Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Secret Christmas "Miracle"

When I was seven years old I was Mary in the Christmas pageant at the Presbyterian Church my family attended. Mary was the only girl-part in the tableau and, in an effort to make sure we were not confused by the Catholics my mother repeatedly told me, "Playing Mary is no big deal. All she did was have a baby- any woman can do that! The Catholics make Mary a big deal, and that's a sin."

(Yes anti-Catholic sentiment and misogyny were alive and well in the 1960's in Ontario, Canada. Sigh. But I digress.)

The best thing about being Mary was the veil I got to wear bobby-pinned to my hair. It was a sky blue square of what I now realize was probably polyester and not silk (as I like to remember it.) Along the edges that framed my face, someone had glued a line of silver sparkles.

Now, in those days, the right lens of my glasses was blocked out with tape in an effort to get me to use and strengthen my "lazy" left eye. I hated it, mostly because it left me with very little sight. Mrs. Russell, my Sunday school teacher, decided that the eye patch did not fit the nativity scene we were creating, and told me to take my glasses off. I was happy to comply. 

So, there I sat, a blue-eyed blonde Mary in my Sunday dress with my blue sparkly veil, holding one of my dolls wrapped in a sheet on my lap, surrounded by a group of boys all wearing bathrobes over their clothes. The shepherds wore t-towels on their heads held in place with their sisters' stretchy headbands applied horizontally across their foreheads. The bare-headed boy was my husband, Joseph. I don't even remember what he looked like.

Because I was holding baby Jesus, I sat under the single bright light that was dramatically flipped on once we were all in place. The minister read the biblical account of the story of the birth of Jesus. It was an evening service and, because of the bright light over me, I couldn't see the people in the pews in front of me. The sanctuary was a dark background to the light show suddenly spiralling out in my peripheral vision.

Perhaps because my vision was a little different- a bit blurry- without glasses, and certainly because the overhead light was refracting off the sparkles on the sides of my veil, I could see rainbows of colour framing my vision and shooting off into the darkness around me. If I moved my head slightly the lights moved and changed as if they were alive and spinning off my face.

It felt like magic- magic akin to but beyond the guy in the red suit who was going to put presents under the tree later that night. It felt as if something divine had touched our little tableau. The lights around my face seemed to be a visual representation of angels singing. It felt. . . . like being Mary might matter.

I was enthralled. . . so mesmerized that I did not hear the end of the reading and missed my cue to return to my seat, Finally, Mrs. Russell flipped off the light and changed her loudly whispered "Mary, Mary . . . " to call my name, rousing me from my revere. The congregation chuckled and I, usually the careful little rule-keeper, was surprisingly unembarrassed as I went back to sit with my family.

I felt like I had been privy to a small Christmas miracle. I wondered if my mother might have misunderstood Mary's- all women's- place in things. It felt like there just might be girl-roles worth having in the truly big picture.

I never told anyone about what happened, what I saw or felt, that night.

Until today.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Oriah House 
(c) 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How The Light Returns

A single candle surrounded by darkness made deeper by the point of light; a circle of faces lit by the amber glow of a fire in a circle of stones in a clearing outside or in a dark cave, or a longhouse; someone walking alone through a bleak winter forest, seeing up ahead a small cabin lit from within- welcoming, waiting, promising warmth. How do you imagine it when someone talks about the promise of the returning light in this time of the longest darkness?

If we live long enough we will experience times of personal darkness. I'm not thinking here of the fertile darkness of deep rest and dreaming. I love the renewal and creative stirring of those periods. But I am thinking now of times when the way is lost and the heart is too weary to hope.

I am contemplating the ways in which light returns.

Sometimes it is gradual. Here in the northern hemisphere we will experience the longest night this coming Saturday the 21st and the next day- the very next day- dawn comes a bit earlier and dusk arrives an indiscernible moment later than it did the day before.

That's what coming up out of personal darkness is sometimes like: gradual, slow, an imperceptible movement back toward the fullness of life after we have experienced some kind of loss that has plunged us into what we fear is an eternal darkness. Food begins to have taste once more, and something unexpectedly makes us smile- if only for a moment- after weeks or months bereft of flavour or laughter.

In 2008 I had been predominantly housebound, often bed-bound, for more than two years with the chronic illness I'd mostly managed since I was thirty. The downward spiral had been slow but steady and showed no signs of stopping. And then, one morning alone in the country home I shared with my husband, I awoke from a night of terrifying dreaming to the sound of the Grandmothers speaking to me. The words followed me across the threshold from sleep and echoed in the room: GET OUT OF HERE NOW, ORIAH!

Sometimes, instead of a gradual return, the light comes back all at once- like the blaze of a match struck in the darkness- saying: "Live!" in a way we may not fully comprehend even as our vision is seared by the flame of awakening.

The Grandmothers of my dreams are rarely so explicitly directive.The urgency in their voices made me move that morning, even though I did not understand fully what they were telling me. I drove into Toronto and, although I returned home that night, changes began to unfold which gradually resulted in a move to the city alone a year later and, even more incrementally, the restoration of my daily energy and health.

Often for human beings the returning of the light after a long and difficult darkness happens in a strange mix of both the sudden flare of a call to action and a gradual integration of the growing light into our bones and our lives. Eventually, I realized that the Grandmothers directive had pointed to changes that were more all-encompassing than an excursion into the city or even a change in my residence. They had been urging me to remove myself from a situation where I was losing track of myself and my connection to Life and Spirit.

