On Monday, in my writing group, we read Maggie Smith’s poem “Threshold.” The three of us all thought of threshold differently. One, thought of the exact moment of crossing between as in the point when the light turns to darkness each evening. Another imagined a going between space, the movement from one thing to the next, as in a phase of life, perhaps. I imagined the threshold of reaching a limit, as in a threshold for pain. What do you think of when you hear the word threshold?
The first line of Smith’s poem:
You want a door you can be on both sides of at once.
Reminds me of the space I often occupy. I feel between things. I am on the threshold of middle age, not quite ready to accept this transition. Some would easily call me middle aged and others would laugh at the suggestion. It seems reviewers love to call women in their forties middle-aged. To make a note of it, as though we need this information in order to understand their work. I noticed it again recently in a review of Eula Biss’s new essay collection Having and Being Had, on class, property, the demands of capitalism, and how we spend our time. The word “middle-aged” feels like a stain or a check against her. Youth being the ideal of our culture, and entirely wasted on the young, or so they say.
Precision and exactness are something I secretly love, but also loathe. I know that, for example, scientifically speaking, I could identify the exact moments of change. But I prefer poetry as in the feeling one gets on the day that it becomes clear summer has crossed over into autumn. The sinking loss before I turn towards the next season with hope for all it has to offer.
Reaching the threshold could also mean reaching the pinnacle, the prime. But in my mind I think of limits. In many ways, because of my class, whiteness, education, I have fewer limitations than most Americans. The limitations I struggle with are mostly my own use of time and imagination, and my choices around how I make or don’t make money. I have always been pulled by the spoils of Capital towards a desire for comfort, wealth, status, money. But I am also, and I would argue this force is more powerful in my life, pulled by the desire to reject capitalism, to live in my own way, to support others with the work I do, and to write. To make a masterpiece of my own life is to focus on and relish the daily work I do and not its product, which brings me to the sacred nature of everyday ritual.
We make our lives sacred through recognizing what we most value and focusing on it. We do not let the voices of “not enough,” the voice of fear, overcome us. When it arrives we greet it, we welcome it gently–hello, old friend–but then we turn to our sacred, everyday rituals of walking in nature, lighting candles, baking, reading, friendship, and so on. These acts that give our lives meaning also make our lives sacred when we relish in them. Living under the pressures of capitalism, we need a daily refuge and reminder to turn towards what is true and right.
During this most sacred time of year, we battle the wound of Empire. We are taunted by the stuff we must buy, we must do, we must be. But we don’t have to do it. We can turn towards ritual instead. Make this season about the sacredness of your life. Sit under the stars and tell stories to your dear ones, light a bonfire and drink hot coco, walk quietly through the woods, along a lake or a river, through your town or city with all its windows lit up and its comings and goings, sew or bake or write or make, dance or run or twirl alone in your living room. I promise, nothing you buy and no gift you give for the holidays will render as much joy as these simple acts of renewal and gratitude.
There are 20 days until the Winter Solstice, which means 20 more days of moving into the darkness before the light begins its slow return. The solstice makes a threshold between the waning and waxing of daylight, and is perhaps the most sacred day of the year for me, as I am one who has always been drawn to darkness and who at one point in her life turned toward nurturing light instead of darkness, which was no easy feat.
The darkness of November has always brought me grief often I name it Seasonal Affective Disorder. But this year, I moved into November on the heels of a private loss that evoked the deep life of sorrow in me. We all have these losses from time to time as humans on this earth, but we don’t always know how to cope with them, let alone embrace them. Swimming, in the perfect silence of the empty house, I thought of the grief we carry and often squander.
I walked through the woods and built a fire beside the pond and felt all the lives I would not live and the grief I harbored for the loss of each one. In the woods, I search for bones. I have found skulls, carcasses, the empty shell of a turtle. I covet the remnants of death because I want to draw close to death. I never want to turn away from that mystical doorway, and I want to let it soften me, just as grief will do if we allow it. But what I did not realize, until recently, is that I most likely covet death because the other forms of grief are not recognized or ritualized by my culture.
