There is an elegantly simple adobe home full of soft, nurturing curves and light-filled rooms tucked away in the high desert of northern New Mexico—a womb with a view. I came here for my 50th birthday and have returned again for my 60th. These are my reflections on those two milestones in my life and what has unfolded between them. May my words reveal more than conceal the truth. May I keep being born right up to the crowning moment of my death.
PART 1: BIRTH OF INSIGHT
When I first came here to the Carson National Forest for a month in 2009 in honor of reaching 50, my ranch life out on the Kansas tallgrass prairie far from town and society—to which I’d leapt at age 45 after more than two decades in the city—was already what most people would think of as a retreat, so why would I need to withdraw further?
I named that time out of time a personal sabbatical (from Hebrew shabbat or sabbath, literally a ceasing or rest from work, or a break). What I sought, without having words for it, was something on the order of a birthing chamber in which to labor and midwife what I sensed as an impending birth of insight.
Having unconsciously used the words birth of insight just now, it seems timely to mention I had a visionary meditation during that sojourn in which I pictured a design so intriguing I rendered it as a computer drawing, labeled it “Spiral Eye” and filed it away. I saw the image in my mind’s eye while meditating on the edge of a mesa above the sacred springs at Ojo Caliente, at the site of Posi-Ouinge, the Greenness Pueblo of the Tewa, dating to the 13th century. I saw myself in an ancient no-time making pottery and painting this innovative design, a departure from traditional symbolism, a controversial breakthrough.
Six years later, after I took peer support training and was thinking of starting a private practice, I knew immediately I already had the logo for what would become Insight.
Part of what I want to shine a light upon with this observation is that there is often a foresight in insight that feels significant at the time, but does not flower until later. In this case, if someone had said, you will need this as a logo for a business you’ll create 6 years in the future, I would have been utterly bewildered. Nothing was in place except this spiral eye design—I’d never heard of peer support, I had no training, I did not live in an area with enough population density or demand to support such a service, nor did I yet have sufficient self-insight to be supportive to others seeking insight. Nothing was ready but an eye symbol composed of two separate spirals. A seed of what was to come, but as yet totally obscured in the creative womb.
What I was yearning to birth in 2009 was an integrated awareness—a felt sense—that we mortals are more than we seem, that the world itself is more than what we see with our outer eyes, and that my conscious labors over the previous 15 years to individuate more fully were leading inevitably to the awareness that I am indivisible—and so are we. In other words, I was ready to release my hard-won and tenacious grasp on my precious individuality in order to consciously experience non-duality. I could easily toy with the notion intellectually, and there were plenty of mystical writers who affirmed my assumptions, but what I craved and sought was a palpable embodiment of universal oneness. That is what I came here to midwife in January ten years ago. Transcendence.
The truth I did not admit aloud then is I was grappling with a secret grief. From the outside my life looked exotic, daring, perhaps even idyllic. But I’d taken a big risk and had a major disappointment and I felt reluctant to speak of it for a number of reasons. Falling back on old patterns, I elected to cope with it privately, to accommodate and adjust to the limitations of my circumstances, but at least the path I picked was a step toward healthier coping mechanisms, even if it was still a bit of a sidestep. I chose to focus on my spiritual practices, my personal growth and my nature writing. My grief and isolation invited me to turn inward toward my spirit and outward to nature. Coming here alone was part of that journey, a mix of reflecting in solitude while also choosing to believe I was participating in a larger mystery. I assumed my challenge held meaning.
Trauma—the way of the wound—can catapult us into states of transcendent awareness, as first happened to me when I was about 13, but I’ve since learned that unless a person anchors oneness firmly in healthy individuality, there is a high likelihood of uneven development (sometimes called spiritual bypass) and rather a thin line between, as transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof put it, spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency. I’d had plenty of emergencies already; I was in search of sustainable emergence.
PART 2: HIGH COUNTRY OF THE MIND
While I was abiding in the high desert in 2009 I read books like Ken Wilber’s The Integral Vision, listened to lectures by Alan Watts, and walked at least 75 miles in 35 days, venturing farther and further each day, aspiring to greater heights in both physical and spiritual elevations. I practiced meditation more strategically and sustainedly than ever before, determined to have a breakthrough. I was graced with stunning, improbable visitations and heady revelations in nature.
