Monday, May 23, 2011

The Samurai at the Slumber Party

Life was a hands on workshop this past couple of weeks. After attending a family wedding in Florida, where I lived for many years, I turned my rental car north to head up the coast a bit to spend a few days with two women that I have known for nearly 30 years.

We three, in different combinations, have been boss-employee, co-members of study groups, travel companions, photographer at the birth of both my children, confidantes and, always, sister-friends. As we age, we find stretches of time when we aren’t in direct contact as often as we once were. In the 19 years since I piled my family into our car and drove away from our home in Jupiter to move for a new job in Michigan, a lot has happened. Kids grew, parents died, wrinkles and folds and gray have replaced smooth and slim and young.

In the seven or so years it’s been since I have been in the presence of these women, I have walked through my own breast cancer adventure and launched my now-college-grad kids into the world, while they have been pounded by hurricanes, crashing economies and the sudden loss of a beloved grandson. We knew that the moment we were in each other’s presence, it would feel like no time had passed at all. “Like I was saying…” could have been the very next thing after hello and we’d know right where the conversation left off last time.

At some point in the second night of our slumber-party-gab-festival, one of them said to me, “You know, you never called us when you went through the breast cancer thing. We didn’t know until it was done. What happened there?” She was right.

When I got the news that I’d be starting a medication regimen and many weeks of radiation, I automatically went into a preparation mode that’s specific intensity didn’t register with me until long after I had come out of it again. Faced with having to put into words what five years earlier just felt like something I had to do, the course of the process I had surrendered to became clearer than when it was happening.

I told her then that I felt as if I went into a silent state of meditation to prepare for war. The motions of each day were like a Samurai, rising at dawn, walking to the clearing of a forest with weapons on my back, and training, hard, to slash and thrust and spin and focus. No one was invited to the training field because I could not guarantee their safety if I was lost in the motion of that sword dance. When I wasn’t training, I was silently working my sword with a whetstone and resting my body for the daily journey to the machine where the battle took place each day for weeks. It was just a little white pill and a white machine to lie down on, arms over my head while it hummed its song, but on some level unseen, this silent skirmish was playing out. There was no room there for anyone but me and even my husband and children stepped to the side to let me pass, knowing that I was on a mission and they honored that space.

It wasn’t until months after the appointments ended and I wasn’t so tired anymore that I could rise up out of the ready stance I had taken and lay down the sword to join the dinner table again. It was a few years after that until I reconnected with a larger circle of people and by then found myself comforting others because I had not included them in what was going on. Some, who were still reeling from the passing of someone close simply said “I get the distance thing. When I heard about you, I just kind of shut down to prepare myself for another possible loss of someone I loved.”

We each do what we need to do when staring down something that appears to be larger than we are in that moment. Be it a health, relationship, job or financial challenge, or grieving a profound loss, we walk through a personal maze of emotion and thought that is custom suited to each of us individually.

Surely, this is what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers experience until they find the right place to speak; not that my own experience could ever compare to the very real danger and horrors soldiers face every day in a war zone. Any experience that moves us out of the floating mental world we typically exist in each day is one that drops us into a heightened state of awareness of the place, condition and safety of our physical bodies. In this heightened awareness we produce a sustained wash of adrenaline over our neural pathways. Perhaps the abundant adrenaline burns off whatever serene chemicals usually coat our brain cells like acid reflux burns our esophagus leaving us on a permanent diet of antacids. Without our stash of the serene chemicals, we move in a fight or flight state constantly and our confidence and our ability to trust that those around us are on our side erodes. The action of speaking is like a water hose washing off the adrenaline spill and it clears the way for serenity to recover the raw space.

Here is the most important thing; until we have reconnected with those we love and spoken the words that fill in the blank portions of their understanding, we are not done yet. Until we say to another person; friend, counselor or both, out loud, what we felt and where we are now, we are not done yet. In my slumber party setting, safely surrounded by these sister-friends, while putting my own process into words for them, I felt a story circle with a beginning, middle and end; finally.

I feel different now. I feel like something shifted after speaking a deep truth to my sister-friends at our little slumber party. Seeing their faces again and hearing their understanding and sage advice on where to put my feet next, the circle of the story closed when I could tell it the way it had to be told. Though my blade still gleams from the touch of the whetstone, it’s hanging up now, point down, in a place of honor and I can nod in gratitude as I pass it on my way out the door and into my life.

*"Young Samurai" Painting by Jane Norman
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