I wrote this long, philosophical, and deeply personal essay, now archived in A.K. Reader, when I was 50 years old, 20 years ago! Published in Crone Chronicles #17, 1993, I offer it here as a gift to others, especially women, who have faced and embraced similar struggles, so that we may learn how to move through them into wholeness.
Believe me, sisters! The 50s are a lot easier than the 40s, which in turn are easier than the 30s, and oh my goddess, those turbulent 20s! I look forward to my 70s for the ease of expression and understanding with which my long years in a female body on this beautiful and beleaguered Earth have finally gifted me.
So the Soul May Shine Through
Looking back on my life from this vantage point of fifty years, I realize that I have been obeying one primary directive, ever since I woke up in a Boston hospital bed when I was 26 years old. I have been following the directive of my own inner voice. This guidance has been the source of (what I would call) the primary relationship in my life: between my outer personality and my inner self, or soul. My outer personality interacts with the world; my inner Self guides my choices in both determining which experiences I shall have and what meaning I will give to those experiences.
My commitment to the relationship between my outer expression and my inner soul’s life has been absolute. It has meant that, whenever I have reached an important crossroad, I have taken the path I knew was mine, even when it was extremely difficult. In essential matters, I feel I have made no compromise. And because I have refused to compromise, I can look back now and see that, for the first time in my life, the path ahead is clear. As the first half of my life was spent hacking my way through a jungle of social and cultural institutions and taboos, so the second half will be spent creating a world around me which reflects the wisdom gained from those experiences.
My commitment to my own soul’s directive has been profound, so unswerving that I have, on three occasions, let go of relationships which most others would consider primary. Each time the choice came up, the situation felt wrenching, excruciating. Impossible, really. There was no way I could do it. The relationship was too fundamental, too profound. Yet as the months would drag on, and I would feel the relentless internal pressure for this change, in the end I would surrender. I had to. The only other option was to die. So these three choices, impossible at the time, were also utterly necessary.
The first impossible choice was to separate from my own children.
The second was to separate from the man I dearly loved.
The third is one which I am undergoing now: separation from my own parents.
The first separation was from my own children. I was 29. They were five and seven years old. I had no idea that I was going to leave them. Not at all. I was planning to take them with me to California, where I had landed a plum teaching job in an experimental college. Their father was going to fight for custody. He was obsessed with the idea of keeping them in Boston with him. His own father had died when he was five. He was determined not to let his sons grow up without a father. The struggle between us was bitter, escalating, and threatened to end up in court with the children as both pawns and witnesses.
One night, a few months before I was due in California, a good friend of mine talked with me about my children. Her two boys were the same ages as mine and she had been a single mother since her youngest was a few weeks old. I was obsessing, as usual, about how awful their father was, how I didn’t want him to have them, and she looked directly in my eyes and said, very slowly, “Ann, to take your kids with you to California just because you don’t want them to remain with their father is not a good reason to take them to California.” I was stunned.
She paused to give me time to absorb this shocking statement, and then went on to outline the benefits of their remaining with their father. They would return to the same wonderful experimental school (where she was a teacher, and where all the teachers were attuned to the emotional needs of the children); they would be in the same neighborhood and have the same friends; there were many people there who loved them and would help watch over them. We both agreed that even though their father was not the ideal parent, neither was I. For many years I had been distracted. My nose was in a book, or I was working on my dissertation.
That was the first time I even considered allowing them to remain with their father. And immediately, when I thought about it, I felt a profound sense of relief. This troubled me. Did I really want to leave them behind? Didn’t I love my children? Yet it was true. I had always found motherhood to be an extremely difficult, demanding task. From the beginning, despite my love for them, I had felt trapped. As if this was not my real life. As if my real life was on hold.
So they remained with their father, who hated and blamed me for leaving and attempted to make my children hate me, too. I hated myself, felt horribly guilty, and wondered what was wrong with me. I had never known a woman to leave her own children. Nor had anyone I knew. It was the end of the ’60s. Profound cultural forces were beginning to detonate the nuclear family through certain individuals — usually woman — who were, for reasons unknown to them, moved to go in directions they did not understand.
That first separation was the hardest. Terrible on my children, who experienced the brunt of their father’s bitterness and their mother’s seeming remoteness. Terrible for me, as well. Underneath, I longed for my boys, and ached to see them again, hold them again. I despised myself for what I was doing. What mother would leave her own children? There is no more unnatural act. I knew it, and so did everyone else. I internalized my own, my husband’s, and society’s judgments against me and I felt like a freak of nature. For many many years, I shut myself down so completely that I was numb. For my own continued survival, I dared not touch the profound feelings bottled inside.
