A Wholeness of One Amid Others

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Being more alone has become a curious experience; the more it occurs, the more its vagaries and useful qualities surface. And the longer I live within it, the more I find a home within its mutable parameters.

It’s similar–though granted, non-material in essential nature– to the first time wearing a new pair of jeans. I mean real jeans, not the ones with plenty of helpful stretch. Think how they feel somewhat stiff,  perhaps unfriendly to hips and other rounded bits when squatting, stretching, even sitting a long while. Much more in the newness except easing in, out and walking about is not that great until they relent under the bulk of your body. In time, though, they get used to your personal configurations and you, theirs. The denim and seams, zipper and brass button begin to conform to the owner’s shape and every requisite movement. After thorough washing several times and repeated wear and stretch, you begin to forget they were once new. They become much better than new–that is, comfortable, a pleasing part of your wardrobe and even the easiest option. Trustworthy, you might say.

The analogy works pretty well but it stops here since the state of being alone is not an object, of course, not disposable or shareable. Unlike blue jeans, its innate and defined nature would be altered entirely: it is no longer be aloneness when including another person. Since I am not talking about the trying experience of acute loneliness–which can move into a danger zone–being alone necessarily exists in a modified vacuum ( things and events can exist in the same time/space). A situation separate from others’ direct impact. This state is at the beck and call of the one who inhabits it. Aloneness can sought out, welcomed and then shaped by what is added or subtracted. It can be avidly protected and nurtured and made into something delectable. And also found wanting, even despised and rejected. Being alone in itself seems to me a neutral state that can be managed for various purposes. It can be a metamorphose into a deepening, complex thing whether it is left to itself or designed with care. It’s nature reflects the one who is alone, the current emotional needs, spiritual flux and physical health.

Since no longer working away from home in a 11-12 hour a day position, it has been a more frequent experience. The first couple of years of (somewhat early) retirement I felt out of sorts being home every day, was more restless than usual. Much was missing suddenly. I found myself seeking contact with storekeepers or people walking their dogs on the street, even the neighbor with a grumpy affect whom I usually avoided. I visited book stores or coffee shops for an hour or two to be a visible part of gathered Homo sapiens. And noticed for the first time that others might be doing the same. I often felt guilty about wasting time but no one else hung their heads in embarrassment or shame. So this was how it was to be anywhere I wanted with no scheduled appointments, doing little of import at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon. I found it extraordinary. Weird. I felt like a wastrel in between moments of enjoying myself.

Lest I forget, let me include the fact–for those who don’t know much about me–that I am married. So, I might agree, not strictly alone in the long run. But he works worse hours than I used to and his business can require travelling. Thus, I’ve ever not had adult company around day in and out. I am often asked if this has bothered me but it became status quo after the first few years of marriage. It was not that relevant even raising five children. We all do what we need to do; I certainly didn’t count myself heroic or unusual as a kind of single parent. Being an independent sort, anyway, I didn’t require his constant presence. I was seldom truly alone with all those kids–and their friends and the pets that came and went. My familial community thrived from my early twenties to late forties–and a couple children returned a short time.

So how much have I even had alone time? The truth is, I’ve had a lifelong kinship with introversion and solitude–as well as moderate extroversion. My work as a human services employee and later, a counselor, kept me connected to large networks of co-workers and clients with emotionally diverse exchanges each day. Beyond work, though not an avid seeker of memberships to groups, there have been some I did enjoy, like choirs or writing critique groups, dance classes and gyms–those which reflect interests.

So when being part of the fray in the work world ceased, I was surprised to find myself out of the loop. Alone. Not dismayed but discombobulated. I was unable to reconcile this outgoing part of my nature with such sudden loss of routine interactions. I am sure most who cannot or do not get up and go to work know what I mean. I had a few months of estrangement wherein a couple of “Meet Ups” with neighborhood writers and also some tai chi students were sampled. Those were dissatisfying. I decided to wait things out, see what developed. How I might change.

There was plenty to do in the meantime with all this elective isolation from the outside world. There were ubiquitous, repetitive household tasks and errands. I read and wrote several hours daily and prepared more submissions for journals. I spent time with my family and a handful of friends when they weren’t working or otherwise engaged. I power walked daily at least an hour–an old habit now possible before nightfall–and did finally join a gym for a year. And, of course, my marriage kept me engaged. We share activities every week-end possible.

Gradually I spent less and less time longing for and seeking others’ company. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it happened. I might take into account a few serious family needs that asked more of me. Or hurting my foot and not being able to exercise hard for months. But it started before then, perhaps the end of my first no-paycheck year, when I found the more I hung out with myself, the better it felt. Insidiously, imperceptibly, I changed from someone who longed to be with others every day–the chatty camaraderie and intense work and meetings and gatherings–to someone who didn’t miss it for days on end. Then weeks. That crammed schedule seven days a week faded from memory. The bone-deep tiredness that sometimes brought unbidden tears to my eyes as I finally drove home from work at nine o’clock at night accompanied by the thought: will I always feel overextended? It vanished.

There may have been a smear of loneliness hidden inside all that activity. It was partly an effect of being in a human services profession–it requires output of immense emotional energy, the mental presence that cannot afford to miss important cues, long hours that get longer if you want to do your best. But it was also a result of not refilling my emotional wellspring often enough. This is a hazard for counselors and others in helping professions. Oh, I believed I was exercising good self-care, allotting time to do things I enjoyed. But I needed more. I didn’t think “burn out” was hovering on my horizon nor the suffering from dreaded “compassion fatigue” that hits so many who do such work. Not even after decades. I had seen some bow out from this work after five years or ten. I knew how to avoid such a demise. Right? Of course.

But I may have to amend that now. I better understand I truly required more time…alone. To rest, to follow my separate creative passions, take assiduous care of my health to avoid another heart attack. To experience deep peace in sustainable, rewarding ways.

A memory comes forward of a younger co-worker, perhaps in her mid-thirties, who one day swiveled her chair away from her desk toward mine.

“Cynthia, I’m so tired  of working…. I’m up for a promotion, you know–supervisor of the team. But I hate being copped up in an office, at times find it hard to listen so long to clients. I care about them, sure, but what I want is–oh, never mind.”

She turned away, acutely aware that she had let down her guard. We had been friendly, yes, but neither of us had time or the inclination to get that personal.

“What is it that you really want?” I asked.

“I mean, I want to advance and make more money. I guess. But I am an outdoors person first of all. I love sports and nature and just being on the move physically. It kills me to be sitting every day.”

“I can see that–you fidget, stand up to type, move your legs and feet all over even when you’re at your computer. I keep waiting for you to get up and do jumping jacks. So if you don’t want to be in an office, what would you be doing for work?”

She frowned. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying all this. I could be your manager.”

I laughed. “No worries. If you’re ever my supervisor, I know you’ll be organized and direct–we’d be fine. And as far as that position–in the last ten years I was offered opportunities twice to get into management. Obviously, I declined. In my earlier career I ran a whole department for a Detroit area aging and home-bound services center, hired and trained and fired people, oversaw 350 clients’ welfare. I wouldn’t do it again though I learned much. I did love the client contact just as I do therapeutic contact here. But you don’t want to even be here…do you?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Well, no.” She rolled closer and whispered. “I want to be a firefighter or a police officer, maybe an EMT. Is that nuts? But I am an adrenaline junkie, I’m physical, I love those kinds of challenges.” Her face, usually so composed, even emotionless, was fully animated.

