by Angeliska on May 21, 2013
It’s springtime, still – just barely, but there are still lots of baby birds hatching out there. Much of the work I’ve been doing on myself over the past few months has been inspired by those little birds, and by another passage in Pema Chödrön’s book, The Places That Scare You – A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times:
For an aspiring bodhisattva, the essential practice is to cultivate maitri. In the Shambala teachings this is called “placing our fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness.” Another image of maitri or loving-kindness is that of a mother bird who protects and cares for her young until they are strong enough to fly away. People sometimes ask, “Who am I in this image – the mother or the chicks?” The answer is we’re both: both the loving mother and those ugly little chicks. It´s easy to identify with the babies – blind, raw, and desperate for attention. We are a poignant mixture of something that isn´t all that beautiful and yet is dearly loved. Whether this is our attitude towards ourselves, or our attitude towards others, it is the key to learning how to love. We stay with ourselves and others when we’re screaming for food and have no feathers and also when we are more grown up and more cute by worldly standards.
If you know me, or if you’ve been reading what I write here for awhile, then you know that last year was a pretty traumatic one for me. As the months have passed since the emotional apocalypse of summer and autumn of 2012, I’ve found myself face to face with many hard lessons, many deep challenges. It is these experiences that temper us, that force us to reckon with ourselves, with our pain, our fears. In the belly of the beast, there’s no more running – you either learn what you must, and grow, or keep running for the rest of your life. Or, as Pema puts it, “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?” In the midst of all that, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, taking care of myself, keeping myself going even when it seemed and felt impossible. I remember so clearly, that feeling of going through the motions – the hollowness that was with me every day, that seemed like it had become a horribly permanent part of me. I called my dear friend Brett, who has been my sherpa up and down this terrible mountain, having traversed it a few steps ahead of me – I asked him, “When will this hurt go away? Does it ever fade?” He promised me that it did, eventually. I had to trust him on that one, and just keep moving forward. Thankfully, he was right.
You hold an absence
at your center,
as if it were a life.
At some point I I discovered that I was no longer merely just going through the motions – my life had changed, had been irrevocably altered, and I had found a way to accept and flow with those changes, as difficult and painful as they were (and often still are.) For the first time in months, when someone would ask me how I was, I could honestly answer, “I’m doing pretty good, actually…” It was an amazing feeling, to be able to say that, and realize that it was true. Slowly, slowly, my heart had knitted itself back together. It was like the first drops of rain on parched earth after a long and brutal drought. Little green tendrils unfurled and began to reach out shyly, to climb and twine around – exploring this unknown territory. The healing took place almost invisibly, and so in some ways, I think I took it for granted. I was so used to being miserable and in pain for so long, that the day things started to ease up and turn around, I found it tempting to plunge headlong into just feeling good, into being okay. I met someone, and fell in love – something I had imagined was impossible, unfeasible, or at least – highly unlikely. I was terrified to extend myself, to try and learn how to trust again, to believe in the possibility of love. It was scary, but also exhilarating – like I imagine learning how to ice skate might be. I’ve never tried it, but I imagine that I would be mostly not very graceful, wobbly like Bambi, falling over – hopefully laughing, hopefully not breaking anything. One day, (on the morning of the explosive full moon in Libra back in March) we had a… I don’t even know what it was – cataclysm of sorts? I didn’t take it so well. In fact, I freaked out pretty badly. In an instant, the happy bubble of contentment I’d constructed was suddenly burst, and I tumbled out onto the hard ground. My reaction was shocking – especially to myself. I thought I had been doing such a good job of nurturing myself, healing myself, being patient and kind to myself – and yet, here I was right back in that dark pit of despair and self-recrimination. In a flash, all the work I’d done on having a good and loving relationship with myself seemed to evaporate like dew on a hot day – I felt rejected and thrown away, a feeling that has been a recurring theme I’ve battled a lot in my life, but particularly often this year. Instead of lashing outward (okay, mostly), I lashed inward – I was literally slapping myself in the face over and over, calling myself stupid. Stupid for loving, for trusting, for believing that things could be good, that I could have love. I was so angry at myself for allowing myself to be so vulnerable again, for being so raw, for letting myself get hurt. I realized that I was still not fully healed, too unsteady and new to all this, too prone to mistakes. Instead of being gentle and kind to myself on that hard day, I was very mean indeed. I was impatient, infuriated and embarrassed that I could be back in this state of deep pain. All of a sudden, I was the baby bird again, falling out of the nest. I thought I had grown, my fine feathers had come in finally and I imagined that I could fly – but no. Instead I toed that helpless lumpen bit with my boot, and kicked it over into the grass for the mercilessly biting red fire-ants of self-loathing to torture and devour.
