The journey through the obstacles to an open heart
We have stories alive in our minds, our bodies, our souls — writhing and pushing against each other. We are filled with the ghosts of our ancestors and others who have walked before us. The traumas of our childhoods lurk and inform our experience. We hear the beckoning of the future, alive with our desires and strivings, propelling us forward. The world of others intrudes on ours — a kaleidoscope of realities and relationships.
We live in layers: in multiple realities. The world exists around us and within us. The microbiome in our guts. The various bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other tiny organisms in our bodies. Some health-promoting, others debilitating. We know of universes and galaxies, moving, growing, dying.
These realities undulate, collide, and harmonize, influencing each other. As we contact and interact with each of these realities, we have the opportunity to find and open our hearts or close them. We have the chance to find a greater love for ourselves or for another. We have the chance to find our open heart.
Our physical reality
I, for example, live surrounded by a tapestry of beauty. My home looks upon Puget Sound, and most mornings, I watch the silken water shift and move, grays and pinks laid out like swatches of soft fabric, and later the tides breaking the colors into ripples of darker greens and whites, eddies and swirls. The gulls swoop, sun glinting off their smooth feathers, the bufflehead ducks dive, popping up to the surface and cormorants sit on mooring buoys and abandoned piers, looking like giant bats as they hold out their dark wings to dry in the air. Outside, as I breathe in moist air and gaze upon trees reaching to the sky, my spirit enlivens.
I abode with my dearly loved and eternally cheerful husband, Mike, and two small rescue dogs, Nutmeg and Bula, who shift between excitement, love, and reproachful neediness: another element of the web of my realities. They are the immediate backbone of my physical reality and emotional support but not the whole story.
A less than perfect life
My uncle died this past week. He was 87 years old and had been ready to die for quite a while. “Why is this [dying] taking so long?” he asked my sister several years ago. He studied the afterlife and wondered what it would be like.
He had lived life on his own terms. He had done what he came to do. Grappled with love and lust. Made a fortune and squandered it. Developed and patented a product to absorb oil from boats and oil spills. Imagined other realities. His keen intellect did not save him from emotional pain, from his difficulties in the realm of relationships, from his deep experience of feeling unloved. His faults were significant. Despite that, I cared for him deeply.
What was unfinished in his life would need a new start — to learn how to love, how to let go of the glistening desire that had little to do with relating to others. Despite how he abused himself with alcohol, he had a body that wouldn’t let go.
His wishes were finally answered. He slipped in the bath and was knocked unconscious. The unlikeliness of the exact angle of his pose allowed the running shower to fill his lungs. He drowned.
At first, horrified, I could not sleep. Did he suffer? Was it okay to pass this way? Is there something I could have done? I hadn’t talked to him in a few weeks. Had he been lonely?
But as I processed, I realized that his death was quick, and he was ready. For him, this was a good way to leave. Better than the slow decay in a nursing home. Quality evident to be more important than quantity. This chapter now over. This life of brimstone and excess ebbed away. The polishing of the rough stone finished for the time being.
Several days later, as I was walking under big trees, I attempted to tune into his spirit. I felt a vast exuberant, almost celebratory energy. I imagined his spirit felt freed at last from the restrictions of the physical, as well as old emotional and thought patterns.
How past trauma informs the present
Uncle Bill was my father’s only sibling. He reminded me of my father and had some of the same characteristics. Both 6’4″, charismatic, they were larger than life. Unafraid of speaking their mind or affronting another. Both capable of being filled with rage. Neither concerned with what others thought of them. Both scarred and damaged their children with their anger and violence.
They were holy terrors when younger. My father broke a man’s jaw for urinating on the bathroom floor when he had clean up duty during the Korean War.
From my father, I heard the stories of their youth. The whippings with the buckle side of a belt, sometimes with the chain of a dog leash. I knew where their rage came from, the dark feeling of unfairness that clouded their psyches. I saw the trauma hardened over, how it morphed in different ways for each of them: the excessive drinking, the need to be seen, the drive to accomplishment, how the determination to be not the victim caused the bully.
As a child, I used to sit with my father in his studio as he painted. I don’t remember exactly how I reassured him, attempted to lift off him, his depression. “It’s okay, dad. Your work is important.” I tried to explain that his work was amazing, and he didn’t need the world to tell him for it to be true. But, I felt powerless in the face of his shadowy thoughts. His anger, frustration, and bouts of depression ominous. And at times, severe.
Similar to the twists and turns of rough black bark, the tree, shaped by age and wind, so too, there is the movement of my mind. It plans, pushes, and wants. It does not release into relaxation. It does not always know peace. It comes out of a history that has not been easy.
My feelings. My thoughts. I work with them, talk to them. I tend them. I tell them we are okay, that we do not have to push so hard. I explain as if they are little children.
My mind has been with me since the beginning, I am taming it slowly, learning how. Years have passed, and we are now finding a gentler kinder place to be. The track marks of anxiety are less, mellowed into contentment. And yet, sometimes, the dark mud of depression still pulls me under. I wonder how I will get through all that my mind demands of me. Sometimes I believe everything should be finished instead of seeing the slow patient dance with time.
I have wondered about what we call God, the universal force, or the divine. Perhaps the divine is who we are becoming, the beacon we are striving towards. I am not talking about the noun God, but the verb that encompasses our actions and choices: the choice to love, the choice to harm. For certainly, in this cacophony, what we have is choice.
How do we choose to respond to this symphony of demands and realities? How are we influencing all that lies within and around us? Are we creating love? Are we desperately grabbing onto the illusion of solidity and permanence — rather than tending to our souls? What are we seeking? Where are we caught? Are we willing to attend to the process of addressing all that makes us smaller?
