Category Archives: Power

Smoke Among the Trees

“I am still fascinated with stories of survivors of all things, refugees, endangered species that reemerge, the ways that a burned and scorched forest yields seedlings.”

– Gerri Rayvn Stanfield, “Sing Us Back to Life

Like Gerri, I too have survived intense and difficult times (and corresponding depression) and have friends who have endured the same. The metaphor of trees returning to the forest feels particularly apt.

As the ashes cool, the first seedlings appear. They’re tender and delicate, the first tentative steps back into the world. They need light, nourishment, and time most of all. They may be the seeds of something that has been around all along or something new split open by the fire. It doesn’t matter what they are, all that matters is the nurturing.

Some of those will take root and grow deeper supports, some are meant to live briefly and build the conditions for another to take root. Just as an experienced eye can look at a forest and see early and old growth, you can look into another’s eyes and see their still-trembling parts and majestic strengths.

“It would be years before I dealt with my depression and addictive patterns and even longer before I forgave myself. I would later learn to call that period a dark night of the soul, and honor it as an initiatory opening to a healing path that I would walk for the rest of my life.”

I believe one of the things we’ve lost as a culture is awareness of how long these journeys actually are. Medicine treats so much of this as a transient condition, something like a brief infection that will get better with the right pill. The hope is that one has left the original damage behind and created a new world.

In my experience it’s more like walking out of the devastation and starting to change your clothes. The smoke-filled layers come off one by one, then comes the careful cleaning of the traces that merged into your skin and all the way to the bone. Then you rebuild, layer by layer, from the inside out. The initial beliefs and actions that supported you give way to newer, more supple strengths. You find a new way of presenting yourself, a new flow and structure, a new recognition of others who have been through the fire.

And yet, the body never forgets. There’s still the scent of smoke in the back of the nose, the roughness of grief in the lungs, the remembered feel of cinders underfoot. The feelings are never truly forgotten as they were the genesis of your strength today.

Nor is the path straight. The road spirals back through the original forest, sometimes circling patterns that helped right after the fire, sometimes to return and recover something left behind. Sometimes it’s necessary to return, sift through the ashes, and plant something anew.

If you’ve walked this path, or love someone who has, please be kind. Please understand that the surface can be deceiving. It can be easy to see the glory of the new-grown forest and miss the ruin at the center. It can be easy to be dismayed when a whiff of smoke draws one back to the injury. But that too is a path of healing, as our resistance and awareness constantly present the next part that is ready to grow.

If you’re back in the forest, can you look to a friend and reach out a hand? If you’re outside, can you come in as far as comfortable and reach out yours? Simply put, we need each other.

Breaking the shell

Think about someone you know who lives in a world of “less than” (it may even be yourself). Women are often treated as “less than” men, the poor seen as “less than” the rich, blacks treated “less than” whites, “queer” less than “straight”, “trans” less than those who live in their assigned gender, etc. Even the child who is different from her peers is called “less than”.

There’s an emotional shell that forms from the repeated judgements, the invisible cultural barriers, and the demands to “stay in your place”. It can become painful and reactive, tired of always protecting the tender person within. It’s the shell around a heart and the shell around a community.

As without, so within. “Less than” is a story we also tell ourselves.

Think about someone you know who lives in a world of “more than” (it may even be yourself). Someone who has the privilege of their race, gender, and/or affluence. Someone whose voice carries weight. There’s a shell there too, often with the fear of loss of status and possibly a discomfort over being part of the more-than/less-than system. They might seem blinkered or arrogant, but is there also a tinge of fear underneath?

We’ve all held someone else back and we’ve all held ourselves back. This binds us all. Where can we find liberation?

Love may call you to approach the mechanisms of privilege and suppression. It’s not easy. All too often, when our shells touch it brings pain and reactivity on all sides. Whenever you’re pushed back toward the invisible barriers or someone points out your role in maintaining them, let love call you back from the edge. Whether that challenge seems righteous or unfair, let love call you back from the edge. Listen to the part of yourself that is responding and see if there’s a corresponding part in the other person.

We are all human and we are all tender underneath. There is always a way to build a bridge.

If you are on this path, you know the discipline of responding to ego with love. Sometimes love needs to listen, accept, and reach out; sometimes it needs to listen, accept the person, and draw the line that says “No, that behavior harms both of us, and we both deserve better.” Sometimes it needs to witness in silence.

You know that love can be relentless. It can hold all this.

I invite you into this practice: to approach these questions in whatever way suits you; to hold yourself in love whenever this becomes a challenge; and to hold all challengers (including yourself) with fierce and tender love.

Let the shell open. Let yourself open.