Having a life experience that truly changes the fundamental “you” comes infrequently. There are different things that can bring this about. The loss of a loved one, being involved in a war or major conflict, a divorce or loss of a relationship, the illness of your child, and even something that is considered positive, like a Spiritual retreat or other “chosen” experiences such as travel. I feel fortunate that there have been several times in my life that I have had such an experience that shifted who I was, like childbirth and, which goes without saying, parenthood, finding my Soul mate, Buddhism, and traveling to Africa.
I must say that I have been lucky that most of my life altering experiences have come from what would generally be considered a positive place. I have not lost a loved one that was unexpected, never been in a violent conflict. Even my intense experience as a hospice nurse in Africa was chosen, which in itself changes things.
I suspect that despite the cause of transformation though, there are similar emotional experiences. For one, the total loss of who you thought you were. A flip, so to speak, of the self. A deep sense that you can no longer fit who are into who you were.
When I returned from 4 months in East Africa I felt lost and actually a bit crazy. A dear friend said at the time the best and most amazing thing when I told him that I thought I had lost my mind. “That is so great! Don’t try to get it back. Just be crazy as long as you can.” Of course he wouldn’t say this to someone who was suicidal, just a friend that he knew needed to be lost in order to find their way. This was the best advise that anyone could have given me, because truly, only coming through being completely undone could I find that part of myself that I did not know existed.
But what is this undoing, and how much is lost or gained when we do come out on the other side? Some part of me never wanted to come through to find out. Some part of me wanted to stay in Africa forever. I wonder if this is true for tragedy as well. Some part of us wants to stay even in horrible pain in order to stay connected with what has been lost. We fear that in losing the pain we will forget that familiar face or feeling.
This very human condition, whatever its cause, either excruciating or exhilarating, and sometimes both, is two sides of the same coin.
When I returned from Africa I grieved the loss of this continued opportunity to separate myself from the person who I identified with before I left. Weird it sounds in some ways for a person who has been so strongly identified as mother and grandmother. For one thing, a few years ago, I never thought that I would be able to leave my family for 2 weeks let alone 4 months. Some grace shifted me and I was able to carry out my desire to go to Africa.
When I made this decision I knew right away that the only way to survive the missing of my loved ones was to NOT THINK ABOUT THEM. And so that is what I did for the most part. Of course I wrote, and of course I did think about them but I would not allow myself to dwell on them.
For the first time in my life I was independent of the responsibility of anyone but myself. I made choices about my responsibilities. Such as my volunteer work with Hospice Africa Uganda, but that is different than the responsibilities we have in our every day life.
There was a big part of me that did not want to return, hence, a part of the insanity when I did. I am blessed with the most wonderful husband, kids, grandkids, and friends. So I wondered who was this me that felt like I could have stayed in Africa and never returned? I have given this question much attention since my return nearly 3 months ago now. I have let it percolate through reflection, prayer, meditation and many walks on the beach. I have had long conversations with wise friends and family. And though I tend to believe that the insights will continue over even more time there are a few things that I have come to understand.
First of all while I have a deep Faith and believe that death is a transition, I have always had a hard time with the idea that I would no longer be with the loved ones that I have in this life when I die. Somehow I couldn’t let go of the idea that I would no longer “have” them in my life as I currently know them. I now realize in the experience of living a different life for a while that there are many ways to be in the world, many lives to live, and many people to love. While away the children of the Cancer Institute or St Catherines orphanage were my children and the friends I made became for a time my family. This experiencing a different life was a great lesson in the equality of all beings. And in this realization I understood that to die is to just to transfer ones love and attention onto someone just as loveable and valuable as my amazing family and friends.
I was a mom and married by the time I was 17. Since that time I gave birth to two more children and married a man with two children. There was never a time in my life where I was just my own person. I have absolutely no regrets regarding this. The loved ones in my life have been its biggest blessing to date. However, I was always someone else’s so to speak. When the kids all grew up and started living their own lives it felt good. But nothing was as individuating as my four months of independence in Africa. Traveling with my son there felt more like traveling with a friend really. And while I have to admit I clung to him for the first weeks as he is a seasoned African traveler, our seemed like more of a friend relationship as he is grown and independent and free thinking. So there was a grieving over coming home and a sense that I was losing that new individuated person that I had become.
But in time I realized that I have lost nothing. The self that I found in my travels and experiences will always be with me. I know that I could return someday to Africa or travel anywhere and find my way on my own. And if my preference is to travel with my husband or a friend I know that I will not be dependent on them for direction or safety or even more important, peace of mind.
There is not a day that goes by where I don’t have at least one thought about the blessings that I am enjoying being home. My hot shower, my clean flushing toilet, TOILET PAPER, the abundance of different foods, TRAFFIC LAWS, quiet, health care (such as it is), my washer and dryer, all the things we take daily for granted. And of course, most of all, my dear husband, children (biological and otherwise), grandchildren, family and friends. Likewise, there is not one day that passes where I do not miss Africa and for at least a second wish I was still there.
I have to admit that I am just a walking contradiction. But then aren’t we all?
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