The second separation was from my first love, with whom I spent my teenage years and then married when we were thirty-two. Ours was a storybook relationship. He had been high school president. I had been tops academically. Our families were personally connected, and our fathers were prominent in our small Idaho town where we reunited as adults after Tom had become editor of the local newspaper.
During the few years between leaving my children and marrying Tom, I had stripped myself of just about every taboo from my childhood. I was so wild and unpredictable. Crazy, some said. Yet it seemed as if our marriage was a dream come true. Our parents were clearly relieved; finally, these two kids would be happy, back in each others’ arms. And for the first year we were. Deliriously, gloriously happy.
That first year we were in heaven, emotionally soothing the wounds we had incurred since leaving each other at nineteen, each marrying the wrong person on the rebound. Thank God we had found one another again! My gratitude was profound. I was truly happy for the first time in my life. The sense of security, of safety and comfort with him, was absolute. For months and months, I felt as if I was wrapped in golden light.
Then one morning — I’ll never forget that morning — we were on a pack trip in the Sawtooths, and the nigh before, for the first time, I had not wanted to make love. I woke up this morning and asked myself who I was, who he was. Who were we as adults? What was his world-view? What was mine? We spent the next twelve months talking as passionately as we had clung to each other physically during that first year. It became obvious that our lives were going in different directions that I was not the kind of person who could function well as the “wife of the editor of the local newspaper.” finally, I began to say to him, “I can’t stay with you and do my work!” And he would ask, plaintively, but with his usual stoic patience, “But Ann, what is your work?” “I don’t know!” I would wail. I had no idea what my work was. All I knew was I couldn’t do it with him.
For many months I felt torn between my freedom to go and “do my work,” whatever it was, and my love for him. But the pendulum gradually slowed down and stopped. I knew I had to go. The only question was when.
I had matured from the first painful but necessary choice to leave my children. That first time, my personality was a bundle of neurotic and repressed reactions to events. I had no idea who I was; all I knew was I had to go take that job in California. Since then I had seen the children only in the summers, and it was always a strain for all of us. There were so many emotions that none of us could afford to feel.
This time, though I knew I had to go, I also knew I had to do it the “right” way. It was as if, when I left my children with their father, the only imperative was to leave as soon as possible, no matter what the cost. This time the rules had changed. Internally, I was guided to leave, but only when the situation was ripe. I knew that I could not leave until Tom was ready. The intuitive part of myself that is the voice of the soul, now a regular and respected guide in my life, told me to honor the process between us.
I look at this now and sense that each time I have been guided to accept a wrenching personal change, one I would never have thought of in my wildest dreams, I have been given an ethical directive that is exactly equal to what I am capable of doing. The first time was simple, and final. “Go, and do not return.” At that point, after twenty nine years of living a lie, I was so internally twisted and batter that I could do no more.
The second time the guidance was subtler, more complex. I had to commit myself to the process with Tom, and if it took twenty more days, twenty more years, or twenty more lifetimes, my leaving was to be that outcome of that process, not just my decision by fiat. It’s as if this new and transformed way of life, this way that forges stronger and stronger links between soul and personality, requires me to understand that there is a new ethics involved, one to which I will be introduced gradually, as I grow to become capable of following its guidelines.
Unlike the first time, when I felt desperate, both emotionally battered and internally violent, the second time I knew intuitively that I was being guided. Understanding this was in itself immensely helpful in giving me the patience, and the faith, to go through the process with Tom.
Again, I was in a situation which had no protocols. Just as I had never known a woman who left her own children, so now I had never known a woman to leave the man she had loved her whole life, and who had made her feel utterly and totally secure. Especially for reasons that I didn’t understand! What was my work? And how would I support myself until that work, whatever it was, supported me? There were no answers to these questions. There was only that unswerving directive. “Work it through with Tom to the point where you are free to go.”
We did. Amazingly enough, it only took about six months before he said, “Okay, Ann, you are free to go.” And he meant it. It was hard on him, but he had internalized the change. Shortly after I moved out, he called me to ask if I would go skiing with him for the day. I mentioned a friend of mine, who had the day off from work, and suggested he call her instead. She too had recently separated from her husband. Tom and Jane got together that day and the two of them have now been happily married for ten years.
I’ll never forget our actual divorce. Jane was our witness, and she sat in the courtroom with Tom at a discreet distance, holding hands behind the high backed pews. I took the stand and told the judge the story of our abiding love, of my increasing need for freedom over the past year, and how that need for freedom had finally overcome our love. That night, Jane babysat Tom’s child (by his first marriage), and he and I went out to celebrate our divorce, make love one last time.
That was in 1976. Over the years since then the three of us have evolved into members of a much larger tribe. The feeling of security I experienced with Tom grows and deepens as an abiding sense of community security.
