Many years ago, walking down the small town of our lakehouse, I passed a neon sign for a spa, lit up in pink against the clear night sky. “Escape!”, it called out into the darkness, and I laughed in spite of myself. Oh how this sign has called to me all my life. Escaping into books, writing stories and endless craft kits as a child when the stress of family life got too much. Or the escape that alcohol offered in “liquid courage” as a teen to help with social awkwardness and not enoughness. Or to sit in the sun drenched creek behind our house, my toes deep in its slow flowing waters, singing “Sail Away” by Styx in the fantasy of drifting away from the high expectations of my mother. The escape I found in being the giving ear and shoulder to every weakened soul out there, being able to lose myself in them so I didn’t have to actively look within myself.
After leaving a retreat this past weekend in which my inner self was brought up into awareness with frightening clarity at times, I began reading a new fiction book, “Before I Go To Sleep” by CJ Watson. The narrator in the story is an amnesic who is unable to remember anything but the 12 waking hours of each day, sleep taking from her all memories of her past. She relies on what she’s told by others, and later by an ongoing diary, to clue her into who she is. I resonated with her story, having just left this retreat. How is this any different from what we all do in our own lives? Surely we have our daily memories, but who’s to say how accurate our recall is? What we chose to notice, what we ignored? Who are we really beyond the messages that we gather from birth, either directly told or perceived? The older I get, the more I’ve realized what an unreliable witness I’ve been, acknowledging that I’ve judged myself considerably harsher than what is rational or real. How do we begin to journal through our created realities to reveal the true soul beneath? I feel like middle-age, trauma, and children leaving the nest are throwing me into the vast storage box of pieces, sorting through which truly belong to this wondrous puzzle I call “me”. Some days it seems as though a piece fits, only to find days/months later that the fit is rather snug, it’s edges not truly congruent with the rest of me. It’s arduous tedious work, sometimes not very enjoyable. There’s a freedom –an escape- that even the narrator in the story suggested: to give up.Why fight knowing when it’d be just as easy to live a life half existing, just going along with the messages she receives from others. Is it really that important to remember everything – or to get to the crux of it all, finding that core, that unique soul’s meaning and purpose in this world? Everything deep within me screams out a resilient “Yes!!!!” Even if I never finish this beautiful puzzle before me, the pieces I’ve placed and the tenacity of finishing is a gift to me and the world beyond. I’mreminded of Mary Oliver’s admonishment, “Listen….are you barely breathing and calling this a life?” Is a life of ignorant ease worth the sacrificing of a life fully lived in our attempt to escape the pain and struggle?
At the retreat, Butterfly was my reluctant companion and guide. She was consistently at my side and continues with me on my path. In my resistance to see her as my totem or guide, I resisted all that I thought she entailed: whimsy, flightiness, insignificance, and frailty. Yet if I allow Her to color my picture in the puzzle before me, I can begin to look objectively at her edges, finding how truly she might fit. I can easily accept how we both ride the winds of chance and possibility, alighting upon the wisdom of age old trees and stones to immerse in their truth. I can see how I’m willing and open to try new skills, to explore their medium. The risk I invite to throw myself into vulnerability as I enroll myself into new situations and classes. My bravery in baring myself to the world for all to see. Surprisingly, I think it’s the value of Butterfly’s beauty that I try to push away or escape. Oh, I can readily admit there’s a deep passion that loves to immerse myself in the creation of beautiful things, whether it’s me, my home, or various creative media – music, writing, painting, and jewelry. Apparently the message that I need to escape from is that Art is just not valuable enough – not significant in this world- yet I look around me and acknowledge its value and the world’s appreciation. How a song can touch the heart of millions in its ability to transform into the story of each individual heart. Or the artwork of the ugliness found, for instance, in the Holocaust paintings I witnessed at the Art Museum earlier this year, representing the freeing of pain and tragedy; seeing how beauty can arise out of the ashes of our deepest grief. That the small act of creating a beautiful new place for an elderly soul transitioning out of his life into the aloneness of assisted living can be a daily gift of comfort in new surroundings. Or that the gift in teaching another an art skill can help her see the gift of beauty she has for the world. There’s an old message that says I need to be masterful enough at it to earn money in order for it to be truly valuable, yet I look at the examples just given and realize I need to reframe my definition. Fully allowing her to fit in the picture before me, I can acknowledge my bravery, my openness, my tenacity for transformation, my passion for beauty, and it’s reframed value. Perhaps She fits beautifully. Follow this, my heart says. This is the School of Beauty that I can not escape, as if my life depended on it. Let Her teach me into fullness.