I’m Just Not Into Lent This Year

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I have to admit it; I’m just not into Lent this year. I’ve been thinking, pondering and writing, all the while trying to come up with something insightful to share – to no avail – at least in the traditional sense. So, here I am, the creative insomniac – wide awake and pondering. In the midst of my late night reverie, I’ve realized that I’m just not into Lent this year, and that’s okay. Actually, as I’ve thought about my predicament in a deeper way, I’ve come to the conclusion that this might be a mark of a maturing spirituality.

I entered deeply into the Christ myth last year when I was diagnosed with a large meningioma brain tumor. I walked the road to Jerusalem and faced my own mortality and the fear of leaving this life and the people I love. I’ve always been the one who has helped others live with the realization that we just don’t have control over much at all in this life, and yet I still bought into the lie that I was in control. That is, until I heard the words, “You have a large mass in your brain. We’ve made an appointment for you to see a neurosurgeon today. He’s waiting for you at his office. You need to leave right now.” There’s something about hearing the words, “You have a large mass in your brain” that will bring you to your knees in a state of utter bewilderment. The experience invited me to enter into the sacred myth in a way I’d never done before, and in doing so, it brought me to a place of surrender – well, after all the profanity was spoken aloud. I’ve found profanity to be a very useful coping tool.

I survived. I recovered from three surgeries, and believe me, there were days when I thought I never would. I prayed nightly that I would open my eyes to see another day, and I prayed all kinds of prayers. I recited mantras. I called on friends to pray with me. A Rabbi friend came to my home and sang prayers of healing at my bedside. I prayed Muslim prayers, Christian prayers and Jewish prayers; I recited Hindu mantras and read sacred Sufi poetry. I lovingly held prayer beads given to me by a group of exceptionally kind Sisters from an Irish Monastery. What does all this mean? Well, it means I wanted to live. The desire to live is so primal, it’s a part of our DNA, really – much like the primal relationships we have with our parents. I wasn’t ready to give up the gift of this life. The prayers and mantras brought me relief, sweet rest and comfort to my soul, all things essential to the healing of the body. In time, thanks to the great skill and care of my surgeons, the nursing and home care staff and the unwavering love and care of friends and family who took care of me, my body did heal.

I’m still living the truth of the myth. Now, as Spring has arrived and the days are growing warmer, I’m on the road to Emmaus and, sometimes with disbelief, I am amazed that I rise each day to greet the morning sun. I greet each day with deep, deep gratitude.

So, forgive me, but I’m just not into Lent this year. I’m still basking in the warm sun of the Emmaus Road. I’ve surrendered to the illusion that I have control over how the cells of my body are going to change and grow. This past year has taught me that sometimes the cells grow into dangerous tumors. I don’t take a good day for granted. For each day, I offer thanks for the gift of seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the people I love. I offer thanks for laughter and sweet time spent with my friends. I offer thanks for the ability to continue to learn new things. I offer thanks for prayers:  Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayers and for Sufi poetry and Hindu mantras of healing. I offer thanks to life. I don’t need to be reminded that I am of dust and to dust I will return. My brain tumor reminded me of that fact. What I do need to be reminded of is the truth that from the dust of the earth, new life rises. I need to be reminded of that every day.  None of us have a “thousand second moves,” as the mystic poet Hafiz reminds us. We simply have what life presents. And while I can, I want to trip over joy and burst out in laughter and continue to be thankful for life’s surprises.

Love. C

 

 

 

 

 

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Lenten Practice ~ Week Two

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“…we need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life.”

John Philip Newell
Newell is writing here of what is means to share our depths and our sacred story with another. The words summarize the best of the relationship between Spiritual Director and Directee. In moments of deep sharing with another person, deep sharing of our experience  of the Mystery Beyond All Our Naming, we come to understand that we’re not so different from one another. We’re more alike than we’ve ever imagined. We all know joy and sorrow, love and loss. So, my Lenten Practice for Week Two is this: find someone with whom you place your deepest trust and share an insight of your Lenten or Life journey thus far. Ask them to simply listen as you share your sacred story. At the end of your time, touch hands, thank them for the great gift of simply sitting in silence and listening to your story. Then, do the same for your friend. You’ll be amazed at the insight that comes forth, and you’ll be blessed to have received such a healing gift. 
Love & Blessings on Your Lenten Journey! 
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Keeping a Holy Lent

189094_3040562White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall

I recently visited the The Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where this painting was part of the recent exhibit, The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters From the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a massive painting, and was one of the anchor pieces of the exhibit, and it took my breath away with its beauty and its message. It still haunts me as all exceptional art will do.

