Love should grow up like a wild iris in the fields, unexpected, after a terrible storm, opening a purple mouth to the rain, with not a thought to the future… ~Susan Griffin
We’re sitting in my living room as the afternoon leans into evening. I’ve made an herbal tea he’s never heard of before and there’s a tense kind of excitement between us. We have flirted with the idea of connecting more deliberately than just running into each other in town, at the coffee shop, and here we are, unsure of what exactly is drawing us in.
So someone starts in, a topic and the conversation is off like a loose wire, whipping and thrashing around without anywhere to ground. I can feel the looseness of it but i can’t get my orientation and then he says:
“I just feel like you’re trying to teach at me right now. Like you want to move me from where I am to where you think I should be.” He pauses and keeps his eyes on me for my reaction. I cock my head to the side and scan for panic. My heart pounds and my body heat rises in an ascending flash but I take a breathe and feel an instinct to wait.
“it makes me want to get up and leave…” My body quivers, but all the tension has leaked out – i’m on the verge of something – in the realm of the verge. We share another pause, both of us waiting for what comes next.
“…but, I’m also riveted.”
I’m glad I waited. The quivering, weak knee uncertainty is a kind of pleasure to me now. The intensity of being unveiled and keeping my eyes open for it brings me a rush and thrill that I have learned to be compelled by when I used to be terrified of it. I feel just like a wild iris, opening to the rain – where I used to stay cramped under ground at any sign of storm.
For large parts of my life I couldn’t tolerate the heart pounding, chest fluttering or quivering in my body so fierce I might shudder apart. The anticipation in me of an intimate moment felt like a threat. I grew brilliant instincts to detect those moments coming and even more brilliant tactics at avoiding them. On the outside the defensiveness was clear, but on the inside I felt protected, sort of. I had backed away from the verge, at least.
But, I was also bold, and wild at heart, and some untamed instinct to push up to the surface and revel in the storm kept me unsatisfied and suspicious of the effectiveness of my barriers. The sense that what I was hiding was still visible started to leak in and unsettle me. I started to feel that the only person not getting a good look at what I was hiding was me. And the way I was deflecting these moments started to feel worse than what I felt I was deflecting attention from. An essential vibrancy in me was dehydrating and I craved an ease in my own skin and in interactions with others that I could see in the people I admired.
So I turned around and headed down the path of self discovery. Yes, at first it was so that, once i’d rooted out the unlikeable bits, I could change them – but it was a motivation so intense it bolstered me through the toughest part. Which wasn’t what I thought it would be at all. It wasn’t all that hard to learn the ways I could be annoying and self-righteous or to learn my unique use of judgement and defensiveness. Unearthing the places where who I said I was, wanted to be and actually were to find they didn’t converge as seamlessly as I hoped – touching the tenderest part of my insecurity and shame – was more interesting and empowering than I would have thought.
The hardest part of it all was tolerating the moment of being on the verge between me and hearing someone else’s experience of me – the intensity of being at the edge of an even more intense experience and knowing it was coming. And it didn’t matter if I had an idea of what the person was picking up on already – ‘oh yea, I know that about myself’ wasn’t a particularly effective anecdote to the quivering. It didn’t even matter if what was coming was good – anticipating touch or adoration was just as unbearable. Because there was something vastly different about *me* knowing it or feeling it in the privacy of my own psyche and discovering it out there interacting with other people where they could see it and respond to to it.
But I had to learn to tolerate it by letting it happen, by not avoiding it anymore. So I went in search of a community of people to help me do it. I found the Ishayas, who taught me to meditate, and who held regular meetings and retreats where this kind of reflecting and relating, seducing the verge to them and plunging into intimacy was a pivotal part of their practice. What they cared about was consciousness and supported each other and themselves to practice it at all times.
I adored them. I felt, for the first time, that I could risk the exchange of seeing for being seen. I knew that these people, more than any other people, would do it right even though I didn’t know how to do it at all. I felt that they could help hold me steady at the verge, at the sharpest edge of my anticipation and teach me to withstand it.
And they did. Because, while they were gulping in glimpses of what I was most ashamed of in me, they were also seeing what was most powerful and vivid in me and understood that that part of me could not only withstand the intimacy I avoided, but was made for it. Each hour of practice, and conversation was building my stamina for discomfort and and all the ways we can be unsettled, by joy or by pain equally.
