Leper

Leperous Job

Four years, four months, and eight days. 

This is how long it has been since my husband ended his life.

This is how long it has been since my husband ended my life.

The mercy of the first year of grief was the numbness. I sleep-walked through twelve calendar months. When I began to stir from the opiate of grief, memories came up like photographs in a screen saver: Disorganized, disembodied, disconnected.

I preserved a sense of household normalcy through strength of will and habit. Friends and family were supportive, but I could not be comforted. Deeply ashamed, I would not tell strangers how my husband died. I told partial truths, “He had Parkinson’s Disease.”

He committed suicide. He died by suicide. He killed himself. He took his own life.

We were Christians and Catholics, among whom one would expect to receive mercy, but where, more often than not, judgment is harsh and more liberally dispensed than in any gathering of sinners. I learned to shut my mouth and my heart.

Year one passed by.

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Year two was worse than the first. Old schisms and fissures expanded. Brittle relationships buckled and failed. Someone whispered he was the good one. Another said you’ve changed too much and unfriended me on social media.

She’s a bitch. She’s a sorceress.

She’s too liberal now.

He was the good one.

I stopped trying to explain myself.  I drank more wine.  I wanted to die.

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During the third year, a leprosy of my soul set in: Nerve damage, a loss of vision, the bloody stump. A corruption made visible, emblems of decay and pollution, weakness and sin.

“Unclean! Unclean!” I rang the leper’s bell.

Stay downwind; stay away from us. We’re not like you.

Don’t associate with them, their dad killed himself.

Something is wrong with that family.

I learned why Jesus associated with whores, thieves, tax-gatherers and sinners. I drank vodka tonics at the bar. I learned to make the perfect Bloody Mary. I stopped going to mass.

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At the end of the fourth year, my friend died. She who was at the births of my twin daughters. She who was like a second mother to them, a daughter to me. She who communicated the love of Christ better than anyone else I’ve known, other than my husband. She who carried me through the years of grief over my daughter’s death, over my husband’s death.

Daddy, Mommy’s asleep and won’t wake up.

Daddy, I can’t wake Mommy. 

She who had three young children ages two, six, and eight was dead on her daughter’s sixth birthday, a Happy Birthday banner strung across the fireplace.

Life and Death

Once upon a time . . .

My child died.

We had almost recovered, but then—

He was diagnosed.

He grew ill.

He wasn’t himself.

He had a wreck and nearly killed a man.

He lost hope.

He ended his life.

He ended my life, and then—

My friend of 24 years died.

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The process of suffering gone to decay and degradation has a name in alchemy: fermentation. Fermentation is a two-step process that begins with the putrefaction of a child, the hermaphroditic child who resulted from the conjunction process.

Pay attention here:

A union occurs, a marriage, a conjunction.

A child is born, a whole and glorious child, the fruit of this union.

But then, the child becomes diseased and dies.

The child putrefies and rots.

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Once, I was blessed, O so blessed.

I married the love of my life and received every good thing.

Every wish I ever wished came true.

But then, my husband became diseased and died.

And now, I putrefy and rot.

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Suggested Reading

Alchemy: The Great Work

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto, Canada. Inner City Books, 1980. Print.

I Have No Idea Where I Am Going

I will not fear.

I will not fear…

Roadster

We bought her new in Dallas, Texas one spring morning: a deep garnet red metallic MX-5 Miata. Retractable hard top. Buff colored leather interior. Loaded. Going north on I-35 after the last handshake, we drove so fast I swear we caught sight of a comet’s tail as we flew. A hundred and thirty miles per hour was effortless and smooth.

We hurtled out of Texas and cut into the twists and turns of the Wichita Mountains with the precision of surgeons slicing around organs and arteries, defying death. The road leveled out through vast fields, sun spilling from under the clouds on this side and that, golden wheat with a line of trees mustered like troops a few miles off. Oklahoma at its best. Round, red barns and square ones, rectangles with corrugated metal roofs, silver flashing in the sun. He laughed; I slathered on sunscreen and turned the radio up.

