Zebra-crossing Namaste.

I was driving along today – in a bit of a hurry to make it on time to a meeting – and I arrived at a zebra-crossing about a heartbeat before a pedestrian. I could have kept going, and it would have saved me a bit of time – I really was cutting it fine to get there at the appointed hour. But I stopped, because I like to think (most of the time) that I’m a courteous driver, and I let the lady walk through.

She was an interesting-looking lady – long grey hair hanging down either side of her face; baggy, once-stately clothes; a string shopping bag hanging off one elbow and a ratty beige plastic-y raincoat clutched under one arm against the possibility inherent in a cloudless sky. She could have been equally at home in a darkened hovel surrounded by tens of cats, or sleeping rough in a doorway, or behind a university lecture-hall podium. And she moved slowly, walking as though in pain, or contemplating the bitumen beneath her feet. Potentially late, and already flustered, I was mindful of the fact that I could have quite legally driven through before she reached the road’s edge.

Just as she got to the middle of the zebra-crossing, at what could most kindly be called a solemn pace, she stopped, and turned deliberately to face me. String bag hanging from one elbow, and raincoat clamped beneath the other, she placed her hands together and ceremoniously bowed to me in thanks.

It made my day. When I waved to acknowledge her, I was grinning. I was still smiling as I started driving again, and when I arrived at my meeting my heart was just a little lighter.

My spiritual director – an amazing Sister of St Joseph who I’m privileged to consider a friend – often farewells me with the word “Namaste” – in Hinduism it means bowing to the Divine in each other, celebrating and honouring the Sacred which dwells in each of us. I have no idea what motivated the zebra crossing lady to bow to me – other, of course, than in thanks – but in that gesture I was reminded of Namaste. In taking that moment – a bow rather than a quick thoughtless wave – she acknowledged me as a fellow human being. Whether she knew it or not, she acknowledged the Divine in me. And I was reminded of the Divine in her; I was reminded of the Divine in all creatures.

Not bad for a ten-second zebra-crossing encounter.

Namaste.

Half or whole.

A long time ago, someone fairly brutal but also brutally honest called me half a person. It was done with the best of intentions, and it was pretty accurate, I thought, but it stung a little. She followed it up with the words “You’re all head and no heart. That’s not how you were created”.

Ouch.

Here is what I’ve realised: I’m not half a person. I’m a whole person. It’s just that, for the longest time, I’ve not particularly been in touch with half of myself. The feeling part. The intuition. The spirit, and the spirituality, of my self.

I’m probably not fully in touch with it yet. I still struggle with emotions, and I’d still prefer the dry, safe rationality which comes with being a thinking, not feeling, being. For me, the primary means of engaging the world is still the mind: I live in my head, and I always will. I value my intellect; I value my capacity to think clearly and to analyse and interpret the world around me, and my own responses to it. I value the fact that I can retreat into my head when things get tough: it’s a skill that got me through some hellish situations – beatings and assaults – and it’s a skill I know I can rely on again if I need to.

It’s not enough, though, and that’s what I’m realising. Writing the book, learning to rely on my creativity and intuition, has taught me that. The realisation that I relied on my intuition to escape my marriage has taught me that. The experiences I’ve had on my haltering forays into the realm of spiritual practice have taught me that.

I don’t like feeling. I struggle with it. I struggle with the fact that I am starting to have to sit with what was done to me, and the fear and shame and grief and anger around that. I struggle with the fact that, in the quiet of my spiritual practice, I have to sit with being what I am: a soul, nothing more or less, not hidden behind research and rationality and competence, and I have to let that be enough.

Thinking is easy, and comforting. Feeling is not. Feeling is painful, and scary, and even exuberance can bring trepidation and the shame that comes with abandoning myself to a sense of happiness that I still struggle to see that I might deserve.

But whether I like it or not, I’m a whole person, not half a person; and to be honest, life as a half-being doesn’t actually have all that much to recommend it.

It’s slightly more convenient though.

Light in a circle of hell.

I’ve spent the day (for work, I hasten to add) at the Magistrates’ Court which serves my local area. Tomorrow, I think I’d rather spend the day in the first circle of hell. Or any circle of hell, really.

Unless a Magistrates’ Court is in fact one of the circles of hell.