“That’s great. So what’s stopping you?”

“Maybe I’m too old to start all over. Or maybe I would fail. And I don’t want to let down some people.”

“You’re stopping you, that’s all. You ought to do what you truly want to do. You can figure it out step by step.”

She nodded, stood up, then turned back leaning against her desk. “What about you? Is this your true calling?”

“Well…I fell in love with it accidentally. But my first passion is writing and I’m thrilled by the arts, though I also crave being outdoors. I’ve enjoyed counselling, yet I’ve waited a long time to do more of what my heart desires. I feel like I need to change that, I’m quitting soon. I’m not that pleased with the clinic’s politics, long hours–I’m just done.”

Her face registered genuine surprise.”But you’re good at this work!”

“So are you. But do you want to keep doing it because you’re good at it or do you want to do what you love most before you’re my age and wish you hadn’t put it off?”

She–a woman known for composed manner, reserved nature– smiled at me warmly. I thought how beautiful she was when she let herself be herself.

“Don’t give up your real dream.” I said.

“You’re right. Thanks… for hearing me.”

“Thanks for talking with me.”

We both went back to work but whenever we saw each other in the halls or at meetings, we exchanged more personal looks and words. We knew each other now in a way no one else there quite did. We each had plans, I imagined.

A month or two later, I left that organization, the work that had become an avid calling. And have not looked back. Whether my co-worker made healthier choices, I do not know. But there needed to be a life change right then. I wanted to slip into a pool of sweet stillness, bask in a lifestyle of fewer demands, less crisis where one poor decision could impact a vulnerable client in terrible ways as well as good one.

I wanted to be more responsible to me, not just others and that mean more air and space inside and outside myself. Solitude beckoned me like along lost my intimate companion, resonating with possibilities. I believed in this separation from the one life for another. And after the first adjustments to make the fit better, my new schedule aligned more with body and mind. Life developed a different rhythm. It went from good to better.

The quietude in my home each morning is an edifying experience. I read meditations, pray while the tea kettle is brewing for a mug of Bengal Spice tea. Classical music is turned on, or jazz. I read from a few books or magazinea as I nibble a simple breakfast of toasted bagel and almond butter. I check my Moleskine planner–still useful. These lists include: WRITE, walk/dance, email or call (fill in blank), download and sort photographs, work on collage journal, WRITE. Paint, watch an online film, walk to tea shop, library, WRITE.

Yet sometimes I worry I could become a recluse. When I began this piece, that was the main thought while all the virtues of being alone rose up. I worry that I won’t do enough to aid others since I have not volunteered for any organization. Should I find ways to make a slew of new friends (who are also getting paid to work)? Will I look for more opportunities to just be kind and friendly? Will I run out of years before I get done all I find so compelling? Will I forget the value of social gatherings, how fascinating it is to spontaneously talk with strangers…will I lose the skill to interpret others’ unspoken selves or stop valuing the common ground of shared talents–and the brainstorming and the simple foolish moments?

You can see there is not a lack of things to stir up my brain even when I’m busy doing things I like. Perhaps it’s the lifetime spent rushing to assist others; one does get used to that mode of being. But it is natural, too, for me to seek other people; they intrigue me, mean something to me. Anyway, I worry, yes about the quality of this present life. And then I do not for long periods. I am becoming at home in the generous welcome of solitude.

I used to jot down story ideas between each clients. Now writing happens daily, and rewriting and more writing. So maybe I will become a woman whose life revolves around teetering towers of books, a love of photography and music. A woman whose life is defined by folders and stacks bursting with ramblings, odd musings, tales that will molder until someone is forced to come in and sweep things clean of all those odds and ends when my days here are done.

Perhaps this will be so. I feel less and less inclined to be concerned.

I trust the teachings of solitude. I see how it clears away my falseness, and renders me accessible to deeper feeling and being. It provides me with daily opportunities to take stock and blame no one but myself for errors. And to uphold my goals and ethics without constant defending of them or approval. My life is on me; the value comes from being alive, not accolades, not even responses from others. I have sought and honed the awareness that nourishment is yielded by constancy of God and I can respond with greater attention to my soul’s authenticity. I am carried into each moment. The directions taken arise from instinct and intuition, from sleep and waking. Small flashes of wonderment. I have a multitude of questions. Now there’s a good portion of time to seek knowledge.

There is also more to free up, snatches that circle within and then land well or clumsily on the page. Many stories may never leave this room. In solitude, who witnesses the joy or misery of what I discover know or undertake? We each face ourselves when alone. We sit with ourselves and are overwhelmed or find we are in acceptable company or some of both. I find it liberating, this going inward and beyond self to a greater embrace of life.

Some days aloneness can seem closer to lonely, its true. Not even my husband or family can abate that. It is being human. It may be the choices I have made. But it passes. I wrap myself in the beautiful patchwork cloak of solitude and it shelters me as I labor and meditate. I release it, let it fall away, and find the joy of other humans as I need to. Living is like being on a seesaw; we each find new points of gravity and balance. That requires careful thought and action.

We all maintain a symbiotic status that serves us well even when we do not share discourse. Whether you speak in the same room, I can still hear–feel–humanity’s hew and cry. Whether I need to come forward to respond more or not is part of what I am learning. How do I live a full and accountable life now that I am sixty-five? I am bursting with ideas. And I patiently toil and rest within this being alone, drawing inward toward more mysterious, opening doors. This time in my life I am giving my soul, mind, heart and body full permission to be still or to speak, to be alone or join others. To allow my writing its own power, relieved of the burden of any more punishing regrets.

Dear God, help me stay loyal to my chosen tasks and to give more freely. And dear readers, may you find your true path and make it a good home for your life.

 

Oriane the Messenger

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I scanned the heavens and noted the faint silver streaks overlaying a starry blue-black sky. It was the last few hours before the Dawn of the Starfire Queen. I had been running for a good hour after awakening from a brief standing rest. My breath was even and unhurried. Still, underneath my flesh crept a slow burn, ankle to calf, knee to hip. I knew this day’s run had to be shortened somehow. Yesterday’s journey, my second day carrying the message, had lasted from morning until high moonrise when I finally left behind the trio of guards. I knew they might catch up on horseback as I tired, so I had taken my fill of paste of prime root and drunk as little water as possible. Nothing is worse than running with full stomach sloshing.

Best to stay muscle and bone, that was my philosophy. It kept me streamlined and fleeter than other runners and the better messengers. As a result of my lightness and narrowness, some doubted my gender was female. That suited me. I passed more easily through all spaces and lands with a slight profile. But I had kept my name, Oriane, as my mother said it would be a blessing of mercy upon me when all else failed, though she never explained. It was, I knew, the name of a rare wildflower that bestowed unusual strength on those who found it. She had discovered and transplanted one when she was pregnant with me, only to have to eaten by wolves after my birth. She did not gain strength at all, yet it had reached me through her hands, her blood, her breath. When I was seven, she wept when she told me how the flower was devoured, but even then I found it reasonable that wildness sought the nourishment of wildness.

She was right about the importance of the oriane flower, as I was the one by age eleven with the most stamina and strength. Because of this, I have become greatly valued since I have come of age. Beyond that, I don’t know what to think of my tasks or her ways. She is the Lady Tam, the creator of music that soothes the temperamental, those distressed of spirit. She thus holds a powerful position under the ruling of my uncle who is, in truth, the most temperamental man I have yet known. I am being judicious with my words. My mother bows to him though I cannot easily do the same. The Lady Tam has made her place; I assume there she will remain. I fear it, despite changes ahead. And between her position with my uncle Rath Overseer of Trammill, my fate appears to be sealed. But once I had not believed I would undertake a challenge such as I have done.

