Monday, December 10, 2012

A Parable of Forgiveness

Once there was a very old man who lived next door to me.  He'd lived there forever; I'd grown up with his children, and his wife was my confidant.  Long after I grew up,  I moved back into the old house to raise my own children.  He was still next door.

After living some years as friendly neighbors, sharing rakes and shovels and plates of Christmas cookies, I discovered that he had taken something from my garage.  Something that had been there from my own childhood, just some old junk of my grandma's, probably only worth ten bucks at a garage sale. It's value to me was mostly that it had belonged to my family for three generation. But still, he'd just come over and taken it.

I confronted the old man.  He sorrowfully professed his apologies but said the item had since broken and he'd thrown it out; there was no returning it.  I was vastly annoyed and wanted little to do with him after that, though still being close with his wife, I had to swallow my irritation and make nice.

Another while passed and my children began watching one of those antiques shows on television where people sell their attic-finds for pennies or fortunes.  They discovered that the item the old man had stolen was not worth the mere ten dollars I'd imagined but was being bought by collectors for a thousand dollars.  I began to doubt that grandma's junk had so conveniently broken as the old man had claimed.

My anger and resentment of the old man grew.  Bitterness galled in my belly when I saw him in his yard.  My relationship with his wife withered.  I realized that I had to forgive him for my own sake, if not for his.  I told myself that I hadn't lost anymore than when I was unaware of the actual monetary value of grandma's piece.  It was simply a bit of family history and I still had my memories of grandma, after all.  It took a long time of inhaling So and exhaling Hum, of praying for peace and seeking to see the divine in the old man.  But finally, I could smile at him and actually mean it.

Eventually, the old man's wife became ill and died.  My family and I went over to help him sort out his belongings and close up his house before he moved in with his daughter.  I found a note addressed to me in his wife's handwriting, wavering and spotty, clearly written just before her death.

The note revealed that in her last days, the old man had confessed to her.  For decades he had been breaking into my house and systematically stealing my grandmother's treasures.  After emptying the storage boxes in the garage, he decimated the long neglected attic.  He'd even brought in knock-offs to replace the valuable antiques he stole from the main house.  My beloved family heirlooms, the tangible bits of long ago memories, the irreplaceable things I'd so adored because I thought they held the imprint of my grandma's touch were all cheap fakes.  The dead woman guessed that the old man had sold my belongings for hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least a half a million, probably more.  She'd thought he'd been fortunate at his online trading, when in fact, his trades had been disastrous and it was the sale of my own goods that had kept the two of them out of financial disaster many times.

I was shocked into immobility while my mind raced.  What good had been all the work I'd put into forgiving him for the one theft I'd known about?  Had his apology that I'd struggled so to accept had any value at all? Could he possibly have had any repentance for the one when he still continued with the other?  Was my hard-won forgiveness worth anything at all in the face of this deeper and infinitely more personal violation?

Worse than the loss of the material goods he'd stolen was the sense that his theft had been from my soul.  He'd stolen forgiveness from me with his fraudulent apology, capitalizing on my own inner belief in turning the other cheek.  I wished I'd never wasted any effort at all on the struggle to forgive him for his now-petty crime.  I wished I'd built up the wall between our houses, cut off relations with his wife, guarded myself from his thievery.  He'd manipulated my goodness and his wife's to serve his own greed.  He'd exploited my trust to cover his poor judgement in stocks.  His rape of my innocence tainted even the memories his false heirlooms once inspired. I couldn't even think of my grandma without being ripped off by him all over again.

I doubted that all the novenas, all the so hums, all the praying in the world could ever give me the grace to forgive the old man again.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Into the Labyrinth

Myth, according to scholar Karen Armstrong, looks at events not as one-time historical happenings, but instead as something that happens all the time. In myth, there is No Time or perhaps, All Time. Mythological events happen again and again, or constantly, in thematic or psychological metaphor. The same event seen historically happened only at one time and in one place.

