At Winter Witch Camp, Colleen said to me, “It’s not your job to be a perfect mom to Forest. It’s your job to keep his therapists employed.”
Isn’t that a good friend?
She said that because I took the grief path, the three-day workshop on transforming grief from the isolated experience that it usually is in our culture, into… well. They didn’t tell us what it would be transformed into. This was smart! It’s a good idea not to make too many promises at the beginning of witch camp. It’s a good idea to leave room for mystery and magic.
Which (witch) happened.
I mean, it happened a lot. It happened when I arrived and in spite of only two years under my belt at this camp, and a year away, I felt like a long lost beloved, over and over, from people who surprised me with loving me.
It happened during ritual on the second night, when my friend Horizon started talking about edgewalkers, and what it’s like to be on the outside, talked about what it had been like to be told she was less than human because she is fat (her words) all her life. All of this as she slowly took off all her clothes in front of 80 people in a demonstration of breathtaking courage. And then turned around and with the full authority and snap of her spirit said. “But I am stunning.” And she was, we were all stunned by her wild, fierce, gorgeousness.
That was the beginning of the breakdown.
I haven’t had a camp like that for years. A crying camp. I mean I have, as Sayre puts it, been doing my laundry. I’ve been keeping up. It’s not like the first time I went to witch camp almost 20 years ago and learned how to open my heart and felt like I had been turned inside out, skin exposed, too raw to live… (All of which reminds me of several images I had the uncertain pleasure to see this very night, when I was trying to one-up my sweetheart and, in a moment of questionable judgement, Googled “disgusting images.” May I just say: Wow.)
Last week was not my first time at the rodeo, but I cried my eyes out that night, and the next morning, went to grief path. So, I guess I was asking for it.
And out of nowhere, I was suddenly grieving for the years that I have been afraid for my son. I was sitting on the floor of Freya’s Hall, a long rectangular room with two walls of windows looking through the bare trees and over the icy lake. Thirty people with me, making altars, working alone, processing their own deep griefs—and there were a lot of griefs in there. I won’t share details, because we promised confidentiality, but there were such losses in that room that I kind of wondered what I was doing there. My life has been pretty fine, really. But on the first day of camp, I knew that was my workshop, in that way that I know things, and so I went.
And what happened was this: I made the altar to those lost moments when I couldn’t see beyond my fear, for the years of silencing myself because I thought it would protect him, for the ways that my fear might have hurt him… I made the art and I cried hard and I felt something in my chest opening up… And as I felt that sadness pouring out of me, I realized I didn’t want to grieve alone, in silence, by myself, anymore. And, I mean, the intention of that particular ritual was to break the hex of disconnection around grief.
But, it was weird…I mean I looked around the room. Nobody was looking up. Nobody was available for connection. That’s what I saw. A room full of bowed heads, silently shaking shoulders. Grief in isolation.
“Everybody is busy. They have their own work to do.” So said Edith. But I know her cruel tones, her dismissive cadence by now. And underneath her brushoff was a voice that I have come to trust.
Which said “Come on, Andrews. Man up. Ask for what you want.” (Sometimes I wish my brave voice didn’t sound like a stoned surfer. But you take what you get.)
So I closed my eyes and summoned the courage I had seen the night before, led by Horizon, but not by her alone. I reached into my breaking, sad, sad, chest for what was needed and the words that came out, so clear and, frankly, a little louder than maybe I meant, were “I don’t want to be alone!”
I called those words out into the room in a voice that never ever would have left my lips ten years ago. Maybe even five. Yeah. Definitely.
Before I could even open my eyes there were four people around me. I can’t tell their stories. But I can say this. We shared. We had a sort of crying cuddle and I could feel the grief in my own body and the grief in the bodies next to me softening, still separate, but not so hard, not so much like a cage, not so much like things of glass.
And then a hand on my shoulder and a voice in my ear. “Can I cry for you?”
I have never been asked this question before! But in that moment, though I had a brief worry that my grief might get snatched away, (Hags that sucke the bloode of children in the nighte), it really did seem like the obvious answer was “Yes.”
And so Angie began to Keen.
I’ve heard about this before. I’ve heard about this practice, across many cultures, of the keening and wailing, the communal exercising of grief, done together and led by those who can call something out with sound, with the music of loss.
I always thought it sounded sort of cool and primal but hard to understand. How can your keening touch my pain?
But here’s what happened: I felt that sound go through me and connect me to something I didn’t even know existed.
Later the witch who was next to me would say “She made a sound that was the exact sound of my pain.”
I don’t know that I could say that. I don’t exist for sound, for music, the way some people do. I love it when it touches me. But I do exist for images, for the pattern of light and dark and color. And when that sound entered me it drove down through me, like a column of darkness, straight through me, surrounding and carrying the hurt in me down down down, not just through me but below me as Angie keened and keened and keened, hand on my shoulder, darkness driving down, me dissolving but still held, until the small, tied-up pain that had been in me was released, not taken away, but let go to join all the grief of the world.
That’s what was down there, at the bottom of all of it. The grief of the world.
It was vast and it was dark and it was beautiful. Not scary. Not even painful. Which was surprising because my private grief had been invisibly hurting me so much for so long.
None of this I noticed in the moment. In the moment I was only there, weightless and not alone, not in pain. More like, actually, in love.
WTF? But yes. In love. Able to love, again.
Looking back now, it is maybe not so surprising. The inimitable Brené Brown says “There is no such thing as selective numbing.” (If you haven’t watched her TED talks on Vulnerability
and Shame, bookmark them now.) Numbing all that grief was keeping me separate from my heart, my hope… not totally separate, I have loved and hoped and felt many things in the last seven years since I became a mom.
But when I left camp, my chest was bigger on the inside. I felt my strength returning to me. I felt less bound by perfection. More willing to love and grieve and try again.
Even if it means keeping Forest’s therapists employed.