I was disciplined, austere, ascetic, diligent, earnest, quiet, measured, mostly solitary—an apprentice to the Mysteries. Looking back, I can see a tremendous amount of effort and intent, a laboring and pushing. My left brain still dominated and I willed myself to understand what seemed beyond me, not yet realizing my right brain must be invited to come into equal yoke in order to get me where I instinctively longed to go—home to wholeness.
I remember feeling tremendously frustrated at the tyranny of my rigidly linear-logical style of processing and my stubbornly earthy, grounded and rigid pragmatism. I longed to set my Inner Mystic free. I recall absurdly crouching in an awkward half-headstand in a closet in front of a full-length mirror, writing with my non-dominant hand while looking at the words upside down and backwards in the mirror. I figured this was something like a reversal of my conditioning, an attempt to destabilize my world view. I purposely set out to throw myself off balance and perhaps catch myself off-guard. My carefully-crafted defense system was mostly impenetrable, even to me.
In retrospect, I can observe I was creatively midwifing my own ongoing birth—a lifelong process, I now understand—and in particular I was ending 50 years of defining myself by reference almost exclusively to other humans and the relentless drive for a secure relationship and for the first time entering with conscious awareness into the territory of Self. The small “s” self is ego-driven and ego-defined, comparative, evaluative, well-defended, seeking to accommodate or dominate in order to belong. The capital “S” self is robustly ensouled, recognizing its innate belonging in something much larger, and standing beyond accepted beliefs, social mores and club rules for admittance. As I practiced toggling between these two states, I was, without knowing it, at the physiological level, also rewiring my brain and learning to regulate my nervous system. I was practicing being more fully, vulnerably human, letting myself know what it felt like to consciously inhabit my own body.
What better way to integrate this multi-level restoration than to hike miles every day in unknown territory, on roads and trails blanketed in snow, alone for all but a couple weekend visits from friends and loved ones, solitary for days on end except for a far-wandering, oft-disappearing, and intrepid role-model of a dog named Alice. I had entered a domain whose name I first encountered in the 1970s—“In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty…” wrote Robert M. Pirsig titillatingly in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—and 30 years after highlighting these lines I finally felt myself gradually getting more comfortable and embracing my unknowing, moving by infinitesimal increments from either/or to both/and in the high country of the mind, sometimes known locally as Paradox.
During the last week of my stay I chose to make a visible sign of my relinquishment of external identity and cut off my long, thick hair—first in foot-long, graying-brown hanks and then down to bare scalp with a razor. Afterwards, I went to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente—hot eye—baptized and blessed myself, and returned somewhat self-consciously—and fundamentally changed—to my small rural community in Kansas.
Within two years I would hardly know myself from what I had been, for everything had been turned inside out. There is a path of self-knowing that is an unknowing of what you thought you knew, and that was the trail I took, whether I understood it or not. It is the willingness to follow an unmarked path that leads into uncharted territory. No one else can tell you where you are, so learning to trust yourself is essential.
I know all this mostly in hindsight, looking back from 10 years down a winding road from mountain to prairie.
PART 3: ALL OF THE ABOVE
So here I am again, a decade later, back in this same welcoming birth chamber. It is natural to ponder what has changed and what has not, yet at the same time I made a promise to myself: “I will not evaluate you, my dear.” That’s the only way my soul will agree to show up.
I think the biggest revelation I’ve had in the intervening years between 50 and 60 is that solitary bliss is possible, lovely, euphoric, and even addicting, but choosing to jump back into mud-messy, glorious, consternating, exhilarating embodiment and tying something like a sturdy anchor around all that heavenly-mindedness so it’s of some earthly good, that’s the path that beckoned me.
I’m enough of an introvert, both by nature and as a coping mechanism to deal with feeling for much of my life unworthy to belong, that wandering off into the high country and never returning was admittedly a temptation. The deeper work, I realized about halfway through the decade, is to practice immanent transcendence—achingly human, thrillingly holy, a walking paradox. Deeply entered and questioned, either/or dissolves and expands into all of the above.
