Being still

“Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod. It is about taking stock of time….Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.” — Joan Chittister

Variations on the theme of rebirth and transformation — waiting for spring and learning to overcome impatience — have always fascinated me. Today I’m running an excerpt from a column that was first published on April 4, 2004, in the Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. The complete piece is reprinted in Writing Home. As the Lenten season begins, what are your challenges? Are you letting go of grudges or foolish expectations? Surrendering an old habit? Using the season to take stock of your life?

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Being Still

One of my favorite traditions at First Congregational Church of Royal Oak is the silent meditation service held the week prior to Easter. The midweek candlelit service is led by parishioners, and this year its my turn to help open it. The service is offered during Lent because it is, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, Ash Wednesday, “a time of tension between dying and birth.” It is the perfect opportunity for reflection; a time to meditate on the fearsome darkness of the tomb and the pending miracle of Easter.

While a silent service is simple enough to plan, it isnt as easy to carry out. Few of us are comfortable “being still” in a sanctuary with other people sitting near us. We expect to be enlightened, educated, entertained, preached to, or otherwise distracted from the white noise in our heads. Meditation makes us fidgety. We fear what might be revealed in the pauses and blank spaces.

As Sue Monk Kidd notes in her midlife memoir, When the Heart Waits, one of the guiding principles of American culture is “All lines must keep moving.” Even when were home alone, we rush to fill the void with mindless activity or television. Kidd says we resist getting quiet because were afraid to confront our own darkness.

Yet real miracles occur during moments of being still – and waiting in the dark. Spring bulbs do their hardest labor underground before blooming. Likewise, the work of spiritual growth and healing is done in silence.

The time I woke up alone in a dark hospital room, two years ago, immediately comes to mind.

It was just past midnight, a few hours after my second hip surgery. Barely conscious, I awoke to discover my legs were strapped to a large foam wedge to keep me from moving. While I realized this was essential to my recovery, I still felt trapped and terrified.  Equally scary was the sensation of waking up alone in a strange room. (I didnt recall being wheeled in after surgery, of course.) And while most hospitals are buzzing with activity during the day and evening, the earliest hours of the morning are eerily quiet.

Breaking the silence, I shouted for help and pushed every button within reach. It was the first time Id experienced a full-blown panic attack. When my nurse arrived, she explained that my panic was probably triggered by withdrawal from the anesthesia. She promised to check back periodically.  Meanwhile, I kept a light on above my bed. Afraid to fall asleep, I kept vigil for daybreak.

By the time the sun rose, Id finally calmed down and accepted my temporary state of immobility. And in a luminous moment of grace, I suddenly knew Id been given a second chance. I knew that I would heal and walk again. It would take time, but everything would be okay. And it was. Three days later, I was released early from the hospital to recover in bed at home.

A week before that last surgery, my friend Jenny had sent me a note of encouragement, which included a quote from Patrick Overton. Heres how it begins:

“When you come to the edge of all the light you have and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two things will happen to you: Either there will be something solid for you to stand on, or, you will be taught how to fly.”

Ive posted that quote where I can see it on my desk every day. Its the one I like to remember when Im stumbling in the dark or feeling stuck — or waiting impatiently for a new season to begin. — Cindy La Ferle

–Top photo: Detail from a mixed-media collage: “Birthing a Soul” by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on the image for a larger view. —

In praise of scars

By the time you become Real, most of your hair has been loved off. Your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” –Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

 

Earlier this week, my friend Alice posted this empowering Caitlin Crosby video on her Facebook wall and I was moved to share it with everyone. The video reminded me of an essay I wrote, published in a metro-Detroit women’s magazine three years ago. Here it is:

How scars make us real

Once the anesthesia wore off and I could wiggle my toes again, my first concern was the new incision running down my left side. Ten inches long and an angry shade of red, it marked the place where my hip had been removed, packed with a bone graft, and totally rebuilt with a prosthetic implant. A long row of tiny staples closed the wound, making it look as if Dr. Frankenstein had sewn a zipper into my birthday suit.

Still woozy in the post-operative station, I imagined how awful the scar would look after it healed. And I wondered: Would I ever find the courage to wear a bathing suit in public again? Would my husband think my body was less attractive?

Coming to my senses the next morning, I tried to focus on my blessings. Those blessings included the skilled orthopedic surgeon who had agreed to perform the complicated three-hour surgery. Most orthopedic surgeons, including mine, prefer to reserve total hip replacement for elderly patients because they are less likely to need revision surgeries in the future.

I was only in my forties when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. But this sympathetic doctor understood that the quality of my daily life was “seriously impacted” by my disability, as he put it. Practically immobile, I’d already qualified for a handicap parking permit, and couldn’t even stand at the kitchen counter long enough to open a can of cat food or prepare a simple family meal. I’d been missing band concerts and mothers’ club meetings at my son’s middle school because I couldn’t climb the steps to the building. I’d started turning down lunch dates with friends, preferring to nurse my pain in bed at home.

I needed surgical intervention.

Of course, I knew I’d have several weeks of physical therapy and rehab during recovery. But I could also look forward to walking pain-free without canes or crutches again. So why did I let vanity dampen my hard-won victory?

Facing up to flaws

Scars of any kind are a challenge to recovering perfectionists. For years, I was one of those worried women who followed the advice given in beauty and fashion magazines. I invested ridiculous amounts of energy trying to conceal every personal flaw and foible. To expose my weak spots — or admit that I was ever damaged in any way — was too frightening to imagine. No matter how many skin-perfecting creams I bought, or how many self-improvement books I devoured, I couldn’t stop believing that I didn’t quite measure up.

Ironically, I’ve always admired quirks in other people and in most of the stuff I own. One of the early practitioners of shabby chic, I can list several rooms in my home that are furnished entirely with faded flea-market treasures and garage sale rejects. Overgrown cottage gardens, non-pedigree pets, freckles, rusty tools, crow’s feet, and crooked smiles intrigue me. I’ve cherished childhood toys covered in stains and stitches, and I’m partial to an old leather jacket burnished by seasons of wear.

Scars and wrinkles are the emblems of a richly textured life — a survivor’s life. They document our personal histories and bear witness to how far we’ve traveled. Our scars and wrinkles prove we’ve survived childbirth, car accidents, skin cancer, military combat, messy divorces, failed business opportunities, and lost loves.

My long recovery from hip replacement surgery gave me a lot of extra time to think about these things.

Practicing my physical therapy, I was reminded that becoming real requires bumping up against adversity — and sometimes falling apart. It’s a deconstruction process. Whether you’re nursing a shattered limb, a bruised ego, or a wounded heart, it can take time to reassemble and repair the broken parts. But ultimately you heal and, hopefully, grow more interesting. You tighten the loose seams in your character along the way.

Five months after my first hip replacement, I returned to the hospital for the same surgery on my other damaged hip. And today, six years later, I’m sporting a beautifully matched set of titanium joints that have given me back my mobility — and identical scars on each side. Over time, the scars have faded considerably, though you can still spot them several yards away on the beach.

Now I celebrate them — these two ten-inch valleys marking the surgeries that gave me a miraculous second chance. I have earned them, and they have made me real. — Cindy La Ferle

— In photo: collage detail from “On Beauty” (an altered book page) by Cindy La Ferle —