In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: The Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller writes that grief is a threshold emotion and when we cross through it we enter the world of community, of conversation, of sacred ritual. If we compress the sorrow of grief, we also compress our capacity for joy. In our culture we don’t have sacred communal rituals for expressing grief and we limit and restrain the experience of grief, which is why, Weller argues, we are a culture of secondary satisfactions like entertainment and shopping, but also a desire for power, wealth, status, rank, priviledge. Empire, he says, is one of the most egregious expressions of secondary satisfactions –we always want more. We are conditioned by our culture to never feel like we have enough. This is one of our greatest sources of grief and loss, our greatest wound.
Primary satisfactions are much simpler and yet sometimes they remain forgotten in our daily lives: human touch, laughter, shared meals, story telling, kindness offered in times of sadness, and rituals that mend and tend to the sacred world around us.
Weller writes of the five gates of sorrow, which go beyond the first gate of loss through the death of those we love.
Here are Weller’s the five gates of sorrow as outlined on in Apprenticeship with Grief from the website Pathways to Resilience:
Gate 1 – Everything We Love We Loose: this is the only gate we recognize on a cultural level, and yet, we seldom give it the space it deserves.
Gate 2 – The Places That Have Not Known Love: this gate refers to the aspects of self we deny in order to fit into family, peer groups, and the broader cultural systems.
Gate 3 – The Sorrow of the World: tending our Earth grief. As Francis Weller puts it, “We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the earth and communal rituals of celebration, grief, and healing that kept us in connection with the sacred.”
Gate 4 – What We Expected and Did Not Receive: For Weller, this gate has to do with “the expectations coded into our physical and psychic lives” due to our ancestors evolving for at least 200,000 years in relational environments and societies. The contrast of our contemporary life creates a type of deep grief that, Weller believes, we seldom have the language for or space to acknowledge.
Gate 5 – Ancestral Grief: The grief we carry in our bodies from the trials and tribulations of our lineages.
This year, during November I nurtured my grief, I did not turn away from it, I lit fires every day–a candle, a bonfire, a small fire beside the pond, a fire in the fireplace, and the flames comforted me. I sat in meditation, willing myself to soften to the sadness I felt, to let it in, to let it speak. I lay in hot baths filled with bath salts my beloveds had gifted me, sniffing tinctures made for grief, eating pie, walking through the woods, dragging my children along behind, running, and gazing at the moon. And, amazingly, I did not get depressed. I cannot say what will come, but after all these years of running away from the grief without even realizing it, I have finally sat still with it and let it heal me. That is the work of grief and we must engage it if we are to find the wild joy of our living.
I hope to make these next 20 days of darkness sacred through the rituals of lighting fires and candles, sharing food with my family, laughter, and snuggles. I will also be writing here about grief and sorrow, and how embracing this time of darkness can lead to a richer, fuller life, not constricted by a denial of grief. I hope you will join me.
Last fall I fell into a clinical depression. Partly, I suspected, it had to do with an abrupt change in my running activity–from training for races to a few short runs a week–and perhaps the change of seasons. In Vermont, the darkness can be crippling. Days are cut off around 4pm in November and the lack of sunlight imposes a sense of doom for some. I suspect others cozy up to the wood stove and find solace in that same darkness. But I found myself frozen in a state of grief and fear that I hadn’t felt in years.
Poet Jenny Xie writes in “On Melancholia” of Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia. Here are her words:
In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—”devoured” by the ego, as Freud writes. The ego absorbs the lost object and feeds on it interminably.
I read Freud as literature as I suspect Xie does as well. I like the idea of thinking of depression as a lost object. Something we’ve misplaced without realizing it. Devoured by the ego, we can’t stop mourning–the labor is endless. In many ways I see my own bouts of depression as moments when I have lost access to my life. By which I mean, I’ve lost touch with the life I want to lead; I have become estranged from myself.
I imagine my estranged self wandering along a forest path, through a city street, stopping for coffee… Romantic, yes. But this is not at all the way depression feels. Depression is a feeling akin to drowning that I imagine would mirror the experience of falling through ice with all your winter clothes on and not being able to get out. You try to kick off the boots but they’re stuck on; you try to climb out, but the ice breaks; you call for help, but no one’s there–or at least that is the way the mind imagines it. The mind imagines a life or death situation.
Even when I’m not in the throws of depression (which is normally) in my mind the voice of doubt is strong. I have talked to her for years and have learned to talk her down as well as to simply detach and observe the workings of the mind. Thoughts are not reality. Repeat after me: thoughts are not reality.
