g a t h e r i n g s

You Asked For It!: A Solitary Life

There is the circumstance of living alone and there is the state of loneliness. Sometimes the two are aligned, but it is not always so. The solitary life may be a contracted life, days and nights passing at a low ebb, despair just beneath the surface. The solitary life may be an expansive life, days and nights passing in rich moments, joy always within reach. The solitary life may be disconnected or connected.

It is a difference in the state of being. When I ask what somebody’s life looks like – I live alone, I have no children, my wife died, I have never been in a long-term relationship, I will spend the holidays reading – these details tell me little. The same is true of the opposite details: I live with my husband, I have a baby girl, my wife and I have been married for 14 years, I married my high-school sweetheart, I will be with 22 family members for the holiday. Of course, from the outside, most of us have all sorts of assumptions about the details. She’s not like me, I am not like him … She must be wrong, he must be misguided. Thank heavens, he’s like me, I am like her … They are right, on the healthy track. These judgments comfort and divide us.

Most obviously, there is an expectation in this time and in this culture that many of the milestones we use to mark the passage of time are associated with living in relationship: first date, prom, engagement, marriage, birth of a child, “empty nest,” grandchildren. This is part of the vocabulary of the general conscience that informs us, whether we are in accord with it or we struggle to redefine it. It is a legacy, and it is a form that in practical terms allows us to hand life off to the future. It is often difficult, perhaps confusing or infuriating or depressing, to find oneself living outside of this main stream, “the mainstream”.

In Constellation work, it is particularly easy to grab on to the details as a way of looking at a system and then inadvertantly, perhaps, diagnosing issues within a false context. If life-giving order is central to the philosophical premise, then when people are outside of that order, there is a problem. Right? Well, it is the state of being that we have to discover to understand whether or not there is order or disorder, so that we can accompany people on their path – rather than drag them down ours.

Imagine … a poet, sipping tea, seated at a beautiful table, writing words of such profound and natural power that the reader cannot help but be touched. Imagine her reverie as she first forms the words as though in a dream, and then later wears down her eraser as she perfects cadence and tone. The next morning, after sleeping the deep sleep that follows a full day, she transfers the words to her screen. She loves the sound of the tap tap on the keys. Once finished, she takes a breath and gently closes the screen. She puts on her coat and goes for a walk. Moving down the wildly crowded city streets or, perhaps, through the wild flowers of the country meadow, she makes contact with new images, sounds, bits of fleeting life; she waves to the dogwalker or the dogwood. Later she will incorporate these moments somehow into a fresh communication with the world. Imagine that when she is not writing, walking, sleeping, eating, sipping tea, or taking care of her home, she is fully awake and engaged with an internal landscape of ever-changing color and view.

I ask her: Are you married? No. Have you ever had a long-term relationship? No. Do you have children? No. Where will you spend the holidays? Right here. Are you ever lonely? Hmm, I don’t think so. Do you know why? I don’t really understand the question on some level. My needs are not a mystery to me.

If we feel into this woman’s state of being, we can let ourselves imagine, without fear, the bountiful dimension of this solitary life, absolutely connected to life and in deep accord with its movements. The superficial details different from that main stream, and at the same time a clear and refreshing tributary, leading to the same destination we all find our way to ultimately. Her contribution to life can be found in the great and essential reciprocity of all things.

I won’t dwell on the opposite imaging. We certainly know in ourselves, most of us, the striving for the superficial details to be in place, and the cyclical patterns in which we sometimes become lost. Even having achieved some or all of those familiar milestones, many feeling trapped in a lonely state, surrounded, busy, but out of touch internally. (I can only know this because he or she reports it to me. When I judge it – assume it – from the outside, I am looking at myself in the mirror.)

And, of course, there are still others who are deeply satisfied in their main stream, surrounded and full, and that’s a beautiful thing.

