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Trust the whirlpool

Carol Eckerman

A respected academic, devoted mother and self-confessed 'control addict',
Carol Eckerman watched her life fall apart when her husband walked out in her 50s. She tells how she learned to surrender to God in the chaos.

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When my 'good life' collapsed, two scenes kept bursting into consciousness. In the first, a child is caught and struggling within a whirlpool that is drawing her inexorably toward its vortex. I now know the whirlpool image represents my terror of being alone and overwhelmed by the strength of sadness, anger, fear…and of being pulled deeper and deeper into these feelings - perhaps into non-existence. These fears had accompanied me for decades.

In the second scene, a solitary child stands in the dark, nose and hands pressed flat against a window, looking in upon a brightly lit scene - a family sitting around a table sharing food, laughter and conversation. This, I came to realise, represented my deep longing for loving human companionship and my dread of being shut out from it.

These fears, coupled with a childish belief in my own power, shaped the lessons I drew from childhood. In my fifties I captured them in words:

Lesson 1: Life is not to be trusted. Hard things keep happening to you and those closest to you.

Lesson 2: People are not trustworthy. Your needs increase their fear, anxiety, or anger and make them more self-absorbed and unable to see you, know you, or help you. Only you can help yourself.

Lesson 3: Hide all the parts of you that could possibly bother others. Work to head off or alleviate others' distress.

Lesson 4: Your actions determine how others feel about you and if they'll attend to you. Actions carry value. Your intentions, desires, thoughts, emotions - who you are - do not. Therefore, achieve.

Lesson 5: Males are more important than females. Find a man to love and care for you and you will feel safer, less lonely, and more lovable.

Lesson 6: Do not feel sorry for yourself; others have it harder. Suppress or deny troubling emotions. Just grit your teeth and keep working. Keep doing.

LOSING CONTROL
I had lived by these rules, largely unconsciously, for most of 50 years, and with them constructed what I thought was a pretty good life - wife, mother, university professor, and researcher of infant development.  But as I approached my 50th birthday, that life started to shatter about me. The man I had pinned my hopes on said he had to leave me, after 27 years of marriage.
Dave's leaving plunged me into despair. The very foundations of my life had proven untrustworthy. Finally I saw those six lessons for what they were: myths of control. They couldn't keep fear at bay. There would be no life partner for me. Despite all my effort, my life had fallen apart and, I thought then, the nurturing family I so wanted for my children.

At first I spent most days weeping, walking, and just trying to get through the tasks I couldn't avoid. I went through the motions of life - washing, eating, teaching - yet feeling dead inside. The shell that was me kept showing up. I wouldn't let others see my downfall. Shame was trying to crush everything alive in me. But I swore to myself: For my children I will find a way to survive in this 'aloneness' that has haunted me from childhood.

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RAYS OF HOPE
Strangely, the sense of absolute loss and hopelessness brought a kind of freedom. I let myself feel and express the troubling emotions more freely than ever before. It wasn't a conscious decision. It just happened. Why hide or deny them? What more did I have to lose?

In search of some sense of community I started attending a church and found there folks who reached out to me. I made a few friends and let them see something of my anguish. When I harnessed enough attention to resume my research with very-prematurely-born infants, I found I could forget myself a bit, delight in each child's development, and empathize with each family's problems. Slowly, I began to feel part of a human community larger than my children and me.

Throughout the first two years after the death of my marriage, I kept being surprised by brilliant rays of light that briefly penetrated my sorrow. I began to call these rays 'gifts.' I had done nothing to make them happen, or deserve them. They simply appeared, often at times of deepest despair. An unexpected kindness from a friend. A bluebird resting atop a deck railing, looking at me and singing. A new wildflower blooming along my walking path. Phone calls from my son or daughter. Such were the earliest rays of light, and I greeted each with a surge of gratitude.

