This column, written for SageWoman Magazine, Winter 1995, documents one of the visits that I spent with “Helen” after the stroke that left her only barely alive. Twice more, over the next few years, I would visit her, each time deepening further our original soul connection. At the time of this writing, I was still reeling from a very damaging communication I had just received from my patriarchal father. And that story blends seamlessly into Helen’s story, as you shall see. The Unspeakable Wound is ours.
At one point I was going to write a book about my transformational journey with Helen. And perhaps I still will. She died some time ago. In order to write that book I would need to find all the essays I wrote about our connection and link them. Another project for AK Reader! In any case, this essay seems particularly poignant now, in 2018, 23 years past when it was written, since even now, though my father and I did mutually (and miraculously!) dissolve the animus between us a few years after this was written, as a culture we still await the dissolution of patriarchy, and the male’s conscious or unconscious denigration of both the female human, and of our dear Mother Earth.
The Unspeakable Wound
Author’s note: in what follows, I discuss a current situation in my life using the language of astrology. I use this language here because I find it difficult not to. It is as natural forme to think in terms of solar system energies as it is for me to ask my unconscious to teach me through dreams. The symbol system of astrology is as great as, and more specific than, the language of dreams. Astrological symbolism is of three types (signs, planets and houses) and astrology is based on their interaction. For the sake of simplicity, in this column I will be working with only five astrological symbols: two “signs” (Sagittarius and Taurus), two “planets” (Sun and Moon), and what is called the Ascendant or Rising Sign.
An astrological sign is a symbol which refers to a certain manner of approaching life. As a symbol, each of the twelve signs envelopes a certain qualitative range. For example, Taurus is an earthy, instinctive sign. It can refer to the quality of being patient, bull-headed or stubborn; it also refers to the Earth herself, her continuous abundance and fertility. Those born with strong Sagittarius, however, are fiery and extroverted. They tend to be optimistic, forward thinking, philosophical and even prophetic. Unlike earthy Taurus, Sagittarians move in the realm of the spirit, and can be insensitive to the body, to anything earthy or material which would deflect them from their quest.
Anyone who is born with both these signs prominent in their birthchart must eventually learn to integrate their very different energies within.
Planets, as distinct from signs. signify energies. The two planets Sun and Moon signify the conscious self and the subconscious self. The conscious self, Sun, is our adult self, the subconscious Moon represents the inner child.
The Ascendant or Rising Sign is that sign which was rising in the east at the moment of birth. It signifies the persona used by the being, to meet the world.
Dinnertime. The enormous modern kitchen holds cranky children under the feet of women preparing food, clanging pots, talking. In the middle of it all sits Helen, propped up in an armchair, all 90 pounds of her, only 56 years old and she is ancient, wizened, her face etched into a perpetual scowl by the stroke 15 months ago.
Skeletal hands reach to me like outstretched claws, clutch my forearm. I reach to touch her too, and she turns her eyes, dulled by Thorazine, to look into mine. We meet there, in our eyes, a wordless communion. Time stops, the bustle falls away. My body, as restless and full of energy as hers was before all this happened—as hers would be, in useless agitation were it not for this drug—has become still.
Though I don’t know it yet, my body is moving down into resonance with Earth, Her heartbeat, and I have found Helen there. Earth holds Helen now; they are one heart beating. The world grows soft; my chest opens, tears flow.
Those precious moments in the kitchen were but prelude. During the next few days I would feel Helen, learn to be Helen, appreciate her, her new life, a life which I feel she too is only just discovering.
Years ago, Helen and I saw ourselves as sisters. We are both Sagittarians, born in December, and for both of us when we were young, the fiery energy of our Sun signs was fueled into horses, the symbol of Sagittarius. I knew there was another side to life, which I saw symbolized by my astrological Moon, in earthy, instinctive, slow-moving Taurus. Helen was born at an hour when the sign of Taurus was rising in the East, and so she also had a Taurean aspect to her temperament. However, although she knew about Taurus intellectually, she was unable to embody what she knew. As her astrologer, I warned her of the probable consequences of that denial: illness, when the body, through pain, announced its presence. She believed me, but her body stubbornly clung to the familiarity of numbness and she would say to me, “Annie, I can’t feel anything. I can’t even feel my body. Teach me.” Helen thought I was her teacher, and in some ways, I suppose I was. I knew that underneath frantic activity was a world of mysterious presence which I longed to fully enter.
