“This Is What We’re Doing Now”

20171202_165026 (2)I had a kind of revelation the other day, after posting this little piece on my Alchemical Horse blog. Here’s what I originally wrote:

I got to the barn today a few minutes after sundown. The light was fading but the sky was still bright when I reached the pasture. The herd was moving slowly, heads down, toward the east end of the pasture, each horse in his own space but obviously connected. It was so peaceful.

I didn’t have a plan for my time with Galahad, though I had thought about taking him out and feeding him some dinner at the car. We rarely do anything after dark these days, so I figured it would be something different and interesting for him.

He saw me halfway across the pasture; he lifted his head in acknowledgement but went back to grazing. When I got close enough to touch him, he sniffed my outstretched hand, gave a deep “blow,” and dropped his head again. He didn’t even check me for carrots or cookies—he just continued to graze. I heard, “This is what we do at sunset.” It felt important.

Thank goodness I have grown to know him well enough to understand what he tells me, and to read his mood. Tonight, he wanted nothing more than to share this nightly “ritual” with me. So I spent half an hour or more just being there with him. I scratched his rump once or twice, touched him on the withers and shoulder a couple of times, and he leaned into me as he grazed. Nothing was said; nothing was needed. It was certainly a privilege for me to share, and I think he appreciated my presence, too.

“This is what we do at sunset.”

I love this short post—it’s a real feel-good essay, and an almost-accurate reflection of my experience. But even as I posted it, something was nagging at me.

A couple of days later, an email newsletter provided me with the insight I needed.

Here’s the newsletter, from Anna Breytenbach’s AnimalSpirit. The article is “Projection vs Perception,” which describes a group of whale watchers encountering a pod of whales off the shore of South Africa a while back, and singing to them. One of the whales lifted her pectoral fin out of the water and stayed that way for quite a while. The people interpreted the action as the whale “waving to them.” Anna, realizing that this was probably a projection of a very human activity onto an animal, checked in intuitively with the whale, who reported that she was using her fin to feel the sound waves coming from the humans.

That was the key I needed to understand my nagging discomfort with my blog post.

In my mind, I went back to that magical evening in the pasture. What I had actually heard from Galahad was, “This is what we are doing now, and it is important to us.”

That’s quite a different thing, isn’t it? My interpretation is romanticized, satisfying in human terms. But it’s not accurate. The actual message was more about the herd engaging in a mutual activity that strengthened their bond. It was more about doing something together in the moment, focused both on the environment and on the other members of the group.

Interesting.

When talking about working with the imaginal world and its inhabitants, I always tell my students and clients to be careful not to impose our meanings on those Others. It’s so important! And in my personal experience, when I’m wrong about a “message” from one of my imaginal contacts, it’s almost always because I’ve misinterpreted it—it’s not that I haven’t perceived it. I’ve just projected my own wishes and needs and expectations and values onto the other being.

It’s the same when we interact with other humans, actually. We need to be so careful to actually listen to the other person and hear what they are trying to say, without interpreting their words from our own viewpoint. Each one of us has our own perspective, and it’s a gift to be able to really listen and try to see the world from that other person’s point of view. If we would all try to do that more often, the world would be a different place.

So again, the horses have taught me a valuable lesson. I’ve added a couple of parenthetical words to Anna’s beautiful summary of what happened with the whales:

When we are privileged enough to encounter a wild animal [or another human being] in their own environment, behaving in a way that is natural for them, we humans have the opportunity for conscious choice: we can project our own humanness [or our own personal values and assumptions] onto what we’re observing and thereby completely misinterpret their behaviour and intentions, or we can tune into the perspective of that non-human and directly perceive their truths…beyond the constraints of human perspectives. Direct perception is the wise choice.

My thanks to the whales…and the horses….

 

[Cross-posted on The Alchemical Horse]

Hawk

Kanapaha-2008_04_09-IMG_0128

Red-Shouldered Hawk, Florida; photo from Wikipedia.