One winter evening I admitted to admiring the Starfire Queen’s visionary ways and I was promptly forbidden to again leave the boundary lands beyond Trammill alone. I should have thought twice; I am most given to silence, but felt compelled to admit this neophyte royalty held a wisdom I not only had heard about–I felt it so. Knew it to be truth. Hence, the guards–Rath Overseer’s henchmen –as I carried the missive. I had been charged with delivering the letter informing the new queen that if she took her foretold position at Antelier in Immerling she would have to face battle with the southern lords. Though I had served as Messenger out of my love for my mother and duty to my uncle, they had long spoken against the Starfire Queen’s ascendancy. She had dared to exceed the parameters of the lords’ traditions. She riled those who held dear the patriarchal and privileged ways with her sweeping belief in celestial guidance. Everyone assumed the worst, as if she was set to be the usurper of their jealously guarded territories.

I thought  she meant to unite us all, not separate us from one another further. Only a fool would take the ancient warring road to greater might. I had read some of her ideology, passed hand to hand by those of us who have eagerly sought her ideas. My mother knew  little of my new-found beliefs as she did not inquire. I was expected to follow the known ways and she seemed unaffected by the debates others had. Only Rath Overseer, whom I had been taught to obey despite my dislike of his manner toward most (though lodge folk said he loved my mother and I could not deny her right to such since she was widowed so young), thought I was a danger.

And he was right. I found no good reason to bear up his arguments for his own (and his cohorts’) autonomy, nor accept still them as truth before hearing more of the Starfire Queen’s. Surely she did not deserve threat of defeat before her own voice carried more clarity and the very power of coronation. Immerling was a land of fertile earth and lush beauty and if small in acreage, it’s bounty had kept the rest of us alive more times than not. It had been well ruled for centuries, if little weight had been given to its political workings. It was known as one of the very last matriarchal societies, I had heard, which I found odd if intriguing. Others found it irrelevant. Until this new person this heretofore unheralded Starfire of Antelier.

I had to warn her of trouble. No one should be judged ruinous until the facts are known. And we–even those of us who read her few works– did not even know her yet.

So here I was moving very fast on foot, my boots skimming the hard ground. I felt driven morning til night by the intention of reaching her before Rath Overseer’s men did. I couldn’t consistently outrun horses or most other goodly beasts. But I did know how to outmaneuver them, hide well, forge difficult new routes that they and their riders could not. When I was climbing the Fifth Wall of Rock that surrounded Immerling’s far borders, I turned to look back once. The undulating desert sands rimming the last low mountains of Trammill glowed white under the moon’s glow. The horsemen were specks in the distance as I flattened my body to the rock, hoping the outline of my figure might appear as one jagged spot along the wall. But they might see it for myself, who they sought since my eluding them before last dusk. My feet found purchase so I paused to send a thought toward my mother, praying she might find it and be heartened.

Oriane is flying well, rest assured, the fire is bluest at night.

Surely she would remember the line of the song she gave me as a child, how the fire burned hottest under the tending of her own hands, my safety assured by life giving heat and steady light. Her loving watchfulness. Now I was seventeen. I was on my own. True, her love could not protect me as once it did. But I needed to draw on her caring, wanted my gratitude to be felt as I carried on alone.

It was a mistake to pause even that moment. As I lost my point of reference a split second, fear invaded me me. My right foot slipped, rock loosening and clattering below as I reached for a jutting ledge above me. My hand strained and missed and I slid, losing a few inches, my shins seared by pain as my worn leggings and then my flesh were torn. I poked and prodded the toes of my sheathed feet towards a spot where rock held fast. Reached and grasped, exerted my might. And surmounted the ledge, breath ragged. I would not be looking back again. I would not be sending thoughts to my mother. I could not forget this was survival and make progress towards the only goal needing to consume me. But the Fifth Wall was not accepting my presence, it seemed, as my sense of balance was altered and I descended too fast.

As I slipped and pounded down the rocky prominence, I recalled the basic fight mechanics of hawk hunters I had studied the last few weeks at home. I raised my long arms and held fast my slim legs, compressed my skin and heavier bones and when my feet again contacted the obdurate surface of the rocky wall I pushed off and rose above it. I willed my body to release gravity. And then began to soar. My heart stopped beating or perhaps it was thrust into a different rhythm and mode of operation as I traveled through the empty moonlit night. And then turned upside down and headed downward, swooping right and left like the brave hawk hunters I had witnessed. Only I wasn’t a hawk hunter, I was a runner only and out of my element, needing ground beneath my feet. Now. I scrambled awkwardly as the mighty currents of air tossed and turned my body; there was nothing to hold me fast. How did the hawk hunters master such a skill? I was falling and flailing to my death.

Was I being tricked by Rath Overseer’s men, were they really magicians that he sent to follow me? They must have gotten me to believe this was an option. I was galled but panic gripped me as I gulped wind that tore at my throat. My flesh felt as it would burn up, vanish into the atmosphere. I would not overcome these elements, and I had made a foolish assumption that I might do whatever I believed possible. It had worked before but I saw it was likely I was done with this living.

I closed my eyes against the pressure of turbulent air. The Pre-Dawn was upon me and I was so close to being in Immerling… yet would not complete my crucial task. Faster and faster I plunged toward the emerald earth below. Though spinning now, I tried one last time to reassert orientation, hold my head up, bring my body to vertical position. To calm heart and mind, locate the forest that shielded the Starfire Queen’s vast lodgings if only by my instinct for survival.

My arms were being tugged, almost stretched and first I felt my right hand grabbed and held tightly, and then the other hand. I saw I was  being held aloft and slowed down in increments as I slid through softening air, my body righting itself. I more felt then saw two beings with bronzed limbs that sparked brightly, then faded to a warm glow as we descended, landing at last amid tall grasses with a quiet thud.

They released me and neatly vanished before I could summon the will to speak or move. The silence hummed. I smiled as I checked body parts, held my head. I was whole and alive, stunned but relieved.

Come, Oriane, fleet of mind and foot, brash of heart and strong of soul.

The words melted into the fading night as I crouched and turned in a slow, full circle. I saw nothing parting the grasses, nothing above or beside me. My sore but now more energized legs pushed me up to peer over tops massed blades of deep wild grass. There was the forest. Splashes of light limned the massive tree trunks. I parted the plants and plodded toward a golden mist that began to gather among the center most trees.

I want to say that this all made sense to me, that I knew well the tales of Immerling and so was prepared to enter the golden center of the land. That fear did not enter my bones or anxiety, my center. That the two day trajectory from Trammill’s mountains to desert to wall to grasses to forest was what I had expected and could manage the walk with grace and assuredness to see what lay ahead without any self doubt. In truth, I knew nothing of what was to be experienced other than a message sealed and tied under my innermost garment would now be delivered.

Oriane, Oriane, Oriane I heard and I followed the beckoning into the forest and the golden gleam that wound around the trees pulled me forward, the flutter of small, transparent wings about my shoulders, the heady scent of flowers rising  from each step, the taste of strange fruits in my mouth. And yet I was not unable to navigate by my own power, think my own thoughts of my singular needs (a meeting with the Queen, simple food, rest). I was not unable to see the end of the forest and as the stream of light faded, I saw the sky was lightening above as the sun began to end its faraway journeying and rest with us.

