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What Keeps Us Afloat

I call them mom-isms, my mother’s newly found perspectives that speak of Buddhist equanimity with a dash of slapstick humor. She offered up her latest this morning: “If something is bothering me, I look out the window at the mountains and just picture the worry floating away over the mountains like a feather…I don’t want to be one of those grumpy old women.”

She has Alzheimer’s now. She has been a Presbyterian, Catholic and Southern Baptist at different times in her life, and humor doesn’t figure highly in my own memories of her, so these bits of wisdom are a precious gift. In her very decline, we are both emerging anew.

Mom spoke of her ‘letting go’ practice after I read her this line from one of author Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels: “He clung to the thought and found it floated.” This line speaks of things joyous, affirming, empowering, enlivening. There cannot be light without shadow, and so this line also speaks of difficulties and tragedies and unspeakable things that have somehow over time been transformed, and thus transformed us.

The last few weeks I’ve been acutely aware of the old feelings and snippets of stories that have taken up residence in my physical self, decades ago roosting like hungry baby birds within me, now like ancient mummies in tangled nests. I’m remembering our bodies are the last to let go of the musty remnants of our individual human experiences. Letting these remnants drift away like my mother’s worrisome feathers is a somatic, felt-in-my-body re-structuring. A relief that I don’t yet have the words to describe.

Hard emotions—anger and rage, mistrust and confusion, grief and despair to name only a few—are here to stay. So many of us learn to repress and suppress these emotions, to perpetuate an ‘I’m fine, thank you very much’ response to what my friend Vickie calls ”the Hallmark card” version of life. Yet suppression and repression turn emotions into stones, a heaviness that settles into our bodies, dragging us down, down, down. A heaviness that takes on many guises, and in its most heartbreaking results in personal decisions like Virginia Woolf filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into the dark water of the Thames River, or social and cultural explosions like war and genocide.

It is in the expression of these thoughts and feelings—in the sharing of our deepest shames and wounding—that we stay afloat. A sharing done in the company of safe, trusted friends listening, often in silence—as we speak of unspeakable things birthed from difficult, sometimes impossible-to-fathom situations. We float just as buoyantly when we allow ourselves to speak of our exquisite joys—moments of silliness, beauty, discovery, and love—to those same staunch friends. Sometimes strangers hold the space for strangers speaking to other strangers thought to be enemies and the listening transforms everyone present.

What keeps us afloat is opening wide and riding the breeze, blossoming in light and the dark, letting the depth and breadth of our lives be both our foundation and the current we float upon toward the next moment.


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