The spell of loneliness

Recently, I have needed to pause a little, to pare things down. In part that is the archetypal energy of the fall: after the abundance of the harvest comes the shedding of what we don’t need. But more so, I am realizing that although I have been in a long transition for the past ten years, I have never given myself the time to just be in transition, without goals or expectations, or internal pressure to prove my productivity and worth. And so I find myself right now in a process that is intense and sometimes scary, to simply allow myself be in that space of waiting and uncertainty, to deliberately make room for it: I say no, I turn off my phone, I ignore all of the things I have promised to other people, and I simply listen and watch, reflect and wait. I honour a commitment to myself.

But sometimes, when I take this time in the periphery of other people’s productive lives, I feel a dark cloud of loneliness descending over me. Sometimes it creeps in slowly; sometimes it descends rapidly and takes me fully by surprise. My internal weather system is tumultuous and unpredictable in these moments.

I have been thinking of something I read a while ago about emotions. How one emotion often triggers another, and how as we map them, we can see that our entire world-view can shift when we are in the midst of a particular feeling: “that when we’re sad, for example, it’s hard to remember that the world itself hasn’t become a sad place, even though that’s exactly what it feels like.”

I have been mapping the clouds of emotion in myself, and I am learning that sometimes when I choose to be alone – particularly when I choose to be alone among other people – dark feelings begin to creep in through the associations my brain and heart and body have with that experience. I can feel everything around me turning to shadow, and if I restrain the urge to numb or fix it, I have to pass through that shadow to get to where my true self waits.

And I feel myself separate into two parts in those moments, one that is overcome with intense loneliness and disconnection, and the other part that is aware that I am in the middle of a storm, and that I need to hold on tight until it passes.

A dark cloud descended on me the other day. Several hours intentionally alone in the woods, a disconnecting communication with a friend, my mind and heart holding on to another interaction that I couldn’t seem to unravel, and the darkness started to fall. And as it crept upon me – and I was aware of it creeping – I could feel a cloud of disconnection and mistrust threatening to spread. The darkness infected me; it reframed everything; it distorted my thoughts and my perceptions of the human connections in my life.

The watcher part of myself, which I have worked hard to nurture over the years, tried to keep the cloud at bay, to keep space around myself where it couldn’t get in, to know with my rational mind that I couldn’t trust what I was feeling.

Several hours later, as the internal storm continued to rage, I found myself at home reading aloud a book to my younger son, a novel in the fantasy tradition where good and evil are in battle. I read of a young boy – not yet aware of his supernatural powers – who is left alone in a small mountain cabin, waiting for a friend to return with a magical item that will help ward off the Dark that is all around them in that place. He is warned that the spot he is waiting in is a stronghold of the Dark, and that he will need to fight off that evil until help comes.

And the attack, when it happens, takes no physical form. It takes the form of thoughts, cast into his mind, that threaten to turn him against those he loves. Thoughts that are suspicious, cynical, mistrusting, guided by fear. And in his mind he fights back, holding on to his reason and the truth he knows of love.

It felt strikingly familiar.

Disconnection, in that moment, was like a spell that had been cast upon me, like a test that had been waiting for me on my journey. And all I could to do was stand fast and ward it off.

A couple of hours later, I had succeeded in pushing the darkness aside. Or perhaps the storm had just taken its course, and I had weathered it. I was in peace. I hadn’t said anything hurtful to anyone, or even to myself. My internal relationships were intact. I had come back to myself and come back to trust.

When it’s over, I can hardly remember what the storm felt like.

I remind myself that the shadow moments are an integral part of my life. If I choose calm presence and steady rhythms, loneliness is one of the specters that comes to haunt. The shadows are a consequence of the choices that I have made; an occupational hazard of moving parts of my life outside of the mainstream structures that I grew up expecting to mold myself to. They are the side-effect of a web of relationships that are not geographically bound. They are my grief at not living in a village with all those I love.

They are my payment for swimming in Georgian Bay on a Friday in September, for last-minute camping with friends mid-week in October, for all the rainy mornings spent curled up on the couch reading with my kids instead of rushing to be somewhere else.

They are the shadow side of the freedom I have carved out to choose what to do with my own time; the shadow side of following internal rather than external rhythms and motivations. They are the shadow that emerges when I clear away busyness and aspiration and look at what is underneath, when I ask “what do I – what do we – really need in this moment?”

