Story Bones by Helen Redman, 1993
The air is thick with smoke from the large fire at Happy Camp. I am several valleys away from this fire, but it is still impacting the skies here. It is smoky in the mornings here where I am on retreat for my Jubilee (50th birthday). Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily perfect. It is quiet, except for bird song, squirrel chatter and lizard movements among the dry leaves. The smoke clears by mid to late afternoon, which is when the wind seems to pick up. My days have taken on a dreamy quality of time moving extremely slowly with no sense of urgency. This is absolutely what I wanted and needed. There is a profound restorative quality to this time. I was just about at the very end of my tank, even my reserves had been used up.
Over the course of my life folks have told me to do less, to care less, to take more care of myself. This advice has rarely been useful or heeded. My soul is dedicated to serving and until the suffering stops on the planet, I am on duty. I am always attending to myself AND to others. I am not, nor have I ever martyred myself. I do, and always have felt the needs of others to be as important and real as my own. This has been true for me my whole life. My ability to regenerate is pretty good, in general, I just need some time to pray and to cry and to be held or get into a body of water and move my body. I do need natural water for a deeper kind of healing. There is a beautiful poem that resonates for me, from one of my favorite books of poetry by Nancy Wood, called Many Winters © 1974. It is a collection of prose and poetry of the Taos and Pueblos with drawings and paintings by Frank Howell.
“The skin of the earth
covers its imperfections
Just as my face conceals
my vast uncertainty.
In the dry cracks of the earth
I find that it has bled
from the injuries of man.
The earth has healed itself
through time moving across
its tortured face of skin.
But what shall heal me except
the sun which makes cracks in my face
so that I can come together with my land.”
In the afternoons up here, I walk to the river, moving very slowly, so that I can come together with my land.
When I get to the river, it is cold and has deep pools as well as shallows. I immerse and rejuvenate, alone with the trout, crayfish, birds and water bugs, so that I can come together with my land. Besides immersing myself in quiet and cold water, I came here to do some work. The process of self-examination and hard work of this month of Elul, which is the month that precedes the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah, is always pressing upon me. I’ve written about this before and I wasn’t sure what new things I could say here. My process this year, is of course, WRIT LARGE, because it is not just about a single year, but the last 49 years and my very conscious choice about changing direction and focus. In order to do this, I have to snip the old frayed threads or sew the ragged patches up, so that my body and soul can move into the next part of my brief time on this planet, so that I can come together with my land.
Elul reminds us that life is cyclical. We make mistakes, we grow, we fight, we harm, we love, we fall down and we do these things over and over until we are no longer able to. This cycle is as old as human consciousness. There has always been war, there has always been ugliness. There has always been fear and pain. There has also always been love, and tenderness, hope and reaching for Holiness and Wholeness and more folks working on mending what is broken than folks breaking things.
This cycle, my Mussar teacher gave us a very specific assignment. I’m used to making lists of people in my life I need to ask forgiveness from and I have a practice that is pretty automatic at this point. My teacher asked our class to start the forgiveness work this Elul by forgiving folks who had hurt us for the first ten days. She wanted us to make notations and to do this work internally. There is a daily forgiveness process in the Jewish tradition that is part of the Bedtime Shema, where we grant blanket forgiveness to all who have wronged us and ask that they not suffer on account of any wrong they have done to us. Only religiously observant folks recite this blessing regularly. I attend to it in Elul, but it is kind of automatic and non-specific.
This homework assignment was really different. I had never actually made a list of all the people I needed to forgive. It was not that long, but there were some biggies on the list. I wrote a name down, and then listed the hurt that person had done me. After I completed this part of the process, I started to chant the name of the person and to speak to them and tell them I forgave them for the wrong and the hurt they had done to me, as I did so, tears came and a huge sense of release in my heart. I found myself blessing these folks after I forgave them. I certainly did not expect any of this and it took me by surprise.
For the men who raped me, I forgave them for the harm they did me, but asked that my forgiveness be connected to justice unfolding and for them never harming another person again. I asked the Holy One to please help them to find health and healing and awareness. I’ve done years of work on this territory, in various therapies, and most of the hurt is no longer present for me. There are tiny droplets of pain that re-surface now and then. I can go great swaths of time not thinking on it– “I find that it has bled from the injuries of man. The earth has healed itself through time moving across its tortured face of skin.”
There were two folks on my list that I put aside for later, I am not ready or able to forgive them on some level. I can forgive the men who raped me, but not these folks who betrayed my trust and hurt my family. I will have to get some help from my teachers about these two people and how to not be holding onto this hurt. Elul is not an easy month for me and yet this process is amazingly liberating, even being able to identify that I am not able to release those people, is helpful. It tells me I have work to do. I don’t believe forgiveness is a simple thing or that I have to grant it. In my tradition I do not have to forgive someone until they seek my forgiveness and make amends. My choosing to forgive them ahead of their asking is completely on me and also part of a deeper spiritual practice.
There is enough sticky goo in all of our lives, old hurts and tattered remnants of messy memories and shattered feelings. I would rather be free of these so that I can be of good cheer and good service for this moment unfolding right now. It is late, almost midnight. More musings on how to let go of fear and be more present coming in the next few weeks. For now, though, you don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of this time, make a list of folks who have hurt you, see if you can forgive them, and see how it makes you feel. Take a chance on letting go of old stuff, so that you can come together with the land, which has no choice but to forgive all the wrongs we do. Did the sun not rise today, did the vegetables forget how to grow? Forgiveness is the nature of earth and we are made of this lovely loamy stardust stuff.
Nicole comes together with her land and your land and any land she can by engaging with it, and then writing about it. This column was written high in the hills as Nicole turned 50 and is now officially “over the hill.” It appeared originally in the Mad River Union on Wednesday, September 17, 2014