English: Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) in Winter, northern Michigan, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I just finished reading the book, “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation” by Parker Palmer. This is the second time I’ve read this book, and it resonated with me as much now as it did the first time around, and I am sure I could read it a third, fourth, and fifth time and find even more elements of revelation with its pages.
The book was first loaned to me in the summer 2007 when I was preparing to go through radiation therapy for the cancer that had taken up residence near the spot left vacant by my left kidney. The kidney had been removed due to the incidental discovery of a large tumor right smack in the middle of it during a ct scan to help determine why I was having terrible abdominal pain. The tumor had nothing to do with the pain, and its discovery was purely by chance. I was assured that the kind of cancer I had was not the kind that would metastasize, and the surgery was the only treatment I would need. A few weeks later, more cancer was found, hence the radiation therapy.
That summer was a grueling summer. Recovering from surgery was difficult, the pain was excruciating, and the knowledge the more cancer was lurking in my body felt like a sign from heaven that God, whoever and whatever He was, had found me absolutely displeasing and the cancer was a punishment. I was in a much different place spiritually back then, and seeing the cancer as a punishment for wrongdoing was as natural for me as breathing. God was not pleased, and I carried the evidence of that in my body.
When the radiation therapy started, I became very sick. I couldn’t keep any food down. I was losing weight that I couldn’t afford to lose at that point. I was weak. I was depressed. I felt cursed. I wanted to die. Or, at least, not continue living as I was. I remember cursing the daylight every morning, wondering why I had to get up and face another day of pain and sickness.
Despite the beautiful summer weather and the unmatched splendor of the season in northern Michigan, I could find nothing to be happy about. Radiation therapy wrapped up in the fall of 2007, and then came the most dreadful season of all: winter. Winter in northern Michigan, at that.
Winters in northern Michigan are not to be trifled with. If you are not able to tolerate heavy snowfall that may last for days on end, driving in conditions that most sane people would avoid like the plague but which are par for the course in winter life here, temperatures that have been known to fall well below zero from time to time, and enduring several months of never feeling fully warmed up, then winter in northern Michigan is not for you.
Winter in northern Michigan has never been for me. I think many of us who live here endure the winters only because the beauty of the rest of the year makes up for it. There are places in the world where the winter months are not quite such bitter pills to swallow, but the spring, summer, and fall months are also not quite so spectacular. It’s a give and take. Northern Michigan is allowed to kick our hindquarters for a few months, and to reward us for our perseverance, she gives us beauty which people from all over the United States, even the world, come here to enjoy.
Winter of 2007 was an especially difficult winter, though. My body was weak. My mind was in a dark place. My world seemed to be falling apart. I had taken up drinking as a means of coping with what was happening, truly not caring one way or the other if it further damaged my body.
As the despair deepened, the small spark of hope I had left in me recalled something I had read in “Let Your Life Speak.” The author, who lives in Wisconsin, shared a piece of advice often given to those who are new to the “divine retribution” type winters experienced in the Upper Midwest: “The winters here will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.”
As I finished off the rum in the middle of the afternoon and gazed out the window into the cold white and grey world, I felt gloom closing in. Then I had the idea that perhaps I need to get out into the cold winter weather, breathe the fresh air, experience the peace and solitude that such days have to offer, and, in doing so, perhaps be driven a little less crazy by winter’s presence.
I did, and I was.
Since that time, the idea of “getting out into it” has stayed with me. So often, we encounter situations in life which make us want to isolate, to hide, to wish them away. Yet, most of the time, these things are not things we have the option to hide from, and they are not things we can simply will away. They are there, and they must be faced. We have to get out into them.
As I am learning how to live a clean life, there are many days still when I feel overwhelmed and it would suit me just fine to hide from the world and its problems, to build my own world within a world, and live there in quiet contentment. However, having a child, that is not an option for me. He goes to school. He has friends. He is far from content to stay at home and isolated, no matter what fantastical world I may think I create for us here. The world may feel overwhelming and intimidating to me without the buffer of drugs to protect me, but my son sees the world as one big adventure and is not willing to let me sit it out all the time.
I have to get out into it.
Having that realization doesn’t make it easier, necessarily. However, taking the steps to get out into it does show me every time that the world isn’t such a scary place and the isolation I often self-impose is not protecting me from pain as much as denying me joy. I have been making the conscious choice to get out into this world, engaging more and more, even if it’s just saying hello to the people I encounter while I’m out for a walk.
Everyone is dealing with something. It’s easy to come to a place of believing that our problems are such that no one else could ever possibly understand or be able to relate to how we feel. It is easy to see ourselves as separate and wholly independent. However, the reality is, we are all connected. We are all one. What one of us does ultimately impacts all of us in some way, whether for better or worse. When one of us feels joy, the world is brighter for everyone. When one of us hurts, we all share the pain. We are one.
This can be an unsettling realization at first, because it indicates a requirement to be a part of something much larger than just myself if I am to live life as fully as it’s meant to be lived. It can be intimidating because it means recognizing that isolating from others is causing more pain than it is preventing, and the only way around that is to take the steps to foster a healthy connection with the world around me. For someone like me, who has lived most of life content to exist in my own groove, recognizing that I need to do the very things I have avoided all these years is not only unsettling, it’s rather terrifying.
Yet, I know that it is something I need to do, not only for my own health but also for that of my son. We cannot live disconnected lives and still be healthy people. We are made for community. We are made to need each other.
Not unlike a northern Michigan winter, the idea of getting beyond my comfort zone and engaging in community makes my blood run a little cold. I enjoy my solitude, yet I also realize the opportunity for growth is severely limited without the blessings and challenges that come from community. Stepping beyond what is familiar to me is as intimidating as it gets, yet I also realize that to experience life as it’s meant to be lived, I can’t continue to stay here just because it’s comfortable. Stasis may be comfortable, but it also means there is no growth. For growth to happen, changes must happen. For changes to happen, I need to open my door to the world, and get out into it.