Painted in 1938, White Crucifixion was the first of many compositions in which Chagall portrayed the image of Christ as a Jewish martyr. It’s a political piece; the artist was calling attention to the suffering and persecution of the Jews of Europe during the 1930′s. Looking more closely, you’ll see that the artist ”stressed the Jewish identity of Jesus in several ways: he replaced his traditional loincloth with a prayer shawl, his crown of thorns with a headcloth, and the mourning angels that customarily surround him with three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch, clad in traditional Jewish garments. At either side of the cross, Chagall illustrated the devastation of pogroms: On the left, a village is pillaged and burned, forcing refugees to flee by boat and the three bearded figures below them—one of whom clutches the Torah— to escape on foot. On the right, a synagogue and its Torah ark go up in flames, while below a mother comforts her child. By linking the martyred Jesus with the persecuted Jews and the Crucifixion with contemporary events, Chagall’s painting passionately identifies the Nazis with Christ’s tormentors and warns of the moral implications of their actions” (The Essential Guide, The Art Institute of Chicago, p. 277).

I’ve been meditating upon this painting as I’ve prepared to enter Lent. As I’ve observed my community of colleagues and friends, I’ve noticed some are keeping a Holy Lent by  committing to a Facebook or other social media fast, others fasting from other forms of media and committing to prayer, and some are committing to fasting for one meal per week and donating the money they would’ve spent on food to a ministry that helps the poor. As I observe these Lenten practices, I’m reminded that there are as many ways to observe a Holy Lent as there are ways to “kneel and kiss the ground,” as the magnificent poet, Rumi, wrote.

As I enter Lent, I’m aware that Chagall’s painting has found a place in my soul, and it keeps calling to me. The great artist reminds me to open my eyes and ears to see and hear the suffering around me, to not turn away from the stories and images of those being persecuted today, and finally, to use my life and my gifts to alleviate some small bit of suffering in the world. I’m asked to see and hear with a heart open to know with certainty that the torment continues in our world today, in our country, indeed, in our own neighborhoods. The tormented and the tormentors are among us, indeed, they are us. In my small part of the world, families struggle as jobs are lost, children still go to bed hungry, they are still abused and neglected, domestic violence rips apart the fabric of love and kindness from relationships and families, immigrants live among us afraid for the future, poverty crushes the spirit, and so on and so on.

My Lenten practice begins with meditation upon Chagall’s haunting work, and it continues by journaling, prayer and action. I will hold in my heart, my writing and my actions, a deeper call to self-examination, to repentance, forgiveness, and prayer and, finally, a commitment to loving kindness and action on behalf of others. Whatever observance you choose, may your Lent be a Holy One, and may your observance of it transform both you and the community in which you live.

Love. C

 

 

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Stand Up and Show Your Soul

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January 14, 2014. Today a 12 year old little boy opened fire on his classmates in Roswell, New Mexico – a little boy – just 12 years old. Tonight, untold numbers of children are hungry in our country. Perhaps their parents are out of work and benefits have run out; perhaps they’re being neglected. Tonight, here in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. It’s exhausting, really. It’s exhausting to open our minds and souls to the reality of so much suffering. Yet, somehow, we find the hope, strength and compassion to continue to care for those in our midst. As Dr. Estes reminds us, we were made for these times. Don’t lose heart. Don’t lose your compassion. Continue to work for a just society; share your love, your compassion, your hope, and your strength. In every thought, in every word and every action, let your soul shine bright.

Let Your Soul Light Shine Bright
By Clarissa Pinkola Estes

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.

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I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails. We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?

