A week ago I spoke to my mother. It was a typical long-distance conversation where we moved from the mundane (e.g. what did you have for dinner?) to the pressing (e.g. how long will you stay in Egypt?) and ending on the profound. You know, profound being the stuff we push deep down and gloss over: things about health, love, life and death. The things we sometimes can’t bear to look at that the end of the year has a habit of unearthing and slapping us across the face with. As we touched upon a series of delicate issues my mother paused, as if momentarily accessing her inner demons, and asked, “Given everything that’s happened this year, what do you know for sure?”
Right. Momentarily speechless, I clicked my tongue a couple of times. What do I know for sure? A powerful question even when you’re prepared for it, it’s the sort that becomes far more daunting when you’re loopy on your third glass of Bordeaux and slightly distracted by Skype’s attempts to drop your call. I paused for a long time, willing an incredibly insightful response to roll off my chocolate stained tongue. But the seconds crept by and, as always, my mother waited patiently on the other end of the line. After a minute I had to concede. “Good question,” I said. “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.”
Days passed, and despite trying to forget my mother’s question I found myself obsessing over it instead. What do I know for sure? The query tore a hole into the soft flesh of my brain and, like Poe’s tell-tale heart, throbbed relentlessly under the surface. The thudding jarred my bones. In an effort to ease my racing mind I set out to find an answer and I looked by way of music, on grey and soggy walks around the Belgian capital, while easing into Trikonasana, and even between Jaime Oliver’s monologues on the Naked Chef. But nothing. No luck. Nada. A response was nowhere to be found…at least until last night.
Last night I picked up a book I haven’t looked at in over a decade. A piece of literature I read in my late teens, it is a title I rediscovered on my yoga teacher’s bookshelf following an unplanned visit to her apartment a few weeks back. Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is a commentary on the inner lives of women and how–by revisiting and keeping alive folkloric tales and age-old knowledge–women can, and should, find ways to reclaim their lost wisdom and power. As I turned the pages I got lost in the more academic paragraphs (especially under the duress of ample Carmènere) while other passages had my immediate attention and caused my heart to race. The particular paragraph I’d like to share is one I, still, cannot shake:
“Without [comprehension of the nature of the Wild Woman] women are without ears to hear her soultalk or to register the chiming of their own inner rhythms. Without her, women’s inner eyes are closed by some shadowy hand, and large parts of their days are spent in a semi-paralyzing ennui or else wishful thinking. Without her, women lose the sureness of their soul-footing. Without her, they forget why they’re here, they hold on when they would best hold out. Without her they take too much or too little or nothing at all. Without her they are silent when they are in fact on fire.”
From there I continued to read: first the rest of the chapter and then a good third of the book. As I devoured page after page a response to my mother began to materialize; one that felt very real, even if it is rooted in a barn-raising, earth quaking, primal female idiom. But regardless of what labels some might try and affix to it, I believe my retort moves beyond gender stereotyping and can speak to all. Every one. So in response to my mother’s endearing query of “what do you know for sure?” I offer up the following…
I know for sure that life can be beautiful, tragic and bittersweet. It can be rightfully fair and completely unjust, however despite this organized chaos we always have the ability to make a choice. We can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We can say ‘no’ twice. We can say ‘yes’ and then ‘no’. Nothing is fixed because even if we start going down a path we don’t like we can always choose differently and get the hell out of Dodge.
I know that we are gifted with emotive responses: things like insight, faith, intuition, resolution and knowing. Feelings that may, or may not, turn our lowest points into Hollywood endings but at least lend grace to those dark nights of the soul. I also know we often overlook such gifts and give up our power. We put out the flame that resides in our hearts and stomp on the ashes until they melt into the earth. We do this because we’ve been brought up to believe life should be lived a certain way and that shades of grey don’t exist. We do it because someone told us we needed to be like everyone else and we’ve let others pin us to a storyboard that isn’t ours. We do it even though what is being imposed upon us doesn’t ring true.
We do it because we’re afraid.
Well to hell with the fear because what I know for sure is that people–our mothers, our fathers, siblings, friends and everyone else in between–will piss us off. It’s a given. They will disappoint us and let us down. They will forget about how we feel, or not care to begin with. People will judge us and berate us. A few will look for ways to purposefully harm us. And there will always be a handful that will find ways to shift their emotional baggage onto our already overflowing plates. People will do this because they are in their own heads and up their own asses. They may be completely out to lunch or under someone else’s boot, and because of this they will behave in ways that shock us, stun us, and drive us mad. This sucks. This is painful. But, the thing is, while we don’t have to like it…we do need to find ways to live with it.
What I’m beginning to know is that there’s nothing wrong in feigning utter boredom when others weigh in on our deeply personal choices. It’s perfectly OK to brush off snide remarks and emotional manipulation because dwelling on it keeps us on the road to nowhere and, as a friend of mine once told me, we just don’t have that kind of time.
I know for sure that change is coming, for all of us, and it will arrive whether we’ve rolled out the red carpet for it or not. I know the importance of throwing in the towel when it’s time to leave because no one else will make that decision for us. And I am learning when to put on the gloves and fight: especially when there’s something worth salvaging, when there’s nothing left to lose, and because no one puts baby in the corner.
I’ve come to know the importance of stroking our own egos and finding ways to mend our blasted hearts. Not because it’s the noble thing, the brave thing or the right thing to do, but because it’s the only thing to do–and our lives depend on it.
What I also know for sure is that it’s worth digging deep. Way deep. There is merit in moving beyond the superficial exterior and the soft fleshy gunk into the shadows that lurk behind every corner, and through the cobweb-like film that has latched itself onto the cords of your heart. I know it’s likely you’ll get lost and hit rock bottom in a place where the dark is so black you can’t recall what the light looks like. But should that occur, well, that’s when you need to hold fast. You’ll need to remember what you’re there for, which is for respite and to learn and to let Surrender force you to your knees. You’re there to let go. You’re also there to do the heavy lifting because it’s a waste of time not to, and because it’s what I do, it is what you do, it’s what they do, it is what we do.
I now know why it’s important to identify that wild and mischievous nature inside of ourselves. That essence that makes the good great, the bad not so bad, and the downright horrible somehow liveable. I get why it’s necessary to be ‘on the floor’ from time to time, since eating dirt teaches us how to get up, dust ourselves off and set ourselves on fire: with our passions, truths, desires and all the things our hearts ache for. This step helps us claim responsibility for living life according to our own rules, and doing so in the throes of tyranny and uncertainty, and particularly in the face of people who would rather see us fall than rise.
What I know for sure is the importance of lighting our own spark and not faltering, doubting, if we find ourselves engulfed as we begin our ascent. Once the fire begins to consume us we need to find a way to relax into it. Enjoy it. Revel in it and give into the utter insanity of the process. Don’t think for one second that smouldering ashes caught alight and, as the phoenix materialized, she turned to the heavens and said, “Please lower the heat, it’s too warm.” No way. Instead she cried, “Is that all you’ve got? Turn it up!” As she rose higher and higher; a searing ball of flames that roared as she drew strength from that spark within.
I’m telling you, what I know for sure is that there isn’t enough time to do anything but lean in, get over it, give it all up, get a move on and–for your sake and mine–light your goddamned fire.
Happy New Year, Kids, let’s make it a good one.