I speak here as if it was an easy matter for me to “work it through with Tom,” that our only problem was his. The truth is, however, that I had to spend many more years working through this relationship internally. Indeed, I would say that it was not until three years ago that I truly did let him go,t hat I did not compare every man in my life to him, that I did not dream of him regularly. Indeed, I would say now that my fantasy of Tom, of getting back together with him someday, meant that I could not enter a new relationship and be fully there with that person. Recognition of this fact came slowly. It was as if I preferred my utopian dream to any actual reality. As if I felt that at least there, in my imagination, I could be happy. What changed things for me was the sudden shocking recognition that what I was “in love with” was not Tom the adult man that he is today, but my childhood fantasy of him, immortalized as the golden nirvana just ahead — and forever out of reach.
So, as much as I would like to say that Tom and I had a “conscious divorce,” that we were ahead of our time in forging a new way to let go, that we were an example for others in truly doing that, the truth is more complicated. At the time I was able to behave as if that were true — and it was! My fiery nature had taken over, and was propelling me out of that situation into an unknown future. On the other hand, processing the feelings involved took another ten years! It’s as if the hidden emotional aspect of myself runs on a slower vibration than the more obvious intellectual and spiritual aspects, and that therefore the process of full integration is both long and complex. It’s as if my life has been a sort of fugue, the different voices echoing each other on different levels, and coming in at different times. But until I realize its fugal quality, it often feels like cacophony, as various aspects within me are twisted in different directions at once by seemingly conflicting forces.
Meanwhile, six years ago, another old emotional layer of myself — one which had been stuck forever, it seemed — began to vibrate again. It was during the Harmonic Convergence (August, 1987) — I was twirling in a Sufi dance with thirty others in a giant ceremonial yurt in the Tetons — when I received another inner directive. In the middle of that dance I heard the voice again, this time strong and booming: “You must finish your personal karma by the end of the year.”
I knew what the voice referred to. And I refused it, immediately. “NO! He’s an asshole and I never want to see him again!”
But the voice kept coming, over and over again for the next few days, whispering, like a mantra. As usual, I had to surrender. I had to go back to encounter the father of my children, to give him the gift of my presence as he unloaded all his venom upon me. I had to do this without either fighting back or letting it wound me. Simply, my presence, and my permission, were necessary for him to release it. Only when that had been accomplished could I reconnect with my children again, whom I had not seen or spoken to for six long years.
I had no idea what form this meeting would take when I got the message I was to go there. Again, there were no protocols. I had never known a woman to go back to the man who hated her and allow him to dump his poison on her without psychic damage. All I knew was I had to do it, and I asked my unconscious to help me understand how to go about this unwelcome task. By the time I arrived in Boston, three months later, I was internally prepared. I knew exactly what would happen, and I knew how I was to respond. Meanwhile, during those three months, I received the gift of grace: my hatred for him had been transformed into compassion. I no longer saw him as a monster. I had climbed inside him, and what I felt was the little boy who had been abandoned by his father’s death when he was five. For him, my leaving had triggered that old pain.
The actual ordeal took four hours. Four hours of sitting in his little house, across from him at the kitchen table we had bought when we were first married. Four years of being blasted with fifteen years of pent-up hatred. Four hours of seeing him as that furious little boy and neutralizing his fury as it flowed past me. I felt as if I were in a dream, utterly prepared, poised, and accepting his feelings with graciousness. After it was over, I hugged him, and though his mouth was still judging me, his body was clutching me, trembling. I knew we had succeeded. I felt triumphant. The door was now open for my children to return.
So, though the first directive for separation, “Go, and do not return,” required nothing more of me ethically at the time, fifteen years later I would receive another directive to heal it. Again, it did not come until I was ready to receive it, and not until I had enough experience trusting the unconscious that I would let it do the work of preparing me. “I” did not have to do a thing, except open to what the unconscious was telling me.
The third painful separation is the one I am undergoing now, separation from my parents, both in their seventies, and still immensely vital people. It may sound silly to say that I must separate out from my parents. After all, I’m 50 years old! Haven’t I done this already?
I admit, there have been times when what I am now doing has felt embarrassing to admit, since everyone I know has separated out from his or her parents — of course! We separate out sometime during our first years after leaving home, at least by the time we’re thirty! And well, maybe we have to do it again around forty, or forty-five . . . But that’s it! Never again! By this time we are done with that difficult and messy business.