In a historical sense, I walked into a labyrinth a month ago and walked back out an hour later. In a mythical sense, I walked into the labyrinth and I am still there. In the center of the figure, where the grace happens, in the midst of transformation. Historical truth is that the fear that I walked in with is now the peace that I hold. Mythological truth is that the demon is still shape-shifting into its angelic form.

I walked into the labyrinth a month ago, still trailing wisps of smoke from the smudging of handmade incense that my walking partner had brought. She stepped in ahead of me, crossing herself. I made my own gesture of reverence at the opening, acknowledging the sacred intention we had come to manifest. Step by step, through the gentle curves and hairpin turns that comprised this labyrinth, I placed my foot as on holy ground, knowing that it is I, actually, who am the holy ground.

Along the winding path, I held the posture of fear, a permanent flinch. It is a mental posture that I have maintained for decades but that has become a physical necessity in my pain of the last few years. The fear has kept me a literal captive in my own body as the muscles and joints pinch and ache. But walking into the path, I held the posture deliberately, gazing with the mind's eye straight at the fear, regarding it, admitting that both fear and flinch had served a holy purpose: survival of soul and mind.

I met my partner in the center. She planted her candle in the ground, among the rocks and pebbles of the tiny altar that grows there from the offerings of the pilgrims. Contrary to custom, I had brought nothing to leave in the labyrinth. This ritual was, for me, not about leaving something behind but about transforming something within. So instead of a tangible offering, I made a prayer of my body, with my body. Through a series of mudras, yoga-like gestures of the hands, speaking from that soul-place beyond words, I offered the pain and fear and flinching and utter terror to that sacred space. I submitted humbly to the spiritual path upon which I have been set, asking that I find authority over the demon fear, that it would be a companion on the journey rather than a jailer in my prison. I acknowledged the holiness of all things, even the demons, who still act according to a higher plan.

Then I bowed to show respect to the power of grace that sanctified the space. And I walked back out of the labyrinth. Or did I? The change in perspective that I sought in the center of the labyrinth is not complete, my body and mind do not yet fully believe that the demon Grace is under my control.

After the walk, my partner and I entered a tiny, spiral-shaped chapel, steeped in the prayers of the many supplicants before us. In the center of the chapel was a small sunken space that drew me in. I left my partner on the wall-bench that circled the chapel and sat on the floor in the very center of the spiral. Why had I been pulled to this place?

The work of Peter Levine, one of the foremost names in the field of trauma and trauma recovery, demonstrates that the natural response of an animal (or human) to a perceived life-threatening situation, after the fight-flight-or-freeze condition has ended, is to release the enormous quantities of fear-induced hormones like adrenaline through a period of shaking or trembling. In his work with recovery, he found that people who have been allowed to have this period of trembling rarely if ever have post-traumatic reactions. Similarly, people with PTSD who can call up in their bodies the memory of the trauma (whether the memory is conscious or not) will nearly always experience some kind of shaking, however small or large, as part of their release.

Cross-legged on the chapel floor, I sat with my hands resting on my knees, awaiting whatever had called me into this space. The tiny trigger point in my shoulder, where pain so often grabs me, tensed and a powerful electrical impulse shot down my arms. Both my hands twitched and clenched. My left hand started to shiver, then shake, and finally to flail. The muscles in my wrist and my forearm spasmed, the nerves firing completely without my conscious control. The intensity of the shaking was enough to hurt, the muscles were contracting so hard. Faster and faster, harder and wilder, my arm danced with the demon. I wondered if my whole body would be pulled into this last dance of fear, the birth spasms of freedom.

I have no idea how long I sat there with my arm shaking, at least five minutes, probably less than than fifteen. What I do know is that the trembling waxed and waned three times before the wave passed off me.

By the time I got home, I was completely wrung out. For the next several days, I was incapable of much more than brushing my teeth. I had the classic detoxification symptoms--weakness, flu-like digestion, headache, general aches and pains.

During the rest of the month, the shaking and spasming of my left arm would come over me many times, fortunately without the flailing, since it often came while I was driving or laying in bed at night next to my husband. Each time, it left me tired and drained. But somehow also liberated.