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Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these—to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

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There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate. The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D
Author of the best seller Women Who Run with the Wolves

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Surviving and Thriving Through the Holidays – A Few Helpful Tips

 

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Normal? What’s normal? My 20+ years in ministry have taught me that we all come from families with some type of dysfunction (some, more than others, and it can range from benign indifference to outright cruelty) – we’re all messy human beings doing the best we can, after all. So as we prepare to gather around the Thanksgiving and Holiday Table with families and friends, here are a few things to remember if you’re gathering with a family that carries a lot of hurt and pain and are not kind to one another: (1) One Thanksgiving or Holiday Dinner is not going to bring about reconciliation and cure all the hurts that the folks gathered are bringing to the table, so try to relax, you can’t fix it. (2) You don’t have to be there, but you’ve chosen to be there, so be kind in all you say and do. It’s just for a few hours. (3) Don’t argue and bring up the hurts – this is not the time and place, and remember, you can’t fix it. (4) Smile and laugh – it’s so disarming. (5) In order to do no harm through your words or actions, take a walk and get away if you have to. (6) Don’t over consume alcohol – you won’t be at your best. (7) If young children are there, set up a play area, or better yet, a play room, where they can enjoy the peace of creativity and play and be protected from the words and actions of adults who haven’t yet grown up. (8) Find something good about each of the folks gathered and compliment them on that one, good quality that you honestly respect and enjoy. (9) Don’t stay too long. (10) Afterwards, find the time to gather with the people with whom you know mutual love and respect. Take in all that goodness, and heal your heart.  And, finally, if you gather with a family that makes you feel bad about yourself, search for a good psychotherapist who can help you understand how fabulous you are!

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Rejoicing in Life for Its Own Sake

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This is the true joy in life — being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy…I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw

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Doubt Is The Process By Which Faith is Deepened

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I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. ”

― Flannery O’ConnorThe Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

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Poets as Spiritual Directors ~ Three Poets Who Live in the Marrow of my Bones

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I’m often asked the question, “Who is your Spiritual Director?” While I do have someone with whom I talk on a regular basis about every aspect of my life, my longings and my dreams, I wouldn’t necessarily say that he is my Spiritual Director. Actually on one level, he is that and so much more. Truthfully, being “so much more” is what makes my relationship with him so meaningful. He listens with great skill, offers insight that leads to growth and change and is just a genuinely kind and supportive person. Yet, my true and primary Spiritual Director is not a singular person, nor a theologian in the traditional sense. They are, rather, three poets who enrich my soul whenever I read their work.

As I’ve changed over the course of my life, those who inspire me to deeper faith, hope, honesty, integral living and compassionate loving have changed. They have always been persons of depth and of various faith traditions. As a younger woman, I’d have written about Schubert Ogden (a seminary professor who I will always remember with deep gratitude), Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, St. Therese, or Matthew Fox among others. As I think about who my companions are at this moment in my life, I find that I am no longer drawn to the great theologians and social justice crusaders who are known more for their public work and their own individuation processes. At this moment in my life, I am drawn to a different kind of theologian, to three women, who through their work and their struggles, speak with incredible depth to my own human condition and my place in the world as a woman. They are all poets. My primary spiritual directors are Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds, and I am drawn to each of them for different reasons. Denise Levertov has taught me about the depth of prayer and the beauty of living a life of faith. Mary Oliver continues to teach me about the necessity to see, to look deeply at the natural world and into my own depths. She teaches me to embrace joy in the simplest of things. Sharon Olds keeps me honest; she is a truth-teller. When I read Olds’ poetry, I am reminded of the power of simply being honest about and telling the stories of our lives. Olds calls me to live without fear and to dive headfirst into every moment of life by either experiencing the moment or entering into deep introspection about a lived event. I can relate to all of these women and their unique experiences they have written of with such beauty. When I read their work, I feel a range of emotions – comforted, disturbed, challenged, joyful, frustrated, grateful and moved, to name just a few. My responses can be visceral and lasting. These women and their words live in the marrow of my bones. They call me to live life honestly with all of my senses wide open, ready to give and receive, and to claim my place in the great Mystery.

Denise Levertov (1923-1927) was born in England and died in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a Hasidic Jew who converted to Christianity while teaching in Leipzig, Germany. After moving the family to England, he became an Anglican priest. Levertov never received a formal education; she was educated at home. By the age of 5, she knew she wanted to be a writer. Her first poem was published at the age of 17. She married and moved to the United States where she later became the poetry editor for The Nation and Mother Jones. During the Vietnam War, her poetry focused on activism and peace-making. After the war and in her later years, she converted to Roman Catholicism, and it was at this juncture that her poetry changed. Never a poet to be tied to fixed forms of writing, she continued to write in an open and experimental style, but now with a different emphasis. Her themes changed from feminism and activism to those of suffering, pilgrimage, the spiritual journey, doubt and struggle. She wrote extensively of her experience of God and the paradox of living a life of faith without knowing any answers. Of her father’s influence on her life and work, Levertov had these words to say, “my father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells” (Contemporary Women Poets). The scholarship and mysticism, the questioning of everything and the pondering of great mystery is Levertov’s gift to my life.

