In our wanderings on this beautiful earth, we must sometimes dive into the deep waters of our soul beyond the shallow waters of daily living, and the entertainment and distractions which are so much a part of western culture. Therein lies a depth of understanding that is critical to navigating sorrow and finding purpose, peace and the wellspring of joy.
When I found myself confronted with a serious illness, I went through various stages of grief. I grieved for the healthy woman I had been, I grieved for the limitations that would surely be imposed on my life and my energy and all I wanted to do, I grieved for a time when I would not be and saying goodbye to loved ones, perhaps not growing old and watching my grandchildren grow up. I grieved for what was, not sure of what was to be.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “Embrace your grief, for there your soul will grow,” and poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde said, “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” This, I was to discover.
As I began my journey through cancer treatments, I found incredible and sometimes surprising compassion and connectivity. I embraced certain rituals that not only sustained me, but enriched me and gave me strength to do what I must.
Early on in the process, a friend and neighbour mentioned the Ottawa Centre for Health Innovation (CHI) and incredibly I lucked into a free course for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The course instructor recommended a book by Francis Weller called, The Wild Edge of Sorrow.
Weller’s book can be described as a guidebook on the difficult geography of sorrow and the sacred work of grief. It is profound. Filled with wisdom, beauty and poetry it encompasses the diverse losses (including biodiversity and civility) and accompanying sorrows that are part of life. Weller exalts communities of care, rituals and our bonds with the earth and its astounding life-forms and natural beauty.
Community of care is an amazing thing and, I was to discover, I had it in spades.
Spending my youth overseas, I used to call myself a citizen of the world and following my diagnosis, I was delighted to discover, I truly was part of a wonderful global village.
Family and friends from near and far reached out to me in so many touching ways – sending flowers, plants and cards, immune boosting Chaga chai fixings, a bag with essentials for surgery and chemo, turbans, scarves, a glass ball and handcrafted earrings (that came with a magical story), notebooks, bath salts and candles, works of art, books and poems, wonderful meals and regularly the unexpected text or email. Healing vibes and loving words lifted me up and carried me forward every step of the way!
Friends who had been through a similar journey shared stories and provided advice and hope. Scheduled Zoom calls, sharing memories, gossip, laughter and tears and offering meditations and inspiration, were joyous and encouraging.
Great care was constantly provided by my husband who lovingly stood by me with trips to hospitals, acupuncturist, days of worry, fatigue and malaise. He made coffee and meals and managed to paint the covered deck and ceilings and stain fireplace stones all while trying to tend to his flower and vegetable gardens. The fruits of his labour gave me infinite pleasure and home was a good refuge.
When asked by my surgeon, oncologist and radiologist if I had a good support network, I beamed and replied emphatically, I do!
On my fridge sit two cards. One, a hand-painted “hug” with the words, “when you need one, look at this one.” The other reads, “In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold. The flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty. Consider this when you feel broken.” And on my fireplace mantle sit 3 stone hearts sent with love from a friend in Toronto from her morning wanderings along the shores of Lake Ontario, along with one wooden heart from Germany’s Black Forest, spontaneously given to me by a vendor in Wakefield.
As I prepare for radiation therapy, I am filled with gratitude for a weekly Saturday ritual with friends where we meet by the river in Wakefield to enjoy a long-held tradition of coffee and scones and discussions on everything from the mundane to the serious global crises and disturbing current affairs. We shared a celebratory lemon cake by a local baker to mark the end of my chemo treatments. It, and the day, was delicious.
The value of rituals and the passages that define our lives and give meaning to our existence are also beautifully illustrated in Sasha Cohen’s book, For Small Creatures Such as We. Serendipitously, a walk with a friend led to a wander into the realm of spirituality and discussion on the meaning of life, and ended with a book recommendation. Connection.
I have a morning practice, where I salute the sun or the grey sky and a mantra that I repeat when I walk my dog. It grounds me and connects me in a mysterious way with those who have gone before and the hidden realms and the unseen dimensions of life. I find great joy in what Sharon Butala beautifully referred to as, the perfection of the morning; a new day, a fresh slate.
It is said, nature is a healer and I feel that every day, surrounded by nature’s beauty with the fields and the woods at my doorstep. I do occasionally hug trees and daily breathe in their healing aromas as I walk with my thoughts, my hopes and my fears. Solitude can be a great healer offering serenity and helping to build fortitude and resilience. Away from distractions, we discover ourselves most deeply.
And yet, the shared experience of beauty and awe, laughter and energy is by equal measure restorative and uplifting!
Beginning in April shortly before my chemo treatments began, I embarked with friends on a Monday morning hike in the Gatineau Park. Though living in the Gatineau Hills for over 21 years, I had not visited Lusk Lake or Taylor Lake nor explored the trails along their shores. I was astounded by their beauty.
We were privileged to see birds returning to their nesting grounds, loons trilling in a way we had not heard, baby turtles bathing in the sunlight, and mother geese protecting their newborn goslings and forcing us to take the high road. Campers had not begun to descend on the Park and most mornings we did not meet other walkers.
As spring gave way to summer, we would would regularly walk 8 kms or more and take a pause at a picnic table or sit or stand on a rock outcrop to take in the view. A lovely red or green canoe might dot the vista and occasionally we would spot some kayakers in a distant bay. It was what we think of as true Canadiana and it certainly had us in its spell, particularly one late August morning when we were enjoying the waters of Lac Philippe while a lone loon drifted out in the bay and two bald eagles soared above. Marvellous therapy for all.
I am grateful for the grace of all those who have supported me in so many touching ways. I am grateful for my walks in the woods and by the shores of the lakes of the Gatineau Park and perhaps surprisingly, I am grateful for my walk on the “wild edge of sorrow.” To quote Francis Weller, “Even as we recognize our own inevitable ending, there arises a feeling of gratitude of grace, that we have been gifted with this time, these particular people, and this astonishing planet.”
PS: To all who wander and are not lost, and to those who wander to be lost (if only for a while), we invite your stories, your vignettes, your photos and reflections. For submissions, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.