Feb. 28, 2008
This was a harrowing time of year for me when I lived in upstate New York. Winter by now had become an endless darkness barely alleviated by a few hours of halfhearted daylight. New to the northerliness of this latitude, I did not realize that the way to endure a long, frigid winter is not to hole up in artificially lit rooms until it passes but to walk on the ice and to carve ski tracks in the white expanses out your window. The ruddiness of your cheeks is at least proof your blood has not frozen. But I did not learn that until later. Summers were so short I began to anticipate the coming of the dark days by August.
On a trip to Washington, D.C., to see friends, the darkness took hold of me. Amid the boisterous greetings and dinners with people I'd bonded with in California only a few years earlier, all I felt was disconnection. From them. From myself. I could hardly speak, and the more I realized how divorced from them and from my usual reality I was, the bigger the hole seemed to get. On the drive home I knew I would need help to climb out.
The help came in a form of group therapy that involved lots of appropriate touching. After going around the group to hear about each person's feeling at the moment, a kind of weather report of current conditions, we would repair to the pillows on the carpeted floor and simply hold each other in pairs. One would talk, the other would listen. Sometimes the self-revelations were unpretty and angry and tearful, but no matter what was said you were always embraced.
We were, I think, embracing ourselves in each other. And it worked, at least for me. I went down to the ground to become grounded again.
In his book "Let Your Life Speak," Parker J. Palmer writes of his own dances with depression, what he calls "my awful inwardness." He came to view the experiences as a gift, a sign that the life he was living was not authentic, that he'd been driven by "oughts" and ego and was not friends with his true self. He emerged from his own depths feeling at home with himself for the first time. Again, that required putting his arms around himself, his whole self.
"I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light," he writes. "I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it."
The lesson of "Let Your Life Speak" is that we are not being ourselves unless we are pleasing our true selves. That our lives are teachers worth listening to and that our true selves, the self that watches and appreciates the mind's acrobatics but in moments of stillness and grace knows itself to be connected to the ground of being shared by all, is learning from every experience.
Having just weathered two ice storms here at the eve of March, people's eyes here are wide with longing for spring. Palmer, a Quaker whose calling is alternative education, recognizes that each life has its seasons and the worth in each one. Winter may be harsh and dark, he says, but some days the sky is so clear that realities you've avoided in more luxuriant seasons stand out to be examined in high relief.
The mere weeks to spring may pass slowly, but anticipation works both ways. When spring comes the bees will return to teach us how to live, Palmer says. "The flit all over the place, flirting with both the flowers and their fates. Obviously the bees are practical and productive, but no science can persuade me that they are not pleasuring themselves as well."
In the 17th century, the Japanese poet Basho stated the case as succinctly as only a haiku can:
of the peony."
Sam Blackwell is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.