Well, my morning last Sunday was way more exciting than expected: I went out to the barn around 9:30 to get Galahad out. He wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but he let me put his halter on. He was a little balky when I asked him to come out the center pasture gate. That’s unusual for him—he generally loves to come out of the pasture.

This particular morning, though, he told me that there was something scary in the water tank there—not so scary that he wouldn’t go to the tank, but too scary to get a drink. He kept looking and snorting softly, so I went to look, and sure enough, there was something: A red-shouldered hawk, by some misadventure, had gotten stuck in there and nearly drowned.

I took off Galahad’s halter and went to get a small rag to cover the hawk’s head and several towels to wrap him up and soak up some of the water—he was waterlogged, hypothermic, and not moving much at all. I was afraid he was too far gone to save, but I had to try. I told him each step in the process, hoping he could feel my good intentions.

Even sopping wet, the bird weighed almost nothing—amazing. I carried the soggy little bundle over to the barn to find a dear friend of mine who could be counted on not to squeal, go crazy, or insist on unwrapping the hawk. I wasn’t sure quite what to do next.

And the oddest thing: I asked my friend what she thought I should do…and she “just happened” to have the World Bird Sanctuary’s Raptor Center phone number programmed into her phone—she and her husband had needed to call them about a bird just a few days ago. The Center is located about five miles from the barn. So she called and left a message. “Coincidence,” huh?

I kept changing the outer towels without taking the covering off the hawk’s head, and held him on my lap until I could feel his warmth coming through. He never offered to move, except that after half an hour or so he’d flex his feet when I touched them. The huge claws on those powerful yellow feet are amazing. That’s all of the bird that I could see, and I didn’t want to risk upsetting him by looking at him.

I had to get home to teach my Sunday afternoon dreamwork class, and finally, when the Sanctuary didn’t call back right away, I decided to just take him there. So I let him sit (covered with his towel, in Galahad’s feed pan) on the floor of the car until I could get him to the Raptor Center. So fortunate that we have experts so close by! On the drive I played recorded nature sounds to him, and he attempted a faint whistle, but didn’t move.

The volunteers who met me at the Center determined that the bird was apparently uninjured, just chilled and in shock; they put him in a cage with a heat lamp, took my information, and gave me a number where I could call and get updates on his condition. I didn’t take any photos—no time while I was getting him out of the tank, and once at the Raptor Center, it seemed somehow intrusive. Dunno….

What an amazing adventure. Thank you, Galahad for letting me know! I think the credit for this “save” really belongs more to my horse than to me.

I called the Sanctuary this morning for an update for “my” bird: He’s doing well, eating on his own, but may in fact have a fractured coracoid (a bone in his shoulder). That’s something they can’t see from outside, so they’ll feed him up in an indoor cage for a week, then put him in an outdoor flight cage where they can check him out further. Once he’s healed, he can be released.

This part of the story alone would be amazing enough—how often are we given the opportunity to save a magnificent wild creature like this?

But there’s more: I’ve been seeing this particular species of hawk regularly (and not just randomly) for about a year now. There was one sitting in a tree out at the Rescue Ranch one day, for instance, just eyeing me; one flew at windshield level across the highway right in front of my car a couple of months back, close enough for me to see his eye. Up close and personal; they had something to tell me, it seemed.

I shared the story in the class on Sunday, where we were talking about the relational, collaborative nature of the universe. One of my students pointed out that there must be a message for me, and an important one, if this bird was willing to nearly die so that I could really hear him. So I checked in with him in reverie during the class:

From the porch of my imaginal cabin, I can see Hawk on the ground near the steps. I invite him onto my arm, but then he takes off into the sky with me, magically, on his back. Thrilling, that flight! We land on a lichen-covered branch somewhere in the woods…and suddenly I am Hawk, flying blazingly fast through the air.