Was I too late? Where would I find this threatening, wonderful Queen?

Come, Oriane, I am waiting, see me here.

And so she was, diminutive yet standing firm, her pale silvery hair wrapped in a royal rose turban, her body swathed in blue folds of shimmering, sheer fabric that billowed as she moved toward me, hands held out. Breathtaking, her face clean of any sign of unease, eyes filled with promise.

And behind her trailed Lady Tam. My mother. And she wore a rose turban wound about her her own dark curls that strayed about her lined, gentle face.

I stumbled forward and fell to my knees but could not lower my head as protocol demanded. I lifted my burning eyes and stared at them both.

What is the meaning of this unlikely  meeting? I asked, stilled by this strangeness.

The Starfire Queen came to me first, and she pulled me up so we were face-to-face. A frisson of energy shook me. She guided me to a tent and my mother, after searching my baffled face with a knowing look, followed. When the Starfire Queen settled on a bench, my mother and me sitting on another across from her, she began, her words falling into my consciousness the way I had believed only my mother’s and mine could do.

This story is of  a family wrongly divided . Our father, Lord Medalor, died at the hand of Rath Overseer’s warriors. Your mother was long ago taken from Immerling, from the royal family after the Ancient Wars, which finally killed your father. Rath Overseer saw fit to enforce the old rule: that she was duty bound to be his right hand companion since his brother, her husband,  was deceased. She was forever of Immerling and he knew that but refused to release her after a visit. Of Immerling , yes, just so, as were you. As am I. For I am your older sister, Oriane, and your mother is my mother.

I thought I had misheard this young woman, this soon-ascendant Queen. Dizziness threatened me, sitting there with her and my mother, as if captured in a sleeping dream, not a lucid one where I could find my way around and out. My mother, wanting to ease my confusion, turned to me, then gave me her thoughts.

Let me continue. I had to leave your sister behind, as she was next in line for the Ruling Chairperson upon her twentieth birthday, after our Dowager Queen passed on. Rath Overseer didn’t want her, anyway, just me. But he didn’t know that your father had left me with child, that. you were waiting to be born. I have seen Starfire less than a half dozen times over the years, but could not tell you until I was certain  we might get away at last. Because this was the prophecy, Oriane. You and I had to be returned before Starfire would be Queen and peace could begin to take root, at last.

But Rath Overseer and his warriors! We are not safe here, either! And how did you even get here? I impatiently responded.

I followed your path without your knowing so you would not be delayed. I can move in other ways, too, if essential. One day I will show you more. Much more.

I dared not ask anything else. It was overwhelming hearing these confessions.

Queen Starfire came to us, taking my mother’s and my hands into hers.Her touch was radiant and told me more.

Be at ease, sister Oriane. We are not alone with our calling and our work.  Light of All Light fills us here in Antelier, withing our country Immerling and the wonder of Creator Power is that it provides us needed courage, good wisdom, and brings with it lasting victor. Now we will share the demands and dreams of the royal Chair. We can put plans of unity with  love into action at last. Mother holds the beneficent, tempering songs we need; you hold the strength and trustworthiness; and I am given honor and commitment to being a leader here. Take your place among us.

Steadied by such certain and bold words I squeezed their hands in affirmation and we stood in harmony, together at last.

The long, exclamatory procession of Immerling’s people came upon our meeting place soon after, and after I was introduced and then wrapped in my own rose turban and draping gown of blue, we left for the forest’s radiant inner meadows. The ceremony was something my poor words cannot begin to describe–graciousness of a perfect sunrise bestowed upon that place; joy that gathered and emanated from everyone; the land’s beauty enriched the accord with which the people gathered. And the brimming heart and clear energy of their new Starfire Queen. My sister. And, too, our mother, now known by her formal name: Tambralia of the Sacred Song.

I am still just Oriane. I am yet the fastest, most reliable runner. Now in my own country, I can begin to teach the children how to move in harnony, powerfully, at will. But now I am also a Messenger for a Queen. More that, I hope you can call me a ready peace worker, a servant of love and humble carrier of Immerling’s tradition of benevolent truth.

Diagnosis: Wounded Spirit

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“I can tell you she’s a borderline–watch out for drama, Cynthia. Be careful, just calmly back off when she gets hysterical.” Trina peruses the inside of the staff refrigerator and pushes aside my lunch and her leftovers from last week.

“No, more narcissistic, I suspect.” Henry pauses with an out-sized bear mug in his hand, staring at the wall. “At the least, sadly.”

Mary strides in, hair disheveled, face a bit pale. “And I have yet another Asperger’s with severe social anxiety waiting in my office. Two the last week. I need a drink…just kidding, I need cheddar and crackers and pass me that apple juice.”

“Anyone want the leftover salad? Vegetables are critical to the positive progression of my jam-packed day. Could we get more emergencies, you think?” Trina doesn’t wait for a response and pours on balsamic dressing.

Henry emits a snarky bark of a laugh and mutters to himself, “For me, another sociopathic sex–and meth, of course–addict, so away we go.”

I’m exiting to my own office with my cracked blue and white mug of peppermint tea, wondering when this day will end. When, in fact, I will no longer be working here. It’s not that I don’t give some credence to my co-workers’ professional diagnoses. It’s not that I do not care about my clients. I’ve been doing this work for years and though I am not a psychologist and provide basic mental health counseling within a context of intensive addictions treatment–even though I cannot argue effectively against their specific education and insights, I am long past weary of the diagnostic web.

So finally, I retired three years ago, and this is partly why. I saw too often that the people I was trying to help had become caught up in defeatist mode, the standard cures often complicating their lives. And I also have always wondered why the health of the spirit is not addressed as part of treatment. It seems a no-brainer to me, whether it is addressed outright or, at the very least, considered an influence upon well being.

Once cast into the sticky weaving together of mental health services, clients can have a very hard time extricating themselves from it. Anyone would, likely, if you consider how die-hard labeling of people casts them in a certain mold, right or wrong, with its attendant interventions, secondary diagnoses and uncertain prognoses. Once on record–the DSM-V Diagnostic and Statistical Manual tagging you as having a certain disorder, say–it lasts a very long while if not always. And people carry this with them secretly or fearfully (due to worry of stigma) or with a certain pride: this underlies who I am, this is what happened, this is what can be fixed now. It’s an identity, an explanation, a cause for thinking and behaving certain ways. But people too frequently become inured to an insidious helplessness that accompanies such labels. It’s powerful stuff–it keeps one stuck within a point of view that shapes an entire vision of his or her life. It also can become an excuse or a burden: “I can’t help it; it’s haywire neurology; it was imprinted on me by environmental factors; it’s genetic; it’s just how I learned to cope. And I sure can’t change now.” Worst of all, it becomes a convenient identity card: “I am anxious and OCD” or “I am traumatized, have ongoing PTSD” or “I am on the autism spectrum so I’m of course really different.”

I heard hundreds of histories of uniqueness for decades. It was the common threads that interested me, for each of these persons shared underlying similarities.

And all those years I sat across from people sent to me for their alcoholism or opiate dependence or methamphetamine addiction and so on. But what I really saw were persons who had had profound harm visited upon their spirits. Not their egos, not their minds, not their bodies–though all those were also impacted. Their very spirits.