Mary Oliver (b. 1935) is a daughter of the midwest, but now makes her home in New England. She attended both Ohio State University and Vassar but did not graduate from either institution. Oliver spent most of her life with her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook, who was photographer by training and later became Oliver’s literary agent. Of Cook’s death, Oliver writes beautifully of her deep grief. Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet having won the prize in 1984 for her collection titled American Primitive. She is a superb observer of the natural world, and her themes reflect her love for nature and creation. She is also concerned with introspection, wonder, joy and the wisdom of nature. In a recent NPR interview, she revealed that prayer has become a new theme in her poetry and in her later life. “I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful and almost involuntary in my life. And when I talk about prayer, I mean really what Rumi says in that wonderful line, ‘there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.’  I’m not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth prayer [psalm]. The name of the God doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that there are so many names of that Mystery.” Her keen observation skills, wisdom and compassion are Oliver’s gifts to me.

Sharon Olds (b. 1942) was born in San Francisco and makes her home in New York. Olds was educated at Stanford and then received a PhD at Columbia where her work focused on the prose of Emerson. A lifelong poet and teacher, she has been recognized as the Poet Laureate of New York. Olds’ early life fills the pages of her poetry. She was raised a “hellfire Calvinist” by strict and abusive parents. As a child, she was told that she was going to hell, so understandably, Olds describes herself as an atheist. Like Levertov, she left behind fixed forms of writing poetry and focused more on an open and experimental style. She writes eloquently and forcefully of family, abuse, sexuality, relationships, love and birth. Her poems are full of raw honesty and candor. What I find most appealing about Olds’ poetry is her fearlessness as she writes about and celebrates both our sexuality and our animal nature as human beings. Her poetry brims with raw beauty and honesty. She also writes about taboo subjects such as abuse and rape.  Poet Alicia Ostriker writes the following of Olds’ work: “in later collections, Olds writes of an abusive childhood, in which miserably married parents bully, punish and silence her. She writes too, of her mother’s apology after 37 years, a moment when ‘the sky seemed to be splintering, like a window/someone is bursting into or out of.’” The Guardian writes of her work as follows, “She has always confronted the personal details of her life with remarkable directness and honesty, but the key to her success is the way this material is lit up by a range of finely judged shifts in scale and perspective. Her poems are vivid morality plays, wresting with ideas of right and wrong, full of symbolic echoes and possibilities.” Her deep honesty and candor about her life are Olds’ gifts to me as she inspires me to do the same.

The following are some examples of their poetry, words I love so fiercely -

On the Mystery of the Incarnation

It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: not to a flower, not to a dolphin, to no innocent form but to this creature vainly sure it and no other is god-like, God (out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve) entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word.

Denise Levertov

I Happened to be Standing

I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do. Do cats pray, while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers? The old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance.  A condition I can’t really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing just outside my door, with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, I don’t know why.  And yet, why not. I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t.  That’s your business. But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be if it isn’t a prayer? So I just listened, my pen in the air.

Mary Oliver

The Pact

We played dolls in that house where Father staggered with the Thanksgiving knife, where Mother wept at noon into her one ounce of cottage cheese, praying for the strength not to kill herself. We kneeled over the rubber bodies, gave them baths carefully, scrubbed their little orange hands, wrapped them up tight, said goodnight, never spoke of the woman like a gaping wound weeping on the stairs, the man like a stuck buffalo, baffled, stunned, dragging arrows in his side. As if we had made a pact of silence and safety, we kneeled and dressed those tiny torsos with their elegant belly-buttons and minuscule holes high on the buttock to pee through and all that darkness in their open mouths, so that I have not been able to forgive you for giving your daughter away, letting her go at eight as if you took Molly Ann or Tiny Tears and held her head under the water in the bathinette until no bubbles rose, or threw her dark rosy body on the fire that burned in that house where you and I barely survived, sister, where we swore to be protectors.

