The Dark Night of the Soul and You

Sometimes the road we are traveling down becomes bumpy. The path narrows, the sunshine gets pushed out by the brush surrounding us. We trip over rocks that pop up out of nowhere. We can find our way through, but it feels like real effort. Every step takes thought and consideration and your mind feels full to the brim and overflowing. Am I going the right way? Did I remember to pack water? Did I pay the electric bill and find a sitter for the kids' day off and call the doctor's office again because they never called me back? 

Sometimes this is a stage of life we are passing through. It's a tough climb but we know that after we get through this tricky portion of the path we will see the sun poking through the trees in the distance.

Other times, though, we find the brush getting thicker. The rocks are becoming boulders that we need to scramble over to get by. A mile takes hours. The trail markers have disappeared and we are out in the wilderness alone. We are hungry. Hungry for sustenance and light and ease. 

We think to ourselves: One more night alone in this tent on the edge of the cliff and surely, the path will clear tomorrow. 

But it doesn't.


This is the Dark Night of the Soul from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. I love teaching the Hero's Journey because it feels so relatable. If you reflect on your own life, have there been times of the Dark Night of the Soul? 

The thing about the Dark Night of the Soul is that what comes after it can be life-changing. Curious about that part of the journey? Sign up for my Hero's Journey workshop where we will be talking all about it.

Here I am, In the Airless Room

Her need traps me in a tiny room with no windows, no door, no air. There is no one to come save me and I feel desperate, unlike myself and not the daughter I want to be.

No place can protect me from the airless room. Not when I’m on vacation, eating donuts and coffee out on the porch, admiring the sun rising over the expansive ocean. Not when I’m teaching my students, intent on sharing with them the shapes and symbols to create a family tree.

Even here, secluded away in this picturesque setting with mountains and lake, where I’ve just practiced poetry and taken mindful breaths in Child’s Pose, I’m at risk.

Mere minutes after that zen-induced state, I hear her voice through the phone and I’m snared, caught in the tiny room. “Where are you?” she demands. “I can’t keep track of whether you’re working or with the kids. You and your sister, always traveling around.” I hadn’t told her I was going to a writing retreat, dropping all responsibility, including the responsibility of her, to come here to do this thing for me.

I want to protect this part of myself from her. Or not from her exactly, but from the dementia that seems sometimes so big it is the air I breathe, the food I eat. I’m afraid if I let her see my creativity, the dementia will gobble it up, swallow it whole.

Before this disease stole my mother away, we shared everything. She was my confidante and best friend. When I first became a mother, a year before her diagnosis, I called her from my car every day during my hour-long commute, hysterical. I was distraught that I could not figure out how to be the mom my infant daughter needed. As time stretched on, anxiety crept in, telling me I would never get to that place.

My mom stood by me steadfastly, never wavering in her support, always believing that I had the ability to figure it out. This was the person she had been throughout my entire 30 years on this earth. I wonder now why I can’t access that kind of patience within me, now that the tables have been turned.

Here I am, guiding her foot into her left pant leg, having carefully chosen the pants with no button or zipper, and praying she holds steady on one foot as I crouch on the floor beneath her.

Here I am, hopping up from the table at the restaurant to wipe the glob of salted caramel ice cream from her lap after her spoon missed her mouth. All the while trying to be discreet so as not to draw attention to her disease, and also to act as quickly as possible in the hopes that she doesn’t notice me dabbing her lap because that would mean she would have to acknowledge that help is needed.

Here I am, buckling her seat belt as I drive her to yet another doctor’s appointment, steadying myself to retell the story of eight years of the slow loss of a person. The person who was my person.

Here I am, trying to get out the door of the apartment that we moved her into last year, 400 miles away from the place that she called home, and feeling the well of guilt and anger as she cries because I am leaving, because her world has become so small that she no longer has the cognition to comprehend what it is to have two kids waiting at home, the grocery shopping to do, the lunches to pack.

Here I am, sent to the small, suffocating room by this seemingly innocent question. I could gloss over it by evading and responding to her questions with a question. These days I withhold details and logistics from her, because they cause confusion and aren’t essential. This question gets me though. Isn’t “Where are you?” a timeless question mothers ask of their children?

Doesn’t she have a right to know simply because she is my mother? To evade would be to lie. To the woman who gave me endless amounts of time, energy and love from a well that never dried up, that feels like a deep betrayal. Despite the complete reversal of roles that has transpired over the last few years, I do what’s asked of me and, finally, I tell her where I am.


Published on July 30, 2018 by Rebelle Society.

Summer series: Grief

I’ve thought about, studied and experienced grief for a long time. Here are some seemingly simple universal truths I’ve learned. 

Grief never looks the same from person to person.

Grief does not follow a logical path. 

Grief can come and go.

Grief happens not only when someone dies, but when we experience the loss of a dream, a relationship, an expectation. 

Denial of grief doesn’t always feel like denial and can last a long time. 

Our western society and the people in it do not do the best job of supporting those grieving.

Trauma and grief often go hand in hand.

Grief is a chapter in every human story.