The resolution of any Constellation reflects the widest field; it always hints at the state of being that is at ease with life, folding in its details rather than attempting to control them. When someone lives in a state of anxiety or dissatisfaction or fear or other depletion, it is the state that holds the possibility of change rather than erasure of the symptom. Erasure is temporary and inaccurate. It doesn’t account for the original materials. The paint will eventually chip away and the original design will show through.

So, what sets the ecology of the current state? This is fertile ground for discovery. If I live in a state of anxiety, addressing the immediate problem will only inhibit the anxiety and it will only be a matter of time before I return to that state. If I live in a state of peace, then I can meet a challenge one way or another, and then return to the peaceful state that has the capacity to withstand the challenge. When our poet has a poem rejected by an important literary journal or learns of the loss of an old friend, and then experiences the disappointment or grief that is the consequence, she has a place to which she can return: a state of ease and replenishment.

When I learned one day that both of my great-grandmothers died in childbirth, something clicked. My mother mentioned this in passing, as part of another story, but I really heard it, especially as I looked into my brave, frightened mother’s eyes. Both of her parents had lost their parents in childbirth. These women and these infants had lost and gained everything in one profound transaction. I understood something about the ecology of my essential state: underlying fear with each step toward more life. In the underlying fear of losing everything is also a kind of preparation for the potential. A state of siege. So, husband, house, child, job … these wonderful details did not, could not, address the state.

But the “click” provided by my mother held something key. On my mother’s side these losses set the ecology for a state that I was born into and that has always informed my ways in the world. Rather than erase the symptom or continue to fall more deeply into that state, I remind myself that I can add sweetness to the ecology now, and that this sweetness will drift back into the past and simultaneously provide new sustenance for the future. I can continue to update my state, allowing fear to become a less relevant force, trauma to be contained by those who can handle it, who did already. And even as I face the challenges that life continues to bring to my doorstep, letting primary feelings move through rather than becoming stuck, I will return to my expanded state, one that is closer to that of the poet of my imagination.

You Asked For It!: Anger

My anger is a trickster, sometimes fooling me into thinking that I am standing my ground when I am actually just kicking up dust. When I step out of myself and blame others for what is rarely actually between us, it is my own heart that splinters, my own confidence that falters. The anger is familiar—that corridor of feeling, reaction, seething, amnesia—it is from another time and place where I was helpless to move, afraid to voice, powerless against so much I could not understand. Anger is a trickster that seduces me back into that young place and throws old images up onto the screen that sometimes look like people in my current life. When I decline the trickster's invitation and do not enter that long hall, I can hold to the present and recognize anger by other names ... mobility, compassion, boundaries, reserve, articulation, perspective, creativity, agent of change.

You Asked For It!: Following Your Passion

Should one always follow one’s professional passion?

Sure.

Really? I wonder why it is that so few people seem to end up doing what they want to do. Why is it that not everyone gets to become a painter or an actor, a basketball player or a family constellation facilitator?

First, of course, there are often very powerful external circumstances at work, and for most of the world things like food and safety take precendence over “following our passion.” On another level, I am careful about assuming that folks are passionate about what they say they are passionate about. I learned this in the mirror. Passion exists at various levels, usually simultaneously, and for each passion that can be articulated, there is often a deeper one that cannot be.

I’m not sure what you mean. People are lying to themselves about what they want and then lying to the world?

No, not lying. The thing I am trying to locate here is that our professed desires are sometimes at odds with our subconscious drives. Like we are in the right gear to head into the future as we dream it but there is gunk in the fuel tank and we keep stalling out: in essence we keep faithful to our other passions, those first established when we were very young. For me, for the longest time, since I was so little, I said I wanted to be a writer. That was my great love. To be a writer. It was a thing I said, a thing I felt, sometimes a thing I tried.

So, that’s what happened, right?

Yes, it is. Still, it took over 30 years to allow that passion to rise to the top, to take center stage. Many things had to come into alignment: concentration, energy, confidence, time, determination, discipline, comfort, interest, continuity – all over a period of time, not just once (the bolt of lightning) but for weeks and weeks, a year. Passion is a demanding companion.