But in that life Helen kept on moving and doing: the projects she completed are legion, the stuff of legends. That life transformed into this one, her 90 pounds, her neurological impairment. Now she is still, seemingly almost lifeless. And I am flooded with tears.
This summer’s journey to be with Helen, a visitor at Lisa’s generous home in the mountains of Idaho was, I see in retrospect, the completion of a journey which had begun only weeks before, when I received a letter from my father. Seeing his spidery, spiky handwriting on the envelope, my heart fluttered, froze in fear, sending that telltale clamminess into my hands. Exploding through the fear, I slit open the envelope, to read another of his passionate condemnations of me and my expression into the world. One month earlier I had put out the latest issue of Crone Chronicles, the one entitled “Aphrodite and the Crone,” the one which even I had trouble working with, as the sexual and emotional content was so strong in the work submitted. At the time I wondered how many readers were Christian in the narrow sense that moralistically judges all sexuality. In the editorial I even earmarked the essays which might offend these people. In both my editorial and in the introduction to the theme, I had alerted readers to the content and described my own tumultuous and even troubled internal response to the material.
Naturally enough, in this all-too-human comedy, my mother, who, because of her Libran need for harmony with my Old Testament judge of a father had looked askance at the very idea of “Crone,” had finally decided, after six years, to subscribe to the magazine. I was both thrilled to have my own mother as one of our readers and cringing to realize that the first issue she would receive would be the one on Crone Sex. On the phone with her beforehand I had warned her of what was coming through the mail, and urged her to keep it out of my father’s hands.
And true enough, on the phone later, she told me she was horrified to receive that issue, that it was awful, against all their values, and that she had tried to keep it from my father, but he had found it and “read every word.” I didn’t hear anything from him however, so I thought he had maybe finally learned to keep his views to himself.
One month later. I opened the letter from him and read that I had “succumbed to Aphrodite.” He described the contents of the issue as “the depths of depravity and degradation” and spoke of his “shame” to see “my daughter’s name [his name] as Editor….”
Reading this last assault from my own father, I felt myself grow cold, numb, as my body tried to ward off the old, familiar, sickening shame. In a futile attempt to take charge of my own emotions, I immediately read the letter out loud to my husband Jeff, voice trembling with scorn and fury. Next I read the letter to my old friend Ellen (whose Moon is also in Taurus, at the exact same degree as my own!), and by the time she and I finished sorting out my initial feelings, I was beginning to calm down. Then I did what I often do when faced with something huge emotionally. I went for a long walk in the valley of the Tetons where I live, and having been broken open by this sudden onslaught of emotion, was freshly startled by the beauty and variety of life on what others might see as a flat and boring plain of sage and grass. It was as if I was being gifted this walk as an antidote to the excruciatingly narrow and strict judgments of my father as he attempted, once again, to rein me in, to control me with shame and guilt.
Over the next few days I wrestled with how to respond to him. Should I fire off a letter in defense of myself and my work, as I have so often done in the past? Should I confront him with his horrible qualities as a judgmental German father? Should I keep this awful war going? “Dear Dad,” I would write in my mind, “Are you sure you want to keep this war going between us? If so, then read the enclosed letter,” in which I would hurl at him the same hell he discharged on me. But I knew it was futile, that all this would do is up the ante, that the next letter from him would be even more hostile.
We had done it before, many times. Our vicious feud had gone on since I was two and a half years old, when I began to defy him, fresh back from World War II, one month after the holocaust in Hiroshima.
And here it is, the summer of the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, and my father and I are still at war! Still dropping bombs on each other. Still trying to stamp out what each of us feels is so awful that it doesn’t deserve to live. We have nothing on Bosnia, I thought to myself, despairing over our failure to end this horror between us.
And on this 50th anniversary of our personal nuclear family war, something else had changed too, in me. I could no longer fire up the energy to hate. I simply didn’t have the heart to do it. It took too much of me, it put me into a place where I no longer felt comfortable. That was the good news in what was otherwise a heartsickening time.
