Challenges, Old & New
I’m traveling this week, and I have a blog post due, so I went looking through my files of things I’ve already written, to save myself some time.
And that’s true. But not entirely. I’m also mourning this week. And in a funk. This is a hard time of year for me. Lots of challenging anniversaries of loss, private and public, cluster around the month that starts in late August and ends just before September does. The largest of those anniversaries is today… September 4, 1991 is the day my parents died.
That was a long time ago, and I have accommodated that loss, like you do, but this time of year is never not a little charged with a particular, personal darkness and so, I went looking through my files of things I’d already written, to save myself some time.
This morning, in my therapist’s office, I smelled my mother’s perfume. Not that there isn’t a perfectly mundane explanation involving her previous patient, but things can have perfectly mundane explanations and still be important signs.
This afternoon, looking through my files, I found the following. Slightly edited, for context, and originally appearing in the Diana’s Grove magazine Between the Worlds in October 2007. The resonances… to what is going on with me today, to what I wrote on this blog last month, to what I needed to hear as I struggle along a new journey with a new therapist… well… things can have perfectly mundane explanations and still be important signs.
I wrote this in 2007. At Diana’s Grove, we were working with the story of Tam Lin, and had reached the part in the story where Jennet, the Dreamer, is challenged with pulling Tam Lin, the Dream, into life. We were working with the idea of worthy challenges… the challenges that want to set you free. That want to force you to become who you are.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all challenges were worthy? In that way? And maybe they are… although I’m not sure I can always be high-minded enough to see them like that. But here I sit in a time of challenges, reflecting on challenges past, and knowing that there are challenges ahead for a lot of us, if only because challenge is built into the seasonal pattern of the dwindling of the light.
I wrote this in 2007. It’s still true. It’s less raw. It’s more integrated into my daily life and all of my work, now. And it’s still work that never ends. I hope it helps you see your journey, and your challenges, in the light of a new possibility. Re-visiting it certainly did that for me…
What do you think will be the result of the work we do together?” My therapist asked me that question on the first day of what was to be a relationship of several years. I said I expected to learn to be more “normal.” I didn’t feel normal at all. The things I wanted from my life didn’t seem to be the same things that other people wanted, leaving me with no way to connect. I indulged in all kinds of destructive, escapist behavior so as not to face the confusion and anxiety of being so “different.”
I entered therapy thinking that I could learn to be normal. My therapist was too compassionate to laugh, but her eyes did. She said, “No, we won’t teach you to be ‘normal.’ We’ll teach you to be more comfortable in being exactly who you are.”
Who am I? I am someone who has been learning, since infancy, to let go. Every summer, when I was growing up, my family moved, in support of my father’s career trajectory. Every summer I learned the lesson again: friendships, relationships, are illusory things. Let go, or risk the pain of having them wrenched from between tightly grasping fingers.
And when I was abused and mistreated by someone who was charged with my well-being, someone my parents trusted, I chose to keep secret that betrayal rather than shatter my parents’ trust. I took one more lesson about the danger of needing anyone or anything into myself like a poison, and suffered silently the damage that did.
The illusive, sometimes even destructive nature of the human relationships available to me shaped my craving for the not-human, for the things that don’t change. I took refuge, long ago, in the great dark truths—the paradoxes and mysteries—the sometimes bleak but undeniably comforting stability of the inevitable. I embraced solitude and the lessons of loss.
And what I found there was freedom, and a deep, quiet joy. An almost physical sense of ease as I gave up my need to cling to those things that, by their very nature, are ephemeral; letting attachment slip through my open fingers, letting my loosely held palms fill up, instead, with mystery.
In that place I felt gentle detachment and great compassion. I was filled with a melancholy awe by the beauty all around me. I felt connected. I felt at peace. But I didn’t feel entirely human, anymore. I thought that I was, in some fundamental way, broken. That I could either live in the narcotic ease of separation, or else enter into relationship and damage others with my sharp, jagged edges. That this ruined shape could not fit into the harmonious patterns that we humans, at our best, come together to make: the patterns of service, devotion, healing, and love.
What I know now is that the only thing that was broken was my belief in the breaking: that I believed I had been wrenched out of the pattern, rather than carefully shaped to fit into it. It was possible to be not only comfortable with who I was, but to find meaning and purpose in my differences as well. My therapist and I stepped together onto that road, but the full realization came not through healing work, but rather as a response to a series of worthy challenges.
“You can walk in the dark places,” a clear- eyed friend told me. “Don’t you think others need guidance there? You say you want to be of service—are you willing to let the sacred use you in the way it wants? Are you willing to risk being the one who brings the hard truths? The one who is not welcomed, but is needed?”
Was I willing to be, not loved, but of use? Was I willing to let the things I had learned and experienced be a light for others who found themselves in similar darkness?
I thought I was. And so I accepted the challenge of being a priestess of the dark face of the goddess.
“So you think you can stand in the dark,” that face said to me. “But can you stand here? Can you stand with someone who is dying? Can you be the embodiment of fearlessness in a room that is so full of fear? And can you stand here? Can you stand fearlessly by the deathbed of someone you love? Can you live far away from the things that comfort and give meaning to others, knowing that your job is to be an agent of that meaning, not to be comforted yourself? Can you stand here?”
I thought I could. And so I accepted the challenge of being a priestess of Death, and a servant of the dying.
I (and others) thought that I was broken. Something in me knew that I was a healer. Dreams are hard things to hold, but it is worth our lives to pull them into life. Our challenges shape us, as we shape our dreams. Perhaps we are the dreams that our challenges (and challengers) are pulling into life?
My challenges, and my challengers, helped me shape a life that seemed random and broken into a pattern of preparation for great service. I cannot imagine being “normal” now, not when I have been shown the uses of my “difference.” Worthy challenges have brought me to this place of wholeness, this place of darkness and light, of meaningful service. Worthy challenges have delivered me to my life, and have delivered my life to me.
This post was written by Laurie Dietrich