The sun sank in a rose-colored ball this evening, across the sky from a full rainbow woven over a sea-foam of clouds. As I was finishing my nightly walk-about around our summer-sleepy yard, our first sacred Datura flower opened up to greet the coming moon. These flowers–powerful shamanic medicine that can kill you if you don’t respect their ways—bloom at night: big, trumpet-shaped, milk-colored, and heaven-scented. The flowers last only a day. I hurried Carter outside to see the bloom in all its glory, lest he miss it by morning.
The peacefulness of the evening stood in sharp contrast to the chaos of my life these past months. Well, these past few years, to be honest. I drank in the quiet calm of tonight like it was medicine, because it was…
My friend Dave wrote me, “Your life always seems to be upended in one way or another.” My counselor had made a similar remark a few weeks ago as I have her the very short version of my last few years, which have included major cross-country moves, house selling chaos, house buying chaos, family turmoil, hospital traumas, another false cancer scare, children moving in with us, children moving out, children moving back in, home remodeling that went south, money woes, more hospital events, and…hmmm, I know I’m leaving many things out…
I’m a woman who has no patience for people who create drama in their lives, and I’ve been living with almost nothing but drama in my life. My counselor said, “But you didn’t create all this. It found you.” I fold her I wish it would go find someone else for a while. I’m tired.
I turned recently to one of my favorite authors—Thomas Moore—for some moral support. I have many of his books, and right now I’m rereading “Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals.” He has many good things to say, and he says them all beautifully, but these are the words that grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me this time around:
“Discover the very point of personhood: the process of constant renewal. You may imagine your life as a continuous line from birth to death. You may think of yourself as either growing or being stagnant. Another way, the traditional rite of passage approach, is to see life as a series of transformations, in which you become a person with new capacities and talents. Each of these steps might have its own dark night. To be a person means that you are always becoming, and a dark night of the soul is one sign that you are alive.”
The point of personhood–constant renewal.
I thought instantly of the lives of animals, who remain constant in their hearts, never twisting their characters and personalities to fit different circumstances or relationships. That blessed, innocent whole-heartedness is their birthright, and they honor it to their last breath. But that gift was not given to me. As a human being, I walk the earth becoming something different at every station along the way—hopefully different in a better, more genuine way. But different at every stage of my life. With the advance of time, circumstance, perception, I morph, casting off old skins along the way to glisten moist and bright and new for a time before the cover again becomes too tight and I fight and twist—sometimes for years—to rupture that which no longer fits.
For a long time now, I’ve been praying fervently for an oasis. “Please Spirit,” I whisper between clenched teeth. “Please just give me a break. Just some time when nothing nuts is happening. I’ll go back out into the desert again soon, but please, just bring me a small oasis.”
And Spirit does not appear to be listening, so my response is to get pissed off. For the record, I have found nothing useful to be had in getting mad at God. But I get mad anyhow. “Fine,” I hiss between my teeth. “Fine. Whatever.”
And the hits just keep on coming.
But a few days ago, my prayer was heard. The answer was not what I was hoping. “Daughter,” the voice said. “You’d best stop this prayer for peace. It’s not in the cards right now, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. You’d best change the prayer. Instead of praying for an oasis, start praying for a way to find your center in the middle of the cyclone. THAT is something we can help you with.”
And so I’ve been sitting with that prayer instead, and Spirit sent me a story. It is a rather convoluted story about my house, my pond, my bees, and me.
You see, it has come as no surprise to me that I am walking beside three teachers of this same kind of transformative renewal that Moore talks about. My house. My bees. My pond. In the past three months, we four musketeers—our elbows locked together in camaraderie—have been charging down the same rocky, treacherous path to a new reality. Like me, the bees, the house, and the pond were dragged along into calamitous upheaval not of their own design.
When we purchased our little old 1930s vintage house, it was not in livable condition. It had no working bathroom, scary ancient electrical wiring, faulty plumbing, collapsing ceilings, and broken windows sealed against the weather with duck tape. It was what we could afford at the time, and we felt it held good enough promise. In the course of “renewing” the house, we had a terrible falling out with the contractor. There were time and money overruns, and it was a miracle the stress didn’t kill us. It was in the middle of all this mayhem, when we were stuck in a motel because the house was not ready and the landlords of our rental house had rented our house out from under us, that my dentist looked inside my mouth and hurriedly sent me off to an oral surgeon for a biopsy.