I found out recently via my sister, who heard from my father’s now-deceased best friend that at some point in my adolescence, my father carried a can of gasoline into our house with the intent to burn it down (and us in it, I believe.) I wasn’t surprised to hear this story, and I was. I loved my father desperately. But he was so caught in his sense of despair and anger. It saddens me to think he was so desperate to free himself from the confines of his life. It saddens me to know that he couldn’t find a way for his children to be part of his joy and purpose. Yet, I understand.
I imagine him walking through the house in a terrible state. His mind ablaze. What about us? Did he see images of his burnt children? His burnt wife? Did he see our soft skin charred black? Did he hear our cries?
Did he plan to go up in the flames? Did he wonder what would happen if he were caught? Would he really be free if he weren’t?
What was the relief he imagined? What was the freedom he thought he might find? How would he feel about what he had done? The guilt, the wreckage, our absence: could he have survived that?
I remember his sense of being curtailed. How he saw the time and energy the demands of his life and his children took as holding him back. He wanted a life without have to’s and responsibilities. He did not know how to accept the love he was surrounded by, how to breathe it in, so it slowly illumed his flesh, turned it warm and pink. He did not know how to be nourished by love. His eyes were focused on being affirmed by a larger world.
He acted out, fought against his sense of entrapment. In a fit of rage, he might kick the dog, break a chair, or taunt one of his children. Although he always felt terrible about it later, he didn’t prioritize emotional health and so didn’t get to the source of his anger and change it. He wasn’t able to make peace with his life or be in gratitude for the beautiful parts — of which there were many. The ghosts of his past had left him scarred.
(Since publishing this, I have heard that my aunt has a different story for this event. According to her, my father had the gasoline to burn something other than the house. My mother upset him, and he, in an irate state, chased my mother who was still in her nightgown around the house.)
Demons are sinister angry things. Lurking and ready to cause harm when the opportunity opens. They are the dissatisfied parts of our psyche detached from the innocent child and embodied into their own formation — taking on a singular identity.
These parts also reside in my psyche, the convolutions of torment where one cannot find peace. I have my own tortures. Places where I overwork and do not play. Where I drive myself. “I feel overwhelmed,” I wail desperately at times. My mind pushing and betraying the peace of what could be. Why cannot I trust the present moment? Perhaps this unloving of myself is part of my DNA, passed down from my paternal line?
Although I was scared by my father and afraid of him when I was younger -afraid of anger in general, others, and my own, I’ve learned from him too. How to take up space. How to claim my voice. How to stand large and not back down. I am, after all, my father’s daughter. And I am willing to claim the power he held.
Yet, my life is a milder version than theirs. My life demanded something different from me. I did not push away my more vulnerable parts in favor of self-protective aspects. I did not create a wall behind which to hide my sensitivities. I was one who would cry at the mildest implication of hostility. I identified with the downtrodden, and so was the protector of the weak, not the bully.
I walked out of my adolescence, a broken person. I have been stitching together the fragments of myself for many years. I am a stitched together being… but as I breathe life and love into me, the seams mold together, and I become more than a collection of fragments. I become more whole and capable of creating love, beauty, and appreciation in my life and relationships. I think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words. Breath in love, breathe out peace.
My work, which started in that childhood chair talking to my father, led me to assist others in this process of healing. During my years as a therapist, sitting with someone, listening to their story, their sorrow, and struggles, seeing the patterns; I enjoy helping smooth out the more jagged terrain. I enjoy assisting a human put the demons to rest, as they slowly let go of the hard edges, the brooding anger, the old terrors, and morph into a more complete being; a being not trapped, but capable of breathing joy, and light out into the world.
Our world is not easy. It never was. The fight to survive by all embodied beings has dominated the experience of life. These animal instincts follow lines of power, the more powerful using it to their advantage.
The history of human depravity is clear — perspectives that hide the truth of a world where all are deserving. Ours is a world where people have not yet begin the process of stitching themselves together with love because they have not yet released their tight grip on what they think they want.
For me, it is like staring at a flame burning down the house. The only hose is the slow patient work of helping others move from an interior world of chaos to one of beauty. My prayers emerge, please open your heart. Please find your love, your vulnerability. Please let go of the power that does not honor each of us.
I long for a simpler time. A time without TV or the Internet. A time without cell phones. This appeals to the part of me that wants to exit the overwhelm of contemporary life with information from many realities comingling with my direct experience. The part that wants more noticing of the texture and color of the leaves layered over the mountain. The frost crisping the tops of the grass. The red of the rosehips and the white of the round snowberries in the fall.
I am fortunate because I have a perspective that spans centuries and lifetimes, individuals, and peoples. I not only have the perspective of my own life, but stories of my elders, and of other times and places. I have access to that which has come before me, and what I imagine lies ahead of me. I have access to other worlds. There is so much to enable my path of self-mastery.
I see our humanness unfolding. I see the wild streak of desperation in the eye, and the slow, gentle caring of those who tend others. I see the growing understanding of tending our emotional realities.
The trajectory before us is visible. Those people who love what they can. Those who cannot love, but can only hold on tight, forever fearful of loss, often caught in control and sometimes in deception. I see the giving and taking, the clouds passing over and obscuring, and then parting again, revealing the sun, the shaft of light illuming what it touches. I see the movements of emotion and human struggle, like the undulation of tumultuous waves.
I continue to practice the holding of many realities and the learning to love through all of it. I continue a gentle caring towards myself and those who need me. I slowly tame my wild mind and open my heart — the gateway to god.
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First published in P.S. I Love You, a Medium.com publication on November 25th, 2019.
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