If I’d stayed off the map and kept myself set apart, there is a pivotal dilemma I would have sidestepped instead of healed. That’s what I meant earlier by spiritual bypass. Toxic shame, in order to be resolved and disarmed, must be brought out into the light of relationships. Theories of oneness and transcendence must be tested in the hot soup-kitchen of community, in the bubbling broth, on the hot burner, at the common table.
I think there was a motivation, ten years ago, to overcome and transcend my grief—to get to a high enough plane spiritually to walk above the everyday shit. What I’ve realized since is that it’s much more of a worthy challenge for me to walk smack-dab in the middle of the daily doo-doo and practice knowing I can be resilient no matter what arises or what I may step in. So instead of rising above, I’ve chosen to jump in, abide, simmer and steep.
I am much less careful, calculating and controlling than I was at 50. I am more trusting, more spontaneous, more flexible now. More roomy, more forgiving, more surrendered. Far more vulnerably and meaningfully connected to others of my kind.
PART 4: I AM WILLING
As I’ve attained each decade birthday from 30 onward, I’ve expressed amazement at still being alive. This perhaps seems strange only to those who’ve not experienced an early-dying parent. My mother departed at 28, so in my psyche was a little ticking alarm clock or time-bomb I unconsciously assumed would go off at a similar age.
At 30 I was surprised and, frankly, flummoxed. What now? I wondered, lacking a natural will to live. By 40 I’d been forced to face that lack and do something about it, so while I was still surprised and a bit ambivalent, I was at least healed enough to be curious how far past the deadline I might actually make it. At 50 I could honestly say, “Well, I’ll be darned, let’s celebrate!”
When I was here in 2009, I was still tiptoeing a bit as if on thin ice, watching my weight and my steps, testing gingerly, struggling with believing life really did want to hold me.
That’s a huge change in the last ten years. I’ve stopped being so careful. I’ve gained heft and girth and let myself take up more space in lots of different ways. However long I do actually live, I am now determined to live simply but luxuriously, plainly but elegantly, creatively, daringly, heartfully, trusting my full weight—including my idealistic expectations—onto the surface of my days.
So, here is 60, no less a surprise than 30, but more welcomed, remarked upon, marveled over and embraced with joie d’ vivre, a lusty chortle, and an ebullient toast to whatever comes next. And it’s not exactly that I have a stronger will to live—because believe me when I say I could happily wander off to the next adventure any old time—but that I am willing to live.
I feel I would like to say that again because it still seems like a bit of a miracle to this long-time, between-worlds grief-walker: I am willing to live.
Intriguingly, the more earthily, vulnerably human I allow myself to become, the more clear is my cosmic heritage. I don’t have to follow a host of rigid rules and practices and devotions to know this. It’s the gentle buoying I feel when I am most mortal that reassures me of my true birthright.
This is a gift, not just of getting older, but of ripening. This is self couched firmly in Self, the ephemeral inextricably intertwined and nestled yin-yang fashion into the eternal. So, it isn’t troubling to me that I am aging—although it’s admittedly fascinating to watch—because it isn’t my youth or superiority that will be my saving grace, it’s my agelessness and ordinariness, my clay-footed stumbling and wonder, and perhaps above all, it is that I have morphed my fierce will into a yielded willingness. And that takes me right back to how I feel about life now, from my root to my crown—I am willing.
PART 5: PIXELS IN THE FACE OF GOD
The one single external factor altering me perhaps more than any other in the last ten years comes to center stage for notice here in this isolated geographical area especially. Later in the year I turned 50, after my life-altering time here, I joined this thing called Facebook. At first it was no big deal, just a way to keep track of nephew and nieces. Then I found some old friends. Then I said, “Wow, a lot of these posts are really light and snacky. I wonder what would happen if I started leading with some chewy main-dish content.” So I started serving up some chunky nutrition, just to see what might happen. And that decision changed my life.