They are also the residue of having judged myself so long through accomplishment, through doing instead of being. Judged my life through the cultural belief in scarcity that so quickly bring me –bring all of us – to ask “what is missing?” instead of “what can I celebrate?”

And they are a reminder of what I once learned from Joanna Macy: “Everybody’s lonely.” Whatever form it takes, however we learn to handle it, whether it’s in solitude or in a crowd, loneliness will come. And we need to remember that loneliness isn’t real. It’s an illusion, a shadow, a spell.

The map of jealousy

I have become fascinated, recently, with jealousy. My own jealously. Jealousy as set apart from envy, which, in the way I translate the two words, is the difference between wanting what someone else has – envy – and wanting what someone else is – jealousy.

Jealousy is dark and shadowy and for many years I knew that it was not something I was allowed to feel. If it sent its tendrils out of the darkness, it needed to be stuffed down, reburied, denied the light. But in digging recently, tentatively, into the dark and shadowy parts of myself, I’ve uncovered jealousy over and over again. And slowly it has become a friend. Not only a friend, but even a mentor and a guide. A bright shining arrow saying “This. I need this.”

Who am I jealous of? As I started to pay attention, a slow trail emerged of writers, artists and creative people who use their voices, who take risks; of people who put their ideas forward again and again; of people who step forward and lead others through transformative processes; of people who find a balance between their inner and outer worlds.

If I put together a collage of my jealousies, I would create a picture of who in each moment I secretly long to be; of what parts of myself I wish to uncover, of what the next steps need to be, if I’m willing to take them. It’s breathtakingly clear.

Other jealousies, however, are darker and more complicated. I spoke my shining arrow theory of jealousy out loud to a dear friend recently, but then concluded, dismissively: “It only works for some things. Not for others, of course. Not when I find myself jealous of women who are young and beautiful. That’s not something I can move towards becoming more of.”

She thought for a moment and said: “Maybe it is an arrow too, though. Maybe it is an arrow telling you that you need to work on self-love.”

I have been rereading a couple of books by Brené Brown recently. She writes about vulnerability and about shame. Shame – the feeling that we are not okay, that we are all wrong – is something which we repress and keep buried in order to present ourselves the way we think we should be. Women and men have different triggers of shame in our culture, she writes.

Jealousy has sometimes been sitting unpleasantly in my insides in recent years, and perhaps all of my adult life. Like any shame when it is most poisonous, it was something I usually tried to stuff down. Reading Brown on shame is a breath of relief. The biggest trigger of shame in women – still, and maybe even more than ever – is not being “thin, young, or beautiful enough,” she writes. Not meeting the cultural standard of physical perfection is at the top of the list of all the ways in which women fault themselves for not being the perfect beings they have learned to believe they should be.

On the surface, I have known this for oh so many years. I still have my worn copy of The Beauty Myth in my basement, underlined and marked by my teen self, triumphantly declaring my rebellion against all of that. But the thing about those shadow emotions, when we don’t own them, when we don’t admit to them, is that they have their corrosive effect on us even when every rational part of our being fights what they stand for.

Yet, there are cultural standards of beauty, which we can perhaps all agree are cruel and repressive, and then there is my own eye that is attuned to colour, form, symmetry, the perfection of line. When I can’t find those in myself – and sometimes I do – it hurts those sensibilities; it makes me cringe. My judgment is both external and internal. It’s complicated.

What is emerging for me now when I contemplate all of this is gentleness. Since that conversation with my friend a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about self-love. One day last week I sat late at night and watched a wisp of smoke on a small piece of sage that I was burning, and the word that came from its graceful rising curve was gentleness.

There is a verse in a poem by John O’Donohue, A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted, that I have been returning to recently, turning it over and over in my mind for comfort:

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

I will be gentle with myself. Self-love, like gratitude, is subversive in our culture.

Jealousy in some way always points to what is buried – our buried dreams, our buried shame – and so it is a fascinating emotion, a telling one, one that we can follow the threads of to find out the secret pathways of our inner maps, to discover where we have been lost or led astray and where we need to find our way out again.

