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.

happy_birthday

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.

Widows, Speak Up!

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.

 

Things Fall Apart

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

If you have ever lost anything of great substance, ever experienced the dissolution of an important relationship or the death of a beloved, you’ve known what it is to sink to your lowest point. Every day is a day of lead. You might as well be walking around wearing ski boots and a motorcycle helmet on your head, the heaviness is so palpable. This leadenness can continue for a long time, sometimes years. Through it, one is reduced.

The person you were before a great loss is lost, too. It doesn’t matter whether the loss is the death of a loved one or the death of a dream, the loss of one’s home or the loss of one’s community: it is all loss. We can’t get it back, although sometimes people try. In fact, one of the greatest dangers to the recently bereaved is that they literalize their longing to be with the lost loved one and become suicide victims. Severing of former ties endangers current ones, too. For example, parents whose child has died, or whose baby is born handicapped, or who experience one too many disasters may end up projecting their devastating inner dissolution (and disillusionment) onto the marriage, and end up divorced. A friendship or family relationship may come apart, an outward manifestation of an inner waste.

Certainly, what is not needed for the new way of life demanded by losing a large part of it will and must be sundered. Not all endings are bad endings that come as a result of an ending. In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that bereavement and calamity are fuels for the fire that burns away all that is not essential. Temporal things and temporary beings and our insistence on life being about me, myself, and I all the time cannot support consciousness, for we are not the center of the universe until we see ourselves reflected in another person’s eye.

This tiny reflection of ourselves in another person’s pupil is called the kore in Greek, the pupilla in Latin. Kore is also Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter, the maiden who became queen of the underworld after being abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld. Because vegetation springs forth from what rots and decays in the ground, Persephone is also associated with vegetation, the spring, and the harvest. So it is that one is calcinated, roasted, and reduced by abductions and calamities, losses and griefs both large and small, until we finally arrive at the quite reduced state that makes us exclaim, “I’ve been undone!” or “I’m falling apart!” or “Things are coming apart at the seams!” To say these things and know they’re true is to know dissolution, which is the second stage of the alchemical process and one step along the path of transformation.

Dissolution

The alchemist achieved dissolution through corrosion or cibation, which involved water, making water the solvent of this phase. The story of a Great Flood, which is represented in every ancient culture in the world, is also symbolic of this alchemical phase—a timely topic as millions of Americans struggle against the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. Water corrodes the strongest iron, and anyone who has lived long enough has had his or her mettle (metal) tested and experienced this. If one hasn’t had his mettle tested before then, old age itself is corrosive, for there is nothing like coming to the end of one’s work, one’s parenting career, one’s marriage, and one’s life to corrode one’s entire sense of self.

To achieve dissolution of a substance, the alchemist used a bain-marie (bath of Mary), a little double-boiler. In fact, the double-boiler was developed specifically for alchemy, so that today whenever anyone uses one, he or she is a sort of alchemist, too.

Psychological dissolution breaks down the temporary or artificial structures of the psyche by baptizing it in the unconscious, which is non-rational, receptive, and feminine by nature. One aspect of dissolution is that a person can be flooded with the unconscious, which can be wonderful and even ecstatic as one experiences the bliss of “going with the flow.” Another aspect of dissolution, however, is that without ego defenses or a controlling persona, a person may be plunged into fantasy. Many who grieve go through a phase of retreating to a dark room to watch old movies or lie in bed and read novels, or simply sleep, all of which signal a phase of dissolution.

Longing for Mother

Another result of ego dissolution is to identify with the collective psyche through groups, religious organizations, etc. Well-meaning observers of our grief and bewilderment often advise us to get out of the house and volunteer, to meet new people. Premature involvement in volunteerism and identification with groups will later prove to be costly, though, for the one who is at this early phase of dissolution has no business ministering to others. New relationships, especially those that invite us to merge with others, are also suspect. Such absorptions, Jung said, amount to a longing for the mother.

And don’t we all long for Mother at times like these? The darkened room, the swirling Merlot so deeply red in the glass, the bathrobe we gather ourselves into—all are loving arms, protective wombs. It is good to go down, to let everything that must dissolve and rot do it. If we do not allow ourselves to be dissolved, we’ll deny the world her spiritual compost. When it’s time, something young and green will press up from what decayed and dissolved during autumn’s decay and winter’s inertia. Stay, wait for the time; otherwise, we’ll be walking dead, stinking up the world we think we’re serving, preying on the lives around us with our death.

