I’m reading A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life, by Parker J. Palmer. Sometimes a book comes into your life to answer your questing or to reaffirm an intuition. This book does both for me. My workshops are built on the premise that each person’s Self knows what the person needs to be whole, that what we provide are the tools and the space to dialogue with the Self . The other main premise is that we need to be witnesses to each other’s stories, that a respectful community of people willing to be present and to listen creates the conditions for a person to hear herself more clearly. A Hidden Wholeness addresses both these issues, but fleshes out why and how “the blizzard of the world” has overturned “the order of the soul” and the conditions that he has discovered in twenty years of working and teaching that open a place for the soul, “that life-giving core of the human self, with its hunger for truth and justice, love and forgiveness.”
One of the conditions for holding a healing space is to avoid “fixing, saving, advising and setting each other straight.” This is one hard discipline, not just for the facilitator but for the other participants as well.
Let me tell you a story. Two days ago, a member of our group, a wonderful, grandmotherly, lively woman in her sixties, told us that she had been in and out of the hospital for the last two weeks. Sitting there in a beautiful apple green shirt and gold necklace, with her dancing brown eyes, she described how she had to take her elderly husband, now with full-blown dementia, to the hospital with her because he would not be left with anyone else. Her heart is failing, and because she had cancer five years ago, has about three other serious conditions, it is clear she will not get a heart, which go to younger, healthier candidates. She told us her liver and kidneys are shutting down. She said all this without self-pity and even with humor. Looking around at our stricken faces, she laughed, “Aw, honey, that’s the least of it. I could tell you stories.”
The mother/fixer in me was inwardly screaming, “Surely there is respite care! Surely something can be done! She deserves to live!” I really like this woman who I’ve gotten to know over the last two years. She writes incredible stories of growing up in the South when you still had a mule and chickens in the back yard, and only went to town two or three times a year. She has described growing up with a nanny and never being able to tell her she loved her, of throwing out her learned prejudices, of teaching in the public schools where she had children plant gardens and kill chickens to learn about survival out West, of teaching a class of recalcitrant, truant children she was saddled with how to have a proper tea. She had us in stitches over her descriptions of her large, shaggy boys holding the teacup with their pinkies extended, politely asking each other if they would like another cup. Those kids, white and black, came back to her, and told her how much she much she had meant to them many years later. Why? Because she saw past their color, their labels, and she believed they could learn to serve tea. She believed there was more to them than they believed themselves.
One of our participants gently asked if she knew of the Alzheimer’s support group. She waved her hands and rolled her eyes. “Oh, lordy, yes, I have all that literature,” but it was clear she had no intention of going. “He won’t let anybody else take care of him,” she said. Others made sounds of dismay, spoke soft words of comfort, but I maintained silence and soon we all fell silent. We were there to witness, to allow her to speak her sorrow, to speak the truth of her life. Everything in me wanted to excoriate a system that would not save her, to arrange for respite care, to find ways to make this not so. But it was so. What we could do for her was to simply hear it.
The silence grew from slightly uncomfortable to more comfortable. We went on with our group sharing. We went on to write Renga. We went on to listen and to attend to each other’s stories.
The soul, writes Palmer, “is creative: it finds its way between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.” The soul is also shy, and sometimes needs a cup of tea, or a circle of loving hearts offering silence.