These are some things I witnessed:

  • men wearing open-collared shirts and stiff new suit trousers and Converse runners and bad tattoos, their bravado as ill-fitting as the formality of their court attire.
  • women thinned and wizened and aged before their time by hard living and alcohol and weed and too many children and not enough money and the weight of the world on their skin-clad shoulders.
  • a young woman, huddled into her defendant boyfriend, shoulders hunched against the over-heated stuffiness of the air-conditioning and her face tight with tension. She kept touching his hand in her lap, as though to remind herself that he was still there.
  • a conversation between a defendant and his solicitor – “How can I explain to the judge why you did that? You just lost control? And you regret it now, of course?” – while his mother watched anxiously in her best clothes, twisting the strap of her green leather-look handbag around and around in her fingers. Later I watched her coming out of one of the courtrooms, alone but for the solicitor. “Six months,” she kept saying, as though that would somehow force this new reality of her life to make sense. “Well, it was a serious offence,” he said gently, and his face was tired and his eyes were sad.
  • a child, a little girl, barely more than four, playing quietly in the waiting area while her mother waited to have her own charges heard. (“What am I looking at? Four to eight months? Jesus, can’t you get me off?”) She alone of all of us was an innocent, untouched by the world’s darkness, looking people in the eye – the most alive creature in that place – and yet when her mother’s frustration erupted in a push that cracked the little girl’s head against the wooden doorframe, she was completely unperturbed by the sudden and – to her – unprovoked assault. Already, this little being is impervious to the violence which will almost certainly mar her life.

I left the courthouse reeking, in my mind, of the stench of human misery, human despair, which clung to my skin. Now, after a hard workout and a shower and a glass of juice and Beethoven’s first symphony on the CD player, I’m trying to remind myself that there’s light in all the darkness I saw today. The gentle, tired sadness of the solicitor and the innocence of the child, the love of the mother and the girlfriend, whatever idealism or determination which keeps the Legal Aid solicitors at their battered formica tables in the windowless, unadorned room they’re allocated. And there’s light in the fact that each of those human souls trapped in that place – whether they left under their own steam or in the back of a prisoner transport van – is a sacred manifestation of the Divine, loved beyond their capacity to understand by a Creator they may never know, but Which holds them, passionately, in the safety of Its arms.

And there it is. That’s the light in the darkness I was looking for.

Loss, and finding, of sanctity.

Intuition is a funny thing. I was asked by my sexual assault counsellor today to name, without thinking, what it was that my ex took from me in ten years of violence and abuse, and the thing that came to mind was this: sanctity.

Every being is holy; ever soul is sacred, created in the image of the Creator. Every creature – the cat on my lap as I type this, the spider I took outside in a water glass today, each human being with whom I share this planet – is a manifestation of the Divine. I am a manifestation of the Divine: my soul, like billions of other souls with whom I share life, is sacred. Sanctified.

If you deny the sanctity of something holy, though, if you deface it and sully it and treat it in ways which reject its divinity – well, mud sticks, and eventually that thing relinquishes its beauty, its being, its holiness. The divine becomes soiled and impure, and while the Creator never loses sight of the beauty of Its creations, the creations themselves can easily lose sight of the consecrated nature of their own being.

Ten years of abuse – of beatings, of fear, of rape; of hearing, day after day, of my own worthlessness – resulted in my forgetting the sacred nature of my own soul. I lost sight, in those years of darkness, of my own existence as a creature of the Creator, loved, a part of the unfolding of that very Creator in the universe. As well as innocence, and safety, and almost life itself, that’s what was taken from me: the knowledge of my own sanctity.

That’s changing now. Each step I take away from that darkness is a step towards strength; each decision I make in the still-new miracle of freedom is a re-assertion of my own worth, of the beauty of my soul, of my own right to existence and to the space I take up in the world. Every memory of the events of the last ten years which re-surfaces in my mind (and there are thousands) is an assertion of my right – as a creature of the Creator – to live in safety as the sacred creation I am.

I tried to think of some sharp, snappy ending to this blog, but I’m tired (I’m always tired after counselling appointments) and I can’t think of anything. Other than the prayer that the souls of all living beings – from human to cat to spider and everything in between – might held, in respect and worth, as the divine manifestations they are.

 

On being a chorister, and what I pay for that.

Pretty much the first thing I do in the morning is turn the radio on: ABC Classic FM’s breakfast programme. I then sit at my desk and write for half an hour before I commence the process of preparing myself for what my day will bring. It’s a nice way to begin: music and writing.

One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with – that I struggled desperately with in the sprint to the finish line that was Advent and Christmas, demanding and intense and exhausting – has been how difficult it is to sing. How painful. How debilitating it has been to find that the PTSD symptoms are so much more intrusive and disruptive when I sing: the thing that kept me alive has been the thing that’s opened the door to flashbacks and anxiety attacks and it seems that I coped better with domestic violence when I was living it than once I escaped. I honestly thought about simply cutting my losses, quitting the choir and letting the loss of indescribable richness be fair payment for the loss of indescribable pain.