Sharon Olds

Reprinted from the author’s blog © Charlise Hill-Larson and Discovering Fire ~ Waking Up ~ Musings on the Mystery, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charlise Hill-Larson and Discovering Fire ~ Waking Up ~ Musings on the Mystery with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Gift of a Brain Tumor – Blessings Found in the Liminal Spaces

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Liminal Spaces. The word liminal is derived from the Latin “limen” which literally means a threshold, specifically the transverse beam found in a door frame. We humans, though, are creatures of great complexity and creativity and, along the way of our evolution and expansion of our minds, we came to understand that contemplating the transverse beam found in a doorway opened our minds to see the myriad and symbolic thresholds that present themselves in our lives. The term liminal space has come to be used in a wide variety of disciplines: architecture, art, philosophy, theology, psychology and anthropology to name a few. Most often, in its current use, liminal spaces refer to a rite of passage or moments of fear, change or opportunity in the process of our individuation, our process of maturation as human creatures. If we live consciously, we find that we live in these points of transition almost all of the time. A liminal space is an invitation, a point of standing, figuratively, at doorway wondering what awaits us if we step through, or perhaps it’s envisioned as we see ourselves walking a tightrope struggling to maintain balance and cheating death one more time. I often envision a liminal space as standing at the edge of a rushing stream with one toe of one foot feeling the rushing water beckoning me to enter what is unknown while my other foot remains steadfastly grounded in the earth beckoning me to stay where I feel safe.

All kinds of life experiences lead us to the threshold of a liminal space – falling in love, separating from our home and parents, struggling to understand who we are in the world, discerning our life’s calling, discerning how the calling changes throughout life, giving birth to a child, divorce, marriage, betrayal by someone we love, the death of a child, parent, lover or friend, failure, success, moments of disbelief and emptiness, depression, serious illness, living in poverty, living in wealth, creativity and creating something of beauty, and this is just my short list! I entered into yet another liminal space a few months back when I heard the words “you have a mass in your brain.” I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut, but my first response, defensively, was laughter. Disbelief engulfed me. “What did you just say to me – a mass – in my brain?” The radiologist looked at me with grave seriousness and said, “Yes, and I’ve made an appointment for you to meet with a neurosurgeon in twenty minutes; you need to leave right now.” Hearing those words led me to a liminal space.

I never allowed myself to cry in front of my two surgeons. I lived in the realm of magical thinking so common to children. There was a part of me, a primal part, that believed that if I allowed my surgeons to see the true extent of my fear that somehow I would jinx their ability to heal me. Yet, when I met with our attorney to go over my will and directives, I lost my composure and burst into tears. I was overcome with gasping cries, whispers and fragments of words when I asked him to share with my husband the process of probating my will in the event of my death. I was terrified.

Then shortly after the diagnosis, I had a dream of my maternal grandmother, a fierce and lovely woman who has been dead now for over thirty years. My grandmother, a favorite aunt and a beloved dog came to me in the dream, and their presence was incredibly soothing. The dream itself was a liminal space, a threshold between realms of life and death, fear and safety. The dream helped to calm my fears. It didn’t take away the fear, but my fear no longer held its crippling power over me. The following is an excerpt from my Caring Bridge journal, a very brief reflection upon the dream and its meaning. Reading back over the journal, I’ve been struck by how, so often, my writing betrayed the deep paralyzing and terrifying fear I was living with. I was trying to take care of the people who love me – my immediate family, friends and extended family members who were so incredibly kind and compassionate. I was also working very hard to stay grounded and not get caught up in the rushing water that was the stream of “you have a mass in your brain.” There is so much more to write about the experience of this dream, but for now, sharing my initial thoughts will have to do.

Blessings Found in the Liminal Spaces

Written March 4, 2013 2:55pm

Good day, friends! I want to express my deep thanks to all of you for your support, compassion, good humor, prayers and loving/healing thoughts. Coming to terms with my diagnosis is really a day to day experience. On Friday, our fear was relieved, somewhat, after meeting with Dr. C. Saturday was okay, but on Sunday, the fear I’ve known came roaring back. I found that it was hard to sleep both Saturday and Sunday nights, though I’ve been given really good medication to help me; thank God for my psychiatrist/therapist who is helping me through this as well.