Such a feeling of power—I can feel the strength in my pectoral muscles, powering my wings. I feel the physical pride and power of my being, the enormous vision that I possess, the certainty of my ability to find and capture the prey that I need to survive. “Ruthless” is one word that springs into my mind. Ruthless. Discerning. Far-seeing. Ruthless in achieving goals, in taking my prey, my sustenance. Power. Speed and precision.

“Take what you need! Have no doubts!”

Collaboration indeed! If I hadn’t cultivated the willingness and the ability to hear Galahad (and not just see a stubborn horse who didn’t want to leave the pasture), and if Galahad hadn’t understood that I would listen to him, that hawk would be dead now. There is no doubt. I couldn’t see him in the tank; he was tucked under the rim, where I had to go over and actually look into the water to see him.

And if I hadn’t cultivated the ability to interact with the unconscious, non-rational world and receive its messages, this experience would just be an interesting coincidence, a fun story to share with friends, but without higher meaning for me.

Wow……

Unforgettable.

 

(Cross-posted from The Alchemical Horse.)

So this happened on Saturday….

20140107160844 (7)It’s a simple, unimportant event, really. Last Saturday a battered truck stopped on the street outside the house and one of the two fellows got out, came up the walk, and rang the doorbell. They were selling firewood and mulch—a common thing this time of year here in our middle-class subdivision.

I told him we didn’t need any—our fireplace has been broken for over a decade, and our flowerbeds require a whole lot more than mulch to set them to rights. They are overgrown with weedy wildflowers, tree saplings, and honeysuckle that will require digging out. “Well, let’s take a look,” said “Mike,” walking into the yard. Landscaping, it turns out, is his passion. He said he’s done some work for a few of our neighbors.

Mike seemed like a good enough sort: short, stocky, middle-aged, pleasant, well spoken. In Texas we’d call him a good ol’ boy, no different than thousands of other men. Certainly no alarm bells went off in my head. He obviously knew a bit about the landscaping trade. He knew about edging, about how hard it is to dig up a walnut sprout, what kinds of mulch were the best. He offered to give us a bid on rehabbing the front yard. It’s something my partner and I have been thinking about doing, so I followed him around while he talked about what he’d like to do.

Stopping under one of our bald cypress trees, he asked if there was anything in that bed that we wanted to keep. I leaned over to point out a big blue hosta hiding among the weeds.

“Hold on just a minute,” said Mike. “You have something in your hair.” And he reached over and very gently removed a leaf.

I froze. My mind was racing, but I did not move, or even breathe. “Wow. I really don’t like this!” said my mind. My body said, “Be still. Let him do what he needs to. Then we can move.” So I stood there as he slowly withdrew his hand and showed me the leaf.

I stood up then, and we continued our ramble around the front yard as though nothing had happened. And apparently, nothing had. He gave me the quote and his phone number, and I promised to call and let him know.

Hours later, I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was furiously angry. I wanted to punch him, to claw his face. But he hadn’t really done anything, another part of me argued. He was actually a very nice fellow. He’d said, just before getting back into the truck, “You girls can count on me to do right by you.” Nothing wrong with that! So why all this anger?

Worst of all, though, was the burning sense of shame that brought on floods of tears. Why, oh why had I just stood there and let him do that? Why didn’t I say anything, or at the very least, move away? Why on earth did I not react at all—just as though the incident hadn’t happened?

I’m 66 years old, and this isn’t my first rodeo, after all. I don’t get catcalls any longer when I walk down the street (thank goodness!), but stuff like this goes on all the time. But after all those years and all those experiences, with all that I know, and with all the conversations going on right now about sexual harassment and male privilege and the patriarchy—and I wrote my dissertation on patriarchal silencing of women, for goodness sake!—after all that, all I managed to do was freeze there while this man so blatantly invaded my personal space?!

I was shocked and ashamed. SO ashamed. Wow.

