I have run away from home a little in this week before surgery; I couldn’t handle being with myself in the waiting space. Geez this cancer chapter has had so many boring, excruciating waiting bits and that is not a space where I am at my best. Instead, I jumped at the chance to see a friend teach this week. Her program is soulful and deep, and she has a kind of forthright courage in bringing deep emotional work to clients. I am hoping to learn many things from her, but one is to be braver too.
In the meantime, I have been reflecting on a guided meditation one of her colleagues used to open the program. I’ll just tell you the story as it happened to me.
We were directed into a beautiful space in nature and I headed (in my mind, of course) into the lakes region of Italy, where I had been visiting over the weekend, watching the mountains come and go in the rain. A path opened up into the woods, and I walked into them, a little drier than in the open. We were told that we would meet a messenger—might be a person or a thing or a force—and that this messenger would tell us something about our life’s purpose. Seemed like an exciting thing to meet in the woods in Italy. I rounded a corner, wondering who my messenger would be, and there was a massive and very shaggy dog waiting for me, wagging his tail happily at my arrival. I asked what message he had for me but, even in my imagination, he was still a dog; he just looked at me cheerfully rather than bursting into speech. I was about to give up and look for another messenger (some part of my psyche fearing that I was somehow not doing the exercise right and needed to improve) when he curled up on the ground. I curled up with him. And then I knew what he was telling me about my life’s purpose, as the big shaggy dog and I breathed together in this imaginary forest in Italy. There was no message other than the desire to love and be loved, without words, without judgment, without needing to do anything at all. Loving and being loved seemed like a pretty good purpose for me to hold on to. I began to wonder, in fact, whether there really was any other purpose, really, in being human other than love in its many many forms.
Then we were instructed to ask our messenger a question that mattered to us. I said, “I have surgery in a week and I’m afraid. Can you protect me or keep me safe in some way?”
My shaggy dog, hardly the vision of a fierce protector, stood up. His big brown eyes seemed to tell me that he could not protect me—that there are times when no one can protect us from the path ahead. That felt sad and also fundamentally true—most of life’s challenges are ours to live without anyone else to keep us safe. But just because he couldn’t fix it didn’t mean he couldn’t do anything. It didn’t mean that I am fundamentally alone. He trotted by my side as I began to walk out of the forest, and I knew that while he couldn’t protect me or save me from the pain and anxiety of this time, he could be by my side, a quiet and loving presence.
Which brings me to all of you, my friends who read these words. I know that many of you feel helpless because you can’t do anything, really. Even my doctors feel somewhat helpless that this thing is still so unclear (“We are fighting an invisible enemy,” Stan says). And I can’t do anything really either, not to help myself and not to help my friends when they are in need or pain or grief. All we can do is walk together, through the hard parts of my life and the hard parts in your life—and the joyful parts too—and offer each other love. Perhaps companionship and love are the highest callings of all, the shaggy dog leading the way into the promise of a new way we could be together: soft, kind-spirited, benevolent companions. The shaggy dog doesn’t feel guilt or anxiety because he cannot do more than he is doing. He is doing enough, all that a shaggy dog can do. And perhaps we could all find the shaggy dog spirit in ourselves, and we could all curl up this week with someone in pain or grief or fear. We could know that while we cannot protect the ones we love from their difficulties or illnesses or failures, we can walk alongside them with love. Sometimes companionship is the most precious gift of all.
(BTW, next–hopefully hopefully last–surgery on Tuesday 25 October. Results on Michael’s 50th birthday–2 November)
This poem felt right for today—one of my very very favourites:
I go among trees
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.