Early this morning, I woke from sleep at 1245 am. I didn’t fall back into a deep sleep until 5 am. In the interim, I had the most remarkable experience. Was it a dream or fantasy? Had I relaxed my mind to allow for free association or active imagination? Honestly, I don’t know; I only know that the experience was a gift.
I found myself in a liminal space, standing in a threshold between waking and dreaming, and I began to think about my fear. As I pondered my fear, an image came forth of a mad and violent dog who was threatening my safety. As I continued to dialogue with this image, a story unfolded.
I was at the home of my maternal grandmother, Rosa Lyons. My grandmother was a remarkable woman. Her face was etched with the pains of a hard life lived amidst great poverty when she was a child and younger woman. She lived in rural Alabama where she grew her own food, slaughtered her own animals for food, made her own wine, and canned delicious jams and jellies from the fruits and grape vines she cultivated on her property. She also made the best biscuits I’ve ever eaten and have only come close to replicating. Her biscuits would melt on your tongue like sweet honey. Rosa’s house, my “other mama,” was a safe sanctuary for me. She was a formidable woman who was also a kind and good person who loved her children and grandchildren and lived a simple and fulfilling life. I do believe she was fulfilled in her older age being surrounded by so many who loved her.
A few years ago, I took Devon on pilgrimage to Alabama so she could see where her roots were from on my side of the family, and of course, we had to visit Rosa’s house. Another family occupies the home now, but they were kind enough to welcome us and let us tour the home and property. I remember stepping onto the porch and feeling tears drench my face. I have so many fond memories of that front porch. It was there that I would gather with Rosa, my mother and her sisters to shell peas and beans on a hot summer day. Even though I was a small child, I felt like a “big girl” listening to the stories of these remarkable women, and what stories and tall tales these women told! It was on Rosa’s front porch that I learned the art of telling a good story. It was a magical time. Her front porch is also where my brother and I would sit in the wooden swing just before bed. Almost ten years older than me, Wayne delighted in scaring his younger sister with ghost stories which let my imagination run wild! I adored my brother and still miss him; he died too young. Those summer days and evenings in rural Alabama with my mom and brother were magical, and any time spent in Rosa’s house was a sweet time in my childhood.
I saw myself on Rosa’s front porch together with my aunt Jesse Mae (my mother’s oldest sister) and with Rosa’s dog whose name was Shep. Now my aunt Jesse Mae, also a deeply kind and loving woman, was not one to mess with. Over and over, I remember the following phrase being spoken about Jesse Mae in my early childhood: “Jesse Mae wouldn’t be afraid of the devil if he was standing right in front of her!” In today’s vernacular that phrase would be heard as “Jesse Mae, she don’t take s#*t off no one!”
So, in this reverie, I’m standing on Rosa’s front porch with Rosa, my grandmother, my aunt Jesse Mae and Rosa’s dog Shep. The yard is enclosed by a chain link fence, and coming down the dirt road was mad and angry dog (the image of my fear overtaking my sense of safety). It was coming for me. As it reached the front gate, Shep tore after the angry dog and with his size and fierce bark, the mad/angry dog, the image of my fear, backed off and ran away. Shep had kept me safe. I have a few photos of me with Shep at my grandmother’s house; we are sound asleep on the sofa, napping together on a hot summer afternoon. To see Shep come forward in this sacred and liminal space was soothing. I was protected by Rosa, Jesse Mae and Shep, the dog I so loved as a little girl.
Now, like any dream or other liminal space experience, I can learn so much more by dialoging with the images, and of course I will do that. I find the exercise to be deeply insightful and strangely soothing. I view what I experienced as a statement of my soul, a dream, if you will, that gave my mind greater speech. Upon learning of my diagnosis, Diane Tomhave, a friend and member of my learning group with The Haden Institute, wrote and reminded me that I will move through this health crisis surrounded by my elders and wise ones. Her words helped me to open my soul to that experience, and I’m so grateful. Thank you, Diane.
The experience was a gift, and it is an image I’ll return to again and again. Today is a better day!
Love.
© Charlise Hill-Larson and Care of the Soul, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charlise Hill-Larson and Care of the Soul with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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The Gift of a Brain Tumor

