We live in a society that for all its industry in medications for mood disorders, amusement parks and bars that advertise the ‘good times’ going on all around us, and the deluge of feel good Facebook posters and quotes from Louise Hay entrepreneurs, we are not very good at dealing with our sadness and grief. In fact, “get over it,” might be the unofficial mantra of our society when it comes to lingering or resurfacing wounds and grief that have not healed. Get thee to a therapist! Or to some other fee-for-service outlet for thy sadness…for we do not wish to see the evidence of our human nature. Not in this country that is rooted in the distortion of ‘pursuit of happiness.’ For many, the right to pursue happiness is interpreted (and perhaps socially enforced) as being happy.
I believe that it’s possible to be happy even in the midst of deep grief and tragedy, but it’s not your smiling-face brand of happiness or ‘sweet sister’ high tea chattering and giggling that is apt to confront many women in U.S. culture as evidence of ‘happiness.’ And if we wish to find the type of deep and abiding happiness that is the result of cultivating gratitude and healing in our lives, it requires that the dark side of our emotions and lives be acknowledged and felt–not necessarily dwelling in them, but learning to open our minds to the good nature of paying attention to how they feel, why we’re grieving, and what it is about life that our experience is asking us to acknowledge–good or bad.
Since culture and society are not on our side when it comes to letting these emotions surface and share their wisdom with us, it is often our bodies that will be our greatest allies. And for me, at least right now, my attention is going to the lessons that my lungs are urging me to heed.
Because it’s autumn, and…my lungs are talking to me again.
They’ve been calling out for a long time.
Not continuously, but when they ‘speak out,’
it’s hard to ignore.
In the fall–in late September and in October–is when these afflictions have visited me. Coughs, laryngitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, ‘whooping cough,’ anaphylaxis, and now…what appears to be asthma.
Chinese medicine is pretty clear on the somatic aspects of these ailments, and their recurrence at the same time of the year, no matter where I am living, if it’s north or south of the equator, desert or wooded…is kind of hard for me to ignore. The lungs speak up. According to Chinese healing wisdom, it’s about grief. Straightforward, but not so simple.
In the 1990’s, I was blessed with the opportunity to be part of a group of indigenous healers who worked in the world of recovery. We worked with recovery from addictions, trauma, battering, and most significantly, delayed grief. Through the work we did with our mentor and teacher, Dr. Jane Middleton-Moz, we were trained to work with individuals healing from the injuries stemming not only from the typical 12-step maladies, but from the injuries of witnessing and experiencing the horrors of history, even through those events we did not personally experience, but which become part of our subjective and experiential memory. These were the traumas of our loved ones, our people, our land, our DNA, which we might collectively and symbolically experience just as powerfully as if we’d lived through them. Complicated by the mixtures of emotions and attempts to make sense of things over which we are vulnerable because of the actual or narrative absence of power to change or affect histories, these things live on, very often unconsciously. Yet they affect and have impacts on our experience of the world, of current events, on our personalities, our relationships, and our health, to name a few areas.
And along with these experiences and the worlds we have created and inhabited, shaped by these traumas of life and memory (some would say life and memory are perhaps the same thing?), there is the grief. There is grief for what we have lost, for the people, opportunities, experiences, homes, possessions, lives, languages, relationships… And in a large proportion of trauma-related scenarios, this grief was often not acknowledged (by others, or the self), and equally, not expressed except through the ways our lives come to reflect the pain, the anger, the fear, the silence of worlds shaped through trauma.
Trauma is a natural part of our lives, and if properly processed through any variety of supportive and healthy approaches to integrating our disrupted sense of reality and sensibility, it can help us to exist in life as it is. But when trauma is repressed, suppressed, denied, or ignored and silenced, sometimes through formal narration and imposition of the realities we must heed and live, the ways it can affect us are like a frightened cat–we can’t really be quite sure what it will do, or why–much less how to treat it.
I learned from Jane that the best way to approach a trauma, or a surge of grief, even when we aren’t quite sure where it’s coming from, is to “turn into the skid.” She worked with us for days, in the luxury of safe space together, where we ate and rested and “did our work” with others wanting to help their people by helping ourselves to be whole. As a Chicana woman of Spanish and Native American ancestry, my Lipan Apache, Tarahumara, and Comanche roots were largely repressed by the Texan experience. But thanks to my grandparents, I had learned to listen to the earth. What I learned with Jane and the brave Native leaders in NANACOA was that the wisdom of our Creator can, and will, heal me…and most often through the simple attention to creation. Just as we can’t control a storm but must respond to it to survive, what is stirring within me requires prepared wisdom and the ability to ‘turn into the skid’ so I can make it through. For my people.
There have been numerous losses in my life over the last several years, but if my body’s responses over my lifetime are telling me anything, it’s that whatever has happened in the last few years is in addition to grief I’ve held unexpressed since childhood. And it takes a lot of energy to hold things in check when we are trying to keep even ourselves from knowing what’s going on. And my personality is a bit like the land my ancestors and I have known as home for centuries–like a desert, where you need to learn to pay attention to the subtle signs of the seasons. That desert-like subtlety is coupled with the drama of the way nature wakes us up in the desert–with flash floods, dramatic dust storms, scorching sun, and icy indigo night cold. The desert expects its compatriots to know how to read the signs.
My LifeWork with the Four Seasons this autumn is to harvest, not accomplishments or achievements, but to harvest my grief that I might be able to make it through the winter, unimpeded by disruptive shadows. So when I breathe, I am not attempting to catch my breath from losses that I’ve never acknowledged, but breathing fully in gratitude for surviving and thriving through my life. We are all such amazing, strong, beautiful creatures, and I will cling to the beauty of life as I welcome the spiritual help I seek on this path. No more asthma, whooping cough, pneumonia or bronchitis, okay? My precious lungs, I’d like to let you do your work, and I’m giving my ego permission to let you do just that. I hope that others will, too.
And if when you sincerely wish to express your grief, you are met with a litany of happiness platitudes that feel like a bitter attack on your soul’s work, there’s nothing wrong with you. No matter how well-intentioned, the new orthodoxy of happiness can not help us be happy if we cannot learn to understand the full scope of life’s experience.
Find an outlet that can help you, and if you need some starters, I’ll be posting some of the books and approaches that have helped me over the years on a separate blog page by October 1. Until then, feel free to write if you’d like to be in touch.