Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.
I’ve been told most of my adult life by doctors, “You know your body best.” And I always stare back in horror thinking, “No I don’t, she’s an unpredictable kook with a mind of her own! Why do you think I’m here?”
I haven’t ever quite known what to make of her strange and annoying language of pain and anxiety, with tightness here and stiffness there. I try not to do things that will upset her, attempting to guess at how much I can ask, (get away with), on any given day. But that never goes super well.
My soul has been of little help in this battle of wills. She prefers getting lost, collecting leaves and decorating the house. I let her be for the most part, because I don’t understand her most of the time. On the occasions when I have sought her counsel about my body’s mysterious exhaustion she will usually just say something to the effect of, “oh, well what did you expect?”
I hate this answer and my heart burns with indignation. I am not the oppressor I insist, I am the victim.
I wonder though if some of the tension that exists between my body and I stems from the fact that I bought into the myth that success is measured by what we can force our bodies to do. I thought you could just pick a goal to follow with “will and determination,” and make it happen.
In addition, I grew up believing various interpretations of the Bible that the heart is deceitful and the body is not to be trusted. Though I have been pushing back on that theory in the last 10 years or so, I have not gone so far as to actually listen to my unhealed body or my sensitive heart.
However, I’m beginning to see that the messages I internalized and the goals I picked were chosen without regard for the rest of my body, heart, or soul. My ego was doing all the talking. No matter how I presented my plans I did not have consensus. There was no part of my heart, soul or body that was on board with what I wanted. Rather than listening to their push back, I would just talk louder or end the argument.
Finally, last year during one long conversation, when they had me cornered in a hospital room, I was trying to convince them, again, about going to back to college:
“Look,” I said, “I love history, I love listening to lectures, I’m drawn to gender studies and social issues and I want to be a part of those conversations. I want to do big things and be taken seriously. I want use my gifts and interests in writing and teaching. All these things clearly add up to pursuing a degree. I don’t see what else they could be, this is the only path that combines these in a respectable and understandable way.”
They all just stared back at me as if to say, are you done yet? My soul finally spoke up and asked, “what did you feel in your body when you just said all those things?”
I went quiet for a long time.
My insides were preemptively feeling the constriction of a rigorous and demanding school schedule in which there would be no time to do anything beyond the required assignments and taking care of my body the way it needed. I realized then that when I thought about four years of school my whole body felt dread.
But if I told them that then everything would change. The vision board I had made with images of recognition and accomplishment would be swept away and I would be staring at a blank canvas, again, in a hospital room.
We all sat quietly for a long time, the space softening around us. We didn’t have anywhere else we needed to be. Eventually I turned back to my body and asked what else she felt about our future, what did she dread not being able to do?
What I heard changed everything. My body asked me to notice my hands and feel what they craved. Almost immediately I felt their desire for a craft, for work. They wanted to feel wood, paint and glue, and they wanted to be dirty 63% of every week. My other limbs excitedly started chiming in. My legs wanted movement and flowy skirts, my lungs wanted outside air and the smell of fresh salty wind. On and on my body went with so many needs and ideas.
What I had feared was happening, there was so much wanting being voiced that I was overwhelmed. “How are we going to do it all?” I pleaded. “I don’t know how to carry all of this!” My heart, came close and touched my shoulder gently, then said in a soft clear voice, “This isn’t about doing, it’s about being. Who are we now, and who have we always been?”
The sob in my throat, that had been stuck there for so long, loosened and I allowed myself to feel all the grief of deconstruction. The dam had burst and the waters of desire were rushing over me with all their pent up force. I would either be consumed or I would be freed.
I sat for a long while as everything pooled around me and slowly began to settle. After a a little time I realized that the intensity had ebbed and I could feel the gentle laps of longing, like a bubbling brook finding her way back to the river. I had not drowned. I had allowed what was to pass through, like so many leaves floating down the stream.
Eventually I could see patterns emerge and colors distinguishing themselves in the newly opened space. Images of me absorbed in a painting, sitting in tundra, cooking outside, laughing with friends, and collecting bits of nature and unused furniture were playing in succession, like an old home movie, across my imagination.
“What do you see?” she asked. I couldn’t tell who was talking, but I relaxed at her inviting voice.
Trying to be as honest as I could, I said, “I see someone who is free to be whatever they are. Someone more like an artist than just a writer. A woman who loves everything, including herself, and has a million ideas, all the time.”
When I said the word “artist” every part of me perked up. Without even trying I began remembering all the times people had told me I was an artist, and I how I had attempted to convince them otherwise.
I had to sit with the memories and the word “artist” for a while. Eventually we, my heart, soul and body, started to talk it through. We discussed at length the philosophical limitations of the word, but also the possibilities of what (continuing to) living as an artist could mean. In the end we all agreed that going forward we would in fact refer to our self as an Artist. For right now this means that I follow creative impulses, and make things without judging it as “good” or “bad.” Above all I must practice learning new skills and avoid boxes, labels and other restrictive clothing.
I’m continually amazed at the synchronicity of spiritual and physical events. It’s like they are connected! (She said with a wry smile). I may be waiting for new lungs and liver, but the work of transplant is starting now. Old ways of thinking are being rooted out and replaced with new rhythms, habits and words. I’m building my muscles of intuition and learning to stay grounded in my body and the moment.
I don’t know that I would be able to learn these lessons quite as well at home, where I am too easily distracted being a wife, friend and “nice person.” Learning to own my desires, follow curiosity and take my cravings seriously is requiring all of me. I’ve been gifted a sabbatical, a space to get strong and practice my process. The unique tempo of being on “The List” ensures that I actually do the work. Because no matter how enlightened I may be I will always need a deadline.
Thanks be to God!
4 thoughts on “Listening”
Wow. You are not letting opportunity pass you by- what a pleasant and discerning expression of one of those subtle nuances of life that are so difficult to put your thumb on! An excellent piece of writing Elizabeth! Makes my mind whirl and once more you put a smile on my face as I try to follow your creation backwards, attempting to decipher another insight into the person behind the words…
This is beautiful. A poignant reminder to all of us. Thank you for sharing it.
I hope to see you very soon!
This is EXACLTY you. Now. I felt the zing and the structure of your artist practice daily and I was impressed with your unearthing it. The ease with the edge, I’m so proud, so intrigued, so soothed. Wow. YOU KILLIN IT GIRL.