Image credit: Set Yourself Free by Dawn Meader www.dawnmeader.com
Emerging into a Light of Your Own
At a recent ritual leadership training I attended with Randy Jones, Canadian storyteller and ritualist, we were asked to create three ‘medicine’ cards with colour textas. The first was an image reflecting our transcendent knowledge or powers—those gifts or powers that come from spirit. The second depicted our ‘dark energies’ or emergent powers— those found in ‘the resume of the soul’, grown out of wounds and troubles. And the third gave tribute to an ally or totem from the Otherworld.
I found this a potent exercise and titled my emergent or dark power as ‘the black hole of shame’. From this experience, so familiar throughout my childhood and early adult years, I discovered story medicine. I didn’t call it that until recently, but when I first began writing my story in my late twenties, the process was a lifeline that slowly but surely pulled me out of a sticky black swamp I’d come to think of as home.
Guided by my writing mentor at the time, Barbara Turner-Vesselago, I first wrote the ‘poor me’ story in which I felt imprisoned (and to which I was attached). Barbara never judged me for my initial attempts to capture those painful memories. With gentle, firm wisdom, she slowly helped me pull away the blinkered lenses through which I had storied my life as ‘victim’ and framed myself in a helpless place of blame and despair. She did this, not by making my interpretations wrong, not by advising me to let go of my bitterness, not by telling me my soul had chosen this life for myself so I could learn and grow. Nor did she point me towards noble spiritual truths with which I could transcend my darkness.
Instead she encouraged me to ‘zoom in’, to look more closely, and thus to begin to unpick the memories that pointed towards self as victim, so I could re-weave my story pathway with perspective, forgiveness and gratitude. Zooming in and adding spaciousness and objectivity around the way I portrayed my characters helped me to see, more and more, how each person was only doing their best with who they were and the lives they’d been given. Instead of seeing malice and neglect, I saw good intentions gone awry, human beings like me who’d been wounded and whose dreams were shattered in oh-so-many ways—just like mine.
Layer by layer, year by year, I wrote and rewrote my story, focusing in exquisite detail on moments, conversations and sensuous details I remembered a certain way, fleshing out the details in dialogue and blow-by-blow scenes. I discovered, as I zoomed out again to view the complex tapestry of interconnected lives, there was a kind of sense and beauty in it all, a pathway by which I could emerge whole from my experiences, however difficult they might be. This realization was in stark contrast to earlier attempts to transcend my wounds and memories through spiritual beliefs and practices, or to seek vengeance and self-righteousness by denouncing and blaming my ‘perpetrators’.
I’m reminded of the traditional English tale of ‘The Drowned Moon’ which I performed at Brave New Works Festival #26 in Denmark, on Halloween in 2019. Moon is disturbed by tales of hauntings and evil spirits in the swampland that surrounds a certain town. Curious and concerned, she decides to go down and see for herself. As you might expect, she is soon caught and tormented by the very evil spirits she had hoped to chase away. In spite of her best efforts to escape, she is drowned at the bottom of a black pool, trapped under a great slab of stone, so that the evil ones can have darkness every night and an unfettered reign of terror.
Days and days go by before the frightened and confused townsfolk gather together to find Moon and restore her to her rightful place in the heavens. They are guided by the wisdom and mysterious clues of wise old Meg as they prepare for the rescue. Meg tells them to “hold a stone on your tongue,” and “do not speak a word until you are safely home again.”
For me, when I first heard this tale told by Perth storyteller Jaya Penelope, the call to silence rippled out with vivid clarity, shedding light on how I was supporting someone dear to me who was struggling with depression. I realised with a sinking heart that my well-meaning advice was far from helpful. What this person needed now was my presence and compassion, my willingness to walk side-by-side as an equal, my recognition that sometimes the only way out is through.
When we stop advising and start listening, we recognize the sanctity of another’s lived experience. Sometimes we need help to lift away the stone that holds us down. Sometimes we need reminding of the starry sky above and around us. Sometimes we need to know we’re not alone as we forge our way towards the light. And other times, we need to be asked the right questions that help us to discern the gifts or lessons wrapped up in a difficult experience.
Like Moon, who rose into the sky brighter and braver after her sojourn into darkness, we each have the opportunity to emerge clearer and stronger from the story path we weave, often barefoot and alone, through the dark swamplands and forests of the psyche. Having traversed the darker edges of this complex world, we can shine our wisdom, like stars, into others’ lives, gently and distantly, knowing that each must ultimately find and claim a light of their own.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for another who is lost or struggling is to remind them: you are loved, you are precious and your story matters.