And eventually it was tested during a 10 day meditation retreat. After each session of meditation we would be asked to share our experiences. I was familiar with this process and had been using it for months to practice being very clear and honest about how it was with me.
I smothered an entire afternoon in wailing sobs. I couldn’t get a handle on where the sobs were coming from and I’d even been wondering secretly if I was in control of them – if i was stopping them and starting them more by choice than by natural release. Which was a key uncertainty for me in my life – what was *real* about me? what was *genuine*? Out of that uncertainty I felt like I wanted to share – like my words could give me some context for what I was feeling – but not knowing where I was really coming from translated into not really knowing what to say. I grasped onto things that sounded good and put them out. When I was done one of the teachers at the retreat asked me, “would you like a reflection on what you’ve shared?” It wasn’t a totally unusual question, but he hadn’t asked any one else that the entire retreat. Before I could think about it I said ‘yes.’
Another teacher, a woman dressed all in black to represent ruthless compassion, spoke up and said, ‘To me, what you shared didn’t sound true, more like a performance. toward the end you calmed down a bit and i heard more of something that was real.’ Her voice was soft and she held eye contact with me – there was no sound of accusation or tone of disapproval, just the articulation of her sense of what I had said.
But I was frozen in horror. I didn’t cry but my eyes went bleary, almost dead. The room buzzed around me and my skin felt like the lead aprons you have to wear when getting an x-ray. My ear drums filled with pressure and white noise. Her words felt true and horribly untrue simultaneously. A tiny part of me knew exactly what she was getting at, that she had sensed what I had been trying to grasp myself but found too subtle. The more familiar part of me just felt battered by it, and I could not bear the way it ripped right through me. But what I also couldn’t shake, even in my self-serious stuppor, was how noble she had been and how I admired her – in the midst of feeling like my worst had been exposed I was uncovering something strong in me. I easily knew how she would have resisted saying to me what I resisted hearing. My accepting of this exchange would mirror her courage in instigating it. And I wanted that. I was coming to see that the messy way I exposed myself was something I wanted to give elegance to, not destroy.
But first, I hid all the rest of the day and into the next. I indulged my wounds and bruises.
During the next evening’s sharing I was curled up in a ball in my corner of the room hidden by the chair the person next to me was sitting on and dead quiet. One of the teachers checking in on me asked if I was alright and said ‘it seems like you’re not here with us.’
“that’s because I don’t want to be here.” I said in all my petulant glory.
I couldn’t help it – I couldn’t bring myself to sit up and be part. It was such a complete indulgence in immaturity but it was all I could do to cope with what I was feeling. I had simply avoided moments like this or outright defied them from even my own mother so effectively that I had never really just taken it in.
I might not have been handling the whole thing with any class or dignity but I *was* doing something differently. I was soaking in the vulnerability it had plunged me into like pushing myself to stay a minute longer in the freezing arctic water.
I didn’t know where to go next, but I was learning that *what* she had seen wasn’t all that serious to me and *how* she had said it wasn’t all that hard on me. It was *being* seen itself that was a kind of agony to me. I didn’t even know why.
And then a woman who had come all the way from New Brunswick to Ontario to participate, a woman with a small, smiling face and pure eyes who lived alone in a cabin in the woods and said achingly loving things in a french accent that somehow made her seem more mystical than real, a woman who had her feet in the earth and could tell the truth about herself in a way I had never heard before, pulled her chair in front of me and started to speak.
“when the Ishayas came to teach me in my home I found myself wanting to show them how I already knew so much of what they were saying and how living by it had enhanced my little life. I wanted to be the star of the conversation and make them like me, until I realized that they *did* like me and I could relax.” Her voice wove a magic spell over the room, my ears cleared of the white noise and my skin started to feel the slightest tingle of night air whispering against it.
” It reminded me of the rose in the story of the little prince. She was an agony to befriend, whiny and difficult, and needy. Vainly trying to be the star at every one else’s wedding, so to speak. But the little prince tended to her, he loved her and eventually, he learned that she was irreplaceable to him and went home, for her. To me, Erin, you are the rose.”