When did you feel a shift? When did those things all come into alignment? What did it feel like? That’s probably a dumb question. But somehow I imagine there must be a deep, good feeling that goes with it, like landing, like deep breathing all the time without even thinking about it.

Hmm.

No? What then?

I don’t know exactly. I just kept considering what I had read in Family Constellations books, witnessed in my own work, and learned from my own students. I just kind of allowed the observations to whoosh around in my mind over a long time, with no agenda or expectation. Like mouthwash whooshing around, sometimes it felt minty fresh! I was surprised again and again that Hellinger’s observations seemed to shed some light on my own patterns and that I was allowing that to happen, allowing for the light to show me something even if it scared me. Some of those patterns had felt so deep and intractable that I hardly wanted to mention them even to myself. I figured, This is too shameful or that is so dispicable, I will just shut my eyes so it disappears. Hellinger’s observations brought some light, and more important, some ease in looking. If I didn’t have to hate my mother in order to love myself – or love her and end up hating me – this seemed like a good start. I was trying not to think too hard, but just to stay open to hearing, to allow one thing or another to have meaning.

You never went to a therapist?

Oh, I did. And I worked in the behavioral sciences for decades. I had a great deal of respect for most of the therapists I worked with, and learned a lot from them. But my primary investment was in not rocking my own psychological boat, in not looking at patterns so I wouldn’t have to fail in changing them, witness myself not following through yet again.

What do you mean? Why did you think you would fail?

Well, most of us fail in that. A pattern is a repetitive design: I might not be happy with it, but I know where I am in the structure, what was, what is, what will be. It is the youngest part of us that gets caught in that structure, the part that has to know she is not alone, that this is how to ensure survival.

I get that. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Okay, so what’s all this have to do with being passionate about what you do? You won’t know where you’re going?

That may be part of it. But I’m thinking more about levels of passion. I would say that my unspoken passion, my deeper passion, was more about not abandoning my brother than about pursuing something I wanted. His voice was not heard, would never be heard, not in the family, not in the world. If he could not, I would not. And, don’t worry Mom, don’t worry Dad, I will not leave him just because you did. Follow my passion? Indeed, this is my deepest, earliest love and knowledge. I know what to do, how to do it: stay quiet, stay young, stay still.

So, have you abandoned him and them by writing this book?

No, now I see it in another way. In the past, when people invited me to succeed (which I understand to mean: completing what I set out to do) – so many people who loved me and cared about me over the years – I could not, despite great efforts, do it. And what felt like craziness, ineptitude, ongoing failure weighed more and more heavily on me and my relationships. Passion for the future – the place that waits with open arms – felt like betrayal to my greater passion, a past I could not abandon. Over time, days and days and more days, Hellinger’s observations began flowing into my own burgeoning understanding, along with a more general opening to other currents moving around me and through me, little bursts of new life-giving thought-feeling, and fresher interactions with the world. Without being able to tell you when exactly or where or why or even how old ideas of loyalty began nesting inside larger images of honoring, at some point they did. What I mean is that I began to see that moving more freely in the present, eyes forward toward more life, is in fact, in different fact, is a way, the way, of paying homage to my older brother. In stepping more fully into life, I am not leaving Edwin behind, I am saying, or living, my “thank you.” To make a contribution to life that is in accord with my widest vocabulary is to bring my older brother into the world, his arm around my shoulders, exactly as he does it. His contribution is in accord with his vocabulary, not knowable by me, and I can move in my way, not knowable by him. Does Life judge him as harshly as I have in the past? Does it judge me with such conceit? Each of us is on our own road, our parents and everyone behind them coursing through us in different ways, all of that color, sound, wisdom, confusion, greatness, belief, and vulnerability.

And the book?

Well, it is written with all of the energy of confluence, the words not so much from me as through me. Where once I wrote in the airless spaces of separation and opposition, trying to put something back together, now expression felt as though it was being set free. I didn’t write this book in honor of my family, or to expose or fix them, I wrote it with them. Passion aligned.