You know, baby birds are really ugly. They’re actually hideous: half-blind squinty eyes in purple sockets that look like a boxer’s swollen shiners, that translucent, testicular skin stubbled with needle-like feathers poking through, their gaping yellow maws squawking unceasingly for food. “I want! I want! I hurt! I hurt!” So hungry, so needy, so pathetic. And yet, like Pema says – their mamas love them dearly, unconditionally, without reserve or judgement for their babies’ outcast state, their bootless cries. The mamas are there, protecting, feeding, comforting. As children, of course we look to our mothers to do this for us, or sometimes our fathers too – but as adults, most of us never learn to do it for ourselves. It’s hard, when you’re nothing but a splattered mess on the asphalt, to pick yourself back up, and tenderly cradle that ugly part of yourself. To feel compassion for your flaws, your weaknesses – instead of disgust and shame. How can we allow ourselves to be the tiny nestling, and rise up to being the capable adult, simultaneously? That’s the trick – that is the work. Being totally present with ourselves in that raw and frantic place is usually too overwhelming, too awful – we reach immediately for distraction, for panacea, for something that will make that noisy and annoyingly achy part of ourselves shut the hell up. Whatever the thing is that usually seems to work for us, be it booze, drugs, sex, shopping, television, work – it’s only a temporary fix. The unhappy baby bird is only going to be satisfied by one thing: love. I think I did grasp that part pretty early on, after I lost my mother – that the only replacement for her unconditional mother’s love, was what I learned from fairytales was the next best thing as far as depth and enduring power went: true love, romantic love. Prince Charming, the knight in shining armor, the soulmate, The One. I spent years looking for that elusive concept in all the wrong places, and damaging myself plenty on that thorny path. What I didn’t get, is that it’s not about finding love, about being loved – it’s about loving. My teacher reminded me of this recently, and also – that the majority of the great love songs, when you really listen to them, are about giving love – not receiving it. Of course, how can you give that love to others if you can’t extend it to yourself? It’s just like we’ve been told all our lives, and just like RuPaul says: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” Can I get an amen? It can sound like nothing but an easily cast off feel-good platitude, but that shit is true. You have to be able to give it to yourself first. You have to be enough for yourself at all times. You have to be the one you are looking for. For years, I was like that little bird in the storybook, “Are You My Mother?” trying to find something or someone outside of myself to replace that love that I lost. I didn’t know that I had it in me all that long while – I didn’t know that I was enough.
As painful as my recent tumble from the nest was, as excruciating as all of the hard experiences in my life have been, I am finally starting to feel grateful for them – grateful at least for the lessons, for the opportunities to grow, to learn. As horrid as it was to be back in that shitty, broken place with myself, I eventually eased up. I let the tears fall, without furiously knuckling them away – I held myself, in all my heaviness, my rawness. I listened to my own piercing cries patiently, and tried not to recriminate myself for my sensitivities. I’ve had to learn to be my own mother, my own true love, my own best friend. It sounds kind of lonely, kind of sad – to have to do that for yourself, maybe especially if you actually have a mother, a true love, a best friend. Isn’t that their job? To love you, to be there for you, to never leave you? Maybe so, but who knows if they can always be there, even if they wanted to be. We have to be there for ourselves, first and foremost. Always. As an addendum to this story, you might want to know that the cataclysm that sparked it was relatively brief and peacefully resolved with a currently extremely happy outcome. That’s a good thing – but it’s a challenge to not fall back on a relationship to be the thing that fixes us, makes us feel safe, satisfied, whatever. It’s still up to us to maintain that baseline of self-care regardless of what anyone else in our lives is doing or not doing. I had a powerful experience recently, on my family land: I was laying belly down on the sun-warmed outcropping of pink granite out past the creek, and had the intense sensation of being embraced, being held by the earth. Many times over the years, I’ve encountered well-meaning hippies, who, upon hearing that I lost my mother at a young age, would tell me, “Oh honey, you still have a mom! The EARTH is your mother!” I would sneer at them and explain that the earth wasn’t available to take me bra shopping, make me doll clothes, to teach me all the lady secrets I grew up having to guess at. In this moment, though – I finally felt it, felt that it was true. The earth was cradling me like a little robin’s egg, like an infinitely precious treasure. Never in my whole life, outside of the womb, have I felt so loved, so protected, so cared for and adored. It was amazing – and I know that I was feeling my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, all the women who lived and died on that ancestral land, reaching out to me through the rock. I feel certain that being able to feel all that was a gift that I was able to receive because of how much I’ve been trying to understand this lesson. Knowing that I can reach within, and at any time, access that deep unconditional love is the greatest gift I could ever imagine. I have been looking for this answer for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It was here all the time. What if we could all hold that fullness, instead of an absence, at our centers – all of the time? As if it were a life. Because it is. Stretch out those fledgling wings, little thing.
Weird But True: The Secret to Dealing With Those Things Called “Feelings” – I stumbled across this post when I was researching writing this piece, and I’m so glad I did. There’s a really important story here, that I’ve been really impacted by. Please read.
Are You My Mother?