After Life

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying, that you leave these convictions of certitude about the whole business. I certainly feel lots of that now, whereas my friend Higuchi says he’s living in the afterlife. Beautiful idea. Meaning his life is over, he’s living after life, but it’s also the afterlife.” James Hillman

In a conversation with my mother today, I hear her saying the most remarkable things. Yes, she twists age-old adages so the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” is now, “the grass is always greener outside.” Ironically, there’s a truth in her rephrasing. Although some would say it’s dementia speaking, I say, let it speak. Why see it as only a loss?

“Now, our finding our own dead in the United States involves so much history, close history, one hundred and fifty years of history, slavery, civil war, brutalities of all sorts, Chinese oppression, it’s just so huge, all the deaths of the Indians, and animals, that we’re blocked in a strange way by personal guilt. We enter the realm of the dead overloaded to begin with, with Protestantism and guilt, so I don’t know if we get to what you call ancestors. I don’t know if we have a sensitivity to whatever that means.”

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad.
My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad. Ca. 1945

I asked her what she’s been up to, and after a bit of silence she informed me that she’s been talking to her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, born somewhere around 1906, who has been dead for many years. My mother has never mentioned talking to the dead, ever. Her southern Baptist beliefs would prohibit that. When I asked her what Grammy had to say, she told me that they were going to Holland to see the ancestors. To clarify what she meant, I asked her if she was traveling by boat. She laughed and said no, she wouldn’t need one. Aha!

Great,Great Grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg who left Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her four daughters.
My great, great grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg, who left her native Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her five daughters.

Whether one believes that the ancestors are calling her to them or if she is seeking them out, either way, in finding an opening to the dead, she paves a path that someday I will follow. My mother has no clue about my devotion to the ancestors. She hasn’t read the writings of C.G. Jung or James Hillman, and if asked, would tell you she is a devout born again Christian. So where does her sudden reach towards the ancestors come from?

Like many of us, her wounds are deep, sometimes voiced as regret and guilt over events far in the past that continue to haunt her. As her child, I suckled on her wounds. As I grew, and my wounds manifested as a withdrawal from life, she saw my behavior as outward proof of her own wrong doing. When I began to understand my part in her story, and began to remove myself from a role she needed me to play to prove her guilt, my life began to become my own.

Beyond physically inherited traits, lies the unfinished ancestral business. We’re in a much bigger story than our personal experience allows us to easily see, especially when we’re young. Haunted we are, with the ancestors calling us to attend to these wounds, first on a personal level and eventually one that will lead us back to ponder their circumstances which often become ours.

Moms BookIn her retirement, my mom wrote an autobiography recalling in great detail family stories of struggle and hardship that show her amazing resiliency throughout much of her childhood. There were hard times in which my grandmother struggled to support six daughters and two bad marriages. The suicide of my mother’s step-dad, who probably had no idea what he was marrying into, are all told with insight, compassion, feeling and love. I needed this book.

In hindsight, reading the stories of my ancestors gave me a way to see myself within the context of a bigger story, offering me deeper insights into the choices, limitations and opportunities in my life.

My mother’s stories also offer insights into my familial and cultural past, loaded with images of struggle, loss and love in 20th century America. As all of us do, I entered the world in a story already taking place. A world felt to be not of my making; messy, in which the more I look, the more pain and suffering I see. Given our limitations as to where we enter, and the story we find ourselves in, I think the need for forgiveness and compassion cannot be overstated.

My mom’s dementia is not only a physical disintegration. I see her engagement with her mother and the ancestors over in Holland as somehow necessary for something essential to her eventual death and mine. In the last few years she seems softer, much more light-hearted, with an honest portion of sadness and regret. Her dementia has me seeking new ways to reach her, and myself, not to bring her back to who she once was, but to invite her to share with me the world she’s slipping into.

My mom, 2nd from the left, with her mother and sisters.

It will not be easy to lose her when the time comes, and I suppose the fear of that loss finds me very willing to meet her where she’s at and to stay connected somehow.

She may not know it, but she gave me an unexpected gift that I will cherish forever. To share with her this movement toward our ancestors makes life a little less lonely for me and affirms my need to remember the dead. When Higuchi says he is living in the after life, I recognize that feeling a little more each day. It’s not morbidity, but the recognition that living my life in the stream of the ancestors, brings insight to the complexity of human experience.

All quotes: Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The Final Lap

I’ll be offline for a while.

My step-dad Jim, who would have been 86 on April 15, passed away Friday from natural causes. Jim had a difficult life in many ways. His early years were spent in an orphanage until age 9 when he was adopted by a farmer who used him strictly as a laborer. He escaped by running away in his mid-teens, joined the military hoping to be a pilot, but his eyesight was not good enough. Jim never gave up his love of flying and enjoyed building and flying model airplanes for many years. He also worked at an airport, drove a school bus and when I first met him, was a caretaker at his church.

