From as early as I can remember, reading the Bible with my family as a child was a time of fun … and terror.
Every night after a dessert of icecream or sponge-pudding, we’d go into the loungeroom. There were chapters assigned every day by our religious group. One old testament, one new testament, and one prophet or psalm.
I see some upsides of being required to read the Bible with my parents and sisters every night. I was immersed in words and poetic language. There was extended time with my parents. My sisters and I could be seen and heard. There was often laughter and fun as we put on funny voices or piped up with a story of something that had happened at school.
The downside was the everpresent risk of an outburst of violence – physical and verbal. More nights than I can count, I was dragged from the room and thrashed with a long fraying cane. Words welted into my skin and brain: selfish, self-centred, you had this coming, stupid, evil …
To quote a prophet, “these are the wounds I received in the house of my friends”. A house of faith.
So, I hope you can understand why I’ve found it hard to believe there is a Higher Power who protects the vulnerable. That verse about “suffer the little children” certainly rings in my ears!
To this day, I find myself deeply wary of any group that’s formed around the basis of “good/bad” people – who’s “in” and who’s “out”. The simple facts as I see them was that night after night, my sisters and I had no power over what happened to our bodies. And there was no saviour who came to buffer us from the blows.
I want to acknowledge that this is not everyone’s experience of religious groups and homes. I also know that violence exists in a great many childhood homes, to one degree or another – regardless of faith.
When I left the religion, there was an ache that continued. Certainly, I savour the freedom of choice and the opportunity to learn unconditional self-acceptance and love for my children. Slowly, my capacity to trust myself and others has grown.
However, the needs of community and belonging are still a sharp pain point. I so want the freedom to choose, and I find it so hard to be part of groups where people might speak about themselves or others with judgement or demand.
And, truth be told, I relish a great deal of time to myself. I enjoy art and walks where I can listen deeply to my own heart, savouring beauty around me. I also love a fair bit of free time in my schedule: being available to connect with people in the moment, instead of feeling rush to “get stuff done”.
So, I’ve hesitated with joining any ongoing group. At the same time, there’s been a part of me telling myself that I “should”.
Over the past few months, this theme of belonging has come up so much. And I’ve started to appreciate that “it’s not just me” who experiences it. I’ve heard so many poets, meditators, writers, teachers talk about it.
That experience in itself – becoming aware of the need for belonging, and then hearing so much about it – has given me curiousity about shared consciousness. What is it that is greater than us? What is this life that sings through our veins, aches in our bones, soars in different ways at different times – and yet, sounds so familiar when someone else expresses it in art or words. We are not so very different. Not so very alone.
A close friend of mine once described the peace of “belonging to ourselves”. And I remember Martha Lasley’s words in Facilitating With Heart. She said something like: “in every group, every person chooses how much they belong”. Hmmmmm.
And then, there is the marvel of turning on a radio. The breathsnatching awe of hearing a theme that had seemed so raw and lonely in me being broadcast to thousands. Oh!
Could it be that this throb of not belonging is also living proof of just how unconditionally we do belong?
I don’t think I’d heard of the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver until a few months ago.
A friend read it to me one day. I didn’t remember the name at the time. I just remember being so moved by the words, “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”.
Conveniently, as I was working on those words in my art journal, our ten month old kitten came along and settled in for some company … more universal consciousness? Do we all enjoy company and belonging? Anyway, here he is, spontaneously modelling the soft animal of our body. Inspiration to let ourselves love what we love.
Back to the whole poem and my growing curiousity about the possibility of shared consciousness.
In recent weeks, I’ve had a lot of exposure to the world of teenagers. I’ve struggled within myself with the notion of being “to blame” for pain someone is experiencing. Especially my own children. And I’ve ached seeing someone I love struggling with that same notion. Here’s how I see it intellectually:
1. we care deeply for others and want to be considerate about our actions so that we can enjoy close relationships and not see them suffer
2. We cannot control how others react to our words or actions, even when we deliver them with care or honesty or both.
3. We cannot choose what someone does to take care of themselves if they are in pain. They may choose to blame us indefinitely, and tell others we are at fault which can affect our own sense of belonging and emotional safety. They may punish themselves. This aches me to acknowledge. Yet, I cannot make their choice for them.
4. If we don’t ever express ourselves, we don’t thrive. So it’s probably better to say something and then be able to listen to the other person’s response without blaming myself or them for how it’s come across.
Watching my own child try to work through the experience of “being blamed” inspired me that I really wanted to learn how to process this experience when it comes up for me, so that I can be calmer and more present with her.
Indeed, I was blaming myself for “not parenting her properly so that she didn’t blame herself so much and didn’t care so much what others thought”.
I have heard other parents describe a similar thought cycle, so we’re not alone in this dilemma. I did want some more peace from it though – so that I could contribute to my children’s wellbeing through nurturing my own.
So, what’s all this got to do with Wild Geese and shared consciousness? What’s the link between leaving a religion … naming a deep wound around belonging and spirituality … hearing a friend share a poem … and then watching my daughter and I each wrestle with self-blame?
