Starting Where I Am: In the Dark
My Shadow Bags
This month I have taken guidance from two resources I trust.
One from the Wild Mystics, who draw me in to a circle of women writing, praying, and making art that examines the presence of the holy, right now.
The second has been with my mentor Jeffrey Davis, of Tracking Wonder, who I spent a week with in October working on my book, Laundry Line Divine: A Wild Soul Book for Mothers. Throughout December, I have been responding to prompts sent through Jeffrey’s Quest2015. You can learn more here.
Saturday’s prompt from Eric Klein stopped me in my tracks.
How will you face your shadow bag and stop the stink, so you can bring forth what is best within you in 2015? What can you claim right now?
Eric defines shadow bags as the place you stuck the parts of your self you cut off or abandoned in order to fit in to family expectations. He describes these as parts of us that are still alive, just hacked off and stinking in a bag we haul around with us all the time. These vulnerable places that we did not dare expose are what he dares us to handle and heal. Eric believes that here is where our strengths lie.
“You can still proceed with your life with parts of you cut off,” but is this a wonderful way to live? And is anything short of wonderful/joyful/wholehearted/truthful/forgiving/resilient/turned-on/happy/responsive/compassionate/satisfied worth getting out of bed for on a daily basis?
I have to tell you that I have struggled with this prompt since Saturday. I like to take care of assignments promptly. I like to be excellent, to learn…. but this one stumped me. Hadn’t I just dug down to a new level of self-awareness last week? What else was there to see in this dark season?
But, as you know, there is always more to see. I just had to wait long enough for my eyes to adjust.
Jeffrey always asks us what is right beyond our computer screens. What is beyond yours? Right beyond my screen I can see the Solstice Spiral that I laid out under my beloved oak tree in the backyard. Yes, we celebrate Solstice here, with a large group of spiritual questers. Solstice has become a family tradition for us, one that had no proscribed practices so we invented our own and the celebration resonates for all of us.
My family is a mash-up of faith practices.
My husband grew up in a devout Jewish family who lived among a dense Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. He went to Hebrew school in his elementary school years. He had his Bar Mitzvah. Then, he struck out on his own exploration, always returning to temple for the High Holy Days. He has a story to tell about his faith journey. But I can tell you that when we married, he’d become more of a secular Jew, honoring the holidays and some of the traditions, especially when he was with his family.
“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.’”
—Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
I grew up in a firmly established Lutheran household. My grandfather was a Lutheran pastor in Illinois. I had a busy life growing up with church at the center of my social life. I taught Sunday school alongside my mother in my high school years until I was not asked to return. It was there, with a pastor at our home church who I dearly loved for his iconoclastic inquiries in to the practices of a very staid Lutheran community, that I began to question all I had been raised to know as true, sure and unshakeable.
In the fourteen years between leaving high school and meeting my husband, I experimented with different faith practices, worshipping in a glass pyramid in Houston when I lived with my Dad, attending a tiny Lutheran church in Louisville where I was one of the youngest congregants at age 23, then years of Sunday mornings when I’d wake up and wonder, “Who am I if I am not going to church? Does God forget about me if I am not singing with the altos or handing out programs or running the Food Pantry?”
My eyes are beginning to sting. I thought this post was going in another direction.
The holidays are super charged with shame and grief for those of us who have stepped outside the religious practices of our upbringing, who are making it up as we go. Many mixed faith families who for the lack of a welcoming spiritual community invent ways to infuse the sacred in to our daily lives. There are guidebooks beginning to be written for us misfits, but the ache we feel at the rising line of the Hallelujah chorus or the way the alto line of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” weaves through the valves of my pounding heart and will not let go, permeates the frothy snowflakes of this season. Lay on the snowy ground the commercial onslaught that butchers the quiet and gorges on getting and you have a community that weeps as we watch, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and wonders how to get through this week.
For this, I turn to my Wild Mystics, because this patch of women, led by Mandy Steward of Thrashing About With God and Hilary Rain, know Sunday School and how our thighs stuck to pews and how the communion wafers felt important but mystifying in our mouths. I read Mirabai Starr and begin to feel my longing for spiritual nourishment slake. I read John O’Donohue and feel the ground under me become, as Pete Seeger sang, “Holy Ground.”
My shadow bags are full of the questions I asked but have not been able to answer until now.
Do I believe?
Yes. I believe in the Creative Power of the Universe, in the Beloved who is source of all things, the “very first breath in this miraculous creation of our Universe.” I believe our planet evolved, that biology describes our transformation as humans. I believe that we are evolving as human begins having a spiritual experience and vice versa. I believe.
But do I believe to the exclusion of others?