For a number of years I insisted on having no social media “friends” who were not also personal acquaintances. That kept me at about 60 friends. Then one day I asked myself why. And now I have well over a thousand friends and—thanks to blowing a dandelion horn—more than 15,000 followers. Social media has shaped me, my attention span, my focus, my habits, my writing. It has given me a way to offer myself to the world a paragraph at a time. And, let’s face it, it’s compulsive. So it’s fabulous and expanding and troubling all at once.
Something else to notice: when I set up my profile in 2009, I wrote under “religious views” an idea I borrowed from Rob Brezsny—the world will be at peace when there are 6.7 billion different faiths. And now, just a decade later, the world population is 7.7 billion. A billion more living persons on Spaceship Earth in just ten years. Holy shit. It is still as quiet and peaceful here in this earthy adobe womb as ever, but I am nonetheless discomfited. In my heart and in my gut I know this rate of planetary population growth is not sustainable. The earth’s population the year I was born was 2.9 billion. The planet’s carrying capacity is speculated to be 9 or 10 billion.
I ponder matters like this and they inevitably lead me back to where I started ten years ago: to grief, to individuation and oneness, to paradox, to both/and. There are more of us here—more bodies and presumably more souls—with the capacity to express and reflect divine creativity. It was here in the mountains of New Mexico I hit upon the metaphor of pixels to capture the idea of Oneness. If we believe we are made in God’s image, we must also consider that each of us is a unique pixel in that image. If we would truly look upon the face of the Divine, no one can be excluded. No one can be left out of the One. I recall exactly where I was on the snowy road the day in January 2009 I realized that.
PART 6: LOVE IS LOOKING FOR YOU
You may ask if I know more now than I knew ten years ago. The answer is a clear “no.” I know much, much less now than I thought I knew then. But I know new things. If there is one secret I have to offer, one new insight I was missing back when I turned 50 here northwest of the little village of El Rito, it is that, no matter who or where you are, Love is looking for you right now.
Love is not waiting and holding back until you achieve one more goal or institute one more practice or lose one more pound or earn one more dollar. Love wants you right now, as is. Unconditionally. I am not speaking of some off-the-charts love from another human being, although I’ve learned that’s a possibility. I am not alluding to some apex of far-off, out-there holy love that will be yours if you follow all the rules and devotional guidelines. I am telling you your invitation and potential to love and accept yourself as you are in this moment is the secret of well-being.
I found that if I could open my eyes to see the love in me, suddenly I saw it everywhere.
Love met me where I was, not on the highest mountain of spiritual achievement, but in the depths of grief, in the midst of utter uncertainty, at the heart of unchartable flux, when least expected. Love, I discovered, is what I have been all along. Love is what God is. Love really is the undergirding of the created universe. But again, this isn’t flashy, movie-magic love. This is earthy, gritty, unglorious, stippled, dappled, everyday love, the Love that sustains.
I have learned in the last ten years that if I am willing to meet the ordinary with curiosity and compassion, the extraordinary will reveal itself. I have learned to abide with what arises. To give my feelings a safe home. To welcome them, rock them, walk with them. To not quail and turn back. To be the one person who will never abandon me.
I am learning to consciously write, edit and illustrate my own narrative. To fashion art out of it. To render it in song. To tell it in a thousand different ways, the tragic and the glorious—they are all true. The more heroic, the better. And I am learning to ground my story and my living to earth, and in such a way that it leads me to heaven. Not later, after I die, but now. I followed my own mundane, daily, simple threads and they led me to a little child-sized door in my heart, so tiny I can’t squeeze through with all my adult baggage. And there it is within me, as ever-new and ancient as eternity—heaven.
This is the biggest change since I was here last—I know my intellect and effort can’t get me where I want to go. But my heart knows the way. My heart is the way.
I feel the urge to circle back to shaving my head in 2009. As I write this, I am sitting very near where I sat a decade ago as a local woman cut off my long hair in this spacious room fashioned after a sacred kiva at Chaco Canyon. In my early 40s I’d seen a still photo of a long-haired, sultry, self-assured Colleen Dewhurst at age 50 in the 1972 movie, “The Cowboys,” and I said to myself at the time, “I want to be that sexy when I’m 50.” So I started growing out my hair, the one aspect of my physical self upon which I’d by far received the most compliments in my life. In electing to release that major symbol of outward attractiveness, I was choosing to rely on a deeper beauty to carry me. I still recall how chancy that felt at the time. And how significant.