Well, I tried two things in response to this incident. First, I thought I’d blog about it. That didn’t happen. I just couldn’t do it. And second, I tried to forget about it. I tried really hard all weekend, but that didn’t work, either.

Then in this morning’s email a link to an article showed up, and that article contained links to two more articles that absolutely explain my reaction, and why I’ve always just frozen in place any time anything ugly like this (or much, much worse) happened to me. It’s a neurological thing called “the assault response” or “tonic immobility.” In animals, it’s been seen during encounters with predators; in humans, it’s been documented in response to situations that evoke extreme fear. Associated with this response is a dulling of emotional response.

That explains why I didn’t move the other day—why I almost never “fight back” when touched inappropriately. Fear is at the basis of it—mortal fear, whether justified in the moment or not—and that makes sense based on my experiences with my dad as a tiny child. While he undoubtedly loved me, Dad was in many ways pretty brutal in his behavior.

Anyway.

Now that I can quit blaming myself, other questions surface. The big one is why on earth would Mike have felt compelled—or entitled—to touch me in such an oddly intimate fashion? (“Intimate?” you say. Yeah. You had to be there, but yeah.) Why would he feel entitled to touch ANY woman whom he didn’t know? Different if, say, a branch were crashing down on me, or some other physical mishap seemed likely. But a leaf in my hair? Nope. No way.

Dunno, folks. But this stuff is so incredibly deep-seated in ourselves and in our culture. I have no suggestions at the moment on how to make it stop. When someone like myself who knows what’s going on and who talks such a good line fails, when the chips are down and it really counts, then I just don’t know what to say.

It makes me so darn sad….

 

Breakthrough!

2013-06-13_15-48-29_943February 1996. I wake, sweating and breathing hard, from a dream where I must leap between dimensions or lives before the second part of a melody is played by a peculiar magical music box.  Failure to make the leap means certain destruction.  There is no place to escape, no place to hide, and no rest.

This dream arrived at a terribly difficult time in my life, and I knew even as I woke what it was about. It was such a familiar feeling! For most of my life, this “leaping between dimensions or lives” was what I constantly did, because I desperately  needed for everyone to like me. And so I did my level best to be whoever each person wanted or needed me to be. I had no real idea which one of these personas was “me,” or if I even existed outside of other people’s opinions. That’s a terrible way to live, but so many people spend their lives that way.

Of course, living like that was exhausting, and knotted up with the self-loathing that was such a huge part of my life. It was impossible to keep up with what I’d told each person, and I was terrified that I’d get my stories mixed up.  Many years ago I quit equivocating (as I think I’ve mentioned here before), thank goodness. But, at least at first, that wasn’t enough to overcome decades of feeling like an impostor in my own life. And it took decades longer before I knew what my own truth is and began to be able to speak it out loud.

I bet more than a few of you can identify with these feelings.

But the other morning I woke up and realized that I actually like myself at least as well as I like my best friends.

Wow.

Does that sound dumb?

And then just this morning—JUST THIS VERY  MORNING—I was able to do something that’s always before been impossible. I looked at myself in the mirror, eye to eye, and said, “Hey you. I like you!” and smiled shyly….

Wow….

I’m not saying that this will last, and I’m not saying that I like everything about myself. I screw up regularly in oh so many ways. But still…. I seem to be learning about acceptance and forgiveness, and it’s actually getting easier. And my compassion seems to be extending to myself, too. Who would have thought!

I’m laughing now, as I type this, because it seems so simple, and yet I’m also hearing the echoes of childhood admonitions: “Don’t be conceited!” “Who do you think you are, saying these things?” “You are so stuck-up! What will people think?” And I might be blushing just a little, too…but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

Because it’s such a new and amazing feeling. After 66 years on this planet, I’ve finally turned into someone I actually like. No, that’s not quite true. I’ve just quit trying to be anyone other than who I really am…and I like myself that way.

Cool, huh?