The pounding in my heart started to feel strangely good. I knew what she was saying and why I had hurt so much. Would I ever be loved if other people knew what I knew about me? I wanted to have time to change those things first, to smooth out every single petal of my being, take my time and then emerge pretending it had just happened to be glorious. But they could all see it. She wasn’t saying that it was okay to put on shows of myself and leave it at that, but that when I was putting on shows the people who loved me went right on loving me. Every person who had loved me did it knowing how much like that rose I could be. Even here, with my pout so much like her way of feigning a cold to bring the little prince to his guilt for her, someone saw the trick and loved me. While I was ignoring it and pretending it away, they were accepting it. They were tending to me. And I was missing it.
I uncurled from my ball under her words and turned to look at her. My whole body moved with the kind of tenderness that hits you when your joints are falling apart from a fever. I was slow and weak and utterly cleared out. I looked at her, but more, I let her look at me. I let the room know that I knew I was being seen.
That moment changed everything about my relationship to the verge. My body heat rises, still. My skin tingles and my hands quiver and my heart throbs, but I know it as an intense pleasure – so near unbearable. I started to find how hungry I was to be seen, to know that I could fail to be completely and utterly appealing at all times in all ways and still have loved ones.
I approach the verge any time something intimate or intense is about to happen, anytime I wander the edges of where I am about to grow, the edges of what I don’t know about myself or about life. Anytime I’m about to take a physical or emotional risk.
There was no way to take those risks when I couldn’t even stand the sensation of being on the verge of them. I had to learn – and practice – opening my body up when it wanted to clench and curl up. I had to practice keeping my eyes open while I dove in. I had to learn to breathe when my ribcage felt like a hummingbird slammed against it looking for the way out. I had to learn to sit very still when my heart begged me to run and deflect, because something delicate was unfolding. Something I needed in order to be whole. Because turning away before the end meant I would miss out on the best part of the love pulsing at the heart of my life.
We’re still on the couch, in one of those generous moments that slows down to let you get everything you need to from it. I’m holding a tea cup in my hand and twisting it from the bottom to feel the texture swirl in my palm. I’m looking back at myself from this vantage point, and the contrast makes my cheeks sting from the courage of the moment. Not just my courage, his too. I swallow through a clenching gratitude.
“You’re right. I’m doing that. I got this idea in my head that I loved more than I wanted to figure out what you were saying. I get preachy when I’m….”
“Excited.” he finishes for me with a flash in his eyes.
We can tell each other how it is and it’s not the end of the world, or the end of the love, or the end of being riveted by each other. In fact, most of the time it’s not much of an event at all. 10 years ago this way of building luscious respect would not have been possible for me. And now, not only do my relationships bloom with this brave showing up, but I pick up near perfect strangers in the world who want to open their mouths to the wild rain without caution for their future as much as I do. So we do.
We do it because it continuously gives us back to ourselves when we do, and because I have never felt sturdier in the raging intensity of human interactions as I do now. A sturdiness that lets me take exciting risks and come out intact and powerful on the other side.
I tell this story because the kind of people who gain something from working with me tend to be seeking their own sturdiness. A sturdiness they need because there are risks they want to take.
And this is the way I build my sturdiness – by building my tolerance and stamina for the undersides and the darkness and the variations of intensity life is capable of producing.
I build it by sitting longer and longer, breathing deeper and deeper in the swirling discomfort of anticipation that overwhelms my senses – sitting there without moving too soon or too fast or too erratically away from it until it’s time to thrust upward to the surface of the visible world, mouth gaping for nourishment.
By letting myself feel the pleasure of the moments before a risk is taken, desire the pleasure of it and move my body in a dance toward it keeping my eyes wide open.
By building relationships with people who help me do this, who hold the world down while i’m gone, who go on loving me when I’m off on some tangent of my personality, who tell me brave truths and then sit with me while I take it in, who will hear brave truths from me in turn and build our sturdiest self out of the raw material of our intimacy with each other. People who can see when I’m shutting the intimacy down and ask me in one way or another if that’s what I really mean to do.
Where you avoid your growing edges, the cracks between your darksides and the topside world, the places where any intimacy at all; even being loved, aches more than you can bear – I hope you will take a breath, find a steady hand to hold and stretch a little closer to the surface than you ever would have before. Until the storms you once avoided become your playground.