"If you will dive long enough, deep enough, some great sea change takes place - bringing bounty forever. I do not know if we can choose this path. More so, I would say certain ones are chosen."
-- Clarissa Pinkola Estes
My office clock stopped running on the day I closed my psychotherapy practice in Maine. I walked into the room on that final morning to see its hands frozen. I stood before it for a moment and waited for it to resume its slow and deliberate march. Then I was struck by the irony of the clock's demise on this of all days, as I acknowledged it's final message. "We're finished for now. It's time to go." Time to go...
I was unsteady on my feet as I moved around the room. I looked long and hard at my desk, at my old rockers, at my beloved sectional couch, and at the sunlight coming through the stained glass just above it. I'd lived so much of my life in this room and yet it, along with so much else that belonged to me, would be dismantled very soon. I felt empty and sad. I wasn't prepared for this. I was exhausted already by the good-byes I'd struggled through the past few weeks, and I wanted to reject this day even as I got ready for it
It wasn't supposed to end this way. (How many times have you heard that?) I'd told Lori long ago that she would choose when our work together was completed. It would be she who would tell me that we wouldn't be making another appointment. Instead, it was I who was leaving her.
When she walked through the door, she immediately moved into my arms and began to cry. As I held her, the guilt inside of me rose up to meet her grief. I wasn't supposed to leave her. I wasn't supposed to abandon my family, my friends, my partner, my practice, and my home either. And yet, it was in part, through my leaving, and loss, and letting go that I began to attempt to put into words the culmination of many years of research, clinical experience, and most importantly - critical life lessons.
This book is about a phenomenon which is presently challenging numerous members of my generation in particular. It's about the "Birthquakes" so many of us are struggling with and through. Where everything is rocked and shifted, where foundations crack, and treasures lie buried beneath the rubble.
At a glance, Birthquakes can understandably be confused with what has been identified for decades as the "midlife crisis," as they, too, appear in almost all cases during the second half of life. They also are, at least initially, profoundly difficult experiences. Being caught up in the confusion of a mid-life crisis, however, doesn't always lead to a desirable destination. Those who brave the mighty storms of a Birthquake on the other hand, are in every case ultimately transformed.
I have been a witness to its power and its fury. I have experienced the anguish, and I have stood in the center of its triumph. How do I tell you about what that feels like? I don't tell you. I attempt to explain it to you to the best of my ability, and if you have been there, you immediately recognize it. If you haven't, I'll try to be clear enough for you to grasp it in your imagination. I will also remind you that what you envision is not the same as what you actually experience. It may in part be less, while at the same time it is most certainly also significantly more.
The Quake arrives for most of us when we're standing at a crossroad. When the forces inside of us which contain a vast amount of wisdom erupt, pushing us forward towards growth and opportunity, we often push back. In spite of how uncomfortable our present situation may be, it's familiar. We know for the most part what to expect, and so we often attempt to distract ourselves from this inner voice which calls upon us to venture into foreign territory. Still, the voice refuses to be silenced. It taunts us, it haunts us, and it will not go away.
Encountering the Quake is much like the process of giving birth. Initially, there are feelings of inadequacy and fear delicately linked with anticipation and hope. As the process unfolds, the pain often intensifies until it can seem unbearable. As this period of transition is entered into, many want to turn back. Later, while engulfed in the agony, they become aware that in spite of the pain, they must not surrender. Instead, they must push on until the end - when they are finally delivered.
A Birthquake generally occurs when you're confronted with a significant challenge in your life. It may be the loss of a significant relationship, a job, your health, or your dream. It may evolve from a growing awareness that you're not satisfied with your present situation, or that you feel lost and confused. During this troubling period, you're often confronted with difficult choices. Will you attempt to ignore your inner voices by retreating to the familiar? Or will you brave the unknown, make the necessary changes, and take the risks that a Birthquake demands?
I want to make it perfectly clear that the intent of this book is not to propose that a crisis or painful episode in one's life is always ultimately a positive experience from which one learns and grows. A crisis can be devastating, and can wound so deeply that complete healing never occurs. I can't think of a time in my life that I've ever welcomed one, nor would I for a moment suggest that you consider yourself fortunate for having the opportunity to become stronger and wiser when having a painful experience. More often then not, I suspect I would choose to gladly give up the gains of my pain, if I could just be spared the hurt.
The reality though, as we all know, is that ready or not - difficulty, confusion, loss, risk, and potential danger befalls us all. Ultimately, at some point in each of our lives, a crisis becomes unavoidable. What differentiates a Birthquake from a typical life crisis is not what triggers the journey, instead, it's the choices one makes and the lessons one learns along the way. In the simplest terms, a Birthquake is a painful experience which eventually leads an individual to significant emotional and spiritual growth.