Other gifts came in the form of changing family relationships. My son Brett and I travelled with a church group to work high in the mountains of western Guatemala. It proved more of an adventure than we had reckoned on. We took an old Greyhound bus from Guatemala City that took three men to drive. On that rainy night, as we climbed steep mountains, one sat at the wheel, steered, and honked. One hung out the door craning to see oncoming vehicles as we traversed sharp curves in the narrow road by the light of a single headlight. The third also hung out the door with a rag, trying to make up for the absence of windshield wipers.

The bus ride alone was enough to question some of our long-held impressions of each other. I was the controlling one, setting schedules, tasks, ways of doing things - but here, I saw all the danger, knew it was out of my control, and fell asleep; while Brett, who prided himself on going with the flow, sat tense and clenching the seat rail with white knuckles until we reached our destination.

LETTING GO
On New Year's Day, I drove to the coast to perform a ritual. I took with me three beautiful, smooth stones. On one I wrote 'the past;' on the second, 'Dave;' and on the third, 'fear of the future.' I walked the beach for some 30 minutes, found a place in the dunes to reflect on what I was about to do, and then walked to the surf to throw away each of these pains. As I retraced my steps along the beach, I felt a warm sense of peace and oneness with all around me: the sea, the sunshine, the breezes, the surf, the pelicans skimming the crests of waves, and the sandpipers racing to and fro at the surf's edge.

The next Christmas, during a visit at my home, both Mom and Dad had medical crises. Dad died. Mom survived, but her old life was gone and could not be recovered. After almost 40 years apart, Mom and I were once again daily companions - the only daily companions for each other.

Amid periods of deep sorrow, I continued to experience gifts of nature and meaningful human contact. Eight months after Dad's death, I found the words forming in me - 'Trust life.' All at once, I discovered I did. Surprise, happiness, and a surge of new freedom flowed through me. It was as if a huge weight had suddenly lifted off of me. I did not understand what was happening. It all felt mysterious, but exhilarating.

I began reading 'spiritual' books. In response to my questions about Dad's dying - the convulsions and the seeming agony of it all - our interim minister directed me toward books on death, through which I came to know such writers as Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and Henri Nouwen. Another 'spiritual' book, Spiritual Literacy by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, contained short quotes on such topics as grace, forgiveness, and faith - words drawn from novelists, writers within different spiritual traditions, and others. As I read the section on faith, I had the sudden discovery that what I had been experiencing - gifts, trusting life, oneness with the world around me, and openness to mystery - others called 'faith.' This was a shock to me. I had equated faith with a set of beliefs, a creed, not with the experiences I had been having.

Around the same time, when I was alone, I found myself talking out loud. Strong emotions surfaced as I talked: sadness, longing, grief. Occasionally they were times of just expressing an overwhelming sense of gratefulness. Only months later, when I read Henri Nouwen's book, With Open Hands, did I come to think of these times as 'prayer.' I had unclenched my fists and was opening myself to I-knew-not-what, to a mystery that I later began to call 'God.'

LIVING THE UNIMAGINED
Soon thereafter I realized my despair had transformed into a whole new life of trust, faith, and unexpected joy. I began to self-consciously explore this unknown territory called 'faith' and kept finding wonders hitherto unknown.
And in the years that followed I traveled through other dark places - physical disability, Mom's dementia and dying, my children's struggles with cancer. Yet within these places of tumult, love trumped fear. A troubled mother-daughter relationship was made whole, within dementia. I forgave myself, my childhood story, and Dave.

I had lived what I'd never imagined possible. Trust grew, deepened, as I experienced the unfolding of my own journey. My dives into tumult had led me to the peace within and to a single new lesson to live by: simply be.  My heart, my whole being,  said 'yes' in response to John O'Donohue's poem 'Fluent':
'I would love to live as a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.'

Eighteen years after my plunge into despair, the whirlpool image from my childhood emerged again - but in a totally transformed form. It came as the words 'abandon oneself to love' rang within me. I saw myself alone in a whirlpool, but now it was a swirl of love. I was being drawn in some mysterious way into its very vortex, into love itself. And I wanted to be drawn.

Lessons in Simply Being by Carol O. Eckerman is published by Circle Books, price £9.99.