Afterwards, when I’d tell the tale of relinquishing my hair, listeners often wanted to know if I sent it to Locks of Love. I did some research at the time and learned this most visible processor of donated hair to make wigs for chemo patients did not want gray hair. There were heart-wrenching tales of hair donations coming in the front door and going right out the back into a dumpster. I did a bit more research and found another option. Someone had considered how spilled oil clings devastatingly well to the fur and feathers of wild creatures and reasoned that mats made of clean human and pet hair could be used to contain and soak up oil spills. So that’s where I sent my salt-and-pepper hair, to soak up oil spills.
Make of that what you will, but to me it seems a decent enough metaphor for how the many beliefs, assumptions, efforts, achievements, machinations, defenses, losses, and shames I’ve cut out and surrendered in the last couple decades have been wonderfully effective at soaking up and containing the emotional and spiritual oil spills of my life. The vast ocean of the Self supports abundant life. I’m swimming in a sea of love.
That love, I want you to know, is not theoretical or idealistically mystical or pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. That’s perhaps the most radical difference between Marva at 50 and 60. Back then I was still living in the wound of shame and unworthiness. I longed to belong, to participate, to securely attach, and to enter into the flow of love, but I had for so long used self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-containment as defense mechanisms, I did not know how to become permeable to love, to allow it to alter me, to trust I was worthy.
I now understand that worthiness and love don’t even belong in the same sentence together except insofar as that is the best way to describe the distorted thinking that characterized one of my deepest wounds. I did not understand until recently that my early developmental traumas profoundly compromised my ability to safely engage with others. The only way to repair this damage and distortion is to practice trusting and connecting. That’s what the intertwining spiral eye came to represent, the vulnerability and power of seeing and being seen, reflecting one another, practicing safe engagement one conversation at a time, learning to trust, loving and being loved.
I love for a living now. The more souls crossing the threshold at Insight, the more wholeness is uncovered in me, because each one is a part of me coming home to be welcomed, accepted and healed. Healing means a return to wholeness. Healing means holy. Love humbles as much as exalts. I am proof it is never to late to learn.
Self-birthing is a curious phenomenon. I have been intrigued with this idea since years ago I read Erich Fromm’s wisdom that life is a continual process of giving birth to ourselves and we each have the potential to be fully born by the time we die, although most individuals, he observed rather pessimistically, “die before they are born.”
Perhaps because I lost my mother at such an early age, and because I’ve had powerful dreams of helping my own mother give birth to me—essentially midwifing at my own nativity—it is a wonderfully poetic resolution for a motherless daughter to consider that she is both the mother and the child. For anyone who’s lost a mother early or whose mother was for any number of reasons unable to be attuned, attentive, and well-regulated, it is hopeful to consider that the process is not over yet.
Trying to give birth to one’s true self is often confusing and disordered. The stages are not predictable. We dilate and then suddenly shrink. We push, rest, stop. We can seemingly spend uncomfortable decades in a constricting birth canal—in between—not ready. We spend years learning the art of breath. We may not see much for all our labors. So much that’s happening is out of sight. Or we may birth many, many iterations of ourselves, which is confusing for loved ones who wish we would stay the same.
Above all, to accomplish this remarkable feat of humanness, we must push against something: rules, roles, expectations, assumptions, obligations, relationships. We must gradually become more comfortable with discomfort, more patient with the flex and flux of our own unpredictability, our own not-yetness, which is really an ever-becomingness. I acknowledge that others have been hurt by my pushing. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. I accept that I have been similarly wounded by others. I am learning to see that with love and forgiveness as the honor it truly is, to be a doula even in the midst of a mess. I have yet to see a pain-free self-birth.
This process is not all that much about pushing. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned since I was last here. I am gestating. Waiting. Dilating. Trusting. Surrendering to the Mystery.
Waiting to hold myself in my arms.