“So how about just not responding to him at all,” I thought. Ignore the letter completely, pretend that it had never arrived. But that didn’t feel good either, as it did arrive and it had affected me, deeply. I was seeking the response which would make a difference; I was longing for the exact words which would turn the key and open the door to his heart. Ah yes, I thought to myself wryly, I have my father to thank for inspiring my love of passion and precision in the written and spoken word.
Once again I was forced to recognize him as my worthy opponent, the one who taught me through sheer opposition, to stand up and speak my truth. And I had to grin when I suddenly understood that his enormous passion condemning Aphrodite was itself Aphrodite energy!—twisted into hatred.
One thing in the letter bothered me so much that I still didn’t have the words to describe how it felt. After this latest diatribe against his firstborn errant daughter, he had concluded the letter by remarking that he “loves” me, and I am “welcome” in his home.
What? Did he think I could believe this? This felt like a travesty, a sick joke, his thinking himself compassionate and magnanimous in permitting Mary Magdalene into his home . . .
About ten days after the letter arrived I received a call from Claudia, who has for many years been my long-distance co-counselor. I thank her for her constant recognition and support of my more vulnerable side, the earthy childlike side, my Taurus Moon. At first I had resisted her insight and compassion, seeing myself as a warrior, whose fearless Sagittarian Sun had fought successfully for survival.
Claudia — whose own Sun is in Taurus — was patient with my arrogance, and persistent. Finally I gave in to her probing, and began to re-member myself, the more ancient female part of me, the part which had been so wounded and so hurt that she had receded into the ground when I was very young. Over a period of years, Claudia and I had processed through the years of my childhood, when I was numb and depressed, when only the love of my horse brought me to life.
Now she was on the phone again, and I was reading her the letter. Both of us went wild with crazy laughter, reading his tormented words. As usual, she was astonished that he would keep the war between us going, even now, when he and I have gone to the peace table so many times; when, at one point, we had even vowed to “let go of our minds and move into our hearts.” “And you have done that,” she told me. “I no longer hear you talk about him with hostility.” As usual, we both wondered if he had shown the letter to my mother before he sent it, as she probably wouldn’t have let him use that kind of language. I told Claudia I hadn’t decided how to respond to the letter.
The next day she called again, and told me she had been speaking with my father in her mind ever since. “I think he is forgetting that you are his daughter. He wouldn’t talk to his own daughter that way.” At this remark, I began to cry, the tears, damned up since I had received the letter, finally flowing freely, moving me down into that wounded place of my own deep female energy.
The whole time, speaking with Claudia, I felt at home within myself, in that full and fertile place which feels so much both pain and joy. The joy of my life opens when the pain of my life is embraced.
It was in that mood that I next sat and wrote a letter to my father. I wrote from within the pain, and spoke of my hurt in reading the names he was calling me. I told him I felt that he was forgetting that I was his daughter. Enclosing his letter to me in the envelope, I asked that he please reconsider the way he speaks to me.
Several days after this breakthrough in my ability to remain within my own center even as I am speaking to the patriarch who originally forced me to deny that center, I was with Helen, another daughter of the patriarchy.
Looking at her pathetic skeletal self propped up in the armchair, it appears that her need to reconcile the male and female within herself has not been successful — her brain is partially destroyed, her physical balance gone, her consciousness, even when not drugged, seems to flicker in and out. Helen is also working with the externalized male, the Father in the form of her husband, whom she now, in her invalidism, literally calls “Daddy.” Bill has been doing a yeoman’s job of physically taking care of her: helping her eat, changing her diaper, washing her body, seeing that she’s comfortable on a chair, or in bed, or in her wheelchair.
One cannot help but admire his dedication and perseverance at a task which would have defeated others long ago. And he looks good! Better than I’ve ever seen him, as he tells Helen to swallow, to put her arm through his, to sit down, stand up, wait, stop, go . . . In his presence Helen behaves in an infantilized fashion. She is like a two-year-old whose restless spirit has been sedated by the Thorazine. Finally, he leaves, and we all visibly relax as his intense caretaking energy recedes.