I was introduced to filmmaking duo Lexi and Zach Read of Rhyme & Reason this year through my congenital heart disease community. Their films are breathtaking. I wanted to share this one with you today.

Getting There

I opened my email and saw a word I'd never seen before: Kripalu. It was an email from a student of mine, someone who saw my heart as I saw hers without the need to talk much about it. I scrolled down and then saw this more familiar term "narrative medicine". I felt my shoulders straighten because that's my jam and because that's the graduate program my sister in law completed at Columbia.

This email was about a workshop, a retreat. Where was Kripalu and how did you even pronounce that word? The description jumped off the page at me. Writing, self-discovery, psychology, storytelling. Healing. The workshop was long, almost a week, and it was far away. It was also coming up quickly so obviously there was no way to plan and make arrangements. I responded to my student, "This would be perfect for me... Maybe in the next couple of years when the kids get a bit older." I closed my laptop and went on with my day, Kripalu, however you say it, shrinking away as quickly as it came.

Two days later, same place, same laptop, same email account. In my inbox I saw that funny word again, "Kripalu". I clicked it thinking it was a reply from the same student. Nope. This was the same Kripalu email about the Narrative Medicine retreat, but forwarded from a different student of mine. Another student with whom I had truly connected in the past year.

This time I got a tingle up my neck. My immediate response was: I need to take this more seriously. When the universe, G-d, inspiration, your muse, or whatever you name it comes to you twice, it's time to listen. 

Several weeks later I packed up as if for summer camp and drove eight hours to Kripalu, nestled in the Bershires in Western Massachusetts. It was one of the most life-affirming weeks of my life. I found my people (people like you, my dear reader). The morale here is that listening to the little whispers, the knowings in our heart, can lead us to the experiences in life where we feel most at home, most like ourselves, most happy. Don't ignore them even when it's inconvenient and hard.

Writing prompt: When was a time when you followed your intuition and what happened when you did?  

ps Swami Kripalu was a yoga master. You can read a little more about him here. (I'm no expert but this is how I'm pronouncing it: krĭ-PAW-lu.) xoxo

Get back up.

The past week has been re-learning about rejection and resilience. If you follow me on Instagram, you've had a seat in the front row. It felt at the same time important and insignificant, new and old. I suppose that's how lessons begin to feel when they keep popping up in your life. This re-learning felt important enough to share with you, so I'm taking a bit of a meander from our summer series to share this with you. 

Halfway through 2018, I've sent out 11 pitches. This includes pitches to be a guest on a podcast, to host a workshop, to submit my personal essays or a guest blog, to speak in front of an audience. Out of these, I've had success with five, so a little less than 50%. This is the first time I'm looking at these numbers and that's better odds than I realized. But still six rejections, six no's, six opportunities for me to question what I'm doing, to doubt myself, to wonder who the hell I think I am trying to make it as a writer and business owner.

Last week I decided to work on an essay that had previously been rejected from a print publication. I felt so much resistance simply opening up the document to take a look and see how it could be improved. I distracted myself with email, coffee, calendar, weather and Facebook before I forced myself to sit in the chair and read the darn thing. Maybe it wasn't as spectacular as I recalled but it still rung true. Oh, and also, I had written it in2016. Two years ago and this great piece of my heart was idly sitting here on my laptop. 

It was the date that fueled me - I made a promise to myself to send out another pitch within two days. Then, I closed my laptop and spent the summer day with my kids. 

The next time I checked my email guess what I found? Another rejection. This time for a speaking engagement. I realized I had been holding my breath to some degree waiting for this response. It was a no, but at least I could breathe. Maybe it was the conversation I had with myself the day before - I was able to feel the no for a quick minute and then move on. Gotta get that next pitch out, I told myself. It's all part of the process. 

There are a lot of stories of rejection out there. Harry Potter got rejected 12 times for goodness sake. Sometimes those stories bolster me, other times not. I'm finding that the process, living through it, is my best teacher of rejection and resilience. The more I put myself out there, the more I get rejected. The more I get rejected, the more resilience I build. I can write this to you. I can teach this to you. In order for you to learn it and re-learn it, you may need to go through it yourself. 

Friday morning, the morning of my 39th birthday, I submitted another pitch. I don't know what the outcome will be, but I do know that simply trying again has a power all it's own.

If you have told yourself it's time to try something new but fear has been holding you back, I hope you find some encouragement here. If you need a little more, hit reply and I'll gladly cheerlead for you. 

Summer series: Chronic Illness

The Bellevue Literary Review is a literary magazine published by the Department of Medicine at NYU School of Medicine. The essays and poems examine how illness affects the human condition. These are super high quality pieces of writing that I think you would enjoy. One day I hope my work will be published on those pages.

I was looking for a piece to share with you that examined chronic illness and the one that struck me the most was from the point of view of the son of a man with multiple sclerosis (MS). This isn't lost on me - as the child of a mom with a chronic illness of her own, it's no surprise I landed upon this piece. The author examines his own adjustment to MS, which seems to color his entire existence. This is in contrast to his father's seeming nonchalance about his condition. Isn't this fascinating? That two people in the same family can live through the same experience and have a completely different response and outlook. This line jumped out at me:

I became, in short, his emotional shadow, feeling all those things it would have been understandable for him to feel, if he had been a different kind of person.

