On Coming Home to My Belonging
In January of 2015 my otherwise healthy seven year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Along with this diagnosis came the news that all of her treatment would take place in a children’s hospital, 350 miles from our home. Our previously orderly lives were instantly disoriented, and needed rearranging and re-prioritizing on an overnight’s notice.
My husband and I decided I would be the primary caregiver in Denver, while he kept his job in Durango (one of us had to keep a job) where our son would continue to attend preschool. We traded roles occasionally, giving me a break from the non-ordinary stress of hospital life, while affording Craig some much-needed time with our daughter.
Without distractions from work, housekeeping, or the demands of family, my existence was stripped down to the essential elements of caregiving: To be present every day of the journey, and stay with the process through its unpredictable ups and downs. To love and care for my daughter as if her life depended upon it (it did). To ensure her well-being and wholeness as much as possible, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And to endure immense heartache from missing my husband and son, our home, our dogs, and our community.
My days were fine-tuned to the rhythms of round-the-clock medical care and the ins and outs of hospital life. I stayed abreast of her ever-evolving schedule of medications, took a crash course in nursing to learn the care of her central IV line, and obliged to the strict protocols for cleanliness in the immune compromised unit to which she was confined.
Months later, when we emerged from the cocoon of hospital, we were immensely relieved to have been released back into the world, cancer-free and united again as a family. What I didn’t anticipate, nor could I have foreseen, was that in the aftermath of cancer, there is now something missing in my life. One of the casualties of the process, despite such a favorable outcome, was my peace of mind.
I spent my time in hospital not second-guessing my purpose for being. With the medical urgency behind us, that purpose could now expand into more fulfilling realms beyond survival. Yet I was left with a vacancy. What is my purpose, outside of caring for my family? I felt lost in the empty space that was once occupied by the consuming and exhausting duties of a caregiver.
While in hospital, I harnessed my inborn strengths and talents and used them as fuel for my very survival. I advocated fiercely for my daughter and my family. I navigated somewhat tactfully the intricacies of my personality in the presence of a nonstop barrage of well-meaning hospital staff. My heart grew to understand the depth of my humanity as I came to humbly accept my situation, surrendering everything in the name of love.
Following these intense and demanding circumstances, how does one revisit the soul’s larger calling? How can I further develop the strengths I came to know inside that healing temple and apply them outside of the confinement of a hospital?
Author Elizabeth Lesser contemplates the voice of the soul in her new memoir, Marrow, “The soul’s voice, though vast, is not loud. Other voices are louder—the voice of fear, the voice of blame, the voice of guilt, or denial, or despair.” She likens the musings of the mind to an orchestra “gone rogue”, where the soft melody of the soul is eclipsed by the cacophony of our thoughts and emotions. When we are in alignment, the soul is the conductor, and the orchestra is in synch.
Fortunately, my family’s collective soul was recognized and nurtured last week. We were blessed to have been the recipients of a sacred fire ceremony. A colleague had offered this as an opportunity for us to unburden our suffering and provide compassionate support at this point along our healing journey.
On the evening of the ceremony, we arrived at the rural property before sunset. We were led up a hill and into the pinion-juniper woodland that characterizes the Colorado Plateau. As we approached the designated clearing and the fire circle, I could see that this was no makeshift campfire ring. This was a pristine, well intended, and blessed site.
The fire pit was impressive, deep and made from rocks stacked at least 5 high on its eastern wall.
A low platform on its west rim was covered in buckskin to create an altar. Small cloth bags and baskets containing cedar, sweetgrass, tobacco, essential oils, sage, and dried flowers were aligned and awaiting the evening’s ritual. The fire ring was completed by the placement of pinecones, animal bones, and fire tools around and within its circular rock rim.
At dusk, the fire was started; the 4 directions were called in, as well as the Earth and Sky. Each of us was blessed with the smudge from native sage and the feathers of a bird wing. Then, just as humans have done since the dawn of humanity, we took our seats around the fire.
Tom, our warrior guide, told us the story of how he came to know the sacredness of fire, what the surrounding land means to him, and that nobody makes it to this particular fire circle by accident. He reminded us that we do not walk alone, and acknowledged those who have come before us, who by their very existence made the ground upon which we now sit sacred. We were reminded that there is always guidance available, and how the fire can be an ally for our growth and healing.
As the ceremony progressed, we listened intently. The kids, both tired, and somewhat impatiently awaiting the s’mores they had been promised, squirmed in their seats but held pretty tight to the present moment. They were equal parts captivated and bored. I was expecting the latter, but grateful that they seemed to be taking it in.
We were each given a chance to speak about the hardships of our journey and to name what was holding us back presently. This was our chance to offer prayers or blessings, express gratitude, or to unburden ourselves. Tom explained how the fire could consume that burden for us, and connect us with elements of our higher selves, our inner guidance. As if the fire purifies our spirit, our own fire within. What an opportunity to clear the way to receive from the vastness that created the Universe our inner voices more clearly, and to help us to feel connected to the bigger picture of all of life.
We clutched tightly to the sagebrush and single rose each of us were given to hold while we spoke. Then we in turn offered these bundles to the fire. We also, at our guide’s suggestion, had prepared some homemade bundles made from Russian Sage, native grasses, and flowers. We then stood together and—as one—we gave our homemade offerings to the fire. In the name of unity, strength, and health for the four of us.
The collective offering was not planned. It arose out of the spontaneity and grace of the moment. That unifying act was powerful medicine for my soul. It reaffirmed my core belonging to this group I call my family. It served to reinforce our solidarity as a foursome. No matter my existential crisis, I still have my family, my tribe where I belong, my soul’s home in this lifetime.
At the end of the ceremony, as if to emphasize the new solidarity in my heart, Tom gifted us with a piece of art that he made specifically for our family. As if he knew that having a physical representation of this moment would serve to strengthen us as we move forward.
I have, since that evening, felt more grounded, more peacefully at home in my own skin. This act of honoring our path and our current struggles has helped me to build some foundation in this new normal.
As for my soul, I’m trusting that I will heed its calling in due time. I will come to know my gifts, and how I can serve the world. One of my greatest teachers, Dr. Donny Epstein recently advised, “Just realize you are always guided; listen to the calling–and stop searching.” For now, at least, I am home.