Tara Brach, meditation teacher, writer, and speaker, has noted that the ego doesn’t like it’s own training and thus turns on itself. I would equate this notion with her (and the Buddhist) notion of the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm done and the second arrow is the voice that scolds: how did you let this happen, you’re bad, worthless, etc. Thus, the voice of the second arrow is always telling me that I’m failing (it is also the more harmful arrow, the poisonous one, if you will). As in this morning when my four year old was having an epic tantrum and I held him down to brush his teeth before school–fail! I thought, what have we done? We are awful parents, bad bad bad. But my own training popped up (luckily) and said, it’s just a bad day, it’s temporary, he won’t be four forever, he’ll learn to brush his own teeth.
Failure is relative. You decide. You can change your thoughts, I’ve learned. Yet our sense of not being enough (doing, having enough) is a powerful part of our conditioning as human beings. We are locked into this conditioning and unless we see it for what it is we can’t get free. Even when we intellectually understand it, there are powerful triggers in our lives that catch us up again and again. But if we practice noticing and choosing different thoughts, which lead to different feelings and in turn different actions, we can overcome this.
Perhaps, as long as we are walking our path and engaged in what we love and what interests us, we mostly feel content. Do you believe that you deserve this? Do you think you have to suffer? Why? Alienation from our path (our best lives) is when depression and melancholia arise, in my experience. Often the texts go like this: What am I doing with my life?!?
Me: I’m fucked, seriously fucked!
Friend: What’s going on?
I admit to being a little dramatic.
The lost object, then, is not (of course) an object but the action of living our lives in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and right for us. A sense of being engaged in our right work, supported by our communities, and well-loved. A belief that we deserve to have all our needs met.
Last fall I began therapy again, which I have done off and on my entire life. I’m a huge fan, but you need to find the right person. I found someone magical, which has felt like a gift. She began by telling me that my expectations were way out of synch and that I was trying to do too much so I was crashing. My body was protesting the expectations I had forced upon myself. I thought of the previous two years, the insane amount of work I’d been doing to form and build our faculty union while revising my book, teaching, parenting, running, editing, and all the other life stuff. I let that sink in and then I said, predictably, but I’m not enough and I listed to her all the ways I was failing as a writer and grown-up person.
Her response: What if you just stop trying to do all that? What if you just write in your journal everyday and see what happens? What if you take a break? Have you ever done that?
No, I thought, I cannot take a break. I have too much to accomplish. I’ve got to start my second book and it needs to be a money-maker, I’ve got to promote my first book, I’ve got to generate shorter pieces for publication, I’ve got to get a new full-time job. Whooeee…. that sounds stressful. I told her I felt behind as a writer, publishing my first book at the tail-end of my thirties instead of my twenties. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this idea is! But, conditioning!)
What if you aren’t that kind of writer?
What kind? I ask.
The rich and famous kind.
Well, that’s obvious.
We laugh. Then she says, what if your life, what you’ve been given, is the material you have to work with as a writer. What if your life is the material of your work?
I like that. I say, and think of my two children.
And so, I began to write to “X” everyday in my journal, a blue covered wireless notebook. I quit the novel I was working on. I didn’t attempt any essays. I just wrote to X. The Winter Solstice passed into the new year. Slowly I felt myself returning and in my hands a lost object emerged, small and quiet, a well-loved path.
Clinical depression often requires medication, medical attention, and other care. I do not mean to imply that we can simply think or journal our way out. Rather, I believe that depression can be rooted in our life choices and needs, triggered by responses to fear.
I want to be clear that seeking to live your “best life” and be your “best self” are somewhat privileged notions when most of the world is forced to labor in tenuous survival mode. I want to recognize this. And I believe I have a responsibility to use my privilege in service to others to help everyone access opportunities for growth and success. Some of the ways I do this is through teaching at the community college level, mentoring students, activist work, listening to and promoting the ideas (and work) of marginalized individuals/communities, teaching students how oppression functions, and donating money or time. I believe we all want to live our best lives (regardless of our socio- economic status) and there is enough for everyone.
To Read Jenny Xie’s extraordinary poem “Melancholy” click here