Light returns, because it is the nature of Life- of what we are- to cycle through periods of darkness and light. And the gifts of the darkness, those things we bring back from difficult times that allow us to live life more fully in an open-hearted way, are easier to retrieve if we can remember that the light will return. And when that seems like no more than a nice but unlikely idea, it helps to be with others who hold this knowing faithfully in that moment.

Even now, as we explore the longest night and reach for the promise of the return of the light here in the northern hemisphere, our sisters and brothers in the southern half of this planet are celebrating the time of the longest light and the fullness it brings.

And the Wheel turns, and Life continues, and the Sacred Wholeness holds us all.

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Exploring Underlying Uneasiness

An uneasiness arises within me as soon as December begins. My sleep is filled with darker dreams; migraines pop up with greater frequency; I feel a tightening in my body and I have had small but alarming “cardiac incidents” (as the doctors like to call them), around the end of December in some previous years.

I know I’m not alone. Friends and clients wonder out loud about uncomfortable and often unnameable emotions that are stirred around the holiday season. For me, it's not about the expectations or the busyness. I gave myself permission long ago to keep the season simple- dropped what did not fit; focus on time with family and close friends; let go of all the family and cultural expectations that can create a real Stressmas.

But something deeper arises annually, like a dark underground river that suddenly surges and puts me on shaky ground. Having noticed this in other years, I am particularly careful to do my daily practises of yoga, prayer and meditation during this time, but the feeling I have is far from settled.

This year I decided to just sit with the feeling in an open-ended way, not pretending (even with myself) that I have a clue what it is about. 

The irony is that my childhood Christmases were relatively pleasant family gatherings- which is to say that my mother was nice to me at Christmas because my grandparents came to stay.

Ahhhhh. . . . and there's the source of the uneasiness: My mother’s seasonal acceptance and affection were seductive illusions. I knew they wouldn’t last, but I wanted them to be real more than I have ever wanted anything else. And while I played my role- kept all the rules, worked hard to be helpful- and enjoyed being temporarily treated like a Good Daughter, I knew it was a dangerous game that could tempt me into believing and make the return to “normal” excruciating in January.

When we have repeated feelings of uneasiness for no apparent reason, there’s a good chance that some (usually unconscious) part of us has a foot on the gas and is shouting, "Yes!" while another, equally unconscious aspect (perhaps having learned from previous experience) is slamming on the brakes and yelling, "Don't go there!"

The annual uneasiness in my body is an echo of  the power and the danger of the seasonal seduction that played out in my childhood home. My nervous system goes on alert, anticipates the bait-and-switch of childhood.

There maybe more. I’ll continue the open-ended inquiry throughout the season if and when the feeling arises because even this small revelation feels like it has lifted some kind of burden, made the season much lighter for myself.

Awareness, while not always easy, brings its own reward – greater freedom to be with and appreciate my life as it is now. And for this I am deeply grateful.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Can & Can't Be Earned

There are things we can earn and things we can’t. When we confuse the two we suffer: we behave with entitlement where we need to take responsibility; we engage in exhausting, ineffective and endless trying that can lead to despair.

This may seem self-evident, but I can truthfully say that a great deal of the suffering I have experienced or contributed to in this life is rooted in confusion about this simple truth.

We can and often do earn money, respect and trust.

Money is easiest in the sense that it is quantifiable and amenable to mutual agreement. Of course there are questions of clarity and fairness and honouring agreements etc. But the fact remains that money (or other forms of concrete barter) is something that can and often is earned.

Respect is a little more complicated. We earn respect primarily by being respectful. No guarantees there, but on the whole those who feel respected by us will respond in kind. And where they don’t in a big and consistent way, it’s probably best to take ourselves out of the vicinity if we can at least in the short term. Earning another’s respect, of course, starts with living and seeing ourselves in a way that cultivates self-respect. Respect is one of those things that adheres to the adage- We often teach others how to treat us.

Trust is trickier than respect, because it tends to develop over time and be effected by previous experience. It can take a long time for someone who was abused to trust another. If we want someone’s trust we can, to some degree earn it by being honest and consistent (and honest about where and when we must be inconsistent.) I’ve noticed that in fact most people are consistent- even if their consistency is in being inconsistent and/or dishonest. Another adage with some truth- People usually show us who they are from the start. Pay attention and trust what they are showing you.

But then there are the things we can’t earn. We can’t earn love. And we all want to be loved.

To borrow from Martin Buber’s observation about the word God, love is an over-burdened word. It can show up in a variety of ways but always, on some level, to be loved includes a sense of being seen and accepted, cherished and valued just for being ourselves.

If we try to earn the un-earnable, we will suffer, because it is simply not possible. Oh someone may appreciate our generosity and caring, may admire our efforts and value our contributions. But love- being seen and cherished for being- is not earned.

I know this because I grew up in a household that taught me to believe otherwise. It’s a hard belief to break. Teaching a child that every expression or feeling of being loved must be earned anew each day is based on the notion that we are not- each of us- worthy of love just because we are and not because of how useful we could be to another, or how well we can adhere to someone else’s sense of who we should be.

The belief that we must (and can) earn love, is a lie that creates tremendous suffering.

We can’t earn love. We never could. Knowing this, keeping it in conscious awareness, we are blessed to freely love and be loved.

Oriah House (c) 2013