On March 1st, one year ago today, I drove south on Route 68 with a car full of stuff, a heart full of new hopes, and a kind of freedom I hadn’t felt in a long time. I left my wonderful husband (in distance, not in love) and my home to head to Prairie Pond Woods for a multifaceted experience of developing my retreat business, working on a book of fiction, writing poetry, and becoming more of a contemplative or, as Christine Valters Paintner describes it, an “artist monk.” The other goal was to experiment with raising chickens for eggs and meat, and grow an awesome garden. There was a back seat full of nature, spiritual and fiction books I calculated could be polished off in the nine months I’d planned to be there, and two years’ worth of Mother Earth News magazines stacked in a tall pile. All that down-to-earth information waiting to be absorbed. Then, after about 3 months, reality set in.
The little peeps inside the storage room kept me going morning until night...watching them, feeding them, making sure the heat lamp was just right, etc (essentially being a mom)...until 8 weeks later when it was time to build the pullets a new home in the garage and start the process all over again...until 6 weeks later when it was time to reinforce the coop in the barn, move 9 chickens, and start the process all over again.
Then there was the gardening. Then five weekend retreat preps, executions and clean ups (no complaining, just reality). Also the daily chore of cooking for one. And the weekly commitment of lunch with my brother. There was coordinating personal retreats, research, conferences to set up at as a vendor, vigilant social media marketing, visits back home, visits from Craig, a few mini-vacations together, and lots of native plants to get into the ground. And a lawn to be mowed. Plus the relentless pull of wasting time on Facebook. And then after 6 months of that, with only a few books read and a couple attempts at writing...I got a puppy! Did I mention the weekly trips to the chiropractor for a pain in my hip that began shortly after I got there and was with me the whole time? Who had the time or presence of mind to be a monk?
So, yes, it was life. Probably no different than your life. But it was not what I had envisioned...because it was exactly the life I had left.
I believe what I really experienced over those months was a “dark night of the soul,” as Saint John of the Cross called it. While I was focused on all the things mentioned above, and “failing miserably” at it, God was secretly transforming me in deep places through the hard work, the disappointment of unrealized expectations, and the subsequent depression that came from “taking myself with me wherever I go.”
It’s only now that I have been able to write about the experience without a negative slant or putting some kind of positive, but inauthentic, spin on it. In one month, Heartby Nature will begin hosting retreats again and I’ve realized how different I am and how those differences will affect the next 9 months.
"Woman must come of age by herself. She must find her true center alone." -Anne Murrow Lindbergh
So, what changed? People can often talk about their spiritual experiences in vague terms (sometimes necessary), but though I may need improvement in some areas, openness is not one of them. So I will tell you. It is not earth-shattering. But it did shake things up for me on this journey towards wholeness. I’m guessing some parts of this story are common to all. And hopefully that’s good to know.
On one morning when I did sit out on the front porch to read, I came across an epithet in the book, Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul. At the beginning of one chapter I read:
“The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”
Earlier, I had cozied down on the porch swing with a cup of tea, my binoculars, and a feeling of gratitude for such a beautiful view. I was looking forward to some unfettered time to begin a potentially interesting book. Upon reading the epithet a few chapters in, I burst into tears. They had struck such a chord in me that I wept like a child for a few minutes. The Spirit had something to say. So I read them again.
In those 3 short lines, I saw my personal story; the one I have been struggling with and healing from for much of my adult life. In my family of origin, my parents were imperfect in ways no parent or spouse should be. As a child, my siblings and I were intimately acquainted with the “tragic sense of life.” We listened to daily arguments, name calling and general disrespect and verbal abuse. Sometimes I even watched physical abuse. So yes, imperfection was the norm and became the norm in my tiny soul in the form of putting high expectations on myself, making fear-based decisions and suspecting, deep down, that most of what I do is just not that worthy. And the bad news is I went from there into a church that had many of the same elements of fear, shame and high expectations.
But the good news is that over many years I came to forgive my parents and church leadership. I was able to see their own wounds in new ways, which helped explain so much bad behavior. I also came to appreciate the good behaviors, too, because we are dichotomous creatures and they gave me as much good, as bad. Accepting this paradox ushered me into adulthood, I suppose.
But it was the last line about “forgiving yourself” that continued to reverberate in my soul. And it didn’t take long before a sentence popped into my head, when the crying subsided, that was not from my conscious self...or maybe even from me. What I heard was, “You need to forgive yourself for not being special.” And then I cried even harder.
So, this is where it gets a little humbling. Yes, I lived most of my 57 years with the idea that I should, and probably would, become someone very special...someone who makes a stellar impact on the world around her...someone many people know and admire. I had no idea what that would be or how I would accomplish it...I just always believed it. And that was my first mistake.
Most people in my life, who move from acquaintance to friend, are shocked when I reveal my struggles with self-worth and feelings of failures. But like I said, we are dichotomous people and I learned early on to rely on what positive feedback I did get, beginning with my father’s constant anthem, “Cindy, baby, you’re so pretty,” and going all the way through college. So I do possess a certain confidence. I’m smart enough. I’ve learned that being nice is more important than being popular. And I have a wicked sense of humor (from my father) that covers a multitude of sins in myself and others. But when that “success” never manifested itself past my 40’s, a nagging awareness of time’s passing began to replace the elusive quest for future “specialness.” Is this messed up or what? Or is it more common than we think?
Again, you may be asking, “What changed?” I needed to lay that groundwork for the answer, which is, “Everything.” Or at least everything is in the process of changing. Forgiving myself released me to the grace of thinking about things differently.
It was humbling to admit that I’m not as “Mother Earth News” at this age as I thought I was, but also glorious to realize that I can enjoy and honor my small attempts to grow our own food and learn a few new things now and then.
It was humbling to admit that I’m not that special woman in my head, but glorious to admit that the real Cindy is a special person, like everyone else, and has a combination of gifts, talents, personality, spiritual insight and beauty that is unique on the planet. And doggonit, people like me!
It was freeing to see my life, however big, small or just right, as worthy...just plain worthy...having validity. I was able to relinquishing any comparison of this business owner or that naturalist or all the writers and bloggers out there I admire (and loath at the same time). Just kidding. Wicked.
For nine months, I spent the bulk of my days alone with myself. To my surprise, very few of my friends checked in with me. At first it hurt, but then I realized they all had full lives of their own, and I was not the center of their universe, nor was this “Walden Pond” experience as important or as interesting to them as it was to me. So, in response, I became my own best friend, instead of continuing as my own worst enemy. I forgave myself and scales fell off my eyes allowing me to see everything in new shades of freedom and joy. Allowing me to see that the time I spent there was not a miserable failure but it's own success. No more measuring needed.
This year, no matter what I do, if I approach it with integrity, with an open and joyful heart and with no fear of outcomes, it will be a success. And if I don’t...I’m still worthy...because I believe the universe is full of God’s love for the taking.
“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. ... You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
I used to weep when I read these verses because I longed for the life contained in them. Now I smile for joy because they have become part of my story...which I’m guessing you’re glad is finally over!