Jean Marie Gunner

Jean Marie Gunner
We are all basically good.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Me of Then and Now

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever
 to be able to do it.”

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Okay this essay I know from the start is going to be just way too personal.  It makes me uncomfortable even thinking of writing about it.  But I must.  I must because I feel a bit of confusion, fog and irritation in this moment.  I want to write to relieve this. I want to write to acknowledge it, to bow my head in homage before all that I am, all messed up, aggravated, angry, sad me.  The me made up of all that has gone before me in this life.  The me I have tried to hide, cover over, reinterpret, reinvent.  The me of my childhood, my youth, my young adulthood.  The me who just wanted to dance and sing and explore her life.  The me who would go for long adventures in the scrub field by the railroad tracks.  The me who felt so awfully alone as a young person.  The me who bashed her head through her bedroom window.  The me who hid in her garage loft or bedroom closet to escape the noise and clamor of a household ridden with alcoholism and crazy acts of volatility.  The me who imagined a whole magical kingdom by her bedside that would come to me as I rolled over with tears in my eyes to turn away from the sadness outside my bedroom door.  The me who just wanted to love someone so much, so dearly, so profoundly.  Who would create any persona to convince both that other person and myself that I was good enough, that I was worth loving?  That I could offer love worth accepting. 

I had a little eating ritual as a small girl.  It involved graham crackers, butter, peanut butter, and of course, a butter knife.  When life got too loud downstairs and all hell was breaking loose with words and hammered emotions flying, I would escape to the haven of the second floor where my great grandmother’s apartment offered a safe respite.  I would go into her bedroom and shut the door and just make these little crackers to eat.  One after another I would pop in my mouth and all was good.  Everything would start to settle down in my head and my body relaxed as I ate bite after bite.  When I was full, I would go and sit with my Great Gramma.  I loved her without any doubt or hesitation; just love unimpeded pouring out of me, being received by her.  She had dementia and I realized at the time something was amiss, but she there for me and I for her, we had no need to create barriers to loving and accepting each other.  I would sit on her lap as she rocked me on her wooden rocking chair and we would watch, As the World Turns, a 1960s soap opera really apropos for all the turmoil flying down beneath us.  My parents now have been married over fifty years and I know one thing, their marriage today would not have continued.  That’s my viewpoint, maybe I am wrong.  I am grateful they stuck together; I see it as an act of generosity to their children that they stayed united, and I know I couldn’t give that in my marriage.

I guess I see some correlation between the me eating peanut butter, butter graham crackers and the me today who still turns to food and sometimes red wine for comfort in my loneliness.  I don’t overdo it, but I do it and I look forward to it, and I depend on it also to a degree.  I like to draw  a distinction between my way as okay and others as excessive.  I just feel that I may be kidding myself with all this hair splitting by degrees.  This little perfection streak of mine is wearing thin and becoming annoying.  The fact is I have a bit of a superiority complex which is causing me to suffer because it separates me from people.  I do not have it when walking in the forest or when my body blends into and is absorbed by the landscape.  The fact is I realize I just like the connection with the natural world, its quiet, its unequivocal moments of magic like the other day I sat contemplating on a stone in the fall forest at Knox Farm in East Aurora, the haven that I have dubbed the Sour Green Apple Forest with all the fluorescent glow of the changing foliage.

Lately though it just feels so lonely to be alone.  The paradox:  we are all alone, no one can really give us what we need, or give us what we alone must give ourselves but at the same time we are all fundamentally connected and have never, ever been separate for one moment. 

Ever since I left home for Chicago in 1987 and began my life separate from my family of origin, I began to question my reality.  Who really am I? Why am I here?  Why do I feel so damn lonely around other human beings but so content and joyous around nature?  There were moments, usually ones that involved heartbreaks in my late teens and twenties when I just wasn’t sure I could go on another minute.  I contemplated ways to end my suffering and I always returned to the same conclusion:  it wasn’t always bad, there were some glorious moments, some moments of delight and wonder that took my breath away; I didn’t always suffer; there was always some fundamental good thing that kept me going, kept me alive. 