After the diagnosis, when his foot grew too heavy and his hand too shaky, I drove when we were together. It wasn’t the same. Dust settled on the hood of the Miata. Our barn cat would loll on the hard top, and he’d half-heartedly shoo her off. Driving fast no longer an option, he drove confused, once wandering around the town we had lived in for 15 years of our married life, looking for a street he’d been down a thousand times before. Our daughters sat in the back seat of the SUV he drove that night, stunned with disbelief as their Christian father cursed the car, the roads, the brain that didn’t work well enough to tell him where to go.

The month before, while driving his truck, he slid through an intersection at a stop sign he didn’t notice, heavy shaking foot taking him flying through it, sliding on wet pavement and coming to a tangled rest in the middle of a black Mustang. The Mustang was totaled, a crushed and horrifying mess, its young owner incomprehensibly saved, climbed out the passenger’s side.

“I was on my way to work. I just bought the car last week,” he kept repeating.

I could have died, he meant.

“I work just a few blocks away, for Devon Oil. I graduated last year.”

I worked hard to buy that car; it was my dream, he meant.

My husband shook so hard that day, I thought he’d fall down. “Sit down, sweetie, sit down,” I urged.

You’re going to fall down, I meant.

A scene from years before suddenly leaped into my mind, an old man I’d seen, coming out of a shop on Main Street while I idled at a red light. His Parkinson’s Disease was so advanced, he could hardly walk. Coming through the door of the shop, he had frozen at the threshold, unable to go forward, unable to go back, poised in a game of freeze tag in which he was the only player. Finally lurching forward like a drunk on unsteady legs, arms windmilling for balance, cranking like a hurdy-gurdy player, he barely made it to the car where he opened the door with fumbling hands, started the engine, and drove away. The light turned green, and the driver behind me had to honk sharply to get me to move. I was frozen in the thought: A man who could hardly walk, driving.

Standing at that intersection in the cold drizzle, holding my husband’s shaking, fluttering hand, the memory of the cartwheeling man made me throw my arms around my husband and hold him. Every fiber of his body shook and rattled. We’d been in the Northridge earthquake in 1994, our hotel room rolling and sliding, pipes bursting and water gushing into the hallways. Hanging onto my husband that day, I had the sense that I was no more support to him than the hotel door jamb had been for us when we took refuge under it. No matter how hard I held on, or what the doctors did, this disease was a roiling, heaving event greater than us. We were reeling on the edge of a deep crevasse, looking down into its maw with horror and awe.

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” my husband repeated. “I couldn’t control the slide, couldn’t stop, didn’t see the stop sign until it was too late, couldn’t react, just froze. Look at his car. Look at his car.”

What he meant was, I could have killed that young man.

After he died, I sold the roadster to a Canadian couple who winter in Arizona. They were the same ages we had been when we bought the car. I watched them drive away in the car my husband loved and was happy for them.

 

 

 

Letting Go

In February of 2011, I began a series on the topic of alchemy, the medieval science and philosophy used metaphorically by depth psychologists to explain the intentions of the psyche. I most recently wrote about dissolution, the corrosive process whereby what is unnecessary to the work is systematically dissolved away. The application of the effects of this alchemical stage to our own experiences in life is straightforward: Whenever we experience a significant loss or change, additional changes accompany the larger loss like ladies’ maids.

Separation

Life changes, and what is no longer necessary or supportive to a new way of life must be sundered. One change begets another, a process the alchemists called separation. In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that bereavement and calamity are fuels for the fire that burns away all that is not essential. The deaths of my daughter and husband, for example, caused other losses and changes in my life. One of the most obvious immediate changes following a death are those that arise from dealing with your loved one’s things, so changes to my physical environment had to be worked through. The size and shape of my social networks changed, too. Relationships that had once been of importance were corroded by the impact of my losses, and over time came to be less important. Other relationships grew, becoming more influential.