I wanted to set up my own shop with a sign hanging outside my window: “Spiritual Self-Healing/ Support Services Available/No Fee Charged.”

I realize I’m going out on a limb here. I’m not going to write a research-based treatise decrying current mental health practices. But I am suggesting rather strongly that people who need or want help sit down for intake and within a couple of hours are given a diagnosis, They then can walk out and more fully live out that diagnosis. They are anxious. They are delusional. They are reactive. Rather get better or even recover, they name the symptoms and perhaps it does bring some comfort in the naming. But if one is vulnerable, any sort of intelligent-seeming explanation looks like a fluorescent life jacket. And perhaps it is a real beginning, the way to extend a helping hand.

But then what happens? After the medications are adjusted and readjusted and deleted and started again, after the therapy sessions are extended a year or two or more, when groups multiply and become mandatory…well, what of the person who walked in that door desperately looking for better control of her own life? For freedom from confusion, a burden, the dependence on a substance to try to govern his mood or behaviors, his seeming destiny? At home again, sitting in their rooms, what do they see in the mirror then? They see trouble and sorrow, a loneliness that permeates all else as they are deemed sick people now, not struggling people trying to become stronger and wiser.

Only a small percentage of the emotionally challenged are chronically unable to function daily or to learn how to carry out a better balanced life. And the majority of substance abusers are not doomed to a fatal addiction. But they do need an emotional and spiritual overhaul, a goodly change of direction, and lots of support along the way. Not a label that tells them they are one thing and that is how it is and it will never be different. What has happened to a guided transformative process in the diagnosis- and pill-driven therapeutic process? People who are looking for happiness or peace want to participate in their rediscovery of both. To gradually take responsibility for the search and finding. They need a mirror to show them what’s still good and hopeful inside so they can begin, then sustain the work. I could (and can) do that.

I understand why mental health providers–myself included at times–like to identify, categorize, organize their caseloads into neat diagnostic slots. This one needs that, that one needs this, and these few cannot be in the same room together for more than fifteen minutes. It makes matters more manageable for providers and can seem helpful to the clients. Such sorting and tagging aids treatment planning and points us all toward a direction. It takes on the semblance of cogent action. It targets an outcome. We humans do like explanations, and if they sound and look like science, so much the better–whether in truth they are effective or not.

But what is the science of personal suffering, the significant bio-neurology of it notwithstanding? We know it erodes health, from the arterial inflammation to  dodgy digestion to restless sleep. We know it creates cognition deficits and emotional lability. We further know it can lead to breakdown, bit by bit, of one’s common functionality. Diagnostic criteria can aid in this information tabulating, yes. Yet the spirit of the person–what of that? How can that science go deep enough to find and heal the devastated soul of a human being–that is what I asked every day. That is what has me all these years in and out of the field.

I have not forgotten a great many of my clients’ therapy sessions and groups. They stay with me, perhaps, because long before I decided to retire I had begun to see the majority of people had a very hard time recovering–from grief and loss, from abuses of all sorts, from failures to love and be loved. Seeing diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder or general anxiety, acute depression with psychotic features or schizophrenia did not tell me nearly the whole story, however. Barely any of it.

What spoke to me was how they sat, how they did not speak of what mattered most, of how they sought or avoided my eyes as the pain rushed in the chinks in the armor we had discovered or made together. Their anger toward some omnipresent but blurry God for feeling forgotten and left behind. Their bitterness toward the ones they had once loved and now blamed. The pain that they had swallowed year after year because no one wanted to know of it. They were truly sick at heart. Broken of spirit. Or had had so much overload, diminished by months or perhaps years of substance abuse, that they could note very little as an authentic feeling. The identity they had been given was addict or alcoholic or crazy person.

How does a counselor propose hope as a tool to those who do not embrace it’s value? How is the path forged that helps them find their way back to some semblance of wholeness? We didn’t so much talk about their symptoms. We didn’t study weekly assignments. They didn’t have to enjoy being there or even like me. They just had to show up and I needed to be utterly present with them. To listen not only to the words but the undercurrents, the shadow of feeling, the ghost of the past that kept showing itself despite complex camouflage. Slowly, the masks designed to keep the world at bay would begin to fall away. Even the criminally active. Even those who heard odd voices. Even street-savvy heroin lovers. What they choose to do when that reveal was up to them. It mattered far less that I had to send a family services report or call their psychiatrist or probation officer. What I looked for was the barest resurfacing of who they were and could be. What they needed to stay alive without such regrets.

First and last I offered compassion. That is all. Because people who are in pain need the balm of kindness and those who rail against the world’s inequities and cruelties need steady, non-judgmental caring. Just as we all do. Love. It comes down to that. When someone is ready to accept an outflow of love, then spiritual and emotional healing can initiate and a lifelong, rich adventure unfolds–with less harm and more good being done by the very one who came in for help. Hurting persons, hungry for relief and finding love supplies that, are far more apt to pass it along. We –counselor and client–can work with each other in familiar ways even if it seems foreign at first to the client. Common denominators include being human, and we all suffer and we all are also spirit. Or so I, and so many others, do believe.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, inventor and physicist alive in the 1600s, wrote that humans are restless, want to fill our craving with things that are of no real help, when the “infinite abyss can be filled with only an infinite and immutable object, in other words by God himself.” (from Pensees VII) We can be cognizant of the God-shaped void, yet dismiss or forget it’s importance when all is well. When it is not, people once more to reconsider. And an even partly honest reckoning is hard.

“It must take such emotional and mental energy, I admire that you can do this. I surely could not,” I heard over and over.

Or: “Well over twenty years in this field? How do you do that? I burned out after five (or ten or fifteen)  helping people.”

Yes, to be of hopefully good use to other humans can be taxing. I think the power source makes the difference. It’s not veggies or tea or rest and exercise that fuel me. There was a primary source of my commitment and stamina but not my stubborn will or that I’ve always felt called to be of some help to others. It was God’s love of me. Every time before I met with another client (or groups) I prayed for more guidance and mercy, the strength to be a witness; also for good humor and patience; for my own petty ego to step aside and let God use me. Each hour of every day was nowhere close to any sort of perfection. I wasn’t looking for a mark of success. But I knew from my conviction as well as experience that with Divine Love to empower me, I would do what was needed or discern what other options would be good.

How much separates us from one another, the ones who become diagnosed and treated and the ones who pride themselves on doing just fine, thank you, true or not? A very thin line. No one knows what might happen that can tilt the balance, upend gravity so that your life starts seesawing and you cannot keep all in orderly balance. And I can assure you, it won’t strictly be a diagnosis or pills that will delineate your path and empower your life. That will be your seeker’s soul and whoever can hear its cry. It will be seizing the opportunity to avail yourself of compassion given, then learning how to plant the tiniest seeds of hope and faith in its fertile sustenance. I assure you, it happens. Life changes us but we, too, can effect great change.

Morrie’s Heron

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“It’s maybe not the best place for me to meet. I used to hang out there a lot,” he’d said, voice a little edgy, “but it’s easy to find and not so far from your hotel.”

Trace wondered what that meant. Maybe it was a bad idea altogether. Did the idea of dinner suit him better? His brother probably wanted a great meal more than a visit but there was a limit to what Trace could do. His hotel was on the other side of town, he had a business meeting early tomorrow morning. He was flattened by the flight from Washington, DC. He got tired of worrying about him.

