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“Our holy grit… it’s the sandpaper in your psyche that rubs you raw until you make it conscious.”  – Jacqueline Small, on Shadow

Lake Winola

Lake Winola

Karen turned sixty this month.

I grew up on a glacial   lake at the end of the Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania during the summer months. Karen lived with her parents and three brothers in the cottage next-door. My best friend, Cathy, rented the cottage behind them, at least her parents did. The circumference of the lake was approximately three miles, so children knew each other for long stretches that were walkable from their cottage. The lake was a friendly community where families looked out for each other and their children.

Being born in July, this lake was my first home. Sometime during the 60s my home became a state lake and everything changed. But prior to this, the lake was serene, the people familiar and it was a safe, aesthetically beautiful place in nature to grow up.

Our neighbors became extensions of our family. Karen lived next door and since we grew up together, I didn’t notice the developmental delays. Karen was mentally disabled, but we all thought she was odd. From a child’s perspective, there was just something different about her, damaged, maybe. Children were unkind to her, but not her brothers. Karen always liked me. One day, however, I joined the heartless descent as she walked in front of the trajectory of the swing I was on. I didn’t stop abruptly as I could have. I knocked her down. Fifty years later I remember that moment and I cry with so much shame. Perhaps I can understand the other children’s cruelty by understanding my own. Karen was an external manifestation of the damage I felt inside of me, the damage the other children must have felt, as well. Christians might call it Original Sin, Jungians call it Shadow, the unlikable parts of ourselves we hide until we have the inner resources to heal these parts and integrate them into a more forgiving personality.

Cathy’s family was very religious. Her mother, Lucy, told me children like Karen were sent here by God and reported back to him about how others treated her. Now, from my perspective, I can believe some of Lucy’s story/parable. Karen and her sacred curriculum was a mirror for people to look at themselves through. Not everybody liked what they saw.

Soon after that, Karen no longer lived next door. She came home on visits and loved to go for a boat ride with me. Karen never held a grudge. Her older brother became a minister and I worked with disabled children for a couple decades, as a teenager and an adult.

I wonder if Karen knows how much she affected the others around her or how much she taught people something about themselves, that they probably didn’t want to see.

Karen turned sixty this month. Happy birthday Karen. From my end-of-life perspective, I now understand the careful selection of the costume you chose for this lifetime and I know you are what some call an angel and I know, without equivocation, that you were my and many other children’s sacred teacher.

**One of my very favorite books on the subject is: Expecting Adam – A true story of birth, rebirth and every day magic by Martha Beck.

 

“[Spirit] needed a player, someone willing to get on the field of action, learn the plays, take the risks, get injured, play through the setbacks and defeats and continue to grind their way to the goal line. NOT to sit on the bleachers as a spectator…” -Burgess Owens, cornerback for Oakland Raiders and Super Bowl winner in 1980 in reference to me.

Burgess

When I went to the University of Miami for college from Scranton, I had no idea the explosion that was about to happen in my life. After all, I only had one significant boyfriend for most of the four years of high school. He was my first lover and we naïvely began discussing marriage at sixteen. At that time, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the trajectory of my life. As life would reveal, she had other plans. To say that I was an inexperienced sixteen year old was an understatement. My idealism and my family dynamics did not prepare me for a life of simplicity and joy. It did not prepared me for the suffering required for maturation. Although Miami was not a good fit for my heart, I made it work for the four years required as a prerequisite for the deep initiations I apparently “signed up for” in life.

Early in my freshman year I was walking with a girlfriend and I crossed paths with a young junior who, unbeknownst to me, would drastically change my life. I remember specifically stopping in my tracks and saying, “I’m in love.” Burgess was a starting football player on the University of Miami football team. He was also a marine biology student. I knew nothing about football, so his celebrity eluded me. All I knew was that he was handsome and deep, gentle and loving. I began to tutor him French and he helped me with my sciences. We would frequently drive to the Florida Keys on the weekend to snorkel and collect sea life for his tropical aquarium.

B and II soon became aware that this relationship would alter my life, but I had no idea of the degree to which it would explode open. I immediately called my boyfriend and told him what was happening. Our plans had been for me to transfer to a college in New York State that was closer to him, but my life was taking a whole new tract. Good or bad, happy or sad, I was being drawn into a tsunami and all I could do was let go.

The next two years were expansive for me. Unlike the focus from my family of origin, my first two boyfriends supported my educational/intellectual pursuits. I became the president of the freshman women’s honor society and received recognition from the mortarboard and several other honors. Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken the easier path joining the waterski team that was seeking me out after seeing my slalom abilities. Education had never been my focus. My older brother was the first person to finish college in my family. Escaping the pogroms in Russia and surviving the Depression while speaking broken English was more a part of my history than higher education.

I knew that Burgess believed in me and that gave me the courage to pursue honors programs and to graduate cum laude. However, there was a deeper initiation into the vicissitudes of life that would take me to my edge. Opening my heart to this young, charismatic, and idealistic man transported me into unknown territory. Crossing the “racial barrier” was an initiation that required a level of courage I did not know I had. I can remember looks from people imbued with much fear, fear of crossing a line. After all, I was in the South. I remember Michael telling me that prejudice in the North was just as prevalent as in the South, it was just more hidden. I clearly felt the pain of bearing a scarlet letter across my chest not unlike the yellow stars my ancestors were forced to wear. I felt the shame from the projection of other people’s fears. However, this was an initiation I was willing to undertake. After all, the feeling in my heart was undeniable.

I can remember that day I looked at Burgess and no longer saw a black person looking at me. This was the young man I loved with all my heart. I didn’t realize the depth of initiation I was undergoing.

And now, forty years later we have reconnected on a soul level. We are revisiting the influence that connection had in our lives during such formative years. Despite Burgess and me practicing completely different religions and ideologies, there is still a spiritual connection that transcends the social constructs that would otherwise force separation.

After forty years we are reconciling our differences and acknowledging both the idealism of our youth and the excavations we have courageously and willingly undergone building bridges instead of walls in our hearts. I know these bridges will filter down to our children and our grandchildren to affect a world that is more inclusive.

Sharing what we have learned over the last forty years and revisiting our limitations from the past is bringing a healing that would otherwise have been unimaginable to me. Saying the things to each other we were too immature to grasp at that age has brought a deep level of completion and clarity.

When I crossed the racial boundaries, I opened up a level of empathy for the vulnerability and potential terror a mother of African-American children feels; I opened my heart to the multicultural families I would work with in my career. Burgess and I raised our children to cross cultural lines as well, and to not just believe in diversity, but to live it, to marry people of different cultures, giving birth to grandchildren who have the courage to bring in the New World.

These personal communications between Burgess and me are not just healing our human hearts, but they are changing the world, or they are showing us how we have already changed the world.
Disclaimer: Burgess and I have remained friends, but our philosophico-political leanings are diametrically opposed. I, in no way, support his political beliefs and, frankly, believe he has gone off the deep end. Although I will always love him, I cannot, in good faith, have a friendship with him and this saddens me.

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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. more...

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