KNOW THE MYSTERY
For some of us, there comes a time in our lives when we must change or die—literally or metaphorically. It can be unforgettably intense, unsettling, and difficult for us and for the people in our lives, yet it feels completely right. For me, it was the break I had been waiting for all of my conscious life. I was forty-one years old when it came. I had been married twenty years and was the mother of three children. For years I had been writing in a journal, contemplating suicide daily, and reading every piece of feminist writing I could find. I did post graduate work, radical political work, and I helped organize the first two women’s consciousness raising groups in San Antonio, Texas. I taught for a year in an alternative school. I was in therapy throughout this time, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t, as the Shaker hymn says: “come down where I ought to be.” It got worse and worse.
One day I snapped and swallowed every sleeping pill I could find in the medicine cabinet. It was a desperate move, but what was really important about it eluded me until just recently, more than twenty-five years later. What I realized was that in attempting to end my life I had also been given the chance to save my life. After hearing a voice that told me I was a “good girl” for keeping the pills down, I defied it and had myself taken to an emergency room to have my stomach pumped out. That decision—saving my life—seemed to put me in the readiness position I needed in order to make the next right moves. It was like a sardonic miracle, for suddenly everything began to fall into place and I began to know what to do with myself. A few weeks after my suicide attempt I came home from my teaching job, sat down on my bed, and knew that I was going to leave my family. I also had the strong feeling that I would go to Boston. I think Boston represented freedom (The Freedom Trail, the Boston Tea Party), resistance (protests for ending the war in Vietnam) and learning (all the universities and colleges in the area). Also, Thoreau’s Walden Pond was nearby.
None of this was alarming, but I did wonder what I would do in Boston. The answer came quickly: I would go to school. I pulled down a copy of the New Woman’s Survival Catalogue from a shelf above my bed, looked in the education section and saw that in Boston there was a school called Goddard Cambridge Graduate School for Social Change. I liked the sound of it, sent them a request for a catalogue and in two months was in Boston checking it out. My breakthrough was just like that—sudden, fast and productive.
Of course, the reality of actually leaving San Antonio was so difficult that I dissociated from it. I took care of business, but I was unable to be emotionally aware of myself or intelligible to others about what I was doing. I was pretty much in a haze, which was probably what protected me from totally caving in and giving up. The miracle was that I never lost the sense of the rightness of my going to Boston or of my determination to do it. Leaving my daughter was unbelievably hard, and it still breaks my heart to remember the look of confusion on my youngest son’s face the day I left. But, in spite of these incredibly painful moments and in spite of the fact that I made the move without anyone understanding what I was doing or supporting me emotionally, I would do it again. Actually, I don’t believe that I could have done anything else.
When I got to Boston, one of my teachers said to me: “You seem to have a sense of destiny.” I had no idea what she meant. Now I know that she realized I was on a mission, but at that time I was too afraid to acknowledge that what I had done was either right or good, much less purposeful. How could I? I was doing something outrageous which made no sense to anyone that I knew. As a revered woman in San Antonio said to me just before I was about to leave for Boston: “You have a wonderful husband and three outstanding children. You’re rich and you’re beautiful. There must me something wrong with you.” I knew there wasn’t anything wrong with me, but I didn’t yet have the words to intelligibly defend myself—or the courage.
After thirty years, that is no longer the case. I can now articulate, to my satisfaction, what going to Boston was all about and I can also talk about what has worked since then to help me keep changing and be-coming ever new.
On the wall of my apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, was a poster that read: “I am a woman giving birth to myself.” That’s what Boston was all about. It was as simple and as complicated as that. Now the poster hangs above my desk. I still love what it says and I love that what it says is still true of me.
As for what works to keep me giving birth to myself, there are two things that are indispensable: solitude and journaling.
Before I went to Boston, I was radically removed from myself. I not only didn’t know who I was; I didn’t know that I was. I felt that I had to separate from the world that I knew in order to know that I even existed—that I was real. I had to get away from what Mary Daly calls “the noise of the fore-ground.” I lived alone for my first year in Boston and rarely felt lonely because I was busy and I was intrigued with everything I was able to do and see. Just about anything could make my day. Then, during my second year, I lived in a house with three other women where we each had our own bedroom. In that household, amidst others, I got used to being able to shut my door and feel not only safe behind it, but productive as well. I found out that I could lead a very rich life all by myself—even when there were others around.
I also learned a lot about me when I was with others. I had been an only and neglected child and never really had a friend but I learned early on that if I was outgoing and attentive to others, I could survive socially. That skill worked well for me in Boston, but I began to have experiences with others that suggested that maybe I wasn’t the “people person” that I, and everyone else, thought I was. I realized that I usually felt quite lonely when I was with others and very out of the loop. When I began to process all this, I found that being alone in my room helped. No one was there to intervene and I could get hold of what was going on. I made a tiny beginning and wrote my graduating paper from Goddard Cambridge on “The Concept and Experience of Separateness.”