“Okay, bro’ Hadley, whatever you think.”

“It’s not Hadley, anymore, right? Just Morrie. You forgetting things?”

“Right, I know. Morrie, short for Morrison. Grandpa’s name, your middle name. I don’t forget it, I ‘m just used to Hadley, and–well, it’s been a long while.”

He could hear his brother breathing, a faint whistle as he exhaled when his mouth was shut. It used to drive him crazy when they shared a room. Sometimes he’d outright snore. Trace would cover his brother’s face with a handkerchief to try to muffle it all. He’d lean on his elbow on the other twin bed and watch the blue paisley square rise and fall a little until Hadley would push it off in his sleep. Then Trace would try sleeping with his head under the covers but that often led to morning headaches.

“A CO2 slammer”, his father said. “You’re not getting fresh air, enough oxygen.”

“I can’t stand to hear him whistle and snort every night,” Trace complained.

“Aw, be a baby,” his brother sneered. “I bet a feather dropping would wake you up.”

Trace stood up in the breakfast nook. “I bet you would look good with a clothes pin on your nose to quiet things down.”

“Sit down and eat the breakfast your mother made, Trace.” Their father gulped the last of his coffee, kissed his wife and left.

“I’ll get you better ear plugs–mine work for me,” Mother said.

“Hadley got that from his father.” She smiled as if it was something to snicker over together.

“Yeah, it’s just in the family, like your fat toes,” Hadley said, his mouth full of oatmeal.

“Not for long,” Trace muttered. He kicked his brother for good measure and Hadley flipped a spoonful from his bowl at him when their mother wasn’t looking.

But the earplugs bothered him. He slept on the couch in the TV room more often than not the last couple years in school. He had to get more rest. He wanted to ace his classes so he’d snag a couple scholarships. And he did. Then on to University of Michigan and a couple advanced degrees in international economics and public policy.

He built a life in Alexandria, Virginia; he had friends and a potential fiancée and a job he hadn’t even dreamed of getting by thirty-five. If he wasn’t actually happy, that was irrelevant. Life wasn’t much about creating happiness; it was about making a living, a contribution to society, and making a refuge, a home. That’s what he told himself and it worked, usually. Everybody he knew was too busy to think about feelings.

But once here in Portland he felt like himself, okay, if also a little like he had back home in Michigan. Waiting for his little brother to show up. Waiting to see how much of the truth he might see. Waiting to take in Hadley’s–Morrie’s–face, if it was gaunt and slack and grey or fuller, a little color lighting it up, his eyes clearer.

It had been four years since they had seen each other. There had been phone calls, sure, mostly from his brother to him because Morrie didn’t always have a phone or there was another new number. Or he was travelling again, on a tour with another band.

“What does travelling have to do with it? Give me your number so I can reach you for a change.”

Morrie never had given him a number that didn’t get disconnected. Then, the last year, the calls trickled down to two. The third one Trace made, using the last known number and his brother had answered right away. Trace was coming into town for a presentation he was making at a conference. He’d hoped they could meet up.

It was a half hour past the agreed upon time. It was so damp here, the air thick with wet and coldness gusting around aged, thick-bodied trees. Morrie had said on the south side of the pond, middle bench. His stomach was jumpy; he should have eaten at the hotel first. He paced the earth in front of the duck pond when his vision caught a blue heron that had just taken off for a treetop. It perched on the top of a tall stumpy branch and surveyed its kingdom. The grey-blue feathers were almost cheerful against the mass of green foliage and grey sky. He felt his shoulders loosen and let down, his chest expand.

A branch stirred behind him and he swung around.

Morrie moved off the pathway and down the hill toward him with a quick flash of teeth that served as a smile, his walk a rhythmic shuffle, hands plunged in his jeans pockets. He wore a dark hoodie and he pushed the hood back so his bright blonde hair–had he lightened it or added something?– fell out and around his shoulders. Trace waited, checked his brother for signs of anything alarming–he looked pale but it was winter, after all–then met him halfway. They embraced, gave a firm squeeze, released each other.

“Whoa, Trace, here you are and here I am–isn’t it surprising? How long has it been since we could hang out, face to face?”

“I was thinking it was that four years ago at the parents’, right? ”

“And that wasn’t an easy visit.”

Trace watched the heron’s wings lift and resettle. “No, dad was pretty sick from chemo. But he’s good now. I was there last summer for a couple days on my way to somewhere else.”

“That’s the way we tend to do it, bro, here one day, somewhere else the next.”

They stood there looking at the water, the green reflections, the ripples the ducks startled in the water, the sounds of runners going by above them. Trace sat down on the bench and Morrie followed.

“I used to come here all the time. Before I got clean.”

“You’re telling me you’re clean and sober?” Something in him fought to believe despite not wanting to get his hopes up.

Morrie put his arm around the back of the bench and looked at him. “Well, no more Oxy or heroin, if that’s what you mean. I feel like drinking at times, not often, though.”

“I see, well, that’s something. ” He took the news in and it tried to find a firm spot to settle. “That’s incredibly good news. Wow.” He took another moist cool breath. “I guess alcohol should be off limits.”

“Yeah, true. Thought I’d get that all out of the way, though. I don’t want you to make up things about me based on how I look or what I don’t say or who I’m hanging with. I’m still in a band but it’s different now.”

“How so? Last I knew it was indie rock or was it punk? Well, good, you still playing guitar?”

“Sure. But I’m playing acoustic sometimes. With a couple other guys and a girl.” He laughed softly. “Woman, I should say.”

Two ducks squabbled, then separated and circled back, warily, then seemed better at ease. It wasn’t lost on trace, their activity. He followed the group as they swan this way and that, then disappeared behind a branch that dipped close to the water.

“What about you, Trace? Still slogging away at that public policy think tank? Overseeing meetings with some movers and shakers in DC?”

The way he said it held that old ring of derision but Trace ignored it. “Yep, and more into it each year. It’s a good place for me to be. I’ll likely settle in there. I mean, I bought the house, so you could say I finally set down roots.”

“Right, I liked the picture you showed me awhile back. Me, too, brother.” He picked up a twig and wove it in his fingers.”I got a place with someone. It’s really nice. Now I come back from touring and know I have spot to call my own, well, a shared spot with a roommate, but still. Not like how it was last winter…”

Morrie snapped the twig in his fingers. Trace knew better than to recount the history of the last place, that house with at least ten people in it. That ended being the scene of too many illegal activities and Morrie getting out just in time, only to live on the street for three weeks until Trace sent him money and he found a small room in a boarding house week-to-week. Lasted awhile.

“You saved my ass so often, Trace, can’t thank you enough.”

“I suspect you saved your own this time, finally getting off the dope…it’s all good…”

“That was after the streets, that rat-shared room and being thrown out of the band. That was before meeting some new people and trying it clean. Damn, that was some scary crap, I have to tell you, not at all what I thought, far worse in some ways. Never been so sick in my life. But I don’t even mean the hellish withdrawal, that does have an end. I mean just trying to live without that maintenance dose to feel normal. For awhile I thought I was going to have to kill myself just to get through it all.”

He turned to Trace, saw his sallow, angular face stricken, the too-long suffering darkening his wide eyes. For a second Trace couldn’t make out anyone different than the addict he had known the last ten years. Then Morrie blinked a couple times and the irises brightened to a spring morning blue. A little bloodshot but focused. His gaze almost foreign, it was so unguarded.