I often ask myself why things stick to me and weigh me down. Why I carry bricks of concern in my backpack while others shed their backpack altogether. I think that's why I enjoyed this piece so much.  I felt a connection to these words that sometimes seems hard to find in my world. 

I hope you enjoy it too. What about it resonates with you? Reply and let me know. I recorded an audio file of me reading the piece since it is on the longer side. 

Read "Cripple's Kid" by David Milofsky

Listen to "Cripple's Kid" by David Milofsky

You can't know if you don't ask.

Recently, on a ball field in my town, I was chatting with one of the dads. I hadn't seen his wife for while, which didn't seem unusual. Two working parents, two young kids, your typical busy family. I said to this man something so callous, like: "Where's your wife been hiding, I haven't seen her in forever?"

His response made my stomach churn. She hadn't been feeling well and they were having a hard time figuring out what was going on, despite involving numerous health care providers.

This possibility hadn't even crossed my mind. 

So often we are stuck in our own worlds to the degree that we don't even take notice of what's happening in the world around us. And I'm not talking about the bigger world and feeling bad about not being involved in social justice or the myriad of other causes we might choose to dedicate energy to. I'm talking about the people in our community, in our circles, on our streets. The ones we see without really seeing. 

We do need to take care of ourselves before we can serve others. And yet, people around us, people we see each week, are suffering and we don't even know it. There were many opportunities to ask about this mom, to notice that I hadn't seen her at all in weeks, before I did. 

We make the assumption that everyone else has everything figured out while we are still trying to get the laundry that was done five days ago back into the drawers. But it's simply not true. I don't care if that person drives one of those huge, extravagant SUVs or shows up for every school event with vegan cupcakes. Every single one of us is suffering in some way and sometimes people are going through difficult times right under our noses. If we don't ask how people are doing, we can't know. If we don't know, we can't help. 

This conversation on the baseball field reminded me of all this. When I'm suffering all I want is for someone to reach out and say: I see you, keep going, I have faith in you.

Let's do that for others too.

Summer Series: Separation and Divorce #2

I love sharing research that examines how writing your story can be beneficial to your health (or not). This week I'm sharing an article that looks at how writing affects your physical health. 

Journal Article: Bourassa et al. Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure After Marital Separation. Psychosom Med. 2017 Jul/Aug;79(6):697-705.

Participants: A group of 109 recently separated adults

Design: People were placed in one of the three groups below. They also underwent a bunch of cardiovascular (heart) tests during the months they were involved in the study. Three groups:

1. Traditional Expressive Writing: write about the emotions surrounding the separation
2. Narrative Expressive Writing: write your story about the separation
3. Control group: write about how you spend your time

Finding: People in the Narrative Expressive Writing group had lower heart rate and higher heart rate variability than people in the two other groups. Both of these are good things for your overall health. Blood pressure was not different among the groups. 

Takeaway: Writing your story after separation might help improve your physical health. 

Commentary: The study I shared last week found that writing your story could be bad for your emotional well-being in some cases. Well, some of those same people were found to have improvements in their physical health after writing their story. It's a little confusing. Should I write because I want to be healthy in my body or should I stay away from writing because it might be unhealthy for my mind? My take: If you are someone who is deep in a well of trying to find meaning from your separation, it might behoove you to hold off on writing. Otherwise, try it and see how it feels for you.
 

Don't have time to write? Create a writing ritual.

While I have always kept a journal, I decided in 2014 that I wanted to develop my writing style and eventually share my work. I also decided that in order to do so I needed to create a writing ritual that encouraged me to write. Every Friday morning I would go to a local coffee shop and set up my laptop. I had one hour. It took me weeks to write a single essay.

It was worth every minute. My heart would get heavy as the end of my hour was nearing. I would squeeze in a couple of last sentences and then drag my feet out to the parking lot to get home to help Curt with the kids. Writing filled a need in me. I felt deeply connected to this practice.

It wasn't until early 2016 that I launched Orchid Story as a blog and that was months before Orchid Story became a business. See what I'm trying to spell out for you here? It's ok to take things slow. It's ok if you start writing and don't share your work for years, if ever. It's ok if you can only squeeze in 15 minutes twice a week. 

What is most critical in my experience is that you create a ritual for yourself around writing. Rituals help us connect our outer lives to our inner lives. Rituals allow us to be intentional with our time and to create experiences that make us feel good and connected to who we are at our core. Rituals allow me to take ownership of my time, when it might otherwise pass by in a blur. 

If you have been wanting to write, but just can't figure out how to fit it into your days, my writing ritual worksheet is for you. If you have been wanting to write, but couldn't figure out how to start, my worksheet will help. It's a one pager, mostly questions with checkboxes to inspire you to start your writing practice. Why not decide that this is the summer that you will finally put pen to paper and get started?

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