I began my spiritual journey after being a Catholic whose heart and mind was profoundly and achingly moved by the gospel of Jesus.  I liked to help people mostly because it offered to me an occasion to connect with other human beings.  In some ways, it actually alleviated my own suffering, it took away the loneliness.  In my last two years of high school at Mount Mercy Academy, me and some other students got jazzed on protesting nuclear proliferation with some activist nuns.  I hadn’t realized prior to that that being Catholic meant putting yourself out there, opening your mouth and putting a voice to all that mattered in our hearts.  As high school rounded to college then graduate school in Chicago, I ended up in a career where I could take all this activist spunk and wrap it about my childlike broken  heart and start working with others, really as broken as me, to change the world. 

I kept feeling the need to engage in this world of suffering, to help make things better all the while I was separating from myself, my own mind and body.  There were times I would literally be out of my mind truly.  Usually that is when I turned to a boyfriend to ground me, and some form of physical intimacy would help.  The pleasure inevitably turned to pain.  So the suffering caused suffering and the pleasure caused suffering.  There was really just no way I could win.  That was it, I was done.  Either I was going to jump off the Halsted Bridge in Chicago’ West Loop into the spaghetti mess of highways below, or I was going to get some relief.  I hadn't found out that the precious answer was within me all along.

I chose to keep going forward no matter how sad I was, or how confused.  I found in my Chicago days that long urban bike rides for miles at a time coupled with secret, sacred places to recover my humanity like the Lincoln Park Zoo and the tucked away Zen Garden or the Big Cat’s Cage in the 1920s era stone building would revive me.  I would go and sit in front of those tigers and suffer with them, empathize with their lack of freedom and movement. I would just sit and stare in at them and meet them eye to eye with my raw heart.   My quest to save my suffering self led me to seek the Divine Female and eventually leave Chicago to backpack alone through eight countries of Western Europe and the UK and Ireland in search of myself and ancient remains of goddess sites, ruins and statues; I liked to refer to the museum female statues and carvings as “Goddesses in Captivity.” 

I came to know that Woman is the creative juice of this world.  The ancient female was confident and knew her sacred role in the world’s creation.  She had a voice and war and aggression did not dominate.  The life force of the world, that natural confidence of our earth, thrived in abundance in all of earth’s living beings.  We recognized, man and woman alike, that sacred energy existed in all things throughout all three kingdoms -- animal, vegetable, and mineral. The goddess piece of the puzzle then led me to an exploration, a very hands-on engagement of indigenous people. I sought out American Indians in the Southwest, exploring the vast reservation of the Navajo and the tiny reservation of the Hopi enveloped by the larger one of the Navajo.  I met with people who made rattles, and packed herbs; I met a Hopi chief who showed me on what appeared to me dried up dessert land shelter remains that were 1000 years old and dinosaur tracks that were millions of years old.  He offered to me blue corn flour and paper thin delicately rolled tortillas.  A sacred gift; the blue maize is sacred life sustaining to his people in this extreme arid clime. 

In those days, I just had to go out and see for myself the people who lived side by side in the most ordinary sense to the earthen magic.  To the blades of grass, to the stone people, to the trees and their swaying branches, to the insects motoring along their inner earth highways, to the clouds forming and unforming day in and day out, to the magnificent sun that rises and lights our every day on earth unquestionably.  There is just no  sense of "for or against" in this scenario.  Everything goes about what it does and is the way it is designed to be. 

We humans have incredible minds, minds that influence our feelings through our thoughts, minds that can invent, change and imagine, minds that can destroy, manipulate and dominate, minds that cause us to suffer as they become fixated on outcomes and attach to ideas or preferences.

All these travels led me back home to the Buffalo area.  Born and raised in Lackawanna, I have danced back and forth to my old neighborhood.  There is much pain associated with this place for me.  Old childhood wounds and fears that are obviously unable to reach me now, still they hang on the tendrils of my heart within me.  Some things I just have never spoke of and don’t imagine I ever will.  So my sojourn back to this region led me to the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation to live with a Native Grandmother and study the ancient wisdom as retold and transmitted by her.  We were married by her in her living room surrounded by Indians, White people, confused members of my Irish, Catholic family wondering why the Indian lady was waving marijuana all over them as they entered the wedding venue.  It was a sage smudge stick to cleanse the thoughts that needed some brushing away and the drum was played in a heartbeat sound to remind us of our unity.