“In my house there are many rooms.” John 14:2 King James Bible
I am 18 standing at the door of our church in Escanaba, about to shake the hand of my favorite pastor, a man I trust with my truth to this day. I swallowed my shame, for I knew this question would open the door on my doubt, and asked him, “If there are so many rooms in God’s house, why do we have to believe in only One Way?” He has a way of pausing before he answers; eyebrows raised, eyes wide, paused. There in the foyer of folks eager for Coffee Hour, I asked a question that he was not prepared to answer right then and there. He said we should talk about it. I am sad to say that I never completed that conversation. I peppered him with other questions over that period, or vaulted statements like, “So Jesus was a hippie, right?” But that first question led me to leaving a regular church affiliation until I had a family of my own.
(That is unless you allow Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion as Saturday night church. Through that radio program on NPR, I stayed tuned to the songs, stories and people I grew up among, who taught me how ice fish and eat pasties, who taught me how to prepare the communion trays and to hold my hands just so, when receiving the Host. Garrison told stories of a small town, which felt like my small town, and that radio program was my strongest tether to faith seeking people for many years.)
Eric states, “You were taught from a young age to hide your deepest longings, to deny essential and sacred parts of who you are. In your family, at school, in the world, you’ve been encouraged to act as if you are complete while simultaneously cutting of parts of your self and exiling them to the shadow bag.
When you cut off parts of yourself, you cut off the flow of your life.”
From the time of our marriage, we decided to blend our faith practices, to honor each others upbringing and to find a new way for ourselves. From the time we moved to Great Barrington, we attended a Lutheran church that welcomed my husband’s presence and his clarinet playing. We were an unusual mix, but there were others among our congregation who had migrated from other faith practices. Our pastor, a remarkably compassionate and brilliant man, made sure we were integrated and honored for who we were and our children were fortunate to learn from him. The lessons we received as a family from that man of God are gifts that we will never forget.
But once he left that church, we very quickly began to feel less welcome. And, with broken hearts, we left.
We lived life and lived loss and did not feel forgotten by God. We came to accept the invitation to one of the many rooms in the house of the Beloved. The name of that room is Love. This is a room that we make new every single day. A room that is sometimes filled with the traditions of our upbringings, but also includes new practices, contemplative practices, and prayers of soulful honesty turned to the Power Greater Than Ourselves who we met years ago in Al-Anon. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the 12 Step Programs for helping my husband and I find a name for the holy that includes both of us, our families, our grandparents who preached from different temples with different words but with common yearnings, desires and values.
So today, the shame I felt as a young person, daring to voice questions that stirred my soul, that itched me under my choir robe and caused me to doubt what was so firmly established as the one single way of faith, I can release in to the clear air of deep winter dark where candles light the Spiral just beyond my computer screen.
In Mirabai’s most recent book, God of Love, she states, “The same Supreme Reality that surpassed all understanding was accessible through every Sanskrit chant, Hebrew prayer and Christian hymn, through Buddhist meditation retreats and affirmations of the merciful and compassionate nature of Allah, through deep silence and unbridled song.”
GOD OF LOVE (Monkfish 2012)
I honor those of you who have a faith practice that answers your questions.
Last night, as I looked in to the eyes of a dear friend I saw the hollow look that has caressed poinsettias and nativity scenes, who has lifted the soprano line to so many hymns right next to me, and I saw a woman who carries the shadow bags of “she who belongs to the Beloved” but has no community that folds together her transformation, her family and her history.
So I offer both of us these words of St. Teresa of Avila, who I came to through Mirabai Starr:
This magnificent refuge is inside you.
Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway…
Be bold. Be humble.
Put away the incense and forget
the incantations they taught you.
Ask no permission from the authorities.
Close your eyes and follow your breath
to the still place that leads to the
invisible path that leads you home.
~ St. Theresa of Avila
Welcome home my dears.
Drop your shadow bags.
Pull up a chair; I will pour you a cup of tea.
There are cookies for all of us.
Barbara Mahany wrote about December at the On Being blog. She said,
“And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.”
Tell me, how does love light your way today?
The founder of the Wisdom Heart School and a longtime internationally respected spiritual teacher, Eric Klein has been a pioneering voice in bringing more spirit, meaning, and authenticity into the workplace. He’s worked with over 20,000 leaders from Fortune 500 companies, healthcare, governmental and non-profit organizations as well as mid-size companies. He’s author of the bestselling book Awakening Corporate Soul: Four Paths to Unleash the Power of People at Work, To Do or Not to Do: How Successful Leaders Make Better Decisions, and You are the Leader You’ve Been Waiting For (a 2008 Nautilus Award-winner as a world-changing book in the conscious leadership/business category). His online meditation program The Meditation Habit is used by corporations and individuals globally. www.wisdomheart.com