Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Burning Off: Communing in Flame

Fire has been presenting itself to me as metaphor, solution and ritual of late.  This past Sunday, I attended a “Fire Communion” at my Unitarian church.  Having been born into Catholicism, I’m a sucker for communions of all sorts, and this denomination of religious refugees provides several—flower communion, water communion, bread communion.  This was my first fire communion.

The artfully organized service contained several elements that provoked, quieted and inspired me.  But the centerpiece was the opportunity to write words on a small piece of flash paper representing a story I wished to let go of, and to add this story to those of others being released into the fire.

I have been moving into a time of sorting, assessing, reclaiming, and discarding over the last few months.  I’m not sure where this is coming from, but I suspect that my impending empty nest, the significant birthday this year will bring, and the continuing process of trying to come to terms with the death of someone I loved all my life are acting together to fuel this consuming process.  So I was more than ready to consign any one of several outgrown stories to the flames.  But I had been told to use one piece of paper.  Being generally compliant—see Catholic background reference above—I didn’t think of violating this instruction.  And even if I had, it was hard enough to scribble a few words on one square of what turned out to be quite fragile paper in the time allowed.  I was forced, therefore, to settle on one story to relinquish.

I was taking this exercise seriously, and felt the compunction to identify the most important story to leave behind.  Or the story that subsumed the others.  The ultimate old story.  My ultimate old story, at this moment. 

As I moved to the front of our sanctuary to claim my piece of paper, I considered my choice, and struggled with language.  When I gripped my pencil, the words came to me.  I wrote “the wind beneath everyone else’s wings,” with no little difficulty, primarily because of the tendency of the sharp lead to puncture the paper fragment, but also because I wanted the words to be perfect—perfectionism another story I might have chosen to incinerate.

What did these words mean?  What story did they stand in for?  And what will it mean to move on from it?  What story will take its place?

Despite the cheesy Bette Midler throwback, I meant to convey my readiness to claim more of my energy for my own.  I have been immersed in nurturing others for more than three decades, and it feels like time to shift the balance.  My children, who have been the chief “beneficiaries” of my absorption, my husband, my aging mother, and my sister who has the major responsibility for Mom’s on-site support, hold the largest liens on my life.  And I am not planning to abandon any of them.  I intend to continue as the main caregiver for my two-year-old grandchild, nurse practitioner for my much-loved dog, underpaid nonprofit employee, and social justice activist in my church and other contexts. 

But I have depleted myself too much in all this caretaking, caregiving, and just plain caring.  I have allowed my nurturing self to devour equally important parts of my identity.  And I need to let go of the idea that any or all of these beings and causes will plummet to earth without my constant attention.  I can, and have to, begin to live more in my own life.

When my turn came, I dropped my words into the makeshift cauldron, savored the satisfying pfffft as the fire caught, and returned to my seat, leaving behind the carbon residue of my tired narrative.  I am eager to see, as the smoke clears, what emerges.

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