Spiritual Biceps

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay for Mutha Magazine about wearing frustration and rage like long underwear, or a tissue stuffed in my pocket – almost casual in its easy accessibility.  I wrote it from my perspective, but also on behalf of mothers in my generation, women of Generation X, sandwiched between leap-frogging Millennials and slow-to-retire Boomers, who have had more education and opportunities than our seniors, but are the most downwardly mobile so far; who are coming up against the big questions that mid-life begs of us at the exact same time our small children have a thousand needs and we are being told we should lean in to our careers.

The reaction was overwhelmingly (and hearteningly) positive from women in my cohort, many who said they could relate to the “pocket rage” I felt about slogging through the Press and Pace of All the Things at this stage of life. Interestingly, there was another reaction to the piece that arose, largely from women in the generation ahead, the ones who had survived the working mother (or working-inside-the-home mother) juggle, who seemed a little bit impatient with all this.  Several thoughtful readers who took the time to respond wanted to “fix” this for me – they wanted to point out that meditation apps on my phone are not enough, or that I had bought too much into mainstream notions of success, or that I was worrying far too much. Every single response like this was truly well-meaning and kind-spirited.  And every single one of them was absolutely right.  I know they came from a place of their own lived experience, a few miles down the road, and wanted very much to use that perspective to help me.  To ease this tight feeling.    I appreciate that sentiment especially because I know it all too well.  When I see someone younger than me churning through the identity and place crises of young adulthood or fertility challenges or the death of parents – or any experience or gateway that I have passed through – I am chomping at the bit to offer my story, my thoughts, my advice to them.

(If only everyone would heed my excellent, excellent advice!!)

So you can imagine how therapeutic it was for me to be on the other end of this with the well-meaning readers who wanted to cure me of my pocket rage.   But the thing is, I didn’t need a cure so much as a place to share.  I wrote the piece, not in a fit of anger, but from a measured place about what I had been noticing was true of myself and many women friends.  I wrote because I believed in the power of the shared experience and because I’ve learned to listen to what is calling me AND feels scary to reveal, because there is usually something there that needs to be said and might reverberate.  For me, the action of calling out, naming and claiming this particular brand of anger and frustration associated with working mother demands has the effect of dissipating it.  It’s the benefit of holding out a space for shared stories and experiences, even and especially, the ones hard to say aloud.  The space we hold out to each other is where all the value is.   Not so much in the words.  I need this tattooed on my forehead.

What if we thought about space as more of a solid, or even a liquid — containable, hold-able, dynamic? Something that could be created, expanded and held like a giant iridescent soap-sud bubble. I mean space as a feeling, an intentionality, our attention and presence when another is talking to us.   And what if we were powerful enough to create space within space, time-stop Superhero fashion, like a pause button hit mid-action, mid-conversation?  We, at the center of a still and calm circle, holding our palms out to create a clearing, a force field within which we are listening actively to what is being said.

It is, actually.

We can, actually.

When I am effectively doing this, I can feel it – and it feels like a room, like physical space.  It can happen over scrambled eggs when a friend says, “I just need to tell someone” or standing by my open car door when one of my kids runs out to tell me something “urgent.”  It begins with intention, the question: what is really being asked of me here?  And then ends with a major gear shift away from trying to offer my own story or solution, and towards an intention to actively listen to what is being said and hold the emotion, with biceps and ears.   I am listening without thinking about how it fits my life and the incredible, amazing advice I am always so ready and generous to give. I am not thinking of solutions or how to make it better.  I have put a force field around all that, like snow globe’s glass bowl and inside, can hear my friend opening her heart like falling snow, free and gentle.

But, y’all, seriously, it’s so rare that I’ve really been able to do that  —  it’s happened, like, twice. What I better know is what it has felt like for someone to hold out that kind of space for me.  (which has thankfully happened more than twice.)  In the safe clearing someone else has made, I am free to talk without editing myself, censoring, hedging, posturing – because I know that they will not judge nor try to fix nor be distracted with whatever lens they bring to it.  What an incredible gift to receive!

Each September for the past several years, I’ve gone to a 4-day retreat that’s silent, except for the twice a day group gatherings with the retreat leader.  Two years ago, the silent retreat was especially talkative during these gathering times, but not in an annoying way. Something about the teachings of the retreat leader and the hearts we all showed up with, combined with the intentionality to hold open a safe space, made the gathering raw and open.  People shared their shadows, their most desperate places. And then a beautiful thing happened.  Others stood up, turned and shared their own. They were speaking of themselves, but there was also a call-response to each other. And in the space created by safe sharing and active listening, a profound healing emerged.

One woman in her late sixties stood and told of her battle back from the despair that led her to attempt suicide — unsuccessful only because her husband found her and got her to the hospital in time.

Another stood and said, “I was the wife who found my husband when he took his own life. I didn’t get there in time. You are a miracle, thank you for living.”

A very young woman who had been there a couple of years before shared through tears the shame and despair she felt when she got pregnant in college and had to have the baby alone.

Another woman stood and said she, too, had gotten pregnant in college and had to drop out to become a mom far too soon, how she pushed against the confines of it in those early years, but now what a miracle her son is to her, his kindness the best kind of gift.

Another woman stood and said that her father had killed himself when she was a child and she was so pained and wounded by what felt like his abandonment and rejection of her.

A woman near her age stood and said before she was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, she was in so much emotional pain and darkness that she was sure she was harming her children by just being around them, by being who she was. “Your father loved you,” she said.

It was intense.

Two days later we broke silence after our final session together. There’s always a sort of suspense in that last moment in retreat.  No one wants to break a silence that feels like a pearl in cupped hands, so precious and hard won.

When we began to talk, the young woman who had felt such shame about her early pregnancy came up to me. I immediately did what I do – which is to quickly insert myself and launch into how I knew something of what she felt because I had had an unplanned pregnancy and struggled through ambiguous feelings, which I had actually written a blog about and did she want to read it? (I am so so helpful). She waited patiently for me to finish and then said, “Actually I wanted to ask you a question.  A couple of times this week, we’ve sat near each other while eating or looking at the river or meditating and in those times, I’ve felt like you are carrying a lot of pain. And I wanted to ask you if you would let me help hold some of your pain?”

I don’t think I’ve been asked a more beautiful, more moving question.  The startling kindness of it made me draw in my breath, sharp and sudden, and a floodgate opened within me, like a faucet turned on right at the wellhead. It was the same feeling as being held when I was a small child, when my mother would stoop down to see and hear the trouble and then hold me, encircling me in a way that demanded nothing, only that I let my full body weight fall against her.  “So yes?” she said as I hugged her.  “Yes, yes,” I said through tears.

Advice can sometimes be aggressive, sending “thoughts and prayers” dashed off in Facebook comments can be a passive pat on the head, but holding space for someone is active and intentional.  It requires manually moving yourself out of the way, and asking, “what is being said here? What is truly being asked of me?”

Very often it’s much simpler, and yet a little more effortful, than I expect.  I’d like to get better at this.  I want to get so strong in holding space for others that I have Michelle Obama’s sculpted uppers arms — in the spiritual sense.

…Although I wouldn’t mind them in the physical sense as well.



2 thoughts on “Spiritual Biceps

  1. Elizabeth,
    As I sit here this morning reading through your blog, it brings to mind fond memories of that same silent retreat that I have attended. It’s so comforting to realize that someone is on a similar path/journey as I. What a powerful, wonderful, spiritual experience we have been gifted !


  2. Yes, yes, and yes! What a poignant mesaage – and just in time for New Year’s resulolution time. Create more space sounds like an honest intention to set.


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