For those of you who are already there, count your blessings (as I am sure you already do). I know you’ll applaud me. For those of you who aren’t there yet, know that there is hope. It really can happen! I’m hear to tell ya!

Woohoo!

 

The Indoor-Outdoor Place, Part Two

copper-pots-001Part Two: The Rest of the Story

The final part of this dream, which I deliberately didn’t include in the first post, adds an interesting layer of meaning:

Then I turn toward the rest of the house and there are piles of odds and ends, including lots of old and beat-up copper cooking pots that are flimsy and not usable, but could be attractive as part of the décor. I realize that I’m going to want to get rid of them, though, because there’s just too much junk here. The feeling in this dream is of moving into a new area and renovating it or updating it, though I’m somewhat tentative about it.

Cooking pots and kitchen images always make me think of alchemy—the process of heating the elements in order to purify them. Copper, in alchemical terms, is often associated with Venus and the feminine, and in the waking world is easily deformed, bent, and destroyed. These old, battered cooking pots—here likely symbolizing the internalized aspects of womanhood and the Feminine,  are “not usable,” but only decorative at this point. The dream suggests that I may need to get rid of those concepts and understandings and replace them with something more serviceable as I renovate this area of my life.

In fact, that’s what’s happening now in my life, as I finally begin to deal with my internalized mother (who is not capable of providing the support and nurturance that I need) and replace those internal images.

At the time of this dream, more than ten years ago, I had no idea of any of this. The information in this dream has become even more relevant than it was at the time it came to me, because it’s only now that I understand enough, and have become strong enough, to do the difficult work that’s required.

The Indoor-Outdoor Place, Part One

20170402_205034

Dream: I’m in a space that seems simultaneously an indoor room, perhaps a library in a house, and an outdoor garden area. As I walk down one side, there are flowers blooming very early, way out of season, and I worry that they’ll be nipped by the frost. They’re lovely and surprising, but I notice they have no fragrance. Back the other way, toward the rest of the house, there are shelves where the previous owner has kept irises, bulb and all, growing in flasks of water. These irises are also blooming, but pale and faded because they haven’t gotten sunlight. I move them off the lower shelves where they’ve been and put them in the “windows” of the garden where they’ll get more light, and think about adding some fertilizer to their water. The feeling in this dream is of moving into a new area and renovating it or updating it, though I’m somewhat tentative about it.

This dream occurred at a time when I was just beginning the real work of my dissertation.

I remember it well: the sense of surprise that the space was both indoors and outdoors at the same time; the beauty of the flowers, blooming in winter; the concern about them being killed by frost; the odd fact that, beautiful though they were, they had no fragrance at all. And those irises! In vases of water?

I remember being puzzled by the dream, trying to make sense of it, trying very hard to give it a positive spin: renovating something, making it new again; protecting precious blooming things; correcting “mistakes” from previous generations. But it’s only recently, fifteen or so years later, that the real meaning of the dream has emerged for me, and I’ve understood why I could never feel completely positive about it.

My interpretation at the time was this: I know the dangers that are involved here. By carefully protecting these lovely flowers, I can keep them safe, give them light and fertilizer, and renovate the “room.” Yes! A very positive dream! Right?

Carl Jung was a keen observer of the natural world. When we come across images from nature in our dreams, it’s always a good idea to look at them from a naturalist’s perspective as we search for their meaning. In this little dream, what do we notice?

These flowers are blooming out of season, “very early,” in a space that is not protected from winter’s chill. They are in danger of being killed by frost because it’s not yet time for them to bloom. The irises are struggling to grow in vases of water on shelves that receive insufficient light. If you’ve ever grown irises, you’ll know two important things about them: First, they require plenty of sunlight to thrive. Without it, they have a hard time. And second, they can’t tolerate wet feet. The irises in the dream are doomed.

What do these images tell us about the “renovation” that’s being attempted? The time is wrong, and the conditions are wrong! It’s highly unlikely, says Psyche, that the work will be successfully accomplished at this moment. Later, perhaps, and with different conditions. No matter how much I want the psychic changes to occur, “now” is not the time.