If you've found yourself at a turning point, or are attempting to find meaning and purpose in your life, then Birthquake was written for you. It will assist you in looking at several very important aspects of yourself and your world. It will offer you hope, guidance and insight. It's not a book that will provide you with easy solutions to your present dilemma. It's not that simple - emotional and spiritual growth never is.
In order to achieve maximum benefits from Birthquake, I recommend that you take your time reading, pausing periodically to reflect upon your own experiences. You'll find that this book is as much about you as it is about anybody. At the end of each chapter, I've incorporated a workbook that was designed to accompany the text. When you finish a chapter, before moving on to the next, I suggest that you answer the workbook questions. Take your time. In doing so, you'll find that you are discovering a tremendous amount about yourself. I also suggest that you keep a journal while reading this book.
Each of our lives contains a sacred purpose. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of day to day living, it's easy to get so caught up in the details that we completely lose touch with the meaning and purpose of our lives. Birthquake will assist you in uncovering aspects of yourself that have become hidden. It will also provide you with important tools that will enable you to identify your needs and guide you in developing a plan to most effectively meet them.
Most importantly, Birthquake offers you an opportunity to discover the value and significance of your own unique journey.
In a small coastal village in eastern Maine, there lives a woman who is as at peace with her life as anyone I've ever met. She is slender and delicately boned with innocent eyes and long gray hair. Her home is a small, weathered, gray cottage with big windows that look out over the Atlantic Ocean. I see her now in my mind's eye, standing in her sunlit kitchen. She's just taken molasses muffins out of the oven, and the water is warming on the old stove for tea. Music is playing softly in the background. There are wild flowers on her table and potted herbs on the sideboard beside the tomatoes she's picked from her garden. From the kitchen, I can see the book- lined walls of her sitting room and her old dog snoozing on the faded Oriental rug. There are sculptures scattered here and there of whales and dolphins; of the wolf and coyote; of the eagle and the crow. Hanging plants grace the corners of the room, and a huge yucca tree stretches up towards the skylight. It is a home that contains one human being and a multitude of other living things. It's a place that once entered, becomes difficult to leave.
She first came to coastal Maine in her early forties, when her hair was deep brown and her shoulders stooped. She has remained here walking straight and tall for the past 22 years. She felt defeated when she first arrived. She had lost her only child to a fatal automobile accident, her breasts to cancer, and her husband four years later to another woman. She confided that she'd come here to die and had learned, instead, how to live.
When she first arrived, she hadn't slept a whole night through since the death of her daughter. She would pace the floors, watch television, and read until two or three in the morning when her sleeping pills finally took effect. Then she would rest at last until lunchtime. Her life felt meaningless, each day and night just another test of her endurance. "I felt like a worthless lump of cells and blood and bone, just wasting space," she remembers. Her only promise of deliverance was the stash of pills that she kept tucked away in her top drawer. She planned to swallow them at summer's end. With all of the violence of her life, she would at least die in a gentle season.
"I would walk on the beach every day. I'd stand in the frigid ocean water and concentrate on the pain in my feet; eventually, they'd go numb and wouldn't hurt anymore. I wondered why there was nothing in the world that would numb my heart. I put on a lot of miles that summer, and I saw how beautiful the world still was. That just made me more bitter at first. How dare it be so beautiful, when life could be so ugly. I thought it was a cruel joke -- that it could be so beautiful and yet so terrible here at the same time. I hated a great deal then. Just about everybody and everything was abhorrent to me.
I remember sitting on the rocks one day and along came a mother with a small child. The little girl was so precious; she reminded me of my daughter. She was dancing around and around and talking a mile a minute. Her mother seemed to be distracted and wasn't really paying attention. There it was, the bitterness again. I resented this woman who had this beautiful child and had the indecency to ignore her. (I was very quick to judge back then.) Anyway, I watched the little girl playing and I began to cry and cry. My eyes were running, and my nose was running, and there I sat. I was a little surprised. I had thought I'd used up all of my tears years ago. I hadn't wept in years. Thought I was all dried up and out. Here they were though, and they began to feel good. I just let them come and they came and came.
I started meeting people. I didn't really want to because I still hated everybody. These villagers are an interesting lot though, awfully hard to hate. They're plain and simple- talking people and they just sort of reel you in without even seeming to pull at your line. I started to receive invitations to this and that, and finally I accepted one to attend a potluck supper. I found myself laughing for the first time in years at a man who seemed to love to make fun of himself. Maybe it was the mean streak I still had, laughing at him, but I don't think so. I think I was charmed by his attitude. He made so many of his trials seem humorous.