When I returned to San Antonio after two and a half years, I divorced and lived alone. For three years I was very active in the women’s community and rapturously in love with the women in my life. Then I began to have the same out-of-the-loop feelings I had had in Boston. As I told one woman: “I’m a feminist and I’m afraid of the girls.” So I withdrew and entered a time of isolation, deep introspection and a study of radical feminist thought. This time, being alone was different and harder. Blessedly, I was neither agitated nor restless; I was content to just sit and be with myself. My cat and a stone I held were the only witnesses to what was going on. At first I could feel only Absence, but gradually I began to feel and face my emptiness and the anxiety that went along with it. I went as deep as I could and I thought about how I felt. Because I was alone, no one could interfere with my process.
During those years, I went into the hidden and repressed realities of my past. At first I was like that stunned and stopped deer caught in the lights of an oncoming car. Most of the time I felt weak and insecure and I was glad there was no one around who might be frightened by these very natural feelings. I also needed to be alone in order to discover and focus on an alternative to the trance that enticed me. By trance, I mean a total shut down. I would get so scared that I would space out in order not to feel. I wouldn’t run; I would just freeze. Since I was alone, I could bear with myself. Then, if I was willing to stay with a scary feeling long enough and it became more familiar, I was less afraid of it. I managed to talk myself through it—gently and like a loving parent—until I could see it without needing to run from it. I faced, and began to make a blessed peace with, the neglect and abuses of my childhood—ones that had held me terrorized and frozen in repetitive behavior that I hoped would get me the love and attention I’d never known. As I am now on the other side of this “facing”, I know that this was essential work, for if I had not done it, I would have been doomed to stay caught up in the “fixtures” of my family history—what was familiar. For me to heal and change the behaviors I learned in the cauldron of my family, I had to separate from those who affected me.
As I write this, it’s been thirty years since I went to Boston to begin finding and changing my life and I am more committed than ever to solitude. Sometimes I want to run from it. I fantasize a lover or go way outside my boundaries in order to make a friend, but again and again and again, I realize that solitude is essential for me to grow and change—to keep on be-coming—to keep on giving birth to myself.
The other thing that is essential to me is journaling. I was about thirty-three when I started journaling. At first I was just trying to say how I felt as best as I could. I was pitifully inarticulate, but for the first time in my life I was saying how I felt. Mostly what came out was how unhappy I was—and how afraid. As I kept journaling, I still told myself how I was feeling but I began to write words that answered and helped. One day I was very depressed and lost and contemplating going to a therapist. In my journal, I kept telling it like it was and asking for help. Before long I wrote: “What comes forth from me is my self help.” I go to my journal whenever I am lost, which is nearly everyday when I wake. By the time I lay it down, I am usually found. The more I write, the more I want me and the more I need to hear from me. This is an amazing proof of Knowing the Mystery. That is: What I had been longing for all my life—to be wanted and for them to want to hear from me—I find within the conversation with myself.
I also have a little book in which I write three line poems—five syllables or less in the first line, seven or less in the second and five or less in the third. Sometimes, as I am writing in my journal, something pithy comes to me and I record it in my little blue book. I refer to these poems often and receive great help from them, for they are the essence of what I know and have learned. They are articulate clarity.
In addition to solitude and journaling, there are some other things that have helped and seem almost essential, too.
A very important one is that I’m not inclined to hang on to blaming others for the discomfort I feel. That does not mean that I don’t realize the part they’ve played or in some cases, hold them accountable. It just means that once I’ve done that, I get on with what is more important to me. If I am obsessed with resentment I feel impotent and anxious. If I give the situation enough time and thought, however, I get back to myself and the priority of myself. I let them go—realize our separateness—and get on with my growth and change.
Another thing is to know that the process of self be-coming is different for each of us because each one of us is deconstructing a different set of hand-me-downs. Each of us has a unique self—our original self—to be-come, so it is important not to compare. As a therapist said to me once, “At the end of your life, Scottie, you won’t be asked how much like someone else you became, but how much like your self you became.” The more I know myself—be myself—the easier it is not to compare. I am enough.
Also, I have had to be so committed to my change that I am unable to fake satisfaction. I have made lots of mistakes along the way, but I know (by the way I know) when I am not getting it right—when I am not real-ly satisfied with what’s going on. Then it is that I stop and withdraw and think about what has happened. These are times when I fill many, many pages in my journal.
Another critical aspect of my self be-coming is that, in the beginning, as I entered the process, I kept going whether I was misunderstood, disapproved of or shunned. It was as if I had no vulnerability. This is so very strange, yet blessed, since I was going through seemingly unbearable times. I truly believe that I was protected by the rightness (for me) of what I was doing. I never doubted my move to Boston, regardless of what those in my family—or outside of it—thought of me. As time has gone on and I go much deeper and change more, I continue to be blessed with this invulnerability. It seems that all my hard work has paid off.
Clearly, Be-coming means that we are becoming new and different—we are changing. At first, we are usually in unfamiliar territory. We are learning our way as we go. Not to worry, though. Once we start on this journey, we wouldn’t turn back—even if we could. Some would say this takes courage. Perhaps, but in my case, my primary feeling is the deepest gratitude for the chance to grow and change—to Be-come more fully who I am.