“What do you mean by that awful statement? Is that why you didn’t call me all those months?” He tried to take everything in but he felt a little off balance sitting next to his altered brother by a cold duck pond in the Northwest. Disoriented by all the new information. Or jet lag or both. What did his brother intend by sharing all this, anyway?

“Hey, you just wouldn’t get it. I mean, the worst you’ve known has been a morning hangover that kept you in bed an extra hour! No reason to try to explain it, no point in it, it was being crazed and at loose ends, and stumbling around an abandoned brain all day and night. I was lucky to have my music, you know that’s true, it’s music that gets me through when all else fails. No, man, no point in all the gory details then or now. I figured I just had to see how things went before I talked to you.”

Anger started to drown the relief Trace had first felt wash over him. He sat forward, hands gripping his knees as he looked back at Morrie.

“Wait, you just told me you almost killed yourself, is that right? And you didn’t bother to call me to let me know you were that bad? What if you had gone through with that and I never knew? Didn’t we make an agreement, that you would get in touch with me if you ever–”

Morrie stood and ran his hands over his face, then looked out at the pond where three ducks were flying in for a smooth landing and the heron now stood motionless.

“You mean I’m to call you every time I have a bad time of it? Even when I feel like curling up in a dark corner, the end. That’s not how it works. If I had told you even a tenth of the times I felt like checking out, if you really knew how bad it was to wake up with my guts heaving, feeling desperate, so lost…If you knew how it was to need something so bad even when you know, too, it will mangle and spit you out one day, that very need– that the monster desire has taken all that mattered and twisted it into something grotesque! No, Trace, I didn’t call you all the times I needed money for another fix, a handful of pills, another night in a motel, food after days with nothing. I didn’t call because I was ashamed, Trace, I’m still ashamed, I have been so sick of myself. The wreck of my life, it’s accumulated so long and deep!” He squeezed back tears. “Because I knew I had to make another decision. No one else can change my life, man. Not even my saner, smarter big brother who always tries to save me from myself…no, Trace, no more of that. I’ve had to get through it a minute at a time, and finally face my sorry soul alone.” Morrie’s face crumpled and he turned away. He shook his fine, blonde head. “Well, there’s time for more true confessions later. Much later…I’m okay, just trying to fit the pieces together.”

Trace felt helplessness gang up on him, that familiar burden so reminiscent of fear, like he was gulping for air and there wasn’t enough of it or maybe he was getting too much oxygen this time. He focused on the pond. The heron grooming its wing from a spot on a log, a turtle sunning beside it. Sunlight had warmed the damp air enough that Trace no longer felt shivery. Morrie was standing so winter’s thin light shone through his blonde hair, giving him a faint aura. He seemed so frail at first, but then Trace found strength in how his brother squared his shoulders, the way his feet were set apart, his head held up rather than dropping down. Not the crazy rebel he had always been but a man who knew what he wanted and needed to do. And then he looked at Trace. His eyes were quiet and almost soft. Vulnerable. How could he bear to let his brother try to get by all alone? Trace got up and stood alongside him.

“I’m sorry for what I know and I don’t know. I felt I had to step in all the time; I have been afraid for you, all of us have been. But now you say you can figure it out. I want to believe this.”

“I know it’s been hard on you. I’m so more than sorry…But I’ll get it a little at a time.”

The heron waded into the pond on its long stick legs and poked its bill in the brackish water. It was so easy, how it moved, and patient as it stood erect and observed. It’s elegance was marked by the assuredness of instinct.

“I’m just so relieved you’re done with it.”

“At least for today. You know, being here is good after all, just seeing my old friend. The heron. He used to keep me company all the times I got loaded in the restroom over there and sat here nodding out. I always felt is the beautiful ole heron was still here, I’d make it another day.”

“Huh…” He nearly shuddered–imagining his brother sitting here, eyelids half-closed, chin to chest, the indifferent–or was he? Did it matter to nature what we did?–heron wading, watching, continuing on its way.

A swooping whistle pierced the air and set the ducks to gabbling. The heron lifted its small head. Morrie whistled back and down the hill flew a woman in a bright purple long coat, a yellow and white scarf flying behind her as she ran, her short black hair a bouncing mass of curls.

She nearly crashed into them, full of laughter, threw back her head so her long white neck was exposed to Morrie’s quick kiss, then caught her breath. She thrust her hand out to Trace who took it, stunned.

“I’m Natalie–I just got off work at the bookstore–and you must be Trace’s big brother!”

“That I am.” Her hand was small, firm and toasty in his dry, cold one. Everything about her threw off sparks of warmth, her eyes dancing as she turned back to Morrie.

“This is the woman I mentioned earlier, from our new band. Natalie sings like a mad dream and plays mandolin like a beautiful pro.”

“And your brother has some skills of his own, but you knew that, right?” She patted his arm, then put hers through it. “So where are we headed now? Want to go back to our apartment?”

“I think he wants to head back to his hotel soon, Nat.” He nodded at Trace. “But our place is about five blocks over.”

“We could get Thai take-out, I’m so hungry!”

“What do you say, Trace?” He studied him as if he’d just realized he was really there with him, not two feet away, and they still had so much to catch up about. Time was slipping away as they stood there.

There was a sudden flapping of wings, a long, slow beating against the air, and the heron lifted up, up into the sodden sky, the last of blue feathers enveloped by layers of clouds. Trace wondered where he had gone, if he would return soon. For Morrie. For all seeking solace.

And Morrie swung his arm around his brother but Natalie squeezed in between them, putting her hands about their waists. It surprised him, how well they fit together, how easy it felt.

Trace savored the warmth they shared. “I have to tell you, I’m so glad to be here. Let’s go eat good food. You can play me your music and I’d be grateful for every moment.”

“Amen, brother,” Morrie said.

“Amen,” Trace echoed more to himself than to anyone else. And the sound of it shook him up and turned him over.

Natalie ran up the hill, her scarf a bright streak threading about the shady trees, and they followed her. Trace could almost taste his brother’s happiness, the sweetness of it like a chemical thing, a molecule of joy added to the air and he wanted some of that, he needed to know so much more about just that, alone.

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Dreaming and Writing: Visiting the Invisible

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It is probably after two in the morning and there are things here with which I am not always at ease, though I am light on my feet and moving fast, slip in and out of atmospheres without thinking. I know the places from before, steep coastal edges, towering crystalline mountains, long narrow streets that wrap around terrain in confounding whiplash routes that I often recall. Sometimes I am in a car or on a motorcycle and they crash and it needs fixing, but I am always on the move. (Last night it was a skateboard.) I pass, then enter vast buildings crammed with rooms that open to more rooms, as if a sprawling educational campus open to all. Everyone is busy; little makes much sense to me in a usual rational way–it is reasonable in that place, with those beings–and it doesn’t matter much. I know I am visiting and I know to pay atetntion.

People who seem flesh and blood yet are spectral, sharing the spaces but present for reasons I don’t always comprehend. We talk with spoken language, sometimes not with words but knowings and gestures that trail energy and clarify the truth. And there are animals that turn into other creatures as easily as if they are an essence of life, body-less and inhabitants of other zones. Harm comes to some of us; fun excitement arrives to others. I am in the midst of it and part of it, but often from a distance, watching all, hearing interesting ideas. Music is captured in passing. Colors constantly change. When someone puts their arms about me, though, there is immediate radiant warmth that aligns any disjointedness to a rhapsodic otherness. I believe in it. On the other hand, a sense of foreboding can foretell violence. I believe in that, too, and feel compelled to propel my self toward a chilled gasp for air beyond my blanket.