I thought so too. And yes, of course, I have separated from them — over and over again. And yet, wanting to be loyal to my roots, over and over again I have returned to the fold (as the eldest of eight children). Each time I have done this, I thought I was becoming more detached, and so, of course, could live with the differences between us. Now I realize that in order to be around them, I’ve had to hold myself in a certain place. Rein myself in. Not be me. For their sake, I’ve tried to “lighten up;” “not be so intense.” Or, I’ve played the fool: awkward, dropping things, stumbling — this way I could be myself and have everybody laugh at me. Nobody had to acknowledge me. I could be there in disguise. Or, finally, the worst alternative: I could become loud and aggressive, even exaggerating my differences with them, for shock value. I was disguising my natural vulnerability and sensitivity, for fear they would violate it again.
Every time the conflict between our value-systems erupted again, and I left them again, it was in fury. When I finally had had enough! When I couldn’t take any more of my father’s righteous Catholic judgments against who I am and what I do! Each time this happened, it hardened me against them — and hardened me against myself, so that I couldn’t feel what was happening inside. Each time I hated his judgments, and judged him in return. Not until the past few months did I have any idea how much energy has been trapped in that repeating pattern. Nor have I understood, until now, that underneath, despite my righteous fury, at an inchoate, preverbal level — the very early age when I had originally internalized his judgments — I believed him. He was right. I was a worthless human being, ashamed of being alive.
Naturally, I didn’t want to feel this. Who does? So I threw it back at him. And yet I did feel it; it permeated my life as a subtle ether; that vague, confusing and primordial feeling of worthlessness was the very air I breathed, the cloudy filter I saw things through. I was in a trance, a passive unconscious victim of my father’s unconscious mental and emotional abuse of my entitlement as a human being. His judgment upon me was my own upon myself, and manifested externally as a lack of material abundance throughout my life.
I didn’t understand the real meaning of this, because I had built up a world-view which both rationalized it and separated me out from him. I was an idealist, not a materialist! All my adult life I have been openly contemptuous of — and yet secretly resentful and jealous of — others whose lives have been more abundant than mine. This has manifested most obviously in the difficulty I have had with money, with allowing money — and other times of energy — to enter my life and nourish me. I saw my life as hard, difficult; I had to work hard for what I got, and then the most I deserved was the bare minimum necessary to make expenses and still survive.
These are all root assumptions which have dug their claws into the soil within which I was planted, bound that soil up into tight little clods which were then trampled into hardpan. So that no matter how much I wanted to stretch myself beyond where I already was, I could not. There was a level beyond which I could not go.
During the last year or so, I have been allowing gravity to take me, sinking down deeper and deeper into that hardpan soil. Feeling its claustrophobic, cement-like quality. Breathing into it. Digging through the soil and letting air in, light in. I am digging down, down, to get at the entire root structure of those old assumptions of scarcity, and pulling the whole thing up. Getting it out of my garden. I do not need it anymore.
And in the process I am realizing that I have to separate out from my parents once again, but this time consciously, this time with love. I hold them in my heart. I know they know not what they do. I realize that my German father’s tyrannical behavior is a repeat of his own German father’s, and that he cannot be held accountable for what he does not yet understand in himself. I realize that my mother’s need to align with her husband, despite her agony over losing her first-born child, is her fundamental priority as a woman of her generation.
He aligns with the Catholic Church. She aligns with him. I align with my own inner directive. The conflict between me and them was both tragic and unavoidable. I now see that. At this point the question becomes, how to separate with love? What does that mean?
It feels to me that in order to separate out from my parents I must, paradoxically, feel our connection. Feel it on a deeper level than I have ever acknowledged before. And to feel that connection is to feel the pain of separation. A pain which spreads out into the abyss, shadows it like the sun does, in settling beneath the horizon. I surrender to the darkness, and honor it. Honor the life we have known together, the lifelong drama, the struggle for dominance which my patriarchal father and I have been engaged in. Armed to the teeth with judgments, we have been battling it out on the plains of Armageddon forever.
And now the battle is done. I lay down my judgments, and surrender to our souls’ connection. I understand that our conflict resides on the personality level, and does not touch the soul. Indeed, the very depths of despair we have all felt in this situation is testimony to the depths of connectedness we all do feel. One does not go through such agony unless the soul is involved. Only with such soul-mates, do we feel this kind of separation so deeply. And that is the point: though we must now let each other go in this life here on Earth, we are forever linked, and we shall not cease to know each other, to hold each other in our hearts, to cleave as one. We are one family. We have always been one family. And this learning to give each other the space we need to become even more truly ourselves appears to be our souls’ lesson now. A lesson leaned through suffering. A lesson which hopefully, we will later recollect in joy.
It took my fifteen years before I could even begin to integrate the feelings involve in the separation from my children.
My fantasies of Tom endured for twelve years after we agreed to separate.
This time I am processing the feelings now, during the separation itself.
It is in noticing such changes within my own larger evolutionary thrust that I sense the gradual embodiment of soul with my personality.
So that the soul may shine through.
I look forward to the next fifty years.