Jim met my mother in 1978 and they married shortly after making their home just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. After spending the first 30 years of my life in New York, I have since made my home 3,000 miles away in Oregon. The only time I had to get to know him was during family vacations. Jim was a good-hearted man who loved my mother very much. I know she loved him too, although in the last few years their declining health has brought difficult challenges for both of them. In many ways the years they had together have been some of the best years for both of them.

So, I am here in Atlanta with my sister and niece helping to bring Jim to his final resting place. On the plus side, I am able to spend some time with family and be here for my mom, whose dementia keeps her from fully grasping that her Jim is gone.

Looking forward to catching up with everyone here as time allows.

“I watched you suffer a dull aching pain 
Now you decided to show me the same 
No sweeping exits or off stage lines 
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind 
Wild horses, couldn’t drag me away.” Jagger/Richards

JANUARY CHALLENGE… My Awakening Experience And Moving Forward

Here is my contribution to Barbara Franken‘s January Challenge series.

This is a story in which the right kind of trouble unexpectedly brings a gift.

From an early age, I struggled to feel a sense of belonging and identity. As a child I loved play-acting and imagining what it might be like to be a bear, a dog, a fox, or an orphan, a prisoner or conductor. My attempts at belonging were easily expressed by play-acting where I could put on a mask and give myself over to fantasy. But when not play-acting, I felt lost, convinced that I was missing something that others must have.

According to my parents Merriam-Webster dictionary, identity was defined as the quality of being a particular thing and not some other thing. Yes, I thought, my problem has something to do with a lack of being someone in particular. As I grew older, anytime I felt that others were defining me, even when they were being complimentary, I felt alienated. How could they know something about me when I had no clue? I was a fake, and I knew it.

Years later when in my early 30’s I moved to Oregon from Long Island, New York. After a few stormy years of relationships that failed, and feeling the need for solitude to just let myself be me, I started to practice meditation.

Some months later though I started to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions and I could no longer make it through a single day without crying. This was not the kind of crying where a few tears run down your cheeks, but gut-wrenching crying that would last until I finally fell asleep exhausted.

A year later, I was ready to seek out a guide. Having a love and familiarity with the writings of C.G. Jung and James Hillman, I entered into analysis. In the course of a three-year long therapy, traveling to the depths of hell and back, I experienced a most amazing and unexpected healing.

Not that I went from 0 to 250 in an instant. There was plenty of work to be done. Exploring my dreams, memories and relationships led me to see that I was filtering my experience through a very cloudy lens. There was a series of recognitions that came from therapy that both broadened my view and opened me up to not be afraid of an ongoing increase in that opening.

Many insights began to come into view, including a painful recognition that how I understood myself, others and the events of my life needed a revisioning. But with that came a recognition that nothing could happen without seeing how tightly I held on to a view of the past and present which bled into the future. Even if there are objective facts about my life that get to tell the story their way, what I needed was a story that made room for all the longings I ever knew and how to live with and through their power over me. That meant looking fear right in the face and learning how to talk back, and most importantly, learning to talk at all.

Seeing a deficiency in my use of language was a huge part of the work and it still is today. A love of words and language allows for an ongoing stream of ideas leading to new ways to experience and understand all that life has to offer. And for me, learning to open up to deeper levels of myself and others eventually led to the following life-changing experience.

One morning, much later in the therapy, upon waking from an emotional dream, I felt an intense burning and buzzing at the base of my spine. I sat up in bed, and felt what can only be described as an electric shock shooting up my spine into my head. I thought I might die it was so intense, but it only lasted a few seconds. I knew that something very big had happened. Over the course of the next few years, I began to feel different, physically, emotionally and intellectually. I felt tremendous healing as I slowly began to live closer and truer to matters of the heart.

It is as if now I am now more like a hollow reed where before I was a lead stick. It’s difficult to describe, but I continue to feel a sense of opening, enfolding, better able to love and be loved. And especially to belong – in my body, in my family, and in the entirety of this big, beautiful and crazy world.

There’s not freedom from suffering but to suffer as love does when it lives on in spite of the relentless longings. Feelings flow, moving through me without resistance. If I could bottle the experience, I gladly would and give it away. I am most grateful for feeling a sense of renewal.

Surprisingly, the one thing I thought I was missing; having an identity, I now know I never needed.

Next up in the series is one of my wonderful sisters in blogging, Linda –

Aunt Bunny’s Postcards

My great, great Aunt Bunny remains a lifelong source of inspiration for me. She was my father’s, mother’s, father’s, sister. Born in 1875 1877, two years after Carl Gustav Jung, she died in 1965, when I was only 7. She lived in an old house on Maple Avenue in Patchogue, Long Island NY, a couple of miles away from where I lived until my move west in 1991.