I would spend my days studying this ancient wisdom and my nights alternating between work in a health food store in Fredonia and my brother’s bar in Lackawanna.  I always seemed to walk between two worlds but I was getting used to being a bridge.  Marriage led to building a house with the Amish on 55 beautiful acres of land in Zoar Valley to 2 babies and to an eventual divorce.  We all ended up in the Village of Hamburg in two separate homes.  It has taken me years to feel okay about my decision to initiate the divorce.  I know now that the wound that I helped create would never go away but it was a thread in the weave of our collective family life and had a piece in forming the me I am today.

So I have arrived at 47 years of age and I have more questions than anything else.  I ask myself:  

Are we sowing karmic seeds or reaping the harvest from past seeds.  Or are both these things happening at the same time?

Am I so romantic that I see only good qualities and potential for my own happiness and cannot see potential for suffering in a new relationship? 

Why am I so blind to indicators of trouble?  How much is our compassion for someone about our own preferences and influences?

What are my habitual patterns and am I just spinning my wheel of suffering over and over again?  If so, how can I stop?

It seems to me that I have such a fundamental belief in goodness, but then look at my life over the last 4 years and the trouble I have gotten myself into.  I clearly need to pay attention gently and fearlessly to my choices, to what and whom I let into my life. That wisdom is being able to apply discernment and knowing on the spot by following a gut check.  It is all basic goodness at the core but many are trapped in their patterns and habits and these can sure do some damage. 

I have all this wisdom but when it comes to my heart, I get attached.  I want to love and be loved.  And I want the physical presence of the other.  I loathe this digital age.  Good to connect us when we are far away.  Bad as a replacement for face to face real moments of intimacy.  Holding hands and staring up at the night sky must be done side by side and I wonder when the pendulum will swing back.

I just know that if I have all this in my heart and I don’t share it, then I will close down, yet if I share it, I may risk losing something or someone.  I am choosing to be vulnerable because I know that in truth the ones that love us do so for the true, most certain, flawed beings we are. 

I have spent the last year feeling my way back around relationships, most of which are with divorced men with children.  In one of these relationships I encountered a disturbed being who became verbally abusive.  I know one thing, I did not like being treated in this way and I wasn’t sticking around to be part of an escalation of abuse.  Once around that cycle was more than enough for this warrior. 

I have come to the point in my life that I know my meditation is loving.  Loving myself, loving others.  I wish to meet people where they are, as well as meet myself where I am.  These meetings take place each and every moment with a fresh mind, a new breath and an ever-softening  and awakening heart.  Offering love in the form of loving kindness and generosity is my meditation and opening my heart to the world is the vehicle.  This does not mean that there will not be times that I might reject a certain situation or someone and be on my way.  I will still offer to them goodness; I will begin with an act of generosity toward myself ensuring that I do no harm to myself nor others. 

The ending of this essay is that I took myself all alone across some of this vast, wide world and landed in place after place to live and love and be.  I traveled this continent and returned year after year to Europe.  I recently journeyed to Nova Scotia for a week retreat and visit to Halifax.  I perused the streets, ate dinners alone, and danced till the pubs closed with perfect, wonderful strangers. 

And this past weekend, I sat on the fence wondering if I would be courageous enough to travel 15 minutes to Lackawanna to a bar one mile down the street from my childhood home, the home my parents still inhabit.  Funny as it sounds I am braver to go it alone in foreign lands and faraway cities than I am in my own hometown.   In the end I did go on a rainy Saturday night and I sat with my lovely cousin drinking a few beers and enjoying the exuberance of a one man band as he sang and played his heart out.  The bar, the hometown, the excessive drinking, the people were all as I remembered them.  It was a sweet night. There were a few gems along the highway of the evening.  The next day I arose early as I do every day to become occupied with being a mom and an engaged member of my community despite my sheer exhaustion from staying out too late.  I see now that the me now just needed to touch that old, faraway place again with the me that I am today.  The me of then and now joined hands to be one across time.

“I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy

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