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Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, and so much has happened! Where do I begin? It’s complicated, but I will admit that I had not been feeling well for the past two years and just did not have the energy to devote myself to all the things I love. I was finishing post-graduate study with The Haden Institute, a program in Jungian Themed Spiritual Direction (Carl Jung & Depth Psychology). While, I absolutely loved the work and the people I was studying with, I was worried about my health.  I was losing the hearing in my left ear at an alarming rate. I also found myself plagued with headaches, facial numbness, balance issues and falling. I fell so much in so many places. It’s a wonder that I wasn’t plagued with a broken bone along the way! In fact, I fell with a great deal of fanfare on a boat dock while on vacation in Hawaii where I severely bruised my right knee and came back home on crutches.  A few months later, I crashed my road bike by running into a limestone wall. In addition to tearing up my bike shorts, I came out of that with a bruised ego and lot of road rash on my right thigh.  The headaches, though, were the worst; though short-lived, they were debilitating.  Just two weeks before my diagnosis, I found myself doubled over with headache pain on a local running track – not the best way to impress one’s running coach! I had come up with all kinds of explanations for what I was experiencing, and a common theme that I associated with it all was my grand and wise age of 55, which I’ve now realized is not all that old. At 50, I had entered into the period of the wise crone, but in my mind and soul, I always felt younger. Now, I feel as if I am 30 years old again. Did you read that correctly? I feel as if I am 30 years old again, and there’s a deeper quality to my overall general happiness that I haven’t known for a long time. For this, I thank my brain tumor.

Yes, my brain tumor, thankfully, a meningioma.  Meningiomas are almost always benign, as was mine; however, the location of mine was tricky. It was pressing against my brain stem, and upon the first meeting with the neurosurgeon, my husband and I were told that if I didn’t have it removed, I would suffer a catastrophic stroke within the next two to three years. The diagnosis came in February of this year. One month later, it was removed in a very long surgery at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. I was attended to by two exceptional surgeons, known affectionately in all of my Caring Bridge writings as my “rock star surgeons.” They are Caetano Coimbra, MD and Ricardo Cristobal, MD, PhD.  The “Texas Giant,” as I’ve referred to my tumor, was removed successfully; however, I have been living in the Valley of the Shadow of Complications for the past three months. Within one month of the initial surgery, I developed a cerebro-spinal fluid leak, and while the surgery to repair it was successful, the wound on the side of my head stubbornly refused to heal. So, eleven days ago, I had a third and very successful surgery. The stitches have been removed, and the wound has healed. In all, I’ve endured three surgeries to my brain and head in the past four months, and I’m here, in this life and loving it. I’m feeling wonderful, and I’m so grateful.

Since February 22, the day of my diagnosis, I’ve been writing about my experience privately on Caring Bridge, a wonderful service for folks who are experiencing a health event or crisis. You can learn more about them at www.caringbridge.org. In fact, I’ve written over 200 pages of material there. It’s raw and honest writing and is full of humor. So, coming now to the other side of this health crisis, I’m back to this blog, Discovering Fire, for a short while.  Many changes are taking place in my life, one of which is the possibility of doing further writing regarding my experience. An artist and creative soul, I’m also returning to the darkroom this fall to work on some more fine art photography. I’ll be studying with photographer and artist Elizabeth Mellott again and hope to work on two photographic series this fall – one on the beautiful mountains and desert landscape of West Texas. I’ll be joining my husband, Peter, for a conference in El Paso and from there we’re traveling to Marfa, Texas, where we’ll be celebrating our 29th wedding anniversary. The second series I hope to do is one on architecture. This week I decided to rent office space in the historic West End of Dallas at The Grove, www.grovedallas.com.  I’ll be sharing space with other creative types, artists, non-profits, gurus in technology and business. In addition, we’ll have our own exhibition and gallery space – it should be a lot of fun! The Grove’s space is located in one of the oldest buildings in downtown Dallas, and it is beautiful! So, I hope to photograph the space and the building. I’m planning on facilitating a monthly group on Jungian dreamwork while there, and I’ll share more information on that offering as it comes to fruition. I’m also taking a creative writing class at SMU to help me decide what I want to do with my writing. I have a full life!