When large changes occur in our lives, the habit patterns we’ve built around the person, place, or circumstances that have changed must, of necessity, change. Creatures of habit, we are anchored in days, weeks, and months that go by with dependability because of them. When the basis of one or more habits decays or disappears, though, we discover we don’t know who we are any more. The widow, so accustomed to her role as a wife, is left standing alone, clothed with the tattered habits that served her only when her husband was alive. The father and husband whose wife leaves with the children finds himself suddenly a bachelor again, clueless about how to handle a life in which he sees his own children only by schedule. Elderly suburban householders sell the home in which they raised their children and move to a condo or retirement community, then feel like exiles in their own lives. All these are examples of what occurs when big changes beget numerous offspring that demand to be fed and kept in order. We are as overwhelmed as new parents, for the squalling demands of this new way of life keep us up nights.

You Can’t Go Home

In his fascinating book, Surviving Survival: the Art and Science of Resilience, Laurence Gonzalez writes that

The bigger the trauma, the more dramatic the requirement for change. In many cases, the necessary adaptation is so extreme that an entirely new self emerges from the experience. In most cases, there is no easy return to the old environment. Sometimes you can’t go home at all (p. 5).

We cross ourselves and pray as we drive by a nasty accident on the freeway. We take a casserole, and write a sympathy card to the bereaved co-worker. We listen sympathetically to the friend whose husband just cheated on her and left with a younger woman. We murmur our distress when a colleague discloses that his business partner embezzled money and left him bankrupt. But most observed losses don’t have much impact for long, because the life-changing impact of loss and dissolution belongs to the person experiencing it. Until we’ve experienced first-hand what it means to be rendered psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, or physically homeless, we don’t understand. Perhaps this is why Solomon wrote that “the heart knows its own bitterness; and a stranger does not share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10).

The past two years since my husband’s death have been impossibly painful. One of my sons remarked afterward on my utter brokenness. This brokenness is what the medieval alchemist would call a dissolution, the second stage in the alchemical process. Following on the heels of dissolution is separation, a sifting and filtering of what elements remain after a great sundering. One is already broken and divided, but more cutting and separation remain to be done. We know this truth instinctively, for it’s integrated into our everyday language. After a great change, we “re-group.” When dissolved by crisis, we try to “get our acts together.” Trauma that upsets daily or even life-long routines makes us “scatter-brained.” We strive to “come to our senses” after feeling we’ve “lost our minds.”

To come to our senses and get our acts together means to recognize what belongs, and what does not. One moves to a new home, and finds that the old furniture doesn’t fit, so out it goes. Larger losses require larger realizations about what fits, and what has to be left behind. Even when we want to waste energy and time on what no longer fits, it’s impossible to continue with hands full of broken bits that can’t be fitted back together, and are of no further use. To attempt to carry what is irreparably broken is to prolong suffering that is unnecessary. Separation gently but firmly urges us to let go.

Letting Go

Others want us to get on with our lives after a great loss. To get on with our lives means to integrate our losses and the changes they require. We can’t fully integrate a loss without also separating out what rightly belonged to the way of life associated with the lost person, job, home, era, or circumstance. Put another way, we can’t keep wearing our mini-skirts into our 60s—right, ladies?

Separation allows us to let go of ideals, attitudes, and habits that no longer fit. To find peace is to find the place where nothing remains that is not essential. We are then “redeemed from the constant effort to achieve something in the wrong direction” (von Franz, 257).

References

Gonzalez, Laurence. (2012). Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

My Alchemy Series

  1. Tending of the Flame
  2. The Affliction of the Soul
  3. From the Darkness
  4. Doing the Work
  5. The Hidden Seed
  6. Slime of the Small World
  7. Hour of Lead
  8. Things Fall Apart

Hour of Lead

In depth psychology, we often use the language and images of alchemy metaphorically to describe human growth. Bear with me, then, as I use the language of modern and medieval sciences to describe a process that lends soul-making meaning to scientific method.

As I’ve indicated before, calcination is the first operation of alchemy. Calcination is the thermal treatment process of applying a low, constant heat to a substance in such a way that decomposition occurs. The substance never comes to the melting or boiling point, and does not roast, either; the heat is that low and constant.