I went to church the following Sunday. I sat there and waited to get angry as I heard this fat man with soft hands talking about God. What did he know of heaven or of hell? And yet, I didn't get mad. I started to feel kind of peaceful as I listened to him. He spoke of Ruth. Now I knew very little about the Bible, and this was the first time I had heard about Ruth. Ruth had suffered greatly. She had lost her husband and left behind her homeland. She was poor and worked very hard gathering fallen grain in the fields of Bethlehem to feed herself and her mother-in-law. She was a young woman with a very strong faith for which she was rewarded. I had no faith and no rewards. I longed to believe in the goodness and existence of God, but how could I? What kind of a God would allow such terrible things to happen? It seemed simpler to accept that there was no God. Still, I kept going to church. Not because I believed. I just liked to listen to the stories that were told in such a gentle voice by the minister. I liked the singing, too. Most of all, I appreciated the peacefulness I felt there. I began to read the Bible and other spiritual works. I found so many of them to be filled with wisdom. I didn't like the Old Testament; I still don't. Too much violence and punishment for my taste, but I loved the Psalms and the Songs of Solomon. I found great comfort in the teachings of the Buddha, too. I began to meditate and to chant. Summer had led to fall, and I was still here, my pills safely hidden away. I still planned to use them, but I wasn't in such a hurry.
I had lived most of my life in the southwest where the changing of seasons is a very subtle thing compared to the transformations that take place in the northeast. I told myself that I would live to watch the seasons unfold before departing from this earth. Knowing I would die soon enough (and when I chose) brought me some comfort. It also inspired me to look very closely at things I had been oblivious to for so long. I watched the heavy snowfalls for the first time, believing that this would also be my last, as I would not be here to see them the next winter. I had always had such beautiful and elegant clothes (I had been raised in an upper middle-class family where appearances were of the utmost importance). I cast them off in exchange for the comfort and warmth of wool, flannel and cotton. I began to move about in the snow more easily now and found my blood invigorated by the cold. My body grew stronger as I shoveled snow. I began sleeping deeply and well at night and was able to throw my sleeping pills away (not my deadly stash though).
I met a very bossy woman who insisted that I help her with her various humanitarian projects. She taught me to knit for the poor children as we sat in her delicious smelling kitchen surrounded often by her own 'grandbabies'. She scolded me into accompanying her to the nursing home where she read and ran errands for the elderly. She arrived one day at my home armed with a mountain of wrapping paper and demanded that I help her wrap gifts for the needy. I usually felt angry and invaded by her. Whenever I could, I pretended at first not to be at home when she came calling. One day I lost my temper and called her a busybody and stormed out of the house. A few days later she was back in my dooryard. When I opened my door, she plopped down at the table, told me to make her a cup of coffee, and behaved as if nothing had happened. We never did speak of my temper tantrum in all of our years together.
We became the best of friends, and it was during that first year that she rooted herself into my heart, that I began to come alive. I absorbed the blessings that came from serving others, just as my skin had gratefully absorbed the healing bag of balm I had been given by my friend. I began to rise early in the morning. All of the sudden, I had much to do in this life. I watched the sunrise, feeling privileged and imagining myself to the one of the first to see it appear as a resident now in this northern land of the rising sun.
I found God here. I don't know what his or her name is, and I don't really care. I only know that there is a magnificent presence in our universe and in the next one and the next after that. My life has a purpose now. It's to serve and to experience pleasure - it"s to grow, and to learn and to rest and to work and to play. Each day is a gift to me, and I enjoy them all (some certainly less than others) in the company of people whom I've come to love at times, and at other times in solitude. I recall a verse I read somewhere. It says, 'Two men look out through the same bars: one sees mud, and one the stars.' I choose to gaze at the stars now, and I see them everywhere, not only in the darkness but in the daylight too. I threw out the pills that I was going to use to do myself in long ago. They'd turned all powdery anyway. I will live as long and as well as I am permitted to, and I will be thankful for every moment I am on this earth."
I carry this woman in my heart wherever I go now. She offers me great comfort and hope. I would dearly love to possess the wisdom, strength and peace which she has acquired during her lifetime. We walked, she and I, on the beach three summers ago. I felt such wonder and contentment at her side. When it was time for me to return home, I glanced down and noticed how our footprints had converged in the sand. I hold that image within me still; of our two separate sets of footprints united for all time in my memory.
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next: Virginia's Journey
Staff, H. (2008, December 5). Birthquakes Excerpts, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, January 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/alternative-mental-health/sageplace/birthquakes-excerpts