And in fact, “now” was not the time for the psychic renovation that I was undertaking. It would be four long, agonizing years before I finished the dissertation—before I managed to renovate my psychic structure sufficiently that I was able to provide a suitable “space” for the material to survive. And it’s only now, another nine years later, that the dissertation is beginning to transform itself into a book.

Interpreting the dream in that way at the time, had I been able to understand it correctly, might have saved me a lot of heartache along the way. I might have been more compassionate with myself. But maybe it’s better that it remained a mystery for so long, and only now gives up its meaning, when I can better understand the reasons for the long, drawn-out process. I’m now much better able to provide the structure and conditions for those flowers to thrive!

Trigger Warning

Alchemy 2This pain has been ramping up, slowly, for a few weeks now. But it’s like boiling a frog: Start him in a pot of cold water and he’ll never notice. Yeah, it’s like that. What I was conscious of, early this month, was an increasing sense of “upset” about the Presidential campaign.

I didn’t see the connection.

On Sunday the 9th, I watched the second presidential debate, even though my intuition told me it wasn’t a good idea. Watching it wouldn’t change things, obviously, and I was already upset. But it’s like gawking at a car wreck—so very hard to look away as you drive past.

Sunday night I went to bed full of the image of Donald Trump lurking behind Hillary Clinton, glaring intensely at her in the most physically threatening manner imaginable. I do not know how she managed to stand there and continue calmly to speak; I was cowering, unable to sit down and watch. Even now, typing this, my heart rate goes up at the memory.

Less than an hour after going to bed, I was awakened by an agonizing jolt to the nerve in my jaw. Then another, and another—the assault continued most of the night, let up for an hour or so, and then resumed as soon as I woke up.

Nearly two weeks later, the pain has finally relented enough for me to function again, though I’m exhausted and not thinking very clearly. I can speak, cautiously, at least a few words at a time again; I can eat without much pain provided I run everything through a blender and water it down first.

Not fun, folks.

Here’s the interesting part: I am far from the only person suffering in this way at this time. The viciousness, anger, and misogyny of this election campaign has affected many, many of us.

Donald Trump, in that debate setting, in his statements, and in the recordings that have surfaced, displays the kind of physical and emotional threat behavior that so many women have experienced all our lives. Trump embodies the abuser. I’m not going to try to say more about that: Just attempting to describe his behavior, and the effect on my own psyche, raises my heart rate and drives most coherent thought right out of my head. I just want to run somewhere and hide.

Not just me. A therapist friend of mine said, “You wouldn’t believe how many of my clients are reporting having trouble with this!” Clearly, I’m not alone—it’s triggering trauma survivors all over. All over social media, people are posting and tweeting responses.There was even a post in the Washington Times offering suggestions on how to cope.

One brave woman got a million tweets after asking other women to tweet their first sexual assault. “Harrowing” is one of the words she uses to describe the responses. Mine? Minor, by comparison to some, but significant: Fifth grade, one of my male classmates snapped my bra strap. He was followed by a few of his companions. I was afraid to cry for help; the teacher looked away.

“I was afraid to cry for help.” That tells me that it was not, in fact, the first time; just the first time that I can now remember.

I can’t write much more now—I risk the return of the pain, which I can feel lurking in the background. But as the ability to think and understand returns, I’m working on making sense of this. For now, though, let me just post a “dialogue,” facilitated by a shaman friend of mine, from the beginning of this month. I was addressing the pain itself:

Kay to the pain: Why will you not leave?

Pain: I am anger! I am rage!

Kay: You frighten me! How can I help? This anger and rage—it’s hurting me! How can I help?

Pain: Stop! No words! Fire. Tears. No breath. Help me!

Kay: I understand; I hear you. I feel that rage! Is there something I can do to help?

Pain: [Long silence] I’m afraid too.