Prior to my brain tumor diagnosis, I’d been in a period of transition. I had already decided to leave full-time ministry, though I was still doing Spiritual Direction on a limited, part-time basis out of my home office. I was still trying to figure out how I was going to live this last third of my life.  The brain tumor was a wake up call; it got my attention in a big, big way. Strangely, it has served as a catalyst and a great gift – it’s time to make some decisions, and the lovely creative pursuits I have planned for the fall are a part of that decision-making process. It truly has been a gift, one that has been transforming.

So, here at Discovering Fire, I’m going to share some of the writing I’ve done on Caring Bridge. I’ll be working on new ideas and articles here and will be using this a platform for further contemplation, in other words, I’m working it out, trying to understand the layers of the gift.

To start, here’s one of my first entries from my Caring Bridge Journal. It was written five days after the diagnosis. There’s more to come. Enjoy! You’ll read below that I was expecting to be recovered by late Spring and though we are now in the hot and humid dog days of a Texas Summer in August, I do step out into each day, at sunrise every morning, and say to myself, “Life, I love you, and I am so grateful.” My deepest thanks to my rock star surgeons, Dr. Caetano Coimbra and Dr. Ricardo Cristobal for giving me years to my life. You are both amazing and gifted physicians.

Friends, don’t work so hard! Make time to play, kiss and laugh. Life is short. Enjoy it! 

Love, C

Riding This Roller Coaster

Written February 27, 2013 4:24am

Growing up in Georgia, my friends and I were thrilled when Six Flags Over Georgia opened, and it was at that amusement park that I first experienced the thrill of the roller coaster ride. The Great American Scream Machine was a classic and was the fastest roller coaster in the world when it was built. Here’s a little clip from You Tube which reminds me of what the ride was like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEtt_Ymh-EI.

When I was younger, I absolutely loved roller coasters. I loved the rush of adrenaline, the fear, the knots in my stomach, the screaming and laughing, the glorious time spent with high school friends, and the wide smile across my face as we came to a stop. I remember distinctly getting out of the car and saying, “Wow, that was fantastic!” I still love a great roller coaster ride, but I don’t ride them very much anymore. I no longer possess the fearlessness of my younger years.
It’s easy to guess where I’m going with this. Yes, I’m now on an emotional roller coaster. I liken the past 18 months to two years to the slow ascent to the first great hill on a ride. It’s a slow progression. I feel different but can’t quite put a finger on what’s going on. For every symptom I’ve had, well, I’ve had a great explanation for it: “(1) people my age have balance issues and fall all the time – it’s just part of getting older; (2) my hearing loss – ditto the aging thing; (3) this numbness in my face must be due to the dental work I had done and it will just take time to return to normal; (4) why does my left eye feel numb? Oh, I must not be drinking enough water. My eyes are dry; (5) these headaches, OMG, I feel like my head is going to explode – reactions to meds and allergies.”
Peter and I have made the slow ascent to the top of the first hill and now we’re on the fast, furious, out of control feeling of the descent and the continuing ride. The high points are really high – feeling the love, compassion and hope of those who love and support us. It’s really a wonderful feeling. Yet, the lows are really low; it’s when fear gets the best of me.
By the end of each day, Peter and I are emotionally exhausted. We prepare dinner and sit down to review our days. In the daily review, there’s a long list of things we have to do and people we have to call to prepare for this surgery. We’ve been married for a long time, and we share just about every thought or experience of our lives. Some evenings, I just have to cry to release the tension and fear, and during those moments, he’ll reach over and touch me, hold my hand and reassure me. He is the great love of my life, and I can’t imagine going through this without him.
So, after I get in a good cry, I remember the words some of you shared with me after first hearing the news: “this sucks, f*&#, I just want to scream and cuss,” etc. Thank you for your honesty; it helps me to face the fear with passion and intensity.
So, here’s our routine on most evenings: we review our day, I cry, he comforts me, we cuss and then we tell jokes – the kind of corny jokes I love including the wonderful jokes you’ve shared. Laughter is great medicine for me and the humor you share really lifts my spirits.
I’m confident that I will make it back to the platform and exit gate of this ride, and when I get out of the car and step into a beautiful Texas Spring day, I will say, “Life, I love you, and I am so grateful.”
Thank you, all, for your support and care.
Love.
© Charlise Hill-Larson and Care of the Soul, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charlise Hill-Larson and Care of the Soul with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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