Notes from the cave

Labyrinth of Lies, and Salvation

Labyrinth of Lies

Labyrinth of Lies

           I’ve been uncomfortably open and vulnerable about my recent dark night of the soul. I could choose other descriptions for my state. A breakdown. An initiation. But jargon really doesn’t matter. I am here in the deep cave; it is dark, and my soul is not shining. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have power or beauty or is gone; it has simply withdrawn into a very small container.

            As I am so closely entwined with Bear, this is not my first time in my cave, and it probably won’t be my last. But there are hibernations that are nips of peace, and then there is the harsh winter where the winds shriek.

            Bears know something about caves that other creatures do not because of bear’s unique physiology. Bear’s biological weakness is that he can lose enormous amounts of heat through his feet, and so walking on the cold stone in winter for long periods of time can be perilous.

           There is paradox here because while even standing on the frozen granite can drain life, the only way out of the cave is to get up. And here, of course, Bear and I differ. Walking forward only seems perilous to me, evokes flight or fight, but I sense I cannot stay in my cave for much longer.

            I could tell you all about it, all the personal stuff. The endless financial strain with no end or solution in site; it’s not an unusual situation these days, but is more dangerous at 64. Ignoring play at my peril, and only indulging in my work, which is my soul’s chief joy and purpose. Trying to hold a mom with Alzheimers. A home in real need of repair. A tired husband who has paintings in museums, but who, at 65, is driving Uber for about $8 an hour so. Like so many others we know, we are tired people.

            This personal story is not unique these days; it’s distressingly ubiquitous. There are a lot of people struggling, but what is unusual is the macro right now.  The collapse of the culture, the political scene, and the intertwined, dark struggle of the planet and her relations. I am one of those relations, and there are billions of us. I lose patience with people who say, “It’s always been like this.” No, no it hasn’t. Homo sapiens are a new force in nature; we have screwed with the natural order severely, and we are not clever enough to unscrew it. 

            This is more than the blues. And after many weeks of being frozen and heart sick, there is a very slight thaw starting. And the beginning of the thaw came from a most unlikely source.

            Bizarrely, it was a teaching from a movie that that nudged my head just an inch off the cave floor. It’s a very dark, German movie, “Labyrinth of Lies.” It’s a true story.

            It’s the story of a district attorney in 1958 Germany when the country was in deep denial about how SS officers and Nazis – the most horrific monsters as well as the more passive participants of the Reich – had seamlessly re-entered the culture as cheerful bakers, sadistic schoolteachers, and state officials. Everywhere, throughout the society entire, the architects and builders of the holocaust lived in plain sight and in their own brand of unearned peace.

            It is understandable that the only way that country felt it could function then was to live in a silent and cooperative cultural denial. This was after Nuremberg, and the whole country only wanted to move on. But how do you move on when some subterranean part of you knows that the friendly flower man down the street might have run a gas chamber or if your neighborhood mechanic might have killed infants? How do you move on if you bump into the butcher who had tortured you at Auschwitz, and who is now teaching fourth graders at an elementary school? That everyone you know or meet might have played a part?

            I can only guess that people felt they could only survive by not seeing what was right in front of their eyes.

           As this lawyer begins to dig and collect such overwhelming evidence that proves that a probable and large majority of citizens in Germany were, at best, passive participants, he begins to see that there are no innocents in the country. And that the most brutal of the Nazis were not the only culpable people; our lawyer, as he digs deeper, discovers his friends and even his idol, his own father, was in and participated with the Nazi Party.

           He is drenched in tales from survivors, caught in their own perpetual nightmares, as he catalogued them. And as he is gathering evidence, he sees proof that so, so many people who are thriving in the mainstream were guilty. He becomes stricken and crazy, paralyzed and paranoid as he strives to bring these brutes, who live in plain sight, to a justice that no one in the country wants to enact; for the culture to do so would be to examine its own heart. To do so would mean individuals would have to confront their own demons. To acknowledge and accept what they had or had not done, and to live with the truth of it all, the light and the dark. So the perpetrators and those in denial were everywhere and everyone.

           Finally, after falling into complete depression and despair, the lawyer slowly begins to learn something that helps him to reclaim his own humanity. He goes to Auschwitz on the request of a dying friend, a jew who had been imprisoned there. And who had lost his two little girls there. The jewish friend had sent him there with a plea, to speak the kaddish at Auschwitz for the two children he had lost. The lawyer speaks the words, that are not of his religion, standing with his best friend, whom he has just discovered had been a 17-year old guard, drafted into the war at its end. And who had been stationed at Auschwitz when the camp was open. The two men bow, and say the prayer together.

            And in this ritual, he breaks as he learns what he can do when faced with universal horror and denial. What he discovered and articulated allowed me to finally take a breath.

            He discovers that the only response to Auschwitz, to any atrocity that has happened, is to tell the truth, and do the right thing now, in the present. It is, really, all we can do. Neither Auschwitz nor a globe in crisis can be forgotten, and we cannot take any of it back.

           All we can do is tend now. And to tend with honesty and resilience, holding the truth of it while also cherishing the palpable joy in life, the bright flash of the blue jay wing, the dog’s antics, the humor that is still inherent in so much of life.

           Learning how to hold all of this is the biggest balancing act I have ever tried to achieve, and I am not at all good it yet; I’m still tipped into the dark ebb, and the flow can come only as a thaw continues. I’m getting better, but I am not there.

