Carrie Snyder offers an invitation: Find a sunflower. Hold it in your hands. Ask it a question. Listen to the questions it asks you.
Carrie’s sunflower prompted her to paint her office door bright yellow. It urged her to get on with living. We all seem to be in limbo right now, or maybe the bardo, and without a compass. There is no map of this place we find ourselves in, Joanna Macy says.
But there are sunflowers still.
Not in my garden, not this year. The closest I could find were these coneflowers: Rudbeckia laciniata “Autumn Sun.”
I call them ballerinas. Don’t the petals look like a dancer’s graceful skirt? I wish you could see them when the wind blows through.
Where will you dance us to, ballerina?
Where will we go?
We could never find a place more beautiful than this:
The only home we have and all we need.
What can you tell us, ballerina?
About how to care
For each other, for ourselves?
For the only home we have?
For the stories we need?
More than anything right now, I need stories that can help me understand what I went through with my mother in the last months of her life. I found such a story the other night, late, when I couldn’t sleep, again. Funnily enough, I found it on Laurie Doctor’s blog. Laurie months ago posted a poem by Herman Hesse: “When I Go to Sleep.” I told her it was helping me with my insomnia. She made me a gift of the poem in her beautiful calligraphy folded into a hand-painted box with the message “Dream with your hands” and sent it to me all the way from her home in Kentucky. I treasure it, and I’m still amazed Laurie took the time to make such a beautiful gift for me, a reader.
I often recite the Hesse poem silently in bed to help me sleep, but two nights ago I returned to Laurie’s blog, where I found a story I deeply needed: “Every journey has secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber
Like me, Laurie travelled hundreds of miles to be with her elderly parent. Like me, her parent had a spouse whose family had not spoken to Laurie’s in years. Like me, Laurie was determined to “give the benefit of doubt and just see what [would] happen.”
She tells her story in four parts.
I. The Story as a Sacred Map
Laurie writes: “How can I begin to tell the transforming effect of having a story, which becomes a sacred map inside you? The map shows the next step, and the road is a pathway to traverse the human dilemma—the impossible circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in.”
The impossible circumstances I found myself in:
For thirty years I promised my mother she would never have to go into a nursing home—her greatest fear. I was completely willing to look after her. I would have turned my life upside down to do so. But her partner put her in a nursing home and I could do nothing about it. He held all the legal cards and made it difficult for us—my mother’s daughters, and Mom—at every turn. Every system we encountered favoured him as spouse and disregarded us as daughters.
Laurie writes: “Like Odysseus, I knew I had to prepare to meet the Cyclops, within and without. The Cyclops has only one eye, and therefore no depth perception. The Cyclops does not care who you are, does not listen to reason, and cannot be confronted directly.”
My mother’s partner didn’t care who I was and wouldn’t listen to reason. I didn’t try to reason with him. For three months, for her sake, I chose not to confront him. In the end I lost the story I carried as a sacred map. I confronted the Cyclops directly. He called me a lying bitch and threw me out of my mother’s house.
II. Signs Along the Way
Laurie writes about finding a wooden oar small enough to fit in her pocket, which she recognized immediately “as the one belonging to Odysseus.” For her, finding the oar was “confirmation that [she] had both the guidance and the tools [she] needed to navigate this ocean of grief, conflict and misunderstanding.”
I constantly found signs that confirmed I was being guided and given the tools I needed to navigate that ocean of conflict and misunderstanding.
III. The Funeral
A pandemic prevented us from holding a funeral for my mother. My grief at being unable to gather with those who loved her to honour and remember her knows no bounds. It is an ocean I cannot seem to navigate.
IV. The Return
I left my mother on March 24th, twelve days after the pandemic was declared. Mom had been in a deep sleep, unresponsive, for half of those days. I was afraid if I stayed on the island any longer I would not be able to get home. And after three months away, I needed to be home.
Laurie writes: “I knew, like Odysseus, my focus needed to be on getting to the other shore.”
I drove all night. It felt like Odysseus’s 20-year voyage, with all the monsters, sirens, and storms he met along the way. There was no moon. I hit black ice. I fell asleep at the wheel five times. How I made it home alive is a wonder I will never understand.
All I knew was that I needed to get home.
I have been home six months, grieving, trying to ground. For a long time I couldn’t “feel the oar inside me … the fortification that is so needed, especially in these strange times.” In losing Mom I lost my “inner reference point.”
While I was there with her, I was blessed. I was “a collaborator with the divine.” I could feel it. I trust I still am. I know I haven’t really lost my reference point. As Laurie writes, Home is inside me: the place where I belong, where I am recognized for who I am.
Where will you dance us to, ballerina?
Where will we go?
We will never find ground more sacred than this:
The only Home we have is all the story we need.