I am allowing myself to dig up those inner maps right now. It’s about time, at forty, to uncover what is still buried underground or, as I wrote last week, to dig up the roots and look at them under the light. Dig, but gently, with respect and gentleness for those parts of myself that I found necessary for so many years to keep buried. With compassion for the ways in which I sometimes try to protect myself from external hurts, and only succeed in hurting myself. There is freedom and grace in allowing light and air into those buried places.

Digging up roots

This is the season for roots: plants digging their energy down deep into the soil, underground cellars stocked to sustain us through the cold months, the ghosts of our ancestors coming and asking us for remembrance and honour.

Last weekend, in the plants apprenticeship I’m currently involved in, we focused on roots, harvesting them to use as medicine and nourishment. Digging up roots takes gentleness and reverence – when you uproot a plant, you take responsibility for its life. It’s not something to do lightly.

As we dug up sarsaparilla, burdock, dandelion, plantain, false Solomon’s seal, and (very consciously and sparingly) blue cohosh, I marveled at the intricate shapes of roots, the tendrils and tubers and deep taproots. I meticulously and slowly pulled out one sarsaparilla root that was longer than me, eventually cutting it off from where it had branched from a thicker segment that connected it to a host of other plants of the same species. I never found the initial plant from which it grew. Someone else dug up a milkweed plant, and found that its root was unexpectedly connected to that of another milkweed plant, by a thick horizontal root, like a bridge.

What is going on down there, beneath the earth, beneath the surface of what we can see?

I imagined all the roots underground, intricately woven and plaited and intertwined together, like roads on a map connecting the underground landscape. Sarsaparilla, for one, grows from rhizomes into communities of plants. The roots are all connected underground. There sometimes isn’t any clear way to tell where one plant ends and the next one begins.

I have been feeling restless in recent years. This is what happens at midlife, I hear.

I ground other people in my life; I care and nurture and love; I honour my commitments, savour them even. But other parts of me have been unsettled, ungrounded, anxious, afraid that soon it will be too late – too late for what? There is the ongoing question of what is a true call for adventure, what is good risk-taking to push myself past the limits of who I have always believed myself to be, and what is, in some sense, running away. Running away mainly from myself, I suspect. Running that can sometimes be more about proving that I am accomplished and worthy, than about moving forward into possibility, at ease with who I am.

Right now, as I study plants, I am sometimes impatient with them, as with myself. A year or two ago, I focused on learning animal tracking: the movement, the adrenaline, the solving of puzzles. Plants just sit there. What am I to learn from them?

And so I make myself sit. And I ask the questions. I ask each plant: what can I learn from you? Yarrow: can you heal wounds of the heart as well as wounds of the flesh? Saint John’s wort: can you help me ease darkness of spirit in myself and others? Dandelion: what can you teach me about resilience?

And I ask the questions of all the plants and trees: what does it mean to put down roots, to be grounded? What does it mean for me to be grounded, like a tree, in a way that holds me deeply into the soil that I live in, connected underground, but also reaching up into the sky in a way that is particular only to myself?

As someone who was geographically and culturally transplanted at a young age, as many of us are in this world, I have been, after all these years, thinking a lot about what it means to put down roots. Thinking about what it means to be a non-native plant that naturalizes into a new environment, instead an invasive plant that displaces those who are already here.

I am playing with these metaphors, trying them out, recognizing that perhaps my role is to be a bridge for my children to find answers that are more satisfying than the questions that I am always asking myself.

But when I talk about being grounded, it is also much more personal. It is sometimes about the anxiety of what feels hidden, buried; about what lies underground and keeps me awake at night, about what I have not been wiling to bring to the light. There is something about really following those dark roots down into the soil and letting myself see them clearly that gives me the clarity of knowing who I am: who I am in relation to the people in my life, but not only in relation to them. Who I am in a way that is entire, that is inalienable, that is simply about being and not contingent on anything that I do or accomplish. That leaves room for longing and seeking, for learning and mastery, but is not dependent on them for a deeply-rooted sense of self.

I sat a couple of months ago in another wood and looked at the trees all around and the question that came up was this: “Can I say that a tree is not free simply because it is rooted in place?” And it seemed clear to me then, in an intuitive and not a rational way, that a tree is free.

And so I continue to sit with the question: what is it to be an individual in family and community; to be rooted, to be deeply connected, to be interdependent, while always having enough room to grow?