Those of you have been lucky enough to never have had remodeling work done cannot know how brutal the process can sometimes be. Not always, but sometimes. This time, for sure. The house was literally ripped apart a little more each day. And it was gutted from beneath as well. Its face was torn off, its head ripped open, and its bowels rearranged. I can’t tell you how deeply I related to the ugly dismemberment of this house. Huddled in the hotel room at the end of each day, I, too, felt gutted, torn to shreds, and worried that my head would finally just blow off. And it went on like this for weeks and weeks.
By the time it looked like we would be able to consider the possibility of actually moving into the place, I wondered if I would feel anything more than memories of horror if we moved in. I had hated the process so deeply, I was afraid I may have transferred some of that hate to the house itself.
Somewhere in about the middle of the remodeling process, I suddenly found myself agreeing to help cut out a hive of bees from a local church roof, where they had moved in about a month previously. I was in no mental shape to take on the complexity of this cutout, but I was too shocked numb to know that, so off I went in my bee hat to chop a colony of bees out of a 20-foot high roof.
I’ve written about that cutout here in my blog, and you will see if you read my old bee posts that the work of getting the bees out of their roof house was just about exactly as brutal as the act of rebuilding our house. The same verbs all apply: gutting, ripping, tearing, dismembering, disembowelment. It was awful. The fellow I’d assisted with the cutout let me bring the hive of bees back to my house, where—while they would remain “his” bees—they would remain in my care.
And so they came to live in the back section of my yard. They had been devastated by the removal process. For the first few weeks, I watched them fly listless in and out of the hive, going nowhere. Robber bees came attacked them daily, looking for a stash of easy honey. I’m sure they got plenty. I am not imaging things when I tell you that the mood of the hive was one of post-traumatic stress. I don’t know if we even managed to collect the queen. I know many bees died, as their comrades hauled their dead bodies out to a small heap they made in the front of the hive. Onto that heap, they also deposited many of their mangled, unborn young.
I felt wretched watching them, knowing I had been the agent of their misery. The only consolation—and it was a not much of one—was that by taking them away we were giving them their only chance. It was either us or the pest control guys with their terrible poisons.
Meanwhile, there was the situation with the pond. In previous posts, I’ve written about my small kiddie-pool “pond,” consisting of an assortment of bog plants I’d gathered, two fish, one tadpole, and two frogs (Oscar and Bosco). I had moved it from the rental house at the last possible moment, and hastily reconstructed it on the wooden deck in the backyard of our gutted, ripped-to-shreds house. The pond denizens went from utter peace and solitude to the ceaseless daily roaring of power tools, the insult of construction dust, and the blare of nonstop radio. I didn’t think carefully enough about the location of the pond because I was incapable of thinking carefully about anything. So the pond ended up getting far more sun than it was used to. Bosco freaked out so badly he went over the edge—literally—and the last I saw of him was his skinny legs launching him into the abyss of the azaleas.
The house, the bees, the pond—all potent visual reminders of my own invisible trauma. The house, the pond, the bees—all my relatives. All my relatives suffering beside me. For weeks, I held deep within me a floating sense of annihilation. In my memories of the gutted walls of the house, the tearing of the comb from the roof hive, the sad and sorry sight of Bosco vanishing forever into the leaves, I saw images of annihilation in living color playing over and over in my mind.
Time marches on. I’m sorry for that sentence, but it is late and my creativity is beginning to drag. Forgive me for that one…
Sometime in June, we moved into the house. Sometime in July, the contractor and the crew finally left for good. It took me weeks to slowly empty the moving boxes into the house. I left the photos and special things for last, at first being only willing to unload the minimum of stuff we needed to survive. Remember, all the while I was unpacking, work crews were stepping around me, dripping paint on my new floors and my treasured things, and sawing holes in the walls.
It was odd being in a neighborhood, surrounded by traffic noise, kids, dogs, and more stray cats than I’ve ever seen anywhere, ever. Ever. Mazel Tov is still not used to all the sounds and smells. He cocks his head and looks worried many times a day.