Within a few hours the five women here begin a conversation which is to go on intermittently for the next two days. We prop Helen up at the kitchen table with us, or we sit around her bedside, talking of things women always talk about — human relations, stories from our lives. Sometimes we tell stories from Helen’s life, including her in the conversation, talking directly with her, asking her questions, to which she whispers “yes” or “no,” and even sometimes hints at a smile. Her eyes go to each person as she talks; clearly, Helen is listening, and she appears to be relaxing and enjoying herself. We are so glad to be women alone without men. We tell Helen that. We tell her that we are glad Bill is gone, and that we have her with us for this time.
Toward the end of the second day Helen seems to be straining to talk to us beyond the usual yes and no. We try to understand her words, but they are slurred, and her energy is so low. That night I speak to Lisa about not giving her Thorazine the next morning. We also agree that it is important to slow down, to take our cues from Helen, and move into her vibration, allow her to find her feelings and remain there. This week offers her a vacation from Bill’s constant upbeat demands and schedules, his showing off of the new invalid Helen and the performance he puts her through in lifting a spoon to her mouth, putting one halting foot in front of another.
The next morning not only does Helen not swallow the drug, she doesn’t eat or drink nearly the entire day, remaining upstairs in her bedroom with the nurse at her side. Periodically, either Lisa or I visit her. Sitting on the side of the bed, holding her hand, stroking her, my eyes seek hers. Her eyes are more alert now, windows to her soul. Gone is the old fiery persona, gone the tricks our personalities play to keep ourselves hidden from each other. All she has left is who she is, and unlike the rest of us who are still full of plans and projects, she has nothing to do but be here and feel. Within a few moments of sitting by her I feel my chest expand and open to meet her heart as our eyes steadily caress each other in that wordless communion which has been the goal of conversation my entire life.
All day long I feel myself grounding, moving deeper and deeper into the beloved Earth energy, my Taurus Moon meeting her Taurus Ascendant as precisely the vibration where we are both centering; we are meeting in the heart of matter which destroyed her old personality and through which now, her soul is free to express. All day long, we are present in that deep wounded female part of ourselves, fully feeling ourselves in that gifted place which has been missing in the world for so long.
The next day we have one last session together before I am due to leave to pursue my plans and projects. Overnight, I had begun to realize more fully the gift her physical transformation has brought to her and to me. Though her soul has chosen an unusual and extreme path, what she had longed for all those years is now here: she is fully in her body now, and in her feelings. In her presence, she evokes the same in me. I speak to her of this and her face, moving precisely in tune to my words and expressions, is lit with an unearthly radiance. “Truly,” I tell her, “you are my teacher now. All that you have wished for is now yours, and in your presence, I partake in that communion.”
It has now been a week since I have been with Helen, three weeks since I received the letter from my father. I marvel at how the learning I received from my decision to wait and move down into my real feelings before responding to him was immediately transferred and fulfilled in my meeting with Helen. As I held open the space for her to finally move down into her feelings, so she guided me in descending further, into the heart of matter, Earth’s heartbeat, our Mother who nourishes all. Both of us with patriarchal fathers, both of us who grew up to forget our deeply wounded female selves meeting again now, where our sisterhood originated.
Would that the whole world would move down into this place, our feelings, our deep woundedness, our Earth, our Soul. Can you imagine? What if we all somehow joined hearts and descended into Earth, for example, in Bosnia, to fully embody the pain that has been compressed in that soil through literally 800 years of bloody conflict. What if we all remained there, in that pain, until Earth could feel our compassion, our honoring of what She has endured for so long. What would happen then?
My father, in saying I was “welcome” in his home after condemning who I am and what I do, is not acknowledging the pain which his words invoke in me. Bill, in his relentless and cheery command of Helen’s small physical world, is not allowing either himself or her to move into the feelings in which they are both immersed. Earth’s peoples, in assuming we can change the world by going to the peace table and rationally deciding things, are not honoring the deeper emotional and soul-full depths of our collective human and telluric pain. This unspeakable wound is our holy grail, would we but slow down enough to fully feel it.
In our feeling would begin the healing.