To wakefulness. Into one of those deepening night hours. To sitting position where I gather together sensory input and reassure myself I am back in my body. I rest–or seek something close to it– in the dark, cradled by its unique amorphous quality. Day and night are extensions of one another to me, gradations of the same thing, a configuration of time on earth. It is not the night that picks apart my personhood, the unseen seams that keep me one piece. What could undo me is dreaming, for it instigates in me a restlessness–often for better, but other times for worse.

In the mornings, I might feel close to engaging in a battle with dreaming. Well, not a full armored war, not the sort that makes me awaken to wander about, stumbling with a mind full of blather. Or at bedtime to shake off inklings of dread when pulling the pillow close. But I do want to shake off remnants, restore my balance further. Still, the second sentence above may be partly a defense to ward off the mere possibility of trying dreams. There have been times in my life when dreaming meant nightmares that would not leave me. They weighted me like a heavy cape, overshadowing each step. As I suppose it happens for all of us at one time or another.

Sleep has become relegated to a secondary priority in the last decade. I am given less of it naturally; if I want more I ingest melatonin for aid. But I am at heart a night person who also enjoys being engaged in daylight hours–hard to get both fulfilled well lately. If I could function well with no sleep I would prefer that. For decades I ran my days and evenings on perhaps five hours sleep and felt alert and energized until I hit the bed, falling asleep in increments. When I was drinking one reason I feared being sober was that I would not sleep at all and my detoxed mind would crank to a halt. But not so. I slept more to my surprise and it even continued. Full rest! And I had discovered a bonanza of peace textured with rich dreaming that I finally, again, could recall. I jumped out of bed early in the morning with all systems done with sleep mode and switched on high once more. I had five spirited children and a husband, a life to be taken in and lived on Go. Dreaming as I had understood it was what I did when I created a half hour to close the bedroom door and plaster a sign on it: Writing! Do no Disturb Unless Truly Desperate! How lovely that I could bring forth both old and new dreams, awake or asleep.

But now there is more waking, with life’s various doings and states of being and there is a slim interlude, a few multi-strands of sleeping. It seems almost all the same to me. Not that when my eyes are open I am entertained by fantastical creatures and go to fabulous but invisible places. Well, that is, unless I am immersed in the process of writing or other creative work. But I do wonder if I write to assemble an orderliness of night journeys. The material is profuse, feels random and appears peculiar–i.e., fertile ground. Of course, it is said we dream to process our wakeful hours and that without it we cannot function effectively–it would be input overload. I can attest to that as well as any person.

But what truly divides the sleeping world from the waking? How much of it is the body recharging so it can carry us around and how much the spirit recharging so it can live in this vehicle of a body? Alright, so the mind busily sorts and tosses and files so we can continue to learn and operate nicely. My eyes close, I float, move to an internal space that allows all this to happen. Or I am removed from here and placed elsewhere, enter one universe or another, this or that dimension.

We experience in a multiplicity of ways and live to tell the story. Or at least ponder it.

So, too, when I write. Who beckons those characters, who dresses them, who directs them through a grimy city street or a watery tunnel or a marshland where the birds are rising and swooping all at once? Who tells them: you have one day to find your long lost brother and share it all in detail and well. I am typing but where is this material coming from, how does it get leaked into this consciousness?

I think those who dabble in abstract realms and invent from them live within fluid states of being, but I don’t believe we are so unique. Perhaps some children just never lose their belief in the invisible made visible, while others want or need to, for whatever reason. Imagination is admired as long as it creates something deemed “worthy” or isn’t confused with culturally proscribed parameters of reality. But what if imagination and the three dimensions are meant to overlap, that is, what if they are just a little more one thing or another, in a state of flux, ever shifting and combining? We imagine (hypothesize) solutions to difficult problems; we also dream answers, awakening with a start as the light bulb comes on. I write this way, too. What manifests is a combination of my thought, the Muse and the ether at large. (Perhaps, yes, Spirit. (And guardian angels? They may have a motive, after all, that I may never know about.) Language so often tells me what I need to know, even before I realize it. It has, like all creative mediums, a potential for intense energy–to evoke and also invoke, to name and alter, empower or silence. I respect the gift of language–human or not–for this.

This is why I asked my clients in mental health and addictions treatment to write down one object they recalled as a child; what they lost and wish they had now; what they see when they close their eyes at night; what they fear most about staying clean and sober; who keeps visiting their dreams. They were asked to write a small poem, sparely,to get to the heart of it. Or to keep a daily journal where they could write non stop without censoring themselves. Or to let one word come forward the moment they emerged from sleep. They were asked to let their selves move from the shadows–as addicts, as those with emotional illness–into illuminating light.

Many of these clients had no faith in the process. Did not like to read or had failed English so were afraid. But they took the pencils and paper and began letting their minds roam. The insights they had were life changing. The poems they wrote moved both listeners and themselves. The stories they told came from haunted and healing dreams, from a landscape of pain and the journey of survival. They found that language gave them power and stories shared gave them comfort and encouragement. To speak and be heard was a miracle of sorts.

One of the best parts of my career was when a group of Native American women trusted me enough to tell their stories. They shared them in English, in poems and in song, then some did so in their own, old languages. Their bodies were loosened, their ghost-filled eyes came alive, their tears fell in riverlets. They spoke quietly, then were louder and freer. For these women, dream, myth, spirituality and common reality fed one another and were each a part of the other: they made the whole of being and doing. I witnessed slow healing with their offerings of words, the rich silences that lulled in between. What they needed most found them as language rose up from what was once unnameable suffering. They gained bravery–to write and say things in any way that came to them. And learned and accepted that their truths were even larger multifaceted experiences than they had first thought. We felt transfixed by so much naming, saying and letting go.

So what of dreaming, what of writing? Do I choose my dreams and my writing–or do I only need to be willing to be open? Or determined to be closed? And meanwhile the darkness and light, all those gradations therein harbor me as I move among the moments.

The opalescent light of a Northwest afternoon is dimming within this room but out there, on Mt. Hood perhaps, it would yield a different quality against the snow or between fir trees. The night will be lighter here in the city than in the wilderness, I am certain. And I remember how as a kid I would climb the trusty maple tree in our backyard, settle in a sturdy crook and watch the sun slip through tree branches, a flaming orb that seemed more friendly, a shining orange ball disguised as a heavenly body. It took with it that brightness of day. The leave taking allowed me to consider it as a giant ship sailing below the perimeter of a horizon and I wondered what other countries, what other children, it was sailing toward. The light turned dusky, then a transparent bluish, then purplish charcoal. Distant trees were black outlines against the radiance of early evening, a chiaroscuro picture like an old-fashioned greeting card. But it was real, so real that I felt my heart grow bigger, my skin tingle, my mid expand. The sky changed itself into an endless satiny swath of black; inside it were stars like bright portholes to other places. It beckoned. Can I come there? I whispered. Can I sail the skies to another place? A small thing took wing inside me and gave me an urge to rise with it but the tree held me, strong and steady. My mother appeared in the bright kitchen window, laughing and cooking and my father’s viola was a crescendo of delights. The permeable sky opened and sang. The hush inside it and me was immense. It was all a dream and I was dreaming within it and all was well. Or would be well.