Phase Transitions

In addition to causing decomposition of a substance, calcination may also cause phase transition or the removal of a volatile fraction. A phase transition is when an element or compound transitions from a liquid phase to a gas phase. Vaporization is a phase transition. You can see how these processes work in the diagram below.

In chemistry and physics, volatility is the tendency of a substance to vaporize. The volatility of a substance is directly related to its vapor pressure. At a given temperature, a substance with a higher vapor pressure vaporizes more readily than a substance with a lower vapor pressure.

Some substances, such as dry ice, can change directly from the solid state to a vapor without becoming a liquid. They are sublimated, a different process of transitioning from one state to another.

The requirements for transitions are innate to the substance. Put another way, the nature or quality of the substance itself demands the circumstance under which it can be transitioned and transformed.

I think you see where we are going, here, don’t you? Isn’t it likewise true that one’s own nature requires a certain amount and type of influence before dismemberment, disintegration, and decomposition can occur? It may take a long time of calcinating before you enter a transitional stage that leads to transformation. Perhaps you’re the sort who doesn’t transform under low, constant heat; you may be the dry ice type, a person who doesn’t collapse into a puddle before transforming, but instead goes straight to falling apart.

In any case, there are a variety of experiences that shake us to our footings. “Violence, loss, grief, catastrophe, privation, illness, despair, envy, fury, and ecstasy induce altered states that dismember by delinking the personality from its habitual moorings” (The Book of Symbols, p. 766). One of us is undone by depression and despair; another by envy. A friend is shaken to her bones by grief and loss; a neighbor by a long illness. Anger drives one person to stumble and then finally fall apart, while another is transitioned by ecstasy. Wouldn’t we like to be able to choose which states produce our transitions? I, for one, would much rather be transformed by ecstasy than catastrophe!

Live Like a Pilgrim

Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose the means of our transitions and transformations. What changes us is proportionate to our own nature. In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul described the process of change in spiritual language:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh—for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds—casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; and having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).

I love these verses, because they show God fighting on behalf of God against God-like structures. Paul is saying that it requires a mighty, gargantuan force to pull down the huge structures of experience, habit, training, and ego that separate us from God. The obedience of Christ is the willingness to go straight to the cross, to sacrifice everything and hang, suspended, between heaven and earth, to be one’s highest Self, in answer to the call of the Transcendent.

Paul is telling us that our work is to destroy fantasy and illusion in order to come home to the essentials, to a deep knowledge of absolute truth and love. God is love, and “love is all you need,” but so much separates us from love that we need TNT to blow all our structures into smithereens so we can finally arrive at a destroyed state.

The destroyed state is a transitional state. By whatever process it is brought, it is a state between what we were, and what we will become. You may pitch a tent there, but don’t get too comfortable; it will change. Though you abide in a place for 30 years, as I did in my marriage, you won’t stay there. Everything changes: you can count on that. Live like a pilgrim.

Hour of Lead

I like the language of science. I like that we can predict that at so much heat, after so much time, a liquid will transform into a gas. The words for these processes say just what they mean, yet also elegantly describe what we all experience at one time or another in our lives: the low, low, long, slow heat of reduction.

Calcination is slow, and has a low feeling to it. Calcination is like depression. One loses life, zest, and passion and begins to live in a twilight of indifference, going through the motions. We are like a homeless man, slumped against the bricks of a restaurant wall as patrons dine and laugh only a few feet away. We become mute witnesses to the pleasures and joys of others. There was a time when we longed for what they have, but longing requires focus and aim. Longing consumes energy. Exhausted, we lie down on the pavement with the homeless man. Who cares?

An indifferent shrug of the shoulders has a whiff of sulfur to it. An oppressive state of leadenness has overcome us, a time that Anne Morrow Lindbergh called the “hour of lead” after her infant son was kidnapped and killed. This leadenness is heavy and ponderous. It is black and magenta, like a bruise. It has a caustic sort of bitterness to it that erodes one’s substance ever so slowly. It smells of biting brimstone, which is sulfur—an element essential to all life.

References

The Slime of the Small World

Ronnberg, Ami & Kathleen Martin (Eds). (2010). The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.

 

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