We must wait and suffer, suffer and wait. Like Christ, we must hang suspended between heavenly hopes and earthly helps. Having been plunged into this suffering, we must lie there in the gentle, constant bath of Mary’s tears until we come apart.

Further Reading

Dissolution, by Naphtalia Leba

Flannel Shirt

My daughter has forgotten her school ID, so I drive back to the school to drop it off at the front desk. As I drive, I think that my life consists of driving in a big circle from home to high school to middle school and back home. I circumambulate like a pilgrim in a labyrinth.

I offer the lanyard apologetically to the school secretary, who already has a small pile of them in front of her. “This weather makes people sleepy and forgetful,” I say. She agrees.

The door is heavy and resistant when I leave. It’s drizzling and cool outside, clouds hanging low and weary. From inside the car, I hear the muffled sound of the marching band at practice coming from the football field. My tires make a spattering sound on the pavement.

I am driving down Fourth Street, and my heart aches. It aches and pulls all the time, but most of the time I keep ice on it. The ice numbs the ache and I’m able to think about something other than the pain. Different behaviors act like ice for me. Staying busy acts like ice. Caring for children acts like ice. Sometimes television or reading a book, ice cream or a glass of sauvignon blanc act like ice.

I give the ache a sidelong glance, hoping that giving it a quick, squinty look is safe, and I won’t suddenly be overwhelmed with the enormity of this wound. It’s not safe to look at it at all, though. The second I look, I see him: My husband. I see him in the faded, plaid flannel shirt he’s worn in dream after dream lately. Soft from a hundred washes, the shirt is a warm hug on a cold morning. I can see him wearing that shirt in the kitchen, cuffs rolled back, pouring himself a cup of coffee, turning to give me a smile as I frown my way to the teapot. He was the morning person, I the night, and for 30 years that man smiled at me every morning.

I miss you, Sweetie.

In depth psychology we pay attention to images. “Stick with the image,” we tell those deciphering their dreams and daydreams, or amplifying poems and literary passages. Artists, musicians, and writers stick with images, too, because the soul speaks in images more often than anything. Words can be so limiting. The flannel shirts I’ve seen on my husband and on working men in my dreams are speaking. I see the flannel shirt. I can feel its fabric in my hands, and I’m driving down the street in the rain and suddenly I’m crying. I can’t stop the tears.

I love you, Sweetie.

My husband was tall and had a great shape to him. He had muscular arms, broad shoulders, and developed muscles in his hands because of the work he did—the carpentry, using the tin snips, the hammer, the screw gun. Even as a business owner he wouldn’t stop stepping in to lift the hammer, snap a line, tie off a wire, tighten a screw. I know it irritated the crew when their boss came around and put a tool belt on, but he loved to work with his hands as well as his head. Later, his diagnosis with a disease that would take both abilities from him was an ill-fated ruin, an abuse. Every time I think of it, my heart breaks.

Where are you?

I laid my cheek against the water-colored hues of that flannel shirt a million times during our marriage. That flannel shirt is such an icon of manliness, earthy comfort, the Land Run heritage of this red earth that made my husband who he was. In that shirt were love, safety, and comfort; friendship, sharing, and mutuality. Acceptance and understanding were its weft and warp. I called that shirt Lover, Husband, Grandmother, Father. I could fly into those arms all the time, any time—run there, crawl there, dance into them; lie with him, against him, under him, over him, ask him to cover me, sit in his lap, swat him on the butt as he passed by, pull at his belt buckle provocatively. A thousand, million times in our marriage, that flannel shirt was home.

You were my best friend.

I’m driving down Fourth Street, crying. Even now, one of those shirts hangs inside my closet on a hook on the door. It still smells faintly of my husband—sawdust, cigar smoke, horse, machine oil, him. How lucky I was to have the man who filled that shirt, to love and be loved by and make love with him. How fortunate we were to make a home.

That flannel shirt saved my life, redeemed me from the pit, died on the cross for me, birthed me, suckled me at the breast. Every day, I wait to see that shirt coming on the horizon. Every day I pray to that shirt, save me.

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