surrenders to all that is.
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me… And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer.“
Apparently Mary isn’t finished with me yet which shouldn’t come as much surprise given our history.
“Mother Mary, Madonna, Lady of Mercy, Holy Mary, Our Lady, Blessed Mother, Mother of God…”
In light of recent Earth events, this angel is a welcome sight, even if I do question her ways.
“Gaia, Earth Mother”
“We have such a beautiful Mother. Look around you. Open up your eyes and sing Her Praises,”
Praises, Deva Premal
Angel # 9
“Top of the Morning to you, Kel,” that’s what my Gram would be saying today. She’s the one who taught me all the Irish ditties, from Tora Lora Loo to Just a Little Bit of Heaven to Oh Paddy Dear, they’re hanging men and women here for the wearing of the Green…
The Angel Loretta pours you a pot of tea and tells you stories that’ll make you laugh until you cry. She’ll check to be sure you’re wearing your green before she sends you on your way, Tora Lora Loo, then she’ll climb back into bed with her reading glasses and a delicious pile of books.
Each time the anguish of Japan rises up inside of me, I bathe myself in Eliza Gilkyson’s Requiem, and I am softened and soothed into our shared grief.
The Angel of Music is fluid enough to find us in our most hidden places, smoothing all that is rough inside.
As the March winds begins to below, I am reminded that each Season is associated with an element. Summer with Fire. Autumn with Water. Winter with Earth. And Spring with Air.
“I envy the wind, that whispers in your ear, that howls through the winter, and freezes your fingers, that moves through your hair, that cracks your lips, chills you to the bone. I envy the wind,” Lucinda Williams
Angel # 14
At an women’s gathering on the Equinox, a friend surrounded this small garden statue with paper cranes she had folded for Japan.
May the Goddess of Compassion be with all those who suffer.
Angel # 15
This may be the most unlikely angel of all…
Some angels require greater discernment to fully appreciate their gifts. This angel offers tenderness when you least expect it.
Angel # 16
The first time I felt my son move inside was at a performance by locals clowns Gould & Stern. I felt the same quickening inside on the Seine in Paris when a street mime had a entire cafe in stitches.
Perhaps there is no greater angel that one who brings us laughter.
Angels # 17-34
The promise of color…
The movement of women welcoming spring…
Feeling the growing sun on my skin…
Being Aware of the Awakening beneath the Earth…
Remembering to pray…
Opening to the path of dreams…
Softening into the spirit of my mother…
Showing up for the work we need to do…
Transcendent time with my partner…
The gift of an embrace…
The ending of winter…
Surrendering to self…
a soft spring snow…
Angels # 35-40: are all yours. Add them & more in the comments below!