Well, it’s hope. Hope that came to me while I was folding laundry alone in the loungeroom, aching for unconditional belonging, and then noticed a sunset outside.
I want to celebrate and share what happened when I dared to offer myself empathy for this pain.
As I mentioned in the last blog, I’ve been participating in Mary McKenzie’s self-empathy course over the past few weeks. (Hmmmm, that was a strategy for safe & joyful belonging right there!).
During that course, Mary shared a poem from Robert Sutton – “Keep me from going to sleep too soon”. A phrase rang through my mind: “come any hour of night …. stomp on the porch … bang on the door … make me look … tell me the colours are doing something to the moon they never did before”.
As I folded laundry and noticed an ache of loneliness, those lines came to me, along with the tools I’d been learning in the self-empathy course. Okay. This was an intense and juicy experience. Loneliness. I didn’t want to turn on the TV. I wanted to offer myself presence. Be here. Hear me. Give myself that time I’d longed to have as a child in the loungeroom after dinner – to be seen and heard in complete safety. Oh, and to savour and celebrate all the beautiful needs that were being met even amidst this aching loneliness.
When I listen to myself aloud, I’m not so alone at all. In fact, I’m not lonely. I’m seen. Heard. Understood. And the sky turned yellow and orange and gold. More about that in the next blog.
For now, back to Wild Geese and Shared Consciousness. After I watched the sky turn yolky and gold and darken, after hearing myself talk aloud through judgements I had about being alone, after hearing the beautiful needs beneath those words, I realised I was longing for some transcendence. I didn’t want just any company. I wanted something heart-to-heart. I opened my iPad to a list I keep of things to listen to later. One was a podcast interview with the poet Mary Oliver on her 80th birthday.
As I heard the opening lines of the interview, I stood spellbound in the loungeroom, surrounded by folded towels and bundled socks. Oh! Oh! was shared reality.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese,
harsh and exciting,
over and over, announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
I didn’t know yet that this was the same poem my friend had read to me weeks earlier. My heart just leapt at that universal longing for belonging – and the wonderful transcendence of knowing that we do belong. We do belong in the family of things. Simply by being here. Simply by being one of nature’s living things.
As I listened, I heard Mary Oliver touch on her own painful home and how she’d taken to the woods with pencil and paper to survive. Oh, more sweet shared reality. Truly, I experience such relief when I hear others acknowledge the cost of the violence they experienced as a child – and also the strength that we have all shown by transcending it. We are not broken by it. We feel its wounds. But they can also open our heart and let in light and delight and belonging. Because now we are free to truly hear and nurture ourselves. There is simply no greater beauty or love than unconditional self acceptance — and I want every life in the world to have that knowledge.
It is not a religion or a particular family or partner or child who owns your belonging. You own your belonging. And the fear of losing it to loneliness is greater than the pain of loneliness itself. When we hear loneliness, we can receive it tenderly, translate our judgements and blame of “why” we are alone into facts and choice. To me, that gentle self curiousity – daring to hear myself – is sweet, honest and powerful prayer.
Mary Oliver spoke of how she writes and offers it to the world. Her work is to witness with empathy and share it. That is her delight. Whether others receive it and are nourished by it is their own path. Oh the creative freedom in that! It inspired me to return to my art and this blog for the first time in many weeks.
I am so grateful to Mary Oliver for naming this cellular ache in adulthood, perhaps the aftermath of not feeling safe in your childhood home. Or perhaps a universally experienced human state at different times in life. I want to accept that when nurture and faith are bound up with rage and violence, there’s a lasting wound. I guess I carry this wound into my own parenting. And yet, I celebrate the gifts that it offers me in wanting to consciously offer my children a different experience, trusting that they in turn will create their own.
In the morning, I looked up the full poem. Oh my goodness! There it was. The words about the soft animal of your body – letting it love what it loves. Oh, I longed to read it aloud to my teenage daughter, especially the part about not having to be good, not having to walk on her knees repenting, not having to hide her despair when she feels it. Ah, but I also trusted it was my own soul that longed to hear this deeply. By taking it into my being, I know it will contribute to me being more present to her.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
– Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
So, over the course of the day, I created this art journal page.
The finishing touch was an actual piece of mesh from the laundry basket! I so wanted to capture the beauty of how this transcendence occurred in the “mundane” of domestic life, while savouring the beauty of the world outside my window. In moments, painful loneliness had transformed into awe and gratitude and hope. Yep, that’s why I love self-empathy. Hearing myself. Translating judgements into feelings and needs. Finding power and wisdom and choice right here.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on …
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
I hope as you read this poem, you notice something alive in you – your own sweet life, your own rich belonging, and the drive we have to heal and grow and contribute what we love to the world.
No matter what your body tells you. No matter the pains of the past and the shouting judgements or blame that might be arising here and now, please feel this right in your gut and belly and lungs: the world … over and over … is announcing your place in the family of things.