Archive for June, 2013

Deadwood II: Maybe Not Yet

When I sent out the last Still Points a month ago, I wasn’t quite sure.  There seemed to be something missing in that story about our stories.  It seemed just a trifle tidy; too damn pious, upon reflection.


I guess life agreed with me, because life—wearing the skin of someone I care for—decided to give me a deeper understanding of what I’d written.


That deeper understanding began when I lost one of my stories.  More truthfully: I didn’t lose it, and I didn’t clear it out myself like a nice gardener lady carefully trimming deadwood from roses on a sunny day.  It was yanked up, ripped asunder, wrenched out by the roots.  Not only was the removal painful: what was uprooted had seemed really okay to me.  It wasn’t one of those questionable stories that any reasonable person would want to dump.  It was a nice story, one that told me I was a thoughtful and generous person.  Hell, I really liked that story.


My initial response was shock and pain, followed by rotating cycle of denial, self-flagellation and anger.  After a while in this maelstrom, I settled into flat out suffering.  I simply couldn’t make sense of the events that had so neatly removed a central part of my self-understanding.  I knew that I had made errors but they didn’t seem sufficient to warrant the others’ response.  I tried to figure out what was “real,” but that didn’t work either.  My experience and the other person’s experience may have occurred in the same time and place, but time and place seemed the only common ground.   So I felt sick, and sad, and unsure how to proceed.


And on top of all that, I realized how I’d sugarcoated that experience of deadwood when I wrote about it.  How distant I’d been from the reality of loss involved in the deconstruction of my story.


It was a rough time.


Then three things happened.  First I recalled an article by Constance Fitzgerald, a Carmelite abbess, discussing profound detachment from our own story as a disorienting but necessary step on the spiritual path.[1]  Just that memory helped me consider the possibility that I might be grateful for whatever I was going to learn in this process.


The second thing that happened is that I went to an AA meeting, and got asked to read the Twelve Steps.  Now, I’ve probably read those steps out loud a couple of thousand times, but that night I felt like I’d never seen them before.  As I began reading, I realized that only the first step mentions alcohol.  Once you identify and admit the problem, you move your attention elsewhere—onto your relationship with a Higher Power of your choice, onto cleaning up your relationships with other humans, onto being of service.  The only way to recover is to take your focus off your immediate problem. [2]


And finally, my brother John sent me a book: Bring Me the Rhinoceros.  It’s by Jon Tarrant, a Zen Buddhist, Jungian psychotherapist and writer of extraordinary depth.[3]  This lovely little book is a beginners’ guide to Zen koans, those frustrating questions that the logical mind cannot grasp.  To ponder a koan is to recognize that our most important questions don’t have rational answers. The solution never looks like anything expected—more like a rhinoceros, actually. Or a red thread.  Or something seen out of the corner of my eye in a fun house mirror.  Such answers come from sidling up to things, rather than hitting them head on; and these answers only make sense in the heart.


With those three things reverberating in me, it seemed time to stop thinking.  It seemed time to accept my pain and confusion, focus elsewhere, and trust in the goodness of waiting.  Pulling thistles, that slow and cautious task, seemed suitable work for this period of internal impasse.  So I went to the far back yard with gloves and a pointed trowel and spent one Saturday digging.


It made me happy to pull thistles. I remembered that happiness does not depend on everything—or anything—being fixed or cured; it’s just about being present.


That was the full content of my enlightenment.  Also, the yard looks better.




Over the days since then, the ugly underside of the story has been showing up everywhere.  I can’t possibly ignore it, so I’ve continued to pull weeds, metaphorically and physically.  I’ve also had some thoughtful conversations with trusted friends that helped get me further off the hamster wheel of my mind.  And I’ve been noticing things, like the fact that I often confuse my desire for order with my need for bits of quiet in the day.  Like the fact that my motives are always mixed.  I also noticed that I share with the person who hurt me a common desire to be loved and accepted.  And finally, I noticed that like everyone else, I am human, and accepting myself and others as we are is part of the way forward.


I had a sensation, this morning, like the windows and doors of me are opening; there are cracks between the floorboards.  Blowing through it all is some wild wind that brings more, rather than less, life.  I can see that the story of my benevolence, like every other story I tell myself, is a construction selected from a lot of inconsistent data.  Using a story like that—a nice story—to define myself is as incomplete (and therefore unhelpful) as using a not-so-nice story.


As the cracks started to open I heard within me a voice chanting, Burn the whole thing down.  It scared me gormless.  While I am praying to let that urge ignite these self-constructed, self-constricting walls, I am also aware of the depth of pain and loss involved in the involuntary deconstruction of a part of myself.  I want to echo Mizuta Masahide: My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.


But maybe not yet.



[1] This article was used as the core of a recent retreat led by Cynthia Bourgeault.  Writing to the Catholic Theological Association, Fitzgerald presents a learned and pastoral view of the suffering that many Catholic nuns and priests are undergoing as the church continues to resist, silence and punish those who call it to new life.   She names that painful place where the things that used to succor us cease to nourish as a step on the spiritual path, rather than pathology.  Here’s a link, if you’re interested: http://www.ctsa-online.org/Convention 2009/0021-0042.pdf


[2] Continuing the footnotes and citations, here’s a link to the Twelve Steps if you don’t know them: http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/smf-121_en.pdf

[3] Tarrant’s The Light Inside the Dark is one of my all time favorites.