One of my best friends in the world, Patrice Schanck, died after a long experience with cancer several weeks ago. I miss her so much. We had a shared sense of possibility, mystery and exploration that sustained and nourished each of us.
When I was a little girl, I lost myself as much as possible in books where inanimate objects and animals could have conversations, the appearance of things could be changed, where it was possible for children to have power and special gifts, and where allies were found in unexpected places. In these books, kindness had currency, and frozenness meant that people were under a spell.
These things were perfect medicine for my lived world, where the inside of things was not seen, where mystery was not acknowledged, where no one, not even people, had real conversations, no one saw or remembered acts of kindness, and where my mother’s words regularly stripped me of my goodness.
When I read books, I had a sense that mystery, convergence, serendipity and synchrony were elusively present. Wisps of hope for a world with wonder in it would trade places regularly with rage against the flatness I was living in. My father was so frightened by my love of books that he would scream at me with red veins popping out of his neck and face: “The world is nothing like that! There is no magic in this world!” My mother and father had the Depression and the trauma of poverty as the backdrop to their childhood, and for them, the most important goal was for their children to become economically buttressed against uncertainty and loss. Everything was measured against that panic. Every action was preparation for life in a difficult and unforgiving world. Reading fantasy books did not prepare a child for life.
As I awoke this morning and thought about getting up to start my day, still lying in bed, I could feel the gears of stressed forcing engage. There was a tightening through my shoulders and arms to “make myself” roll over. In that moment, I could touch the embodied fear and anger that are woven into my life, every minute of every day, the heritage of my parents’ frightened brains, and their parents’ frightened brains. I could also feel the heaviness of grief of the loss of my friend.
When I was little, I hated to fall asleep because I loved being awake and alive so much. When morning came, I would leap out of bed, ready for adventure. Or often I would eagerly reach for my books, finding my adventures there. I long to recapture that sensation of being pulled from sleep by my love and curiosity.
I asked myself to let the tension go. And I immediately resisted. How would I get out of bed without it? If I let it go, wouldn’t I just become a sludgy pile of depressed goo? I reminded myself of the third possibility, the possibility of being moved by life.
In order to get there, I would have to find a way to acknowledge the cells that had been steeped for so long in dread and anger, so that they could remember themselves. And my grieving cells needed so much tenderness and holding and rest. A gentle and responsive meeting of self with self was what was needed.
When I am teaching, I often show people that, while we have 3 ways of being: freeze; fight/flight; and social engagement, we most often use only the first two to live our daily lives, alternating between freeze (paralysis, hopelessness and helplessness) and fight/flight to get ourselves moving (calling ourselves “lazy,” berating ourselves, bringing in anger, criticizing and comparing ourselves) or we get stuck in the very stressful in-between states of shame or anxiety/depression.
To reach the third state, social engagement, the place where we are moved by life, we have to be accompanied by a sense of Other that is similarly engaged. If the internalized accompaniment is our father’s face blown out by fear and rage, then it is close to impossible to unfold from sleep into being alive. If we are shying away from the enormity of our own grief, presence and engagement become unreachable. Gradually, gradually we need to weave a sense of resonant accompaniment into our own brains, detoxing our cells from lifelong cycles of paralysis, blame and self-blame, and walking with ourselves through our deepest losses of friendship and shared magic.
The right hemisphere of the brain is the place of wonder, awe, discovery, and relational memory. It grows in strength and resilience when it is accompanied. When there is no warm, acknowledging accompaniment, the right hemisphere is organized around panic and trauma and there can be very little exploration or sense of mystery. As we begin to carry resonant accompaniment with us, silence and awakening become different places. We are taking steps back toward joy.
Patrice, I miss you. I loved being on this earth with you. I’m spiky with rage that you are gone. There’s no one like you and your brain and your mind were places I loved to visit. Together, we had conversations with inanimate objects, things could be seen in new ways, we lived in a world where children had power and special gifts, and allies were found in unexpected places. Kindness was remembered, and frozen people were under a spell. It sucks to lose people, even though they are still traveling with us, embedded in our essence. I want to register a protest against death itself, even if the world wouldn’t make much sense without it.
And on we go. I’m ready to get up now.