The bees, meanwhile, carried on as bees will do. Every day for at least a few moments, I sat by the door of the hive on a small concrete block. I watched the worker bees, or “maidens,” fight off strangers and bring in the first fresh pollen stores in the “baskets” on their back legs. Yellow, bright orange, white—color came into the hive. Once, I watched a bee do its circle dance to alert others of a new foraging site. A few times, I have seen bees “kiss” as they transfer nectar to a maiden bee in charge of making honey. And a couple of times when I was daydreaming and not listening to what the bees were saying, they stung me. In retrospect, I realized that what they were saying was “Go away!”
The house survived its “renewal.” The bathroom functions now, the faucets all work, and the electrical “veins” of the house don’t rupture if you turn on two lights in the same room. The smells of musty age have been replaced by the perfume of fresh paint and fresh cooking foods. My memories of the misery of the remodel are beginning to grow thankfully dim. The other night, I realized with a sudden start that I am falling in love with this little gray bungalow on the hill. I treasure waking up in my quiet back room to the sounds of hummingbirds at the feeder just outside the window. On the walls are treasured, familiar photos and keepsakes recalling other precious homes in other precious times.
I find myself surprised that I, too, am surviving the never-ending up-endings still marching regularly into my life. A month after we moved in—just as I was beginning to understand where the sunshine moved in the yard each day and plan accordingly for new plants—the neighbor to the left chopped down a huge old tree that had shaded half of our yard. It was diseased, and I am now the steward of what remains of the tree—a huge pile of wood shavings Carter and I hand-carried into our side yard. Suddenly, I’m needing to rethink everything about my yard and about what might grow where. And just of ago, Carter’s son moved in with us as divorce looms ugly and suddenly in his life. This turmoil is shattering us all, but the little gray house is holding us all close.
The pond’s story is a bit different from that of the bees, the house, and yours truly. In a stroke of unimaginable luck, my new neighbor Rod gifted me with a large, deep pond. Seeing my little wading pool, he offered me his 100-gallon Rubbermaid tub with a waterfall and filter. I had an empty hole by a nice, shaded rock garden that turned out to be the exact size of that Rubbermaid tub.
For the next few days I lived on the edge of heaven playing with that new pond, fixing fine new areas for my bog plants, laying down river stone and moss and bark pieces I’d collected over the entire past year. The pond was the last piece—the last “person”—to move into full renewal, to a new life in a new place in a new form.
But not all of the pond denizens made the move. Oscar, my remaining Columbia Spotted Frog, leaped away. He came back once to the wading pool that I left on the deck for him. When I placed him in his new paradise, he remained for one full day, basking in the dappled sun of a stand of reeds. He ate a worm I offered him. Then, by next morning, he was gone.
To me, Oscar was the very heart of the pond. He left a hole that remains unfilled on that deck. It is impossible for me to explain why his leaving struck me so hard. I miss him still. Some days, I almost ache for him. Why? It is a mystery to me.
And so this is what I have learned so far about finding peace in the middle of the cyclones: One need only show up, and endure. The trauma rages, things are ripped up and then rearranged. There is no view past the swirling clouds and blinding rain. But there is the power inside each and every thing to just show up, and to attend to what is given. That attendance to one’s place in the storm need not be graceful. The house has it creaks and groans and paint splatters, but still it stands and endures. The bees struggle against all odds to repair their hive numbers and to prepare for a winter of unknowing. They have had their weeks of faltering, but they show up at the door of the hive each morning and launch themselves out into the mystery, and attend to what is given.
In the loss of Oscar, I have a gut knowing of what happens when one does not show up, does not endure, does not attend. When the heart refuses to make the march to renewal, much—perhaps all—is lost. The pond remains quiet. Something is not whole.
And I am reminded that no matter the force of the cyclone, I am called to move my heart forward. One can be ripped to shreds yet remain whole if the heart continues to show up for the storm. And I find that the best way I know of bringing my heart forward into renewal is not to future-think anything. There is a terror in speculation that can send me bouncing on my long skinny legs off into the abyss of the azaleas, never to return. Just show up. Just show up for this day, or for at least this moment, heart in hand.
And that is all that is asked.