Anna Rebecca SmithI clearly remember visiting her somewhat exotic house as a young child. I knew she liked me, and for a young child that is so important to know, especially from an adult that is not your parent.

Aunt Bunny’s house was very old and she had a lot of stuff, everywhere. She would let me go through the bottom drawer of a dresser of some sort that she had in her living room. She collected many things, but was not a pack rat.

Aunt Bunny never married, had a live-in female companion (ooh!), was very opinionated, played pipe organ in the Methodist church, taught piano to local children, including my grandmother on my mother’s side. Yes, she was, next to my grandfather on my father’s side, my favorite relative outside of my immediate family.

I loved visiting her and being in her house. She collected exotic stuff, much of which was from her travels around the country and the world. Happily, my dad recently passed along some of the things that he kept that she had collected – including postcards, cigarette cards, letters, stamps, and currency from around the world.

Although never having met her, my husband shares my love of Aunt Bunny’s collections and is currently scanning her postcard collection. He wants to start a blog and share these wonderful glimpses into another time with you. I told him to go for it and have offered to help him set up his blog. So, if any of you have tips on picture-friendly templates, let me know. It might be awhile before his blog is ready to go live, but I am very excited about it and hope it is ready to share sometime this month.

I will have more stories of Aunt Bunny and her amazing life, which continues to inspire me even though she has been dead for so many years.

Strong words from another strong woman, Thanks Joni:

You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now
You’ve got to roar like forest fire
You’ve got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They’re going to aim the hoses on you
Show em you won’t expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die

Less than zero

So, what exactly is it that people are doing with their lives? That is the question that carried me through the next few years following the big dream. Feeling that some semblance of sanity had returned it seemed that life was waiting for me to finally cut a path through the heart of my existence.

On fire, I could hardly contain myself with so much energy and emotional freedom. For the first time in my life I had a sense of being “one of” rather than a feeling of waiting to be born. But alas, I was to find out again and again that there are aspects of yourself, inner drives, modes of perceiving that still bind you. For me it is the drive toward knowing and understanding the meaning and purpose of existence that sustain me and are as necessary to my being as are food and water.

It would be the highest form of self betrayal were I to ignore, deny or in any way seek to be rid of this instinct for meaning.

But before I was to settle down with a fuller acceptance of what sort of life I wanted to live there were a few more wayward flings left to experience. Although I am not often given to regret my actions, I did discover during this time that there are consequences for choices made and that nothing satisfies like love, and by love I mean the conscious willing kind, whether in family, friendship, or some creative endeavor, love is the greatest work and brings the highest rewards.

None of the modern indulgences of sex, eating, drinking or the selections from the menu of alternative lifestyles were very satisfying for me once the high that comes from being secretly outrageous, right-under-the-nose of, all your “normal” friends and family wears off.

After a few years of sampling some of what the modern world has to offer, all I really wanted was to find someone to make a home and be with who is willing to travel together the long road of life, through all the day to day beauty, wonders, sorrows and losses that come our way.

I wanted to know that love really matters and makes a difference in people’s lives and that transformative experiences can happen to anyone.

I wanted to stop hurting people and not to be hurt by them. The further I go in my closest relationships the more I see that love is a choice you make moment to moment. The best we can do is to know that we are continually making choices with every breath and step we take and to try to be there when you show up.

It could be that life’s long song finally catches your ear, maybe at different times for each of us. Maybe some people do manage to avoid ever worrying about whether there is an over-arching meaning to their life, maybe some people are naturally inclined to accept and live an unreflected life as it happens, but as I have aged I have found it very disturbing to think that we humans and the little marbled ball we call Earth are IT.

Can we really claim the title of the most conscious being in the universe? Can intelligence come from non-intelligence or lesser intelligence? Is there nothing besides human consciousness that knows, in the sense that we know, that we’re alive? I find that so incredibly hard to believe. How can life come from nothing? What is the drive, the spark that brings the world into being? I am no scientist, but I have never heard a satisfactory explanation for how it is that I am here, and know I am here.

Just as disturbing, is the human awareness and experience of good and evil. Not so much the natural cycle of life and death, that life feeds on itself (disturbing as that is), but more specifically the distinctly human kind of evil that we all seem to play our part in. Try as we may, it’s as if the good is never sustainable. Everything means less than zero

This sort of thinking would lead me back to the religious question of, is there a Creator? I had become comfortable with the notion that nature is an impersonal force in which evolutionary processes compel life forms forward and if there were anymore to it, we don’t have enough information to come to any conclusions about it.

Perhaps because I had experienced a deeper and clearer sense of myself as a person, the idea of an impersonal force of nature no longer satisfied.

And so began a renewed search and reconsideration of the claims of Christianity, starting with C.S. Lewis and of course the Bible.

“I gaze into the doorway
Of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way
I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey
I come to understand
That every hair is numbered
Like every grain of sand.” Bob Dylan