            I have been a life-long student of the Holocaust. And, like others, have pondered the questions: would I have been brave enough to resist? Did every citizen know? Why did it happen, and how we can understand this historical time well enough so that it never happens again?[1]

            But this movie hit me on an even deeper level than these questions. We are all living in or slipping in and out of our own denial today. The culture is drenched in it. We fight our own good fights, and so many of my friends, clients and students are caught in struggle similar to my family’s. But the largest truth, the planet and all her relations who are in such trouble, has not really soaked through us because the sorrow of really taking it all in can break you. I know it has broken me, and not for the first time. And still, I believe, we must feel it.

           I am not talking about consuming less or recycling, eating local food, and trying to reduce a carbon footprint, the simple right actions. Or by spiritually only staring into the light or running scared from the dark. It’s the larger reality where a fascist may just be elected president in 2016, two-hundred species are disappearing every day. Nature, as we have known it, is disappearing. The complex ways in which the whole thing is collapsing are too complex to even begin to list. And, yes, it is horrific and depressing.

            I feel the earth and her relations in my body. Feel it when the earth is torn, when the lion is killed for the trophy. It’s part of the way I am built, and this is not a good gift right now as I recover, but it is a gift. This gift, when I am more balanced, is what allows me to love the helping spirits and my clients so much. When I can turn my head just a few degrees, it is what has allowed me in the past to be drenched in the perfume of cedar, to feel such sure and steady delight when my dog’s pink tongue kisses my face for no reason at all. Except love.

            It is a question of balance, and, finally, living in the paradox of our times.

            The second thing that has me, at least, looking around the cave a bit, is the discovery of a movement called “sacred activism.” It’s not a new movement, but it is to me, although I have actually been working in it for some time.

            My soul brother and shaman[2] Tim Flynn kindly introduced me to the movement just a few weeks ago. When I started to read about the work, what initially pierced right through me was reading what might be named a slogan for the movement.


“We are fucked and life is beautiful.”


           This meme captures our current reality. Because this is a profoundly dissident time in human history, a time when there is so much that is bleak. A time when rhinos disappeared, and my godchildren’s children may live in a world without tigers. Without so much. This is the trembling, the truth of living in the unknowing.

            And, and this is a big “and” because it is equally true: life IS beautiful. Just looking out my window confirms it. Clouds of cherry trees are blooming now here, their frilly blossoms offering such fragile beauty against a sometime blue and sometime clouded spring sky. My husband is beautiful. My friends are beautiful. The island where I live is beautiful. Bears are beautiful. Every place you look, if you look, you can see the beauty.

            Seeing it is not the same as feeling it. Knowing it’s there is not the same thing as reveling in it. I am still in the cave with my frozen heart, unable to receive the beauty yet.

           And that is precisely what I must do. Receive. All the beauty that is still around me. The beauty of having a home, at least for now. A loving husband and mother and dog. My dearest friends who, sadly, all live far away, but who do light my soul with their beauty.

            Receiving is not the same as taking, although they are backward cousins. You can take what is offered like a kid taking a piece of candy, driven by desire for the sweet or you can receive the larger gift. It seems so simple, to receive. And yet I know from decades of working with clients that it is one of the hardest things for people to do in our culture.

            And there’s a reason for that. When you open your heart to receive, whatever has been given will come in. Yes, the smell of the Casblanca Lily is one gift, but the pain of the sea is also there. The love of my dog Lily is here, and so is the pain of the Moon Bears.

            And yet, no matter what, these are the gifts that life has proffered and they cannot be ignored if sanity is ever to return to the world or if mine is to ever strengthen. The future looks bleak, and we do not know what it holds. And life is beautiful. And I am 64 and feeling my age, am obviously not in good health today, and that bewilders me. And life is beautiful. We may lose our home. And life is beautiful. My work, and perhaps yours, is to learn to live in a new grief-soaked culture without denial and to live in the beauty that is here, too. To say yes to it all. To not love less, but love more. To not close the heart, but allow the “full catastrophe,” a quote from Zorba, to wash through you.

            So I know some questions and the start of some answers. To not pull back from the pain but allow an ebb and flow, allow pain and love and beauty to carve me bigger. To serve life now is truly the only way we can help, and service has been my life’s devotion. But somewhere along the way, the micro has tripped me up. I’ve been living to serve, and have forgotten how to live to live. I will have to learn how to do this in a new way. I don’t think I am alone in this. 

            Which leads me to this: I know I cannot save the world. No one person can. But I can salve the world. And to do that, I must salve myself. To salve myself, I must be in communion with beauty and with you. That does make me ache, and it makes me cry. But these tears may be the healing kind. I bend my head and lean upon your shoulder, and life’s shoulder, and must somehow square my own to receive your real beauty and sadness, too.

           Finally, it is a brutal and exquisite time to be alive. Really alive and really engaged. To write this, for me, is to begin to engage again. If I trust you with my pain and bewilderment, will you trust me with yours? Am I allowed to cry when I love beauty that I know is going to disappear? For in the warmth of the truth in that exchange, perhaps we have a chance of loving all our relations and ourselves back to a new, unknown kind of wholeness. Or that, at least, is my broken prayer to life and to all the helping spirits.

[2] And I must mention Ann Riley, her circle and one other shamanic master who I think, in my heart, but would not appreciate a public mention. And all the many others who have offered love and gifts when I started sharing the truth of where I have been. I am so grateful to you all.