Only, the other morning, I was listening to ABC Classic FM, and suddenly I was surrounded by the silvered strains of a choral Ave Maria. Renaissance, probably – my musical theory is not good enough to date it precisely, but the glory of the unaccompanied polyphony – intertwining melodies vibrant with radiant yearning – filled my mind and soul and I found myself brimming with the power of the music, like a seedling which can break through concrete in its longing for the brightness above.

Music like this, over the time I’ve been in the choir, has become my staple diet. Each week, each rehearsal and service, revolves around music like this: small human creations which, like a tarnished mirror, reflect the Divine and in doing so become divine themselves. Music which fills my soul with breathtaking heaven, and with breathtaking pain. And, listening to this musical prayer, exquisite in its agony, I found myself thinking: How can I possibly leave the choir? How can I yield to the burden of these symptoms, the weight of this diagnosis and its reality, if it means that in doing so, I cut this music out of my own soul? How could I possibly mutilate myself in such a way? I’d be better of stepping off the edge of the cliffs that mark the sheer rocky border between land and sea. The only difference is that the death as a result of that action would be physical. I think I’d rather that than the death of my soul that would result from the severing of such music from its very core.

Because I am a chorister. No matter how hard it is, how painful; no matter what memories rise to the surface with all the brutality of a thorn tearing through flesh or what emotions sever their way to the surface, I cannot not sing. Because I am a chorister. I could no more cut that music from my soul than I could cut my heart from my body, or my brain from my head. That’s what I am; so that’s what I do.

Which leaves me with one path: to persevere, to sing, regardless of the pain which has overwhelmed the joy, and to hope to God that it gets easier and that, once more, singing becomes a source of vitality and animating spirit in my life. Because, up until Christmas, it was an opening for pain, and fear, and shame, and grief. But surely – surely, she whispers fervently – what once gave me life will continue to do so, if only I can persevere.

All I can do is hope. And, in the meantime, show up to rehearsal and sing.

Four short reflections on vulnerability: three.

The human soul, probably so much more than the human body, is utterly vulnerable. Unprotected, unmeasurable, dwelling somewhere, somehow, in human form. Despite the masks we wear, the layers of defences we erect, the protective veneers in which we wrap ourselves, the soul – the essence, the anima, the human spark of life – feels everything, sees everything, is everything. No matter how we hide it from each other, no matter how we hide it from ourselves, there is nothing hidden from our souls.  No joy that doesn’t cause it to swell and strengthen; no blow which does’t reach it and leave its mark; no fear which doesn’t cause it to cringe within us for all we tell ourselves we’re unafraid.

Any human soul, no matter how well-protected, is scarred and bruised and beautiful. Uglied by the ugliness of life, harrowed and hallowed, as small and vulnerable as a wren and unutterably beautiful. Shining with the purity of its own being, o matter how tarnished it is by what it has been through, what it has done.

We seek to protect it and sometimes we are successful. We learn to detach ourselves, to switch off, to dissociate. We call it desensitisation, healthy distance, good self-care. We fool each other into believing that we are known, and understood. But we so rarely allow each other to see the tarnished, scarred beauty of our souls, and the light and darkness that they hold – and when that is the case, we find ourselves surrounded by people, and utterly alone.

Themes and wriggling puppies.

It’s strange, but my healing seems to run by themes. First it was decision-making, the frightening freedom I stood looking at. Then it was safety, diagnosis and symptom-management. Then there was victimisation, and coming to terms with my status as victim as well as survivor. Learning to make space for my anger, and the twisted, bitter feeling of hatred. Trying to work out where my own responsibility lay, and what if anything I deserved, needed to take the blame for. Wave after wave, and I’ve ridden each of them and then turned to face the next one.

The current theme seems to be self-worth. What, if any, value I have in the world. From where do I take my self-worth: from external competencies, from internal strengths, or from something deeper? Why do my friends like me, and would I like myself more if I could see myself through their eyes?

These are the questions with which I’m wrestling, and I realise that having the courage to answer them honestly will make me a better person. All of this is working towards something. There is a reason for it all.

I was walking home from the Cathedral tonight when I came across a couple walking a puppy. A pug, all squashed face and loud breathing and pig-curl tail and brand-new-to-the-world enthusiasm. I stopped to say hello (as you do) and allowed the creature to enthuse all over my lap and taste my fingers to see what they were made of, and I scratched its head when it stayed still long enough and told it what a good and dignified dog it would grow up to be.

Ardent, exuberant little scrap of Spirit. Small wriggling manifestation of the Divine. A soul of such worth just because it is a soul. Just because it is the creation of the Creator. Because it is its own expression of the Source of being in the world.

If that little fragment of anima, of soul, is worth something just for being what it is, then so must I be.

I’ve just got to get that through my head, that’s all.